JERUSALEM — Israel acknowledged Thursday it killed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's deputy in a 1988 raid in Tunisia, lifting a nearly 25-year veil of secrecy and allowing a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of its secret operations.
One of the commandos was disguised as a woman on a romantic vacation, and one of the weapons was hidden in a box of chocolates.
Khalil al-Wazir, who was better known by his nom de guerre Abu Jihad, founded Fatah, the dominant faction in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with Arafat and was blamed for a series of deadly attacks against Israelis.
Two of those involved in the operation that killed al-Wazir now hold high political office in Israel — Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon. At the time, Barak was deputy military chief, and Yaalon was head of the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. Their precise roles in the operation were not divulged, and both men's offices declined comment.
Israel has long been suspected of assassinating al-Wazir. But only now has the country's military censor cleared the Yediot Ahronot daily to publish the information, including an interview with the commando who killed him, at least 12 years after the newspaper obtained the information. "I shot him with a long burst of fire. I was careful not to hurt his wife, who had showed up there. He died," commando Nahum Lev told Yediot prior to his death in a motorcycle accident in 2000.
"Abu Jihad was involved in horrible acts against civilians. He was a dead man walking. I shot him without hesitation."
Dozens of similar operations have been attributed to Israel over the decades. But Israel rarely takes responsibility and typically does not comment about covert operations.
Israeli officials did not openly confirm the operation. But the censor's decision to allow publication, after years of stifling the account, amounted in effect to confirmation.
The military censor's main task is to block publication of material deemed a threat to national security. Israel has a longstanding policy of preventing publication of any information that would expose agents, tactics and intelligence gathering methods or put anyone still alive who was involved in harm's way.
In the al-Wazir case, though, it appears that after years of rumors and foreign reports claiming to expose the operation, along with the death of the triggerman, the censor's office decided to drop its objection to publication. Many of the details and identities of those involved still remain classified.
The Yediot report, coupled with a more detailed account in the military affairs magazine Israel Defense, described a well-planned operation months in the making.
According to the Yediot report, the operation was a joint effort by the Mossad secret service and the Sayeret Matkal.
At the time of the raid, the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Arafat, was based in the North African nation of Tunisia.
From a command post on an Israeli boat in the Mediterranean Sea, 26 Israeli commandos reached the Tunisia's shores on rubber boats.
Lev, the commando, approached Abu Jihad's home in the capital, Tunis, with another soldier, a man dressed as a woman. The two pretended to be a vacationing couple, with Lev carrying what appeared to be a large box of chocolates. Inside the box, however, was a gun fitted with a silencer.
According to Israel Defense, the fighter dressed as a woman carried a map and distracted the bodyguard by asking for directions, which allowed Lev to shoot him dead. Israel had tested the disguise earlier at an Israeli mall, and after the "women" received random cat calls the outfit was deemed sufficient, it said.
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