US and Israeli Special Forces Try to Head Off Arafat’s Next Terror Offensive
4 April: Four men are now in Israel’s sights. Two – Yasser Arafat and Palestinian intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi – are under siege in Ramallah.
The other two – Fatah-Tanzim militia chief Marwan Barghouti and Rashid Abu Shbak, deputy to Gaza preventative security chief Mohammed Dahlan – are running for their lives with Israeli intelligence services on their heels.
A senior Israeli security source, asking to remain anonymous, told the Washington Post that Israel’s biggest mistake in the 18 months of the Intifada was to show too much respect for the Palestinian Authority’s top executives. They were awarded VIP passes, weapons, an entree to the Clinton White House, money, territory, an airport, a seaport, health services and jobs.
Israel was repaid with lynching, explosives belts and a widening culture of suicide bombings.
Early on, DEBKAfile revealed that Tirawi had undertaken to keep the Modi’in-Jerusalem highway under attack; Barghouti – the Ramallah-Jerusalem highway.
As for Dahlan, DEBKAfile was again the first to reveal his accomplishments: the first to apply cellular telephones to triggering car bombs and explosive devices, founder of the Palestinian “military industries”, that manufacture mortars and rockets. Most recently, Dahlan orchestrated the bomb-blasts that destroyed two Merkava-3 tanks.
Arafat also entrusted him with welcoming Hizballah arrivals in the Gaza Strip.
All the same, he is not targeted for Israeli pursuit – but his deputy, Abu Shbak, because of his under-the-counter promise to keep the Gaza Strip calm during the anti-terror campaign on the West Bank. And indeed the level of violence in the territory has dropped sharply.
Dahlan has a stake in establishing his credibility with the Americans and Israelis alike: a chance to bid for the West Bank leadership after it is purged of his rivals.
Washington has posted two very senior officers in the Israel-Palestinian arena: CIA chief George Tenet has been shuttling between Israel and other Middle East capitals, while former Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni remains in place even after he failed to secure a ceasefire.
Furthermore, DEBKAfile reports that members of American special forces units have been spotted in undercover action for the first time. Sporting US special forces combat gear and weapons, they were seen moving against suspected terrorists during the battle around the monasteries and churches of Bethlehem on Wednesday, April 2.
When the moment came to extricate US and European citizens – some held hostage by Palestinian militants – US armored cars drove up through the streets of Bethlehem and well-armed American “security men” alighted to pick them up. Israel tanks, helicopters and drones provided cover for the five-hour operation.
That was not their primary mission. DEBKAfile‘s military sources report that the US commando contingent is present for an undercover assignment that could determine the outcome of the entire Israeli military operation to root out the terrorist menace. Even Barghouti, Tirawi and Abu Shbak are secondary targets, belonging to the past. A new threat is posed by the foreign crack force Arafat has been able to smuggle into the country from Lebanon.
5 April: Friday, April 5, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Arab states to enforce a one-month oil embargo against Western countries, to pressure them to stop supporting Israel. A similar call issued from Baghdad on Monday, April 1.
The Arab-Muslim arms embargo was predicted some time ago in DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
DEBKAfile‘s Gulf sources add that Iran’s leaders, backed by Iraq – with Saudi Arabia quietly active in the wings – are hard-selling their oil embargo plan. As terrorism spreads, this hardline Muslim axis expects to apply the Arab oil embargo threat as an irresistible weapon for forcing the Bush administration to turn its back on Israel and swing its support behind Yasser Arafat.
Our oil experts point out, however, that times have changed since the 1973-4 Arab embargo. The United States is no longer solely dependent on Arab oil producers. Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the largest oil-producing bloc in the world, will not risk losing their primary source of revenue in the long term. However their threat alone is enough to throw world oil prices – expected to shoot up in the next day or two – into disarray, as well as shocking financial markets. All three producers will make sure to keep their markets in Japan and Europe – even if they have to bypass their own embargo.
5 April: At the exact moment that Israel’s long-awaited counter-terror operation began to bear fruit and prime minister Ariel Sharon was girding up to deal with the Iranian-Syrian backed Hizballah threat on the northern frontier, US President George W. Bush stood up in the Rose Garden and waved a red light. Thursday, April 4, he demanded a halt to Israel incursions into Palestinian areas.
The Bush speech launched a fresh Middle East initiative, sending Secretary of state Colin Powell to the region next week on a ceasefire mission.
Sharon, in his first off- the-cuff comment, said the Israeli operation would go on.
Political and military sources told DEBKAfile that it would be a shocking waste if, after fighting their way through bitter combat into seven Palestinian towns, the Israeli army was pulled up short before getting down to its principle missions: rounding up terrorists, collecting illegal weapons and breaking up suicide strongholds.
This operation was launched seven days ago, after a Palestinian suicide massacred 26 people at a Passover Seder held in a Netanya hotel. Until then, Israel held its fire for 11 days to give the Zinni mission a chance. The Palestinian cities from which Bush is demanding Israel’s withdrawal are, according to intelligence data, hothouses for breeding and sustaining terrorists. Sharon is hardly likely to bring the army out at this point and leave the job unfinished.
On the other hand, since Bush’s demand was not limited in time, Sharon has a week or more to play with. He is using the time to drive harder against terror bastions and shore up the hawkish wing of his government by attaching the National Religious Party whose leaders in lightning switch stepped aside and made way for a political tyro, Res. Brigadier General Effi Eitam, former commander of the Israeli force in Lebanon. He is slated to be their ministerial representative in Sharon’s kitchen defense cabinet.
Sharon has also taken up former Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on his offer to help out with Israel’s overseas information campaign on a voluntary basis, as well as former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak.
With dovish Labor ministers in his government, Sharon will now control the two extremes of mainstream Israeli opinion. This will give him enough flexibility to cope with coming challenges – military and diplomatic. As a clash brews up fast on the northern frontier, Eitam will provide Sharon with a tough and knowledgeable counterbalance to Labor defense and foreign ministers, Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Shimon Peres.
7 April: In the coming week, the protagonists in the current Middle East crisis will race against time to bring matters to a head before US secretary of state Colin Powell arrives on his new mission on behalf of President George W. Bush. The Israelis, the Palestinians, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Hizballah, will all try to establish their mastery of the situation. Israel will do its best to stay in step with Washington, while all the other parties do what they can to defeat US goals and Powell’s mission.
The events in store in the days to come fall under four headings:
A. The war activity on two primary fronts: West Bank cities and the Israel-Lebanese frontier;
B. The campaign of terror pursued by the Palestinians and their Arab allies, principally the Hizballah and al Qaeda;
C. The undercover war waged around the Middle East
D. The slide towards a comprehensive regional eruption
IDF Counter-Terror Operation Chokes off Palestinian Terror – For the Moment
Israel’s tanks, infantry, special forces and air units have in ten days retaken the West Bank and gained control of major portions of its seven main towns: Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron. The Palestinian Authority has virtually buckled as a ruling entity, while its security organs’ command centers, communications, logistics and supply systems have been disabled.
The Palestinian terrorist mechanisms – the Fatah-Tanzim, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Hamas and Jihad Islami – are seriously impaired; scores of senior terror commanders have been killed and 2000 terrorists and their officers captured. The logistics and manufacturing facilities that turned out and distributed hundreds of suicide bomb belts and booby-trapped vehicles, mortars and rockets, have been wiped out, as have the Palestinian presses that turned out many millions of counterfeit US dollars and Israeli shekels for funding terror operations.
Above all, Israel has isolated Yasser Arafat, locking him away with some of his key security and terror chiefs in his narrow private quarters in Ramallah. This command structure is therefore cut off from its lines of communication with the terrorist and military units on the ground.
The initial result is dramatic: eight consecutive days without terrorist attacks, after a month of daily suicide bombings – though not for want of trying. The last time the terrorists struck was Sunday, March 31, when a suicide bomber blew up an Israeli Arab restaurant in Haifa and a second destroyed the Efrat first aid station south of Bethlehem.
But it is not over yet. Data gathered by DEBKAfile‘s military sources show that Arafat anticipated the crippling effect Israel’s counter-offensive would have on his suicide campaign. He made standby arrangements that he can activate notwithstanding Israel’s military presence in all the West Bank cities. Arafat will now go all-out to prove to Bush, as well as to the Israelis, that he cannot be pushed aside.
In West Bank, Israel Tests New Methods and Weapons Systems for Capturing Arab Towns
Israel’s counter-terror operation in the West Bank is on a scale that the Middle East has not seen for many years. An extended division has been fielded – roughly equal to two regular Western divisions. The massive deployment of tank and armored infantry units under the cover of warplanes also turns out to be a large-scale experiment in sophisticated combat means for rapidly capturing Arab cities. DEBKAfile‘s military sources disclose that US special forces observers were almost certainly present in some of the battle arenas. Lessons drawn from the US-led Afghanistan War appear to be undergoing tests in practice, together with advanced weapons systems developed especially for incursions into densely populated urban areas.
The differences between the two conflicts are also manifest. Whereas the Taliban and al Qaeda effected tactical withdrawals in the manner of organized armies, the Palestinian forces are falling apart. The Israeli army is therefore confronted with piecemeal combat against small bands of terrorists, a complicated and unpredictable challenge for regular combatants.
In the post-1993 Oslo period, the IDF was often described as past its peak. This week, barring a few initial slip-ups, the reserve units, which are the backbone of the IDF, proved themselves capable of deploying at high speed and functioning effectively in battle.
The call-up turnout was above 96 percent in most units – much higher than forecast; it took the new intake less than 24 hours to receive instruction, collect equipment and join their units, although many had not seen the inside of an army base for years. Morale was unexpectedly high – even among the many over-40s called away from families, jobs and businesses, with little advance warning. In short order, the units began operating smoothly.
DEBKAfile‘s military sources point out that the showdown between Syria and Israel began on March 12, when Israeli intelligence discovered that the large-scale terror strike on the Matsuba-Kabri highway in Galilee, in which 7 Israelis died, was masterminded by Syrian military intelligence fielding a combined Jibril-Hizballah-al Qaeda team.
Twelve days later, on March 24, a mysterious series of explosions destroyed Syria’s subterranean missile and chemical weapons installation in Homs. The facility produced Scud C and Scud D missiles, liquid and solid fuels, and was the largest factory in the Arab world for chemical warheads, beginning production in the 1970s with assistance from Egypt.
North Korean missiles experts were among the roughly 100 engineers and technicians killed in the blast
DEBKAfile‘s military sources report that Syria suspects an Israeli commando unit sabotaged the plant in revenge for the Galilee highway terror attack. Another theory is that it was the work of American special forces units based on a US Sixth Fleet Mediterranean carrier, carried out to punish Syrian president Bashar Assad for affording al Qaeda operatives free transit through Syria.
Whoever did the job, it struck a central nerve in Damascus. Syria is left facing a potential war minus the bulk of its missile stocks and without the fuel for launching the remainder. A key strategic resource has been wiped out.
8 April: Iraq pumps some 2 million barrels of oil a day to the world market. When he announced a 30-day stoppage Monday, April 8, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein knew perfectly well that he would not shake the world the way Arab rulers did in 1973-74. In fact, the first volunteer to make up the marginal shortfall will be Saudi Arabia, the very Arab nation that spearheaded the oil embargo two decades ago.
Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal explained on April 4 that Riyadh was not considering the option of halting the flow of oil because it needed the revenue to aid the Palestinians.
Kuwait is likewise against any stoppage, a view likely to be echoed widely by other oil producers – whether OPEC members or, like Egypt and Oman, outside the cartel.
In fact, according to DEBKAfile‘s Middle East sources, the Iraqi ruler is on a fishing expedition in Palestinian waters to see what comes up in his Arab net.
Much ado was made over Iraq’s $25,000 stipend for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, on top of its financial contributions to the Palestinian struggle. Saddam is seeking to be anointed top sponsor of the Palestinian cause, at the same time dragging it out as long as possible. He believes that the more intense and extended the Palestinian-Israel confrontation, the longer it will take for the Americans to get their act together for an assault on Baghdad.
Saddam and Arafat are closely synchronized in this effort, just as they were in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The Palestinian leader has virtually put his uprising at Iraq’s disposal, winding his suicide offensive up to crisis point in time to throw a spanner into the Bush administration’s Iraq campaign preparations. Arafat is ably supported by the Hizballah on Israel’s northern frontier.
Saddam’s oil embargo is also aimed at stoking the turbulent pro-Palestinian demonstrations sweeping moderate Arab capitals this week – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and latterly, Saudi Arabia. He wants it to be translated by the Arab mobs into anti-American pressure on their governments to withdraw support from the Bush administration’s anti-Saddam offensive. If this does not work, the demonstrators will at the very least vent their frustrations against their governments – hopefully with destabilizing effect.
This rationale represents Saddam’s true sentiments towards his fraternal Arab neighbors – a far cry from the hugs and kisses so lavishly photographed at the Arab League summit in Beirut only ten days ago.
9 April: Thirteen Israeli reservists, members of the same paratroop unit, were killed during a house-to-house search of the Jenin refugee camp for terrorists. A bomb factory under a block of residential buildings was rigged to set off a chain of explosions. The rescue team come to dig out the victims then came under heavy fire from the rooftops. Dozens of Palestinians died in the same blast. Aerial bombing the camp, the main bastion of Jihad Islami, Fatah and Hamas, suicides, was ruled out because the terrorists hide in civilian homes. The IDF is therefore rounding them up on foot, while also eradicating vast dumps of explosives and weapons, which are also concealed in residential areas.
9 April: The battle raging in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, the most savage and costly in life waged thus far in the counter-terror offensive Israel launched on March 29, will also determine its outcome. It will also decide if Yasser Arafat is doomed to stay locked in his two rooms in Ramallah.
If the Palestinians win the day in Jenin, the Israeli army faces defeat at the end of its full-scale assault against their terror strongholds in seven West Bank cities – a failure that will gravely affect the Sharon national unity government’s chances of survival.
Outside forces are already riding on the back of the Israeli ordeal in Jenin. First in line are the Americans. They are turning the screw relentlessly the closer secretary of state Colin Powell advances through Arab capitals towards Jerusalem, ordering Israel to remove its forces from Palestinian territory forthwith and begin lifting its siege on Arafat. Washington is also pushing hard for a US observer or peacemaking force to come in as a buffer between Israeli and Palestinian forces.