Israel is maintaining official silence over the commando-style assassination of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s No. 2 man, Khalil al-Wazir.
Palestinians, much of the Arab world and some Western commentators, including Israelis, believe Israel was involved in the deed, which occurred early Saturday morning, at Wazir’s villa in a residential suburb of Tunis.
Israeli officials have not concealed their satisfaction that an arch-terrorist was eliminated. But the matter was barely touched upon at the Cabinet meeting Sunday, and the ministers uniformly refused to discuss it with reporters afterward.
Wazir, 53, headed Al Fatah, the PLO’s terrorist arm, since its inception in the 1960s. He was second in command to PLO chief Yasir Arafat and was considered his most likely successor.
Wazir was best known by his nom de guerre, Abu Jihad, which means father of war–an epithet few would disagree with. He is believed to have masterminded numerous terrorist operations, including a bus ambush in the Negev on March 7, in which three Israelis were killed, and a similar-style attack along Israel’s coastal road in 1978, in which 35 Israelis died.
Israel also insists he is behind the four month-old Palestinian uprising in the administered territories.
While the popular view in Israel is that Abu Jihad was “terminated” by Mossad, Israel’s secret service, one leading expert on terrorism believes the assassination was ordered by Arafat himself.
According to Dr. Ariel Merari of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, the PLO chief and his deputy have been at odds for some time. The operation in Tunis was “very different” from the Israel Defense Force’s slaying of three ranking PLO leaders in Beirut some years ago, Merari noted.
Other observers here and abroad disagree. They say the organization and precision of the assassination bore all the carmarks of a Mossad operation.
Merari and other commentators agree, however, that Abu Jihad’s removal will have severe repercussions for Al Fatah and the entire PLO, because of his key position in the PLO structure. It was one of the rare cases where a single individual was indispensible to the organization, they said.
They believe that while the immediate aftermath of the slaying has been an intensified wave of violence in the territories, the long-term results may actually be a relative pacification.
Zeev Schiff, military correspondent of Haaretz, suggested Sunday that since the killing is widely attributed to Israel, it should bolster Israel’s deterrent posture and credibility in the eyes of its Arab enemies. But Schiff warned that Israel will have to brace itself for Palestinian attempts at retribution at home and abroad.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Police Minister Haim Barlev reported to the Cabinet Sunday on the fierce escalation of violence that greeted the news of Abu Jihad’s assassination. The official figure of Palestinians killed over the weekend is 10. Palestinian sources said the IDF killed as many as 15 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Calm prevailed in Tunis after the killing. Small police units patrolled near synagogues in the Jewish quarter during Sabbath services. But there have been no anti-Jewish demonstrations.
One Tunisian Jew told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in Paris that “most Jews stay at home. We all try to avoid trouble as no one can predict how the street might eventually react.”
There are about 3,000 Jews in Tunisia. Most are elderly and live in Tunis and in Djerba.
NATIONWIDE HUNT FOR ASSASSIN
Meanwhile, the Tunisian authorities launched a nationwide hunt for the killers. But officials there conceded privately that it was pointless. The commando team that carried out the assassination appeared to have entered the country and escaped by sea.
Tunisian and PLO sources said that close to 40 persons were involved in the incident, at least one of them a woman. The police said they found the vehicles used by the commandos–two minibuses and a Peugeot car–abandoned on an isolated beach some 30 miles north of Tunis. They had been rented under false names.
As police reconstructed events, the main body of commandos was picked up by waiting operatives in the early hours of Saturday morning and driven to Sidi Bou, the quiet residential suburb where Abu Jihad lived with his family in a luxurious two-story villa. Their neighbors were diplomats and professionals.
Police said the attackers first killed a Tunisian driver and two Palestinian bodyguards. They burst into the villa and climbed to the second floor.
Abu Jihad emerged from his study apparently after hearing gun shots. His assailants pumped 68 bullets into his body with submachine guns and pistols equipped with silencers. He died minutes after he was admitted to a hospital.
FAMILY WITNESSED ATTACK
His wife and their two children, a girl of 14 and a 2-year-old boy, saw the shooting but were not harmed. The commandos had disconnected the villa’s telephone lines, including a direct line to the local police.
According to Palestinians sources, the villa was surrounded by 30 back-up commandos while the shooting took place. The entire group was landed and escaped with the aid of the Israeli navy, they said.
According to reports leaked from Sunday’s Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, one minister asked what happened in Tunis and was told by Premier Yitzhak Shamir, “We heard about it on the radio.”
Gad Yaacobi, minister for economic planning, reportedly remarked, “What is clear is that Abu Jihad has returned his soul to the creator.” With that, the Cabinet moved on to other business.