If I have desisted so far from commenting on the assassination in Dubai of leading Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on the night of 19 January, it is because I have been uncertain whether it would have any direct effect on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Even now, this is far from assured. But like a stone thrown into a calm pond, the ripples of the operation are spreading outwards, and it has begun to seem possible that the event may indeed impact on the central issue.
First, the facts. On Tuesday the 19th of January 50-year-old Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, born in the Gaza strip but resident in Syria since 1989, boarded Emirates flight EK 912 in Damascus, bound for Dubai. He landed at 2.30pm, but the local authorities were unaware of his arrival, because he entered the emirate under an assumed identity.
Mabhouh booked into the al-Bustan Rotana hotel under his false name and checked into room 130, on the first floor. He had asked for a room with no balcony and sealed windows. He spent about an hour in his room, and at around 4.30 pm he left the hotel.
What he did, or who he met, between then and 9 pm when he returned, is not known. What is known is that at 9.30 pm Mabhouh's wife called his mobile phone, and there was no reply. It is possible that by then he was dead.
The next morning his body was found in his room.
Once it was established that the death was not from natural causes, Dubai's police chief, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, took charge of the investigation. After ten days Tamim met with the Palestinian consul in Dubai, Hussein Abdul Khaliq, to impart his preliminary findings. He told the consul that he believed seven people had taken part in the assassination, and that the identity of four were already known to investigators, including names and pictures. He then told Arab journalists that he was not ruling out the possibility that Mossad, Israel's secret service, had killed Mabhouh, but neither was he ruling out other suspects.
His caution may have been in response to a statement by a Hamas source that Mabhouh, long engaged in arms smuggling from Iran into Gaza, had been imprisoned in Egypt for almost a year in 2003, and that he was wanted not only by the Israelis, but also by the Jordanians and the Egyptians and did not lack enemies. But by then it was generally assumed that the assassination was indeed the work of Mossad, who were known to have been responsible for other operations of the kind, some successful, others less so.
It was not until 17 February, a full month after Mamoud's death, that Tamim revealed that the Dubai police had collated hours of CCTV footage from the airport and inside the hotel, and released a 27-minute composite video following the events leading to the murder. Tamim also released photographs of some of the surveillance team, possibly including the actual killer or killers. At this point the team was assumed to consist of eleven members, all of whom were travelling under passports "cloned" from genuine ones issued by a number of countries including Ireland, Germany, France and Australia. Most belonged to British citizens with dual nationality currently living in Israel.
The diplomatic fallout was immediate. Although Israel, following its usual custom, had refused either to confirm or deny that the operation was the work of Mossad, Israeli ambassadors around the world were summoned to be told that the use of false passports of sovereign states for nefarious purposes was unacceptable.
Meanwhile the investigation proceeded, and by yesterday Dubai's police chief had upped the number of suspects involved in the assassination to no less than 27, at least two of them women. Although he has said that he is "99 per cent certain" that the operation was carried out by Mossad, he has never retracted his early view that whoever leaked details of Mabhouh's arrival to his assassins was "the real killer". He believes that Mabhouh was betrayed by a "close associate". an "agent" in Hamas's ranks, and has urged Hamas to investigate. The Hamas man, he claims, leaked information on al-Mabhouh's whereabouts to the assassins. "I am certain that there has been a security breach from their side," he said.
Hamas has blamed its Fatah rival, which controls the West Bank, for helping the alleged Israeli hit team. Two Palestinians from Gaza who once worked for Fatah security are in custody in Dubai, after being handed over by Jordan. Two days ago the Dubai police arrested a third Palestinian suspect. Speaking yesterday in Beirut, Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah warned collaborators with Israel that their acts were tantamount "not only to a crime, but to treason."
But an event of this sort inevitably spawns conspiracy theories of the most bizarre kind. Stories of involvement, even collaboration, by the British and other Western secret services in the operation have emanated not only from Islamist sources but at least one way-out American commentator. None of these is likely to impact on the political, as opposed to the diplomatic, scene.
What is troubling is the effect this has all had on a very gentle easing of tensions between Israel and the Arab states. Last month, Israel's Shahar Peer was allowed to play in a Dubai tennis tournament, a year after the event's organizers were fined $300,000 for denying her a visa to participate in the international tournament citing security concerns. Earlier this year (as I reported in my piece of 18 January) an Israeli cabinet minister was allowed into the Emirates for the first time to attend a conference on alternative energy in Abu Dhabi, where International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is based.
Meanwhile, Lebanon's militant Hizbollah group has openly asked Lebanese authorities to tighten border controls against would be assassins. "We call upon Lebanese security agencies to follow and monitor any person carrying a European passport and to deal with him as a potential spy," Hizbollah legislator Nawaf Al-Moussawi said in a televised interview yesterday.
All of which provides a troubling background to the hopes of the "Quartet", due to meet shortly, to try to get peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians back on track.