It’s rocket science after all

Israel insists that a mild-mannered power station manager is the wizard behind Gaza’s rockets.

By
May 12, 2011 13:55
Dirar Abusisi, flanked by guards, in Beersheba.

abusisi_521. (photo credit: TSAFRIR ABAYOV / REUTERS)

 
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WEARING AN OLIVE green windbreaker thrown loosely over an orange prison jumpsuit, his black mustache set against an unshaven face, the thin, bespectacled man sat between two uniformed guards in a Beersheba courthouse in early April.

According to some of the charges read aloud from the astonishingly detailed 13-page indictment, Dirar Abusisi could be blamed for just about all the troubles Israel has been facing from the almost-hermetically sealed Gaza Strip, where the border these days can be breached only by crude yet potentially lethal homemade rockets.

Indeed, the court session might have been timed to coincide with the recent spike in attacks by these rockets against Israel’s south – as if to say, “See what’s happening? Here’s the man to blame.” Abusisi, described in the charge sheet as something of a rocket wizard, had vanished six weeks before and only now was being hauled before cameras that might well have recorded some of the damage wrought by those projectiles just hours before.

But through his lawyers, he denied the charges, and, unlike many Palestinian security prisoners who flash V-for-victory signs and throw kisses to well-wishers as they enter and exit Israeli courtrooms, Abusisi seemed profoundly unhappy to be where he was.

THERE ARE ACTUALLY THREE story-lines regarding Abusisi: who and what he is, who and what the Israelis insist he is, and how he was detained and brought to Israel.

According to his lawyer, Tal Linoy, Abusisi was born in Jordan in 1969 to Palestinian parents who had become refugees during the fighting in 1948. He was raised and schooled in the Hashemite kingdom until 1988, when he went to study in what was then the Soviet Union.

In 1994 he received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Zaporozhye State Technical University in southeast Ukraine; an English-language university transcript says the degree was awarded with excellence and that Abusisi’s thesis was titled “Increase of the effectiveness of electrical circuits in metallurgical industry.”

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In 1999 he was awarded a PhD in electrical engineering. His diploma cites a specialty in “power stations networks and systems” and says the degree was awarded by the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, although Abusisi actually studied in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the northeast of the country.

His studies and living costs were initially funded by the Soviet-Palestinian Friendship Society, although expenses incurred during his doctoral studies were covered from his own pocket, with help from his family.

While in Ukraine he met a local woman named Veronika. According to the German magazine “Der Spiegel,” the story goes like this: “Dirar and Veronika met in 1998. She was 19 years old, a violin student at an academy in Kharkiv; he studied next door for his doctorate at an institute of agricultural science. They married the following year, and she converted to Islam.” The couple eventually had six children.

Upon receipt of his doctorate, Abusisi was offered a job at what was to become the Gaza Strip’s first Palestinian-run electrical powergenerating station. The facility was still in its planning stages, and was eventually built as part of a joint project with Enron – the Houston-based energy giant that just two years later went down in notoriety for keeping fraudulent financial records. The station went online in 2001.

It would be the first time Abusisi set foot in the Gaza Strip, but he accepted the offer. By 2003 had been promoted to the plant’s deputy director.

From then until now, the only time his name seems to have shown up in the non-Palestinian press was in August 2006, when “Haaretz” columnist Gideon Levy spoke with him two months after an Israeli jet bombed the power station. The air strike apparently had been designed to cut off Gaza’s electricity during a sweltering summer in an effort to pressure Hamas, which had not yet taken control of the territory, into facilitating the return of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was an IDF corporal who had been kidnapped on a cross-border raid just three days before and dragged back to be held as a bargaining chip for the release of Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails.

“Had they told us on the phone to cut the power off, we’d have done so right away,” Levy quotes Abusisi as saying. “It was a foolish attack, which only sows more and more hatred for Israel.”

FAST FORWARD TO THE BEGINning of March 2011, when word breaks that Abusisi disappeared the month before during a trip to Ukraine and, according to his wife, who had received a phone call from him, is now incarcerated in a Petah Tikva jail.

“My client wanted to live in Ukraine because he has family there,” Linoy tells The Jerusalem Report, “and he was tired of living in Gaza. He wanted to start a new life.”

According to numerous reports, the Abusisis were sick of the conditions in the Strip, especially after the start of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week response to a rain of rocket fire. The combined air and ground assault began on December 27, 2008. “On Thursday our sixth baby was born, and on Saturday the war started,” Veronika told “Der Spiegel.” “We decided to go back to my home.”

In late January of this year, Abusisi flew to Kiev to apply for Ukrainian citizenship. The authorities there instructed him to go to Kharkiv, where he had studied, as part of the bureaucratic process. He was last seen in public in the Ukraine on February 18, on the night train back to Kiev.

What happened next is corroborated by both Veronika and Abusisi’s brother, Yusef, who had flown to Kiev from his home in Holland and was to have met his brother following the train trip. Dirar Abusisi was removed from the train by three men, two of them in uniform, who handcuffed him, put a hood over his head and drove him to Kiev, according to what he told his wife and his brother from the Petah Tikva lock-up. In Kiev, Abusisi said, he was interrogated by six additional men who identified themselves as being with the Mossad. Some time afterward, he was put aboard a plane that flew for four to five hours before landing – where, he did not know – and then took off for a flight of about an hour, which brought him to Israel.

“They had taken his watch,” attorney Linoy tells The Report. “All he could do was estimate the duration of the flights.”

The Russian tabloid “Pravda” reported that it found a man, identified as Andrew Makarenko, who shared the sleeping compartment with Abusisi on the night train to Kiev and witnessed the arrest. “The train… had just started to pick up speed when two ruggedlooking men entered,” Makarenko was quoted as saying. “I was on the bottom bunk and could not see their faces clearly. They had the look of police officers or law enforcement officials.”

Yusef Abusisi, in a YouTube video, insists the Ukraine authorities were involved, as they gave him the runaround every time he sought information. “They bounced me around like a ball from place to place,” he said. “The intelligence office treated me like they didn’t care. They didn’t want to help me.”

But Vladimir Rakitskiy, identified by the English-language service of Russia’s RT television channel as deputy head of Ukraine’s security services, told reporters that no other country had sought Ukraine’s help in detaining Abusisi. “There was no notification of any operation,” Rakitskiy said. RT also broadcast footage of Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Dikusarov saying, “This man was not on any country’s wanted list, and there had been no extradition requests. It’s unclear how he left Ukrainian territory.”

SO WAS THERE COOPERATION BY the Ukraine authorities in arresting Abusisi? “Absolutely,” says author and journalist Yossi Melman, one of Israel’s most respected writers on intelligence affairs.

“This was not a kidnapping, like Vanunu,” Melman tells The Report, referring to Mordecai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician who in 1986 revealed Israel’s atomic secrets to “The Sunday Times” of Britain and, after being lured to Italy, was apparently kidnapped by the Mossad, smuggled back to Israel, tried and given 18 years in prison.

“There were men in uniforms who detained Abusisi on that train,” Melman says. “You can’t get that without cooperation. Abusisi’s family says he planned to move his family there, and it could be that the Ukrainians preferred that he did not.”

According to attorney Linoy, Abusisi left the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing to Egypt. His Jordanian passport had lapsed, and he was traveling on a laissez-passer issued by the Red Cross. He traveled overland to Cairo, where he boarded a flight to Kiev that would take him through Amman.

Melman believes that what happened next is a sign that Israel obtained foreign cooperation closer to home. “Acording to foreign reports, before he could get on his [connecting] flight, the Jordanians detained him and held him for a week,” Melman says. “This indicates that there was Jordanian cooperation, too. It also made things easier for the Ukrainians to ‘deport’ him to Israel. Apparently, the Israelis chartered a plane that departed Ukraine from a small airport. Abusisi spoke about a flight of three or four hours, a landing, and then another flight of about an hour. My guess is that the plane landed in Jordan because the Ukrainians had to deport him to the country from which he had departed for Ukraine. From Jordan it’s only a short flight to Israel.”

An Israeli court slapped a complete gag order on the Abusisi affair, and it was only on March 20, with all the media attention and outside claims and counterclaims, that the gag order was partially lifted and it could be reported that he was indeed being held in Israel – but nothing more. Then on March 31, during a live interview broadcast simultaneously on Israel’s Channel 2 and YouTube, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli official to publicly address the issue, although with just five terse sentences.

“Abusisi is a Hamas man,” Netanyahu said. “He is being held in detention in Israel. It is a legal arrest. He has provided valuable information. That is all I can say.”

Hamas quickly denied having any links with the engineer. In a press release, spokesman Fawzi Barhoum also accused Ukraine of “collaborating with Israel in kidnapping Abusisi, torturing him and lodging charges against him,” and demanded that it, together with human rights groups, help gain his release “and end the suffering of his wife, children and family.”

Four days later, Abusisi was indicted in the Beersheba courtroom for, among other offenses, being a member of a terrorist organization, conspiring to commit a crime, producing illegal weaponry and providing assistance to an outlawed organization.

The indictment, which listed the date of his arrest as February 19, the day after he boarded the night train from Kharkiv to Kiev, claims he was recruited into Hamas by Salah Shehadeh, the group’s top military commander at the time, who was killed in a controversial Israel Air Force raid along with 14 others, including his wife and children, in 2002. Acording to foreign reports, after his recruitment, Abusisi worked on both short- and long-range rockets, improving their range and accuracy, the charges said.

To make the jump from Abusisi’s image as a mild-mannered power plant manager to his portrayal as a master of rocketry, Israel insists that in parallel with his electrical engineering studies in Kharkiv, he secretly studied at a local military academy. Further, it says he was helping Hamas establish a military academy of its own.

“HE WAS DETAINED BY mistake,” says Linoy, Abusisi’s attorney. “A source apparently gave Israel the wrong information.”

Indeed, many observers have been wondering about the veracity of the charges. Some, including people with a deep understanding of intelligence affairs, say Israel initially nabbed the power station manager because it believed he had insider knowledge as to the whereabouts of Gilad Shalit, whose 2006 kidnapping led to the air attack on the power station, and later, although indirectly, to Abusisi’s comments to “Haaretz’s” Levy.

So what about the kidnapped soldier? “My client insists he knows nothing about Gilad Shalit,” Linoy replies.

What about his client’s Muslim faith? People aligned with Islamic groups are usually deeply religious. “He’s religious,” the lawyer says, “but he insists he has no connection to Hamas. After finishing his PhD in 1999, he was offered a job at the power station. After Hamas took over Gaza, he was forced to continue working.”

Here, Linoy stops. When asked what he meant, he won’t explain. Was Abusisi forced to continue working by Hamas? Or was he just afraid to lose his livelihood or social standing? The lawyer merely alludes to the gag order that continues to cover the bulk of the case – indicating that this may be part of Israel’s case against Abusisi, or merely that Linoy is coyly planting the seeds of a defense. At any rate, he changes the subject to say that his client, who is 42, is not receiving proper medical attention in jail.

“He suffered a heart attack two years ago and has since been treated for hypertension,” the lawyer says. “His physical and emotional health are in decline. He also has gallbladder problems, and the food he’s getting is too fatty. Since his arrest I’d say he’s lost 15 kilograms or more.”

Linoy agrees that Abusisi is an important person. “He provides an essential utility to the people of Gaza,” he says. “He’s a key figure in the civilian infrastructure, and in this capacity knows a lot of people. Anyone in such a central position knows other key figures, including from Hamas. But he’s a civilian engineer. He has no connection to the terror infrastructure or to terrorists. If the authorities knew then what they know now, they would not have arrested him.”

That may be an overstatement, for it’s possible that Israel views Abusisi as much more than a mere suspect. His capture and indictment are also a way of telling Israelis that their government is trying to do something about the Gaza rockets and about Gilad Shalit.

And intelligence affairs writer Melman says there’s an additional significance.

“This is just as much a message to Hamas that Israel is widening its war against it,” he tells The Report, going on to cite recent attacks attributed to Israel that were carried out against Hamas operatives or associates. “The war won’t be just in Gaza. It will be in Abu Dhabi, Sudan and other places. The message is, you’re not safe anywhere.”

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