A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

1 March: Israel set out on Thursday, February 28, to break the back of the Fatah-Tanzim’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, by thrusting for the first time in force into the large Nablus and Jenin refugee camps. DEBKAfiles military sources expect the Palestinians to fight back, possibly by firing Qasam rockets and mortars into Israeli cities, plus the regular rocket and gunfire and suicide assailants at crowd centers.

On Thursday night, Tanzim and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades West Bank leaders and the muezzin at many Palestinian mosques publicly called on the masses to take to the streets and fight Israeli forces. As heavy battles raged on the West Bank, the Gaza Strip was quiet most of the day.

In the last two months, Arafat established a new terrorist infrastructure in the refugee camps.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the main operational arm of the Palestinian terror network in the West Bank led by Tanzim chief Marwan Barghouti and intelligence commander Colonel Tawfik Tirawi, now operate out of their three new bases: the Balata refugee camp of east Nablus, the Jenin refugee camp – which Palestinians recently dubbed Camp Kandahar — and the Nur Shams refugee camp near Tulkarm. Based there too are the manufacturing sites and stores for explosive belts, bombs, mortars and Qassam rocket warheads Some 40,000 Palestinians live in those camps, which the IDF has never entered till now.

Israeli security and intelligence services were unprepared for the number of terror strikes to soar to 10 to 12 shooting and suicide assaults per day, as they have in February. When they discovered that the level was to be tripled over the coming weeks, the decision was taken to root out the threat at its source.

Arafat had been warned repeatedly to disband the al Aqsa Brigades – and not only by Israel.

After ignoring repeated cautions from Washington, the Palestinian leader shrugged off the last advice issued by the usually forbearing Europeans, in the person of the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, when he visited Arafat earlier this week in Ramallah.

Sharon decided to break up the al Aqsa Brigades without delay for another reason revealed here by DEBKAfile’s military sources: the massive US military offensive against Iraq looming ahead.

Israel therefore decided on the destruction of the al-Aqsa Brigades in the Balata and Jenin refugee camps as a top priority, to enable free military movement in the event of war.

2 March: Friday night, March 1, on the third day of their first large-scale counter-terror operations in the refugee camps of Nablus and Jenin, Israeli armed forces, led by troops of the Golani infantry brigade, pulled back from the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin to its outskirts.

A few hours later, a Palestinian bomber struck the heart of the ultra-orthodox Jerusalem district of Beit Israel, near Mea Shearim. The narrow streets were crowded with families coming out of synagogue at Sabbath’s end. Most of the ten killed and the 51 injured were small children.

The attack came on the heels of intelligence information reaching the prime minister’s office on Friday March 1, quoting Yasser Arafat as pledging to his immediate circle that he would turn Israeli cities into a “second Lebanon”.

DEBKAfile‘s sources, surveying the concatenation of events, find that while the Israeli assault on the camps is the start of a long-running program to beard the most militant terrorist groups in their bases and choke off their access to Israeli centers, Arafat is working fast with immediate effect. Therefore, the military thrusts against Palestinian terrorist hotbeds on the West Bank cannot be expected in the short term to reduce atrocities like the one in Jerusalem.

According to DEBKAfile‘s military sources, the ultimate purpose of the military thrusts into both camps, the most extensive since the onset of the Palestinian confrontation in September 2000, is to cut the Palestinian refugee camps off from outside access – just as they are in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. But first, they are being purged and their terror infrastructure dismantled.

Jenin and Balata were chosen as the first to be cleansed and secluded. According to intelligence evaluations, they housed the largest concentrations of Fatah al Aqsa Brigades militants, as well as the largest West Bank manufacturing units for Qasam rockets and launchers, and workshops for fabricating bomb belts and explosive devices. Next for this treatment are the Nour Shams camp of Tulkarm and Aweida near Bethlehem, both on the West Bank.

In Jenin and Balata, the local terror militias showed poor fighting ability and low motivation, in striking contrast to their leader’s belligerent rhetoric. They tried to halt the Israeli incursion by hurling at the tanks, APCs and troops, 130 explosive charges and bomb belts, made up ready for their next suicide and terror strikes against Israeli civilian targets.

When this counter-assault failed, the Palestinian al Aqsa militiamen surprised everyone by falling back, appearing to be short of weapons. When the Israeli force approached their bases, the Aqsa gunmen fled and made for the town centers of Jenin and Nablus in order to lose themselves among civilians. In Nablus, they plunged into the Casbah, some disguising themselves as women or feigning injuries in order to be rescued by Red Crescent ambulances.

Israeli troops shot at the fleeing fugitives.

The Palestinian casualty toll was accordingly high: 30 dead and 220 injured, some critically, in three days of combat. Israeli forces suffered 2 soldiers killed and 3 injured.

The fleeing al Aqsa militiamen, after reaching relative safety in the Nablus and Jenin town centers, were disappointed in their expectation that Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters would send over logistic and other aid to enable them to regroup.

3 March: The largest joint air-ground, US-Afghan offensive of the Afghanistan war on terror is now in its third day in the snow-clad, inaccessible mountains of Arma in the eastern Afghanistan province of Paktia. It was launched to pre-empt the regrouping of the al Qaeda and Taliban remnants sheltering there – estimated by DEBKAfile‘s military sources as possibly 8,000 – for a counter-offensive when the spring thaw sets in.

The current offensive has already been an eye-opener. The American-Afghan setback on Saturday demonstrated that the Taliban and its al Qaeda partners had studied the five-month battlefront and drawn some lessons. They are in far better shape now than in the days of the Mazar- e-Sharif, Konduz and Tora Bora battles.

They have replaced their small, undisciplined bands and free-ranging chiefs with an organized central command at the head of a hierarchy, arming the revamped units with communications equipment and decent clothes. Their arsenal is substantial, containing such heavy weaponry as missiles, mortars and heavy machine guns, which they have learned to use economically. Seen against Afghan battlefield traditions, their food and ammunition supply systems are much enhanced, as are their facilities for caring for the wounded, including evacuation to hospital.

There are signs that they have developed a competent, real-time field intelligence capability; their units are also far more mobile and flexible, they time counter-attacks for the hours of dark, have learned to evade US bombing strikes by day and fortify their positions.

The Taliban also command a reserve force – not large but adequate – part of which is standing by across the border in West Pakistan.

Faced with enhanced and expanded Taliban-al Qaeda combat capabilities, US strategists will need to retool their assault plans accordingly. It must be scheduled for no later than March 15-20, before the receding winter snows open up the mountain passes to Taliban movement.

One other problem confronting US military planners is psychological: After declaring the Taliban and al Qaeda routed in Afghanistan and having installed a new democratic regime in Kabul, they must deal with the prospect of a lengthy American military presence to finish a job believed done. The Taliban were thrown out of Afghanistan’s cities, but withdrew to remote and mountainous country – and over the border to Pakistan – with their military strength unimpaired.

Al Qaeda too may have lost the use of its Afghan base, but this extremist group has likewise retained its strength, having sent its followers to safety in Pakistan, Iran, the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Syria and Lebanon

4 March: The lone Palestinian sniper who, with 25 bullets from his old-fashioned rifle, was able to kill 7 well-armed Israeli soldiers and 3 civilians – and wound another 4 – at the Kharmieh roadblock near Ramallah, circulated over local and international media as a statement of fact. All the evidence gathered by DEBKAfile‘s military sources confutes the tale. Our investigations show that before light, Sunday morning, March 3, not one but three Palestinian gunmen took up positions on the hills enclosing the roadblock on both sides. One, armed with an M-14 rifle, was positioned on the southeastern hill. This rifle may be old, but many an expert marksman praises its precision and stability. The other two Palestinian gunmen stood on the opposite northwestern hill, armed with an M-16 assault rifle and a PK 500 General Purpose Machine Gun (comparable to a 7.62mm FN MAG).

The first shots were fired by the marksman armed with the M-14 before 0700 IT Sunday morning. He hit three Israeli soldiers. The two Palestinians on the opposite hill then opened heavy assault and machine gun fire on the falling men to make sure none survived. The rest of the unit, woken up in its temporary quarters by the gunfire, ran out half-dressed and shooting. As they approached the roadblock, four were caught in the crossfire from the two hills.

DEBKAfile built up this picture with the help of witnesses on the spot. Furthermore, identifiable cartridges from the different weapons used were collected from three different firing positions on the high ground over the roadblock. Finally, experienced paramedics on the scene identified diverse entry and exit wounds, likewise attesting to bullets from a variety of weapons.

5 March: General Tommy Franks, head of the American Central Command, claims the United States has applied the lessons drawn from previous battle of the Afghan War, especially the Tora Bora engagement, in the current push against Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds south of Gardez in East Afghanistan. He promises that in this offensive, dubbed Operation Anaconda, the two forces will not get away across the border into Pakistan. They will have to surrender or be killed.

He is probably right. Operation Anaconda is the largest US-led air and ground offensive of the Afghan War. But DEBKAfile‘s military analysts contend that even if so, its success will be short-lived. After the Gardez rebel concentration is broken up, making the highways to Kabul and Kandahar safe, it will be restocked gradually as of late spring from the other pockets of resistance around the country and across the border in Pakistan, Kashmir and the Ferangha Valley of Central Asia – in all of which thousands of Chechen, Uzbek, Chinese, Tadjik and Kazakh extremist Muslim militants are waiting their chance to creep back into Afghanistan. The US-Afghan force can dissolve pockets of resistance, but it cannot block off the constant passage of itinerant Taliban and al Qaeda militants up and down thousands of miles of routes, crisscrossing half a dozen countries.

Military strength, even assisted by technological surveillance, is unequal to this task, without efficient intelligence to pinpoint and hit those routes. This capability the Americans lack for the moment in Afghanistan and outside the country. Nor do they appear to be expending effort on repairing this deficiency. The US command seems to have set itself the task of striking at one stationary Taliban al-Qaeda pocket after another. It has little chance of catching rebels on the move now – any more than it had in the battles of Konduz and Tora Bora.

5 March: Tuesday, between 02:15 and 09:00 hours Israel time, Palestinian terrorists slew 5 Israelis and injured 63 in attacks in Tel Aviv, Afula and the Tunnel Road leading out of Jerusalem. Each time the level of bloodshed hits a new and intolerable high – as it did last Saturday and Sunday – it gets worse.

By upping the pace of terror attacks and killing more Israelis, Arafat is throwing a gauntlet at the feet of US president George W. Bush – namely, he will prove he can topple Ariel Sharon before the Americans even get started on overturning Saddam Hussein.

DEBKAfile‘s military, intelligence and Palestinian sources report Arafat is determined to turn his confrontation against Israel into Saddam Hussein’s front line against the United States. Certain the Americans will fail, he is standing solidly behind the side he expects to win, Iraq – and challenging the losers, the United States and Israel.

This is a repeat of Arafat’s 1991Gulf War performance. Then too, he advised Saddam to tie his strategy to the Palestinian problem, whereupon the Iraqi ruler defined his 1990 invasion of Kuwait as the first round in the war of liberation for Palestine.

To help Saddam, therefore, two weeks ago, Arafat unleashed two of his private militias, the 30,000-strong Tanzim and the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – who are in close communication with Iraqi military intelligence – for the current terror offensive against Israeli targets, scaling the level of violence up every three days.

Arafat’s spokesmen appearing over the media on Tuesday made no bones about their objectives. The Palestinian Authority has declared war on Israel, they say, and aims by means of terrorist strikes to kill as many Israelis as possible and bring down the Sharon government.

Sharon’s handling of the crisis shows hesitancy. With the Arab League summit due to convene on March 28 in Beirut, he is reluctant to play into Arafat’s hands and confront Palestinian violence with all the strength at Israel’s disposal, lest even moderate Arab rulers, like those of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar, turn their backs on the forthcoming American campaign against Iraq. His hands are also held tight by his dovish Labor coalition partners, the defense and foreign ministers, Binyamin bin Eliezer and Shimon Peres, who oppose permitting the army to tackle the Palestinian offensive head-on. A Labor walkout, by enfeebling the Sharon government, would also weaken the pro-American Middle East front and devalue Israeli military support for a US military offensive. A former general, the Israeli prime minister is also aware of the cost in bloodshed – military and civilian – of a full-scale war campaign against the Palestinians.

Arafat is aware of these constraints, but by piling on the terror day by day, he may push Israel too far. If Sharon is driven into a corner, he will have to take the gloves off or lose his seat.

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