In Drive against Hamas, Mofaz Takes on Assad-Nasrallah Duo

The Israeli army has plainly stepped up its drive against the Hamas and Jihad Islami in the Gaza Strip and Mt. Hebron in the southern West Bank. Less visibly, in the same arena, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon are locked in a complicated and grim showdown with Syrian president Bashar Assad and Hizballah chairman Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Israel’s most implacable Arab foes.
Neither side admits what is going on, but Israel’s military chiefs are racing to undo a devious plan set in motion by Assad and Nasrallah plan to transform the Gaza Strip and southern West Bank into the southern offshoots of the Syrian-Lebanese northern front against Israel, before the Iraq war fully erupts. They would thus exploit the Palestinian terror campaign to drag Israel into a full-blown regional conflict, without exposing their own territory and power centers to reprisal – or even laying themselves open to be charged as aggressors.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, Assad and Nasrallah are jerking the wires of Hamas and Jihad Islami groups in the Gaza Strip and Hebron, through those groups’ Damascus headquarters.
This contest lies behind the spiraling Israeli-Palestinian violence of recent weeks in these two regions as the US offensive against Iraq nears. To pre-empt the Syrian-Hizballah plan, the IDF can be expected to seize strategic parts of the Gaza Strip and its towns, in the same way as it has established a presence in most West Bank Palestinian towns, most recently Hebron.
Taking advantage of the diluted Iraqi military intelligence operation in the Palestinian arena – as a result of the rising pressure on Saddam Hussein and early stages of his regime’s disintegration – the Syrian-Hizballah duo has moved in to keep Palestinian terrorism rocketing. The momentum has swept up elements of the Fatah’s security organs, who interpret Yasser Arafat’s non-reaction as his blessing for their participation. Arafat’s operatives are attracted not only by the action, but by the influx of Syrian, Hizballah and Saudi funding into the Gaza Strip and Hebron region at a time when the Fatah war chest is empty.
The strategic implications of this turnabout in Palestinian fortunes are pivotal.
In the years 1999 and 2000, the Palestinians were heavily engaged in their operational preparations for Arafat’s Intifida.
From 2000 to 2002, amid their raging confrontation with Israel, Arafat and his Fatah opened the door wide for the Hizballah and the Damascus headquarters of the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami to join their terror campaign.
Now, in 2003, the tables have turned – Syria and the Hizballah are using the Islamic radical groups as the engine for driving the Fatah terror machine, instead of the other way round.
The Hamas and Jihad Islami were never the formidable terrorist organizations depicted by previous Israeli governments – out of the political interest they owned in highlighting the need to recognize Arafat as Palestinian leader. Their command and intelligence machinery were never up to par. Instead, Hamas and Jihad reared masters of terror, mentors who attracted worshipful followings, like Muhamed Deif, who is still at large after escaping countless Israeli assassination attempts, or the charismatic terrorist chief Salah Shehadah, who died in an Israeli bomb blast at his home last July. The two Islamic groups relied on outsiders to set their targets and provide intelligence, explosives and money.
Until last year, that source was primarily the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence and security services, ruled by Muhamad Dahlan in the Gaza Strip and Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank.
Now, twenty-eight months into Arafat’s Intifada, we see his Fatah and its organized bodies being sucked into the Hamas. The end-result of this process is intended to be the formation of Hizballah B for the Gaza Strip and Mt. Hebron, the twin to the Shiite group that threatens Israel from southern Lebanon.
Gaza and Hebron are natural partners. No more than 65 km apart, they share close kinship and economic ties. Together, they would form a strong Palestinian terror arc rivaling the Ramallah-Nablus axis and stretching from the Egyptian border up the Mediterranean coast to within striking distance of southeastern Israel. Even after an American ouster of Saddam Hussein lifted the Iraqi threat to Jordan and Israel from the east, Israel would find itself in the jaws of a Syrian-Lebanese threat in both the north and the south. Furthermore, by orchestrating and funding the Gaza-Hebron terrorist bloc, Assad and the Nasrallah would have acquired a deterrent against an Israeli attack against their countries.
The new juxtaposition surfaced briefly when Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP – General Command took responsibility for the sniper murder of Israeli Armored Corps Major Shahar Shmul on February 12 outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This Damascus-based hard-line group had never taken active part in Arafat’s terror campaign in more than two years. Its location signified that the Syrian backed Palestinian groups, after terrorizing the Hebron region from late last year and murdering tens of Israelis, were now creeping towards Bethlehem and nearby Jerusalem.
This week saw an intense flurry of action. First, the Hamas announced the stoppage of its barrages of Qassam rockets against Israeli locations outside the Gaza Strip, demanding that Israel in return halt its military incursions into the Palestinian towns of Gaza.
Hamas had two motives for this step:
A. A large-scale IDF force thrust deep into the heart of Gaza City on January 26 gutted more than 100 weapons foundries, including manufacturing facilities for the Qassam missiles and batteries. Singled out in particularly were Hamas workshops for multiple rocket launchers capable of four simultaneous launchings. Those workshops were smashed before their products could target Israeli towns and villages in the Western Negev and Gaza Strip. Hamas could not admit how badly it needs a respite for a complete restoration of its rocketry resources.
The IDF operation that night also had a symbolic objective: to show the Hamas – and most of all the Syrians and the Hizballah – that even heavy Palestinian fire could not stop Israeli armor, warplanes and helicopters from driving deep into a Palestinian city of 300,000 and wiping out its arms industry in a single night. In other words, neither the Hamas command, and certainly not Damascus or the Hizballah, are the bosses of Gaza City.
B. After realistically assessing the situation, Syria and the Hizballah instructed the Hamas to hold its horses. Certainly, they had no wish to see any more cash and resources – smuggled in by sea, from northern Sinai, the West Bank or the Golan, for the rebuilding of a new Hamas rocket industry – burned up in another Israeli raid. Hamas accordingly announced there would be no more Qassam attacks.
But by then, the confrontation had rolled into a new phase. On Saturday, February 16, four Israeli soldiers died when their tank was blown up by a powerful explosive device planted more than a month ago on a track near Dugit at the northern end of the Gaza Strip. After this disaster, Israel was determined to give the Hamas no quarter.
In early January, Syria sent the Hamas by Jibril’s agents a consignment of large remote-controlled drones capable of flying over such barriers as the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip to deliver explosives and deadly chemical substances to Israeli locations. With Arafat’s approval, hundreds of toy remote-controlled planes and gliders were ordered from Europe. Under the guidance of Jibril’s experts, they were converted into instruments of terror and Hamas teams taught to load them with explosives or chemicals. On January 14, debkafile reported this dangerous upgrade of the Palestinian armory.
The PFLP-General Command have been working for 15 years on the conversion of toy model planes operated by remote control and various glider-type craft and drones into lethal flying weapons. The organization maintains special units, some suicides, armed with these airborne “toys” at its bases in Damour and Naama, 15 km south of Beirut. debkafile‘s intelligence sources stress that Jibril would never have sent these weapons and technology over to Gaza without the say-so of Assad or the knowledge of Nasrallah.
The modus operandi is typical of the Syrian president. Behind a moderate, reasonable facade, he heaps military hardware and money on an incendiary situation, without getting caught or losing control of the consequences. Assad thus claims credit for reining in the Hizballah’s cross-border strikes against Israel while at the same time arming the Shi’ite extremists with 300 long-range rockets capable of reaching the outskirts of Haifa.
Israel stamped hard on the Hamas Monday, February 17. Sunday, the Islamic group lost six top men when the drone they were assembling and loading with explosives blew up.
The Israeli showdown with Hamas and its patrons in Damascus and Lebanon is far from over and the Gaza-Hebron terror arc is still full of menace.

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