Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returns home from his White House meeting with President George W. Bush to an escalation of Palestinian terror to a pitch unknown in the 16 months of the Palestinian confrontation. It was launched on the day of his departure and has spiraled since. Sunday, February 10, when the prime minister was still airborne, the first Palestinian rockets were fired across the Green Line into Israel. No casualties or damage were caused. One rocket landed harmlessly in a field of the west Negev Kibbutz of Saad, a second was aimed at the southern Israeli town of Sderot. A third rocket was aborted when an Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip located the launcher and destroyed it, discovering it was unmanned. The rockets had been activated by remote control. Examination of the deep crater left in the field and the fragments showed the rocket to be a new, unknown type of the homemade Qasem series, whose range is roughly 6 km.
Sunday, February 10, while the prime minister was still airborne, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip fired their first rocket into Israel. First reports say that the rocket is of an unknown type, more advanced and with a longer range than the Qasem-1 and Qasem-2. Luckily, it fell harmlessly between two tractors working the fields of a kibbutz in the western Negev. While security forces were still examining the fragments, two Palestinian gunmen drove up to the Southern gate of the Israel military Southern Command Center in Beersheba, raining automatic fire on the street and killing two women soldiers and injuring 30 bystanders, one critically. Both gunmen were shot dead within minutes. This is the closest Palestinian terrorists have come to hitting a major Israeli military installation, also the first time Beersheba has been targeted for terror since 2000.
Prime minister Sharon told President Bush Thursday that Israel would have no choice if rockets were fired inside Israel but to hit back swiftly and harshly. Last week, both he and defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer warned the Palestinians that the rule book would be scrapped if they ventured to shoot rockets across the green line at Israeli targets.
Despite the early hour in Washington, news of the Qasem firing was flashed to the highest US administration level for urgent consultations. Also Sunday, the Palestinian Authority announced the detention of the Hamas engineer who designed and built the Qasem rocket. debkafile‘s counter-terror sources report this is a typical manipulative attempt by the Palestinian leader to distance himself from the rocket attack.
Sharon is faced with making good on two ultimatums he issued to Arafat – not to fire rockets and not to use his absence for a wave of terrorist outrages. The Palestinian leader has defied both.
As he took off on Wednesday, February 6, for Washington, two Palestinians with bombs strapped to their bodies boarded the packed 176 Jerusalem-Maale Adumim bus at the French Hill intersection. Fortunately for the passengers, the bus driver, alerted by the wires hanging from their clothes, stopped at a police roadblock. One would-be suicide bomber was wrestled off the bus and taken off before he could reach his detonator; the other disappeared in the melee. Same day, further north, an Israeli army roadblock halted a Palestinian truck as it drove out the West Bank town of Jenin and headed for Nablus. Hidden in the back were eight homemade Palestinian Qasem rockets, designated for the north Israeli town of Afula or the JezreelValley. That night, a squad of three Palestinian terrorists broke into the Jordan Rift Valley moshav of Hamra and killed three Israelis, a mother and daughter, and a reserve sergeant.That was the day Sharon took off for Washington.
Friday and Saturday, another two Israeli women were killed in two more terrorist attacks. Thursday, Sharon heard that the United States is anxious to keep the Middle East pot on a low flame until the Bush team finalizes its decisions on Iraq. But three nightmarish days have radically changed the situation. After launching rocket number one at an Israeli kibbutz, the Palestinians will have no reason not to fire another and another, unless the Israeli government takes extreme measures to stem the threat.
Upon landing in Ben Gurion, Sharon said: “I hold Arafat directly responsible for the rising spiral of terror. The deterioration demands decisions of us. debkafile‘s political and military analysts note that Yasser Arafat has brought the full weight of his terror campaign to bear on Israel’s cities and population centers; most of the Intifada toll has been borne by civilians. During Sharon’s five-day absence in the United States, seven Israelis died at the hands of terrorists, six women and none on the battlefield.
The death toll from the Intifada since its outbreak on September 29, tells the story: 200 Israeli civilians against 65 servicemen, with 1,965 civilians injured compared to 867 servicemen. Until now, Sharon has been unwilling or unable to deploy the Israeli Defense Forces in regular battle against the Palestinian uprising. The police and the domestic security service, the Shin Beth – not the IDF – have manned the front line of this conflict. After Sunday’s attack in Beersheba, there was no sign of the chief of staff or any senior officers of the southern command, outside whose base it took place, only police officers.
Arafat is thus left free to maximize Israeli casualties while Sharon is stumped for a way to stop the carnage. The Palestinian leader can do his worst – and he does, by constantly raising the level of violence – without fear of being branded enemy and terrorist or incurring a full-scale military campaign against him. He can hide safely behind the diplomatic constraints holding the Israeli government’s hands – especially from Washington, where the Bush administration does not want attention diverted from its central objectives.
But, as terror takes its daily toll, Israelis are reaching the limit of their endurance. They are asking why the country’s armed forces are not being fully activated. Sensing this, Sharon said when he landed home on Sunday, February 10, that Israel need not ask the United States how to handle the rising campaign of terror. It is free to make its own decisions.
The truth of that statement will be tested – together with the credibility of his ultimatums to Arafat – in the next 48 hours. Sharon has procrastinated often in the past, restricting the Israeli army to local and limited operations in retaliation for terror attacks, actions that were too little and too late.
He may do so again. But the dilemma is getting tougher. Now, the Israeli prime minister faces hard options: He must persuade Bush to give him a green light for a full-scale war offensive – he may get it if the US president judges that an Israeli society in deep crisis will be a liability for his projected offensive against Iraq. Failing that, Sharon must decide on his own that enough is enough and there is nothing for it but to go to war in earnest on terror.
Police Figures Reflect Crisis
10 February: In a statement to the press Sunday, February 10, Israeli police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki translated Israel’s current reality into a disturbing set of facts and figures for the year 2001.He reported a 337 percent increase in terrorist attacks compared with 2000 – a total of 1,794 assaults, which left 208 Israelis dead and 1,563 injured. The figure covered 603 bombings, 367 mortar firings, 236 shooting attacks and 503 others (firebombs, stabbings etc.)Almost half the attacks were staged in Jerusalem’s main thoroughfares and markets.
The security situation affected the crime figures – a 28 percent rise in the number of murders and 77.8 percent more emergency calls made by citizens to police stations a total of 6,300,000. Detectives were able to crack only 13 percent of reported crimes against property because they were snowed down under counter-terror duties To meet his force’s obligations in 2002, the police commissioner said he would an extra 10,000 recruits.