JERUSALEM — The diplomatic fallout over the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh took a new turn Wednesday as Dubai's police chief announced that he'd seek the arrests of Israel's prime minister and spy chief over the killing.
Though Israel has refused to confirm or deny its involvement in the incident, Police Chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim said he'd ask the United Arab Emirates' prosecutor to file Interpol arrest warrants for the two, adding that he was "completely sure that it was Mossad," Israel's intelligence agency.
An international arrest warrant would have serious consequences for Israeli leaders. Officially, the government refused to comment on the calls for arrests, though one Foreign Ministry official said it was "highly unlikely that the arrests will go further than the press room of the Dubai police."
"They are trying very hard to continue to place pressure on Israel. This will not work, and we do not believe these calls will go anywhere," the official said. "The general perception is that this will all blow over." The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the ministry won't speak on the record.
Tamim, however, has made new calls for an investigation into the Mossad, saying the spy agency had "insulted" Dubai and Western countries whose bogus passports were used by the 26 suspects in the assassination.
Until now, the U.S. has avoided the diplomatic row between Israel and those countries, which include Britain, France, Germany, Ireland and Australia. The FBI was drawn into the investigation this week, however, when Dubai police asked it to look into an Iowa-based bank that they think the suspects used.
Thirteen of the suspects used prepaid cards issued by Meta Financial Group's MetaBank to book hotel rooms and plane tickets, Dubai police said.
MetaBank told McClatchy it's launched its own investigation into the cards and that they were issued through New York-based Payoneer, which has a research and development facility in Tel Aviv.
Tamim also said that Dubai now would closely inspect Western passports, and that Jews would be "singled out."
Immigration services will be on their guard "after Israel's abuse of passports from Western countries," he said, adding that officers will be trained to identify accents and certain "physical indicators."
"The officers of the immigration service will now look twice if they have any doubt about the documents or photos, and will scan them," he said.
Israeli officials were surprised by the intensity of Dubai's probe.
"There are an increasing number of fingers pointed at Israel and the Mossad, but we have faced these kinds of accusations before and always maintained that we do not comment," said an Israeli official with military intelligence. He added that Israeli defense officials have been asked not to comment on the incident to "avoid inflaming tempers further."
"There has been a lot of surprise among people here at the scope and speed of the Dubai investigation. This is probably not something anybody expected," he said. Dubai had been seen as "critically weak," he said, and unlikely to carry out the type of investigation that's being led by Tamim, who's called frequent news conferences to detail evidence that's been uncovered. The official asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to comment on the record.
Within days of the killing in January, Dubai police began to point the finger at Mossad. They now say the assassins used electronic cards to enter Mabhouh's hotel room and suffocated him with a pillow. The suspects left through a number of countries, with most ending up in Israel, though Tamim has said several may have gone to the United States.
The number of suspected assassins Tamim has named stands at 26, nearly half of whom share names with Israelis who hold dual citizenship. Australia and Britain have sent investigators to Israel to question individuals over the use of fraudulent passports.
Like most Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel. Dubai has taken a more lenient stance with Israeli visitors, however, even allowing Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer to play in a tournament there. Tamim said there now was regret over Peer's participation, especially since several of the suspects appear to have carried tennis rackets with them as part of their "cover" while in Dubai.
Israelis largely have ignored the diplomatic row surrounding the assassination, and Mossad officials reported that the agency has never been more popular in the country.
While some Israeli businessmen said they'd suffer short-term losses due to decreased trading with Dubai, a report in the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot said their dealings would return to "business as usual" within weeks.
The Jerusalem Post declared, "Irrespective of who carried out the January 19 assassination of senior Hamas terrorist Mahmoud al Mabhouh in Dubai, the operation was meticulously planned and successfully executed, and despite a surprisingly impressive investigation by Dubai police, the hit cannot be considered a botched job."
Hamas has confirmed that Mabhouh played a key role in supplying weapons to Palestinian militants. Mabhouh's second in command, Mohammed Nassar, told Hamas' Al Aqsa radio that Mabhouh "never stopped thinking about how to fight the occupation by supplying weapons to the Palestinian fighters."
Israel has said Mabhouh had several passports, which he often used to travel to neighboring Arab countries, where he met with militants from the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Iranian officials.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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