Israel’s defence minister on Sunday dismissed claims the country’s spy agency was behind the assassination of a Palestinian scientist in Malaysia, suggesting instead that his killing was a “settling of accounts”.
Speaking to Israeli radio, Avigdor Lieberman described the dead Palestinian, a member of Islamist militant group Hamas, as “no saint” and said he had been involved in rocket production.
Fadi Mohammad al-Batsh, 35, was killed in a Kuala Lumpur drive-by shooting on Saturday, according to Malaysian authorities, with his family accusing Israel’s Mossad spy agency of the assassination.
Hamas said Batsh, a research scientist specialising in energy issues, was one of its members.
“There’s a tradition among terror organisations of blaming Israel for every instance of settling of accounts,” Lieberman told public radio, noting the reports that Batsh’s work involved improving the range and accuracy of rockets.
“The man was no saint and settling accounts among terror groups and different factions is something we see all the time,” he said. “I assume this was the case here too.”
An autopsy was being carried out Sunday on the body of Batsh, who was walking to dawn prayers at a local mosque in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Gombak when he was shot by two gunmen riding a motorcycle, Malaysian officials said.
At the crime scene, police markers indicated 14 bullets had been sprayed at the victim, some of them hitting a wall.
Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was quoted by the state-run Bernama news agency as saying Batsh was “an electrical engineer and an expert at making rockets”.
Militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza fire rockets at southern Israel, but usually without casualties.
Malaysia’s police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said a task force has been formed to investigate the killing but would not speculate on the motive or whether foreign assassins were involved.
Photos of the two suspects provided by witnesses showed they looked like Europeans, he told a news conference Sunday afternoon.
When asked if there was evidence of foreign involvement in the killing, he said: “We want to ensure a complete probe. We are still investigating the motive. I urge people not to make any conclusion.”
No arrests have been made and the murder weapon has not been recovered, he said.
Palestinian representative to Malaysia Anwar al-Agha said Fadi’s body would be taken back to the Palestinian territories for burial.
Mohammad Shedad, 17, a student and a relative of the victim, also blamed Mossad for the killing.
“It is definitely the work of Mossad. Fadi is a very clever person, anyone who is clever is a threat to Israel,” he told AFP outside the victim’s Malaysian apartment.
“Fadi is a Hamas member and knows how to make rockets. So (Israel) think he is dangerous.”
Batsh was married with three young children and had lived in Malaysia for 10 years.
It was the second high-profile killing of a foreigner in Malaysia in just over a year.
In February 2017 assassins smeared the banned VX nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, killing him within minutes.
The Mossad is believed to have assassinated Palestinian militants and scientists in the past, but rarely confirms such operations.
Hamas has accused Mossad of assassinating one of its drone experts — Mohamed Zouari — in Tunisia in 2016, and the spy agency is also believed to have been behind the 2010 murder of top Hamas militant Mahmud al-Mabhuh in a Dubai hotel.
In Iran, a total of five scientists — four of them involved in the country’s nuclear programme — were killed in bomb and gun attacks in Tehran between 2010 and 2012 at the height of tensions over the country’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran has accused Mossad and the CIA of ordering the killings.
Tensions between Israel and Gaza are high, with 38 Palestinians killed in four weeks of clashes along the border.
On Sunday, Israel announced the arrest of 19 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, 15 of them allegedly affiliated with Hamas in Gaza “who were instructed to carry out different missions on behalf of the Hamas terror organisation,” the army said.