x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Britain expels Mossad agent

In damning statement to parliament, foreign secretary Miliband says evidence that Israel killed Hamas official in Dubai is 'compelling'.

LONDON // Britain expelled a senior Israeli diplomat yesterday over the theft of UK identities by the assassins of a Hamas official in Dubai. The envoy was not named but is believed to be the London station chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad.

In an unusually damning statement to parliament yesterday the UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, said there were "compelling" reasons to believe that Israel was behind the murder, the first time Britain has openly pointed the finger at Israel. Mr Miliband described the Israelis' behaviour as intolerable and unacceptable. The expulsion of the diplomat is a move second in gravity only to demanding that the Israelis withdraw their ambassador, Ron Prosor.

Mr Miliband's statement followed an investigation by Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) into the use of a dozen UK passports by the hit squad who murdered Mahmoud al Mabhouh at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel on January 19. Police in Dubai have already said they are "99 per cent certain" that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, was behind the killing and Mr Miliband urged Israeli authorities to co-operate with the criminal investigation in the UAE.

All 12 Britons whose passports were copied, with new pictures and signatures added, live in Israel. Last night the UK foreign office issued new advice to Britons travelling to Israel, warning them about the risks of having their passports cloned and their identities stolen. In his statement yesterday Mr Miliband said: "Given that this was a very sophisticated operation, in which high-quality forgeries were made, the government judges it highly likely that the forgeries were made by a state intelligence service. Taking this together with other inquiries and the link to Israel established by Soca, we have concluded there are compelling reasons to believe Israel was responsible for the misuse of the British passports."

Mr Miliband said he had asked that a member of Israel's embassy staff in London be withdrawn as a sign of the UK's "deep unhappiness" over the situation. "Such misuse of British passports is intolerable," he added. "It presents a hazard for the safety of British nationals in the region. "It also represents a profound disregard for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. That this was done by a country which is a friend, with significant diplomatic, cultural, business and personal ties to the UK, only adds insult to injury."

Mr Miliband said he had spoken with his counterparts in Ireland, France, Germany and Australia, nations whose passports had also been cloned, and investigations in those countries were continuing. He made it clear that all 12 Britons whose passports had been copied were unwitting and "wholly innocent victims of identity theft". He said that 11 of the 12 had now been issued with new, biometric passports, which are much harder to forge. "It should not need saying, but I must add in the strongest possible terms, that the UK had absolutely no advance knowledge of what happened in Dubai nor any involvement whatsoever in the killing," Mr Miliband added.

The foreign secretary revealed that he had spoken to Avigdor Lieberman, his Israeli counterpart, on Monday to discuss Soca's findings. "I handed over a letter seeking a formal assurance from him that in the future the state of Israel would never be party to the misuse of British passports in such a way," Mr Miliband said. "The Middle East is not a place for woolly or wishful thinking. The Israeli people crave and deserve legitimacy and security.

"The UK will not compromise its support for this. But the actions in this case are completely unacceptable and they must stop." William Hague, the main opposition foreign affairs spokesman, supported the government's actions to show the abuse of British passports was "unacceptable" to the UK. "We cannot permit the cloning of, interference with, or misuse of British passports by another state," he said.

Ed Davey, a spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, supported Mr Miliband's stance but added: "Whilst strongly agreeing with your action today, can I invite you to reflect on how the expulsion of a diplomat in response to passport fraud, serious though that is, might look to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere who have been the victims of more serious breaches of international law by Israel?"

Israel's ambassador to London, who has refused to confirm or deny his nation's involvement in the murder, said he was "disappointed" by Mr Miliband's actions. "The relationship between Israel and the UK is of mutual importance, hence we are disappointed by the decision," Mr Prosor said. Israel and Britain have been at diplomatic loggerheads for months over the UK's tardiness in legislating to prevent pro-Palestinian groups from pursuing legal action alleging war crimes against Israel politicians and military figures visiting the UK.

One diplomatic source in London said last night: "We cannot afford to box Israel into a corner if we want to make any progress in the Middle East, but there remains a very real anger, both within government and within the diplomatic service - and, indeed, within the other nations involved - over the Dubai assassination. "For the UK, this anger is heightened by the fact that the Israelis gave the UK a supposedly binding undertaking during Margaret Thatcher's premiership that Mossad would never again use forged UK passports.

"That came after a stash of such passports was found in Germany. Now it seems that Israel has been up to its old tricks without, apparently, giving a moment's consideration to the consequences of abusing a friendly nation's passport." Israeli and Britain were involved in a similar row in 1987, after a Mossad agent left eight forged British passports in a telephone booth in Germany. Israel apologised and promised not to use forged documents again.

dsapsted@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by The Washington Post