The Metropolitan Police decision this week to reinvestigate the murder of a renowned Palestinian cartoonist on a London street 30 years ago may help to shed new light on a murky, unsolved crime which eventually led to Israeli diplomats being kicked out of Britain.
Naji Salim Hussain Al-Ali, a cartoonist for the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas, was shot in the neck at point-blank range on 22 July 1987 in Knightsbridge and died a month later on August 29.
Witnesses later described his assassin — a young man of Middle Eastern appearance — running from the scene before escaping in a silver Mercedes.
Al-Ali’s enemies were certainly numerous. Born in a Galilee village in 1938, he later grew up in a south Lebanon refugee camp and was a fierce advocate of the Palestinian cause. His most famous cartoon character — Handala, a barefoot Palestinian boy who rarely showed his face — appeared in many of Al-Ali’s cartoons and remains a popular symbol of Palestinian desperation and defiance.
But Al-Ali’s cartoons did not only target Israel and America, they also frequently took aim at Arab governments and the PLO. In a 1984 profile, the Guardian described Al-Ali as “the nearest thing there is to an Arab public opinion”.
Weeks before his death, Al-Ali is believed to have received a phone call warning him to cease attacking Yassir Arafat and to “correct his attitude”.
Those words went unheeded and, barely a month before his assassination, Al-Ali published a cartoon of Arafat and a woman friend. The image, the Guardian’s Middle East editor, Ian Black, later suggested, was “highly sensitive for a leader who always claimed to be ‘married’ to the Palestinian revolution”. Al-Ali’s family continue to maintain that the PLO leader ordered the hit on the cartoonist.
That suspicion was fuelled by the alleged involvement in the killing of Abdul Rahim Mustapha.
Mustapha is believed to have been a leading member of Force 17, a PLO paramilitary organisation whose responsibilities included protecting Arafat. Expelled from Britain in April 1987, it was later found that he slipped back into the country around the time of the killing before disappearing again.
As the police sought Mustapha’s whereabouts, they came across six suitcases of arms and explosives stored in a flat in Hull by one of his associates, Ishmail Hassan Sowan.
Sowan, a Palestinian engineer, later told police he was a Mossad double-agent, employed by the Israeli spy agency to keep tabs on Mustapha as part of an operation to track Force 17’s activities in the UK. Despite Israeli denials, the belief that Mossad had known of the plot to murder Al-Ali — it emerged that it was running two double agents inside Force 17 in London — infuriated the British government.
It reportedly viewed the Israeli intelligence service’s actions as an “intolerable” breach of the convention that friendly nations keep their host authorities informed of any such special operations they are conducting.
Before Sowan’s trial, Britain quietly refused an Israeli diplomat in London, who was allegedly a Mossad control agent for one of the double agents, re-entry to the UK. After his conviction on charges related to the explosives cache, the Foreign Office swiftly called in Israel’s ambassador, Yehuda Avner, and then dramatically expelled Arie Regev, an embassy attaché, who is said to have directed Sowan’s activities.
Margaret Thatcher also ordered Mossad’s operations in the UK should be shut down.
“A lot can change in 30 years — allegiances shift and people who were not willing to speak may now be prepared to come forward with crucial information,” suggested the Met as it announced the reinvestigation of Al-Ali’s killing.
But, in a case which involves players in the seemingly intractable, decades-long Middle East conflict, that theory may be sorely tested.