A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

22 February: Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has acceded to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s request for steps to ease Yasser Arafat’s confinement in Ramallah – in return for a phased letup in Palestinian terror and improved relations with Cairo.

This is revealed by DEBKAfile‘s political sources.

What the two leaders agreed in essence, in their telephone conversation on Thursday, February 21, was for the three processes to go forward in parallel, with Egypt accompanying each step. Until that phone call, the Egyptian ruler had virtually boycotted the Israeli prime minister for a year.

Its immediate outcome was a high level-Israeli-Palestinian security meeting that same night, February 2, attended on the Israeli side by Shin Beth director Avi Dichter and IDF Operations head, Maj.Gen Giora Eiland, and, for the Palestinians, Muhamed Dahlan, head of the Gaza Strip Security Service and Jibril Rajoub, head of Preventive Security in the West Bank.

On the agenda were steps to de-escalate the surging violence.

The first was carried out by Israel Friday morning, February 22, when its troops pulled out of positions occupied two weeks ago in the southern Gaza Strip and lifted the blockade trisecting the territory into impassable segments.

DEBKAfile‘s sources point out that, by talking to Arafat’s representatives amid a phased winding down of Palestinian terror Sharon has in effect agreed to enter into indirect, Egypt-mediated negotiations under fire.

As part of the process, Cairo will de-freeze its attitude towards Israel and the Sharon government in particular. Sharon will meet Mubarak – first in the Sinai resort of Sharm al Sheikh, followed by Mubarak’s first visit to Israel as president. Inviting Sharon to Cairo will then be considered.

Despite this apparent breakthrough, weighty obstacles remain in the path of the Mubarak-Sharon understanding. The first is Arafat, who does not trust Mubarak any more than Sharon – or even Abdullah, King of Jordan, suspecting all three of plotting his ouster. The Palestinian leader has no real interest in Mubarak and Sharon getting along together; he will do his utmost to set them at each other’s throats.

24 February: A freshly-carved hole in an underground passageway next to the US embassy on Via Veneto in Rome was one of several ominous signals that the al Qaeda terror network has resumed its terror offensive against the US and Europe.

According to DEBKAfile‘s intelligence sources, counter-terror authorities have been on the lookout in the last two weeks for an unknown number of terrorist squads known to be on their way to West Europe and the Middle East.

Saturday, February 23, in Lakewood, Colorado, the FBI went on the alert after sensitive information about roads at Hoover Dam – an engineer’s identification badge and computer hard drives – was stolen from a Federal Highway Administration Office. Situated thirty miles east of Las Vegas, Hoover Dam is the largest man-made reservoir in America.

The hole found near the embassy in Rome confirmed the direst fears of the FBI and Italian police working together of an al Qaeda plot to launch a chemical attack on the city, focusing on the centrally-located US embassy.

The potential assault was apparently aborted by the arrest in Rome last Tuesday, February 19, of eight Moroccan men, members of the extremist Algerian Islamic Armed Group – GIA, associated with al Qaeda. Found in their possession were 4 kilos of cyanide, 10 kilos of explosives, maps of the water, electric and gas networks around the US embassy building and 100 false identity papers. An explosion would have converted the cyanide compound into a toxic gaseous cloud and caused many deaths – first in the US embassy, then spreading through the tunnels under the center of Rome.

Italy is especially susceptible to terror strikes. Since September 11, 20 people have been arrested on suspicion of having links with Islamic terrorist groups. According to US investigators, Milan’s Islamic culture center is al Qaeda’s main logistics base in Europe. Surveillance of the Moroccans arrested last week revealed connections to four Tunisians, fellow members of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, which operates outside Algeria on behalf of al Qaeda. These Tunisians were sentenced in Milan Friday, February 22, to five years in jail on terror-related charges – criminal association for trafficking in arms, explosives and chemicals as well as forging identity papers.

One of the four, Essid Sami Ben Khemais, who is the suspected leader of the al Qaeda’s European network, was involved in a previous failed bombing of the US embassy in Rome in 2001.

24 February: Israel’s security cabinet decision Sunday, February 24, to ease Yasser Arafat’s conditions of confinement in Ramallah was accompanied by a pullback of the tanks besieging his headquarters for nearly three months. But to leave this West Bank hub town – he wants to attend the Arab League summit in Beirut on March 28 – he will have to ask Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon for permission. The cabinet reaffirmed Israel’s demand for the Palestinian Authority to extradite the Palestinian murderers of tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi last year. Most ministers remain skeptical of the Palestinian claim to have arrested three killers in Nablus last Thursday, February 22.

Palestinian officials greeted the Israeli cabinet decision with rage, announcing severance of political and security contacts with Israel and calling off the second joint security commission meeting scheduled for Sunday night, although the first meeting Thursday approved eased restrictions for the Palestinians.

Labor and opposition left-wing spokesmen also slammed the cabinet decision.

Over the weekend, Sharon received word from Cairo that Arafat had agreed to slow down terrorist attacks under the terms of the latest Egyptian initiative. It was now Sharon’s turn to recommend his release at the Sunday morning cabinet meeting. However, a cursory check showed the prime minister that the Palestinian endorsement had not come from Arafat but from non-combatant Palestinian Authority officials. Arafat himself had said nothing. Sharon accordingly demanded a direct pledge from Arafat himself to slow down the violence before setting the Palestinian leader free.

25 February: Probably no one was more surprised than Saudi Arabia’s virtual ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, by the furor raised by a single sentence he uttered in an interview to the New York Times columnist Thomas L, Friedman, after it was published February 18:

“…this is exactly the idea I had in mind – full withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accordance with UN resolutions, including in Jerusalem, for full normalization of relations. I have drafted a speech along those lines [for the Arab League summit meeting in Beirut on March 28].”

The Saudi ruler did not pronounce the word peace, mention a halt in the terror and violence in return for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, or expand on his “idea” in any organized follow-up in a non-media forum.

Abdullah knows quite well that he has come out of the first stage of the Bush administration’s war on terror with tarnished credentials as an American ally. He tried to gloss over the fact that most of the suicides who struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington were Saudi citizens. Abdullah stood against the US campaign against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which Riyadh supported, and denied US forces the use of the Prince Sultan air base east of Riyadh. He covertly financed the air corridor that lifted al Qaeda survivors of the Afghan war, many of them Saudi nationals, to safety in the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions, including south Lebanon. Through his intelligence agencies and Muslim charities, the crown prince put up Saudi funds for the Iranian arms cargo bound for the Palestinians aboard the Karine-A that Israel intercepted on the Red Sea.

Abdullah is the first Arab ruler to confront president Bush’s “axis of evil” with a tripartite pact made up of Saudi Arabia and two elements of that axis – Iraq and Iran – with whom he is synchronizing certain of his political, military and economic strategies.

And finally, Abdullah never stopped funneling oil funds to the Palestinian Islamic extremist Hamas listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization. These moneys support Hamas’s impressive arsenal and reservoir of suicide killers.

While the Americans were trying to find out if Abdullah’s initiative was for real, a plain thumbs-down came from the central committee of Arafat’s Fatah movement, who called it a new stab in the back for “the Palestinian struggle and its legitimate rights”. The Fatah statement asks the Saudis if they would give up their own rights in border disputes with brotherly Arab states. If not, why then do they propose giving up “territories occupied since 1948, so serving Zionist and American schemes” and ignoring the right of return of expelled Palestinian refugees?

Arafat’s Fatah accuses the Saudis of trying to deflect American threats from certain Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, at the expense of the Palestinian people.

26 February: Just over three weeks ago, Palestinian Authority paymasters, about to hand out January wage packets to civilian and security personnel, were taken aback to find that the $50 million earmarked for the purpose had gone missing. At a loss, they took the problem to Yasser Arafat. They all knew who had taken the money and where it had gone – Arafat’s latest Fatah-Tanzim terror cycle, already referred to by insiders as The Palestinian Tet Offensive, named for the 1968 North Vietnamese offensive against the American Army and South Vietnam.

Arafat, promising to make up the missing funds, called his European friends in Brussels and received a pledge of $30 million for the January salaries.

When EU foreign affairs executive Javier Solana arrived in the region on Monday, February 25, some of his Israeli contacts filled him in on the destination of the missing funds. They indicated that if the episode came out, the European Union could hardly avoid being accused of using European tax revenues to fund Palestinian terror. This notion irked even Solana. So on Monday, when he called on Arafat in his Ramallah office, he demanded that the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades – a wing of Arafat’s Fatah – be disbanded forthwith. He did not go so far as to mention the Fatah-Tanzim militia.

That day, Monday, the Fatah and its various wings outdid themselves in a series of deadly shooting attacks, killing three Israelis and injuring 12. Tuesday morning, Solana was back in Arafat’s office. The Palestinian leader complained bitterly about the Israeli justice minister, the usually mild Meir Sheetreet, who told an early morning Hebrew radio broadcast that if things carried on this way, he could not rule out Israel’s military reoccupation of Palestinian cities. Solana agreed gloomily that this prospect was on the cards.

27 February: A glimmer of hope hung over the resumed trilateral security mission meeting at the US Ambassador’s home in Herzliya Tuesday night, February 26, that the diplomatic flurry of the last 24 hours would have a positive effect on the level of violence.

President George W. Bush had talked on the phone to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres had conversed with French president Jacques Chirac in Paris, and the European Union’s foreign affairs executive, Javier Solana, after shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, set off for Jeddah to see the Saudi ruler.

But the security committee broke up at around midnight without results.

Eight hours later, on Wednesday morning, the next wave of Palestinian terror was heading out in a completely new direction. A hit squad of three from El Arish, the desert town in Egyptian Sinai, crossed into Israel’s southern Negev at Mt. Harif, heavily armed with assault rifles, ammunition and the suicide’s weapon, a bomb belt, and headed for the Ramon Crater. This was the first terrorist infiltration to Israel’s southern desert area bordering Egypt in 14 years.

The Crater is situation midway between Beersheba and Israel’s southernmost town of Eilat on the Red Sea. It leads to the biggest cluster of Israeli military bases in southern Israel, as well as to the remote town of Mitzpe Ramon, which has a heavy population of army and air force families. All were obvious Palestinian terrorist targets. However, 12 km inside Israeli territory – before reaching the Ramon Crater – the terrorists were spotted by a military patrol. In the exchange of fire, all three were eliminated and two Israeli troops wounded.

This attempt was foiled, but others may follow, heralding, in the judgment of DEBKAfile‘s military experts, a fresh and serious escalation in Palestinian warfare, comparable to the introduction of mortar- and then rocket- weaponry against Israeli civilian targets.

Israel military sources define Yasser Arafat’s two objectives as being:

1. The launch of terror attacks from Egyptian soil, in order to drag Egypt unwillingly into the cycle of violence and ignite a regional conflagration.

2. The terrorists may have been heading for an American military installation. According to DEBKAfile‘s military sources, the United States maintains large reserve depots of tanks, artillery and military personnel in this part of southern Israel, against the contingency of a Middle East war.

Arafat may therefore have been hoping to chalk up a triple hit with a single three-man terrorist team: Egypt, a US military target and Israel.

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