Inside Israel's assassination of Abu Jihad, Fatah’s number 2

Shot and killed in 1988, the details of the operation to kill one of the biggest names in Palestinian politics were made known through accounts from his wife and an Israeli journalist

A Palestinian man walks past a graffiti of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (R) and assassinated Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) deputy leader Khalil al-Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, in Gaza City on August 6, 2009.
A Palestinian man walks past a graffiti of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (R) and assassinated Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) deputy leader Khalil al-Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, in Gaza City on August 6, 2009.

Inside Israel's assassination of Abu Jihad, Fatah’s number 2

Khalil al-Wazir, better known as Abu Jihad, was one of the most familiar names to Palestinians growing up in the 1970s and 1980s—second only to Yasser Arafat.

Abu Jihad was Arafat’s deputy and universally considered to be his likely successor. The two men went a long way back, having co-founded Fatah in 1959 and co-led the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in parallel careers that took them from Palestine to Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and ultimately Tunisia.

He was assassinated on 16 April 1988 by Israel at his home in Tunis, a city where the veteran Palestinian leader rarely spent more than a few days, considering it unsafe. As a tourist hub, the city was open to foreigners and susceptible to attacks.

And so it was to prove that day.

Just three years beforehand, Israel had bombed the PLO headquarters in the Hammam al-Shatt district, south of the Tunisian capital, killing 68 Palestinians. Many were Abu Jihad’s affiliates and trainees, leaving him vulnerable.

He preferred to stay in Baghdad, where security was tighter under Saddam Hussein. But he was forced to leave after Iraqi security chief Fadel al-Barrak warned him that a plot had been uncovered to assassinate him on Iraqi soil.

He returned to Tunis for what he believed would be no more than a few weeks. Looking back, one cannot help but wonder if the Iraqi claim was real or more of a trick by the Israelis to get him out of Baghdad.

A warning made it through to his home in Tunis. Abu Jihad received a phone call from his Moroccan friend Mohammad al-Basri, who was speaking from France, saying that he had a “top secret” message that Israel was planning to kill a senior Palestinian commander, without mentioning any names.

Eight years earlier, Israel had successfully assassinated Abu Hasan Salameh, commander of the Palestinian Force 17, through a car bomb in Beirut. Back in 1973, it had successfully carried out an operation in the heart of Beirut, killing three Palestinian leaders in the upscale market Verdun neighbourhood.

Read more: This day in history: Israel takes out key PLO leaders in Beirut

It seemed only natural that Abu Jihad was next on the list.

Israel accused Abu Jihad of being the chief architect of the First Palestinian Intifada, which captured the hearts and minds of millions throughout the Muslim and Arab world.

A nightmare for Israel

Since his rise to prominence in the mid-1950s, Abu Jihad was a fiery Palestinian leader and nothing but trouble for Israel.

Born in the city of Ramla, he went to schools run by the UN mission to Palestine and UNRWA and then attended university in Egypt. But he never graduated, devoting his life to underground politics and revolutionary activity with Yasser Arafat, whom he first met in Gaza in 1954.

After Arafat became leader of the PLO in 1969, Abu Jihad was tasked with establishing contacts with China and Algeria while serving as a liaison with Fidel Castro's Cuba.

He was personally responsible for a string of operations inside Israel, most notably the 7 March 1988 attack on a bus carrying workers to the Negev Nuclear Research Center. On that day, 11 Israelis were taken hostage, and two were killed before Israeli troops stormed the bus, killing all the hijackers.

Abu Jihad had a wider role within the movement, giving him influence beyond operations and international contacts. He had been training and indoctrinating Palestinian militants for decades.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (C) with Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO's) number two Khalil al-Wazir, known as Abu Jihad (2nd L), in southern Lebanon in 1978.

Israel accused him of being the chief architect of the First Palestinian Intifada that erupted in December 1987—just four months before his assassination.

From its first day, the intifada was a tremendous success, enough to restore legitimacy to the banished Palestinian leadership in Tunis while capturing the hearts and minds of millions throughout the Muslim and Arab world.

Midnight assassination

Much has been written about Abu Jihad's assassination. But two sources stand out. One is the 2018 book Rise and Kill First by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, based on interviews with Israeli military and security officials.

The second is the testimony of Abu Jihad's wife, Intisar al-Wazir, or Um Jihad, the first woman leader in Fatah who holds a bachelor's degree in history from Damascus University. From 1995 to 2005, she was the Social Affairs Minister in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

Um Jihad recalled what happened at their home in Tunis on 16 April 1988 and how she immediately saw the extent of the danger, citing the assassination of three Palestinian commandos 15 years earlier at the hands of Israeli assassins.

"At 0:45 AM, I heard people breaking into our house. I heard people shouting. We were in the bedroom, and he pushed away the table where he was sitting and grabbed the gun from the closet. The only thing that came to my mind was the Verdun Operation of 1973. I began to shout: Verdun…Verdun," she said.

Four of the masked assailants walked into the room wearing Tunisian special military uniform. Um Jihad claimed that her husband fired first, and the intruders shot back, wounding him in the left arm and chest.

When he collapsed, the assailants took turns emptying their automatic weapons into his body.

Palestinian refugees carry the coffin of Khalil Al-Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, the number two man in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) after Yasser Arafat, during his funeral held in Damascus on April 20, 1988.

Um Jihad was put up against a wall, with a gun trained at her face to prevent her from looking at her bullet-ridden husband. As a fifth assailant came into the fire more bullets, she screamed between sobs: "Enough!" She adds that a woman entered the home and addressed the assailants in French: "Come on…come on quickly."

Israeli journalist account

In Rise and Kill First, Bergman writes that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir chaired an Israeli security cabinet meeting on 14 March 1988, during which Abu Jihad's assassination was approved.

The decision was close—six votes to four—and a high-risk plan was drawn up called Operation Introductory Lesson. Mossad had already been monitoring Abu Jihad's home and offices both in Tunisia and Iraq, mapping out his every movement and tapping his telephone lines.

Ehud Barak, a future premier, was put in charge of the operation. He was then deputy chief of staff of the Israeli army. His success at Verdun influenced Shamir's decision to task him with the job.  

Moshe Ya'alon, then commander of Sayeret Matkal, took charge of the hit squad, which had also taken part in the Verdun Operation. Ya'alon went on to serve as chief of staff of the Israeli army in 2002 before becoming vice-prime minister in 2009.

His men trained for the operation for weeks, using an identical building in Haifa, with the exact same distance from its shore as the one in Tunis.

The Israeli commandos pretended to be lost tourists. When they broke into his house, they shot him a total of 76 times.

Detailed plans

The Israeli operatives arrived in Tunis on 14 April, all coming from Europe. They rented two Volkswagen Transporters and a Peugeot 305 to carry the commandos to Abu Jihad's home.

Once their mission was accomplished, the drivers were ordered to leave Tunisia by sea, while the killers themselves were tasked with travelling on commercial flights. Simultaneously, an Israeli flotilla sailed towards Tunisia and anchored on 15 April.

It carried five missile boats, 46 commandos, an escort submarine, and a mobile hospital; all put on high alert in case something went wrong at Abu Jihad's home. A Boeing 707 was also waiting to monitor Tunisian communications and jam radars if needed.

The commandos arrived on the beach and two of them headed to Abu Jihad's residence, one carrying a gift box and another carrying a map, dressed as a woman.

The district of Sidi Bousid was about 20 kilometres northeast of the capital, facing the American cemetery, close to the American ambassador's residence and that of top PLO official Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of Palestine.

The commandos pretended to be lost tourists, approaching Abu Jihad's guard, showing a map and seeking assistance. As they began to help, they shot him dead at close range.

Palestinians hold posters of late leader Yasser Arafat (R) and assassinated Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) deputy leader Khalil al-Wazir (known as Abu Jihad) in Bethlehem on January 1, 2020.

To make sure that their target was inside the house, the Israelis leaked information that would surely capture Abu Jihad's attention: the arrest of his friend, a lawyer named Fawzi Abu Rahmeh.

It worked. He started to make phone calls to inquire about Abu Rahmeh's whereabouts. He had fallen directly into Israel's trap, making his assassins certain not just that he was at home but also that he was sitting behind his desk.

They burst in and killed him.

76 shots

Bergman says seven commandos had entered the residence—not five, as Um Jihad recalled. They shot him a total of 76 times. One shot was near the heart, another in the face, right underneath his eye.

Nahum Lev, one of the commandos, said: "I shot him without hesitation".

Lev had been the first Israel to confess Tel Aviv's role in the assassination of Abu Jihad. He was the first since 1988 to go on the record about it, speaking first to the Israeli press in 2012 and then in more detail to Bergman in 2018.

Beforehand, Israel had neither confirmed nor denied the operation.

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