Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said Sunday night that “there is a suspicion that Israel was involved” in December’s fatal shooting of a Tunisian engineer said to have led Hamas’s drone program.
During a speech to mark the new year, Essebsi said that based on information “from the investigation of the killing, it appears that foreign hands carried out the assassination” of Mohammed al-Zoari.
Essebsi also added during his speech that “the authorities know how to deal with Israel” and are not powerless.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah have accused the Mossad — Israel’s foreign intelligence agency — of killing Zoari, 49, who was shot to death at the wheel of his car outside his house in the Tunisian port city of Sfax in December.
Zoari, an aviation engineer and Tunisian national, was confirmed by Hamas to be a central figure in its weapons development. The group called him a pioneer in developing its unmanned drones.
Israel has not responded to the accusation by Hamas that it was behind the Tunisian engineer’s death.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman played coy last week when speaking about the killing of Zoari.
“If someone was killed in Tunisia, he’s not likely to be a peace activist or a Nobel Prize candidate,” Liberman said at an event at the Zionist Organization of America House in Tel Aviv.
Tunisian Interior Minister Hedi Mejdoub has said that journalists hired by individuals posing as a media company were entangled in the killing.
Mejdoub told reporters that “at least two foreigners” were involved in the shooting. The killing, he said, had the hallmarks of a foreign espionage agency’s handiwork.
According to Mejdoub, a Tunisian journalist told local investigators that she was hired by foreigners posing as a media company planning to make documentaries in Tunisia for a Malaysian TV channel, including one about the aerospace industry in Arab states, and asked her to contact Zoari as one of the interviewees for the movie.
Paid 100 euros per day plus expenses, the woman traveled to Tunis, filmed Zoari, and gave the footage to the company. In all, she received 2,000 euros for her work. Besides filming Zoari, she also rented a number of cars used in his assassination, Mejdoub said, adding that planning for the killing took place over months, since at least June.
Three days before Saturday’s hit, the interior minister said, a foreign man working for the media company contacted her and asked her to rent two cars, and told her to then leave the country the next day.
The journalist was in Budapest during the hit, and only returned to Tunis after it was carried out.
The prosecution has said that 10 suspects, all Tunisians, have been detained for questioning, including a female journalist, and that authorities have seized four vehicles and two weapons.
Mejdoub said two Tunisian nationals living in Sweden were also involved in the operation. The two rented an apartment in Sfax to tail Zoari and rented four cell phones.
“The organizers prepared two plans for two teams, in case one failed or was caught. The hit was planned meticulously and thoroughly,” he said.
On Saturday, the Hebew-language Ynet news website reported that Hamas had issued new safety guidelines to its operatives around the world following the shooting, intended to decrease the likelihood of their exposure and in turn their potential to be killed.
Agencies contributed to this report