Biggest Israeli Operation Yet
Israel did not dawdle after the Palestinians rejected its ultimatum. Thursday morning, October 18, one day after a Palestinian Popular Front hit team assassinated Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi, Israel tanks, helicopters and ground troops were at the doors of the Palestinian West Bank towns of Jenin and Ramallah. They had embarked on a major operation to round up wanted terrorist activists and eradicate the Palestinians’ physical terror infrastructure.
The same mode of operation has since been repeated in five more West Bank towns – Bethlehem, Beit Jallah, Beit Sahur and Saturday morning, Tulkarm and Qalqilyeh. Nablus is under siege.
Israeli forces will remain in Palestinian territory, under a decision formulated by the defense cabinet after the assassination, until Zeevi’s murderers are handed over and the Palestinians’ terrorist installations destroyed. The decision was a unanimous one, without the usual equivocations – endorsed by all the ministers, including the dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres. Until the Palestinian Authority submits, it is deemed a terrorist organization for all intents and purposes – which is tantamount to a declaration of war on the Palestinian Authority.
The full-scale assault, carried out by tanks, armored infantry, Apache and Cobra gunships and intelligence drones, has subjected seven Palestinian towns and dozens of surrounding villages to siege and cut them off from each other by road.
In the first three days of the operation, more than 50 Palestinian ‘security” officers and members of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, Hamas and Jihadi Islami – as well as a handful of Hizballah activisits – were captured or killed. While PFLP headquarters is located in Damascus, Hamas and Jihad have operational command centers in Damascus, Lebanon and Iran. The Hizballah Shiites were imported from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip and West Bank last January by Yasser Arafat’s Force 17.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, between two and three Israeli army brigades, including infantry battalions and combat engineer units, are taking part in the operation, but the brunt is on the shoulders of special units assigned to penetrate and flush out terrorist hideouts and secret lairs. Made up of IDF Special Force troops and members of Shin Beit counter-terrorist and combat units, this operational force was created some months ago and trained for this kind of mission, which in some respects parallels the US offensive in Afghanistan in form and purpose.
Prime minister, ex-general Ariel Sharon is conducting it in person, sidelining defense minister Binyamin Bin Eliezer and his deputy Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff. He presides over general staff meetings and hands his orders directly to the chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, retaining the last word on every directive.
According to debkafile‘s political sources, Sharon now feels he has more justification than ever for launching a broad offensive against the Palestinian Authority: clear intelligence evidence that Yasser Arafat – or one of the close henchmen who obey his every order – was implicated in the murder last Wednesday of Tourism Minister Zeevi. The Bush administration, itself caught up in battling terrorism, will have few moral grounds, he believes, for objecting to the Israeli offensive.
Sharon therefore moved swiftly in two channels: the military and the diplomatic.
Foreign minister Shimon Peres, Arafat’s long-standing champion, was dispatched to Washington with intelligence proofs that Col. Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service on the West Bank, set up the assassination, with his operations officers, and provided the PFLP hit-team with both intelligence and silenced weapons. It was Tirawi’s men who led the assassins into Jerusalem’s Hyatt hotel, venue of the murder, and helped them escape afterwards.
debkafile‘s intelligence sources add that part of the file for Washington covers Tirawi’s links with Iraqi military intelligence agents operating in the West Bank and Jordan. The Palestinian colonel is close personally and operationally to Abul Abbas, head of the Iraqi intelligence-funded Arab Liberation Front (who in 1985 hijacked the Achille Lauro pleasure yacht and murdered an American, Leon Klinghoffer). Tirawi and Abbas grew up together in Tirah, a village near Ramallah. The file contains reports of Tirawi’s secret meetings with Abbas in Amman, as Arafat’s liaison officer in joint terrorist operations.
The PFLP was burning to avenge the Israeli missile strike that killed its secretary general in August. Tirawi, Iraqi military intelligence – and Arafat himself – used this eagerness to orchestrate the Zeevi killing, as a stratagem for extricating the Palestinian leader from the “moderate” posture that the United States and the EU were forcing on him, as the key to advancing their quest for Arab cooperation in the US-led war against terror. Arafat basked in the warm welcome and words he won from the British prime minister Tony Blair and other European leaders for his willingness to enter peace talks. But on the quiet, he confided to his closest circle that he dare not side with the American anti-terrorist campaign, because sooner or later he too would be confronted with an American demand to terminate the activities of the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad – at the very least.
Nineteen years ago, the murder of Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London triggered Israel ‘s 1982 war in Lebanon. That crime was the work of Iraqi military intelligence agents.
The murder of Zeevi acted as intended to stop all talk of peace talks, even from Peres. In less than 24 hours after the crime, Israeli tanks were on their way to Palestinian towns. A single savage stroke transformed Arafat in the eyes of his Arab peers from a US collaborationist to the victim of America’s ally, Israel – as much under attack from the West as Osama bin Laden.
But Arafat made two miscalculations: He did not expect Peres, his ally in the Israeli government, to catch on to his game so fast and join the Israeli ultimatum against him. Neither did he expect Sharon to brave Washington and go all the way militarily.
In both cases he erred. The murder of Zeevi threw Sharon and Peres together. They finally teamed up for a no-holds-barred military and diplomatic offensive against the Palestinian Authority and its chairman.