A massive ingathering of terrorist forces – Palestinians, the pro-Iran Lebanese Hizballah and al Qaeda cells scattered around the Middle East and the Gulf – is underway, preparatory to the launch of a large-scale terror offensive around March 25, three days before the Jewish spring festival of Passover.
During the night of Tuesday, March 5, Israel launched its biggest counter-terror operation ever in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, striking Yasser Arafat’s government compound in Ramallah and focusing on Palestinian Authority security service targets and centers of his Fatah-Tanzim Force-17 militias. The air, sea and land offensive, embarked on in the wake of a accelerating wave of Palestinian strikes against towns and military targets, was also configured, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, as a pre-emptive operation to blunt the edge of the coming terror offensive.
Those sources stress that the unheralded decision by President George W. Bush Thursday to send Middle East envoy, Anthony Zinni, back to the Middle East has no chance of scrambling Arafat's pre-Passover agenda of terror. During his last two visits to the region, the Palestinian leader deliberately staged an explosion of terror against Israeli citizens in his face.
Those sources add that, in the light of intelligence on that offensive, the Israeli general staff is drawing up an extensive reserve mobilization program, to go into effect from mid-March. These reserves will augment the military strength acutely extended by the constantly escalating 18-month long Palestinian confrontation, and prepare Israeli defenses for additional challenges around the corner.
The Palestinian-led terror offensive, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report, will be multi-faceted in terms of weaponry and targets.
– From different locations on the West Bank, rockets of the Qasam type will be fired in continuous volleys on central and southern Israeli towns.
– Special Palestinian commando raider units will storm Jewish settlements – as well as army camps and posts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and locations across the border inside Israel. These commando units have been training secretly in Palestinian areas, away from the day-to-day routine of terrorist strikes and combat. According to information reaching Israel and the United States, these shock troops are being inducted in guerrilla tactics by non-Palestinian experts, especially imported for the purpose by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
One such expert is an Iraqi military intelligence lieutenant colonel. Another is a Hizballah colonel, who obtained his training from Revolutionary Guards instructors in Iran.
They are not the only non-Palestinians Arafat has recruited for his do-or-die onslaught. Intelligence information reaching Israel speaks of groups of Hizballah and al-Qaeda militants, including Kurds and Chechens, trickling into the West Bank in recent days. Israeli military experts see the operational hands of Kurdish or Chechen al-Qaeda militants in the recent Palestinian campaign against Israeli military roadblocks in the West Bank, possibly under the command of a Hizballah officer.
They refer in particular to the surprise attack on the Ein Ariq roadblock, west of Ramallah, on February 19, in which six Israeli soldiers died; and the ambush that cost the lives of seven soldiers and three settlers at Wadi Kharmieh, north of Jerusalem, on March 3.
The Wadi Kharmieh roadblock was placed at the bottom of a deep and narrow gorge, no wider than 30-50 meters at some points, which starts out on the Golan Heights in the north and cuts south to northern Jerusalem. It is enclosed by steep hills covered with shrubs and trees that rise to 300 to 400 meters. Surveillance of the terrain from below is virtually impossible, especially in the dark. Armies, rebels and smugglers have used the Wadi Kharmieh route since 200 BC. It has seen fighters, weapons and gold passing through and, and in modern times, drugs from Lebanon.
The targeted roadblock was positioned as a preventive measure to trap Palestinian-allied fighting strength and weapons slipping across the borders from Syria and Lebanon on their way to the key Palestinian Ramallah area for joining the coming offensive.
After the event, the Israeli army judged the single, vulnerable roadblock position to have been unequal to the task. The engineering crops was assigned with building a series of concrete blocks along the gorge road and heavy ground units were poured in to choke it off to enemy transit.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources also quote senior Israeli generals as viewing the two roadblock attacks as practice runs in advance of the Passover offensive, while also killing large numbers of Israeli soldiers.
In the first roadblock strike, at Ein Ariq, a Palestinian force explored the feasibility of a Palestinian dash from Ramallah across the border to capture parts of the city of Modi’in or even to storm Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, some 15 km (10 miles) to the west.
Israeli military intelligence noted that, just before the Ein Ariq raid and immediately afterward, the Palestinians started assembling their crack fighting strength and most advanced weapons in Ramallah, from which Arafat has been running his terror campaign since he was confined there in early December.
Israeli generals are most disturbed by the dovetailing of this data with intelligence information from other sources, which indicates an al Qaeda multi-casualty operation is in preparation against Israel, to rival the terror network’s September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Arafat’s onslaught may turn out to be a segment of al Qaeda’s overall strategy – in which case a Palestinian westward drive to Israel’s narrow coastal plain would be mounted synchronously with al-Qaeda’s operation. This threat acquired substance after the Ein Ariq attack, when Israel began pulling together the intelligence incoming on the plans of the two terror groups.
Israel turned to Washington for an air defense system to protect its airspace against the contingency of an al Qaeda hijacked airliner flying in from the Mediterranean to crash into a high-rise building center in Tel Aviv – as well as the threat of Iraqi missile and aerial attack. America responded with two Patriot anti-missile missile brigades, ferried into Israel in the last week of February and first days of March. The units have been emplaced at Israel’s main cities and Ben Gurion international airport, as well as at key air bases in central and southern Israel, where they have been integrated with Israel Defense Forces Patriot batteries.
Israel’s large standing army has borne the brunt of Palestinian confrontation until now. However, the combined Palestinian-al Qaeda pre-Passover threat finally decided the general staff on the extensive call-up of reserve forces in the coming days.
Israel’s manpower resources are further stretched by calls on four additional fronts opening away from the public eye, as revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly from its military sources:
The Turkish front – Israeli armored corps, air force and navy contingents have been transferred in the past several weeks to Turkey, as part of the preparations for a US military assault against Iraq.
The Jordanian front – Several Israeli armored brigades and elite units have been deployed along Jordan’s border with Iraq. Their missions are to block the Iraqi army’s access to Amman and the joint efforts of Iraqi military intelligence and Palestinian intelligence to smuggle weapons and men from Iraq into the West Bank via Jordan.
The Syrian-Lebanese front – The Israeli military has massed armored force along the Syrian and Lebanese frontiers, equipped with self-propelled howitzers and supported by
surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missile brigades. These units and weapons systems have not yet been deployed against the Palestinians.
The concentration is poised there ready for three purposes:
1. To hit the Iran-supported Shiite Hizballah in Lebanon when Washington gives the green light.
2. To pre-empt any Hizballah attempt to open a second front against northern Israel with a view to easing Israel’s military pressure on the Palestinians.
3. To cut off Syrian or Iraqi military movements towards Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, lest they join forces with the Hizbollah to launch a general offensive against northern Israel.
The Israeli concentration on the Syrian border is poised in offensive array, ready to step in against Iraqi armored forces in the Western Desert heading into Syria en route to the Israeli frontier.
The Gulf front – Israeli Dolphin submarine units, armed with secret cruise missile systems, are on escort missions with Israeli Navy Saar 5 missile boats in the southern Persian Gulf, where it opens out into the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This force is posted as part of Israel’s deterrent against Iraqi non-conventional attack with missiles equipped with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.
The coming full-fledged war will exact a high price.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts estimate that more than 200,000 Israelis will be under arms by the end of March and directly involved in combat. After the reserve call-up, the heavy field concentrations and thinly scattered deployment will call for an expenditure of between $400 million to $500 million per day.
Simply put, these forces will quite soon be on a war footing, on the ready for a full-scale Middle East conflict. The international financial markets will quickly feel its impact.