Hamas on Saturday evening blamed Israel for Thursday’s killing of Mohammed Al-Zoari, a Tunisian aviation scientist and engineer who developed the terror groups unmanned drones, and vowed revenge.
Accusing Israel of the assassination, Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said Zoari’s death constituted an attack on it, Army Radio reported. It said he had “acted against Israel, in the defense of Palestine.”
“Qassam Brigades mourns the martyr of Palestine, martyr of the Arab and Muslim nation, the Qassam leader, engineer and pilot Mohammad Zawari, who was assassinated by Zionist treacherous hands on Thursday in Sfax,” the statement posted on the group’s website said, according to a Reuters translation. “The enemy must know the blood of the leader Zawari will not go in vain.”
Earlier on Saturday, Hamas officials confirmed Zoari, 59, was a central figure in its weapons manufacture, calling him a pioneer in developing its unmanned drones.
Hamas said Zoari had been a member of its military wing for the past 10 years. It published a poster showing Zoari with an unmanned drone in what appeared to be a training session. The poster bore the logo of Hamas’s military wing and referred to Zoari as a commander.
Tunisian newspapers rushed Friday to blame Mossad for the killing of Zoari — who was shot dead at point-blank range in his car outside his home in the Tunisian city of Sfax.
According to Channel 10, a senior Tunisian journalist said Mossad had been tracking Zoari for quite some time, and was responsible for his assassination.
Zoari was an aviation engineer who specialized in unmanned aircraft. He was also affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, known to be rivals of the local government. His ties to the group compelled him to leave for Syria in 1991, only returning after the overthrow of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. (Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahda Movement issued a statement of condemnation and mourning after Zoari’s killing.) Zoari is known to have instructed would-be drone pilots near his home in the southern city.
Channel 2 on Friday showed footage of Zoari working on what appeared to be small drones.
A senior court official in Sfax, Murad a-Turki, said police had found two pistols, silencers and four cars apparently used in the killing.
“According to our initial investigation, we found a connection to other elements who are now outside the country,” he said.
Turki was quoted late Saturday saying that there was no evidence linking Israel to the death. He also said there were eight suspects in custody, most of them Tunisian citizens. One of those in custody was said to be a Tunisian journalist based in Hungary. Two other suspects, one a Belgian of Moroccan origin, were still being sought.
The journalist was arrested Friday evening at the capital’s Carthage airport; she had previously interviewed the victim, Turki said.
Security cameras at the scene had been tampered with or smashed, and therefore had no footage of the assassination, Tunisian radio reported late Saturday.
An associate of Zoari, Karim Abed a-Salam, told Tunisia’s Channel 9 TV that Zoari had visited the Gaza Strip several times in recent years, entering through the tunnels that run under the Gaza-Egypt border. He said that Zoari served as a liaison between Hamas and the Iranian and Syrian governments. It was not immediately clear whether there was any truth to these claims.
The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper reported Saturday that Zoari had also assisted Lebanese terror group Hezbollah in the development of drone technology.
The Mossad has been accused in the past of eliminating those who supply Palestinian and Lebanese terror groups with advanced technology, as well as having assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists.
The most high-profile case was the death of Hassan Lakkis, who was the head of Hezbollah’s weapons research and development. He was shot and killed south of Beirut in 2013. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel, but Jerusalem denied any involvement.
In Dubai, in 2010, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a key Hamas missile purchaser and importer, was assassinated in his hotel room in a killing widely attributed to Mossad.
Tunisia, as of Saturday evening, had not pointed a finger of blame at Israel.
Israel had no official comment on the matter.
AP contributed to this report.