20 October: The stormy controversy that erupted over a Jewish farm set up near Nablus in memory of Gilead Zar, who died in a terror attack on a West Bank road, bares once again the deep seam running down the middle of Ariel Sharon’s national unity government. This seam the prime minister consistently papers over at whatever cost to national assets and his credibility as a consensual leader. But he has no majority in his own Likud party for accommodating Labor on the settlement and other national issues, a fact he must keep in mind in relation to his rival Binyamin Netanyahu.
At the heart of the Zar farm controversy are two grave issues over which the Likud-led and Labor-led camps will never see eye to eye.
One concerns the (Labor) defense minister Binyamin bin Eliezer’s decision to dismantle some two dozen unauthorized outposts that have sprung up on West Bank hilltops
Most have been voluntarily evacuated. But a thousand settlers massed last week to block the dismantling of the Zar Farm. An understanding was reached to work the farm by day and leave no human habitation there by night. But then, on Saturday, October 19, troops and police were sent in to forcibly remove makeshift farm structures, thereby raising the second issue: The legitimacy of deploying troops and security personnel for this purpose on the Sabbath day.
In Saturday’s confrontation, some 30 were lightly injured on both sides. The set-to went on into the small hours of Sunday and during the day another 40 were lightly injured and nine settlers arrested.
The first outposts went up at the end of the Clinton-Barak era, when various final-status and ceasefire plans were in the air. The next wave was a response to the almost daily attacks on Israeli vehicles on West Bank highways, in one of which Gilead Zar, northern West Bank regional security officer, lost his life. Many disappeared as the armed forces took over hilltop firing positions. Some furled their flags when the highways became safer. A few determined to stay for good.
As Labor leader, Binyamin Ben Eliezer has faced constant criticism in his own party for inaction on the remaining outposts, particularly since his rivals, in the coming leadership election, Haim Ramon and Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna, are increasingly left wing and opposed to any form of Jewish habitation in territory they regard as belonging to a future Palestinian state. The Likud charges him with underhandedly paving his way to the Labor primaries with the ruined outposts.
The main difference in the case of the Zar farm is that, whereas the other 230,000 Jewish inhabitants set up their communities on previously uninhabited state land, this farm was established on private property that Moshe Zar purchased for cash from its Arab owners.
The Zar farm would have been the kernel of a new community, a center for the movement’s regeneration, which is why its supporters streamed from all over to save it from being torn down. That too is why the government nipped the project in the bud, just as former governments prevented a similar project rising south of Hebron at the Maon Farm, in memory of former terrorist victim Dov Driben.
Gilead’s brother, Oren Zar lamented: “This place was the answer to my brother’s murder. The Arabs want us out of here and we will strengthen our hold on the land. The land is our life.”
The Sabbath issue runs very deep at home. Most observant Jews serve in the armed forces. They are enabled to perform their duties on the Sabbath and festivals by the common acceptance of the precept that “saving lives takes precedence over the Sabbath”. When in doubt, the army’s Chief Rabbi is there to make a ruling. This status quo has never been challenged in any branch of the military service. This Saturday, the soldiers called up to dismantle the farm were told that the chief military rabbi, Rabbi Col. Weiss, had authorized their mission. Later, he denied having been consulted. The defense minister then denied he had ordered the troops to go into action on Saturday. The National Religious Party leader, Ephraim Eytam, riposted by calling him a liar and fool and demanded his dismissal.
The Sabbath argument leaves the army at sea for the first time over their conduct on the Jewish day of rest, sowing new controversy in a fighting force engaged in day to day combat on one or more fronts.
21 October: Addressing the French speaking nations’ summit that opened in Beirut Friday October 18, the first to take place in an Arab capital, French President Jacques Chirac declared that the war on terrorism should be fought “without mercy”, yet conducted “with respect for human rights and the rule of law”.
The French president made time for the conference in a busy schedule. He leads international opposition to American military action against Iraq and any assault on the Saddam Hussein regime, fights with great courage for the rights of French energy firms in Central Asia and post-war Iraq – two causes which some regard as interdependent. At the same time, Chirac looks after his fallback positions. Sensing the Iraqi ruler is doomed whatever France may do or say, he is thinking of relenting on a UN Security Council resolution authorizing military action against a defiant Iraq Saddam – depending of course on how well French oil interests are looked after in post-war Iraq.
The same applies to his championship of Yasser Arafat as the top dog of Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sensing he is as unlikely to weather the American Middle East offensive any more than Saddam Hussein, Chirac has switched his support to Muhamad Dahlan, who lays claim to the succession after Arafat. However, the top Bush team refuses to hear Dahlan’s name, insisting he is first a foremost a terrorist.
In a typical two-faced maneuver, the French president was able to declare war “without mercy” on terror and on the same occasion honor the Hizballah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, by inviting him to the opening session of the Francophone summit. With unashamed cynicism, the conference organizers seated the head of one of the most lethal terrorist groups in the world among the senior religious ministers invited for the occasion. The French speaking bloc of nations thereby elevated Nasrallah’s group, the Hizballah, to the rank of a new religion.
What different did it make that the Lebanese terror group was listed in Washington as a terrorist organization, one of whose leading lights, Imad Mughniyeh, figures on the FBI’s 22 most wanted terrorists list for complicity in the September 11 suicide attacks in New York and Washington, and which gives sanctuary to at least 180 Al Qaeda fugitives from the Afghan War.
Nasrallah was able to listen with perfect equanimity to the French president’s call for a war on terror attended by respect for human rights. He knew that no one present, including the speaker, dreamed of applying those sentiments to him or considering the fate of the four Israelis whose kidnapping two years ago was engineered by his colleague Mughniyeh. No scrap of information has ever been made available to their families on the fate of the stolen men.
Chirac has never been conspicuously sensitive to Israeli human rights. But what about the French-Jewish journalist whom the organizers of the French speaking summit bundled roughly out of the conference hall for the heinous crime of filing a story to Israeli TV Channel 2 News in Hebrew!
The reporter, Gideon Kutz, arrived in Beirut with his fellow reporters in the French president’s party. Yet, while awarding full honors to a terrorist and kidnapper, Chirac held silent when his cultural associates of the French speaking world employed strong-arm tactics to remove and muzzle a fellow Frenchman and, moreover, a journalist.
The likes of Sheikh Nasrallah and Yasser Arafat do not think in terms of human rights or even common humanity, while their friend and patron, Jacques Chirac, makes no such demands on them. Neither therefore is under any compulsion to part with the information for relieving the agony of uncertainty forced on the families of abducted men. Lofty talk at an international conference is cheap. Fighting Middle East terrorism calls for real integrity.
24 October: DEBKAfile‘s sources in Moscow are convinced that Russian president Vladimir Putin, known for his hardnosed approach toward Islamic extremists, will, in a matter of hours, order his Alpha forces to storm the Moscow theater where some 30 to 50 armed Chechens took 700 theater-goers hostage Wednesday night, October 23.
The armed band, led by Mosvar Marayev, brother of the notorious Chechen warlord and including widows of fallen Chechen rebels, released Muslim spectators and 17 children, before planting explosives around the hall. Heavy casualties are almost inevitable if the Russians storm the hall – both among the hostages and their captors, some of whom are reported to be wearing bomb-belts.
The gravity of the situation is such that Putin has cancelled planned visits to Germany and Portugal. He is also likely to put off his scheduled weekend meeting with US president George W. Bush in Mexico at a conference of leaders of Asian and Pacific nations.
The Moscow hostage crisis has serious implications. The way it develops could not only exacerbate the conflict in Chechnya, but also produce a cross-border Russian attack against Georgia, which Moscow accuses of harboring Chechen rebels and failing to prevent them from attacking Russia from Georgian territory, mainly the Pankisi Gorge.
After Putin threatened to send Russian troops to Georgia to root out the Chechens, the Tbilisi government finally went into action. In the past two weeks, Georgian special forces have been flushing Chechens out in operations in which US Green Beret special forces have also taken part. They have netted several dozen Chechen captives, among them a group whom the Georgians call “Arabs”, a local euphemism for Saudi, Yemeni or Egyptian al Qaeda operatives attached to the Chechen rebellion. This group was handed over to the American contingent and has since been flown out of Georgia to US detention facilities, including Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For now, the Chechen terrorists in the Moscow theatre have made only one demand: to end the war in Chechnya and pull Russian military forces out of the breakaway province. But counter-terrorism elements involved directly in the standoff expect further demands that may include the release of the Arab fighters Georgia turned over to the United States. That would bring America directly into the standoff in the Russian capital.
DEBKAfile‘s military and counter-terrorism sources say the Chechen theater attack sets up a new hurdle for Washington’s planned war on Iraq. The Bush administration may be called upon to countenance a massive Russian attack on Chechnya, which it has thus far opposed, in return for Moscow’s support in Iraq. It is not clear yet whether Washington will reverse itself to this extent. However, the Bush administration has gone to enormous trouble to de-escalate tensions in flashpoints all over the world so as not to detract from the main thrust against Iraq. US diplomats have succeeded in the past few weeks in pacifying the Indian-Pakistani border from which both armies have begun to withdraw troops; it has kept the lid on Israeli-Lebanese border violence and delayed the imminent danger of a military clash between the Israeli and Syrian armies; Washington is also working hard to lower the level of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Similar efforts have been underway in Russia and Georgia, which borders Chechnya. But the Chechen terror attack in Moscow shows that Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and other terrorist elements are determined to make sure that Washington will not be allowed to make war on Iraq without being harassed by political and political complications, including terrorist action across the world.
The Chechen rebels’ ability to take over a theater in the center of Moscow right under the noses of Russia’s intelligence services and US intelligence and special forces in Georgia has set alarm bells jangling in Washington. Further large-scale terror attacks are to be expected to flare in various European capitals and in the Middle East in the coming weeks. A mega-attack in a major city in North America, including Washington, is also possible.