20 April: By any military standards, the large-scale offensive Israel launched on March 29 against seven Palestinian cities and their satellite villages and camps, is a victory and a resounding Palestinian defeat. In three weeks, their suicide offensive tapered off conspicuously.
The operation owes its success to four men: US President George W. Bush, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli chief of staff Lt.-Gen Shaul Mofaz and his deputy and designated successor, Maj.-Gen Moshe Yaalon.
Credit for the Palestinian defeat belongs to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his two leading sponsors, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and the European Union, notably its foreign affairs executive, Javier Solana. Both encouraged Arafat to believe he would beat Israel. So he toughed it out – and lost.
Palestinian institutions of government and security, smashed on the West bank, were left intact in the Gaza Strip.
The Battle of Jenin was the decider of this round, as DEBKAfile maintained at the fiercest moment of combat. Labeling this heroic battle – in which both sides fought valiantly – a massacre, is an oft-tried stratagem for transforming an Arab battlefield defeat into a diplomatic victory. This ruse may not work this time – thanks to the determination of the United States and its president not to let Israel be robbed of the fruits of this victory, but rather to make it a stepping stone for Washington’s next Middle East moves. Whatever the ups and downs in the relationship – and the recriminations heard from time to time – the American people and the Bush government’s backing for Israel and the Sharon government’s objectives is a fact of life to a degree never enjoyed by any previous Israeli government. It is predicated on the recognition that Yasser Arafat is an integral part of global terror.
After finishing with Arafat, Bush means to turn on the Arab leaders who espouse the use of suicides for what the White House has come to call homicidal attacks.
These developments have set the following trends in motion:
1. Now that Arafat is branded a terrorist, Washington had made it harder for Arab rulers to exploit the Palestinian problem as a standard pretext for their refusal to cultivate normal relations with Israel.
2. Faced with this dilemma, Crown Prince Abdullah sent his foreign minister Saud al-Faisal to Moscow on Sunday, April 18, to tell President Vladimir Putin that Riyadh badly needed an ally to offset American pressure and could either turn to Russia or the Iran-Iraq axis. Saud al Faisal came away from Moscow empty-handed.
3. A third world power, China, is bent on capitalizing on these shifting trends. President Jiang Zemin and prime minister Zhu Rongji are making the rounds of Arab and Gulf Emirate capitals and Iran.
20 April: According to DEBKAfile‘s Washington sources, the latest Bush team’s plan for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority is to reduce his jurisdiction to the Gaza Strip alone. Its basic assumption is that, as long as Arafat remains acknowledged leader of the Palestinian people, President Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel is impracticable.
Because of this plan, Ariel Sharon refrained from extending the IDF’s counter-terror offensive to the Gaza Strip towns of Gaza City, Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Khan Younes and Rafah – an action that puzzled many. Security forces were instructed only to keep the lid on Palestinian violence.
In Gaza, the Egyptians and Israelis can keep an eye on Arafat and insulate him from his power bases on the West Bank. In the West Bank itself, traditional local power groups in the cities, such as Hebron, Ramallah, and Nablus, will be invited to form a regional self-ruling authority. It will maintain token ties with the Gaza-based Palestinian Authority, but its mainline political links will be with Jordan which, jointly with Israel, will administer the territory’s remodeled security and intelligence services.
In keeping with this plan, Operation Defensive Shield systematically tore down the Palestinian Authority’s security and intelligence organs on the West Bank.
Amid the ruins of his administration, DEBKAfile‘s Palestinian sources report that Arafat never tires of telling followers that the victors in the current contest are not the Americans or the Israelis, but Arafat and the Palestinian people. He dismisses Washington’s proposal to move him to Gaza as an “American-Zionist conspiracy” that the Arab nation will smash to bits.
Since his confinement in Ramallah, Arafat no longer wants an international force to keep Israelis and Palestinians apart and shrugs off the Saudi peace initiative as a device to mask the secret willingness of Arab rulers to go along with the American-Zionist conspiracy. Above all, he wants to Egypt and Jordan – but also Saudi Arabia and Syria – out of Palestinian affairs.
This he hopes to achieve by stirring up violent popular riots in Arab cities in unison with a fresh wave of suicide and terrorist attacks against Israel, which he is hatching even now. When he refers to himself, it is no longer as Palestinian president, but as the pre-eminent pan-Arab leader whose suicide ideology is spreading round Arab lands.
Arafat pins his highest hopes on Saddam Hussein, who at the peak of popular unrest in the Arab states and the fresh anti-Israel suicide cycle, he expects to throw all Iraq’s might against Israel and Jordan.
21 April: Jordan’s King Abdullah II flew to Cairo Sunday, April 21 to confer with President Hosny Mubarak of Egypt on the current Middle East crisis and the rising ferment in their countries. The two leaders are in close coordination on the problem of Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.
With the US-Iraq showdown still ahead, most of DEBKAfile‘s Middle East sources agree that Jordan is liable to suffer greater damage than any other nation in the region in consequence of the US-Iraqi war. Already, the Hashemite Kingdom is gathering itself for the coming emergency, not waiting for the American action against Baghdad to begin.
Although no state of emergency has been formally declared, DEBKAfile‘s Middle East sources reveal that the capital, Amman, and Jordan’s other cities have all been placed under the control of the Jordanian armed forces and anti-aircraft positions arrayed at strategic points. Government offices, security and aid services, hospitals, water, electric and fuel utilities and economic institutions, including banks, have gone over to an emergency footing. In another sign of the times, the bulk of the kingdom’s reserves have been transferred to banks in Europe.
Our sources added that the king and his family have left Amman and established residence in the royal summer villa in Red Sea resort of Aqaba, guarded by Counter-Terrorism Battalion 71 (CTB-71), a Jordanian elite contingent made up the Rangers, paratroops and members of the Royal Guard. At the first sign of a tangible threat, all is prepared to whisk the king and his family out of harm’s way. They will be flown to a US airbase at Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern edge of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as the Egyptian president’s guest.
Most of the families of Jordan’s ruling elite have left the capital on the pretext of starting their summer vacation.
22 April: Israel’s month-long offensive to smash Palestinian terrorists strongholds in the West Bank has had a side effect worth noting: some ordinary Palestinians are no longer afraid to speak out and admit their distress – in front of television cameras.
In the Jabalya camp of the Gaza Strip, the local correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2, Seliman a-Shafi, gave Sunday night viewers a rare glimpse into the mind of a would-be suicide killer – a terrified adolescent aged 14 who freely told his story. Sent on a suicide mission against an Israeli military position – he did not say by which group – he set out with another boy in the dark of night. Halfway there, he stopped. “I didn’t want to die,” he said, tears rolling down his face. “I wanted to go back to my family.” He tried to persuade his friend to return home with him. The friend refused. The boy turned back alone and a few minutes later heard an explosion. Filled with fear, he ran hard until he reached the safety of home.
The boy’s family took part in the interview, led by his comfortably ample mother and surrounded by her large brood. “They take our children when they are too young to understand, to decide if they want to die. Why don’t they take the louts hanging round the markets? My boy is in shock. He can’t stop weeping. He doesn’t know whether he did right or wrong. We don’t let him out of the house without his father – in case he changes his mind again, or they catch him. We are all in shock.”
In a strong, assertive voice, she told the interviewer that she was not the only mother in this situation. The Gaza Strip is full of women keeping a tight hold on their young sons.
“All of us here are badly traumatized. But there is not a single psychologist in the whole territory to help us.”
The boy from Gaza was not by any means the youngest child to be marked out as a “martyr”. In Jenin, where the walls were plastered with large posters depicting dozens of dead youths, Israeli soldiers learned to beware of innocent-looking 10- and even 7-year olds with hidden bombs.
24 April: Saudi Arabia denies it has massed 8 brigades on its Jordanian border following secret intelligence reports of Israeli troop concentrations on its frontier with Jordan. (The Kingdom of Jordan is wedged between Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq and Syria.) Israel denied the Saudi claim Tuesday, April 23. The comeback was fast: “A responsible source” at the kingdom’s defense and aviation ministry stated that Saudi armed forces units are merely conducting “routine exercises” in the northwestern region, not beefing up their troop presence there.
The next step in this unfolding exchange of claims and denials was another report from Riyadh on Thursday, April 24, that Israeli jets were flying over Jordan’s border with the oil kingdom. Saudi air defenses were said to be under orders to shoot down any intruding craft.
DEBKAfile‘s military analysts have taken due note of Riyadh’s public admission that it fears an Israeli invasion of Jordan. Even more noteworthy is its timing: 48 hours before Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz travels to President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Here, then, is a transparent Saudi gambit, based on the cynical exploitation of the Israeli military bugbear. This gambit, in the view of our analysts, is employed by Riyadh –
First, to manufacture tension on the Saudi-Jordanian-Israel borders in order to back up Abdullah’s attempt to railroad Israel as the generator of military escalation in the region.
Second, as a device to cut short the Saudi crown prince’s American visit. Riyadh-Washington relations have never been so bad.
Riyadh, while attempting to fabricate a crisis around Jordan’s borders – and pin it on Israel – knows exactly what is really going on. The Israeli troop presence along the border of the Hashemite kingdom – which Israeli spokesmen consistently deny – is there with Amman’s consent for the sole purpose of deterring Saddam from invading Jordan. The Saudis are also perfectly aware that Iraq led the way in kicking off this round of military moves and that Israel countered.
They have taken steps to reassure Washington that they have no intention of joining Baghdad in an oil embargo. On Tuesday, April 23, the Saudi oil minister promised a group of American businessmen in Washington that his government would continue to keep oil prices stable and make up for any production shortfall developing on the world market.
Simultaneously, the Saudi investment authority in Riyadh finally, after long delays, approved a partnership transaction between American Chevron-Phillips and the Saudi industrial investment authority, entailing a $1 billion investment in a new petrochemical plant in the kingdom.
But these gestures can no longer paper over the deep rift between Riyadh and Washington, or the inevitability of any major war confrontation driving the two to opposing sides – with lasting effect on the region as well as world oil and financial markets.
Already the Saudis are operating on two levels – one reassuring Washington and other, laying their military cards out on the ground. The second is bound to cancel out the effect of the first.