A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

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.

DEBKAfile‘s military sources report the IDF has thrown its ablest fighting units into the fray to break the relentless standoff. 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 riding on the back of the Israeli ordeal in Jenin are, first, the Americans, who are turning the screw the more 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.

The Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on Monday, April 8, expanded his national unity government and delivered a fighting speech on the moral justification of Israel’s campaign to root out terrorists and suicides in their lairs. The same night, he began falling back in the face of US demands – Qalqilya and Tulkarm were evacuated and Arafat was permitted to receive his top advisers, Abu Ala, Abu Mazen, Muhamed Dahlan and Saeb Arikat.

This may be no more than a tactical retreat. Tuesday noon, April 9, the prime minister dissolved his inner defense cabinet of three (Sharon and his two Labor partners, defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and foreign minister Shimon Peres), replacing it with the expanded defense forum, including the three new nationalist minister, whom he counts on for support in measures to bring the costly Jenin battle to a successful conclusion, while standing up to mounting pressure from Washington.

With the Jenin battle still in the balance, foreign minister Shimon Peres took to the airwaves to say he was worried about its effect on world opinion after the fighting was over – especially of the Palestinian bodies strewn in the streets. Clearly conscious of the effect their dead comrades would have on the world’s TV screens, the Palestinians refused to allow rescue vehicles to remove them.

Since the Israeli military thrust into Palestinian cities, the threat of suicide terrorists that poisoned the air has been lifted.

10 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 Tuesday, April 9. A bomb factory under a block of residential buildings was rigged to set off a chain of explosions. Dozens of Palestinians died in the same blast. The rescue team, which arrived to dig out the victims, then came under heavy fire from the rooftops. Aerial bombing of the camp, the main bastion of Jihad Islami, Fatah and Hamas, suicides, was ruled out because the terrorists hide in civilian homes and often rig them for suicidal blasts. Bomb-belted children are sent to accost Israeli troops.

The IDF is therefore rounding up suspects one by one on foot, while also seeking out vast dumps of explosives and weapons, which too are booby-trapped and concealed in residential areas, to cause maximal damage to buildings.

13 April: Two events on Friday, April 12, reshaped US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s conception of his peace mission to the Middle East: his tour of Israel’s tense northern border region, which he termed “an eye opener”; and the suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem that blasted a bus line – just as his helicopter lifted off from the Knesset helipad only a quarter of a mile away, killing six Sabbath Eve market shoppers and injuring 89.

Landing in the Israel-Lebanese border sector, he was briefed by a group of generals past and present like himself: defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, the designated (currently deputy) chief of staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon and OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen Gaby Ashkenazi.

The briefing covered these points:

A. An Iranian missile and ammo airlift from Bandar Abbas via Damascus military airport keeps the Lebanese Hizballah amply re-supplied with the means to keep up the daily cross-border barrage into Israel, launched two weeks ago, with 8,000 rockets. The Iranian transports are allowed to cross Iraqi airspace and refuel at Iraqi bases.

B. Iran has stuffed Hizballah accounts in Syrian banks with millions of dollars to fund operations.

C. Iranian Revolutionary Guards, several hundred of whom are posted in Lebanon, have much improved Hizballah mortar and rocket crews’ accuracy.

D. Iraq and Iran have activated new secret military pacts to coordinate the operations of their air and missile forces.

E. Syria and Iran continue to actively sponsor terrorists, including al Qaeda. Syrian military intelligence has given Ahmed Jibril’s hardline Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestinian – General Command free rein to launch Katyusha attacks against and terrorist incursions into Israel from Syrian soil, in unison with Hizballah assaults – witness last month’s deadly ambush on a main highway in north Galilee, in which seven Israelis were shot dead.

Syria provides a back door for smuggling Hizballah and al Qaeda fighters into the West Bank through the Golan Heights – as well as weapons and explosives.

In Lebanon, agents run by the senior al Qaeda operations officer, the Iranian-Lebanese terror master Imad Mughniyeh, are busy plotting terrorist strikes against US and Israel targets around he Gulf and Middle East. Al Qaeda militants transferring from Iraq, Iran and the Gulf to Lebanon are granted free passage through Damascus.

F. Some of the al Qaeda groups, including Kurdish tribesmen, have joined the ranks of the Hizballah and the Palestinian units based in Palestinian refugee camps in south Lebanon.

G. Baghdad regards the Palestinian confrontation with Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as Iraq’s first line of defense against a US assault; Iran views Lebanon in similar terms.

Arafat is kept in the picture by his allies – Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Hizballah.

Yasser Arafat, appreciating that his allies were under US caution, produced a lukewarm, equivocal condemnation of terror – not in his voice and without mention of suicide bombers. Israeli security is back on high alert, especially in Jerusalem, after the few days’ respite afforded by Israel’s military operation against Palestinian cities, on guard for trouble as Israel’s Independence Day approaches on Tuesday April 16.

For now, Washington appears to have pulled away from the Arab-European efforts to rescue Arafat and his shrinking clique. The Palestinian military line cracked in the middle with the fall of Jenin to the IDF this week. Now the Hizballah line in Lebanon comes into US focus.

14 March: In attempting to unscramble the Palestinian-Israel-Hizballah confrontation, US secretary of state Colin Powell faces the toughest assignment of his career.

With the help of its exclusive political sources in Washington and Jerusalem, DEBKAfile attempts to reconstruct the US secretary’s conversations with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon:

Powell: You really must wind up your campaign against Palestinian towns and get out so that we can go ahead with our offensive against Iraq. We can’t hit Saddam while you’re hitting the Palestinians.

Sharon: The situation is not of our making. It was generated by the Arabs. Iraq, Iran and Syria keep on whipping up terror and war. With the best intentions of helping you as well as Egypt and Jordan, our first duty must be to help our own people who live in constant fear of suicide bombings.

Powell: But the Iraq operation is in your interest too. You’ve got to help yourselves, as well as Egypt and Jordan.

Sharon: That is correct. But you are looking at the problem the wrong way. Assuming we interrupt our offensive against the Palestinian terrorists and quit their towns. What next? Shall we have peace? Will the Palestinians call off their suicides? Never! They will send twice as many. We’ve had nine or ten ceasefires declarations from Arafat and we know how much they’re worth. This time round, the Hizballah will follow where the Palestinians lead. You may think our conflict is separate from yours. Arafat does not. He has got it into his head that he is the mighty leader of the region and what he says goes.

You’ll find that when you fight a single-front war against the Iraqis, we’ll have two fronts on our hands.

Powell: I don’t deny this is possible. But try and see it our way. Our offensive against Iraq will be far from plain sailing. What you are saying is that the war will be fought on several fronts at once – Iraq, Palestinians, Hizballah, maybe Syria too – and there is still Egypt and Jordan to worry about.

Jordan too could face two fronts – a Palestinian uprising at home and an Iraq attack. We don’t want our offensive against Saddam to plunge the entire Middle East into all-out war. That would not be correct strategy.

Sharon: I understand you very well. I would be happy to hear any ideas you may have to stop this happening and to help as much as we can. But I must shoot square with you. Whatever understandings we may reach with you – and whatever happens in the Middle East – we are determined never to sit still for another Seder massacre such as the one we suffered at the Netanya hotel. If it happens again – and we know the Palestinians are preparing more of the same – they can expect a second Jenin. Nothing will stop us dealing out the same punishment again.

DEBKAfile‘s sources report that the US secretary carried this message to Arafat, when he called on him Sunday, April 14, in Ramallah. Powell was also armed with a proposition.

The Palestinian ceasefire declaration would be matched by Israel’s consent to pull its army out of Palestinian cities. Both sides, with US mediation and under its guarantee, would then go to work on a formulae and timetables for the next stage.

The Palestinian leader responded to Sharon’s threat with one of his own: Continued Israeli military presence and attacks in West Bank towns would be met with more suicide terrorism.

When Powell asked Arafat how long the suicide attacks would go on, warning him that they damaged the Palestinian people’s prospects of a state, the Palestinian leader did not answer.

Monday or Tuesday, April 15 or 16, the US Secretary sets out for Beirut and Damascus for a last-ditch effort to avert an eruption on Israel’s Lebanese and Syrian frontiers.

Over the weekend, the US secretary sought the aid of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, asking him to inform Syrian leaders that Cairo would stay out of any military action in the Middle East, even if Israeli launches an attack against the Hizballah and Syria. You’re on your own, Mubarak told Assad.

However, just as Arafat’s terror campaign is Iraq’s forward line against the US, the Hizballah acts in the same capacity for Iran. Assad and Arafat are both committed to their roles.

The US secretary discovered on his second day in the Middle East that the pell mell rush of events on the ground is not waiting for the carefully crafted US Iraq strategy to translate into action. The Bush administration must pick its way between two daunting options. To advance against Baghdad and leave the smaller regional conflicts to sort themselves out unaided? Or to take a hand in those conflicts and go forward against Iraq – at one and the same time?

15 April: Israel’s triumphant capture of Marwan Barghouti, 41, the Secretary General of the West Bank’s Fatah-Tanzim and the most vocal Palestinian leader, gave a strong impetus to the Sharon government’s campaign to delegitimize and replace Yasser Arafat.

DEBKAfile‘s military sources reveal that Israeli security leaders, including prime minister Ariel Sharon, have been telling US secretary of state Colin Powell that, since the Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus has buckled, the only real fighting force left on the West Bank is the Tanzim. Because Barghouti rules the Tanzim, he is by definition the strongman of the West Bank.

Our sources, looking for the battles in which Barghouti’s Tanzim was engaged, turned up empty. The Jenin refugee camp was the only place where the Palestinians showed real resistance. But the fighters there were the Jihad Islami, together with Hizballah and al Qaeda elements who had been scattered round the West Bank and mustered in Jenin for the showdown with Israeli troops.

However, the casting of the Tanzim leader in a heroic light is part of a wider maneuver.

His capture Monday, April 15, was a badly needed morale boost for Israelis preparing to celebrate their national memorial and independence days this week. Mentioned in the past as a possible Arafat successor, Barghouti is not only the highest-ranking Palestinian terror activist to fall into Israeli hands, but also the richest source of intelligence on the Palestinian terror machine.

But he retains choices.

He can spill all he knows about some of Arafat’s top henchmen and their culpability as terror masterminds – particularly his leading rival for the succession, Col. Tawfiq Tirawi, West Bank intelligence chief and supreme commander of the al Aqasa Martyrs Brigades, which is run by Arafat’s Fatah as a factory for suicides – as well as smaller fry.

Alternatively, he can finger Arafat in person as directly involved in Palestinian acts of terror at large, and the suicide offensive in particular. The captured Palestinian knows enough to blow the close operational ties Arafat maintains with Tehran, the Hizballah and the notorious hostage taker and bomber, Imad Mughniyeh, who is on the FBI’s list of 22 most wanted terrorists in connection with the September 11 attacks.

If the Tanzim leader goes for option one, he can expect a long stretch in jail or expulsion from the country.

But if, at some point, after the hue and cry over his arrest dies down, he decides to burn Arafat, he will have bought himself a good chance to bid for the succession and a seat at the regional peace conference Sharon has asked the United States to host.

Since only moderate Arab and Palestinian leaders will be invited, Arafat is disqualified.

The data coming from Barghouti – if it does – will strengthen the case that Israel’s Attorney General, Eliyakim Rubinstein declared Monday, April 15, a few hours before Barghouti’s capture, he intends bringing against Arafat as a war criminal.

Later on Monday, Powell said on the plane taking him back to Israel from Damascus that in his view a regional conference could go ahead without Arafat.

17 April: The Bush administration has now concluded that Osama bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora late last year, according to the Washington Post. The failure to commit US ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al Qaeda. Intelligence officials have assembled decisive evidence that bin Laden began the battle of Tora Bora inside the cave complex, and slipped away in the first ten days of December.

The Bush administration has never acknowledged that bin Laden slipped through the cordon ostensibly placed around Tora Bora as US aircraft began bombing on November 30.

Some excerpts from DEBKAfile‘s Exclusive Intelligence Report of December 8:

Osama bin Laden has packed his entire family out of Afghanistan – wives, sons and daughters and their wives, husbands and offspring.

Until Tuesday, November 27, the bin Laden family were still together in Afghanistan. US reconnaissance photos taken in the Tora Bora mountain cave area gave rise to the US intelligence assumption that the Saudi-born terrorist was holed up there.

Bin Laden’s move has more than one key implication for the ongoing war against terror:

1. US and British intelligence and special forces, though present on the ground, came short of thwarting the crossing of the large bin Laden clan into Pakistan, although its capture would have been the biggest psychological coup of the war and a priceless intelligence resource.

2. Bin Laden’s motives. The obvious one was that American military pressure has got him cornered and he wanted his family out of harm’s way.

Today DEBKAfile adds 3. A comparison of the dates appearing in the Washington Post April 17 and DEBKAfile December 8 reports opens up a new question:

Was this a coincidence? Or did Bin Laden know the US air force was about to bomb Tora Bora on November 30 – in time to get his family out of danger?

17 April: That US Secretary of State Colin Powell wound up his 10-day ceasefire mission in the Middle East without once mentioning its object is a measure of its failure. Asked by a reporter at his final news briefing in Jerusalem Wednesday, April 17, what happened to the ceasefire, he said the word was not relevant.

Sent to calm the Middle East storm and let the Bush administration complete its war plans against Iraq undisturbed, Powell leaves behind a furious caldron. A multi-fronted war looms large, while the threat of an oil embargo against the US and Israel’s friends has expanded. Iran and Iraq hope to rope in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela too. In Beirut, even the five-day lull in Hizballah’s cross-border attacks against northern Israel is not attributed to Powell’s efforts, but rather as a gesture of goodwill in advance of prime minister Rafiq Hariri’s White House interview with President George W. Bush Wednesday, April 17.

Powell’s final two-hour session with Yasser Arafat Wednesday in his besieged headquarters in Ramallah left the Palestinian leader boiling over with rage and threats. “My situation,” he spat out to reporters, “will be reflected in the stability of the whole region!”

The US Secretary emerged from the confrontation tight-lipped.

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