Embassies are meant to be safe places. Swathed in the legal protections of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, they are entitled to security provided by the countries that host them. But last month, the niceties of diplomacy gave way to the uncomfortable realities of business as usual when Palestine's diplomatic mission in Sofia, Bulgaria, was the scene of a murder.
For about a month, Naif Hassan Omar Zayed had been hiding out in the embassy. The Palestinian national and member of a Palestinian revolutionary group had been convicted in 1986 of killing an Israeli in Jerusalem. He escaped prison and in 1988 relocated to Bulgaria, where he married and settled down to run a grocery store. In December, Israel formally requested his extradition, and Zayed became a wanted man again. He feared for his safety and sought the protection of the local diplomatic mission. On Feb. 26, he was found dead on the mission's back lawn.
The case should be straightforward. Entrances and exits to diplomatic missions are carefully monitored, not only by the embassy itself but also by the host country. Across the street from the front door, authorities invariably either station watchers or set up some kind of video recording equipment. If I were investigating this case, one of my first moves would be to take a look at that video. Mark the time of death, find out who entered just before and left just after then, and the case is closed. But when it comes to state-sanctioned assassinations, nothing is so simple. And if Israel was involved, it is unlikely anyone will ever be held accountable for Zayed's death.
Israel's Strategy: Offense as Defense
As a tiny nation surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel learned early in its history that it needed to cultivate a tough reputation. After the assassinations of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Israel's security service, Mossad, hunted down the perpetrators as a clear warning to its enemies: Kill Israelis, and you've signed your own death warrant.
More killings followed. Specifically, Zayed's death calls to mind the murder of a much higher-profile figure: Ashraf Marwan, codename "Angel." This now-infamous spy was the son-in-law of Egypt's towering president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sometime around the Yom Kippur War, he started spying for Israel — but to this day it is unclear whether he was actually a loyal Egyptian who infiltrated Israeli ranks or whether he truly did betray Egyptian secrets to the Israeli government. Either way, in 2007 someone leaked an official Israeli document with his name on it, and it showed up online. A little more than a week later, Israel's most important spy fell to his death from the balcony of his London flat. Witnesses said they saw two Middle Eastern men on the balcony behind Marwan; the men disappeared into the shadows after his fall.
In the investigation into his death, authorities were woefully short on answers. The coroner confirmed that he died of a ruptured aorta and that there were traces of antidepressants in his blood. But the details at the scene didn't point to suicide. There was no note, for instance. The shoes Marwan was wearing when he fell mysteriously went missing, along with all 600 pages of the memoir he was writing. The Israelis were almost certainly behind it all, but no one ever proved it, and no one ever answered for the crime.
Leads That Go Nowhere
The Marwan case shows how extraordinarily hard it is to get to the bottom of any assassination case, much less hold anyone accountable. In Zayed's death, there are a number of players involved. Although by all indications Israel played some part in the killing, whom exactly they colluded with to get the job done is a mystery. Last week, protesters in the Palestinian territories condemned the Bulgarian police for their suspected involvement, but the fact that the killing took place within the walls of the Palestinian Embassy itself may implicate the Palestinians.
Making things even more complicated are the stovepipes and divisions within security organizations. Take Zayed's case: The police officer assigned to investigate the murder may make a good-faith effort to solve the crime. But if the Bulgarian police had a hand in Zayed's death, the officer's superiors may have orders to put the brakes on the investigation. Not everyone is working with the same information or with the same motives. Part of what led to Marwan's death in 2007 was a public spat between two high-ranking Israeli generals over whether Marwan's loyalties truly lay with Egypt or Israel.
The fight became so vicious that the government forced both to agree to arbitration, and it was documents from that mandated arbitration process that leaked and exposed the notorious spy.
At that point, the truth about Marwan's loyalties became immaterial. As soon as those documents went public, all that mattered was that there was suspicion that Marwan had betrayed Israel. For Israel, harsh punishments for even suspected treachery are a powerful deterrent.
Compared with Marwan, Zayed was a low-profile target. But both assassinations illustrate Israel's strategy of inculcating fear in its enemies. Zayed had lived in Bulgaria for two decades, seemingly free of his past and safe from Israeli justice. Then Israel came for him, first through formal channels with a request for extradition, and then with brute force. In all likelihood, the public will never know the true details of the operation — which insiders allowed the killers access to the embassy, whether the Bulgarian police were involved, and so forth. The case may be unsolvable, but the message is clear: Those who target Israeli citizens suffer the consequences.
Production Editor: Margaret Fox