Thousands of mourners gathered in Gaza on Friday for the funeral of Fadi al-Batsh, a respected Palestinian researcher and engineering lecturer who was assassinated by gun-wielding assailants in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur on April 21 while heading to a mosque for dawn prayers.
Al-Batsh studied electrical engineering in Gaza and earned a PhD on the subject from the University of Malaya. The slain academic was a member of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007.
Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, led the funeral prayers and alleged that Israel was involved in the killing.
Malaysian police have issued facial composite sketches of two men suspected of firing at least 14 shots at al-Batsh from a high-powered motorcycle.
Authorities have said that the suspects, who remain at large and are still believed to be in Malaysia, were light-skinned and of European or Middle Eastern descent.
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, claimed the perpetrators were Europeans with links to a foreign intelligence agency. He added that al-Batsh was a “liability for a country that is an enemy of Palestine”, a thinly veiled reference to Israel.
Israel has distanced itself from allegations that it was responsible for al-Batsh’s death. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has deflected blame and suggested the killing resulted from infighting between rival militant groups within the Palestinian leadership.
Mossad, Israel’s notorious spy agency, is believed to have assassinated Palestinian, Arab and Iranian scientists in the past, though it rarely confirms such operations.
Malaysia’s government has long been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and does not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel. Prime Minister Najib Razak was the first non-Arab head of state to visit Gaza in 2013, as a guest of Hamas.
He also led rallies at home last year opposing US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Hamas, regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, has dispatched a delegation to Malaysia to meet with government authorities and police officials to monitor the investigation.
Haniyeh accused Israel of intending to “destroy the mainstays of development and science” through a campaign of overseas assassinations.
Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, regarded as an expert on Israeli espionage and intelligence affairs, was recently quoted in an Al Jazeera report describing how the killing of al-Batsh appears to be consistent with tactics used by the Israeli spy agency.
“The fact that the killers used a motorcycle to kill their target, which has been used in many other Mossad operations before and being done as a clean, professional killing operation far away from Israel, points to Mossad’s involvement,” said Bergman.
Bergman recently co-authored a report in the New York Times which cited unnamed Middle Eastern intelligence officials who link al-Batsh’s assassination with an ongoing operation ordered by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen targeting Palestinian and Arab scientists and engineers allegedly sent overseas to gather weapon systems and intelligence for Hamas.
The report, which characterizes Malaysia as an emerging “epicenter of international intrigue” over recent high-profile assassinations and known contraband trading, alleges that Hamas has leveraged its political ties with the Malaysian government in a bid to use the Muslim majority Southeast Asian country as a research base for weapons technology.
Al-Batsh, who had published and co-authored numerous scientific papers including a 2013 paper on drone applications, was alleged in the report to have been sent to Kuala Lumpur to research and acquire weapon systems and drones that would enable Hamas to more accurately attack Israeli targets.
The late engineer, according to unnamed Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials cited in the same article, may have been involved in secret negotiations with North Korea to obtain arms through Malaysia, though authorities in Kuala Lumpur reject those claims.
Public figures in Israel, however, say al-Batsh played a role in honing military technologies.
“[Al-Batsh] was specializing in drones, and also helping the Palestinian military wing of Hamas to make its rockets more accurate,” says Yoni Ben Menachem, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent foreign policy research institute.
“Hamas wants to surprise Israel with new weapons and tactics in the next war, and Israel is trying to prevent it,” he was quoted as saying.
Such claims appear consistent with Hamas’ efforts to develop technologies to counter the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) overwhelming superiority in military and technological capabilities.
Hamas has also accused Mossad of assassinating Tunisian national Mohamed Zaouari, 49, in 2016, who was slain outside his home in Tunisia’s second largest city, Sfax, by gunmen using silenced pistols.
Observers believe these and other killings indicate a shift in Mossad’s strategy, where weapons experts, rather than military commanders, are the key targets.
Israel is widely acknowledged to liberally employ targeted assassination policies with far fewer legal constraints than those followed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
State-coordinated targeted killings, presumably used as an alternative to open military attacks, require direct approval from the prime minister of Israel, according to Bergman.
Targeted killings, whatever their short-term tactical victories, have not abated the continuous violence that characterizes the entrenched Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
IDF withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and a land, air and naval blockade has been imposed for 12 years, during which three major military conflicts have taken place.
Al-Batsh’s killing comes as a series of weekly demonstrations billed as the “Great Return March” have seen hundreds of Palestinian protesters gather at the Gaza border fence to demand, as refugees, their right to return to what is now Israel.
State-coordinated targeted killings, presumably used as an alternative to open military attacks, require direct approval from the prime minister of Israel
At least 40 demonstrators have been killed in the first four weekly protests, including four children aged between 14 and 17 and two Palestinian journalists who were shot despite both wearing protective vests that clearly identified them as members of the press.
Hamas leaders have struck a defiant tone, telling protestors to welcome martyrdom. Human rights groups accuse the IDF of deliberately killing and injuring participants, though Israel has defended its conduct on grounds of thwarting infiltrators.
Fears persist that further escalation may lead to an outbreak of a fourth big war in Gaza.
Malaysia’s next general election is set to take place on May 9. No Malaysian political party has thus far attempted to politicize the assassination of al-Batsh in what appears to be a sovereignty-violating attack by Israel.