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Foreign Office changes tourist advice after Israeli inquiry

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Updated The Foreign Office has revised travel advice for Brits visiting Israel after the UK government blamed the Jewish State for cloning UK passports for use in an operation to kill a Hamas commander in Dubai.

British citizens - especially those with passports issued before 2006 without biometric chips containing digitally-signed photos of the holder - are advised only to hand over their passports to "third parties including Israeli officials when absolutely necessary".

In a related statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary David Miliband reported the findings of a UK police inquiry into the misuse of 12 counterfeit UK passports by suspected members of a 27-plus strong hit squad to gain entry to the UAE and kill Mahmud al-Mabhuh on 19 January. Other suspected hit squad members used Irish, French, German or Australian documents.

Miliband told Parliament that the details of 12 innocent British citizens "were copied from genuine British passports when handed over for inspection to individuals linked to Israel, either in Israel or in other countries". The quality of the forged passports was such that it was likely they were made by intelligence agencies, not run-of-the-mill criminals. Since UK police found no links to any country other than Israel, which had an obvious motive for taking out al-Mabhuh, the British government has concluded "that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports," Miliband said.

Eleven of the 12 innocent Brits (as a group, mainly dual citizenship holders resident in Israel) impersonated by roving assassins have accepted passports with biometric chips offering improved security. Those affected include Melvyn Mildiner, an Israel-resident British IT worker. Both Foreign Office and Australian authorities said that the counterfeit passports used by suspects in the hit were forgeries of older passports without biometric chips.

"Such misuse of British passports is intolerable. It presents a hazard for the safety of British nationals in the region. It also represents a profound disregard for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom," Miliband told Parliament.

In a diplomatic reprisal, the UK Foreign Office requested the withdrawal of an unnamed Israeli diplomat from Britain (unconfirmed but probably a Mossad intelligence liaison officer) and sought assurances from Israel that the misuse of British passports would not be repeated. The Foreign Office also published revised travel advice for Israel designed to "alert other British nationals to the risks that their passports might be misused" to make counterfeit copies by Mossad or other arms of the Israeli state.

The advice, which still primarily focuses on the threat of terrorism in Israel and practical considerations such as money, health insurance and "erratic" driving conditions, has been updated in response to the ongoing investigation of UK police by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency into the misuse of British passports in the al-Mabhuh hit. An extract reads:

The SOCA investigation found circumstantial evidence of Israeli involvement in the fraudulent use of British passports. This has raised the possibility that your passport details could be captured for improper uses while your passport is out of your control. The risk applies in particular to passports without biometric security features. We recommend that you only hand your passport over to third parties including Israeli officials when absolutely necessary.

UK passport holders do not require a visa to enter Israel as a visitor for a period of up to three months. Up until about four years ago Israeli immigration authorities agreed to stamp landing cards, where available, and not passports, essentially as a courtesy to prevent travellers from running into problems if they subsequently went to Arab countries. This practice has now all but ceased, according to the Foreign Office.

Travellers are asked to hand over their passports in all sorts of circumstances when they visit foreign countries. As well as presenting their passports to immigration authorities at airports or border crossings they may be asked to leave passports with hotel staff, who across the world are asked to submit details of guests to local police, when they hire cars or exchange money.

So what's the practical upshot of the revised advice for Brits visiting Israel, we wondered?

After checking with consular staff, a helpful Foreign Office spokeswoman said it was up to people to interpret the guidelines it issues themselves. She was reluctant for that reason to be drawn into discussing scenarios beyond saying that UK passport holders needed to be "cautious" when visiting Israel about handing over their passports in general. ®

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