DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered Maj.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the incoming chief of staff already unofficially in the top chair, to launch a counter-terror offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Since March, Israeli has carried out two major terrorist cleansing operations in West Bank Palestinian towns, but none in the Gaza Strip, where the radical radical Muslim Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups maintain command and political centers. The headquarters of both are located in the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Sharon’s operational orders call for the liquidation or arrest of the heads of the two groups. Yaalon was also told to apprehend – not kill – any Hizballah operatives caught for interrogation on the Shiite group’s intelligence and military activities in Lebanon and its terrorist cells elsewhere.
Israel is fairly cagey about captured Hizballah operatives. A very senior Hizballah man with US citizenship was nabbed during Israel’s big offensive in the Palestinian security headquarters in Hebron last week, before Israeli forces blew up the fortress-like complex in two thunderclap blasts. Information about his capture caused great excitement among Israeli intelligence chiefs. Sharon telephoned US President George W. Bush with details about Israel’s American Hizballah prisoner. He also relayed the news to US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz and secretary of state Colin Powell.
According to a number of Israeli counter-terrorism sources contacted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, Sharon, outgoing army chief Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz and the head of military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi, cautioned interrogators of the Hizballah operative that they would be held personally responsible if any detail about the American terrorist investigation leaked out.
All that has been hinted is that his contacts in the United States are under investigation to find out if they are family or terrorist-related, or both.
In addition to eliminating the Gazan Muslim terrorist infrastructure, Sharon ordered the Popular Intifada Committees, which coordinate the operations of the various terrorist factions in the Gaza Strip, to be disbanded. They are run by associates of Mohammed Dahlan, former head of the preventive security service in Gaza. His deputy, Rashid Abu Shbak, is their chief. Sharon aslso directed Yaalon to break the back of the preventive security service in Gaza in the same way as its sister organization in the West Bank led by Jibril Rajoub was cut down.
Additional targets in the Gaza Strip are the dozens of small Palestinian workshops manufacturing heavy Palestinian weaponry: anti-tank missiles, Qasam 1-6 rockets, explosive charges – used to blast Israeli tanks and extra-large civilian targets, mortars of various calibers and anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Although the factories are primitive, they manage to produce an impressive array of operational weaponry.
The army will also mark down the local paramilitary gangs roaming Palestinian towns in the Gaza Strip, a departure from its operations in the West Bank, which were confined to quasi-military organizations and known terrorist groups. These Gaza gangs number between 50 and 300 members each and maintain underworld connections in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. They deal mostly in the smuggling of drugs, weapons and prostitutes, but volunteer their services to Palestinian terrorist groups for free, whether as gunrunners, spies and informers or even terrorist operatives as needed.
Around 25 of these gangs have the operational competence of small militias. They are most heavily concentrated at Beit Hanoun, a small town in the northern Gaza Strip, in neighboring Beit Lehiya, in Gaza City’s Jabalya refugee camp, Khan Younis in the south and the divided town of Rafah, part of which is Palestinian, part Egyptian. These Palestinian gangs operate on the Egyptian side of Rafah and also in the northern Sinai town of El Arish.
Mirroring its current long-running West Bank operation against terrorists, the Israeli army is waiting for final orders to go into Gazan cities, towns and villages, once controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and stay there for as long as it takes to purge the territory of terrorists.