A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

5 July: Most Israelis did not rise up in arms when IDF troops made way for Palestinian police forces to take over the Gaza Strip or even Bethlehem, site of Rachel’s Tomb. They were largely unmoved by the removal of outposts. However, prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to free 1,200 or more Palestinian terrorists arouses bitter resentment. According to the information reaching debkafile from its military sources, the lists were put together last week by Sharon under pressure from the White House and after consultation with Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and his internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan. Of the first batch of around 300, 62 Palestinian prisoners were freed between Wednesday, July 2 and Friday without discussion. Scores more will be out Sunday, July 6. The discharges will be paced, debkafile sources report, according to the needs of the Abbas-Dahlan duo for a popularity boost on the Palestinian street. When he received the first list last week, Abbas brought it for approval before Gaza Strip Hamas and Jihadi Islami chiefs, as well as Abu Sema Dana. This chief of a notorious Gaza-Sinai smuggling clan has been reinvented with media assistance as the “head” of the Popular Resistance Committees in the Gaza Strip.

The committees have a history as murky as their head.

They were first created by Arafat and his veteran aide Saher Habash as a mechanism to coordinate joint terrorist action by Fatah, the various Palestinian security services, Hizballah cells in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas and the Jihad Islami. Last year, units of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Fatah’s suicide arm, were transferred from the West Bank to enhance the absentee Arafat’s control of the Gaza Strip. They were attached to the committees commanded by Arafat’s .close local ally, Abu Sema Dana, master of drug, money, weapons, contract killing and slave traffic in the southern Gaza Strip areas of Khan Younes, Rafah, the Israel-Egyptian border and northern Sinai up to El Arish. His clan also controls the sea smuggling routes from the Lebanese ports of Tyre and Sidon up to the mouth of the Suez Canal and the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

Maritime intelligence sources tell debkafile that illegal shipping using these waters is required to pay a toll to the Sema Danas.

From his turf, an “anti-tank” missile struck Kfar Darom, another was aimed at Kibbutz Or Ner in southern Israel. debkafile‘s military sources reveal here that the Palestinians were firing a new type of short-range ground missile called “Nasser” (after the late Egyptian president and pan-Arab champion), secretly manufactured in the workshops of the Palestinian preventive security service run by Abu Shbak, Dahlan’s long-time deputy.

Under the Gaza Strip accord, Palestinian national security units were to have been deployed up to the barrier fencing the Strip off from Israel. However, in view of the latest missile alerts threatening southern Israel – Qassam and Nasser – the IDF is demanding that a buffer strip be carved on the Palestinian side of the fence. The Palestinians object.

Moreover, in view of fresh intelligence reports of Arafat’s Fatah, Tanzim and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades preparing to move into Beit Jalah and resume their old firing positions against Jerusalem’s Gilo, Israeli forces have been massively deployed to block access from Bethlehem to Beit Jala, as well as shutting the Fire Wadi side road out of Bethlehem, through which Fatah suicide bombers are planning to reach neighboring Jerusalem.

8 July:  On July 6, the day before he took off for Cairo, Syrian President Bashar Assad signed Decree 408, hitting the party faithful like a bolt from the blue. In a trice, the party which had governed ever corner of Syria’s civil and military administration single-handed for forty years was removed from the levers of control.

By divorcing the ruling party from influence over all forms of government in Syria, Assad has shown himself to be the only Arab leader who understands the import of the Iraq War in terms of regional democratization.

In Iraq, although the sister Baath party exercised its grip on every nook and cranny of life in the country, its leader Saddam Hussein, his army and security services, were toppled almost overnight. The Syrian ruler has therefore ditched the party bastion he inherited from his father and is campaigning over its head to solicit the support of the people by means of Decree 408.

Thus far, the popular response has been mistrustful and suspicious, having been led up the garden path once before. In mid-2000 when Bashar succeeded his father he made bombastic promises of democratic reforms and the introduction of 21st century economic and technological benefits. The man in the street believed him.

But the Assad junior’s new spring soon turned frosty when he attached security police to the citizens who most loudly hailed the promised changes. Thousands of delighted Syrian men and women were clapped behind bars. Some are still there.

One day before Assad published his Decree 408, Kuwait held a general election for its 50-seat National Assembly – a general election only in Gulf terms, meaning 85 percent of the population is ineligible to vote – women, new citizens and members of the armed forces. This time, hundreds of Kuwaiti women refused to take their disenfranchisement lying down and staged a mock election to vent their feelings. Thus America’s leading ally in the war against Iraq is probably the least democratic. The ruling al-Sabah family succeeded in shaving the already marginal liberal party’s representation down from 14 to three, while the fundamentalist Islamists improved their standing by one seat to 21. The only concession the rulers made was to end the practice whereby the post of prime minister goes automatically to the crown prince. Now any Kuwait can get the job – on condition he is sponsored by the royal family.

7 July: “Israel’s position is clear,” Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz told the media after his three-hour meeting with Palestinian interior security minister Mohammed Dahlan on Sunday, July 6. “The Palestinian Authority has assumed responsibility for terror prevention in the areas turned over by Israel. Its next obligation is to dismantle terrorist organizations.”

In answer to a question, Mofaz said Yasser Arafat had more than once attempted to obstruct Abu Mazen; in general his actions were not constructive.

The Israeli defense chief insists of late that his job is to hold down security. By this assertion he lets it be known that the diplomatic-political arena is the province of prime minister Ariel Sharon. It may also be inferred that the two areas do not always overlap. Sometimes they even clash. At the Israeli cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday, July 6, the ministers were divided over the norms for releasing Palestinian prisoners detained or convicted for terror. This clash brought Sharon close to a rare defeat in his own cabinet. Since he cannot afford to confront Washington or the Palestinians with such snags – and even tougher concessions to the Palestinians are in the pipeline – the Israeli prime minister is clearly heading for a government reshuffle that will replace his troublesome coalition partners with the more amenable opposition Labor party headed by Oslo Accord architect Shimon Peres – as debkafile reported previously. Even the release of Palestinian terrorists guilty of murdering Israelis will then go through far more smoothly.

Keeping Mofaz in defense and reserving politics for Sharon is a division of labor and objectives that is beginning to look like Dr. Dolittle’s pushmepullyou, whose two heads faced in opposite directions. The controversy also helps muddy the state of the Palestinian ceasefire as it enters its second week.

The latest Israeli intelligence updates reveals Arafat as applying the last touches to his takeover of most of the northern West Bank, setting up an enclave encompassing Nablus and its Balata refugee camp, Jenin, Tulkarm and Qalqilya. The string of ambush murders on local highways and security fence work teams, as well as attempted suicide attacks in Israel, which coincided with the onset of the Palestinian ceasefire, were the first forays to emanate from Arafat’s new terror enclave under the commander Arafat appointed, Hussein al-Sheikh.

A new terror region under the sole authority of Arafat has therefore been cut out in the heart of the US-Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire zone. It operates under the immunity from targeted attack and liquidations extended by the ceasefire although the groups under his command have never signed on. The Palestinian ministers have been maneuvered into an acute quandary. Until a short while ago, Hussein al-Sheikh was Dahlan’s man on the West Bank. Arafat by hijacking his hireling and turning him into a private ticking bomb has made it impossible for Dahlan to take action against al-Sheikh without becoming a laughing stock on the West Bank.

In a nutshell therefore, chances are dim for Dahlan to break up either the Hamas-Jihad Islami terror machine in the Gaza Strip or the Arafat triangle on the West Bank. So what is the point of a virtually indiscriminate policy on the release of Palestinian terrorists?

9 July: Violent three-way clashes in Tehran marked the July 9 anniversary of the brutally suppressed student demonstrations of 1999, despite the Islamic regime’s advance crackdown against the pro-democracy student movement. Hundreds of hard-line Islamic vigilantes, police and students milling about outside Tehran University got into running battles Wednesday night. Police clashed with students as well as with the Basiji vigilantes, who are fiercely loyal to Iran’s radical spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, to prevent them from getting closer to the university. Downtown Tehran was jammed with loudly hooting cars and Basijj motor-bikers.

In expectation of trouble, the authorities had banned gatherings and closed campuses. Riot police lined the streets around Tehran University. Earlier Wednesday, three student activists were hauled off by vigilantes after declaring President Mohammed Khatami’s reforms a failure and declaring the intention of staging a sit-in opposite the UN.

Official preemptive actions included the arrest of the entire student leadership along with protest organizers after inciting them to demonstrate for ten nights in June in order to catch them off-balance a month before the anniversary. To make the student leaders show their hands, the pro-government Kayban and Jomhouri-e Eslami newspapers published inflammatory reports of government plans to privatize universities and force students to pay prohibitively steep tuition. The Basij were used as agents provocateurs to fan the flames of protest so as to mark out student activists for arrest or worse. Basij students are granted free tuition and exemptions from university entrance exams.

Despite mass arrests – even official figures showed some 4,000 people had been detained – multitudes of non-students kept on joining the protests, keeping them on the front burner for days. They then moved on to hunger strikes that went on and off for about three weeks.

But they failed to make much of an impact on the domestic and international press and many gave in to exhaustion. By the time July 9 rolled around, most student leaders were behind bars or in hiding, with death threats being made covertly and openly against their families.

A new wave of arrests and trials has begun. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, known political reformists have been targeted and at least seven newspapers belonging to the freedom camp will be closed.

Though cheered on from Washington and Iranian emigre communities around the world, the pro-democracy students and reformists have failed to shake the theocratic regime which has ruled Iran for a quarter century. But demonstrators may get a second chance; more street protests are expected soon. The United States is also keeping Teheran under pressure with accusations of granting sanctuary to senior al-Qaeda operatives and demands that Iran throw all its nuclear sites open to closer and unannounced international inspections.

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