Ahead of Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman’s visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Wednesday, June 23, Israel handed Egypt some of its information on the Palestinian gun-running tunnels cutting under the southern tip of the Gaza Strip.
It proved to be a mistake: Several days later, Egypt sent back a frosty message that described the Israeli information as incomplete and included details such as the names of a number of Palestinian Egyptians who Cairo said were involved in tunnel operations in the northern Sinai. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon took this response as an Egyptian rebuff. It meant that Cairo had known about the tunnels and Palestinian gun-running activities all along, and never intended raising a finger to stop it. He also took it to mean that Israel need expect no real help from Egypt in implementing its disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
The entire disengagement scheme is now more or less stalled. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and military sources point to three main factors leading the plan into its current impasse:
Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz and army chief Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon have compiled and presented an updated intelligence evaluation of the security situation in the Gaza Strip and within the Palestinian terrorist organizations. It exposed a 75 percent decline in effective Palestinian terrorist activity which is explained by two causes:
Israeli preventative military action and the completion of sections of the West Bank security barrier, mainly in the northern district.
An almost total halt in the transfer of funds to the terrorist organizations from Yasser Arafat, Saudi Arabia – which cut off Hamas’s stipend – and Hizballah and Iran, which have diverted resources and cash to the coming battle scheduled by Tehran to coincide with the US transfer of sovereignty to an interim Baghdad government.
Without their standard $50,000 fee for a major terrorist attack, Palestinian cell leaders and suicide bombers have lost some of their zeal for attacking Israel in the long, hot summer months.
According to the Mofaz-Yaalon report, the real reason for Arafat’s cut-off of funds to terrorist networks is their diversion to pad the pockets of the Popular Resistance Committees of southern Gaza, which comprise most of the radical Palestinian groups operating in the Egyptian border district of Rafah, Khan Younis and Deir al-Balakh, where the Abu Sema Dana and Abu Rish clans reign supreme. They have been spending the cash on fresh supplies of weapons and explosives and new terrorist networks for their next major objective: an operational master-plan for subjecting the September 2005 evacuation of Israeli settlements and positions to heavy Palestinian fire at a high cost in blood.
They are preparing massive Katyusha rocket barrages to slam into the settlements as squads of suicide bombers crowd in and blow themselves up alongside settler families packed and ready to leave. Palestinian snipers are being trained to rain down fire on the settlements. Roads along the evacuation route will be lined with explosive charges. Gunmen armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades will wait in ambush as Gush Katif’s 8,000 settlers pile into cars with their belongings and head out of Gaza.
Mofaz and Yaalon have described the Palestinian plan in detail to the Israeli prime minister and evaluated the consequences of evacuation under this offensive: large numbers of homes will be destroyed instead of being dismantled and reassembled in the new communities awaiting the evacuees in the Negev and, worst of all, heavy casualties will be inflicted on the settlers and the soldiers called in to remove them. The cost could be hundreds of dead and wounded, they warned.
The two security chiefs also envisage the destruction of at least 100 of the estimated 2,500 trucks plying the roads in Gaza with people and their possessions by continuous mortar and RPG barrages. This will bring the Israeli pullout to a grinding halt. The army will be forced to abandon the evacuation and launch a major cleansing operation to reestablish control over Gaza’s main arteries. The scenes will be reminiscent of the nightmarish situation on Iraq’s main roads in April, when Iraqi guerrilla forces, by daily attacks, halted the movement of US military and supply convoys between Baghdad and other cities, including flashpoint Fallujah, and between Amman, Jordan and Iraq. As the trucks went up in smoke, US troops escorting the convoys suffered heavy casualties and the insurgents took civilian drivers hostage.
Mofaz and Yaalon proposed a hard-hitting plan to avoid this unacceptable prospect.
About two to three months before the evacuation, the army will occupy the three main Palestinian towns neighboring Gush Katif – Rafah, Khan Younis and Deir al-Balakh, which represent about 40 percent of Gaza Strip territory.
Our sources reveal that Monday, June 21, Sharon briefed a group from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy led by former US peace envoy Dennis Ross on the Palestinian plan for turning the Gaza evacuation into a bloodbath and Egypt’s refusal to help derail it.
Speaking in a closed encounter, he said: “Have no doubt, Israel will not carry out the evacuation of Gush Katif under fire,” acknowledging for the first time that his Gaza pullout plan was pretty much dead in the water.
But, still determined to rescue his scheme, he said he would present the evacuation-under-fire scenario to General Suleiman during his visit to Jerusalem Wednesday, June 23. If the Egyptian visitor was not persuaded to help Israel to deal with the threat, there would be no point in discussing any other issues.
The night before he arrived, the Egyptian intelligence chief arranged for a leak to the Arab news agencies that Egypt’s condition for sending military trainers into Gaza was Israel’s immediate cessation of all its military operations in the territory. It was clear to Israel’s leaders that bowing to Cairo’s condition would scupper any plans to pre-empt a Palestinian onslaught by taking control of the three Gazan towns. Evacuation under massive Palestinian fire would then become inevitable.
Upon hearing of Suleiman’s condition, Sharon decided not to receive him. The Egyptian general was met by Mofaz and foreign minister Silvan Shalom as well as the Shin Beit director Avi Dichter. Sharon informed the media that Egypt’s pre-condition was unacceptable and that no truce was possible as long as there was terrorism. He added that Israel would refrain from incursions in places where terror was absent – nowhere else.
Egypt is not only against Israeli pre-emptive action in Gaza to make the evacuation safe; it also harbors an interest in keeping the weapons smuggling tunnels going.
This aspect of the Mofaz-Yaalon intelligence briefing was aired during their presentation to the prime minister. No better proof of Egypt’s acceptance of the tunnel system is the fact that this cottage industry could be easily eliminated by arresting several dozen Palestinian Egyptians in Egyptian Rafah. This was done during the first Palestinian confrontation with Israel from 1987 to 1992, when Egypt shut down 101 tunnels, so blocking arms replenishments to the Palestinians. Today, Egypt reasons that if the tunnels are shut down, Israel will have no reason to keep its troops deployed on the Philadelphi corridor on the Egypt-Gaza border at Rafah. They could be withdrawn even before the settlement evacuation begins. Egypt would then come under pressure to send in its own soldiers to the border sector. They would immediately find themselves eyeball-to-eyeball with armed Palestinians. The Gaza Strip would fall to Egypt’s responsibility. No worse nightmare is conceived in Cairo.
Former Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan, now a private citizen who has lost none of his punch, quietly completed the takeover of Fatah’s grassroots neighborhood councils in Gaza City Monday, June 21. Yasser Arafat’s candidates were roundly defeated in secret elections in which Dahlan loyalists wrested 90 percent of the council seats. Additional ballots will be held in two weeks’ time in the refugee camps of Nusseirat and Bureij in the central Gaza Strip and, in late August, in the southern towns of Rafah, Khan Younis and Deir al-Balakh.
It is all part of a strategy to use “democratic elections” to turn Dahlan into the most powerful figure in the Gaza Strip and present Arafat with a political fait accompli. Gaza, with Dahlan in charge, will become a political entity in its own right, separate from the West Bank where he wields no real power. The “Gaza entity” is designed for cooperation with Egypt, Israel and Britain in carrying out prime minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” plan and the evacuation of Jewish settlements.
Aside from the publication Monday of a joint statement in which all the Palestinian factions in Gaza voiced opposition to deploying Egyptian security experts in the territory or Jordanian security men in the West Bank, Arafat has taken no real steps to block the Dahlan ploy. Intelligence officials believe Arafat’s inaction stems from two main factors:
The Palestinian leader is certain he need issue only one order for all of Dahlan’s supporters in the Gaza Strip to forsake him, as they did in the summer of 2003 in the West Bank when he tried to take over local Fatah-Tanzim and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades cells in a bid to start implementing the US-backed peace “road map”.
To the astonishment of many Fatah activists in the Gaza Strip, one of Arafat’s closest cronies, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, is cooperating with Dahlan. Since Abdel Rahim never blows his nose without asking Arafat’s permission, his alliance with Dahlan has led to speculation that:
Realizing Arafat’s political clout is growing weaker, Abdel Rahim is bidding for himself in Dahlan’s Gaza regime (Experts, however, believe this is unlikely).
Abdel Rahim is Arafat’s watchdog to make sure Dahlan does not go too far and cross any red lines set by the Palestinian Authority chairman. On the other hand, Abdel Rahim could be Dahlan’s ace in the hole, making certain that Arafat will not – at least for the time being – take any measures against him (Experts think this explanation is more plausible).
Officials in Israeli military intelligence and the national security council have been describing Dahlan’s actions as proof that he genuinely means to “disengage” from Arafat, a separation that would enable Sharon to press ahead with his Gaza plan. The officials hope, somewhat incongruously, to create a “virtual reality” in which Sharon could sell his blueprint to the Israeli public as a linkup with a user-friendlier Dahlan. In any case, the message is clear: Sharon’s Gaza plan cannot be implemented without the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources report Dahlan is pouring millions of dollars into the hands of local Gazan leaders – money crucial to taking control of Fatah institutions in the area. Palestinians wonder who is footing the bill, and rumors are flying. Unofficially, Dahlan’s people say the cash comes from the Gulf, but refuse to give any details – a sign they are economical with the truth. According to some rumors, British, Egyptian, US and Israeli sources are putting up the funds. It that’s true, it means Britain, Egypt, the United States and Israel are not only investing large sums in yet another attempt to isolate Arafat but are knowingly funneling money to the leaders of terrorist organizations who, at this stage at least, are making no promises to stop engaging in terrorist activities.
In his next move, Dahlan will try to buy the loyalty of two of the biggest crime/terror gangs in the southern Gaza Strip, the Abu Sema Dana and Abu Rish clans that control the tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt to the West Bank. Dahlan will find the going tougher: Each gang is comprised of dozens of family heads, each with a gang and a tunnel or two of his own.
Dahlan confidants believe that once his takeover of Gaza is complete, Hamas – coming apart at the seams since Israel’s assassination of sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi – will find itself even more isolated. But like everything else in the Middle East, the issue of the weapons smuggling tunnels has wider ramifications. It has become a factor not only in the succession battle in Egypt but also in Washington’s relations with Cairo and the US war against al Qaeda.
Call it a paradox: While helping Dahlan win control of the Gaza Strip and try to take action in the south, Egypt is also encouraging elements in the border area opposed to the strongman-in-the-making.