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The Shock of Dubai

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I am shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that intelligence services use fraudulent passports and stolen identities.

Who would have imagined it? Nobody, certainly, had Israel's Mossad not been accused recently of subterfuge in order to assassinate in Dubai a leading figure of Hamas, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. I am heartened that the governments of Britain, Ireland, France, and Germany have demanded explanations. And I am buoyed to hear loud moral complaints from the usual political quarters that are always wise to Israeli behavior. They are outraged -- outraged! -- that such things take place. Intelligence services of European countries would never do the like. Their secret operatives, if they have any, that is, always travel on their own passports and always check into hotels using their own identities.

Undoubtedly, Hamas also does things solely in public. Well, it is true that this claim may be challenged by the fact that Hamas "martyrs" never went through Ben-Gurion airport on the way to Tel Aviv. Well, yes, that may be due to a lack of Palestinian passports. Just think if they had them! They could have used them on behalf of the sort of "resistance" -- blowing up cafes, shelling towns -- that encourages Israelis to support doves who advocate withdrawal from occupied territories. Besides, doesn't Hamas reveal its 'martyrs' faces after the fact?

And after all, "resistance" is hardly comparable to, say, killing a leading member of the military wing of an organization that declares itself at war with you and acts to prove it in scores of ways over many years.

But, but, but... but isn't it time to de-tox some of the "moral logic" that often animates furious claims about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? We do not know for sure, as I write these words, that the Mossad killed al-Mabhouh. It is improbable that it would admit it. We know Israel had reasons to want him dead, but others did too. It is a little curious that many reports pointing a finger at the Israelis don't mention, or mention only in passing, that two members (or are they ex-members?) of the Palestinian Authority's security forces were deported from Jordan to Dubai for alleged complicity in the slaying, and that a senior Hamas official (or is he now an ex-official?) was arrested in Syria for the same.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the Israelis did it. But let's also bracket howls by those who would find a way to blame the "Zionist entity" if Mars swerved off orbit and crashed into Jupiter. Hamas and Israel are at war. Both say so. Al-Mabhouh was a founder of the military wing of Hamas, was responsible for the deaths of Israelis, wanted deaths of many more of them, and was a key intermediary between Hamas and Iran. Tehran supplies Gaza's fundamentalist rulers with weapons like longer range missiles; its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inveighs regularly that the Jewish state should vanish from the earth (like the Holocaust, which never happened anyway, should disappear from memory). Exactly why is a holy warrior like al-Mahbouh not a legitimate target?

Fraudulent passports hardly seem so important in light of this last question. It is valid to ask if the killing was politically intelligent or, more specifically, if should have been done in January and in Dubai. The answer may be yes or no, but is a matter of secondary moral magnitude and skirts the issue. Again: given war -- in which soldiers do shoot at each other -- and given al-Mabhouh's role, why was he not an appropriate target? He was no civilian, much less a blameless soul caught in cross-fire. If he was a justifiable target in warfare, then another poignant issue does arise: is it not better that his enemies struck in a hotel room in Dubai rather than, say, in desperately crowded Gaza where real innocents might indeed have become "collateral damage?"

It is, however, quite normal that irritated protests come from governments whose "passports" were -- what word to use? -- expropriated by the team that went to Dubai. Governments must protect own citizens. Theft or fraudulent use of national passports must, inevitably and rightfully, concern them. But as to shrill moralizers who pose as the world's superego when it comes to the Middle East yet can never make distinctions, and who often seem more concerned to stamp their own self-righteous feet than to alleviate Palestinian suffering -- well, one hopes (but doubts) that they are as angry at al-Mabhouhs as they are about passports. Identity politics is not the sole value in this world.

Mitchell Cohen, formerly co-editor of Dissent Magazine, is professor of political science at Bernard Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York. His books include Zion and State (Columbia University Press) and TheWager of Lucien Goldmann (Princeton University Press).