Analysis: Drone signals new spy era for Israel

By Anshel Pfeffer, February 25, 2010
A Hamas man lays a wreath next to a portrait of his assassinated commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Gaza

A Hamas man lays a wreath next to a portrait of his assassinated commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Gaza

During the rolling-out of the Israeli Air Force's new spy-plane, the Eitan, on Sunday at Tel Nof airbase, one of the guests whispered to his neighbour: "Do you think they scheduled this for today to take the international attention away from the Dubai fiasco?" The neighbour answered: "To do that they would have had to roll out an atom bomb."
But already the next day, when the EU foreign ministers met in Brussels, it seemed the storm that had been caused by the killers of Hamas's Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai using false European passports was already abating. Israel was not directly linked to the kill by any of the ministers and escaped denunciation. After a few tense days for a number of Israeli ambassadors in Europe, things have calmed down. Barring the publication of damning new evidence of Mossad involvement and passport abuse, it is hard to see how the case will return to the headlines.

The understanding is that all involved have much more serious things to deal with right now, with Iran going forward on its uranium enrichment plans. Disciplining Israel for funny business with passports will have to wait indefinitely.

The fallout, though, is not just diplomatic. The Dubai killing may turn out to be also a landmark in the annals of clandestine operations.

At a lecture in Tel-Aviv University on Tuesday, former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz said that the assassinations of Mabhouh and Hizbollah Operations Chief Imad Mughniyeh had enhanced Israel's deterrence towards its enemies. Mr Halutz of course stopped short of saying that Israel had carried out the killings, but he made it clear that it was imperative for Israel that the senior operatives in the Iran-Syria-Hizbollah-Hamas axis of evil continue looking over their shoulders constantly.

Indeed, he said that the American-British push in Afghanistan would only succeed if they seriously targeted the Taliban's leaders. That is the way to fight mega-terror organisations.

In that context, the unveiling of Israel's new super spy drone - which can reach Iran - is more than symbolic. While Mabhouh, Mughniyeh and other enemies of Israel have a tendency to meet their creators in mysterious explosions and staged heart attacks in hotel rooms, the United States has been embarking on its own assassinations campaign against the leaders of al Qaida and the Taliban, using a silent fleet of unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs) with names like "Predator" and "Avenger".

The Americans are using, on a much wider stage, the tactics developed by Israel over the past decade, in which dozens of Palestinian terror chieftains were taken out from the air in "targeted killing" operations which wiped out almost the entire military leadership of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and other Palestinian groups.

In the silent war being waged between the West and the two global terror networks, one directed by Iran, the other by the al Qaida franchise, targeted assassinations will continue to be a crucial element. Where possible, Israel, the United States and other Western nations, including Britain, which are buying UAVs, will prefer to use these stealth weapons, flying out of sight, controlled by technicians in an air-conditioned room hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

But sometimes, there still will be no choice but to carry out an old-fashioned "wet operations", with real life secret agents, using false passports.

Last updated: 4:23pm, February 25 2010