Read also update at foot of this report:
Sunday’s suicide bombing by Arafat’s al Aqsa Brigades of Jerusalem bus No. 14, in which at least 7 Israelis died and 62 were hurt, was not unexpected. It occurred just three weeks after a similar blast aboard a No. 19 bus outside the prime minister’s residence in the capital killed 12 Israelis. The wreckage was hauled to Hague and parked outside the international court in time for the Monday, February 23, opening of its hearings on the legality of Israel’s unfinished defense barrier. Two security guards swept the bus interior shortly before the blast but did not suspect the bomber, Mohammed Za`ul from the Bethlehem village of Hussan.
Like posting guards, the barrier is no better than a half-measure against the suicide bombers, designed to slow the passage of Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank into Israel. Work on the Jerusalem section has in any case been held up for months. The attack should not have been unexpected because on Wednesday, February 11, Yasser Arafat – as debkafile reported (Enraged Arafat Orders All-out Terror) – issued an explicit order to all Palestinian groups, including his own, to hit Israeli targets with all their strength everywhere in order to sabotage Sharon’s unilateral proposals come what may. Hamas ordered “huge martyrs’ operations” in revenge for the 14 armed Palestinians killed battling an Israeli counter-terror operation into Gaza. Israeli security authorities were surely experienced enough after three and a half years of contending with Palestinian terror to predict that Arafat would launch his next terror offensive to coincide with one or more of three events: last week’s visit to Jerusalem of three high US officials to study Sharon’s proposals, Monday’s opening of the Hague court hearing, or the presence in Israel of American Jewish leaders received by the Moroccan king before arriving for a conference at the Jerusalem Inbal Hotel.
The Sunday attack, timed also for the rush hour on Sunday, February 22, the week’s first working and school day in Israel, coincided with the latter two events and was therefore predictable.
In fact the blast shook the Inbal Hotel during a lecture by chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon to members of the Conference of President of US Jewish Organizations.
Anyone familiar with Arafat’s modus operandi knows that once he sets his mind on a terrorist campaign, nothing will deter him from its implementation, whether lures or penalties. Israel’s defensive measures such as physical barriers are irrelevant to his resolve.
The last to discover this determination was Mohammed Dahlan, whose name has come up as security administrator or coordinator for the Gaza Strip during the Israeli evacuation. Dahlan visited Arafat in Ramallah Thursday, February 19, on the pretext of reconciliation – they have been at daggers drawn since the former Gaza strongman joined the Abu Mazen government which Arafat toppled last year. He was really after Arafat’s consent to a pause in suicide attacks during the transition period.
Arafat no longer bothers to pretend that he and the terrorist chiefs he shelters from Israeli capture at his Ramallah headquarters have nothing to do with the suicide attacks. He makes no bones to Palestinian visitors that it is he and his top team who chart operations and choose their targets, even when carried out by other groups. Dahlan therefore went to the boss. He was sharply rebuffed. Arafat refused to cooperate.
In the latest two terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Arafat signaled unmistakably that come hell or high water his dedication to all-out terror is unshakeable.
Scarcely one hour after the Jerusalem bombing Sunday, al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the suicide arm of his own Fatah, assumed responsibility and proudly named the suicide killer as Muhammad Za’ul from the village of Husan in the Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem district, the newest Palestinian terror hub, which was promptly placed under curfew. The announcement belied claims by various pundits that Fatah would hardly have acted in a way counterproductive to the Palestinian case at the Hague court. They therefore wrongly attributed it to the Islamic radical Hamas or Jihad Islami.
However, three weeks ago, Arafat just as recklessly jeopardized the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails under a deal with the Hizballah. As they waited at checkpoints for permission to cross over into the West Bank, the previous bus blast was staged outside Sharon’s home. Israel went through with the trade but it was touch and go.
Malcolm Hoenlein, a leader of the Conference of Presidents of major American Jewish Organizations, said tersely after viewing the carnage Sunday: Arafat should be on trial in the Hague, not Israel. Ariel Sharon opened the weekly cabinet session with nary a word on the latest terrorist atrocity which took place only a few minutes’ drive away from the cabinet room.
Early reports after the Sunday assault spoke of a chemical poison, organic phosphorus, discovered on the wrecked bus near the exploded bomb which was also laced with sharp metal shards. Police sent samples of the chemical to the hospitals treating the injured, but later backtracked on the finding, saying it might have been in the pocket of an injured passenger and needed further investigation. Police commissioner Moshe Aronishki told reporters that Palestinian groups have been trying for some time to introduce unconventional weapons to raise the number of victims of their suicide attacks.
Seven months ago, the Bethlehem district abutting on southeast Jerusalem was handed over to Palestinian control as a goodwill gesture to the short-lived Mahmoud Abbas government and its interior minister Mohammed Dahlan. The concession was meant as a test case to see if the new US-backed Palestinian administration was capable of keeping the district clear of terrorists after the IDF had cleaned out their strongholds.
The town was treated then and still is as a sort of living laboratory to test US-European collaboration with the Palestinians and find out if it can work; the same set-up is now on offer for the Gaza Strip after Israel’s evacuation.
The one positive result of Israel’s handover of Bethlehem was the cessation of the nightly shelling which had plagued the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo for many months. The Palestinians profited from holding their fire too: they kept Israeli forces out the town while their terrorist groups used those seven months to build asylum camps in the Aida refugee camp, Beit Sahur, Beit Jala and surrounding villages for men on the run in other parts of the West Bank, mostly al Aqsa Brigades and Hizballah operatives. Even some of the terrorist chiefs living under Arafat’s protection in his Ramallah headquarters moved to Bethlehem to operate in greater freedom.
Thus, 10-15 minutes drive from Jerusalem, a broad new terrorist infrastructure took shape for orchestrating suicide attacks in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, in deference to the town’s international protectors, Israel forces never moved in to root the terrorists out, even though Israeli intelligence had discovered that the Bethlehem hornets’ nest is growing stronger and expanding its clandestine offshoots into the Arab population of Jerusalem proper. The Sharon government’s watchword has until now been: restraint.
The result: Jerusalem finds itself besieged by two terrorist centers that enjoy international immunity from proactive Israeli military operations – Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south. In these circumstances, any defensive device, even the uncertain one of a defensive barrier limiting access to Israel from the West Bank, acquires disproportionate value for saving lives.
Read also update at foot of this report: