Are the Gloves Off? Not Quite

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon does have a timetable for wiping out the Palestinian terrorist leadership one way or another. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts, by mid-October, the top level of Hamas chiefs is destined to be liquidated physically and, by the end of 2003, Yasser Arafat expunged as the fountainhead and mastermind of Palestinian terrorism by total Elbe-style sequestration or expulsion from the Middle East.

This order of events has been sketched out by Sharon, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and chief of staff Lt. General Moshe Yaalon. It is necessarily loose because there is no knowing how the other players will behave in the interim. It also requires Washington’s okay. Thursday, September 11, Sharon called an urgent security cabinet meeting as soon as he arrived home from a long-awaited official visit to India that was curtailed by two deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks on Tuesday, September 9. He found his ministers clamoring for the immediate deportation or other harsh action against Yasser Arafat.

Since the Palestinians declared their ceasefire on June 29, 79 Israelis have been murdered and 1,050 wounded in terrorist attacks, usually by suicidal bombers. Government officials, security experts and the public are pressing for all-out action to put a stop to the bloodletting by Palestinian suicide terrorists, who have proved capable of penetrating the tightest security cordons and striking in every corner.

Before facing the cabinet, Sharon briefed Washington on his plans amid sympathy at the highest level in Washington for tough Israeli military action. Those plans will be held under tight wraps until they are played out.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts believe the Palestinian terror campaign has not yet crested, leading security officials to conclude there is no alternative but to target its driving forces one by one until they either surrender or die. There will be no distinction between purported ideological or political leaders and operatives. This point was appreciated by the European Union whose council of ambassadors on Thursday, September 1, endorsed an earlier foreign ministers’ recommendation to add the Hamas “political wing” to the bloc’s black list of terrorist organizations.

Wednesday, September, 10, President Bush called for an aggressive crackdown on Palestinian militant groups, saying their dismantlement “is probably the most important condition for peace to prevail.”

While accepting the targeted assassination policy against the Hamas, administration officials have hitherto declined to lift Arafat’s immunity. They feared Israeli action against him, including his deportation, would prompt a backlash of anti-American hostility in the Arab world. This immunity left his powerful terrorist structures, which are the heart, brains, arms suppliers and financing sources of the Palestinian terror movement, untouched in all of Israel’s counter-terror operations. In such circumstances, the most ruthless Israeli offensive against Hamas promised to leave Palestinian terrorism only partly addressed, while Washington again placed the onus for controlling Palestinian security services and “unleashing them against killers” on a Palestinian prime minister. This time it is Ahmed Qureia, Abu Ala, even though he makes no bones about being Arafat’s trusted arm and is even less willing than his predecessor to lay hands on his master’s men.

The apparent hand of the Fatah’s suicide wing, al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, in the two horrific bomb attacks this week may or may not have caused a shift in this policy. Thursday afternoon, September 11, Israeli special forces units surrounded Arafat’s government headquarters in Ramallah. His men will now be targeted one by one like Hamas operatives and leaders.

Palestinian moderates line up with Arafat

Washington and Jerusalem are deeply concerned by what is happening in the Palestinian camp and its destructive impact on the prospects of reviving peace diplomacy. A senior source close to Sharon and Mofaz complained: “Palestinian moderates are a vanishing quantity. Arafat scooped them up in order to extinguish the Mahmoud Abbas premiership and now they are all lined up on the side of his suicide bombing strategy. There are no Palestinian peace partners left in any positions of power in the Palestinian hierarchy.”

Jibril Rajoub is a case in point. The gravel-voiced West Bank strongman and former head of the territory’s preventative security apparatus in the area used to be a US and Israeli favorite. He had ties with terrorist networks but stayed clear of the violence practiced by the Palestinian terrorist front under Arafat’s baton.

That has changed. Since he was drawn into Arafat’s circle as his national security adviser – for the purpose of undermining Abbas and his key ally, internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan, Rajoub performs functions on behalf of his master that actively promote terrorism.

He is Arafat’s go-between with Hamas terrorist chiefs in the Gaza Strip.

He holds rendezvous in Cairo with Damascus-based Hamas commanders.

He has been told to take over Fatah-Tanzim terrorist cells in the West Bank “Iron Triangle” cities of Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarm. Those cells spearhead Arafat’s suicide bombing campaign in conjunction with Hamas’s West Bank networks. In this takeover, Rajoub is fully supported by the jailed West Bank Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, who is on trial before an Israeli court for the murder of 23 Israelis as a terrorist commander.

Rajoub’s functions in liaising between Hamas and Tanzim networks are therefore crucial to the orchestration of the spiraling Palestinian terror campaign.

Israel’s targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, which have accounted for 12 deaths since the August 19 bus blast in Jerusalem killed 22 Israelis, gained momentum this week.

September 6: An Israeli Air Force F-16 bombed an apartment building in Gaza City, the venue of a high-level Hamas strategy meeting. The main target, the group’s spiritual leader and co-founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, escaped with a scratched hand. He was saved by the order given by the Israeli prime minister to use a small, less accurate bomb than needed so as to reduce collateral casualties.

September 7: Elite naval Unit 13 commandos, the equivalent of US Navy Seals, raided a seven-storey apartment building in the Rafidiyeh neighborhood of Nablus, killing top Hamas operations officer Yousef al-Hanbali.

September 9: Israeli troops killed Mohammed Badr, a top Hamas bomb-maker and bombing tactician, in a day-long battle in Hebron. Badr and an aide were barricaded in an eight-floor building whose occupants the Israeli siege force evacuated before they knocked it down.

September 10: A retaliatory strike that went awry for the murder of 15 Israelis by Palestinian suicide bombers in attacks at the Tsrifin army base near Tel Aviv and the Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem. An Air Force plane bombed the home of Mahmoud a-Zahar, one of Hamas’ most public faces and its spokesman in Gaza, who escaped with injuries. His eldest son and a bodyguard were killed. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources note the attack targeted a Hamas operative’s private family residence for the first time.

An Israeli officer who participated in the targeted assassination campaign pointed to the Nablus and Hebron attacks as “ripping the bottom out of Hamas’s operational leadership.”

In both cases, high-rise buildings, in which wanted Hamas masterminds were barricaded, were pulverized after the terrorists refused to give themselves up, leaving between 60 and 70 families homeless. The occupants were given minutes to remove themselves with any possessions they could grab before Israeli tanks opened up with 120 mm shells, followed by anti-tank missiles and finally dynamite on the ground floor. The buildings collapsed in a heap of rubble.

Israeli officials explained the demolitions were more than just a show of strength. Storming the buildings would have cost the lives of Israel special forces troops. But also, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, the clouds of dust spreading across the two West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron warned ordinary Palestinians that they harbored terrorists at the risk of losing their homes.

Four weeks to decapitate Hamas infrastructure

Relying on intelligence evaluations, Israeli generals estimate that at the present pace they can destroy the Hamas command and operational infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within three to four weeks. If, after that decapitation, the Islamist terrorists decide to persist in their terrorist campaign against Israel, they will have to fall back on their headquarters in Damascus as their command base.

Those centers serve primarily as liaison offices with Hizballah in Lebanon and the premises of Hamas leaders-in-exile Mousa Abu Marzook and Khaled Meshal. But they do not command combat strength or a strategic reserve. Hamas-Damascus could recruit a reserve force in the Palestinian refugee camps of Jordan, where an infrastructure of sorts exists although it is hemmed in by the strong arm of Jordanian military intelligence. The group could also tap into the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon for manpower – but only with the consent of the Lebanese Hizballah which keeps a tight rein on radical elements in the Lebanese camps.

In short, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources strongly doubt that the Hamas, after losing its top commanders, will be able to continue running an effective suicide terror campaign from Damascus. Meshal and Abu Marzook, who live off generous largesse from Persian Gulf emirs, would not be happy to take Israel on for a knock-down confrontation. Chief operations officer Imad al-Alami is the only Hamas official in Damascus with a will to fight, but he is strongly critical of the Gaza leaders for leading the organization on its present course of self-destruction. He traveled to Cairo earlier in the week in a last-ditch attempt to “save Hamas-Gaza from itself”.

Al-Alami was too late. Israel’s drive to wipe out Hamas is in top gear and will not be stopped.

It will be followed by a large-scale ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. Israeli tanks and special forces will comb house after house in every village, town and neighborhood, for Hamas members and terrorists from all the other organizations collected by Arafat under the Popular Resistance Committees umbrella.

This framework is made up mostly of the Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas and irregular groups like the private militia of Arafat’s ally Jamal Sema Dana, which controls more than a third of the Gaza Strip, mainly around Rafah and Khan Younis in the south and Beit Lehiya in the north.

Terrorist activists of the Popular Resistance Committees are often Palestinian policemen, security officers and intelligence service personnel who, instead of performing their regular duties, take off their uniforms and operate in terror cells or squads. They draw double or triple salaries both from the Palestinian Authority as well as their cell commanders.

According to Sharon’s timetable, Israel will after breaking Hamas’s back, be ready by early October to tackle Arafat’s terrorist machine and cut the Palestinian leader off from his symbols of authority in the West Bank. The plan is to capture or destroy his battered headquarters in Ramallah, detain or kill the 50 to 60 of the terrorist masterminds he is harboring at his headquarters, and then hold him completely sequestered from contacts with the Palestinian people and the outside world.

That will be the moment to decide whether to keep him in virtual isolation or remove him from the Middle East.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report the White House approves Israel’s plan to fight Hamas to the finish, as long as it is carried through responsibly and avoids heavy civilian casualties.

While Mahmoud Abbas lasted as Palestinian prime minister, White House exchanges with Sharon’s office went through the President’s national security council. As of last Saturday, September 6, when Washington saw that Abbas and the “road map” he affirmed at the Aqaba summit were doomed, the White House ordered the State Department to step into the breach.

The change of tone was immediately remarked. Abbas was dropped like a stone from Washington’s blue-eyed boy to yesterday’s news. Abu Ala’s nomination by Arafat was termed an internal Palestinian issue and US spokesmen said they would talk to any Palestinian leader who undertook to fight terror. Later, the White House warned the new leader he had plenty of work to do before he gained recognition from President Bush.

These comments leave the Bush administration in a position to jump different ways – to follow a two-track policy of supporting Israeli military action within agreed limits while yet keeping avenues of dialog ajar with the Palestinians or even Arafat himself, or tailor its posture, as it did prior to the Iraq War, to the exigencies of the Iraq situation.

The Israeli prime minister, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Jerusalem, is meanwhile abiding by the plan of action he relayed to Washington before and during his foreshortened trip to India, which can be summed up by the following points:

  1. Israeli will not lift a finger to help Palestinian prime minister-designate Abu Ala. One such failure, the Abu Mazen experiment, was enough.

  2. Like the United States, Sharon has no interest in the identity of the next Palestinian prime minister. But, unlike Washington, he will never cooperate with any lackey of Arafat’s.

  3. Israel will insist on all eight Palestinian security, policing and intelligence agencies being combined under a single authority that is not controlled by Arafat.

  4. The Palestinian prime minister must assume responsibility for collecting all the illegal weapons in Palestinian hands and entrust them to the Americans for destruction.

Sharon continues to dodge confronting public bitterness over his failure to subdue the rising tide of violence that invades every corner of the ordinary Israeli’s life, bringing the national economy to disaster and undermining the public’s morale and faith in government.

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