x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A deadly step on the road to war

Analysis Tensions have been rising between Israel and its rivals in Iran, Lebanon and Gaza. The murder of a Hamas military leader in Dubai may not have been a surprise but it could be remembered as a pivotal moment on the road to new fighting.

DAMASCUS // Although the exact circumstances of the death of Mahmoud al Mabhouh may have been unanticipated he was believed electrocuted and then strangled in a Dubai hotel room the fact of his murder hardly comes as a surprise. Anyone whose job is to make sure that Hamas fighters are well-supplied with weapons for their war with Israel probably does not expect to make it to retirement age.

His funeral on Friday, in Yarmouk Camp, a suburb of Damascus built by Palestinian refugees, was well-attended and accompanied by the standard rhetoric of glory and revenge. Al Mabhouh's body was buried beneath a layer of stony concrete in the corner of a bleak graveyard alongside other martyrs to the cause. It is the place where Palestinian fighters from Syria are laid to rest, if there are any remains left to bury, after being killed in action.

Al Mabhouh must have known he would end up there, just as he must have known his life would end violently. There was a subdued atmosphere in the nearby Hamas office the day after the burial, members of the Islamic Resistance Movement trying to work through the details of what had happened and, perhaps more importantly, trying to determine if the death of al Mabhouh signalled the opening of the next bloody chapter in this six-decade-old Middle East conflict.

Events leading up to the murder are apparently absurd in their simplicity. According to Hamas, rather than fly on one of his false passports, al Mabhouh's airline booking was made in his own name. At the same time, an oversight meant no reservations were made for his security guards and, consequently, he travelled alone and unprotected. Within five hours of arriving in the emirate, on what Hamas described vaguely as "a mission" presumably an arms deal, given his line of work al Mabhouh was dead.

Hamas officials are adamant there could be no spy inside their organisation tipping off Israeli agents. They insist Mossad carried out the killing, a not unreasonable stand given Israel's liberal use of assassination as a tool of policy. That means it may well have been a straightforward flight reservation that undid one of the leading military strategists of Hamas. His name would have been on an airline-computer database at least a day before he travelled, so the details of his expected arrival in Dubai could have been passed to Israel's security services in plenty of time to prepare a murder.

The second question being pondered by Hamas after al Mabhouh's killing is more difficult to answer because it involves the future, not the past. Is his death another cloud in a storm gathering over the region? Since the turn of the year, tensions have been slowly but perceptibly rising in the Middle East, as they so often do. There are signs Hizbollah and Israel, under the hardline leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, may resume their war, the last instalment of which ended in 2006 in embarrassment for Israel's vaunted military and widespread destruction in Lebanon.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's chairman, has promised that in the event of a new outbreak of hostilities, his fighters will "change the face of the Middle East region", apparently a threat that his disciplined and battle-hardened guerrillas will enter Israel and recapture some small part of historic Palestine. At the same time, Iran continues to defy international efforts designed to prevent it developing nuclear weapons, its atomic programme considered a red-line issue for the Israelis. Israel has said Tehran must be stopped, by military force if necessary.

Syria, still officially at war with Israel over the occupied Golan, and a key supporter of both Hamas and Hizbollah, as well as an ally of Iran, would unavoidably be dragged into any new war. There are reports that Damascus has mobilised its military reserves in recent weeks, an indication it is preparing for the worst. Al Mabhouh's killing came on top of all this, surely signalling the collapse of an unofficial Hamas-Israeli truce that has largely held since the end of the Gaza invasion a year ago.

Despite the insistence by Hamas that it is not overly dependent on any of its senior leaders, there was a clear sense in the group's Damascus office that al Mabhouh will not be easily replaced. Hamas members said he had been central in supplying their fighters with materiel in the last Gaza war. Without him, at least in the short term, Hamas never as accomplished militarily as Hizbollah may be even less of a threat to Israel.

"Israel is preparing for a war, we're just not sure where or when, but it is coming," said one of the Hamas officials, sounding distinctly downbeat about the prospect. "It might be against Iran, or Hizbollah, or us. All we know now is that it will happen and it will happen soon." If Mr Netanyahu's administration is planning to launch a new assault on any of these various and interlinked fronts, al Mabhouh's death may have been a small but critical step in the path to war.