By Janet Stobart, Los Angeles Times
LONDON – Britain expelled a high-ranking Israeli diplomat Tuesday in retaliation for alleged misuse of British passports by Israeli agents suspected in the assassination of a senior Hamas commander two months ago in Dubai.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the decision was made after consultations with his Israeli counterpart. The expelled official was not identified, but BBC and the Times of London reported that he was the head of the Mossad intelligence agency in the Israeli Embassy.
The expulsion follows an investigation by Britain’s Serious Organized Crime Agency, or SOCA, into the Jan. 19 slaying of Mahmoud Mabhouh at a luxury hotel. Officials in the Persian Gulf emirate have alleged that the killing was carried out by an Israeli hit squad using forged European and Australian passports, 12 of them cloned from documents belonging to British citizens living in Israel.
Miliband told Parliament that the SOCA had linked the forging of passports to Israel, though he provided no details on how that conclusion was reached.
“Given that this was a very sophisticated operation in which high-quality forgeries were made, the government judges it is highly likely that the forgeries were made by a state intelligence service,” he said. “Taking this together with other inquiries and the link to Israel established by SOCA, we have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports.”
“The government takes this matter extremely seriously,” he added. “Such misuse of British passports is intolerable.”
Israeli authorities have neither confirmed nor denied their government’s involvement in the killing of Mabhouh, an alleged arms procurer for the Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday said his government places a high value on its relationship with Britain. “We are engaging in several dialogues with them on sensitive issues and regret the British decision,” he told the Ynet news site.
Gad Shimron, a former Mossad agent and author, accused Britain of holding Israel to a double standard.
“There is a degree of hypocrisy here,” he said on Israel radio. “When the British send the MI-6 to Afghanistan to gather intelligence to eliminate a Taliban figure, I am not so sure they travel on their own passports. Scolding Israel is one thing, but expelling a diplomat is another. This is a serious matter.”
One conservative Israeli lawmaker called for Israel to expel a British diplomat in retaliation.
In his comments before Parliament, Miliband acknowledged that Israel was “a democratic country … in a dangerous part of the world” and concluded, “Israeli people crave and deserve legitimacy and security. The United Kingdom will not compromise its support for this.
“But the actions in this case,” he said, “are completely unacceptable and must stop.”
Though Miliband provided few details about the investigation, reports in the Telegraph on Tuesday said investigators had determined that the passports were copied while British citizens living Israel were detained at the airport for about 20 minutes on their way home.
Mabhouh was found dead in his hotel room in the United Arab Emirate’s port city of Dubai on the morning of Jan. 20. Video footage from the luxury hotel showed him entering an elevator surrounded by fellow guests in tennis gear, the suspected assassins. Media reports say forensic investigation showed Mabhouh had been first sedated then smothered.