Commentary: A whodunit in Dubai

No fiction writer or Hollywood director could have topped the events that unfolded in the Emirate of Dubai on Jan. 19, when a team of real-life assassins put in motion one of the most suspense-filled operations the world has seen in years. When the agents' work was done, the body of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh lay lifeless in his luxury hotel room.

Mabhouh, a top leader of the militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, had only recently boasted of murdering Israelis and led ongoing operations smuggling weapons from Iran into Hamas-controlled Gaza. Israelis wanted him. But so did many others.

Despite the seemingly universal conclusion that Israel carried out the killing, the Mabhouh case reveals the depth of animosity between Palestinians, and the near unanimity among most governments that people like Mabhouh are legitimate targets. To be sure, the killing remains the subject of fierce controversy. But nobody outside the most extremist terrorist groups is defending Mabhouh.

When Dubai authorities released the closed circuit video detailing their version of events, complete with the list of names and photographs of 11 of the alleged participants, they unleashed a frenzy of speculation, indignation, and confusion.

Most observers -- including most Israelis -- quickly concluded that the most likely suspect was the Mossad, Israel's legendary intelligence agency. After all, some of the most spectacular anti-terrorist operations have come from Israeli forces. The Mossad tracked down and killed the Palestinian militants who shocked the world by massacring Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games. Israelis conducted the stunning Entebbe raid, swooping into an African airport where Palestinian terrorists threatened to kill the passengers of a hijacked Air France flight.

Israel has not accepted responsibility for Mabhouh's killing, but the tactics resemble previous Mossad hits, and some of the phony passports have been traced to people living in Israel. Britain and Ireland, whose passports were allegedly used by the killers, claim to be furious.

While much points to Israel, the most concrete evidence so far, however, also suggests Palestinian involvement.

Intriguingly, just after the killing, Hamas announced Mabhouh had died of cancer. Now Hamas blames Israel. But Syria has arrested Nahro Masud, a Hamas operative, and Jordan has deported to Dubai two Palestinians from Hamas' rival Fatah, employees of the Palestinian Authority, also in connection to the killing. At the very least, it appears that Palestinians had a role. Mabhouh was also wanted by Jordan and Egypt, where he spent time in prison, and his Iran dealings suggest another series of possible suspects. Some intelligence experts point to sloppiness in the operation, saying Israel is being framed.

Whatever the wisdom, provenance, and legality of the hit, Mabhouh was as legitimate a target as you could find. Days ago, he boasted of kidnapping and killing two Israelis. He had a leading position in Hamas, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the European Union and Israel. He helped Hamas orchestrate suicide bombings that left hundreds of Israeli civilians dead.

As a strategist, he likely had a role in the brutal 2007 intra-Palestinian war in which Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza, killing scores of Palestinians. And his work to arm Hamas contributed to the endless violence that triggered last year's Gaza war with Israel. He was bringing ever more lethal Iranian weapons into Gaza. Mabhouh's demise potentially reduces Iran 3/8s poisonous influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and helps strengthen the more moderate Palestinian Authority relative to Hamas.

Whoever killed him eliminated a leader of a group whose charter -- in addition to calling for the killing of all Jews, not only Israelis -- vows to ``obliterate Israel'' and ``raise the banner of Allah over every inch'' of its territory.

The assassination resembles America's use of unmanned drones in Pakistan and Yemen, which have targeted dozens of Taliban and al-Qaeda members. But this hit killed only one man and, this time, the perpetrators risked their lives.

Still, many Israelis who believe the Mossad did it wonder if the cost was worth paying. If Israel did it, it risked straining relations with important friends. And in an era of omnipresent security cameras, the operatives apparently revealed themselves and their methods.

In the coming weeks the drama will continue to unfold, but we will never know everything. We will see new spy novels and countless conspiracy theories inspired by the killing. Then, one day, Hollywood will bring the version most likely to live on in people's minds as the truth about the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.