Khalil al-Wazir: Paving the Way of Armed Struggle
Abu Jihad coordinates with fedayeen (Palestinian guerrilla fighters) during the siege of Beirut in 1982. (Photo: Archive)
It took Israeli intelligence over two decades and many assassination attempts before they managed to hunt down the PLO’s military mastermind Khalil al-Wazir. On the 24th anniversary of his death, Al-Akhbar recounts his story.
When Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) began his endeavor in the early 1950s, Israeli intelligence had no idea he existed. At the time, he was the twenty-something leader of the Palestinian al-Haq Brigade in Gaza. His family had been displaced from Ramleh in 1948.
Back then, the security establishment in Israel did not believe that Palestinians were capable of organizing a resistance movement. Operations by the fedayeen (Palestinian guerrilla fighters) were believed to be entirely orchestrated in Egypt.
It took Tel Aviv about 10 years to begin to know al-Wazir, who would go on to play a major role in establishing the first and largest Palestinian national liberation movement. Moreover, he would coin the idea of “armed struggle” as the only path to liberate Palestine.
News of Abu Jihad first reached Israel in 1964 through a secret Mossad unit named “Ulysses” whose mission was to spy on Palestinian refugee communities in Arab countries. Operatives spoke about the creation of a Palestinian national liberation movement led by Yasser Arafat and al-Wazir and sounded the alarm in Israeli security agencies.
According to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot– which pieced together the story of the assassination of Abu Jihad based on public and private sources – the Mossad formed a secret unit in 1965. Its prime directive was to investigate methods of countering “Palestinian terrorism” and approve assassinations. It immediately suggested two primary targets: Abu Ammar (Arafat) and Abu Jihad.
The first assassination attempt was in Damascus when a planned car bomb operation was not executed properly. It was carried out by an agent of Unit 504 of the military intelligence, responsible for recruiting and running operatives.
Abu Jihad’s role in pushing for armed struggle against Israel became apparent, especially in the period following the naksah (the defeat of Arab armies in 1967). In 1970, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir retaliated by issuing him a “Red Card,” essentially a direct assassination order.
The Israeli secret service was adamant to settle scores with Abu Jihad and put an end to his dossier. In 1975, the Israeli air force raided a building in Beirut based on information of a Fatah movement meeting taking place there. In addition to Abu Jihad, Fatah leaders Arafat, Faruq Qaddumi, and Mahmoud Abbas were supposedly attending.
The Ben Hur operation missed the target and encouraged an escalation of attacks on Israel, coordinated by Abu Jihad, who was now the deputy chief commander of the Palestinian revolution.
On 11 March 1978, he planned the Kamal Adwan operation (named after a Fatah leader assassinated in Beirut in 1973), which was carried out by the Deir Yassin group led by Dalal Mughrabi.
The operation led to the death of 35 Israelis, with dozens more injured. It created a shock wave inside Israel especially following Abu Jihad’s announcement that the operation “demonstrated the ability of the revolution to reach Israel and carry out operations anywhere it wants.”
Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the PLO’s relocation to Tunisia, Abu Jihad attempted to reverse the setback in armed struggle.
He visited various Arab countries, exposing himself to three assassination attempts, according to the Israeli account.
Abu Jihad, for his part, was planning an “unprecedented” operation that would strengthen the PLO’s position and impose new conditions on the struggle with the Israelis.
Twenty resistance fighters were supposed to reach Yafa by rubber dinghies, hijack a bus, drive it to the defense ministry in Tel Aviv, and attack the entrance known as Gate Victor. But the Israeli navy surprised their ship and sank it on 20 April 1985.
Abu Jihad did not hesitate and pressed on with plans for another major operation. In 1988, he picked Dimona, the location of Israel’s nuclear reactor.
On March 7, three Palestinian commandos captured a bus carrying workers from the nuclear facility. The fighters were consequently killed along with three of the workers in an exchange of fire with an Israeli army unit.
The Mossad concentrated its resources on the pursuit of Abu Jihad, by now the number one wanted person in Israel. Defense minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, ordered a direct operation that would not resort to remote targeting such as an air raid. He wanted to send a message to the Palestinian movement that Israel can reach its enemies in their homes.
The Mossad surveilled al-Wazir’s home in Tunis, 4km from the beach. It began planning an assassination attempt and sent a unit from Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) to the Tunisian shores.
It was to repeat the same scenario used successfully 15 years earlier against three Palestinian leaders in Beirut (know as the “Verdun Operation”).
On 13 April 1988, the quarter century chase after al-Wazir was almost over. Mossad agents carrying Lebanese passports arrived in Tunis and split into two groups.
The first group rented cars to transport the assassination unit from the beach to the targeted house, which was being closely watched by the second group.
In the meantime, Israeli navy vessels carrying the assassins were waiting at sea. In the evening, a unit of 26 Israeli commandos reached the beach and took the rented cars to al-Wazir’s home. After 23 years, they finally managed to assassinate him.
The next day, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was asked about Israel’s involvement in the assassination. Scowling, he replied, “I just heard about it on the radio.”
From Ramleh to Yarmouk
Khalil al-Wazir was born in 1935 in Ramleh and was expelled from Palestine along with his family in 1948. He studied in Alexandria University and then moved to Saudi Arabia.
Later, he went to Kuwait where he met with Yasser Arafat and joined him in creating the Fatah movement.
Leaving Kuwait in 1963, he founded the first Fatah office in Algeria, where he was allowed to establish the first Palestinian military camp.
He then moved on to Damascus in 1965 to establish the military command headquarters and coordinate with fedayeen cells inside Palestine.
During the 1967 war, he planned and executed operations in Upper Galilee, then became the head of the western sector of Fatah until 1982.
Abu Jihad strived to develop military capabilities throughout his struggle, playing a leading role in defending Beirut against the 1982 Israeli invasion.
In his meetings with the fedayeen, he would focus on tactics and also on ethics, telling them to save ammunition and explosives, not to be zealots, and not to steal.
One time, when he was ordering the fedayeen to avoid killing children, one of them replied, “Our children in Shatila and Sabra were the first to die… I lost 12 members of my family.”
Abu Jihad’s reply was clear, “In spite of this, we will not become like those fascists. We are not fascists. [The Prophet Muhammad’s second successor] Omar Bin Khattab commands us not to cut down trees or kill children.”
Memory of Resistance
Those who knew Abu Jihad speak of his special relationship with Imad Mughniyeh. At the end of 1978, a 16-year-old Mughniyeh joined the Fatah cell in Chiyah.
Bassem Haidar, who was in charge of the cell between 1977 and 1979, says that the boy was always with another young man, Ali Khodor Salama (Abu Hassan), assassinated by Israel in 1999 in Abra, near Sidon.
The newcomer soon caught the attention of the higher command of the Palestinian revolution, specifically Abu Jihad, due to his skill in planning ambushes in the area between Tayouneh and Asaad al-Asaad street (south of Beirut).
He was none other than Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military commander who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008.
“Mughniyeh was the only person able to provide the cell with the weapons they needed. He would go to the Fakhani neighborhood (PLO headquarters in Beirut) and get it,” Haidar remembers.
“Once, we needed 3.5 inch anti-tank missiles, so he was sent to get them.” Haidar continues, “Had Mughniyeh’s relationship with Abu Jihad not been good, he would not have been able to get them, since they pass directly through the leadership.”
In 1978, Mughniyeh left the Chiyah cell after “he was summoned by the leadership in Fakhani and began clandestine work in a secret security unit. We never saw him again.”
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