“It is very difficult to fight suiciders,” said US president George W. Bush when asked at his joint White House news conference with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday, May 23, how the fledgling Iraqi army can stop terror when the strongest army in the world failed in this objective in three years of warfare.
He then turned to the prime minister, saying: Ask the Israelis, they’ll tell you.
But that was only an aside. The two leaders devoted most of their words to high policy and diplomacy. Bush stressed that the best way to solve the Israel-Palestinian dispute was by negotiations between the two sides. Olmert chipped in by saying he strongly believes in the sincerity of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his opposition to terrorism and hopes to meet him soon.
Bush applauded the comment.
Do these polite, civilized sentiments have anything to do with the daily grind of mass murder of civilians and the bitter, repetitive war fought on the ground against the forces of terror?
On the day the two leaders smiled, spun plans and shook hands in Washington D.C., 5,913 miles (9,517 kilometers) away in the Balawa neighborhood of the West Bank town of Ramallah, a real-life chapter in that war was being played out – seemingly a world away.
This is what the Israeli premier did not tell the assembled world media in the White House: Earlier that day, an Israeli special forces unit surrounding a three-story house in Ramallah used loud hailers to call a long-wanted Hamas terrorist mastermind, Ibrahim Hamed (picture), to come out and give himself up. When there was no response, a large bulldozer nosed up against a wall of the house to begin wrecking. Caught between being crushed under falling debris or surrendering, Hamed chose to save himself.
The Shin Bet and IDF announced the successful conclusion of another mission to capture a master terrorist. Hamed was identified as the instigator of suicide massacres that killed 78 Israeli and foreign civilians in five years. He was captured while preparing a fresh round.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal there is much more to the Ibrahim Hamed story than the dry facts released; indeed the charmed life he led for so long is a good example of the wheels within wheels that keep the merchants of death in business and safe from the global war on terror.
This Hamas specialist in large-scale suicide attacks lived in the shelter of at least two powerful protectors.
Wheels within wheels
One is Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas supreme leader who is based in Damascus.
The Meshaals and the Hameds both hail from Silwad village north of Ramallah and are in-laws by marriage. The two clans are bound by a pact to marry their sons and daughters to the offspring of the opposite clan. This makes them close kinsmen.
Meshaal naturally reposes greater trust in kin from his home village on the West Bank than he would in the Hamas leaders of Gaza, such as the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya.
And it is Meshaal who calls the shots in Hamas – not the prime minister and his cabinet.
In early May, Meshaal decided to cut the Gaza bunch down to size by building a West Bank Hamas militia to challenge the Gazan branch’s military arm, Ezz-e-Din al-Qassam. He entrusted Hamed with the task. A generous war chest and a good supply of weapons, explosives and even rockets, were promised. The goods from Syria have started arriving through the weapons-smuggling route Syrian military intelligence runs from the Golan across the West Bank to Ramallah.
A ruse was needed to throw the Israelis off the scent, even though they maintain a presence in every Palestinian town and village. Hamed set up small uniformed bands disguised as the bodyguards of local Hamas notables and West Bank and Jerusalem members of the national legislature. These bands were trained as guerrilla squads to become the nucleus of Meshaal’s West Bank militia.
Mahmoud Abbas in person is the Hamas operative’s second protector – albeit in a far less active capacity.
This too emerged on the day of the Bush-Olmert talks. The Israeli arresting force in Ramallah was amazed to discover that the house in which Hamed was building his army and spinning big plans was located on the same street as Abbas’ newly-fortified residence, a mere 150 meters away.
The two rivals, Washington’s blue-eyed boy and the master terrorist, were not bothered by living in close proximity. They clearly observed the maxim: live and let live.
But the Israeli unit’s commander saw he had a dilemma. Just hours before his prime minister was to meet the US president for the first time at the White House, he was under orders to carry out a counter-terror operation that would breach the sterile zone around the PA chairman’s home. There was no other way to reach the target. The officer also knew there might never be a better chance to beard the wanted man. Given half a chance, he would disappear again.
The Israeli commander therefore asked his superiors for instructions.
He was ordered to go ahead with the mission without delay; someone in the chain of military command had decided to stick his neck out and nail Ibrahim Hamed, rather than jeopardize the operation by a time-consuming consulting procedure with bureaucrats and politicians.
There was another reason for haste.
Fatah master terrorist Tirawi is reinvented as Abbas bodyguard
On April 28, debkafile reported exclusively that Washington and London had granted Abbas a special allocation to set up a presidential guard unit based on Force 17, the contingent that protected Yasser Arafat. The commander of the presidential force, which was detailed to establish and enforce a 300-meter sterile zone around the Abbas residence, was none other than Col. Tawfiq Tirawi, one of Arafat’s closest lieutenants and notorious founder of the Fatah’s suicide unit, the al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.
In the event, Abu Mazen’s guard unit did not interfere with the Israeli operation. But this situation might not last much longer.
The incident exposed several dangerous and disturbing contradictions in the war on terror, which keep on cropping up in every counter-terror arena.
Without a single counter-terror organization demurring, Tirawi, who controlled Arafat’s pool of suicide bombers, has been reinvented. He now controls a generous US-British budget earmarked for guarding the life of Abu Mazen, who is the linchpin of the Bush administration’s strategy for neutralizing the grip of another Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, on Palestinian government. Furthermore, the Fatah party headed by Abbas still runs a highly active terrorist group, the al Aqsa Brigades, which he does nothing to constrain.
Trawi, an old intelligence hand, most certainly knew what Hamed was up to practically next door to the Abu Mazen residence, and he must have passed the information to the PA Chairman in his daily briefings as head of the presidential guard at the Ramallah villa.
The line from Abbas to the Hamas leader Meshaal may be invisible to Washington and Jerusalem – but it is strongly marked in Ramallah.
Yet the Bush administration persists in building its Israeli-Palestinian peace strategy around Mahmoud Abbas, forcing Israel to accept him as a negotiating partner. Olmert will therefore meet him very soon.
The reporter who put the question to the US president Tuesday about Iraq would have got the same sort of reply from the Israeli prime minister about the Palestinians had she asked him the same question about the war on terror.
But had the question been put that day to the Israeli commanders in Balawa, Ramallah, it would have elicited a blunt truism: Terrorism will never be fought effectively, nor suicide tactics eradicated, as long as policy-makers supposedly committed to the war on terror let terrorist planners and instigators live under protection and operate from the safety of sterile areas.
Between 2000 and 2004, Arafat conducted his suicide war against Israel from his Ramallah headquarters under international protection. In power from 2005, Abu Mazen is confident that President Bush and Olmert will not challenge him to turn in or even provide information on any Palestinian terrorist, although he and many of his closest associates harbor Palestinian terrorists in conditions that allow them to practice their deadly trade.
The three faces of terror in Iraq
In Iraq, terrorism has three faces – national, religious sectarian and tribal. But the similarities between Iraq and the Palestinian are fundamental: any terrorist’s first loyalty is to family or tribe; religion comes second and patriotism to nation, last.
Just as no Palestinian official will ever turn in a Palestinian terrorist to established authority, so too it is unthinkable for an Iraqi official or cleric to surrender a terrorist from any insurgent group to American or even central Iraqi authority. Some may even keep them safe.
Therefore, the new Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s assertion on Wednesday, May 24, that the Iraqi army is capable of taking over security from US-led forces in all Iraqi provinces – excepting Baghdad and the western provinces – within a year and a half may be realistic. But in the context of the war on terror, it is meaningless. As soon as the foreign troops are gone, the terrorists will take control of liberated turf and operate in safety. The wheels within wheels of indigenous political mores will take over.
The charmed life enjoyed by the Hamas death merchant in Ramallah until his capture by the Israeli army was a good case in point.