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Killing of Hamas-linked drone expert in Tunisia draws public anger

Mohamed Zouari, Tunisian who is reported to have pioneered Hamas’s drone programme, was gunned down on 15 December in Sfax
Tunisians demonstrating in Sfax on 24 December over killing of Mohamed Zouari, who was gunned down earlier this month near his home (Nadim Bouamoud/MEE)

TUNISIA - The assassination of a Tunisian aviation engineer outside his home near Sfax on 15 December has drawn fierce condemnation from the public and rekindled old tensions with the state of Israel, which many suspect of being behind the attack.

Thousands gathered in Sfax on 24 December to protest the man’s killing and what some considered to be a tepid response from their government.

Mohamed Zouari, a 49-year-old Tunisian drone expert who is reported to have pioneered Hamas's drone programme, was gunned down earlier this month in an ambush plot that involved "foreign elements," Tunisian authorities have confirmed.

Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades, acknowledged Zouari as a "Qassam leader" and accused Israel of perpetrating the attack in a statement shortly after his death.

The Tunisian government, which did not release an official statement until days later, has received a barrage of criticism over their handling of the case. Many questioned how a foreign network could have infiltrated the country and carried out such a plot, and expressed frustration that officials did not issue a more stern and direct rebuke.

"Those people came to Tunisia, stepped on our land and violated our dignity," said Tunisian  parliament member Samia Abbou to Tunisian media.  "... About what dignity are we talking? We have to ask ourselves, Do we have a state? Do we have intelligence agencies? Do we have borders?"

'Those people came to Tunisia, stepped on our land and violated our dignity' - Samia Abbou MP.

Finding themselves under scrutiny, Tunisian security officials scoured the scene of the crime, finding evidence of rental cars, handguns and silencers, and arrested eight Tunisian suspects in connection with the attack. At least two foreigners, thought to be the authors of the plot, are still behind sought, security sources said.

Tunisian Minister of the Interior Hedi Mejdoub has rebuffed calls to resign in the wake of the incident, including by former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki.

"The state must fully assume its responsibility in this matter," Marzouki said

'I know the Zionists killed him'

Zouari, whose background as a Hamas operative is only beginning to emerge, was a key figure in the organisation's drone programme and had reportedly developed an unmanned naval submarine with military capabilities.

A native of Sfax, Zouari spent decades abroad - in Syria, Libya, and Sudan - after being exiled from Tunisia because of his political activities. He was an active member of the conservative student organisation UGTE (Union Generale Tunisienne des Etudiants) in the 1980s, which had close ties with Tunisia's Ennahda party, and was a member of the Islamist movement in Tunisia during the Ben Ali era, according to Ennahda sources.

Zouari first made contact with Hamas during his time in Syria, and later made trips to Lebanon, Turkey, and Gaza, Al Jazeera reports.

Zouari's wife, Majida Salah Khaled, who is of Syrian origin, claimed not to have previously known about her husband's role with Hamas in an interview with Tunisian media, but said that his "martyrdom" had brought honour to his family and country.

"We've been married for 22 years and he never told me about his work with the Palestinian resistance. He had very close friends and he never told any of them about his work. They too were exiled in the Ben Ali regime and still they didn't know anything about his activities," she said.

"I know the Zionists murdered him," Zouari’s mother, added. "He was a decent man, a good man. He had a small social circle. He was always alone. He only did his job."

Her sentiment seems to echo that of much of the Tunisian public and politicians, where support for Palestinian resistance efforts runs high.

"It is quite obvious the Mossad is the direct perpetrator of the murder," said Jamila Ksiksi, a member of parliament representing Tunisia's Ennahda party. "This terrorist attack is not only a blow to Tunisia, but to the Tunisian people," she said.

'It is quite obvious the Mossad is the direct perpetrator of the murder' - Jamila Ksiksi MP.

"He was a Tunisian who was killed among us and he was an honour to all of us," said Elham Guidara, a university student in Sfax who attended last week’s demonstration.

Others, however, have been more hesitant to ascribe the killing to Israel.

"We cannot say 100 percent that the Mossad did it," said Alaya Allani, a Tunisian professor of contemporary history at Manouba University whose work focuses on Islamist movements in the region.

While they are most likely the culprits, "other scenarios are also possible," he said.

Israeli attacks

If Israeli forces were behind the attack, it would not be their first operation in the North African country.

In 1985, Israeli fighter jets bombed the PLO headquarters in Hammam Chott, south of Tunis, resulting in scores of civilian casualties, many of them Tunisian. The attack was later condemned as a violation by the UN Security Council, with the US refusing to use its veto power to kill the resolution.

In 2012, Israeli military officials approved the publication of an interview disclosing that one of its former agents, Nahum Lev, had killed top PLO leader and co-founder Khalil al-Wazir in 1988 in Tunis. Israel had been widely suspected of al-Wazir's murder, but had not taken credit until the agent's account was finally released to the public.

These incidents have added tension to an already complex relationship between Israel and Tunisia. In 2000, former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali opted to sever ties between the two nations over violence in the Palestinian territories. Official contact between the two countries has been blocked since then, Allani said.

Still, while the Tunisian government does not officially recognize Israel, its attitude is not openly hostile like other Arab states, according to Allani. Whether Zouari's assassination will have any impact on Tunisia's foreign policy remains to be seen, but Allani doubts the reaction will be as strong as it was in 1985.

"The official attitude is to denounce, but there is no interest in pursuing this further," he said.