Behind a Roadside Hit in Malaysia, Israeli-Palestinian Intrigue

Mr. Batsh, who in 2013 co-wrote a paper on drone applications, had been sent there to research and acquire weapon systems and drones for Hamas, the intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified program.

Mossad has been particularly interested in Hamas’s advances in unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, the officials said, which could be used to attack Israeli targets more effectively than the rockets Hamas used during its last wars with Israel.

Israel has distanced itself from allegations that it was responsible for Mr. Batsh’s death. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman blamed the assassination on internal rivalries within the Palestinian leadership.


Enaas al-Batsh, right, is Mr. Batsh’s widow. “She comes from Gaza so she knows all about pain,” a neighbor said.

Sadiq Asyraf/Associated Press

The Malaysian Connection

The killing of Mr. Batsh, 34, in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Gombak, known locally as Little Arabia, is bringing to light not only the increasing presence of Hamas and other groups here, but also Malaysia’s emergence as an epicenter of international intrigue.

This was the second high-profile assassination in the Malaysian capital in little more than a year. In February 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by two women who prosecutors said smeared a deadly nerve agent on his face. The women, from Indonesia and Vietnam, are on trial for his death, but at least seven North Koreans suspected of being linked to the killing escaped or were allowed to leave the country, officials said.

Malaysia is also known as a port for contraband, ranging from North Korean weapons to endangered animal products and illegally felled trees.

“It has been a permissive environment for many rogue actors, as long as their focus was not directed within Malaysia,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who studies Southeast Asian security issues.

Malaysia’s government has for decades been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause: It has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and Prime Minister Najib Razak visited Gaza in 2013 at the invitation of Hamas, which governs the territory. The intelligence officials said that Hamas, in recent years, had begun seeing the country as an ideal place to incubate its research ambitions.

In another case, in 2010, Palestinians who had been sent to Malaysia trained in paragliding as a potential tool for attacks, according to a statement from the Israeli secret service. Malaysian officials denied any involvement in such a plot.

The United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the dominant party in the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence, has maintained relations with an unusual array of political organizations around the world. Until Mr. Kim’s assassination last year at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, for instance, UMNO sustained a formal relationship with North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. Malaysia was one of the few nations in the world that North Koreans could enter without a visa.

The relationship between UMNO and Hamas is even more overt. Representatives from Hamas are invited every year to UMNO’s party conference.


Masked members of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, were stationed in front of a mourning tent for Mr. Batsh in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, where he grew up.

Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

A Kind Professor

Colleagues and students of Mr. Batsh in Malaysia, where he lived with his wife, Enaas al-Batsh, and their three young children, characterized him as a kind professor who was dedicated to improving life in his native Gaza. His public research focused on renewable energy, and he spoke about wanting to bring abundant electricity to a Palestinian territory always short of power.

Mr. Batsh won scholarships from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, the first Arab to earn such an honor. In 2016, Mr. Najib, the Malaysian prime minister, presented Mr. Batsh with an award.

“I don’t know about his politics back at home, but I know that he was a very big inspiration for all of us for making it out of Gaza and succeeding in Malaysia,” said Jailani Othman al-Kathery, a Yemeni English teacher who attended a mosque in Gombak where Mr. Batsh taught Quran classes and served as an imam.

Mr. Batsh told friends in Malaysia that he had narrowly avoided an attempt on his life while still living in Gaza. In 2014, his uncle, Tayseer al-Batsh, the Gaza police chief, was nearly killed by Israeli airstrikes. Eighteen members of the Batsh family died in those raids.

But Mr. Batsh did not dwell on his family’s tragedy, his friends in Malaysia said, though he wrote social media posts criticizing Israel over the conflict with Gaza. “Most everyone in Gaza has lost a member of the family,” said Hafidzi Mohammed Noor, chairman of Humanitarian Care Malaysia, a charity that provides humanitarian assistance to Gaza. “For him, for all the Palestinians here in Malaysia, this is normal.”

Over the weekend, a mourning tent was set up in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, where Mr. Batsh grew up. Ten masked members of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, were stationed in front of the tent, a positioning that usually denotes the death of a top fighter.

Banners hung in the tent described Mr. Batsh as an “engineer commander” for the Qassam Brigades and “our martyr to God.” Another relative of Mr. Batsh’s was said by family members to be a commander in Islamic Jihad, a separate militant group that operates in Gaza.

On the day he was killed, Mr. Batsh was supposed to travel to Istanbul to attend an academic conference. One Middle Eastern intelligence official, however, said that Hamas’s efforts to cultivate its scientists living abroad were directed from Istanbul, and that Mr. Batsh was scheduled to meet with the head of the unit, Maher Salah, upon arrival in Turkey.

Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials said that Mr. Batsh may have been involved in negotiating North Korean arms deals through Malaysia. Egypt recently seized a shipment of North Korean communications components used for guided munitions destined for Gaza, they said. One intelligence official said that Mr. Batsh had helped mediate the deal.

Although such weapons are under international sanctions, the United Nations said in a report last year that a shell company run by North Korea’s intelligence agency had been hawking military-grade communications systems from Malaysia.

Malaysian officials rejected that report. And this week, officials here would not comment on the claims that Mr. Batsh had been researching or trying to buy weapons systems.


Bullet holes at the scene of Mr. Batsh’s assassination in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has been “a permissive environment for many rogue actors, as long as their focus was not directed within Malaysia,” an analyst said.


Hamas Abroad

Mr. Batsh is not the first Hamas-linked engineer to be targeted abroad.

In 2011, a Palestinian electrical engineer named Dirar Abu Sisi was abducted in Ukraine and ended up in an Israeli jail more than a week later. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison for aiding Hamas in its manufacture of missiles, among other convictions.


The Malaysian police released a photograph of one of the suspects in Mr. Batsh’s killing. Israel has distanced itself from accusations that it was responsible.

Royal Malaysia Police, via Associated Press

In 2016, Mohammed Zawahri, a Tunisian scientist and Hamas military commander who was said to be developing aerial and underwater drone warfare technology, was shot dead in the Tunisian city of Sfax. In January, a car bomb injured Mohammed Hamdan, a Hamas operative who was said to be building a workshop to produce missile parts and drones in Sidon, Lebanon.

On Wednesday, the Malaysian police said that the motorcycle used in Mr. Batsh’s murder had not been stolen. They released a photograph of one of the suspects, a pale-skinned man with a beard, and said he was probably still in the country.

Mr. Batsh’s body was released by the Malaysian authorities on Wednesday, and a funeral prayer was held at the Gombak mosque where he served as an imam.

At a news conference on Tuesday, his widow said she would return to Gaza with their three children. She added that she would continue her own Ph.D. studies through an online course: Education, she said, was her husband’s passion.

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Malaysian Leader Jump-Starts Elections, and Stacks the Odds

Discontent with Mr. Najib has simmered for years, especially among members of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese minority. But Mr. Najib, who is the scion of an ethnic Malay political dynasty, has been able to count on rural Malay constituents whose influence has been amplified by race-based policies that benefit them.

The governing National Front alliance is dominated by Mr. Najib’s United Malays National Organization, which has safeguarded preferential treatment for the Malay majority in areas ranging from government jobs to university places.

In the run-up to the campaign season, the governing alliance appears to have focused on creating ideal conditions to assure Mr. Najib’s re-election. On Thursday, a government body temporarily deregistered Mr. Mahathir’s new political party because it had filed incomplete paperwork. Until the documentation is complete, Mr. Mahathir’s political bloc will not be allowed to campaign or display its logo.


Discontent with Mr. Najib, foreground right, has simmered for years, especially among members of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese minority.

Sadiq Asyraf/Associated Press

“There is no rule of law in this country,” Mr. Mahathir said at a news conference late Thursday night. “Najib is cheating to win the election by paralyzing his opponents.”

Even before the order to dissolve Parliament was announced on Friday, flags for the National Front began appearing at overpasses and major intersections in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital. Banners for opposition parties, which are expected to band together under the People’s Justice Party in order to contest the elections, were not on display.

Two controversial bills were passed in the waning days of Parliament. One rejiggered voting districts so drastically that the opposition derided it as gerrymandering. Another piece of legislation made creating or circulating “fake news” punishable by up to six years in prison. The definition of “fake news” has not been made clear.

Earlier this week, Mr. Najib promised to give raises to Malaysia’s 1.6 million civil servants, most of whom are Malay. The prime minister also vowed to lavish hundreds of millions of dollars on police officers and certain companies run by bumiputra, or sons of the soil, as Malays and indigenous peoples are known.

Mr. Mahathir was the architect of the affirmative action program for Malays, who were discriminated against during British rule. Encouraging mass immigration by Chinese and Indians, the British also gave some prime jobs in the colonial administration and business sphere to non-Malays, fostering resentment that festers to this day.

Pakatan Harapan, Malaysia’s opposition coalition, is an unwieldy collection of disparate forces that includes Chinese liberals, Islamists and nationalist Malays. Meaning “alliance of hope” in Malay, it is led by Mr. Mahathir, even though some of the coalition’s most prominent members are veteran opposition leaders who were jailed or harassed during the former prime minister’s long tenure.

Chief among them is Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister to Mr. Mahathir who fell out of favor and was jailed on sodomy and graft charges that were widely seen as politically motivated. Mr. Anwar famously appeared in court in 1998 with a black eye that Mr. Mahathir’s allies insisted was self-inflicted.

Mr. Anwar is now back in prison after a second sodomy conviction. He is scheduled to be released in June. How the opposition will deal with two suns in its political solar system — Mr. Mahathir and Mr. Anwar — remains to be seen.

The electoral choice is so uninspiring for some younger Malaysian voters that they have started a movement to cast spoiled ballots to protest the state of national politics.


The dissolution of the Parliament, above, will pave the way for the most contentious general elections in Malaysia since it gained independence more than six decades ago.

Fazry Ismail/EPA, via Shutterstock

The National Front, however, says that it has delivered on 99 percent of its campaign pledges from 2013. The country of 30 million people is among Southeast Asia’s most prosperous, even though a study released last year by the United Nations and the Malaysian Health Ministry found high rates of child malnutrition.

“Our target is nothing short of being one of the top nations in the world,” Mr. Najib said on Wednesday.

Yet Malaysia’s international reputation has been damaged by a scandal surrounding the mishandling of at least $3.5 billion connected to the One Malaysia Development Berhad fund, known as 1MDB.

An investigation by the United States Department of Justice, which is building a case to seize around $1.7 billion in assets connected to the fund, found that $731 million that was deposited into bank accounts controlled by Mr. Najib had come from 1MDB. Mr. Najib contends that the bulk of that money was given to him by a Saudi patron.

“For the prime minister, it’s either be re-elected or go to jail,” said Mukhriz Mahathir, an opposition politician who is also Mr. Mahathir’s son. “The stakes could not be higher for him.”

Multiple Malaysian investigations into 1MDB have found no impropriety connected to Mr. Najib or his associates. Officials with 1MDB have said no money went missing from the fund. Mr. Najib has hinted that investigations by foreign countries into 1MDB are Western witch hunts.

Both Mr. Najib and Mr. Mahathir have a record of blaming outsiders for stirring up dissent against them. Mr. Mahathir suggested that Jews were behind the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Mr. Najib has advised “white people” to stop interfering in Malaysian affairs.

Malay populism is expected to be stirred up during the campaign, and some Malaysian minorities have characterized this election as an existential moment for a country that depends on a delicate balance of races for stability. Although numbers are hard to come by, an ethnic Chinese brain drain appears to be robbing Malaysia of qualified white-collar workers.

“If the opposition loses again, there will be no hope left,” said Liew Chin Tong, an ethnic Chinese strategist for the opposition Democratic Action Party. “I worry that some people will end up leaving Malaysia.”

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