Armed with US President Barack Obama's resonating address to Muslims and the pro-American alliance's surprise election victory in Lebanon, special Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in the region with high hopes for fresh momentum leading to “immediate” talks between Palestinians and Israel for a comprehensive Middle East peace based on two states by 2012.
(Read separate article on post-election Lebanon)
He was quickly disabused.
Behind the smiling faces greeting him in Jerusalem and Ramallah on June 9-10, Mitchell's precise guidelines straight from the president were eclipsed by the daunting specter of a spreading surge of Hamas violence orchestrated from its Damascus headquarters to derail his mission. He found the West Bank on the brink of civil warfare as Hamas turned its guns not only against Israel, but also compatriots in the Palestinian Authority and even Egypt, the broker who has worked so hard to bury the hatchet between the rival Palestinian factions.
None of this was taken into account by the Obama administration.
Mitchell certainly did not expect to find Hamas shooting Qassam missiles from Gaza at Egyptian troops posted across the border in Sinai.
Sensitive US, Israeli and Arab media tried to keep the outbreaks of violence under wraps or played them down so as not to let the flaming new reality trip Mitchell up on his peace mission in Jerusalem and Ramallah, or overturn the strategic game the Obama administration has embarked on with certain Middle East rulers. (This is explored in a separate item in this issue).
Hamas' show of strength misfires but sets scene for more violence
However Hamas' three-pronged attack on Israeli border forces from Gaza, one of its largest cross-border operations ever, was too extensive to conceal. Monday, June 8, under cover of an early morning mist, Hamas squads struck out at three points – the Nahal Oz area north of the Gaza Strip, Karni Crossing at the center of the Strip, and Nir Oz opposite the southern Gazan town of Khan Younis.
Between a dozen and 15 Palestinian gunmen, some astride horses laden with explosives, targeted a Golani Brigade patrol at the Karni crossing. Backed by heavy mortar fire from Gaza, the attackers aimed to abduct more Israeli soldiers and blow up their outposts and vehicles. But they met a rapid Israeli response. Helicopter-borne missiles were soon pounding Palestinian gunmen and their rear missile squads, putting them to flight.
The firefight ended with four Hamas dead, 12 injured and no Israeli casualties.
Three tactical goals were behind the Palestinian fundamentalists' sudden assault:
1. A show of Hamas solidarity and unity of purpose with the Shiite Hizballah when it was still widely expected to sweep Lebanon's parliamentary election of June 7. The incoming results of the vote put paid to that expectation. The Hizballah-led alliance's defeat at the hands of the pro-US bloc headed by the incumbent government in Beirut, together with Hamas' own military fiasco threw its plans out of kilter.
2. Hamas borrowed a favorite ploy of the late Fatah leader, Yasser Arafat, of staging a big wave of terrorist attacks to coincide with the arrival of any American envoy in the Middle East to push the peace process along. Time after time, this ploy effectively stalled diplomacy as it was intended to do for the Mitchell mission too.
Hamas declares open season on Palestinian Authority Security
3. Hamas chose the day before Mitchell's talks with Israeli and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas for its reply to Obama's ringing call for negotiations to end violence from Cairo University.
Monday, the day of the attack, Hamas deputy secretary-general, Musa Abu Marzuq, said Hamas welcomed Obama's speech but rejected his call to stop the violence, which was in fact a war of liberation which the US president ought to support.
On Tuesday, June 9, Hamas politburo head Khaled Meshaal made the same argument to Egyptian intelligence minister Omar Suleiman, who had summoned him from Damascus to Cairo.
Hamas this week directed its violence against a broad front on orders from Tehran and Damascus (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly, No. 399 reported on June 5: Assad Orders Hamas to Chop Down Pro-US Palestinian Force). Its effort against Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority was pinpointed this week with the publication of the names and photographs of half a dozen PA officers condemned to death as “collaborators” with the enemy for raiding Hamas strongholds in Qalqilya last month.
At the top of Hamas' death list of officers, the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Apparatus commander Hussam Sheikh Hamed, was accused of two assaults on Hamas safe houses in the West Bank town, in which four Hamas fighters were killed.
Overnight between Monday, June 8 and Tuesday June 9 Palestinian security forces picked up three female members of Hamas who were under orders to blow up Palestinian Authority security forces officers.
One woman, her bomb vest strapped on, was already on her way to her target.
This climate of near-civil war between the two rival Palestinian factions which has spread from the Gaza Strip to the heart of the West Bank is hardly conducive to peacemaking as both Washington and Cairo understand.
The current vogue among Palestinians now makes for a reciprocal wave of assassinations rather than peace diplomacy in the foreseeable future.
Israel admits: Operation Cast Lead was not a real war
Two further incidents Tuesday, June 9, told the tale of rising military tensions on two fronts – Egyptian Sinai and well as Ramallah, seat of the Fatah-led Palestinian government.
Egyptian troops across the Gaza border had their first taste ever of a Hamas Qassam missile strike. Three exploded three kilometers inside Sinai. This was the first Hamas clash with Egyptian forces since its massive attempt to break through the border in January 2008.
In Ramallah, meanwhile, security personnel escorting Palestinian Authority secretary general Saad al-Rahim opened fire on a car speeding towards his convoy in the belief that it was driven by a suicide bomber intending to ram them.
The final admission Tuesday, June 9, by Israel's defense minister Ehud Barak that Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip which ended last January was not a war in the true sense is pertinent to the low prospects of President Obama's chances of bringing his diplomatic initiative on the Middle East dispute to fruition.
Barak warned officer cadets at a passing-out parade in southern Israel that the next campaign would be “a lot tougher than Operation Cast Lead and entail casualties.”
He explained that future combat scenarios would not unfold like military exercises. “Do not delude yourselves that each and every unit commander will be able to call on air and artillery cover, or infantry reinforcements at will. In comprehensive combat, things tend to go wrong and it never goes according to plan.” Battles are ultimately resolved by troops willing to sacrifice “their last drops of courage and dedication,” the defense minister said.
Internal Palestinian intifada ties Abbas' hands for negotiations
DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources have frequently stressed that Israel's 22-day Gaza offensive (from December 27 2008 to January 18 2009) did not fit the definition of a war but was more like an all-systems drill consisting of moving forces under perfect air, sea and artillery cover. Above all, Israeli units never really came up against frontal enemy resistance when they moved around.
Hamas counted on the terrorist tactics of concealed booby-traps, bombing ambushes and planted explosive devices to stop the Israeli advance. When these tactics failed, its fighting strength and commanders followed the Taliban's example in Afghanistan and melted into the local population to wait for the Israeli Defense Forces to withdraw.
Our military sources stress the importance of Barak too learning the lessons of the Gaza “war.”
In line with his policy, the Gaza campaign was coordinated from start to finish with the Saudi and Egyptian governments. Because they objected to the Israeli army entering Gaza City center and wiping out Hamas' political and military strength, the defense minister and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi halted the campaign midway without bringing it to its logical finale. As a result, Hamas was not only left intact but lived to fight another day and go forward with its plans for wresting control of the West Bank from Abbas' Palestinian Authority after cementing its grip on the Gaza Strip.
In pursuance of this goal, an internal Palestinian intifada has flared, with the undefeated Hamas employing terrorist tactics against Mahmoud Abbas' PA and its security force, tying their hands for entering into a new diplomatic process.
The violence escalated this week. As long as Palestinians continue to fight each other, neither President Obama, his envoy, the Saudi king Abdullah or Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak can hope for an opening leading to “comprehensive peace and normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors.”
A Palestinian civil war is totally counter-productive to the rise of a Palestinian state coexisting with Israel in peace and security, an objective for which the US president has set a two-year deadline.