The hand of Yasser Arafat was clearly perceived in the manner in which CNN producer Riad Ali, an Israeli Druze, was abducted and then released 18 hours later – although his motivation is far from clear.
Intelligence officials told DEBKA-Net-Weekly they believe that Mahmoud Shabatat, head of the Popular Resistance Committees, a terrorist umbrella group under Arafat’s thumb, was behind the Monday, September 27 kidnapping by gunmen, who stopped a CNN car outside the Gaza city studio and asked for Ali by name.
The abductors proposed demanding an Israeli guarantee to halt its targeted killings of terrorist activists in the Gaza Strip. But Arafat stopped them. In an intercepted telephone conversation with Shabatat, Arafat said: “Cut it out. This is important to me. Release Ali immediately.”
Arafat was no doubt feeling the heat from Washington. Through American, European and Arab media, CNN also posted an appeal for him and his associates to do their utmost to help rescue Ali immediately and unharmed.
After the Israeli Druze journalist’s release, Arafat instructed Palestinian security and intelligence services “to close the kidnapping case,” and refrain from conducting any investigations or making arrests.
Two explanations are put forward for this otherwise inexplicable episode.
One is that the PCR staged the kidnapping on Arafat’s orders as a means of forcing Israeli forces to pull out of the western district of the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. The Israeli incursion began several days earlier after three Palestinian gunmen raided an IDF post at the settlement of Morag and killed an officer and two soldiers, and a Palestinian mortar barrage killed 24-year-old Tiferet Tratner in another Gaza settlement, Neve Dekalim.
Israeli troops mostly stay out of Khan Younis a stronghold of the PRC. Forcing their withdrawal for Ali’s release would have been quite a notch on the Palestinian gun barrel, a first-time Israeli surrender to a hostage demand for a retreat from territory. Arafat counted on CNN-induced American pressure to twist the Israeli government’s arm and force prime minister Ariel Sharon to his knees, a victory in the battle against his disengagement plan.
For Arafat and his terror machine, hostage-taking is a novel venture, which they are finding useful for achieving political goals. They are becoming quite expert, having already staged brief abductions of Palestinian police chief Ghazi Jabali and five French aid workers in separate incidents in July.
The second is that the kidnapping was staged by the PRC head on his own initiative for complicated motives inimical to Arafat and his nephew, military intelligence chief, Mussa Arafat.
Arafat was not quite nimble enough
According to our Palestinian sources, on Friday, September 24, Shabatat practically put his head in a noose when he accused Mussa Arafat, the Chairman’s own kinsman and favorite, of treason. He had a huge bone to pick with Mussa Arafat for admitting in an interview with the London-based Arabic Sharq al-Awsat newspaper that the Palestinian Authority knew the identities of the bombers who assassinated three US security men traveling in an American diplomatic convoy near Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on October 15, 2003. The military intelligence chief said the Americans must understand that the Palestinian Authority labored under certain constraints which prevented its taking the killers into custody.
Yasser Arafat was livid. For the past 12 months, he has employed Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurie (Abu Ala) to persuade Washington and Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman, a frequent visitor to his Ramallah headquarters, that his hands are clean of the murders. The United States and Egypt were not satisfied, arguing that even if the Palestinian leader was innocent, he should bring the killers to justice.
The Palestinian leader admitted he knew their identities, but added: “I’m not 100 percent certain as my information comes from intelligence data, which you should know is not always complete. But anyway my men cannot locate their hiding-places.”
“Bullshit!” came the US and Egyptian reply. “We gave you their names and you have admitted they belong to the PRC in Gaza. The commander is Mahmoud Shabatat, who takes his orders from you. So order him to seize them!”
Piling on the pressure, Washington and Cairo told Arafat they knew all about Shabatat snatching police chief Jabali to force his resignation.
His back to the wall, Arafat came up with a new ruse. He let Washington know through senior Palestinian intelligence officials that the Palestinian who actually detonated the explosives against the US convoy had been “murdered by Palestinian hit-men in circumstances that were still unclear”.
He claimed to have ordered the Palestinian Authority to search exhaustively for the bomber, only to discover his hideout after he was dead.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources took this story to be Arafat’s roundabout way of informing the Americans that he himself had had the bomber put to death.
He had every reason to hope that dead men tell no tales. The Americans had found out that the deceased had been drawing his usual Palestinian Authority paycheck as a member of Rashid Abu Shbak’s preventive security service in Gaza even after the October assassinations. Since every PA paycheck is personally authorized by Arafat, the identity of the dead killer was all the proof Washington needed of his direct complicity in the murder of the three Americans.
The Palestinian leader did all he could to keep the bomber’s murder quiet and even prohibited the erection of a mourning tent at his home, just as he prevented similar tents going up for the departed Abu Anas al-Shami and Omar Yousef Jumaa, Mussab Zarqawi‘s deputy.
(See HOT POINTS below: Zarqawi’s No. 2 Dies in US Targeted Assassination).
But Mussa Arafat’s indiscretion to the newspaper threw a spanner in the carefully engineered works. The entire Palestinian Authority was compromised. The Americans and Egyptians had proof that Yasser Arafat knew where the bombers were hiding and was deliberately holding back from surrendering them. The military intelligence chief had also incriminated Shabatat as the authority who had ordered the attack on the American diplomatic convoy and then gave the murderers sanctuary.
The PCR chief accordingly stepped up his attacks on his defamer.
On Saturday, September 25, Shabatat not only branded Mussa Arafat a traitor but accused him of a plot to liquidate PCR officials. He said he had videotaped the confessions of the two would-be assassins admitting they had been dispatched by Mussa Arafat and implying that their hit-list carried all the individuals involved in murdering the US security men.
The CNN producer’s kidnap was the pin that pricked the bubble of this Palestinian feud.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian sources report that the PCR heads in Gaza took the advice of the committees’ Hizballah and al Qaeda cell leaders who maintained that keeping the affair quiet was a fool’s game. All the PCR members involved in the year-old murders of American security men would find themselves either dead or submitted to US custody. They therefore opted for a notorious “Iraqi tactic” and abducted a journalist, holding him as hostage as an act of defiance to challenge Arafat, the United States and Israel.
The ins and outs of this lingering affair provide a rare glimpse into the Machiavellian world of Palestinian decision-making and the growing influence Hizballah and al Qaeda exert on the Palestinian terrorist empire of the Gaza Strip.