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Israel admits killing Arafat deputy in '88

JERUSALEM -- Israel acknowledged yesterday it killed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's deputy in a 1988 raid in Tunisia, lifting a nearly 25-year veil of secrecy and allowing a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of its secret operations.

One of the commandos was disguised as a woman on a romantic vacation, and one of the weapons was hidden in a box of chocolates.

Khalil al-Wazir, who was better known by his nom de guerre Abu Jihad, founded Fatah, the dominant faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization, with Arafat and was blamed for a series of deadly attacks against Israelis.

Two of those involved in the operation that killed al-Wazir now hold high political office in Israel -- Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon. At the time, Barak was deputy military chief, and Yaalon was head of the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. Both declined to comment.

Israel has long been suspected of assassinating al-Wazir. But only now has the country's military censor cleared the Yediot Ahronot daily to publish the information, including an interview with the commando who killed him, at least 12 years after the newspaper obtained the information.

"I shot him with a long burst of fire. I was careful not to hurt his wife, who had showed up there. He died," commando Nahum Lev told Yediot prior to his death in a motorcycle accident in 2000. "Abu Jihad was involved in horrible acts against civilians. He was a dead man walking. I shot him without hesitation."

Dozens of similar operations have been attributed to Israel over the decades. But Israel rarely takes responsibility and typically does not comment about covert operations.

Israeli officials did not confirm the operation. But the censor's decision to allow publication after years of stifling the account amounted in effect to confirmation.

Israel has a long-standing policy of preventing publication of any information that would expose agents, tactics and intelligence gathering methods or put anyone still alive who was involved in harm's way.

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