Arafat’s Ties Snapped with Tehran

Tuesday, March 2, Khalil al-Zaban, 59, stepped out of his office in downtown Gaza City and got into his car. As he sat down behind the wheel, five men in ski masks approached the car. One opened a conversation and while talking pulled out a gun and shot al-Zaban in the head. The other four produced weapons and continued shooting, before 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 on the West Bank. For many years, al-Zaban was very close to Yasser Arafat, acting as his personal spokesman and trusted director of the Palestinian News Agency, as well as boon 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. In recent years, their friendship cooled, although Arafat, who takes care to provide former associates with an income, awarded al-Zaban a modest budget to put out a small inoffensive weekly on human rights in the Palestinian Authority.

His murder was generally depicted by Palestinian media as another sign of the breakdown in the authority of the Palestinian police and security forces 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 drawing rooms of the 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.

For some years, al-Zaben gave every appearance of having settled into obscurity, far from Arafat’s inner circle of power brokers – so much so that only very rarely did a visitor step into his small, quiet office. Dahlan discovered that this facade had been fabricated deliberately to disguise the semi-retired editor’s true role as secret liaison between Arafat and 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 also 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.

Al-Zaben 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.

Khomeini’s followers first trained by Fatah-Lebanon

The murdered man’s life was so inconspicuous that his frequent travels to Beirut and 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 nurtured close connections in the Iranian regime. He often visited Tehran.

Al-Zaban’s Iranian friendships were of long standing. Ayatollah Khomeini’s operatives received their first training in terrorism and urban guerrilla combat at Arafat’s Fatah camps in Lebanon, before the Islamic revolution 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. Among them was Mustafa Chamran, later defense minister, who died on the Iranian-Iraqi warfront in 1981 in mysterious circumstances. Another was Ali Akhbar Mohtashamipour, one of the founders 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 former protege who received his training in terror tactics in Lebanon at the hands of the murdered Palestinian was Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian president. Today he is the most powerful man in the country and closest adviser of the hard-line spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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.

Dahlan: would-be reformed terrorist

Mohammed Dahlan’s willingness to set up al-Zaban’s assassination shows how much he has changed in the months since the Abu Mazen government crashed. 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.

His targeted liquidation of Khalil al-Zaban is the clincher capable of persuading skeptical Americans and Israelis that Mohammed Dahlan has genuinely turned a new leaf and is willing to go all out – even against Iranian and Hizballah terrorists. By this single act, he may have finally got rid of his Karine-A albatross.

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