LONDON // From Ramallah to Prague, officials moved swiftly to dismiss suggestions that the New Year’s death of the Palestinian ambassador to the Czech Republic was anything sinister.
But as the diplomat’s daughter cast doubt on explanations that her father died in a bizarre accident, the manner of his death – reportedly caused by an old embassy safe exploding – recalled murky days of special operations blamed on Israeli agents in European cities and beyond.
Since the 1950s, the fingerprints of Israel’s national intelligence agency Mossad and the internal security service Shin Bet have been detected in a string of attacks and assassinations ranging from targeted shootings to bombings and kidnappings. Allegations of such activities have become rarer in recent years but nevertheless persist.
Although Israel never formally claims responsibility, such events have been seen by critics as acts of revenge and by official sources in Tel Aviv as measures designed to prevent future incidents they classify as terrorism.
Jamal Al Jamal, 56, who began his post in Prague in October, suffered injuries to his head, chest and stomach in the blast and died in hospital on January 1 from haemorrhagic shock, according to Czech police. His 52-year-old wife was treated for smoke inhalation.
Media reports said they had recently moved into the newly built residence, part of a complex also housing the embassy, in the Prague suburb of Suchdol and had not finished unpacking belongings.
Several questions remain unanswered about the apparent existence of self-destructing safe on Palestinian property and also the circumstances of its detonation.
A police spokeswoman, Andrea Zoulova, said the investigation has, from its outset, concentrated on the theory that an explosive system had been placed in the safe. This led to speculation that the purpose would be to ensure the destruction of sensitive documents.
Ms Zoulava admitted that “the question is what it was doing there” but said it was wrong to describe the system as a bomb.
The Czech capital’s police chief, Martin Vondrasek, said the explosion resulted from “inexpert handling of an explosive”.
He said yesterday that investigators found 12 weapons inside the mission, including submachine guns and pistols. The weapons would undergo DNA and ballistic tests.
The Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad Al Malki, said soon after the ambassador’s death that foul play was not suspected. “The safe was old, and it was made in a way that if it is being opened in a wrong way, an explosive device attached to its door would explode, and this is what happened.”
Mr Al Malki told Voice of Palestine radio that Al Jamal had opened the safe “without consulting anyone”. He also said the safe had been kept in offices of the Palestine Liberation Organisation since the 1980s and had been left untouched for more than 20 years.
Next day, however, this version was contradicted by Nabil El Fahel, a spokesman at the Palestinian embassy in Prague, who told Czech radio the safe had been in constant use.
Then the mystery grew with comments in Ramallah by Al Jamal’s daughter, Rana, 30, alleging that her father had been deliberately killed. “The Palestinian official account is baseless,” she told Associated Press. “The safe box has been in regular use — my mom [who lives there] told me that.”
In another interview, by telephone with Reuters, she added: “We believe my father was killed and that his death was something arranged and not an accident. How? We do not know and that is what we want to know.”
She said the safe had also been in use when her father served at the mission for two decades from the mid-1980s. “The safe was emptied and moved to the house. My father had been putting documents inside it and it was open. The explosion took place while he used it.”
The website of the Czech news magazine Respekt quoted police sources as saying the ambassador had probably mishandled explosives hidden in the safe. It added that the stash of weapons included automatic rifles and was sufficient to arm a 10-man combat unit.
The history of espionage provides ample reason for observers to keep an open mind until conclusive proof is available.
In 1972, Mossad agents or special forces were suspected of being responsible for the assassination, using an exploding telephone, of Mahmoud Hamshari, the alleged coordinator of the Palestinian group Black September’s killing of 11 Israeli athletes at that year’s Munich Olympics, at his Paris apartment.
Two other Palestinians believed by Israel to have been implicated in the Munich attack were also killed in Paris, in 1973.
And in 1996, Yehiya Ayyash, described as “the engineer” and reputedly the chief Hamas bombmaker, was killed by an explosive device planted in his mobile phone in Gaza in a plot attributed to Shin Bet.
Mossad is also strongly suspected of carrying out the torture and murder in 2010 of Mahmoud Al Mabhouh, a Hamas commander, in his Dubai hotel room. Dubai police said Israel was responsible for the killing, which involved at least 26 agents travelling on false European and Australian passports.
As long ago as 1956, Mustafa Hafaz, an Egyptian agent in the Gaza, was assassinated when a booby-trapped book delivered by a double agent exploded. Israel reportedly believed he was responsible for sending Palestinian combatants into southern Israel.
Nor is Israel the only country whose secret services resort to unorthodox methods to perform dark acts.
The Daily Telegraph of London reported in 2010 that Britain’s military intelligence service MI6 was developing, after the Second World War, pens to fire tear gas, red light torches for “burglarious” exploits, “knockout ampoules or tablets”, a gun silencer “which does not become less silent with use” - and, inevitably, an exploding safe.
It may all be reminiscent of James Bond films, but not everyone in Prague appreciates life imitating art.
The authorities have demanded an explanation from the Palestinians on the arsenal of weapons found in the embassy.
And a local mayor is asking the Czech foreign ministry to move the embassy away from Suchdol, saying residents have “lost trust in the diplomats”.