JERUSALEM – The British Embassy in Israel said Sunday it is giving new passports to six British nationals whose identities were stolen by the suspects in the slaying of a top Hamas operative in Dubai — a first step toward clearing their names and returning their lives to normal.
The six Britons — and a seventh man whose name appeared on a German passport used by the alleged hit squad — have had their lives thrown into turmoil by the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh last month. The seven, all dual citizens, have expressed anger and confusion and say they were victims of identity theft.
Officials in the United Arab Emirates said Sunday that at least two more fake Irish passports have been linked to the alleged assassins, and urged European investigators to launch full-scale probes into passport fraud.
The methodical stalking and killing of al-Mabhouh in a luxury hotel room — widely blamed on Israel's Mossad spy agency — has sparked an investigation that has spread across several continents, with investigators probing possible credit card links to U.S.-based banks, and European officials grilling Israeli envoys over fraudulent passports.
Al-Mabhouh body was found in his room at a luxury hotel in Dubai on Jan. 20, and suspicion almost immediately fell on Israel's Mossad spy agency.
The discovery that the identities used by seven of the suspected killers belonged to Israeli citizens has further fueled suspicions that the secretive Mossad agency carried out the hit. Dubai authorities, who have identified a total of 18 suspects, have said they are virtually certain the Mossad was involved.
With suspicion increasingly falling on Israel, a senior EU diplomat in Brussels warned Sunday the affair would damage the Jewish state's relations with the European bloc. The official said the passport controversy "will be harmful for the way Israel is treated by the EU" since it comes on top of strong criticism of Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip last year.
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The seven Israelis caught who share names with the suspects have denied any connection with al-Mabhouh's killing. Pictures of the seven alleged assassins released by Dubai bear little or no resemblance to the true holders of the passports.
One of the Israelis, Jonathan Louis Graham, told the Maariv daily Sunday that he'd never even been to Dubai.
"Clearly, that's not me — the person whose picture was published," Graham was quoted as saying. "I've got my passport and I don't know how this happened, but my identity was stolen. I'm a bit angry about what's happened, but I'm going to have to cope with that myself."
Raffi Shamir, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, said the six British citizens have been invited to arrange for new passports, which are expected to arrive soon.
Shamir said the six British passports used in Dubai had names and passport numbers that matched the owners, but photos and signatures that did not.
He said the new passport numbers would allow those unwittingly caught up in the affair them to travel freely, despite the fact that their names were placed on Interpol's watchlist last week. Interpol has said those whose identities were stolen should be able to travel as usual, though they may face more scrutiny.
The German weekly Der Spiegel reported Saturday that the German passport was not forged, and that German authorities issued a passport for Michael Bodenheimer in 2008. Bodenheimer, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who lives in Israel, said he had no connection to the case.
"While it's true that my parents were born in Germany, I was born in the United States, and that's where I have my passport from," he told Maariv. "I never asked for a German passport, nor have I ever possessed one. This entire story has nothing to do with me."
In Dubai, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, voiced concern Sunday that the assassins used expertly doctored passports from nations that don't require advance UAE visas, allowing them to enter the country without scrutiny.
Emirates' foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, urged European allies to probe how fraudulent passports had been used by the hit squad. Britain, Ireland and France have already summoned Israeli diplomats to seek information on possible Israeli involvement.
Emirati officials close to the investigation said that at least two more suspects in the slaying entered the Emirates on fraudulent Irish passports. They also said some of the 18 suspects visited the Gulf city-state for a reconnaissance mission at least once before the slaying.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The latest allegations bring the number of fake passports allegedly tied to the killing to 13 — six British, five Irish, one French and one German. Two Palestinians are in custody and three suspects remain unidentified.