A Digest of debkafile Round-the-Clock Exclusives in Week Ending January 5, 2006

Four Palestinian terror groups end purported ceasefire in attacks on Israel


1 January: They are Fatah-al Aqsa Brigades, Jihad Islami, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Hamas Ezz a-Din al Qassam.

debkafile adds: Before these announcements, 50 terrorist alerts, 10 specific, kept Israeli security on high alert over the weekend. The Israeli air force enforced its no-go zone in the northern Gaza Strip Saturday night by striking a missile crew on the point of launching another of the almost daily Qassam firings into Israel. Two crewmen were killed.

Early Sunday, masked Palestinians blew up the UN club bar in Gaza City Sunday and beat up the security guard, a day after three British hostages were freed by Palestinian gunmen. The bar was almost the only place in Gaza that sold alcohol. Most of foreign staff have left the territory for fear of kidnapping.


Fatah factions pushing to postpone Jan 25 election for fear of Hamas challenge


1 January: International election observers are already on their way to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. An inter-ministerial Israeli team will consider the effects of substantial Hamas gains in the vote for the Palestinian legislature. This will also be discussed in US-Israeli talks led by State department official David Welch and Steve Hadley with prime minister’s adviser Dov Weissglas in Jerusalem.


Jenin-1 on the West Bank joins Gaza’s Qassam missile in the Palestinian armory


1 January: Three weeks ago, the Palestinians were able to fire their first missile from the West Bank into Israel. No Israeli official reported the launching which was aimed from a point north of Jenin at Moshav Adirim outside the West Bank less than 8-9km distant.

debkafile‘s military sources report that the West Bank version of the Qassam was developed by the ruling Fatah al Aqsa Brigades faction in Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarm, for distribution across the West Bank. Military sources have no doubt that Jenin-1 will soon be followed by Jenin-2 and Jenin-3, with improved range and more explosive force.

It differs from the Gazan Qassam in two important respects:

1. It does not depend on Gaza-developed technology, but is a West Bank product from start to finish.

2. It is not wielded by Hamas and Jihad Islami like the Qassam but the weapon of the al Aqsa Brigades, a branch of the ruling Fatah of which Mahmoud Abbas is the titular head, along with the jailed terrorist Marwan Barghouti.

Once the Jenin missile starts flying towards Israel’s population centers, the security situation will plunge not only around Gaza’s blue skies but also opposite the West Bank.


Vengeful Assad bares massive corruption of Khalim Haddam


2 January: debkafile‘s Middle East sources report that former vice president Khalim Haddam’s al Arabiya TV interview charging President Bashar Assad with complicity in the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri has precipitated a campaign of revenge. Safely ensconced in Paris, he has been expelled from the ruling Syrian Baath party and condemned in the Syrian parliament as a traitor. But the enraged president is not satisfied. Sunday, January 1, 10,000 demonstrators stormed Haddam’s mansion in the northern city of Banias on the Mediterranean and began to torch it. The police and fire brigade quenched the flames after some of the wings were destroyed.

Monday, Jan 2, the presidential bureau in Damascus summoned dozens of Arab reporters for a “briefing” on the extent of the former vice president’s corrupt practices, notably his illicit business ties with the murdered Hariri.

Many in the Arab world were amazed. Disclosures of Haddam’s corruption were no eye-opener; but its disclosure was seen as a grave blunder, showing Assad to be in a state of blind panic to reveal misdeeds that must reflect badly on the entire Assad clan.

Here are some of the charges:

1. In his three decades at the top of the Syrian tree, Haddam amassed a personal fortune of $1.1bn.

2. In the 20 years that Haddam was the senior Syrian official responsible for Lebanon he received $50m in bribes from Hariri.

3. The Hariris presented Khaddam with the gift of a palace purchased from the Onassis family on the Avenue Foch, Paris, near the Israeli embassy and a second villa in Nice.

4. The Hariris and Haddams went into joint ownership of Saudi companies including the Coca Cola concession in the kingdom, a computer outlet and the Happy Land restaurant chain.


Fifteen Damascus-based Hamas combat chiefs arrived in Gaza


2 January: debkafile‘s counter-terror sources report that up until Jan 1, 2006 fifteen Damascus-based heads of the Hamas armed wing flew in from Damascus and entered the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing. The most recent arrival on Jan. 1 was Rashid Hamadi, one of the founders of the Hamas Ezz a-Din al Qassam armed wing, who for 13 years operated out of Damascus and Beirut.

debkafile‘s sources learn that the Hamas operations director Imad al Alami is also on his way.

The video cameras at the Rafah terminal and the European monitors recorded their arrival and passed the data on to the IDF and Shin Beit. None of these bodies was in a position to keep the terrorists out. Last week, Nizar Rayan, the number three Hamas commander in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, took off for consultations in Damascus by the same route. While repeatedly pointing the finger at the Syrian capital as the real sources of Palestinian terrorist and suicide attacks, Israel does nothing to plug the open route between Damascus and Gaza


Father of Syrian intelligence retired General Ali Duba flees to London


3 January: This defection follows the blunt charges leveled against Bashar Assad by former Syrian vice president Khalam Haddam last Friday, and the UN inquiry commission’s demand that the Syrian president make himself available for questioning in the Hariri assassination.


Israel Must Learn to Live without Ariel Sharon – at Least for a While


4 January: It soon became evident Wednesday night, Jan. 4, that prime minister Ariel Sharon was very ill indeed. After he went into emergency surgery at Hadassah Ain Karem hospital to drain the blood flooding his brain, his close aides would only say: We are praying for a miracle. Minutes after he was admitted to the hospital, acting prime minister Ehud Olmert assumed his powers. This time there was no hesitation, unlike after his stroke three weeks ago. Everyone began to understand that, even if the operation was a success, Ariel Sharon would not be fit to resume his duties for months – if at all.

Israel without Ariel Sharon as prime minister will have to adjust to important changes:

1. Up until the March 28 general election, finance minister Ehud Olmert takes over full prime ministerial authority. He is expected to call a cabinet meeting in the coming hours to assume the reins of government and demonstrate continuity. Israel, bitterly divided by political strife and rivalries, badly needs a unifying hand at the helm, a role which it is hard to see Olmert filling.

2. He will be called upon to perform a strong, unifying function for Kadima, the new party that Sharon fashioned in his own image, but without him lacks cohesive cement. He may be challenged by more popular figures. Many of its leading lights may think hard about returning to their parent-parties – Likud or Labor – or retiring from politics. Kadima is likely to reach the election a shadow of the party that, until Wednesday morning, shot to the top of all the opinion polls.

3. The security situation hangs in the balance. Defense minister Shaul Mofaz and chief of staff Lt-Gen Dan Halutz obeyed Sharon’s guidelines to the letter, even when this meant confronting the country with grave difficulties. Neither appears capable of rising above this submissiveness to fill the leadership vacuum left by the stricken prime minister. Olmert may have to look around for a strong figure in defense to compensate for his own lack of experience and instill in the country the sense that security is in capable hands.

4. Sharon’s absence from the prime minister’s office will also have an effect on the Palestinians who are sunk in anarchy under the weak leadership of Mahmoud Abbas.

5. Until Wednesday night, the most significant strategic game in progress) in the Middle East (aside from Iraq) was the US-French drive against Syrian president Bashar Assad, which is far from over. Now, with George Bush’s faithful ally in Jerusalem incapacitated, the pieces have shifted to new places on the regional board.


Two senior US officials call off visits to Israel


5 January: Elliot Abrams, Deputy National Security Adviser, and David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East, were due in Jerusalem Thursday.

debkafile reports surprise in Jerusalem over the cancellation. The visit would have contributed to a “business as usual” climate in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s health crisis. His stand-in Ehud Olmert would no doubt have benefited from the chance to confer with high-ranking representatives of Israel’s foremost ally. In contrast, Turkish FM Abdullah Gul went ahead with his visit and held talks Thursday with his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom as well as Palestinian leaders.


The first cabinet session called by PM Ehud Olmert


5 January: debkafile: Ehud Olmert’s first important decision on assuming the prime minister’s powers was to take up his new duties from his regular office at the Commerce and Industry ministry instead heading for the prime minister’s bureau.

After a briefing from Sharon’s advisers on security, he took his usual seat at the cabinet table and left the ailing prime minister’s chair empty. This was both an act of courtesy and a wise gesture to show he was not in a hurry to fill Ariel Sharon’s shoes even for the 100 days he is empowered to act as prime minister. It also placed Sharon’s personal advisers at arm’s length from the center of decision-making.

The question now is whether Olmert, 60, one of Sharon’s closest confidants and supporters of his unilateralist disengagement strategy, will abide by his policies during the period leading up to the March 28 election. He will be tested on his handling of the Palestinian missile offensive, the lawlessness on the Gaza-Egyptian border and the prospect of a Hamas victory in the Palestinian poll in 20 days time.

Olmert will be closely watched to discover his style of leadership in his new role and his qualifications for heading the Kadima party which was founded, dominated and is now orphaned by Ariel Sharon. Binyamin Netanyahu, a leading Olmert rivals, cancelled his decision to withdraw the four Likud ministers from government in the interests of stability.. It is clear that Ariel Sharon faces protracted incapacity and may never fully recover. The disappearance of a candidate head and shoulders above his rivals opens up the upcoming election race and gives some contestants a fresh lease of life.

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