The Foreign Minister of the State of Palestine, Riyad al-Malki, speaking to Voice of Palestine Radio news, described the death of his Ambassador to the Czech Republic as a “work accident.” I don't disagree.
It’s a rare accident when an Ambassador dies from his own inexpert handling of explosives, however, the incidence of that type of misadventure does seem to occur primarily among diplomats from the State of Palestine.
The Czech authorities are still investigating and we might find out more in time, but at present most news accounts seem to be in agreement that Ambassador Jamal al-Jamal triggered a small explosion – judging by the lack of evident damage to the room he was in, I’d guess it was very small, on the scale of a hand grenade – when he tried to remove a package containing several firearms from a safe in his official residence. The residence is part of a newly-constructed Palestinian embassy compound, and the safe had been relocated from the old Palestinian embassy, which had been occupied as far back as the 1980s.
Initially, there had been speculation that Ambassador al-Jamal must have triggered an emergency destruction device of some kind when he opened the safe. I didn’t believe that scenario, because, while such devices do exist, they destroy documents and computer media by incineration or chemical action rather than by explosion. As someone who remembers when U.S. embassies used sodium nitrate emergency burn barrels, I know that those things are not going to explode on you (although they might burn the building down).
What’s more, Czech police reported that there was a second safe in the residence but they found no explosives in that one, so whatever detonated and killed al-Jamal wasn’t common to the safes in his mission.
There is an internal Palestinian disagreement as to whether or not the safe was in regular use. The first news reports, which quoted the Palestinian Foreign Minister, said the safe hadn’t been opened since the 1980s. Apparently it was just forgotten and had been sitting in a corner somewhere ever since that bygone era when the PLO was trafficking Czech-made Semtex explosive and Skorpian machine pistols to allies such as the IRA. But today, Palestinian Embassy spokesman Nabil El-Fahel told Czech radio that the safe was in regular use and was opened and closed almost daily.
Which story is worse for the Palestinian State, in so far as its relations with the Czech Republic? Acknowledging that they kept firearms and small explosive charges in an active safe inside their diplomatic mission and residence as a matter of routine, or, that a forgotten artifact of a more militant past was opened in all innocence by a modern, peace-loving, diplomat who had no idea what was inside? That's a tough call.
Prague Police Chief Martin Vondrasek told Czech radio news that the firearms in the safe were not registered, but he did not describe them further. The Czech newsweekly Respeckt reported today that they were “enough to arm a unit of ten men,” which could mean that there were only ten weapons.
I suppose an arsenal that size might impress Central Europeans, but c’mon, I personally have three pistols I keep in a bedside table plus two shotguns in a closet. And my residence doesn’t even have diplomatic inviolbility, not that I need it in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
One last thought: do you suppose there are more booby-trapped arms caches in Palestinian embassies and diplomatic residences elsewhere?
P.S. at 7PM
I learned from press reports tonight that Ambassador al-Jamal was first posted to Prague in 1984 and for several years thereafter, then departed before returning last October as Ambassador. Could that possibly resolve the conflicting statements about the nature of the safe that he opened? If it really was a left-over item from the PLO mission in Prague in the '80s, as the Palestinian Foreign Minister has claimed, could it possibly have been a safe that al-Jamal used back then? If so, he may have known what was in it, and thought that he could open it safely.