16 November: The Palestinian ambush in Hebron that cost the lives of 12 Israelis, most from the security forces – including two senior officers, IDF Col. Dror Weinberg and Border Police Superintendent Samih Suwidan – is bound to have political fallout, occurring as it does two months and one week before Israel’s general election. It will intensify the pressure on prime minister Ariel Sharon to remove Yasser Arafat, as the source of the evil.
Yet Sharon, his hand no longer held by his unity cabinet partners, is still constrained by Washington’s opposition to Arafat’s deportation.
The corrosive effect of these cross-currents on Sharon’s standing versus the electorate is not lost on the Palestinians. They can be expected therefore to accompany the election campaign with more deadly military-cum-terror attacks so as to maximize Israeli casualties and influence the poll’s outcome on January 28.
By orchestrating the Hebron attack, Arafat achieved two goals:
1. Sharon was shown up to the Americans and Israelis as a failure in the war on terror – even in such heavily secured, sensitive places as Hebron. Jerusalem may well be next.
2. The predominantly centrist Israeli electorate will be swung round to the ultra-right by its sense of outrage. Arafat’s spin strategy is simple: An Israeli government dominated by extreme hawks helps him foster the Palestinians’ international image as victims, providing grist for his international campaign as leader of an oppressed people.
He proved to the Arab rulers – and the rivals in his camp – who want him out, that notwithstanding his enfeebled appearance and wild, incoherent speech, he is in full command of the political center stage and several steps ahead of them all.
As Palestinian terrorist leader, he never lets Osama bin Laden outshine him. Claiming credit as inventor of the suicide method of terror and its developer to epic proportions, Arafat is anxious to prove to the Muslim masses that the Palestinians top the league of Islamic martyrs and jihadists.
The Hebron massacre confronts all of Israel’s leading politicians with cruel dilemmas.
Ariel Sharon: His decision to chain his political fortunes to the Bush policy chariot at all costs has cost him the ability to defeat Palestinian terrorism. Less than two years after promising the Israeli voter security, he faces the electorate a second time having let the Palestinians escalate their confrontation into a dragging war of attrition.
Binyamin Netanyahu: As he makes a second run for the top Likud slot, the Hebron episode will remind the voter that Netanyahu as prime minister signed the 1998 Wye River Memorandum that facilitated the Hebron Redeployment Agreement. Sharon then foreign minister stood beside him. Binyamin Ben Eliezer: The Hebron debacle will remind party voters that Ben Eliezer, as defense minister in the Sharon government, enforced a pacification policy in Hebron, Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip. In all three places, attempts to hand authority over to Palestinians and ease restrictions resulted in an upsurge of terrorist violence against Israelis.
Amram Mitzna, Mayor of Haifa and former general, is expected to easily beat him to the draw and become the next Labor leader. Until now, Mitzna has pushed a peace agenda hard, calling for negotiations with the present Palestinian leaders “as if there were no terror”.
Now, he may be advised to modify this line.
Shaul Mofaz; A complete tyro in national politics, he will face the voter alongside Sharon in January. His military past, unstained record and climb from an underprivileged background make him an electoral asset for Likud. But first he has to show his paces as defense minister.
However, although Sharon is almost certain to win the race hands down – his centrist policies have drawn many uncommitted groups to Likud – he may find his support eroding if he continues to fight Yasser Arafat’s terrorist offensive with one hand instead of two. debkafile political analysts discern five potential political blocs building under the surface in the post-Sharon future: A large right-of-center grouping headed by Mofaz; a right-wing, nationalist alliance under Netanyahu; a left-wing bloc headed by Mitzna, a Jewish religious list and a Muslim-Arab bloc.
16 November: Seventeen Israelis have died in two major Palestinian acts of terror in the last six days, confronting Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s fresh top team with their first stiff challenge. Answers are expected from defense minister Shaul Mofaz, foreign minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Mofaz’s successor as chief of staff, Lt. General Moshe Yaalon, especially after Sunday, November 10, Palestinian gunmen shot five Israelis in cold blood, including a mother and two small sons, at Kibbutz Metzer inside Israel.
Friday night, November 15, a meticulously planned, surprise Palestinian assault was launched against Jewish worshippers making their way home to the Hebron suburb of Kiryat Arba from prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Striking from several directions at the route known as Worshippers’ Lane, the assailants were able to kill 12 Israelis, among them the Judea Brigades commander, Col. Dror Weinberg, 38, the highest ranking Israeli military casualty in the two-year conflict with the Palestinians. He is survived by his wife and five children. The first IDF finding was that the attack was staged on Jewish worshippers to lure Israeli security forces into a trap, forcing a close-quarters combat engagement in dense urban terrain, quite different from the usual suicidal murders.
While the Israeli force acted with exceptional bravery, it was taken by surprise by the high level of training, preparedness, resourcefulness and speed, and firepower encountered in this instance, never before displayed by a Palestinian killer team.
The setback to Israel is all the more galling considering that the Hizballah trainer who prepared the operation and gave the Palestinian team its new capabilities has been in Israeli hands for five months. He is Fawzi Ayoub, a Lebanese Hizballah officer, who has given nothing away so far to his Israeli interrogators.
Ayoub entered Israel as a Canadian tourist at the end of last year, quickly going to ground on the West Bank where the Shin Beit lost sight of him. He turned up in July when the IDF tore down the large, imposing Hebron police building that housed various terrorist commands. Ayoub was found among the ruins, identified and taken into Israeli custody.
According to DEBKAfile‘s military and intelligence sources, Ayoub is only one of an unknown number of Hizballah officers attached to Palestinian West Bank units under a clandestine collaboration pact Yasser Arafat concluded with the Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah last year. The Lebanese group undertook to provide officers, trainers for such skills as marksmanship, the manufacture of explosives, missiles and launchers, and also wholesale supplies of weapons. Arafat’s side of the deal was to open up the West Bank to the Hizballah as the vehicle of Iranian influence. Hizballah presence came in the form of a senior resident officer at every Palestinian population center, assigned to set up a military machine and a political infrastructure.
The smuggling of the Shiite Islamic Revolution across the Lebanese-Israeli frontier into Palestinian areas and Israeli Arab communities brought with it a trickle of al Qaeda operatives. To counter-balance this Shiite influx, Arafat allowed Iraqi agents to operate on the West Bank, entering clandestinely through Jordan.
The Hebron ambush signals a new phase of the conflict. Arafat is now confronting Israel with a restructured, recharged enemy, a composite of Palestinians, Hizballah, al Qaeda and Iraqi military intelligence. This amalgamated menace made its first appearance in Hebron.
It will reappear with increasing frequency as the US offensive against Iraq draws near.
18 November: Less than 24 hours after Tawfiq Fukra attempted to hijack El Al Tel Aviv-Istanbul Flight 581 in midair with the help of a penknife, Israel’s airport authority gave itself a clean bill of health.
debkafile‘s security experts find a major security flaw in the speed with which the airports authority produced this “finding”.
The first security defect is inherent in the very fact that a small penknife reached the flight in Fukra’s hands. The handover could only have been made before embarkation – that is in areas under the jurisdiction of the airports authority. It also indicates that the hijacker had accomplices, whether passengers he encountered after the security check, who may have boarded another flight, airport personnel or regular visitors, who may have been infiltrated or bribed.
The second slipup is one of intelligence; Israel’s security or intelligence services appear to have been caught unawares.
If Fukra had one or more accomplices at Ben Gurion airport, the hijacking must have been pre-planned some time ahead. Aboard the flight, he came with an inch of carrying out what was evidently a prepared maneuver, namely using the knife to grab hold of the stewardess as hostage for gaining access to the cockpit. Had he succeeded, the El Al flight would have come under his control. The El Al marshals’ lightening reflexes save the day.
An increasing number of Israeli Arabs, calling themselves “Palestinians”, are being caught crossing the line that turns them into dangerous security risks. Terrorist cells are known to have been planted in Israeli Arab areas by the Fatah, Tazim, the al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the Popular Front, the Hizballah, Iran, Hamas, Jihad Islamic, Iraqi military intelligence and al Qaeda. Some of these citizens have been persuaded to provide Palestinian terrorist organizations with intelligence data, as well as logistical and financial assistance for suicide attacks. Engaging in the hijacking of Israeli civilian aircraft was just another step down this slippery slope.
The “enemy within” has become dangerous and substantial enough to warrant a fresh look at the way Israeli security and intelligence services perceives its Arab population. In the last eight months, Israeli Arabs have on more than one occasion taken advantage of their freedom movement around the country’s highways and cities to transport suicide killers to target. Restrictions against them would conflict with Israel’s traditional standards of democracy, face challenges at its High Court of Justice and run into a flow of editorial protest. The loyal majority would undoubtedly suffer. But the Israeli government has a duty to set boundaries for Palestinian suicide killers and their accessories.
19 November: Whether because of the proximity of Osama bin Laden in the Empty Quarter desert that fringes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the UAR, or because of the debilitating squabbles besetting royal authority, debkafile‘s Gulf sources report that al Qaeda’s followers in the oil kingdom are becoming increasingly brazen.
Last Saturday, November 16, Saudi security forces clashed with a group in the al Shafaa quarter to the south of the capital. Both sides suffered casualties. Since the sounds of battle, automatic gunfire and exploding grenades were too loud for concealment, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who is responsible for internal security, came out with an unusual statement Monday, November 14. He said a man, identified by the official Saudi Press Agency as Mohammed al-Saheem, was arrested on Saturday in a coffee shop in Riyadh after firing at police. He was injured in the right leg and captured, Nayef told the Associated Press, explaining he was wanted in connection with terrorism and would be interrogated to determine whether he was linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. The findings would be announced. End of official statement.
A spokesman for the opposition Islamic movement for reforms had a different version of the incident. He described it as involving a group of 50 armed young al Qaeda partisans meeting in a house in Riyadh. They resisted arrest, leaving eight Saudi security men and one of their own wounded. The injured man was captured. The Saudi contingents were forced to retreat.
20 November: Amram Mitzna, 57, avowed dove and advocate of negotiations with the Palestinians – even amid surging terror – was picked as next Labor leader on November 19 in what looked more like a journey down memory lane than a hard-headed, future-oriented primary election.
Labor, once considered Israel’s natural ruling party, recruited this new face to stem the flight from its ranks and stand up to Ariel Sharon’s governing Likud in the January 28 election. The new man never made any secret of his dovish views on concessions to Palestinian statehood and announced he would pull the troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip as soon as he took office. This platform suits the party veterans down to the ground.
But Mitzna’s triumph had a price. Most political experts expect Labor to drop ten of their 25 Knesset seats in the coming election. While the new leader’s supporters were crowing, his defeated rival, former defense minister Ben Eliezer (who netted 38 percent of the vote), went down fighting. His partisans accused the election of being dominated by “the social elite” at the expense of the ethnic and social underclass, where Bin Eliezer is strong.
This so-called elite refers to the pro-Oslo peace faction of the party, a small, nostalgic but articulate minority, many of whom yearn for a past that led to the post-Oslo 1993 business boom for Israelis and Palestinians alike. That boom melted away in the heat of the Palestinian confrontation. The Labor count of eligible members in advance of this week’s primary shocked its leaders by revealing how much it had shrunk: 100,000 paid up members were left to pick the leader (compared with 330,000 Likud followers). Mitzna’s “landslide” therefore amounted to no more than 36,000 votes, compared with 25,000 for Ben Eliezer and 4,000 for the also-ran Haim Ramon.
The typical Mitzna proponent might have fitted into the Israeli of yesterday but is the antithesis of today’s mainstream Israeli voter, who blames the Oslo regime for his manifold troubles. A Labor party leaning too far to the left will be pushed over at the polls. Mitzna may be aware of his limits. One observer noted: “So far, he has not mentioned Arafat once. He won’t make the mistake of referring to him in the eight-week general election race.”