Toronto, Thursday, September 5, 2002
Israeli spies accused of posing as Canadians
Ottawa investigating: Mossad has history of using counterfeit Canadian documents
by Stewart Bell and Michael Friscolanti
Federal officials are investigating claims that Israeli agents posed as Canadians during a spy operation in Gaza that reportedly used sexual blackmail to collect intelligence used to assassinate a Palestinian militant leader.
Canada’s ambassador to Tel Aviv has asked Israel for an explanation of the incident and has been told it did not happen, but officials are concerned Israeli agents may be breaking their promise not to work undercover as Canadians.
Akram Zatmeh, 22, claims he supplied information to agents posing as Canadians that helped Israel pinpoint the whereabouts of a senior Hamas leader. The leader was later assassinated by Israeli forces in a July 23 missile attack that also killed 14 others, including nine children.
The informant claimed he was recruited by three agents who said they were Canadians and took him to the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv before coercing him with promises of travel to Canada and threats to distribute fake photos showing him in sexual encounters.
In a similar incident in 1997, Canada recalled its ambassador to Israel after undercover Mossad agents were caught using falsified Canadian passports during an assassination attempt on a Palestinian militant leader. Israel apologized at the time and promised not to do it again.
The new reports emerging from the Gaza strip have Canadian officials worried that Israeli agents may have resumed adopting fake Canadian identities — a tactic that could jeopardize the safety of Canadians who work or travel abroad.
Yesterday, a Foreign Affairs spokesman said the government had received assurances from Israeli officials that Mr. Zatmeh’s accusations were false.
“It is unsubstantiated allegations,” said Reynald Doiron. “We checked it out with Israeli authorities and they denied having used Canada, or that they would use Canada in a fashion similar to what happened last week.”
Asked whether the Israelis could be hiding something in order to avoid another diplomatic firestorm, Mr. Doiron said: “They gave us their word and we take it as it is.”
But in what was described as a confession published last week in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, Mr. Zatmeh detailed how he was recruited by “Canadians” into becoming a spy two years ago and eventually played a role in the assassination of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh.
“When I used to visit the British Council in Gaza, I saw one foreigner reading an English newspaper. Because of my curiosity, I introduced myself to him. He said that he is a Canadian who lectures sociology at one of the Canadian universities,” Mr. Zatmeh said in Arabic.
The Canadian, who called himself Terry and said he was studying the living conditions of Palestinians, hired Mr. Zatmeh to assist with his research in exchange for $100 a month and a promise to help him travel to Canada.
One time, Terry asked for Mr. Zatmeh’s photograph in order to get him an identity card from the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv. At the embassy, Mr. Zatmeh said Terry introduce him to another “Canadian” named David.
David used the photograph of Mr. Zatmeh to create doctored pictures depicting Mr. Zatmeh in various sexual encounters. “He threatened if I tell anybody he will distribute my pictures, which may cause me a lot of troubles.”
David later admitted he was actually an Israeli intelligence agent named Abu Muhammad. He told Mr. Zatmeh to monitor “confrontations” and “hot events” in Gaza and to supply the names of Palestinian militants who were firing upon the Jewish settlements and Israeli military command posts.
“After working for a while with Abu Muhammad, another intelligence officer phoned me and identified himself as Abu Ihab. When I moved to Gaza, Abu Ihab requested me to observe martyr Salah Shehadeh and his home in addition to the people who used to visit him and their cars.
“I confirmed to Abu Ihab more than once that the building in which the martyr used to live was crowded with residents. Also, the road around the building was overcrowded. However, Abu Ihab justified the assassination by saying that if Salah Shehadeh was not assassinated in such a way, many other civilians could have become his victims.”
On the night of July 23 — 20 minutes after Mr. Zatmeh said he reported Mr. Shehadeh’s location to the Israeli agent — an Israeli F-16 fighter fired a one-ton missile into a residential building in Gaza, killing Mr. Shehadeh and 14 others. Israel was widely criticized for the attack.
The informant’s account could not be verified and it may be no more than Palestinian propaganda designed to put Israel in a bad light. Palestinian militants routinely execute those accused of collaborating with the Israelis.
Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the tactics described by Mr. Zatmeh were common.
“It is not unusual, in intelligence collection operations, for a country’s services to recruit agents under what are termed ‘false flags,’ ” Prof. Rudner said.
“This is done in situations where the recruiting service feels that the agent may not be prepared to work for that particular country, but may be amenable to giving information to some other; or where the recruiting services seeks to cover its tracks in the event that the agent be turned or captured.”
Wesley K. Wark, a University of Toronto political science professor who specializes in intelligence, said he would not be surprised if the Israelis had reneged on their 1997 promise.
“One can easily imagine that after a time of quiet that the Israelis might, in some operational circumstances, just have made a decision that this is going to benefit the security of Israel and we don’t really care too much about what the Canadians think,” he said.
Still, Prof. Wark said if the allegations prove true, the Canadian government will have no choice but demand the Israelis to stop.
“It does endanger Canadians overseas,” he said. “It adds a layer of unnecessary suspicion to the Canadian identity abroad and it’s something we shouldn’t tolerate, so we have to use every means we can to encourage the Israelis not to do it.”
A false Canadian identity would be a logical cover for an agent working in Gaza. Canada is heavily involved in aid work in Gaza, particularly in Mr. Zatmeh’s home Rafah, a hotbed of Palestinian militancy along the Israeli-Egyptian border.
In September, 1997, two Israeli agents carrying fake Canadian passports were arrested in Jordan after a botched attempt to assassinate a high-ranking Hamas official, a Palestinian terrorist group tied to dozens of suicide bombings.
The revelation that Israeli spies were posing as Canadians during covert operations enraged the federal government, which feared the practice would prompt vigilante attacks against ordinary Canadians living in the Middle East.
Lloyd Axworthy, then-minister of foreign affairs, was so upset that he ordered David Berger, Canada’s Ambassador to Israel, to leave the country until the Mossad security agency promised to stop the practice. Mr. Berger did return to work two weeks later, but only after Israeli officials sent a letter promising to “undertake measures to ensure it never happens again..
© Copyright 2002 National Post
© Copyright 2002 National Post