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In a shift, United Arab Emirates may tighten travel rules after assassins' entry

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 22, 2010; A06

JERUSALEM -- The use of forged European passports by assassins who entered Dubai and killed a Hamas operative may lead the United Arab Emirates to review the open border policies that have made it a commercial and tourist hub, a top UAE official said Sunday.

The country's border rules -- passport holders from the United States, Europe and other developed nations can enter without pre-arranging a visa -- are a trademark for the Arab state, which recently allowed an Israeli cabinet minister to visit and is currently hosting an Israeli tennis star as part of an international tournament.

But after the Dubai hotel-room killing that some allege was carried out by Israel's Mossad spy agency, the emirates' minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said in a statement Sunday that the country is "deeply concerned by the fact that passports of close allies, whose nationals currently enjoy preferential visa waivers, were illegally used to commit this crime."

Dubai police say they think that 11 people holding passports from Britain, Ireland, France and Germany entered the country last month and killed Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Several of the documents proved to be forgeries, and some contained the names of Israeli citizens, raising concern that the European identities had been borrowed by the Mossad.

In the same statement, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, said that the federation of seven emirates, which includes Dubai, wants "to protect its long-held position as a hospitable country," but insists on a full investigation and prosecution of those responsible for Mabhouh's death.

The Dubai police have so far played the lead role in the evolving diplomatic controversy, releasing security-camera footage of the alleged killers, publishing their photos on the Internet and prompting Interpol to issue wanted notices for their arrest. The involvement of UAE federal officials could further raise pressure for a full investigation in Europe rather than the cursory probe some Israeli analysts have said they expect from European officials sympathetic to Israel's struggle with Hamas.

Hamas, a militant Islamist group, opposes Israel's existence. Mabhouh, who was based in Damascus, Syria, was a founding member of Hamas's military wing, and is thought to have been involved in the supply of arms from Iran to Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip.

The controversy comes amid stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, whose governance remains split between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the more moderate Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank.

On Sunday, according to wire service reports, French leaders said that in an effort to restart the peace process they are studying whether a Palestinian state should be recognized independent of negotiations with Israel.

Also Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced the inclusion of two Jewish religious sites in the West Bank on a list of Israeli locations slated for renovation.

The issue is a sensitive one, touching on Palestinian concerns about whether Netanyahu is sincere in saying he is willing to allow the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state on West Bank land. The sites are the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem.

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