Al-Zaban’s Murder Snapped Arafat’s Longstanding Ties with Tehran

Tuesday, March 2, as Khalil al-Zaban, 59, sat down behind the wheel of his car in downtown Gaza City, five men in ski masks approached. One opened a conversation and still talking pulled out a gun and shot al-Zaban in the head. The other four pulled out weapons and continued shooting. Then they all made off. In the hospital, twelve bullets were found in the body.
The cold-blooded assassination shocked many Palestinians – not so much in the Gaza Strip where it took place but in Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah sanctum. For many years, he and al Zaban was very close. The dead man acted as his personal spokesman and trusted director of the Palestinian News Agency, as well as close companion from the days of Palestinian combat in the 1970s Lebanese civil war until their arrival in Gaza in 1994 from years of Tunisian exile.
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In recent years, their friendship cooled, although Arafat awarded al-Zaban a modest budget to put out a small inoffensive weekly on human rights in the Palestinian Authority.
His murder was generally attributed by Palestinian media to the breakdown of authority and of law and order in Palestinian areas.
The day after the murder, Arafat declared at his Ramallah headquarters: “Episodes like this murder violate Palestinian moral principles. The killers will be punished.”
Around Gaza’s cafes, bazaars and the drawing rooms of smart seashore villas, it was whispered that al-Zaban’s murderers were heavies dispatched by Mohammed Dahlan to make sure all the Palestinian security forces knew who was top dog in the Gaza Strip. According to this account, Dahlan had made a comeback in open defiance of an order from Yasser Arafat forbidding him to re-establish himself on the Gaza Strip, which he once ruled.
Dahlan has never been forgiven for challenging Arafat’s leadership or joining the short-lived US-backed Abu Mazen government last year. As minister of interior, he attempted unsuccessfully to wrest the security forces from Arafat’s grip.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources confirm one part of the gossip – the murder was indeed the work of Dahlan’s men – but his motive was quite different from the one attributed to him and it is revealed here for the first time.
He knew that behind the facade of obscurity, al-Zaban was Arafat’s secret middleman for Arafat’s ties with the Iranian rulers in Tehran.
This role was of historic importance. It was instrumental in forging the epic rapprochement between the Palestinian national movement and the Lebanese Hizballah. It opened the door for Tehran to supply the Palestinians with quantities of arms, a large shipload of which Israeli commandos seized on the Red Sea in January 2002. The Iranian cargo was loaded aboard the Karine-A under the supervision of Mohammed Dahlan in his former life as Arafat’s terrorist strong arm in the Gaza Strip.
Al-Zaban was the live wire which opened up a flow of Iranian funds to the al Aqsa Martyr Brigades which carry out suicide attacks on behalf of Arafat’s Fatah-Tanzim. This source replaced Iraqi largesse which dried up when the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
So successful was the facade that his frequent travels to Beirut, Iran and the Gulf emirates on apparent assignments for his dull little human rights publication went unnoticed. On those occasions, he met discreetly with Iranian Revolutionary Guards agents and kept up his close connections in the Iranian regime. Those connections were of long standing. Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary leaders received their first training in terrorism and urban guerrilla combat at Arafat’s Fatah camps in Lebanon, before they unseated the Shah. One Iranian dissident group was placed in the personal care of Khalil al-Zaban. It numbered men whom the 1979 Islamic revolution was to raise to eminence in Tehran. One was Ali Akhbar Mohtashamipour, a founder of the Lebanese Hizballah and currently head of the Iranian organization for aiding the Palestinian Intifada. Up until last month’s parliamentary election in Iran, Mohtashamipour represented the reformist camp in the Majlis. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources, that was a front behind which he acted as informer for the radical regime. Another prominent Irani to whom the murdered Palestinian imparted terror tactics in their Lebanon days was Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian president and today hard-line spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s closest adviser.
Our Iranian sources describe how Khalil al-Zaban, the nonentity in Gaza, was treated as a celebrity when he arrived in Tehran as the personal guest of Rafsanjani.
Mohammed Dahlan’s willingness to set up al-Zaban’s assassination shows how much he wants to prove he is a reformed character. He is the first figure with a long, black record as part of the terror-tainted Palestinian security apparatus, to step out and target a terrorist personage close to Yasser Arafat. As Abu Mazen’s interior minister, he vetoed direct action against terrorist kingpins. His refusal to fight Palestinian terror all the way was the key factor behind the first Palestinian government’s downfall. It also left the Bush road map stuck in the sand.
He believes now that his targeted liquidation of Khalil al-Zaban will be the clincher for persuading skeptical Americans and Israelis that Mohammed Dahlan has genuinely turned a new leaf and is willing to go all out to fight terror – even against Iran and the Hizballah.
Updated March 10
But Arafat has not been inactive.
He has moved to tighten his clutch on the southern Gaza Strip and its vital smuggling tunnel routes from Egypt. Hitherto he asserted his authority from Ramallah through the local Sema Dana clan and their shared Popular Resistance Committees. debkafile‘s Palestinian sources reveal that recently he stepped in more directly by placing his kinsman Mussa Arafat, head of “Palestinian military intelligence,” in direct charge of the Israel-Egypt-Gaza border triangle and its labyrinth of smuggling tunnels.
This crossing with tunnels form the mainline route for illegal drugs, prostitutes and weapons – some bound for the Israeli underworld and farther parts of the Middle East – to enter Palestinian areas from Egyptian Sinai. The southern Gaza Strip has thus become a hotbed of criminal activity with smuggling tunnels snaking under the most densely populated parts of Rafah and Khan Younes.
Four hit-men from Belarus arrested in Tel Aviv Monday, March 9, on suspicion of having been hired by Israel mobsters for revenge killings of rivals, reached Israel through this route. Their illicit entry will not have been lost on the new local warlord, Mussa Arafat, and his minions. Yasser Arafat’s direct control of this unruly territory is a fresh impediment to Dahlan’s aspirations and a guarantee of its continued lawless state.

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