What happened on January 1st in a newly renovated villa in an elegant Prague quarter remains a mystery. The news concerning the deadly injury of the Palestinian ambassador Jamel al-Jamal (56), caused by a blast from a diplomatic safe, first spread slowly while most of the city was sleeping off the New Year’s celebrations. Yet, quite soon the news made headlines not only in the Czech Republic but also in Europe and, of course, in Israel.
In the hours following the incident, the Palestinian authorities provided rather conflicting information as to what exactly had happened. The Czech public was first informed that the safe had been recently moved from an old office that had been used by the PLO in the 1980s to the new building which was just about to be officially inaugurated as the new Palestinian Embassy. Allegedly, the safe had been left untouched for decades. Later, another official contradicted this version of events, claiming that the safe was used on a daily basis. There are also conflicting statements about whether the explosive was outside or inside the safe.
Whereas most Palestinian officials agreed with the Czech police that the case should be investigated as an accident and not an attack, the ambassador’s daughter, who was not in Prague in the time of the blast, suggested that her father was ‘deliberately killed.’ According to Rana Jamal, the safe was regularly used and was moved to the new building of the Embassy only one day before her father opened it. She claimed that the explosive was outside, not inside, the safe, indicating that the explosive was attached to it while the safe was moved from the old office to the new one.
The case became even more suspicious after the Czech police’s investigation found a cache of unlicensed weapons in the blast location. The finding caused an uproar in the Czech Republic, which was not appeased by the explanation provided by the deputy Palestinian Foreign Minister, Taysir Jaradat, who claimed that the guns had been in the Embassy since the time of the PLO and were never used.
The event has revived the memories of many Czechs who still remember the time when communist Czechoslovakia had close relations with the PLO, whose representatives were regular guests of the communist regime. The directive to keep strong relations with various national-liberation movements, which often incorporated a radical ideology, was given to the countries of the Eastern block directly by Moscow. Close ties between various Palestinian radicals and the PLO and the Czechoslovak communist regime date back to the 1960s and intensified after the Six Day War. Yasser Arafat visited Prague as early as 1956, when he attended the congress of the International Union of Students. (Interestingly, the Israeli representative at this event was Efraim Halevy, the future head of Mossad.) Thereafter, Arafat made many official visits to Czechoslovakia.The PLO opened oficialy its office in Prague in 1976 and later it was raised to the Embassy.
Prague provided various Palestinian radical groups with weapons, explosives (Semtex – a Czech invention – became a prime explosive used by radicals in the Middle East), and surveillance technology. Moreover, the Czech secret service and military specialists trained over a hundred PLO operatives. Some of the PLO members who were wanted in the West found refuge in Czechoslovakia. Czech spas became favorite places for the recovery of injured Palestinian militants.
Prague was the location in which one of the radical Palestinian groups planned an assassination of Yasser Arafat. The plot was stopped by the Czech secret services.
These bitter memories undoubtedly contributed to the quite harsh Czech official and public reactions to the current incident. The Former Chief of Staff General Šedivý suggested that the Palestinian Embassy might have served as a storage location for the transit of weapons. The Deputy of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Czech Parliament, Bublan, implied that members of the Embassy might have been involved in the illegal sales of weapons. The Mayor of the Prague quarter of Suchdol, where the new Palestinian Embassy was just about to be opened, asked for the relocation of the Embassy.
The latest event casts a shadow on Czech-Palestinian relations, which have not been the warmest in any case. The Palestinians consider the Czech foreign policy to be too favorable toward Israel. Yet, as much as Czech diplomacy has more understanding for some of Israel’s policies compared to most of the EU countries, it is also involved in Palestine. The Czech Republic was the first Central and Eastern European country to open a Representative Office in Ramallah in 2000, and is involved in various development projects in the West Bank.
Although harsh, the Czech official reaction has been quite restrained thus far. However, the Czechs strongly demand an explanation concerning the finding of illegal weapons. Moreover, the question remains, why did the Palestinian diplomats hide documents in a booby-trapped safe? The official investigation of the event is ongoing. Yet, we may never really know what was in the safe and for what reason the Palestinians hid the weapons on diplomatic premises. It is in the interest of the Palestinians to provide an explanation, which would calm those who still remember the time when European cities served as bases for Palestinian terrorism.