TUNIS - Tunisians woke up on Thursday to news of what appears to be a politically motivated assassination, in the normally sleepy town of Sfax. An aviation engineer and drone expert had been shot dead at the wheel of his car outside his home. The engineer's body was riddled with about twenty bullets. The Palestinian group Hamas says the Tunisian national was the head of their little-known drone development programme.
The murder of Mohamed Zouari rocked Sfax, a commercial coastal town that lies 270 kilometres southeast of Tunis.
Al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian group Hamas, then announced in a statement released on Saturday that the 49-year-old engineer had been one of its commanders, and that he had joined the group ten years ago. He had provided support to the group in the 2014 Israeli war in Gaza, according to the statement.
It was during the 2014 war that Hamas was first reported to use drones. The Israeli military announced in July 2014 that they had shot down a Hamas drone near the coastal city of Ashdod, which lies 6,000 kilometres north of Gaza. Hamas also released a video of what it said was footage of Israel obtained through its surveillance drones. And visuals of Gaza were also taken from its Iranian-made Ababil A1B armed drones.
Al Qassam accuses Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, of being behind the assassination of Zouari. The Tunisian government announced on Sunday that "foreigners" were involved in the shooting. Their nationalities have so far not been publicised.
"The Zionist enemy unsuccessfully tried by assassinating you commander, to stop the ambitious development project in the capability of Qassam Brigades in the field of unmanned aircraft."
There has been no comment on the allegations from Israeli officials. The execution of Zouari, however, joins a long list of suspected Israeli assassinations abroad.
This is not the first time figures linked to the Palestinian cause have been killed on Tunisian soil. But it is the first such case to come to public attention in nearly three decades. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation was headquartered in Tunis after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In 1985, Israeli jets bombed the PLO's headquarters in the Hammam al-Shatt suburb of Tunis, killing more than 50 Tunisian bystanders and Palestinian PLO members and injuring more than 100. The attack, known as Operation Wooden Leg, was condemned in a UN Security Council resolution.
Khalil al Wazir (also known as Abu-Jihad), the movement's deputy leader, was assassinated in his home in Tunis in 1988. An Israeli commander claimed responsibility for his death in 2012, nearly 24 years after the assassination.
Al Qassam also promised retaliation, saying the blood of its engineer "will not go in vain".
On Sunday evening, Hamas set up a tent in a park in Gaza City where dozens of supporters came to express condolences for the death of the engineer.
The Tunisian authorities are investigating the crime. The interior ministry said it has arrested eight suspects linked to the assassination. All of those arrested so far are Tunisians, including a journalist allegedly working with a production company in Hungary who interviewed the victim a few days before he was killed. The ministry has not commented on whether any links to Mossad's involvement have been found so far. The Office of the Tunisian Prime Minister in a statement on Sunday affirmed that the government will hold the perpetrators accountable: "The state is committed to track down the culprits involved in the assassination of the late Mohamed Zouari inside and outside national territory, by all legal means, and in accordance with international charters."
According to a profile of Zouari posted by Al Qassam on Sunday, the slain engineer was active with the conservative Ennahda party in his youth and was wanted by the Tunisian police in the early 1990s, when the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime was cracking down on religious activists. He was forced to flee the country in 1991, and sought asylum in Sudan where he lived for six years. He then moved to Syria and was only able to return to Tunisia in 2011, after the uprising that ended Ben Ali's presidency. He stayed for a few months before returning to Syria. Zouari was forced to leave Syria again with his family when the war there intensified in 2013. He moved back to his hometown Sfax.
In an interview with Al Qassam website Zouari's family denied knowledge of his involvement with Hamas. Until his death, Zouari was little known to the Tunisian public. Zouari started teaching aviation engineering at the Sfax Engineering School after his return to Tunisia, and founded an aviation club with his students and retired pilots.
Dozens of protesters gathered on Sunday in the capital Tunis to denounce Zouari's death. The crowd held Palestinian flags and chanted "People want to reveal the truth" and "No to normalisation [of relations with Israel]." Tunisian civil society groups are calling for a second protest in the capital on Tuesday to condemn Zouari's assassination and support the global BDS campaign, which calls for the economic and cultural boycott of Israel.
AUTHOR: Safa Ben Said for TRT World