2013 Fairfax Media

Khaled Mashaal was nearly assassinated by Benjamin Netanyahu. Then Israel’s Prime Minister was forced to bring the Hamas leader back to life. Now their deadly history hangs over the conflict that roils the Middle East

By Michael Crowley | July 29, 2014
Photograph by Kate Geraghty—The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

haled Mashaal lay dying in a hospital bed as poison flowed through his bloodstream, slowly shutting down his respiratory system. With a machine pumping air into his lungs, he had, at best, a few days to live. An antidote could save the Hamas leader’s life. But the only person who could provide it was the very man who had tried to kill him: Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Khaled Mashaal at an Amman military hospital after the attempt by Israeli operatives on his life in Jordan in 1997. Yousef Allan—AP

As the clock ticked down over four days in late September 1997, with Mashaal unconscious and steadily deteriorating, Netanyahu faced an excruciating choice. The Mossad agents who had sprayed poison into the Palestinian’s ear on a street in Amman, Jordan — in retribution for a series of suicide attacks within Israel — had been captured while fleeing. Jordan’s King Hussein vowed to put the Israelis on trial if Mashaal expired. The agents would likely face execution if convicted. Desperate to avert an international crisis that would derail his efforts to broker peace deals between Israel and its Arab enemies, President Bill Clinton intervened, insisting that Netanyahu, then serving the first of his two tenures as Israel’s prime minister, provide the antidote. The Israeli leader grudgingly complied, even traveling to Amman to issue a personal apology to the King. Mashaal was revived, his stature forever enhanced as “the living martyr.” Instead of killing one of Israel’s most despised enemies, Netanyahu had resurrected him.

Fifteen years later, in December 2012, Mashaal, in his trademark western suit and trim salt-and-pepper beard, stepped out of a giant replica of an M75 rocket in the heart of Gaza City to address a crowd of cheering Palestinians. “We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation, and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take,” he thundered, as the green missile — among the models Hamas is currently firing into Israel by the thousands — towered several stories over his head. “We will free Jerusalem inch by inch, stone by stone. Israel has no right to be in Jerusalem.”

‘We will free Jerusalem inch by inch, stone by stone. Israel has no right to be in Jerusalem.’

Today, Khaled Mashaal and Benjamin Netanyahu are again adversaries in an international crisis, as Israel wages war with Hamas in what might be its bloodiest fight yet against the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. In the 58-year-old Palestinian, who is now Hamas’s political leader and most visible spokesman, granting interviews to the likes of Charlie Rose and the BBC, Netanyahu faces an enemy who has only grown in stature since their existential encounter. Although he does not rule Hamas by fiat, Mashaal “is one of the most influential figures in Palestinian politics,” says Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. Thrall says Mashaal is even a plausible candidate to lead the larger Palestinian national movement once the presidency of moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 79, has ended.

oth Israel and the United States consider Mashaal a terrorist, linked to multiple deadly suicide bombings and thousands of rocket attacks against Israel. (Netanyahu ordered his assassination after one particularly awful explosion in a Jerusalem market killed 16 and injured 169.) Whether he is an incurable fanatic or a pragmatist capable of moderation is a subject of debate within Israel and beyond. In public remarks since the start of this month’s fighting, Mashaal has rejected any cease-fire that does not bring a fundamental change in Israel’s position towards Hamas and Gaza. “We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade,” Mashaal said in Qatar on July 24. But some analysts believe that Mashaal, who lives in exile in the Qatari capital of Doha — where he has met with Qatari and Turkish diplomats working with Secretary of State John Kerry for a ceasefire — is more willing to strike a deal than leaders of Hamas’s military branch. “The political wing seemed ready to stop this earlier, including Mashaal. The military wing has not been, and is calling the shots,” says Dennis Ross, a longtime U.S. Middle East peace negotiator.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 28, 2014. Netanyahu was pressured by President Bill Clinton to provide the antidote that saved Mashaal’s life in 1997. Gil Cohen Magen—AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps, but one Israeli government official describes Mashaal as a “radical” whose views differ little from those of Hamas’s Gaza-based military commanders. And undermining Mashaal has become a central component of Israel’s wartime public relations effort, which portrays the Palestinian as a kind of limousine jihadist. “This guy Khaled Mashaal, he’s roaming around, five-star hotel suites in the Gulf states, he’s having the time of his life, while he’s deliberately putting his people as fodder for this horrible terrorist war that they’re conducting against us,” Netanyahu told CNN on July 20. A few days later, two Gaza television outlets aired a peculiar clip of Mashaal speaking in public. “In the name of Allah, most gracious, most compassionate,” he began, “I want to start by thanking the excellent staff of the kitchen at my hotel.” He went on to explain that his hotel room had cost as much as “a hospital and three tunnels in Gaza.” According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli operatives had hacked into the television networks and broadcast the hoax video, dubbing fake audio over authentic footage.

Some analysts say that such ridicule may resonate with Palestinians. Mashaal has spent virtually no time in Israeli-occupied areas since his family fled the West Bank, where he was born, during the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Mashaal first moved to Kuwait, where he joined the Muslim Brotherhood at age 15, then earned a physics degree and worked as a teacher. He later moved to Jordan, where he led Hamas’s powerful branch in the country, then to Syria and, in January 2012, fled that country’s civil war for Qatar, whose government funds and supports Hamas.

Mashaal made a rare visit to Gaza in 2012. Standing before a giant replica of an M75 rocket in the heart of Gaza City, he told a crowd of cheering Palestinians, “We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation, and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel.” Mahmud Hams—AFP/Getty Images

Mashaal’s visit to Gaza later that year — facilitated by the Muslim Brotherhood regime that then ruled neighboring Egypt — was his first and only known visit to the besieged Palestinian territory. That’s a problem for Mashaal’s street cred, according to Thrall. “Hamas’s popular support derives from its perceived authenticity and close connection to the grass roots, much of which is impoverished and resides in shabby refugee camps in Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank,” he says. Little wonder, then, that Mashaal’s enemies keep up the campaign of mockery. Pro-Israel tweeters circulate a photo of Hamas officials in the cabin of a private jet, with a large large chocolate cake waiting to be eaten, claiming Mashaal is among them. (The photo in fact appears to show other Hamas leaders, but not Mashaal.) And in Egypt, whose new regime is hostile to the pro-Brotherhood Hamas, state television recently aired footage of Mashaal dining and working out in his hotel. “Where is the courage? Where is the heroism?” the Egyptian commentator sneered. “If you have real spirit in you, go back [to Gaza] tomorrow.”

ut it’s difficult to wholly discredit a man who forced an Israeli prime minster to give him a “second birth,” as Mashaal puts it. The near-death experience is not forgotten in the Arab world. Just last year Al-Jazeera aired “Kill Him Silently,” a 90-minute documentary recounting the story. It features a re-enactment of how two Mossad agents lay in wait outside Mashaal’s office on the morning of September 25, 1997. As he approached, one sprayed the painkiller fentanyl into Mashaal’s ear from a device disguised under a bandaged arm. The Israelis had hoped that their lethal dose of modified fentanyl — up to one hundred times more potent than morphine — would send Mashaal into a nap from which he would never awake, and that the agents would slip away, leaving no evidence of foul play.

But the plan went awry from the start. Mashaal’s bodyguards were suspicious of the Mossad agents even before their assault, and were able to chase and capture them. (Three other agents would later be found elsewhere in the city; all had entered Jordan using Canadian passports.) Mashaal knew the assailants had tried something strange, but thought they had failed to harm him. “I felt a loud noise in my ear,” Mashaal later said. “It was like a boom, like an electric shock. Then I had shivering sensation in my body like an electric shock.” But he was otherwise fine — or so it seemed.

The Israelis had hoped that their lethal dose of modified fentanyl would send Mashaal into a nap from which he would never awake

Only when he developed a severe headache and began to vomit later that day did Mashaal understand that the attack did, in fact, pose a threat to his life. Mashaal was rushed to a Jordanian hospital. Briefed on the situation, a furious King Hussein threatened to cut off relations with Israel by midnight. In Washington, Dennis Ross — then Bill Clinton’s chief Middle East negotiator — received an early morning call from Netanyahu, who explained the crisis and urgently wanted to speak with Clinton. Ross was stunned by Israel’s recklessness.

“What were you thinking?” the American asked the Israeli prime minister, according to his 2004 memoir, The Missing Peace. Ross asked why Netanyahu hadn’t tried to get the Jordanians to quietly apprehend Mashaal for him. “Didn’t it occur to you that something could go wrong?”

“I was dumbfounded,” Ross writes, “when Bibi replied, ‘No.'”

Clinton mediated the ensuing diplomatic crisis in a furious effort to salvage a major peace agreement between Jordan and Israel that would be inked only weeks later. Netanyahu ultimately provided the antidote formula to Jordanian doctors, who would not trust any chemical supplied directly by the Israelis. He also apologized in person to the brother of the King, who refused to see him.

To ensure the return of the captured Israelis, he even released from prison Hamas’s blind and paraplegic spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. “What started as an operation to demonstrate the costs to the Hamas leadership outside the territories ended with Israel permitting the spiritual leader of Hamas to return to Gaza as a hero,” Ross writes.

Mashaal also emerged a hero. His enhanced stature helped position him to assume Hamas’s top political post seven years later, in 2004, after Israel — this time dispensing with cloak-and-dagger technique — killed his predecessor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, by firing missiles at his car from helicopter gunship. (Sheikh Yassin was also killed by an Israeli helicopter while leaving a Gaza City mosque in March 2004.)

“A lot of people have underestimated [Mashaal], but he has proved very adept despite extraordinary challenges,” says University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, including “his distance from Gaza and its leadership.” Reliable polling among Palestinians is scarce, but the wild cheers that greeted Mashaal as he stepped from the model rocket in Gaza speak to his popularity.

Netanyahu might describe that as a nightmare, though other Westerners are more hopeful. Underlying Mashaal’s public calls for the destruction of Israel are more nuanced positions. He has distanced himself somewhat from Hamas’s charter, filled with bigoted language about “World Zionism” and “warmongering Jews.” And he has offered a hudna, or long-term truce with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

A picture of deputy chief of the Hamas movement, Ismail Haniya, is displayed amidst the rubble of his house, which was destroyed in an overnight Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, July 29, 2014.
A picture of deputy chief of the Hamas movement, Ismail Haniya, is displayed amid the rubble of his house, which was destroyed in an overnight Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, July 29, 2014. Oliver Weiken—EPA

Israel firmly rejects those positions, but some diplomats see an opening for progress. In 2009 a group of American foreign policy heavyweights, including Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Barack Obama’s current Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, called for “a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas” that could include negotiations with the group. And speaking at a security conference last week, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned that Hamas is not as bad as it gets. “If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse,” Flynn said. In public, at least, Israel calls such talk foolish and reckless. After Mashaal’s 2012 visit to Gaza, Netanyahu fumed at the world’s “deafening silence” after the Hamas leader expressed what an Israeli spokesman called a “maximalist position of opposition against Israel.”

Netanyahu may yet attempt to complete his unfinished business. Killing Mashaal in Qatar would create another dangerous diplomatic crisis. But Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, believes it should be done anyway, according to a July 21 report by Israel’s Channel 2. And Mossad agents drugged and suffocated the leader of Hamas’s military wing in a Dubai hotel in March 2010 (an incident famous for security camera footage that captured much of the operation).

A few years ago, an Al-Jazeera reporter asked former Mossad chief Danny Yatom, who oversaw the bungled Mashaal attack, whether Israel might try again to kill the Hamas leader. “The terrorist,” Yatom answered, “must understand that anyone who executes terror will not enjoy immunity.”

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