December 5, 2023


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Tragedy Strikes a Boat Full of Spies, and Conspiracy Theories Mount

SESTO CALENDE, Italy — The black clouds appeared quickly, sneaking up on sun-seeking revelers on the lake in northern Italy, interrupting early-evening aperitivi and lakefront strolls. A weather warning issued earlier in the day had not foreseen the violence of the storm that burst over the lake, with winds so extreme they sank a boat, killing four of its 23 passengers.

As news stories go, the incident on Lake Maggiore on Sunday was a freak tragedy that would usually have attracted fleeting attention.

But in subsequent days, the story took off in the Italian media when it emerged that 21 people on the boat were spies or former spies — including 13 from the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, and eight Italian ones. Official explanations that they had been celebrating a birthday did little to quell a speculative frenzy about their activities.

Two of those who died belonged to Italy’s intelligence service, according to a note issued by Italian intelligence, while Israel said that another victim had been a retired Mossad operative. The fourth victim, a Russian woman, had been married to the boat’s skipper.

What, Italians wondered, were all those spies really doing on a Sunday afternoon cruising on a rental boat named the “Good…uria” (a play on an Italian term for pleasure)? The gathering was quickly labeled a “spy party” by several media outlets.

Some outlets speculated whether the Alpine boat trip had been an opportunity to swap information. Was it a coincidence that the skipper was fluent in Bulgarian, as some noted, and married to a Russian, Anna Bozhkova? Had the spies been scoping the lake for Russian magnates investing nearby, as the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera posited Thursday?

The prosecutor looking into the incident, Massimo De Filippo, and his boss, chief prosecutor Carlo Nocerino, said such questions were outside the scope of their investigation, which is to determine what made the boat capsize and sink.

Carlo Carminati, 60, the skipper, is being investigated on suspicion of negligent homicide, causing a shipwreck and being responsible for injuring the surviving passengers. “We’re not interested in what the passengers were doing,” said Nocerino in an interview in his office in Busto Arsizio in Lombardy, the region containing the part of the lake where the boat sank.

Nocerino said that he had asked the captain of the team trying to bring the boat to the surface to advise him immediately when it was back above water so that he and De Filippo would be the first aboard.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the boat had been dragged close to shore but remained underwater after several unsuccessful attempts to surface it using balloons.

“I don’t want there to be any doubt that we didn’t pursue the investigation to the fullest extent,” Nocerino said. The boat and its contents would be confiscated and placed under judicial authority, he said.

The prosecutor acknowledged speculation in the media that the government could shut down the investigation should documents or briefcases be found. “If we find briefcases, we will confiscate them,” Nocerino said dryly.

Adding to the intrigue, the surviving passengers appeared to have been spirited away from the lake within hours of the accident. The Mossad sent an aircraft to return the Israeli survivors home and tried to prevent publication of details about the incident in Israel, according to two Israeli defense officials. (The Israeli media reported that the Israeli casualty was a Mossad veteran only on Wednesday.)

A statement issued by Italian intelligence identifying two of the victims — Claudio Alonzi, 62, and Tiziana Barnobi, 53 — as members of Italian intelligence said they had been in the area “to attend a convivial gathering” for the birthday of one of the group. A spokesperson for the Italian agency said it had nothing to add.

Israeli information services have not officially released the real name of the Mossad veteran. His funeral was held in Ashqelon, Israel, on Wednesday.

The Mossad issued a statement Wednesday noting that “due to his service in the organization, it will not be possible to elaborate about him. The Mossad has lost a dear friend, a dedicated and professional worker who had dedicated his life to the security of the State of Israel for decades, even after his retirement.”

The former Mossad operative who died had belonged to a unit responsible for covert liaison with foreign intelligence services, according to a former senior defense official, who asked not to be named when discussing sensitive relations between espionage agencies.

Although he had retired from service at the Mossad, he continued to serve as a reservist for the organization and arrived in Italy together with his colleagues as part of a cooperative relationship between the Israeli and Italian spy organizations, the former official added.

The Mossad and Italian intelligence cooperate on issues of common interest, such as the war on terrorism, or gathering information on the Iranian nuclear project, he added.

None of the survivors had identification documents with them when they gave statements about the accident to Italian military police officers Sunday night. They said they had lost them when the boat capsized, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors also confirmed that the Italians told the investigators they were employees of the presidency of the Council of Ministers, a catchall government department, while the Israelis said they were part of a government delegation.

Whatever the uncertainties surrounding the case, one thing that was certain was the unexpected violence of the storm on Lake Maggiore on Sunday night.

The civil protection agency for the Lombardy region had issued a Code Yellow — a caution — for the lake about possible thunderstorms that night. While all bulletins had warned of worsening conditions for the area, “such intense phenomena were considered unlikely that evening,” said Paolo Valisa, a meteorologist with a local weather agency. “You can predict a thunderstorm, but until now we haven’t been able to predict its intensity, at least in such a localized area.”

Nearby wind speed indicators on the lake indicated gusts between 42 and 60 kph, but it could have been even higher where the boat got trapped by a downburst, powerful winds that descend with cold air from a thunderstorm and spread out, he said.

Samuel Panetti and several friends had also been on the lake in their boat Sunday evening and were the first to rescue survivors of the Good…uria.

“The weather had been fine all day,” he said, but when the storm hit, the rain was so thick, it was like navigating through a cloud. “There was so much rain and hail, and the wind tossed the boat from left to right,” he recalled.

He saw what he first thought was a group of seagulls in the middle of the lake, but upon getting closer, he saw they were people from the sinking boat, “shouting for help, like children.”

He and his friends helped some get on board their boat and threw “anything that floated” into the water for others to latch on to. A few of the survivors managed to swim to shore.

The two female victims were found trapped inside the charter boat, which sank to a depth of about 50 feet. A third victim was found on the bottom of the lake, while another had been recovered floating.

“It was terrifying seeing all those people in the water; it seemed like a scene from a film. I still have a hard time believing it was true,” he said. “If we hadn’t come by, I think they would have all died,” he said.

Paolo Mazzucchelli, the director for public transportation on Lake Maggiore, said that at the moment the accident took place, “wind speed had grown very quickly in a very short period of time” and that the storm was “localized and very intense.”

“They found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.

The rubble of a destroyed home.

A hole left by a bomb that entered the home of the Khoswan family, in a strike on an Islamic Jihad member who lived below, in Gaza City.

As the Khoswan family slept, the Israeli military dropped three GBU-39 bombs into their sixth-floor apartment. One of the bombs exploded just outside the parents’ bedroom, leaving the apartment looking as if a tornado had swept through, killing three family members.

But they were not the stated target of the attack earlier this month.

The Israeli military had dropped the bombs into their home to assassinate a commander of the Palestinian armed group Islamic Jihad who lived in the apartment below.

Jamal Khoswan, a dentist, Mirvat Khoswan, a pharmacist, and their son, a 19-year-old dental student, were killed in the strike as well as the Islamic Jihad commander who lived downstairs, Tareq Izzeldeen, and two of his children, a girl, 11, and a boy, 9.

“Commanders have been targeted before,” Menna Khoswan, 16, said this month at a memorial service for her father at the hospital where he served as chairman of the board. “But to target the commander and those around him, honestly this is something we didn’t expect.”

Israel says that it conducts “precision strikes” aimed at taking out armed groups’ commanders or operation sites, and that it does not target civilians. But the airstrikes are often conducted in heavily populated areas, and many Palestinians in Gaza say they amount to a collective punishment aimed at making them fearful about who their neighbors might be.

Israel also destroys entire residential buildings or towers if it believes an armed group has an office or apartment there, although it usually issues an evacuation warning beforehand.

Menna’s parents and brother were among at least 12 civilians killed by Israeli strikes during five days of fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad this month, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Israel says that nine civilians were killed in the strikes.

People standing under a banner with Arabic writing.
Menna Khoswan, center, at a memorial service for her father at the hospital where he served as chairman of the board.

Six senior leaders of the armed group that Israel said had been responsible for rocket attacks on Israel were killed before a cease-fire was reached on May 13. The Israeli military said that Islamic Jihad had launched nearly 1,500 rockets indiscriminately toward Israel over the course of several days. Two people were killed in Israel, including an Israeli woman and a Palestinian worker from Gaza.

Members of the Khoswan family say they knew that an Islamic Jihad commander lived in the apartment below them and worried that he could be the target of an Israeli strike. Israel has designated Islamic Jihad as a terrorist organization — as have countries including the United States and Japan — and has regularly targeted its leaders and fighters.

Yet the Khoswans never thought their apartment would be hit while they were inside, Menna said, describing the shock of being awakened by the explosions ripping through her home.

The Israeli military said it had twice postponed the assassinations of the three Islamic Jihad commanders to ensure suitable operational conditions and minimize civilian casualties. But the military did not respond to questions about why it had targeted the three Islamic Jihad commanders on May 9 while they were at home or why it had launched the three bombs targeting the Islamic Jihad commander through the Khoswan home.

The Israeli military “didn’t choose to kill the dentist,” said Nir Dinar, an Israeli army spokesman, declining to comment further.

The Israeli military released videos of the strikes it carried out, including one showing a man it accused of having fired rockets at Israel being struck in the middle of a road on a bicycle. Another showed a man walking in the courtyard of a complex of buildings for several seconds before entering a building. Once he went inside, the building was blown up.

The military said the videos showed how it had waited for targets to be alone before striking.

During the five days of fighting this month, Israeli strikes destroyed 103 homes, and more than 2,800 others were damaged, according to Gaza’s public works department.

The facade of a destroyed building.
Over the course of five days this month, Israeli strikes destroyed 103 homes and damaged more than 2,800, according to Gaza’s public works department.
A man kneels over missile debris.
An unexploded GBU 39 bomb fired from an Israeli aircraft, according to ordnance officials in Gaza, along with other ordnance fragments, in Gaza City.

Amnesty International has previously said that Israel’s pattern of attacks on residential homes in Gaza displayed a disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians and could amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.

In the 11-day 2021 war between Hamas and Israel, Israel struck four tower buildings, destroying three of them; one had housed some of the world’s leading news media organizations, including The Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

The Israeli military said that it had destroyed the tower because the building also contained military assets belonging to Hamas, the political and armed group which controls and governs Gaza. The A.P. reported that at the time that the tower’s owner had been “told he had an hour to make sure everyone has left the building.”

Fearing that Israel would destroy entire buildings because they contained offices or homes belonging to members of armed groups, residents of some buildings posted signs in their lobbies warning against renting to departments linked to the Hamas-led government.

Israel has long accused Palestinian armed groups in Gaza of hiding among civilians and using them as human shields. Because the armed groups are homegrown, they live side by side among the people and their command centers are spread throughout Gaza.

Leaders and members of the groups say that Israel’s airstrikes are aimed at hurting the civilian population to undermine public support for them. The groups have wide support among Palestinians for their resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Since the 2021 war, Hamas says it has begun moving its offices away from important infrastructure such as hospitals and schools.

Khaled al-Batsh, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, said his group’s members lived in their own communities in the tiny enclave that is home to more than 2.3 million people.

“Where should we go? Should we flee Palestine? Can we go set up a military base in Colorado?” he said. “They target the civilians so they can pit people against us.”

South of Gaza City, Ghada Abu Ebeid, 50, this month was living with a relative near the remains of her family’s two-story house, which was destroyed by an Israeli bomb in the recent fighting that also sheared off the fronts of nearby buildings.


People walking among the ruins of a destroyed home.
The remains of the Abu Ebeid family home in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, after it was destroyed by the Israeli military.


A man in a red cap holding a child, next to people sitting on the ground.
A family sitting in the rubble of their house, which was destroyed by Israeli bombing in Jabalia, in northern Gaza.

An hour before the strike, the Israeli military warned residents up to 100 meters away to evacuate their homes, according to the Abu Ebeid family and neighbors.

When asked about the attack, the military referred to a statement saying that it had targeted Islamic Jihad command-and-control centers from which they operate and direct rockets toward Israel.

Ms. Ebeid would not say why she believed Israel had demolished their home. Neighbors said that one of her sons was a member of Islamic Jihad.

Many Gaza residents acknowledge that they do worry about who might move in next door, fearing that their neighbors could become targets. But they put the blame squarely on Israel.

“What kind of precision is this when you kill civilians?” said Asmahan Adas, referring to a strike on the home of her next-door neighbor, Khalil al-Bahtini, another Islamic Jihad commander, that also killed her two teenage daughters. “When Israel wants to kill someone, they can find many different ways to kill, but they want others to die along with their target.”


A man holds a teddy bear in a destroyed home.
Alaa Adas, the father of Iman, 17, and Dania, 19, who died in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza, in the bedroom where they were killed.
A woman sits on a sofa near two people who are standing. Behind her is a pencil drawing of a woman.
Asmahan Adas, whose daughters were killed by an Israeli airstrike this month, received mourners at her parents’ house, east of Gaza City

Ms. Adas said that when she knew Mr. Bahtini was at home, she would move her two daughters to the far side of their home, fearing that Israeli bombs could destroy the rooms closest to him.

On the night of May 9, she was unaware that Mr. Bahtini had returned home. Before she went to bed, Ms. Adas said good night to her two daughters, Iman, 17, and Dania, 19, who were sitting on their beds, watching cellphone videos and laughing, she said.

Minutes later, shortly after 2 a.m., three GBU-39 bombs pierced the roof of Mr. Bahtini’s second-floor home, killing him, his wife and 5-year-old daughter. The blast also ripped through the bedroom of Ms. Adas’ teenager daughters, burying them in rubble.

A week later, Ms. Adas wept as she received mourners at her parents’ house. Dania was to be married on July 21. Now, her fiancé visits her grave every day to talk to her.

“I had dreams of taking my daughter out of our home in her wedding dress, not in a burial shroud,” Ms. Adas said. “They took everything from me in a second, just so they could kill one person.”


A man stands in front of graves.
Mohammad Saad, 19, whose fiancée, Dania Adas, was killed in an Israeli airstrike, standing at her grave and reciting a passage from the Quran.