Two of those involved in the operation now hold high political office – Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon.
At the time, Mr Barak was deputy military chief, and Mr Yaalon was head of the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit. Their precise roles in the operation were not divulged, and both men’s offices declined comment.
Israel has long been suspected of assassinating Khalil al-Wazir, who was better known as Abu Jihad.
But only now has the country’s military censor cleared the Yediot Ahronot daily to publish the information, including an interview with the commando who killed him, at least 12 years after the newspaper obtained the information.
“I shot him with a long burst of fire,” the commando Nahum Lev told Yediot before his death in a motorcycle accident in 2000. “I was careful not to hurt his wife, who had showed up there. He died.
“Abu Jihad was involved in horrible acts against civilians. He was a dead man walking. I shot him without hesitation.”
Dozens of similar operations have been attributed to Israel over the decades. But Israel rarely takes responsibility, and this public acknowledgement gives a rare glimpse into its covert operations.
Abu Jihad founded the Palestine Liberation Organisation with Mr Arafat and was blamed for a series of deadly attacks against Israelis. Among them, he masterminded a 1978 attack on an Israeli bus that killed 38 Israelis.
According to the Yediot report, the operation to kill him was a joint effort by the Mossad secret service and Sayeret Matkal.
At the time of the raid, the PLO, headed by Mr Arafat, was based in Tunisia. From a command post on an Israeli boat in the Mediterranean Sea, 26 Israeli commandos reached the shores of Tunisia on rubber boats.
Lev, the commando, approached Abu Jihad’s home in the capital Tunis with another soldier who was dressed as a woman. The two pretended to be a holidaying couple, with Lev carrying what appeared to be a large box of chocolates. Inside the box, however, was a gun fitted with a silencer.
Upon encountering the first of Abu Jihad’s bodyguards, Lev drew his weapon and shot the man in the head.
Another team killed a separate bodyguard and a gardener before entering the expansive villa. Lev’s partner was the first to fire at the Palestinian leader. When Lev noticed Abu Jihad reaching for a weapon he shot and killed him.