Like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda in Iraq, Hamas in the West Bank is pursuing new ways to rout President Barack Obama's effort for bringing Israeli and Palestinians leaders into one room and persuading them to talk.
While on Wednesday and Thursday (Sept 1-2), Obama was busy hosting Jordan's King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, the American official Frederick Hof, advisor to US Mideast envoy George Mitchell, was in Damascus. His mission was to anticipate the shadow of terror before it closed in on the occasion by persuading Syrian President Bashar Assad's staffers to help rein in the Lebanese Hizballah, the Palestinian Hamas and pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad and hold them back from acts of violence against Israel.
But events in the Middle East as usual marched ahead of diplomacy. Hof's mission was overtaken by two drive-by attacks on Israeli civilians on West Bank highways in the space of 24 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday (Aug. 21 and Sept. 1).
Hamas command headquarters in Damascus and Beirut, ably assisted by Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah intelligence officers, had managed to get underway a campaign of terror for the dual object of sabotaging Israel-Palestinian negotiations and toppling Mahmoud Abbas' Ramallah regime.
On the eve of the Washington talks, Israel and Palestinian security service chiefs and US CIA officers attached to the Palestinian Authority confidently assured their superiors that measures were safely in place for preventing threatened Hamas attacks on the West Bank.
Within hours of their report, on Tuesday Hamas' military arm, Izzedin al-Qassam, carried out its first and deadliest attack on a dark road near Hebron, in which four Israelis were murdered, followed by their second attack 24 hours later, from which a couple escaped with injuries.
Claiming responsibility for both "heroic operations", Hamas spokesman made it clear that this was just the beginning with more to come.
Hamas switches from jihadist to special ops tactics
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources report that Hamas has put into effect a different form of terror, more akin to special operations tactics than their old jihadist suicide methods, except that they are directed against civilians. Hamas operatives were trained in these methods in recent months by Hizballah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards instructors.
These operations are designed to be small-scale, painful and frequent. Unlike the Palestinian intifada, they aim less to kill large numbers of people and more as a sustained campaign for destroying the US-mediated diplomatic venture.
Hamas has kept its head down for the past six months, refraining for the most part from terrorist activities, and used the time to organize teams of gunmen and spirit them into the West Bank from the outside.
From Syria, they were brought in through the Golan; from Lebanon by infiltrating friendly Arab villages in northern Israel via dope smuggling routes; and from Jordan, across the Jordan River border.
Hamas could not have carried through this complicated transfer alone without the active help of Syrian and Hizballah intelligence.
Although after two attacks it is early days to draw conclusions, Israeli and Palestinian security agencies believe they are stumped for leads to the perpetrators because of the way the operations were set up.
The foreign-based terrorists selected by Hamas had apparently never operated on the West Bank or Gaza Strip and had no local Palestinian family ties. Their faces were unknown to the Shin Bet, the CIA, Palestinian security and Jordanian military intelligence.
An attack every few days
They were trained to operate independently without calling on local helpers.
Their weapons were apparently stashed away in advance by Hamas infiltrators from the Gaza Strip in secret West Bank caches, or purchased on one of the open arms markets to be found in every Palestinian town or village.
These methods enabled the assailants to melt away after their attacks without leaving footprints or clues.
While throwing out a wide dragnet for the gunmen, security experts have faint hopes of running them to ground unless one of them is injured in return fire by a victim and unable to avoid capture and interrogation or is betrayed after hiding in a local community.
Even then, the death teams are small, no more than two gunmen, and apparently not apprised of any others.
The only information reaching the security services has come from Hamas functionaries:
They have warned that their death squads will hit Israelis on West Bank roads or settlements every few days and then move on to Palestinians serving in Ramallah government institutions and security services.
After that, they aim to extend their campaign of terror to the Israeli heartland – that is unless counter-terror agencies first find a way to catch up with them.
It remains to be seen how long US envoy Mitchell, Israel's Netanyahu and Chairman Abbas can persevere in the negotiations and how much they can achieve with the sword of Hamas terrorism hanging over their heads hour after hour, day after day.