One-and-a-half assassinations in the Middle East (Column: Bookends LXXII)

By Vikas Datta (11:35) 

One single event that can change, or rather catalyse change in history can be the violent killing of a country’s ruler or a prominent leader. Very few countries have been exempt from the phenomenon and causes and effects of various assassinations are still being debated and books with new theories (or conspiracies) keep coming out, especially for watershed cases – Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and closer home and time, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. But the Middle East leads in “termination with extreme prejudice” – as per spy jargon.

Very few places are as hazardous for political leaders as this tortured region which has seen plentiful assassinations or other unnatural deaths – only one leader of Iraq from its independence to the 2003 US invasion died peacefully – Abdul Rahman Arif (but in exile after being deposed).

Of all these assassinations, only one-and-a-half (one successful and one unsuccessful) can be said to have had a major impact and attempts on former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri (successful) and Hamas leader Khalid Mishal (unsuccessful) have inspired an insightful book each. Both are by journalists with extensive experience of the region.

A bungled Israeli mission in Jordan in September 1997 is recounted in Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul McGeough’s “Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas” (2009).

Mishal, then chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, had an unknown poison squirted in his ear on Amman’s streets and slipped into a coma but the (Israeli) assailants were caught. An enraged King Hussain demanded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu furnish the antidote, and on his refusal, threatened to scrap the 1994 peace treaty and hang the assailants. The row drew in the US (but even President Bill Clinton lost his temper at Netanyahu’s evasions).

Ultimately the antidote was furnished, a prisoner swap arranged and Hamas, a marginalized terror outfit, emerged as the new face of Palestinian resistance and the hitherto-obscure Mishal became a household name in the Middle East as “the martyr who did not die”. And nearly two decades later, despite many challenges – expulsion from Jordan in 1999 – and changes, Hamas remains a power to reckon with.

In the book, which reads like a thriller but is all fact and based on interviews with key people involved including the enigmatic Mishal himself, McGeough also goes on to chart the course of Palestinian resistance itself. But the key is the revelation of Israel’s role in Hamas’ rise as a bid to counter the largely-secular Fatah – the most foolhardy move possible but one which Israel’s closest ally, the US, is also guilty of.

Nicholas Blanford’s “Killing Mr. Lebanon: The assassination of Rafiq Hariri and its impact on the Middle East” (2006) chronicles the businessman-turned-politician’s death in a massive car bomb explosion on the Beirut seafront on Valentine’s Day 2005. The consequences were both short-term (the Cedar Revolution – an early forerunner of the Arab Spring – and withdrawal of Syrian troops, present since 1976, within two months) and long-term (more violence, assassinations and instability).

Blanford, of The Times and a longtime Beirut resident, begins with Hariri’s last hours, before focussing on the life – closely corresponding to Lebanon’s shady, shifting alliances between business, military, politics and diplomacy – of an unknown entrepreneur, who rose to become one of the most powerful figures in this treacherous world, and rebuilt a shattered Beirut. He also provides a key insight in Syria’s long-standing influence and exploitation of its smaller, but more vibrant yet intensely secretarian, neighbour.

Also based on interviews of most of the dramatis personae, it also encompasses the Israeli invasion the next year, while the paperback edition (2009) takes in Hezbollah’s stunning resurgence in 2008 and takeover of Beirut (“The people here went to sleep last night with Omar and woke up this morning with Ali,” quips a member of the Shia outfit), before everything went haywire as Syria was itself embroiled in civil war.

It may seem paradoxical that the assassination of a former prime minister and a bid on a militant leader had more effect than those of Jordan’s first monarch Abdullah I, Saudi King Faisal, Syrian military ruler Adib Shishakli, Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat and Prime Ministers Boutros Ghali (grandfather of the UN secretary general), Ahmad Mahir Pasha and Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha, and Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi Al-Tel.

In Lebanon itself, the victims encompass first Prime Minister Riad al-Solh, a later successor Rene Mouwad, and more than one member of the prominent Gemayel (Christian) and Jumblatt (Druze) families. It is not only an Arab phenomenon – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and minister Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi also fell to an assassin’s bullets.

But then a particular event at a particular time can have disproportionate consequences. Such are the vagaries of history.

(28.06.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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