* Hamas sources link Mahmoud al-Mabhouh to Gaza smuggling
* Official Israeli silence on death in a Dubai hotel
(Recasts with Hamas comments, previous JERUSALEM)
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams
GAZA/JERUSALEM, Jan 31 (Reuters) - A Hamas commander killed in Dubai was targeted by Israel for his role in smuggling "special weapons" to the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Islamist group said on Sunday.
Israel’s government declined official comment on the Jan. 20 death of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, which Hamas on Friday announced as an assassination. But Israeli security sources linked him to rockets and other arms that reach Gaza from Iran. Police in the United Arab Emirates said they suspected a foreign "criminal gang" of killing Mabhouh in his hotel room, while not ruling out involvement of Israel’s Mossad spy agency. Hamas spokesman Talal Nasser told the UAE newspaper The National that Mabhouh had "played a key role in supplying the Palestinian people with weapons and money", including "special weapons" for his native Gaza, where Israel waged war a year ago. A source close to Hamas in Gaza told Reuters: "I believe the issue of weapons he used to provide Hamas and (Palestinian) resistance factions was the reason behind his being targeted."
The source added that such weapons generally come from Iran or Sudan, countries with ties to Islamist groups.
Nasser said that Mabhouh had been vulnerable in Dubai because, unlike during other trips, he had used a passport bearing his real name and had travelled without bodyguards.
"His murder is not a victory for Israel," he said. "The blood of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh will spawn a thousand more like him."
Destroying Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and securing foreign help in stopping smuggling, were among Israel’s declared aims in the Gaza war. Egypt has since begun erecting a barrier to block Palestinian tunnels under its border with the blockaded strip.
Israel says its arch-foe Iran bankrolls attempts to ship weapons to Gaza by sea or land routes leading to the Egyptian Sinai. Iran says its support for Hamas is diplomatic only.
Hamas officials have declined to say what Mabhouh, who had long lived in the Syrian capital Damascus, was doing in the Gulf — though a Hamas source said he was active in armed operations "until the moment of his assassination".
He left Gaza in 1989, pursued by Israel for his role in the abduction and killing of two of its soldiers.
The Mossad is believed to have stepped up missions against Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Iran’s nuclear project. Among killings attributed to the agency were that of Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyeh in Damascus two years ago.
A former Mossad officer, Ram Yigra, suggested that Mabhouh may have fallen foul of criminal arms dealers rather than Israel.
"In the end of the day, Mr. Mabhouh was into arms smuggling, which means shady relationships," he told Israel’s Army Radio.
Fayek al-Mabouh, the dead man’s brother, said however: "He wasn’t involved in any gang. He wasn’t involved in any crime ... So who had an interest in killing him? Israel."
Yigra noted the varying accounts of Mabhouh’s death, which included a UAE media report that he had been tortured by his killers, Palestinian poisoning allegations and a suggestion by Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar that the assassins accompanied an Israeli cabinet minister who visited Abu Dhabi on Jan. 15-17.
The UAE does not have a peace treaty with Israel but has hosted Israeli officials and does business with Israeli firms.
Israel rocked its relations with Jordan when assassins botched an attempt to poison Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman in 1997. Ex-spy Yigra said the Mossad had learned its lessons about the need for discretion.
"When there cannot be foul-ups, then the thing is done quickly — and not in the course of torture and suchlike. And using visiting politicians (as cover) is not done," he said. (Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Andrew Roche)