A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

2 March: Ariel Sharon’s second government held its first cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday, March 2. This is most probably his last term of office as prime minister.

Above and beyond the urgent task of salvaging Israel’s battered economy, Sharon has set himself four long-term goals:

1. Determining Israel’s permanent frontiers:

This objective Sharon hopes to achieve in partnership with US president George W. Bush, with whom he enjoys a close rapport. In expectation of the US-led war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, he expects Israel’s frontiers with regard to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be part and parcel of the wholesale transformation of an entire world region. An American victory might even stretch Israel’s frontiers, not shrink them, as dictated in every peace plan put forward to date.

Grounds for this expectation emanated from a little-noticed – nonetheless dramatic – shift in US policy on the Jewish settlements, the fate of which will dominate the shape of Israel’s final frontiers.

Speaking at the Enterprise Institute in Washington on Wednesday, February 26, President Bush defined that shift with a single word. In his landmark address on June 24, 2002 in which he mapped his two-state vision for the Middle East, the president in speaking of Israeli settlements used the phrase: “Consistent with the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee, Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop.”

Seven months later, talking to the Enterprise Institute, he said: “As progress is made towards peace,” said Bush, “settlement activity in the occupied territories must end.”

Interestingly, the Mitchell Plan, a relic of the Clinton-Barak era that required the dismantling and phased evacuation of all Jewish settlements in Palestinian-controlled areas, was dropped from US presidential Middle East language, making way for broad acceptance of the status quo – barring perhaps a few isolated settlements and provided that settlement activity ends.

It is therefore not surprising that the leading pro-settlement faction, the National Religious Party, felt able to join the Sharon government with scarcely a demur.

The import of these gestures and the new Middle East power structure forged by the Bush administration was not lost on the trendsetters of the Arab world. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah turned in his tracks and publicly offered the United States bases for its offensive against Iraq; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who ostracized Sharon for two years, invited him for a visit – despite the sensitive eve of Iraq war period. The 22 Arab rulers meeting Saturday at Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday, March 1, left the Palestinian problem out of their deliberations and final declaration – the first Arab summit ever to drop an issue that could always be counted on to create a semblance of Arab unity.

2. Eliminating the Palestinian factor

In their most recent statements and remarks, senior US officials as well as Israeli spokesmen are finding connecting links between the eclipse of Saddam Hussein with his army and weapons of mass destruction and Yasser Arafat’s imminent exit from the Palestinian power structure.

3. Pre-empting Palestinian terror

Arafat had planned for Palestinian anti-Israel terror to peak in the days leading up to the US assault on Iraq. He expected Israeli forces to knock out large segments of his terrorist machine – although not the massive devastation actually inflicted – and prepared three alternatives in good time:

A. The teaming up of his Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades with the Baghdad-sponsored Arab Liberation Front led by Abul Abbas. This has not panned out because, according to the intelligence estimates reaching Sharon’s desk, the joint Iraqi-Palestinian terror cells preparing eve-of-war mega-strikes in Israeli cities were systematically smashed.

Still, a single lone wolf who makes it through to an Israeli town with an unconventional weapon would be enough to refute this estimate.

B. A Palestinian-al Qaeda team effort. Momentum here was seriously stalled by the elimination of two top al Qaeda operatives on Saturday, March 1. Abu Mohammed al-Masri died in a bomb explosion at the Palestinian camp of Ein Hilweh in southern Lebanon and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in a hideout near Islamabad. Their removal has lifted a particularly insidious and immediate threat but, unlike the Palestinian-Iraqi operation that was more or less crushed, al Qaeda continues to pose a major menace.

4. Israel’s regional standing.

The permanent presence of a large American military force of some 70,000 troops in Iraq for the next decade will have a revolutionary impact on the military-strategic balance of power in the region. This presence will differ from the longstanding US military foothold in Saudi Arabia in that it will be America’s main military base for the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa. The global war against terrorism and the rogue nations deploying weapons of mass destruction will be conducted from bases guarding the banks of the Euphrates and the Tigris and the oilfields of northern and southern Iraq.

Israel’s participation in the American military and intelligence operation against Iraq, al Qaeda, Iran and the Hizballah is both active and covert. Israel-US military and intelligence collaboration is likely to increase as America’s role in the region broadens.

3 March: Armed forces and counter-terror security forces across the Middle East are tightly tensed up in a high state of pre-war preparedness and anti-terror jitters:

Saudi Arabia faces a double crunch.  The Saudi army is on the alert, its troops strung out along the borders of both Iraq and Kuwait.

An air incident last Thursday, February 27, demonstrated how close the flashpoint is. An Iraqi Mig-25 fighter interceptor, the fastest warplane in its service, sneaked into Saudi air space to probe the readiness of American radar systems in the oil kingdom. Revealing the incident Sunday, March 2, a US F-15C pilot said “Our fighter planes went nose-to-nose” with the intruder at 70,000 feet, 15-20 miles inside Saudi air space. “He wisely turned around when we gave him a good hard radar lock… We were within two minutes of firing an air-to-air missile in his direction.”

debkafile‘s military sources report American, Israeli and Jordanian air forces went on the alert during incident.

The Saudi ground deployment on the Kuwaiti border is there to hamper the movement of al Qaeda terrorists between the two countries.

A German intelligence source told debkafile‘s Kuwait correspondent there are a great many weak points on the Saudi-Kuwait borders through which Saudi-based terrorist groups can easily infiltrate Kuwait, carry out attacks against American or British military targets and slip back into the kingdom. In fact the border is almost nonexistent and the links between Saudi and Kuwait Islamic extremists strong. Following a spate of attacks against US troops, Kuwait sealed off almost one third of its land area to civilians.

Turkey is betwixt and between. Parliament’s narrow vote Saturday, March 1, to authorize US troops in Turkish bases and Turkish troops abroad may have been nullified, but the last word has not yet been said on the matter. The strategic dialogue between Washington and Ankara continues.

Jordan hosts US combat contingents. The royal armed forces are on the ready, having beefed-up the units stationed on Jordan’s Iraqi and Syrian borders. This change of posture is accounted for by DEBKAfile’s military sources by the completion of the US troop deployment in Jordan.

Dubbed Expeditionary Force 22, it consists mainly of helicopter gunships, Marine units and 101st Airborne Division special forces. They are geared up to drive into western Iraq at two bases which are under full American control at Ruwayshid and Abu Tarha.

Syria on the defensive. One-fifth of Syria’s standing army in Lebanon was redeployed last week in readiness for a regional Middle East outbreak of hostilities that could hit that country too. Fearing assault by sea or from Israel, Damascus withdrew its units from Lebanon’s Christian concentrations, the coastal strip and the south and relocated them in five sparsely populated regions in the north and the center. Some are deployed on the Syrian-Lebanese border.

Syrian leaders know their country may be in trouble for ignoring American complaints in the last ten days about the openness of its borders to illegal traffic.

Iran guards against all contingencies. Iranian armed forces, including their air force and navy, are on war preparedness, their ground forces having been shifted lock, stock and barrel to the border with Iraq. The entire Iranian tank force – which is not large, 800 tanks in all – has been deployed in two concentrations: half at Qasr Shirin in the north and half at Khorramshahr in south.

The armed forces of Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE are all similarly in a high state of preparedness.

Israel makes ready for rapid call-up. The navy, air force, air defenses, homeland command and the mobilization administration are in a state of preparedness. Israel is in a position to complete a general call-up of its reserves in the space of 24 hours. The US Patriot anti-missile batteries shipped into the country with American crews will have been placed in emergency array around Tel Aviv early this week.

Three continents prepare for al Qaeda

A high terror alert is in force in response to intelligence that al Qaeda is on the point of striking. Counter-terrorist agencies may have eliminated two senior terror planners on Saturday, March 1, but this will not necessarily affect cells already in place and armed with orders, targets and weapons.

The alert was declared in response to specific intelligence that al Qaeda had found ways of smuggling a vast number – around 1000-1500 – of anti-air rockets, including Strelas and Stingers, to cells standing by to attack military and civilian aircraft in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, Abu Dhabi, Jordan and Israel.

A similar quantity of missiles is reported to have been secreted into Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Burma. Al Qaeda operatives have been directed to aim for American, European and Israel airliners.

Al Qaeda has reserved for the United States a special threat to carry out a large-scale attack within ten days (counting from Thursday, Feb. 27). This is only one of many. In America too, Osama bin Laden’s teams are expected to target civil aviation for rocket attacks.

Israel is braced for a Mombasa-style al Qaeda strike against its commercial flights during takeoff or landing anywhere in the world. Israeli security also expects the network to attempt a “dirty bomb”, chemical or biological strike in an Israeli city.

The working hypothesis of Israeli counter-intelligence experts is that if al Qaeda fails to pull off an attack in Israel, it will turn against a Jewish target somewhere in the world.

6 March: Fifteen Israelis – mostly high school pupils and Haifa university students – were murdered in a powerful blast generated by a Palestinian homicidal suicide while riding on a Haifa base on Wednesday, March 5. Only two had lived to see their 45th year. The killer, a Palestinian aged 20 from the West Bank town of Hebron, was identified as Mahmoud Hamdan Selim Kawasme, member of a big Hebron clan and kinsman of a former mayor.

A note found on his body praised to heaven the al Qaeda perpetrators of the September 11 atrocities in New York, in which more than 3000 people died.

Initially, he was described as a member of the Islamic extremist Hamas. debkafile‘s counter-terror sources say his affiliation is not quite so cut and dried. The young killer was in fact a disciple of Fawzi Ayoub, the high-ranking Lebanese Hizballah officer who infiltrated Israel as a Canadian tourist at the end of 2001and went to ground in Palestinian-controlled territory. Last July, he was picked up hiding in the rubble of the big Palestinian police headquarters building in Hebron, after it had been torn apart by the IDF, room by room, when the terrorists sheltering there refused to surrender.

Ayoub was one of a group of Hizballah instructors, expert in terrorist techniques, who were imported by Yasser Arafat under a secret pact he forged with Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah before launching his Intifada in September 2000. On orders from Arafat, the Palestinian West Bank Security head, Jibril Rajoub, made arrangements for keeping the group hidden. Ayoub spent the time training dozens of young Palestinians as Hizballah, not Hamas, cadres in Hebron.

The note found on the body of Mahmoud Kawasme, protege of a Hizballah officer, epitomizes the murky operational collaboration that debkafile first exposed two years ago between Arafat’s Palestinian movement, the Lebanese Hizballah and al Qaeda.

The 15 Israelis murdered in the Haifa bus blast were not only victims of Palestinian and Hizballah terror, but also of the final countdown to the American-led offensive against Iraq. debkafile‘s military sources note that as of March 1, that offensive is no more than days off. These last days will not be easy ones for Israelis. Arafat, scheming away in his Ramallah headquarters, will strive with all his might to mount a spate of horrendous terrorist attacks to prove that Israel’s military stranglehold on Palestinian cities is powerless to prevent him from opening a second front in support of his friend, Saddam Hussein. He will not be the only instigator of violence; Iraqi terrorist cells operating in Jordan and Israel will do their worst, as will the Hizballah and al Qaeda cells, which have been biding their time for this critical moment. All these groups will seek to show their paces together and in competition in the days leading up to the war on Iraq.

Both Blix and the three anti-war governments were under no illusion by Wednesday that they had the slightest chance of pre-empting American military action against Iraq. The tide of terror is advancing on the Middle East, Israel, the United States and Europe with the same inevitability.

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