Australia is to expel an Israeli diplomat after investigators said Israel was responsible for forging four Australian passports used in the killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai, it emerged today.
Australia’s move echoed that of Britain, which in March expelled a diplomat in retaliation for the use of 12 fake British passports in the plot to kill Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
Dubai authorities blame Israel’s Mossad intelligence service for the January killing.
The governments of Ireland, Germany and France have yet to state how they will react to similar cases of alleged identity fraud against its citizens, as revealed in the investigation.
Australia last expelled an Israeli diplomat in 2004.
Foreign minister Stephen Smith told parliament the operation to kill al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room was not the first time Israel had forged Australian travel documents. He did not elaborate on previous incidents, but said the latest transgression breached “confidential undertakings” between the two countries that have stood for several years.
“These are not the actions of a friend,” he said. “This is not what we expect from a nation with whom we have had such a close, friendly and supportive relationship.”
Mr Smith said Israel had been asked to withdraw a diplomat, whom he did not identify, within a week. The duration of the expulsion was indefinite.
Israeli radio stations have reported that the diplomats expelled from Australia and Britain were Mossad representatives.
“We regret this decision by the Australian government,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
“It is not in line with the importance and the quality of the relationship between our countries.”
Israeli ambassador Yuval Rotem is out of Australia until early next month.
Australia had notified the US of its decision because of Canberra’s security alliance with Washington and Washington’s close friendship with Tel Aviv, Mr Smith said.
Australia had also notified the United Arab Emirates and all the countries whose nationals claimed to have identities stolen in the case. Mr Smith said that Australian co-operation with Israel on security and intelligence matters would suffer.
“Clearly as a result of today’s events, there will be something of a cooling period so far as relevant agencies are concerned and, just as in the United Kingdom, time will tell just how long that may or may not be,” he said.
Israel had not retaliated against Britain’s expulsion of a diplomat and Mr Smith said he would be disappointed if Israel retaliated against Australia’s decision.
Dubai authorities have identified at least 26 suspects from an alleged hit squad.
Mr Smith said: “The high quality of these counterfeited passports points to the involvement of a state intelligence service.”
He said Australia’s investigation by police and intelligence services “left the government in no doubt that Israel was responsible for the abuse and counterfeiting of these passports”.
Israeli radio reported that Australia expelled an Israeli diplomat in 2004 for his alleged involvement in helping two Israelis try to fraudulently obtain New Zealand passports.
Neither the Israeli embassy nor Mr Smith’s department would confirm the report today.
Two men described by the New Zealand government as Israeli intelligence agents spent three months in prison in that country after pleading guilty to passport fraud. They were then deported from New Zealand to Israel.