YERUSHALAYIM - Hamas confirmed that a senior member of the terror group had been killed over the weekend. The elimination of Muhammad al-Zawari in Tunis, according to a Hamas spokesperson, was the work of the Mossad. “Only Israel could have benefited from this murder. Hamas will not hesitate to retaliate,” the spokesperson said.
Zawari was a former Tunisian pilot who had spent a great deal of time in Gaza, and was reputed to have masterminded Hamas’s drone program. Over the past year, numerous Hamas drones have been shot down over Israel, indicating that the terror group was set to expand its use of drones to conduct terror attacks, Israeli officials said. He was also involved in advising Hezbollah on a drone project that the terror group was developing as well, Israeli officials said.
According to local reports, Zawari was shot in the head while he was in his car, at close range. A radio station in Tunis quoted police as saying that his body was riddled with 20 bullets. Police have opened an investigation into the shooting, and are searching for a vehicle witnesses said they saw speeding from the scene. Four people have been arrested on suspicion of assisting with the assassination, the report added. Tunisian reports said that Mossad operatives had been following Zawari for months. With that, Tunisian officials have not commented on the alleged involvement of Israel in the elimination.
The Tunisian Interior Ministry said Zawari was killed in his car by multiple gunshots in front of his house in El Ain, near Sfax, on Thursday. Four rental cars were used in the killing and two handguns and silencers were seized, the Ministry said.
Footage aired on local media showed a black Volkswagen with its windows apparently shot out.
A judicial spokesman from Sfax, Mourad Tourki, told Tunisian radio Shems FM that eight Tunisian nationals had been arrested in connection with the killing.
One of the suspects is a Tunisian journalist based in Hungary, arrested along with a cameraman. Two other suspects, one of them a Belgian of Moroccan origin, are still at large, Tourki said.
Authorities have not commented on who is suspected of being behind the killing.
Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israeli Channel One on Friday: “I hope this episode will not be ascribed to us, that it is not connected to us and that none of those people arrested are our allies.”
Zawari had been working with Hamas for over a decade, Channel One reported Motzoei Shabbos. Hamas had seen the drone program as its next important strategic development with which to fight Israel, replacing its terror tunnel program, which has suffered major setbacks in recent months as dozens of the tunnels have collapsed for unknown reasons, the report added.
Tunisian media said Zawari had returned to Tunisia in 2011 after spending two decades abroad, including in Syria. They gave his age as 49 and said he was a technical director in a private engineering firm and a model aircraft expert.
Israel has in the past voiced concern that terror groups in Gaza and Lebanon would deploy drones carrying explosives inside its borders in a future war. Hamas and other Islamist militias have fired thousands of rockets at Israel in previous conflicts, but have made scant use of drones.
In September, the IDF said it had intercepted a drone off the coast of Gaza. It was the first such incident reported since the 2014 Gaza war, when a U.S.-supplied Israeli Patriot missile destroyed an unmanned Hamas aircraft over the city of Ashdod.