Saturday, January 29, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) unexpectedly emplaned for Moscow. Although Israel and the United States knew about the trip, it was unannounced – apparently to avoid tarnishing the new Palestinian leader’s pro-American image.
Our intelligence sources have learned that the day after he landed, Abu Mazen and Russian president Vladimir Putin were already deep in discussion on the first defense transaction between Moscow and Ramallah. So as not to tread on too many sore American toes, this will be no ordinary arms sale, but a very special deal indeed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that the initial phase will consist of a fleet of Russian-made cargo helicopters to ply the route between Ramallah and Gaza international airport. The reopening of the airport is expected to be announced at or after the Abbas-Sharon summit next Tuesday at Sharm el-Sheikh.
The helicopter deal was the Kremlin’s way of getting in on the ground floor with the new Palestinian leadership, as it were, notwithstanding Russia’s absence from the meeting in Egypt. Russian pilots and maintenance crews will fly the helicopters in – probably from Jordan and stay on to pilot the aircraft on the Ramallah-Gaza line.
Overflight of the West Bank is subject to Israel’s permission.
This Russian stroke recalls the surprise appearance made at Pristina airport in Kosovo of an elite Russian armored unit that made a beeline for the capital from its base in Bosnia during the 1999 NATO invasion. By taking over the airport, the Russians denied the Americans and British total control of Pristina. Some 1,800 Russian soldiers are still stationed there.
Russian pilots and agents invited to Ramallah
The appearance of Russian pilots in civilian clothing in Ramallah would have the same shock effect.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Moscow, other clauses of the secret Abu Mazen-Putin agreement relate to the “dispatch of Russian military advisers to train Palestinian special security and intelligence units”.
This too is also a highly sensitive issue. It has come to light just as Washington is drawing up a special program to train Palestinian forces to function on the basis of military and intelligence cooperation with the CIA, Egyptian intelligence headed by Omar Suleiman and Britain’s MI6.
The British intelligence agency has already has established a presence and operations bases in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Ramallah-Moscow deal provides for the arrival on the scene of Russian intelligence operatives to coincide with the deployment of their US and Egyptian counterparts, or soon afterward.
The agreement is still a work in progress. Our sources report that the two parties will meet again whenever they feel the need to “update terms of cooperation in accordance with developments on the ground.” Another provision gives Moscow the option of intervening to restrain the American and Europeans from acquiring too much influence over the Palestinians’ political, military and intelligence administrations.
Some of the clauses were undoubtedly inserted to pull the wool over Washington’s eyes, much in the way the large arms deal Moscow signed in mid-January with Syria was a feat of deception. Under that agreement, Moscow promised Damascus Igla-S surface-to-air missiles, the most advanced version of the SA-18 “Grouse”, a type particularly effective against low-flying warplanes, helicopters and cruise missiles.
Russia’s SA-18 sale to Syria is a precursor
Getting wind of the deal, Washington demanded that Russia mount the missiles on vehicles to prevent the shoulder-held versions winding up in the hands of Hizballah terrorists in Lebanon or insurgents in Iraq. During his last visit to Washington in early January, Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov promised to accede to this request.
But soon after the deal was signed by Putin and visiting Syrian president Bashar Assad, Israeli military intelligence learned the missiles could easily be dismantled from their mobile launchers and converted in a flash into shoulder-held weapons.
Israeli military intelligence chief Maj-Gen. Aharon Zeevi passed the bad news on to parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee Tuesday, February 1.
Our sources also report that public statements Putin and Assad made about the arms deal were grossly inaccurate. Several clauses were left open from the start to facilitate the supply of additional surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. Damascus is especially eager to buy SA-10 anti-aircraft missiles, and Moscow has not ruled out such a sale.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, eyebrows were raised within the intelligence community in the Middle East over the unqualified support the Bush administration and Israel’s top political, defense and intelligence officials have been giving Palestinian Authority chairman Abu Mazen. Anyone familiar with his intelligence record in the 1970s and 1980s knows about his extensive connections with the First Directorate of the KGB, and later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with its successor, the FSB.
Boris Ponomariev, who was then in charge of the Kremlin’s relations with communist parties overseas, was responsible for Abu Mazen’s admission to the Patrice Lumumba University of Peoples Friendship in Moscow to pursue his doctoral studies.
That was all a long time ago, but Abu Mazen never severed those ties and put them to good use in secretly arranging his visit to Moscow, bypassing regular diplomatic channels.