From Palestinian Missile Site to Battle Arena
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources sum up the state of hostilities on Thursday night, July 6, when the situation turned around for the Israelis and Palestinians alike. For eight days, small Israeli forces that had taken up position in small pockets in the north and the south did not engage in combat.
Hamas took the initiative of shooting the first Qassam missile into Ashkelon town center Tuesday, July 4, assuming that Israel would be satisfied with minimal retaliation.
But then, when before daybreak Thursday, Israeli forces headed towards Beit Lahiya, center of Qassam launches in the northern Gaza Strip, Hamas learned that this was to be first of several Israeli thrusts into different parts of the territory. Hamas leaders suddenly saw that the IDF was proposing to seize one slice of land after another on the pretext of eliminating missile sites.
Therefore, at about 10 a.m. Hamas, joined by Jihad Islami and the PRC, started putting up armed resistance to Israeli military movements.
None of the three terror groups commands a regular army capable to building a front line or fortifying a city block for a firing barricade, as the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda did in Falluja or Ramadi in Iraq. Their RPG, automatic rifles, sniper fire and anti-tank rockets can seriously delay and harass but are no match for Israeli armored infantry and its tank escort.
The Israeli commanders, for their part, saw they could not stick to their plan of withdrawing from Beit Lahiya after after 48 hours, or 72 hours at most. Quelling three determined Palestinian groups of fighters will take up another two days – at the least.
Since the June 25 attack on its post opposite southern Gaza, Israel has concentrated opposite the territory four battalions of the Givati and Golani armored infantry brigades, a battalion of special operations forces and three battalions of 60 tanks, mostly home-made Chariots – altogether no more than 2,500 troops. This is well below the strength required to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated last September.
These forces come under the Gaza Division Command led by Brig-Gen. Aviv Cochavi, which has set up a forward command at the disused Dahaniyeh airfield near the southern border town of Rafah. It has been set up as a center for intelligence, communications and logistical coordination to support a larger force. It is packed with tracking, surveillance and eavesdropping electronic instruments for observing anything that moves or makes a sound in Gaza’s southern sector, the Palestinian and Egyptian halves of Rafah, Khan Younes, Deir el Balakh and the Egyptian border region. Israeli personnel are hoping to pick up the movement, conversation or telephone call that offers a lead or hint to the whereabouts of the missing Israeli soldier Gideon Shalit.
Crisis throws up new Hamas military chief
The total number of Palestinian under arms in the Gaza Strip is estimated at 15,000. Fully mobilized they can muster 40-50,000 men. They also command squads of suicide bombers.
According to our military sources, the most notable development on the Palestinian side in consequence of the war deterioration of the last two weeks is the rise of the Hamas Ezz e-din al-Qassam Brigades chief, Muhammed Jabari, as the most prominent combat figure in the Gaza Strip. He is on the way to gaining the obedience of Palestinian Security personnel and armed groups which hitherto deferred to Fatah leaders alone.
Still holding out against bowing to Jabari are the Palestinian intelligence outfits dominated by the Preventive Security Service under Rashid Abu Shbak, except for limited cooperation. But more and more Fatah gunmen have gone over to the Hamas chief and draw paychecks from the Hamas war chest. This trend bodes ill for the future of the West Bank and Palestinian Authority chairman, the Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas.
One incidental consequence of Shalit’s capture is the all-out effort made by all branches of Israeli intelligence to re-connect with the dark side of the Gaza Strip and its murky byways in the hunt for a clue to the missing corporal.
The intensity of the project’s race against time has much in common with the desperation of America’s intelligence efforts after al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, and the July 7 rail bombings in London. Like the clandestine services of America and Britain, Israeli services are frantically digging out old files on every aspect of Palestinian terrorism in the first half of 2006 in the hope of turning up a lead.
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The results of this comprehensive hunt are so far mixed.
In the first ten days, the researchers made no progress towards finding the missing soldier. On the other hand, they believe they have identified the members of the team which carried out the June 25 assault and kidnap and who are guarding him at present.
The Hamas Ezz e-din al Qassam chief Jabari led the assault, along with Muain Abu Shmala, Hamas commander in Rafah, Muhammed Sanwar, Hamas commander in Khan Younes and Zakariah Durmush, head of the Popular Resistance Committees in place of Jemal Semhadah, who was killed by an Israeli rocket in Rafah on June 8.
Sanwar, reputed to be the topmost abduction expert in the Gaza Strip, is believed to have plotted in detail the stages of the attack and the abductors’ escape route with hostage to a safe house.
Breaking the Hamas back on the West Bank
Lacking the intelligence for a commando rescue operation, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports Israel has embarked on a parallel program to break the back of Hamas’s political, religious and organizational sub-structures on the West Bank. After between 70 and 80 Hamas ministers, lawmakers, mayors and public figures were publicly rounded up, Shin Bet agents, on the quiet, have been nightly scouring West Bank villages and towns and detaining Hamas Adawa, which is the field level of recruiters, clerics, educationists and social welfare activists.
Some 1,000 persons forming this Hamas backbone have been detained for three objectives:
1. To bring home to Hamas that the longer Gideon Shalit is held hostage, the more the jihadist organization stands to lose of its West Bank strength. The assumption is that Hamas will think twice before seeing its entire West Bank machine smashed, the pieces locked away in Israeli jails.
2. Hamas’ West Bank strongholds are foundering and the fundamentalist group finds itself isolated in the Gaza Strip and up against Israeli combat forces there too. The Palestinian government is split between two heads and two territories. Israel had planned this operation as far back as January, 2006, after the Hamas’s shock victory in the Palestinian general election. It was shelved until the Shalit episode offered an opening for its revival.
3. The ebbing of Hamas strength on the West Bank is a shot in the arm for the Hashemite king of Jordan and a blow to its partner, Jordan’s radical Muslim Brotherhood. The Hamas rise to power in the Palestinian Authority and the encouragement the Brotherhood took from this regime change had King Abdullah extremely worried. Some of that worry will be assuaged by Hamas’ fading fortunes on the West Bank.
The fundamentalist Palestinian group is showing signs of feeling the heat from these Israeli actions. In some of their undercover, indirect contacts with Israel, mostly through Egyptian intermediaries, Hamas representatives have begun to ease up on terms for Gilead Shalit’s release. Climbing down from their first demands to release 1,500 Palestinian prisoners – which Israel rejected out of hand, Hamas negotiators are now asking for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to guarantee the termination of international pressure and financial boycott on their government and an Israeli pledge to desist from attempts to depose the Hamas government and harm its ministers.