Inside the Middle East
September 28, 2010
Posted: 1405 GMT

Driving out of Amman at first light is always an inspiring experience. This morning was no different.

The first flush of mellow amber light awakening fresh life in the sandstone hues of this ancient city. The early hazy dust taking the edge off the seemingly endless urban sprawl of low-cost concrete apartments.

But my focus was already beyond the steep hardscrabble hills flashing past the windows. My thoughts lay about two hundred kilometers further up the road, in Damascus.

Jordanian producer Ranya Khadri had connected me to Khaled Meshaal, the political chief of Hamas. I’d interviewed him three years ago, but now peace talks with Hamas excluded were underway seemed the right time to talk again.

Ranya called Meshaal’s office in Damascus. They wanted to know who would be coming, what we would ask. Two days later, we had a green light for the interview. That was Wednesday.

Now came the hard part, getting Syrian visas for camerawoman Mary Rogers and me. Typically they can take weeks, and, to be newsworthy, we needed the interview by Saturday at the latest.

As Mary and I sat nervously waiting in Ranya’s apartment Friday, the visas finally came through, almost literally at the eleventh hour. So close to midnight, we decided it would be better to grab a few hours sleep and set off early Saturday.

It was to prove the right decision. As I focused ahead, bumping down the highway out of Amman, imagining I’d soon be interviewing the man the United States and Israel call a terrorist leader, I had overlooked one not so small detail.

Crossing in to Syria by road is not like landing at Damascus airport. Sure, you get the same scrutiny and brief holdups at immigration while they search for the telex confirming your visa, but any sense of a speedy process, with new arrivals to be quickly turned loose in the country, seems lost.

Parked up by the border in the now baking sun, time was standing still. Hour upon hour we waited for our camera gear to be checked. We’d faxed the list ahead but it was making little difference. Time was ticking down, no officials seemed to share our sense of urgency, we couldn’t afford to be late.

(CNN's Nic Robertson with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal)

The only sign of change the years had brought to the stifling customs hall were layers of dust and bureaucracy and we were caught in the middle. Stuck between customs agents and a myriad of intelligence officials. It was a suffocating feeling. We’d come so far, but every hour pushed the interview potentially further out of our grasp.

Finally it came down to one man. An official from two-one-one, military intelligence. He would have to look at our gear and say it was safe to bring in to the country.

After hauling the equipment out for inspection and more than 4 hours at the border we were finally on our way. The man from two-one-one had told us he’d come to our hotel and check the gear once we arrived.

After all the lost time it seemed odd he’d let us drive across country before looking at it. But this was Syria and we were playing by their rules. Our goal was that one interview, nothing else.

The man from two-one-one had barely finished checking the gear and Meshaal’s men were knocking on Mary’s door. They wanted our gear too, only they were going to take it away, along with our passports.

I’ve been through less strict US presidential security before, they’ll let you bring your gear with you, check it out while you watch. Hamas it seemed were working to a higher standard. But at least now it felt that we would finally meet Meshaal.

Mary, who’s been doing this longer than me, was yet to be convinced. Two years ago she told me she’d been through the same drill, even set up her camera for the interview only to be told he couldn’t make it.

Meshaal has every reason to be cautious, a little more than a decade ago Israeli Mossad agents tried to kill him. The poison they used was so strong a backup team carried an antidote. The King of Jordan threatened Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu he’d break off relations if Meshaal, who was dying on a hospital gurney in Amman, was not saved.

Security was clearly on the minds of Meshaal’s men who picked us up from the hotel. It was dark but Damascus’s twisting thoroughfares still crowded with buses and post rush our traffic. They squeezed through impossible gaps at improbable speeds.

When a space tightened too far, they worked their siren. The Syrians only too happy to move from their careening path. On the final turn, I recognized the tree-lined street, it had been fast but I’d felt safe and now we were here.

As Meshaal strode in to the room, his staff all stood up. There is no question who is boss, no question whom they look to for leadership

Precisely 13 years to the day since the Israeli agents had tried to kill him, we were finally meeting Meshaal.

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Filed under: Hamas •Israel •Palestinians

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September 27, 2010
Posted: 1953 GMT

Hamas political leader vows to continue fight with Israel

CNN's Nic Robertson travelled to Damascus this past weekend  for a sit-down interview with Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal.  You can watch portions of the interview here and here or read the transcript after the jump.

Among other things Meshaal talks about why he believes why the current negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are a "trick" that will fail, why he thinks Hamas is justified staging attacks against Israelis,  and comments on the status of captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas and other Gaza based militants groups in a 2006 cross-border raid.

Transcript starts here:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Hamas •Israel •Jerusalem •Palestinians •U.S.

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September 20, 2010
Posted: 1040 GMT

Cars intended for transfer into Gaza wait to enter the Gaza Strip from southern Israel at the Erez crossing (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time in over three years, the Israeli government has allowed the transfer of cars into the  Gaza Strip. 

The move, said Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israel's office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories,  was another step in "the expansion of the civilian policy towards Gaza strip". 

About 20 cars loaded on trucks were to pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing Monday and  be handed over to Palestinian car dealers. Another 60 cars are to be transferred over the next few days according to Inbar. 

Israel decided to ease restrictions on the Gaza Strip in wake of  international condemnation following an Israeli commando raid against activists on-board an aid ship bound for Gaza.  The raid left nine Turkish and Turkish-American activist dead. 

Gaza has been subject to an Israeli and Egyptian economic blockade since the Islamist movement Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in 2007 though Israel has been allowing more goods to be imported recently except those it claims can be used for weapons manufacturing and building military fortifications.

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Filed under: Gaza •General •Hamas •Israel

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September 2, 2010
Posted: 645 GMT
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September 1, 2010
Posted: 1013 GMT

It's been hard to find many optimists about the prospects of success in renewed talks between Israelis and Palestinians.  Most of the analysts and people on the ground we've been speaking with the past week have been pretty much uniform in their skepticism.

Last week we heard from a couple of well-known Israeli analysts on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, former Labor Cabinet Minister Yossi Beilin and the National Union Party's Arieh Eldad. 

Listen to the them in the link above and compare their shared sense of doubt about the timing and effectiveness of the talks against the rather more panglossioan view from the Quartet's Middle East Envoy Tony Blair.  

The pervasive sense of pessimism that has been hanging in the air was only heightened Tuesday with a shooting attack  in the occupied West Bank that left 4 Israeli settlers dead.  The military wing of Hamas took responsibility for the attack and is clearly hoping that it will help derail the yet-to-begin direct negotiations taking place in Washington on Thursday. 

While no one is talking about cancelling the talks the violence has only served to poison the atmosphere in which they are taking place.  The Yesha Council, which represents Jewish settlers in the West Bank said Wednesday they will renew settlement construction immediately, despite an existing moratorium on all building.

Not a good omen for the start of the talks.

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Filed under: Hamas •Israel •Palestinians •West Bank

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May 18, 2010
Posted: 507 GMT

By the CNN Wire Staf

Jerusalem (CNN) - Israel expressed "deep disappointment" Thursday over a meeting the Russian president held this week in Syria with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it expected Russia to stand by Israel in its struggle against Hamas.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal speaks at a news conference held in Damascus on March 15.
Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal speaks at a news conference held in Damascus on March 15.

"Hamas is a terror organization whose declared goal is the destruction of the state of Israel," the statement read. "Hamas is responsible for the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, among them immigrants from the Soviet Union and also Russian citizens."

The statement continued, "Israel has always stood by Russia in its struggle against the Chechnyan terrorism. We expect the same attitude when we are talking about the Hamas terrorism against Israel."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met Meshaal while on a visit to Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday, Russian news outlets reported.

Medvedev called for the quick release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held in Gaza since 2006, when he was captured by Palestinian militants, including those from Hamas, Russia Today reported. He also called for reconciliation between Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, and Fatah, which rules the West Bank, Russia Today said.

"Enlightened countries should not divide terrorists into good and bad according to geographical divisions," the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. "Terrorists are terrorists, and Israel does not see any difference between the terror Hamas activates against Israel and the Chechnyan terror activated against Russia.

"There is no difference between Khaled Meshaal and Shamil Basayev," the Foreign Ministry said, referring to the Chechen warlord killed by Russian security agents in 2006. Read full article.

Filed under: Hamas •Israel •Russia

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March 23, 2010
Posted: 1246 GMT

London, England (CNN) - Britain has expelled an Israeli diplomat in connection with cloned passports used by suspects in the January killing of a Hamas leader in Dubai, a British government source familiar with the situation told CNN Tuesday.

Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom met with British Foreign Office officials on Monday, the source said.

The expelled diplomat's rank and identity were not released, and the source did not say when the diplomat was expelled.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a founding member of Hamas' military wing, was found dead January 20 in his Dubai hotel room. Police believe he was killed the night before, allegedly by the secretive Israeli foreign intelligence unit Mossad.

Two sources told CNN earlier this month that the number of identified suspects in al-Mabhouh's death was up to 27. Of them, 26 were carrying European or Australian passports, authorities have said.

The sources - an official familiar with the investigation and a police source - did not say which nation issued the passport used by the 27th suspect. Read full story...

Filed under: Dubai •Hamas •Israel •U.K.

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March 8, 2010
Posted: 854 GMT

By CNN's Paula Hancocks

The drip feed of information from Dubai’s police chief has kept the assassination of a Hamas leader in his Dubai hotel room on the front pages for about a month and a half.

Every day, without fail, the newspapers in the United Arab Emirates reserve part of the front page for an update, an opinion – even the tiniest hint of fresh information.

This is likely the intention of Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan. By releasing a tidbit here and there, the story stays alive and the international spotlight stays on Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, which Khalfan says he is 100 percent sure is behind the hit.

Local newspapers in the UAE reflect the police line – the question of who else may be responsible for the assassination is absent.

It is a far cry from Israel's media, which has moved on. You are hard pressed to find the story in the newspaper these days – let alone on the front page.

Israeli journalists and columnists have had differing opinions on whether Mossad was responsible or not, or whether it even matters as the end result for Israel is the same: One less Hamas official to worry about.

The drip feed of information is also viewed with suspicion and some ridicule. Ma'ariv newspaper described the Dubai police chief's daily revelations as "tales of 1001 nights" and added of Mossad: "It couldn't be that the oft-praised organization ... is being exposed by an Arab in a keffiya like a figure in an American slapstick movie."

But they do say that any publicity is good publicity and that does appear to be the case for Mossad within Israel. Smart entrepreneurs were quick to react and cashed in on an overwhelming increase in demand for Mossad-related memorabilia.

Eran Davidov, marketing manager of, is selling T-shirts with the captions: "Don't mess with the Mossad" and "Mossad's Dubai operation." He said: "This story did something to people, far beyond what we expected."

Rami Igra, a former senior Mossad official tells CNN: "When an event of this kind becomes public knowledge it captures people's imagination, this shows how the Israeli people identify with such a just cause."

And during the recent Jewish holiday of Purim, where the custom is to dress up, there was a new trend in town that copied the security footage released of agents following the Hamas leader before his assassination: Dressing up in tennis gear.

Filed under: Dubai •Hamas •Israel

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March 1, 2010
Posted: 1242 GMT

Jerusalem (CNN) – Dubai's police chief said Sunday the secretive Israeli foreign intelligence unit Mossad "needs to be ashamed" after the January killing of a Hamas leader in a Dubai hotel.

"I am now 100 percent sure that the Mossad is behind the assassination" of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, said Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim. "I used to say 99 percent but now I can say 100 percent."

Al-Mabhouh, a founding member of Hamas' military wing, was found dead in his Dubai hotel room on January 20. Police believe he was killed the night before, and have identified some 26 suspects in his death.

Israel has a stated policy on security matters of neither confirming or denying involvement. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, however, told Israel Army Radio earlier this month, "There is certainly no reason to think that the Mossad and not some other intelligence agency of another country operated there."

Lieberman has also said only "media reports" link Israel to the slaying.

Asked about the case on Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak repeatedly refused to make any comment.

"You know me long enough to assume that when I tell you I have nothing to say about this story, I have nothing to say, and I will not say," Barak told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

"The Mossad needs to be ashamed of its actions," Tamim said Sunday. "They sent 26, 27 persons to assassinate one man who was involved in the capturing and killing of two Israeli solders." Hamas has said al-Mabhouh was behind the 1989 deaths of the two soldiers.

Earlier Sunday, police said toxicology results showed that al-Mabhouh was injected with succinylcholine, a drug used to relax muscles during surgery or as an anesthetic, before he was suffocated. Signs indicated that al-Mabhouh resisted as he was being suffocated, police said.

Family members were told earlier that police had found blood on a pillow. Authorities have also said the killers left some of al-Mabhouh's medication next to him in an apparent effort to make the death appear natural.

But "the medication left next to him in the room has nothing to do with the killing," Tamim said Sunday.

However, authorities have recovered evidence including DNA, he said. "The DNA evidence is quite important and will help us with the investigation."

The 26 suspects are believed to have acquired false passports to travel to Dubai for the killing, then scattered to several far-flung locations afterward.

But "not all the 26 people have forged passports," Tamim said Sunday. "We know some of the names are real."

The 26 do not include two Palestinians previously arrested in Jordan and returned to Dubai. Tamim said one is not believed to be directly involved in al-Mabhouh's death, but "he is wanted by one of the Palestinian factions in the Palestinian territories and he is sentenced to death and that's why we will extradite him." He refused to discuss anything about the other Palestinian.

Twelve of the suspects used British passports, police said. Six suspects used Irish passports, four used French passports, three used Australian passports and one used a German passport.

On Sunday, the British Embassy in Israel said it plans to talk to the British nationals whose identities were stolen and passports were used.

"We have made contact with six of the individuals and look to locate the remaining six for the fraudulent use of their identities," an embassy official said Sunday.

The meetings will take place at the embassy, the UK Serious Organised Crime Agency said.

"We are arranging to speak to them as potential witnesses to a crime," a spokesman for the agency said.

Tamim said Dubai does not plan to restrict travel in the wake of al-Mabhouh's death. He said al-Mabhouh entered the country under a false name and was not reported as being wanted by Israel. "If we knew that he was a wanted man and that he was coming to the UAE, we would not have allowed him in."

He said Dubai bears no ill will toward Israel or the Jewish people, "but we hate the hands, any hands that are covered with blood, whether they were Arab, Jewish or Muslim."

CNN's Caroline Faraj, Saad Abedine, Per Nyberg and Guy Azriel contributed to this report.

Filed under: Dubai •Hamas •Israel

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February 26, 2010
Posted: 513 GMT

By Paula Hancocks

The line of questioning has changed. It's no longer the speculation on whether Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad was behind the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room last month.

There are now 26 people suspected of involvement in the killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in addition to two people in Dubai police custody.
There are now 26 people suspected of involvement in the killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in addition to two people in Dubai police custody.

The question now, certainly on the lips of journalists, is why does it take at least 26 people to kill one man traveling without a bodyguard?

Fifteen more suspects named by Dubai police Wednesday, although the passports are fraudulent and the names "borrowed."

Dubai's police chief has said he is 99 percent sure Mossad is responsible and that seems good enough for most people. Let me caution though, while not revealing personal opinion, that an arms dealer would likely have enemies.

Trips to Dubai by some suspects for planning purposes started almost a year ago, according to police. They say suspects traveled through eight different countries, including two on Australian passports who left Dubai on a ship to Iran, according to police.

The diagram for the travel routes of the operation stage look like a complicated family tree. The suspects between them covered 10 countries, credit cards were used by 14 different suspects, identities stolen from five different nationalities… again according to Dubai police.

The target – one man who appeared to be in transit, who went shopping for shoes and who had no security.

That's not to make him sound harmless. Hamas has admitted he was behind the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989 and Israeli security sources tell me he was a key link between Hamas and Iran when it comes to smuggling arms into Gaza.

But such a huge team still seems excessive to a layman like me who is not privy to the usual etiquette of international assassinations.

This is one of the first times we have been given such an accessible peephole into the murky world of alleged hitmen and women. Maybe that’s why the appetite for details no matter how mundane or distasteful is so great.

A first but maybe also a last. This world of technology we live in as proved by Dubai police could deter the next old-fashioned hit squad picked up on security cameras every step of the way – no matter how good the disguises or how powerful the sponsor.

Filed under: Dubai •Hamas •Israel

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