29 March: Israel’s extended military offensive against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah stronghold, launched Friday morning, March 29, quickly drew forth unusual military movements in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
They may reflect the growing nervousness among Arab leaders over Israel’s announced partial call-up of reservists and preparations for a full mobilization, despite the Passover holiday. The first announcement of 20,000 reservists to be called up was later amended to 31,000. Israel conveyed an assurance to Arab governments, already on edge over US preparations for its campaign against Iraq, that the IDF call-up was solely aimed at rooting out terrorists and had no wider goals. However, Arab leaders refuse to tolerate any physical harm to Arafat or his isolation.
In a further series of messages, Israel explained its operation was vital – not just to cut Arafat off from his terror machine, but to liquidate the vast stores of secret weapons he has amassed in violation of the Oslo Framework Accords he signed with Israel in 1993. They were concealed in secret depots beneath Palestinian Administration buildings in the government compound in Ramallah. Israeli tanks and bulldozers driving through the compound uncovered huge tunnels stacked with light and heavy weapons, including anti-tank and anti-air missiles – apparently only one section of a many-branched storage system.
Under the headquarters of Col. Tawfiq Tirawi’s Palestinian General Security Service, Israeli elite units turned up a large bunker containing hundreds of M-72 LAWS (Light Anti-Tank Weapons), as well as rocket-propelled grenades. A similarly packed store was concealed under the Palestinian Authority prison.
The bunkers under Arafat’s offices also held electronic surveillance devices for tracking Israeli military movements, as well as detailed diagrams of the bases and movements of senior Israeli officers stationed in the Ramallah region, with notes on the security details guarding them and their routines. Also found were aerial maps of at least one Israel air base.
Israel’s assurance meant to calm, had the opposite effect.
Moderate Arab leaders are concerned lest Saddam Hussein and the Lebanese Hizballah open a second front against Israel to ease the pressure on Arafat – in the form of Iraqi missiles or suicide aircraft against Israel’s main cities, or the Hizballah’s thousands of rockets just supplied by Iran and capable of reaching most of northern Israel an area with a population of nearly a million.
Israel would certainly retaliate in either eventuality, and Arab leaders do not want to be caught unprepared militarily.
DEBKAfile‘s military and political experts note that the uncertain situation is affecting world financial and oil markets. The dollar is strengthening and oil prices, which have been rising slowly and steadily for the past several weeks, are now shooting up.
31 March: In a scathing attack on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, President George W. Bush said Saturday night, March 30, that he understood Israel’s need for self-defense: “Their country is under attack – every day there is loss of innocent life.” He added: “in order for Israel to exist, terror must stop.” He said the United States was fighting terror – not only in Afghanistan, but in the Middle East too, he urged Arab leaders to make a concerted and focused effort to stop terror and secure Israel. At the same time, he warned Israeli leaders to make sure not to miss the path to peace.
Most importantly, Bush for the first time drew a connecting line between America’s war on global terror and Israel’s fight against Palestinian terrorists.
Bush disclosed that secretary of state Colin Powell had been unable to reach prime minister Ariel Sharon by telephone that evening because Sharon was not taking calls after the Tel Aviv cafe suicide bombing. In this latest terror outrage, 30 Israelis were injured, 10 seriously, most of them youngsters out on the town on Saturday night.
DEBKAfile‘s sources report that the prime minister had a second reason for not taking overseas calls: He had just issued ultimatums to the Palestinian West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, in Bitunya, and to Yasser Arafat in his besieged office in Ramallah.
Rajoub was told to hand over Tanzim chief Marwan Barghouti to the soldiers encircling his command post. Arafat was called on to surrender top master terrorists responsible for dozens of serious attacks, who were enjoying sanctuary in his quarters. Among them were organizers of Israeli minister Rehavam Zeevi’s assassination last year.
Arafat’s response, according to DEBKAfile‘s military sources, was adamant: If Israeli troops attempted to take the men under his protection and remove any more documents from his office, he would fight to the death.
This brought the Israel-Palestinian standoff to a critical point.
Sharon could make good on his ultimatum, send the troops in to seize the terrorist chiefs at whatever cost. Or else, both sides could take a step back from the brink, letting the wanted men trickle out from the confinement of the two-room apartment, one by one.
Neither Sharon nor Bush is keen on an upheaval that would set the Arab world by the ears.
In this tense situation, Sharon decided not to lay himself open to international pressure and ordered his aides to stop putting through calls.
Arafat, for his part, made the international lines hum, pleading with world leaders to save him from great danger, without explaining that he was using his personal immunity to shelter top terrorists and send suicide bombers on the rampage in Israeli cities.
According to DEBKAfile‘s military sources, the Israeli prime minister is running the Ramallah operation in person because of the high stakes involved.
In the 48 hours of the Ramallah operation, military intelligence and Shin Beit operatives, who went in with Israeli forces, collected documentary proofs from Arafat’s presidential suite linking the Palestinian leader in person and his most trusted lieutenants – some with high diplomatic standing in the international community – to some of the most horrifying terror attacks in Israeli cities, including Jerusalem.
DEBKAfile can report exclusively that Israel has passed these findings to President Bush, together with the first results of the interrogation of Sahar Habash, one of Arafat’s closest aides, who is the biggest fish rounded up by Israeli troops since the onset of the Ramallah operation early Friday, March 29.
Habash, an apparently gray figure, is charged with his leader’s most vital confidential tasks. His name will be familiar to readers of DEBKAfile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
In January 2001, we first exposed his function as chief coordinator of Arafat’s connections and communications with the Lebanese Hizballah and the al Qaeda militants hiding in – and passing through – the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. On February 17 this year, we reported that Sahar Habash was involved in setting up the visit to the Gaza Strip of the al Qaeda shoe-bomber, Richard Reid in July 2001, six months before he attempted to blow up a Paris-Miami American Airliners flight. Habash was instrumental in obtaining explosives for Reid’s operation, passing them to him through the Gazan Hamas activist, Nabil Aqal.
Sharon is anxious to lay hands not only on Zeevi’s killers, but also on the men and documents that will demonstrate to the US president beyond doubt the degree of Arafat’s complicity and that of his close followers in crimes of terror – not only in Israel; also their interaction with international terrorists.
Upon receiving the first documentary proofs – as well as a report of the latest Palestinian assault in a Tel Aviv cafe – Bush finally made the connection for the first time between America’s global war on terror and Israel’s counter-terrorist offensive.
31 March: Three days into the massive counter-terror military operation Israeli launched last Friday, March 29, Israel troops and tanks moved on their second target: the West Bank town of Qalqilya. Yasser Arafat was meanwhile penned in two rooms of his three-storey government center in Ramallah. Israeli soldiers had fought their way and broken through walls to the adjoining room. By Sunday afternoon, the gunbattle had died down. Israeli tanks were lined up neatly in the parking lot. Food, water and medicines were delivered to Arafat’s quarters with a steady supply of candles.
Between 50 and 60 of the deadliest terror activists on Israel’s wanted list are believed to be sheltering in Arafat’s quarters and the command center of West Bank Security chief Jibril Rajoub’s in Bitunya, which is likewise surrounded.
Some of the wanted men attempted Sunday to slip out of Arafat’s office with a group of left-wing pro-Palestinian protesters from European countries who gained access to Arafat. The fugitives were picked up and Ramallah declared a closed military zone.
Thus far, Israeli troops have captured 500 suspected terrorists in Ramallah. Thirteen Palestinians were killed since Friday.
Intelligence operatives accompanying the troops scoured the files in the Palestinian leader’s headquarters, collecting documentary evidence linking Arafat and members of his inner circle to the orchestration of terror atrocities, as well as crates containing millions of counterfeit Israeli currency notes and a good stock of Jewish skullcaps.
Israeli forces were sent into Ramallah in the wake of the Seder suicide attack, in which 22 Israelis died and 131 were injured. (Another four wounded died in the interim, raising the death toll to 26, most of over 70)
Back-to-back attacks on Sunday alone raised the Passover death toll to 48 dead and 213 injured in six outrages. In Haifa, 16 Jews and Arabs were killed and 38 injured in an Arab-owned restaurant that was burned to the ground by an Israeli Arab suicide bomber who lived in the Palestinian town of Jenin. In the Gush Etzion bloc town of Efrat, south of Bethlehem, a Palestinian sanitary worker in the local first aid station blew up his place of work, injuring six Israelis, the duty paramedic critically.
Saturday night, a popular Tel Aviv restaurant was struck by another suicide bomber, leaving 30 youngsters out for a good time, maimed.
Sunday morning, intercity traffic in central Israel was thrown into havoc when police blocked sections of the old Mediterranean coastal highway because of a terror alert.
Clearly, the Israeli operation has a long way to go. Sunday afternoon, with 30,000 reservists in the process of mobilization, the Israeli defense cabinet approved the military action’s expansion beyond Ramallah. Prime Minister Sharon went on the air with an address to the nation.
Declaring Israel was at war, he focused heavily on the culpability of one man – the chairman of the Palestinian Authority – as the root, source, leader and instigator of terrorism, obstacle to peace, enemy of Israel and the free world, and threat to regional stability.
He vowed to root out terrorism so as to clear a path to peace at what he called a crucial moment in Israeli history.
In addition to pointing the finger of blame at Arafat, DEBKAfile‘s political sources report Sharon is engaged in preliminary secret diplomacy to “root out” Arafat by sending him into political exile. He discussed this in his first conversationwith King Muhammad VI of Morocco Sunday. The initiative appears to have come from parties concerned with Arafat’s well-being, namely the UN Secretary and some Arab and EU governments. The live wires behind it are the Moroccan King and UN and European Middle East envoys, Terje Larsen and Miguel Moratinos.
A parallel track is reportedly active to pick Arafat’s successor after he exits the scene, a discussion that also touches on the fate of Palestinian leaders listed by Israel as terror activists.
1 April: In the last 24 hours, the Palestinians have produced new tactics for assailing Israeli armed forces engaged in a major operation to uproot Palestinian terror.
In Qalqilya Sunday morning, April 1, eight hours after a large Israeli tank and ground force took control of the West Bank city, seven Israeli soldiers were injured, one seriously, when they were sent to silence a rooftop sniper. As they entered the room below, six explosives planted there were detonated by cell phone.
A far more complex and ambitious tactic blew up in their faces: the attempt to pit a unit of suicides, especially trained by al Aqsa Brigades commander Tawfiq Tirawi, against Israeli forces in Ramallah.
This was the first such battlefield confrontation.
It was preceded by an intelligence ruse. Taking advantage of the turmoil of the Haifa restaurant suicide bombing Sunday afternoon, March 31, a group of foreign pro-Palestinian campaigners – most from Europe – managed to get past Israeli forces in Ramallah and reach Arafat’s office. With them were some foreign correspondents.
When the group left the office, planted among them were several Palestinian terror chiefs wanted by Israel. The moment the campaigners were outside, they were surrounded by heavy Israeli forces and most of the Palestinian fugitives captured.
But the protesters performed a more important clandestine service for the Palestinians:
While holed up in Ramallah, Palestinian strategists had devised a plan for deploying a unit of suicides for the first time in battle against Israeli troops. The unit’s mission was to fight the Israeli siege force and inflict heavy casualties, after which the survivors were to head for Arafat’s compound, break the Israeli encirclement and release their leader and his men.
To carry this operation off required intelligence and a conduit for relaying orders out of the besieged quarters to the unit. The European protesters obliged. As they advanced on foot through Ramallah to Arafat’s compound, they noted the positions of Israeli troops and tanks for reporting to the imprisoned Palestinian leaders. While the news cameras recorded the foreign supporters hugging and kissing the Palestinian leader, Tirawi took a small group aside for briefing on those orders, which they later transmitted to the waiting suicides.
That night, 40-50 suicide combatants – some armed with explosive belts – advanced on the government compound. Elite IDF troops, who quickly surrounded them, fought their first hand- to-hand battle with a large number of suicides trained in military combat.
The battle lasted six hours. Palestinians with explosive belts strapped to their bodies attempted from time to time to approach Israeli soldiers and blow themselves up together – and were thrown back. The battle ended with the Palestinian unit destroyed or captured. Six were killed and four seriously injured. There were no Israeli casualties.
The defeat of Tirawi’s crack suicide unit ended Arafat’s hopes of fighting his way out of his corner. It also had wider repercussions. Until then, the suicides were considered invincible, capable of bringing governments and armies low by terrorizing civilians. It is a fact that not a single Israeli child is to be seen on the country’s streets, buses or shops, despite the Passover holiday, that Israel’s restaurants, cafes and shopping centers are shunned and the tourist industry has crashed across the Middle East. The Ramallah battle proved that suicides can be beaten when cornered by trained solders before their primary weapon, their ability to instill fear, is brought into play.
Yet Arafat and his following are reported by DEBKAfile‘s Palestinian sources to be utterly convinced they are within an inch of victory, that a seemingly inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers has brought Israel to the point of collapse, and they can now move on Israeli leaders, starting with prime minister Sharon.
2 April: This piece of correspondence was discovered by Israeli troops who went through the files in Yasser Arafat’s personal accounting department in Ramallah. It is an itemized bill signed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – Palestine, and dated September 16, 2001, exactly five days after the September 11 suicide attacks in the United States.
The document is a routine request for Arafat to approve the daily outlay for the arming of suicides with explosives and ammo, their memorial ceremonies and funeral posters.
It is part of the body of evidence Israeli troops gleaned at Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah and demonstrates that Arafat supervised every last detail of the Palestinian suicide offensive.
Translation into English:
1. Cost of posters for Martyrs of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades: Azam Mazhar, Osama Juabra, Shadi Afouri, Yasser Badawi, Ahad Fares (inserted by hand: NIS2,000).
2. Cost of printed notices, invitations and mourners’ tents (inserted by hand: NIS1,250.
3. Cost of attaching personal photos of these martyrs to wooden panels, plus those of Tabeth Tabeth and Mahmoud al Jamil (inserted by hand: NIS1,000).
4. Cost of memorial ceremonies for martyrs. Memorial ceremonies held for Martyr Azam, Martyr Osama (inserted by hand: NIS6,000)
5. Cost of electrical goods and miscellaneous chemical substances (for manufacturing explosives and bombs – the largest item. (One prepared explosive device – NIS700 at least) We need 5-9 devices per week for the squads in the different regions (inserted by hand: NIS x 4 = NIS20,000 per month)
6. Cost of bullets (cost of Kalashnikov ammo is NIS -8 per bullet; M-16 bullets cost NIS2-2.5 each) We need bullets supplied on a daily basis.
7. Note: Available are 3,000 Kalashnikov bullets @ NIS2 each. We need a sum of money at once to buy them (inserted by hand: NIS22,500 for Kalashnikov bullets – NIS60,000 for M-16 bullets)
In conclusion, glory and pride to those who support our brave resistance against the occupation. Revolution to victory.
DEBKA notes: The “martyrs” named in #1are still alive, yet scrupulously pre-budgeted for death.