A Hamas military commander slain in a Dubai hotel room played a key role in smuggling antiaircraft missiles and other weapons into the Gaza Strip, Israeli and Hamas officials said Sunday.
But they disagreed on whether Mahmoud Mabhouh's death would be a blow to Palestinian armed groups in the territory or inspire them to redouble their arms campaign.
"This guy was a middleman for smuggling weapons from Iran, not only to Gaza but to Hezbollah" in Lebanon, said an Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues involved.
Among other things, Mabhouh, believed to be about 50, was suspected of helping to route smuggled arms through Sudan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. One of the arms convoys was bombed in Sudan last year, reportedly by Israeli aircraft.
Israel has refused to comment on Hamas' allegation that it was behind the Jan. 20 assassination of Mabhouh in the United Arab Emirates. Details of the killing are murky, with conflicting reports that he was either electrocuted, strangled, poisoned or injected with a drug that made his heart stop. Initially the Islamic militant group reported that he died of a medical condition.
Israeli officials said they hoped Mabhouh's death would slow the flow of arms into Gaza.
"Of course, the moment a guy like this is dead, there is always someone to replace him," the military official said. "But information [about arms-smuggling routes] is usually kept very secret. You have to renew the connections, rebuild the trust. It takes some time to grow into his shoes. It shakes the whole system."
Hamas officials in Gaza declined to comment on Mabhouh's role in the organization other than to confirm he helped plan the killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989.
But a Hamas official in Syria called Mabhouh an important military leader who helped bring "special weapons" into Gaza.
Mabhouh "played a key role in supplying the Palestinian people with weapons and money," Talal Nasser, a Hamas spokesman in Damascus, told the National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates. "His central role in the 2008-2009 Gaza war was clear."
Nasser said the slaying would only strengthen his organization.
"His murder is not a victory for Israel," Nasser said. "It is a victory for the resistance. The blood of Mahmoud Mabhouh will spawn a thousand more like him."