Feuding Palestinian Factions Combine for an Instant to Liquidate a Strongman

A mere 200 yards from the Gaza City home of the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, a hundred masked, armed gunmen burst into the heavily guarded villa of Moussa Arafat, 64, whom he sacked last April as Palestinian military intelligence chief and head of national security forces in the Gaza Strip. The assassination squad fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles before dragging Arafat out of bed and onto the street where they continued to pump him full of bullets. The killers then made off with his son Manhal.

The Palestinian security officers, who packed the square of VIP dwellings, including the guards at Abu Mazen’s own mansion, were suddenly struck deaf and blind.

This and other evidence led DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources to conclude that the hands behind the killers belonged to the Palestinian Authority’s minister for civilian affairs and senior liaison officer with Israeli security officials, Mohammed Dahlan, and his sidekick Rashid Abu Shebak, chief of Gaza’s preventive security agency. Both have a long record of violence.

The brief, quickly denied, claim of responsibility by the Popular Committees’ Salahedin Brigades shows how rapidly the Gaza Strip is veering towards civil war and anarchy since the Sharon government unilaterally evacuated Israeli civilian habitation less than a month ago. Some Middle East specialists say the situation brings to mind the civil war that engulfed Lebanon in the late 1970s. Others see worse scenarios. An Israeli intelligence officer familiar with the Gaza scene predicts al Qaeda and Hizballah units arriving from Lebanon and joining Gaza-based Palestinian terrorists in bloody battles against Israel, on similar lines to the 1993 Mogadishu onslaught on US elite and marine peacekeepers.

The Moussa Arafat murder conspiracy unfolded in stages.

In the first week of August, our sources have learned, Dahlan and Abu Shebak came secretly to Jemal Abu Sema Dana, the top man of the Popular Committees. They brought him Abu Mazen’s offer of the plum job of chief of Palestinian military intelligence, the job held by Mussa Arafat before he was “pensioned off.”


Abu Mazen offers intelligence post to gunrunner Sema Dana


The Popular Resistance Committees were set up as an umbrella for the terrorist groups operating in the Gaza Strip, chiefly the Fatah-al Aqsa Brigades and other factions and Hamas.

Abu Sema Dana, from his Khan Younes base in the southern Gaza Strip, and Moussa Arafat were also partners in setting up and managing the arms smuggling tunnel system that carries tons of war materiel from northern Sinai into Palestinian Rafah up to the present.

This system was developed by the Abu Sema Dana clan over the years into a highly profitable mainline weapons trafficking network that today straddles the Middle East.

But around five years ago, Abu Sema Dana also had a deal going with his two visitors, Dahlan and Abu Shebak.

Then, Dahlan officiated as head of the Preventive Security apparatus set up by the 1993 Oslo Accords and therefore bound to curb terrorism. His deputy was Abu Shebak. But when Yasser Arafat launched his uprising against Israel in late 2000, the pair formally shunted their manpower to the Popular Committees, from which base they launched terrorist operations against Israel. The Preventive Security Service thus kept its hands clean.

Mornings, the preventive security officers clocked in at Palestinian Authority headquarters and earned their pay packet; afternoons, they took off their uniforms and reported for duty with Abu Sema Dana. Those who also worked in the tunnels earned an extra $100 monthly bonus on top of their $200 Palestinian Authority wage.

All points were thus covered. For five years, the Fatah engaged in terror behind the respectable front of the “preventive security” service terrorist organization. No one could therefore accuse its chiefs of engaging in terrorism.


Unfinished business over the murder of three American security agents


As the Sema Dana smuggling racket expanded, the money rolled in and lined the pockets of all the partners in the enterprise.

The Dahlan-Sema Dana partnership flourished until its first breaking point.

January 3, 2005, Israeli commandos boarded and seized the Karin-A smuggling vessel on the Red Sea. It was on its way from Iran to Gaza with 50 tons of sophisticated heavy weapons, including missiles. Had this cargo reached its destination, it would have radically shifted the balance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Israeli intelligence interrogations of the crew and the men shepherding the cargo revealed that some were in the pay of the Abu Sema Dana clan. The Palestinians on board named Dahlan as the purchaser of the vessel in Lebanon and organizer of its cargo for the voyage to Iran and thence to Gaza.

The failure of the Karin-A venture did not stop the Abu Sema Dana. His tunnels flourished, encountering no real Egyptian interference at the Sinai end. His clan’s “business” operations went from strength to strength. It might therefore have seemed inappropriate for a minister of Abu Mazen’s cabinet to go calling on the chief of a notable crime gang. But he was designated for a mission by the Palestinian Authority Chairman in person: the offer of Moussa Arafat’s old job with the rank of general. That was only part of the deal. Abbas also proposed absorbing the 450-strong Salahedin Brigades of the Popular Committees, the very group that briefly claimed his assassination this week, into the Palestinian Authority’s security force as paid personnel.

As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported in the past, three members of the Salahedin Brigades are credited with the bombing attack which killed a trio of US security agents on October 15, 2003. They were escorting a US embassy convoy from Tel Aviv to the Gaza Strip.


A major stumbling block for Abbas’s plans


Abu Mazen was determined to successfully recruit this group to the Palestinian Authority’s security forces. He needed this success to proof that his method of eliminating terror by enlisting terrorists to regular law enforcement and official security ranks could work, and was a more effective means of attaining the goal of one government, one army and one gun, than the forcible decommissioning and dismantling of “armed militias”, urged on him by President George W. Bush, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and US security coordinator, General William Ward.

Abbas was anxious to demonstrate he could slap terrorists into shape as a disciplined army and police force – even after his experiment flopped in all the towns of the West Bank.

It was important that his venture take off in time for Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and its handover to Palestinian Authority.

DEBKA-Net Weekly‘s sources report that Dahlan, Abu Shebak and Abu Sema Dana reached full agreement on a deal. The Salahadin unit stood ready for its new role – when Abbas confronted two snags:

First, Washington took note of the fact that the three men wanted for the two-year old murder of American security agents belong to the Salahedin Brigades. He played it safe by holding back his signature on Jemal Abu Sema Dana’s appointment as chief of military intelligence, because he feared it would trigger a US demand for the killers’ extradition. Abu Mazen has no intention of handing them over.

Second, even after he was ousted from his intelligence and security commands, Moussa Arafat retained the powers he had held for years in the military intelligence circles and ranks; key factions of the Popular Committees continued to obey his orders. He had become a major stumbling block to the Palestinian Authority’s effort to assume control and put its own man in intelligence.


A wealth of murder motives


After surviving at least three assassination attempts in the past, Arafat now had three obdurate foes lined up against him, all standing to gain from his death:

1. The Hamas Islamist terror group had a long reckoning with him as the only Palestinian leader who ever dared crack down on their operations. In 1996, on orders from his cousin, the late Yasser Arafat, Moussa loosed his men on Hamas activists, arrested their operations chiefs and tortured them in prison.

2. Mohammed Dahlan and Rashid Abu Shebak knew they would never hold sway over the Gaza Strip as long as strongman Arafat was in the way and making constant inroads on their authority. From 2003, the three were caught up in a fight to the finish.

3. A falling-out between thieves, or rather smugglers, produced enemy number three. Over the years, as their arms racket expanded, Abu Sema Dana clansmen relocated their headquarters to the Gulf. At present, they run guns and war equipment across Sinai, Israel’s Negev, Saudi Arabia and Jordan into Iraq. Their end user is al Qaeda’s Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

Jemal stayed behind with the Sinai-Gaza tunnel segment. However, about a year ago, his partner Moussa Arafat muscled him out and commandeered the entire tunnel system. This was the first time the Abu Sema Dana crime clan had experienced a takeover of turf; he was ready to seize any a chance to wipe out his old partner. By now, too, he was keen to take up Abu Mazen’s offer of the military intelligence command and the role of Gaza Strip strongman.

There were plenty of motives, therefore, for the former intelligence chief’s assassination. His three foremost enemies got together and concocted a simple plan.


Dahlan’s perfect alibi


Most of Arafat’s bodyguards were former and current members of the Popular Committees. As their commander, Abu Sema Dana quite simply undertook to order them to ignore the armed gangs of assassins and step aside when they burst into the victim’s fortified villa.

The assassination team was to be made up of handpicked combatants of the Popular Committees, Hamas and the preventive security service. They were carried to and from their target by a large fleet of vehicles prepared in advance. Arrangements were made for the army of Palestinian security men on 24-hour guard at the neighboring villas in the upscale Tel al-Haoha district of Gaza City to pay no heed to the commotion. These neighbors are Abu Mazen, who was in residence and asleep at the time of the assault, Dahlan and additional cabinet ministers and wealthy Gazans.

September 2, five days before the attack, Dahlan had himself admitted to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital with back pains. The doctors did not diagnose anything serious. Palestinian leaders rarely go to Israeli hospitals for medical care; they mostly travel to Jordan or a Gulf emirate for treatment.

This time, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Israeli and Western intelligence circles in Tel Aviv decided the Palestinian civilian affairs minister was really seeking a place to be safe rather than medical care. The next day, he suddenly moved out of the Tel Aviv hospital and was given a bed in the Royal Military hospital in Amman. A day later, Sept 4, the Saudi newspaper Okaz reported prominently that Mohammed Dahlan was seriously ill; his doctors did not expect him to recover and he would remain a chronic paraplegic. Since Okaz is a semi-official publication and would not run a story of this kind without approval from the royal court in Riyadh, Dahlan must have used a Saudi connection to get the story published.


The assassination went like clockwork


Thus, four days before the Arafat assassination, Dahlan had set up a perfect alibi as a cripple, and therefore above suspicion of complicity in a violent crime.

But then, suddenly, eight and-a-half hours after the deed was done, the Palestinian minister suddenly rose from his bed and was well enough to plunge directly into discussions with an Israeli official who went to Amman to settle the thorny issue of Gaza’s border crossings after Israel’s pullback.

The timeline of Dahlan’s “illness” and “recovery” fit snugly into that of the murder.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly has obtained exclusive details on the assault:

At 1.30 am Wednesday, September 7, 130 armed men in ski masks rendezvoused at the southern outskirts of the Gaza Strip ahead of the attack. The group was composed of members of Fatah, Hamas Ezz-e-Din al Qassam battalions from the Bureij and Nuseirat refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip, Abu Sema Dana’s Popular Committees from Khan Younes and the Dahlan-Abu Shebak Preventive Security Service.

The assassination team was commanded by Captain Naseri Dandoush, of the Preventive Security Service, who also moonlights for the Popular Committees. A second group from the same service provided environmental protection for the assault site and secured its approaches.

Mussa Arafat’s protection unit operated round the clock. It consisted of scores of Palestinian military intelligence officers and members of the Popular Committees’ Salahedin Brigades. He was never alone in any room of his plush villa; even when he slept, there were four of five guards in the bedroom under the command of his son Manhil. A second cordon around his villa was manned by guards with electronic detectors. The assassins would never have reached their quarry, therefore, without the connivance of his body guards. The fact that none received a scratch in this massive assault is evidence of inside betrayal.

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