By Hélène Mulholland, Julian Borger and Mark Tran, The Guardian – 23 March 2010
David Miliband said today that there was “compelling evidence” that Israel was responsible for misuse of British passports as part of a plot to kill a prominent member of Hamas.
The foreign secretary confirmed that Britain had demanded the withdrawal of an Israeli diplomat following the “intolerable” use of 12 forged British passports by a hit squad that killed the founder of Hamas’s military wing in Dubai.
Miliband attacked the “profound disregard” for UK sovereignty and said the apparent involvement of a friendly nation “added insult to injury”.
Israel’s ambassador to London, Ron Prosor, said he was “disappointed by the decision of the British government”, but pledged that the two countries would retain close ties. “The relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom is of mutual importance,” he said.
Miliband’s statement will be seen around the world as the first definitive allegation from a western government of Israeli responsibility for the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel in January.
Today’s developments follow an inquiry by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca).
Mliband said inquiries were still under way in other countries and that it would not be appropriate for “legal and other reasons” to release the Soca report in full.
But he said that, given the quality of the forgeries, it was “highly likely” that they were made by a state intelligence service.
“This, together with other enquiries, and the links to Israel established by Soca, [means] we have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports,” Miliband told MPs in a statement this afternoon.
Miliband said the UK government took the matter extremely seriously and had written to the Israeli administration seeking assurances that such misuse would never happen again.
The misuse of UK passports not only presented a hazard to British nationals in the region but also represented a “profound disregard” for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, the foreign secretary said.
“The fact that this was done by a country that is a friend with significant diplomatic, cultural, business and personal ties to the UK only adds insult to injury. No country or government could stand by in such a situation.”
Miliband told MPs that the Soca report had been studied by the prime minister and was presented to the cabinet earlier today.
Soca had conducted an “extremely professional” investigation and all requests had been met by the Israeli authorities, he said.
The evidence showed beyond “any doubt” that none of the 12 British citizens involved were anything other than wholly innocent victims of identity theft, the foreign secretary added.
Biometric passports that would be considerably more difficult to counterfeit have now been issued to all but one of the British citizens, he added.
Miliband also said the Foreign Office’s travel advice for Israel would be amended to highlight the risk of papers being cloned, and how that could be minimised.
A total of 12 British passports are alleged to have been forged. An initial six had the names of Michael Barney, James Clarke, Stephen Hodes, Jonathan Louis Graham, Paul John Keeley and Melvyn Mildiner.
Last month, Dubai identified the use of a further six fake British passports with the names of Mark Daniel Sklar, Roy Allan Cannon, Daniel Marc Schnur, Philip Carr, Stephen Keith Drake and Gabriella Barney. A Foreign Office spokesman said the government believed their passport details had been used fraudulently.
Other members of the hit squad travelled on fake Irish, French and Australian travel documents, Dubai police said. At least 15 of the suspected killers share names with Israeli citizens, fuelling suspicions that the Mossad was behind the hit. Interpol has published a wanted list of 27 people in connection with the killing.
Miliband stressed today “in the strongest possible terms” that the UK had no advance knowledge of the assassination and no involvement whatsoever in the killings.
The expelled official is not being accused of direct personal involvement, officials said earlier today. The unusual step is intended as a gesture to reflect British anger.
Al-Mabhouh, who established Hamas’s military wing, was assassinated in his luxury hotel room in Dubai on 19 January by a team of killers wearing fake beards, wigs and other disguises.
Dubai officials said they were “99% certain” that Mossad agents were behind the murder, but Israel has refused to confirm or deny the link.
At the time Miliband branded the abuse of British passports “outrageous” and demanded that Tel Aviv cooperate fully with the UK’s investigation.
Prosor was summoned to the Foreign Office last month to discuss the situation, but he flatly denied there was any “additional information” to give.
In 1986, a Mossad agent left an Israeli embassy envelope containing eight forged British passports in a German telephone box. Israeli diplomats were only expelled a year later after a Palestinian working as an Israeli double agent was found with a cache of weapons in Hull. Margaret Thatcher also closed down the Mossad’s London base.