Israel’s military intelligence missed dangerous new developments simmering beneath the surface of the Gaza Strip out of zeal to carry out prime minister Ariel Sharon’s instructions to decapitate the Palestinian Muslim extremist Hamas. with whom Israel has a long and bloody reckoning. While Israel was preoccupied in mounting the complicated targeted assassinations of Sheik Ahmed Yassin on March 21 and Abdel Aziz Rantisi on April 11, the Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian Jihad Islami quietly organized for guerrilla warfare to supplement their suicidal terrorist campaign.
The Israeli Defense Forces, caught unprepared, lost 11 Israeli servicemen in two attacks in a week; in Gaza City’s Zeitoun district on May 11 and at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip on May 12. Both Israeli units were skilled in special aspects of counter-terror warfare but not trained for open war with Palestinian guerrilla forces believed now to have been organized, trained and commanded by Hizballah or possibly al Qaeda experts known to be present in the Gaza Strip.
The omens were there to read from March 2, when a Palestinian suicide unit drove up to Erez, the main Gaza-Israel border terminal, in three booby-trapped cars, two of them jeeps with IDF markings and plates. They were driven by terrorists in Israeli uniforms and carried standard Israeli military weapons. The final touch was a small Israeli flag atop each of the jeeps. The third car was a taxi disguised as an Israeli cab and crammed with explosives. This lethal convoy came to within a few yards of the Israeli checkpoint at Erez when one of the soldiers manning it detected something amiss and opened fire without waiting for orders. His quick eye and reflexes prevented the three vehicles from entering Israel and averted a major disaster.
It must have been obvious that many weeks of meticulous preparation and knowledge went into preparing this convoy beyond the ever-present human and electronic oversight of Israeli military intelligence. Night and day, Israeli light surveillance craft, helicopters and drones circle overhead to pick up any and every suspicious movement in the Gaza Strip below.
Nonetheless, that convoy of death was assembled undetected down to its last detail.
Twelve days later, on March 14, a special kind of container was rigged in the Gaza Strip, smuggled out to Israel and into Ashdod port, which serves as both major import-export port and large naval base. The container carried two suicide killers complete with bomb belt and a supply of weapons and grenades. One blew himself up inside the port, the second passed through all the guard posts and reached the workshop opposite the port where he detonated his belt.
Ten Israelis died in a highly sophisticated terrorist operation designed to blow up the fuel tanks and toxic chemicals stores inside the port for a mega-attack to raze sections of Ashdod, a town with a population of 160,000.
The container that was later examined by the experts was found to have a built-in secret compartment which housed the stowaway terrorists and their arsenal, mattresses, food and water and a closed area for ammunition and explosive materials. The door into this compartment was invisible from the outside. The ring-lock on the outside could only be released from the inside on a pre-arranged code to the occupants.
This container project would have been beyond the technical and industrial capabilities of Gazan Palestinian terrorist groups. It ought to have been obvious to Israeli intelligence that an outside force designed and constructed the container for its deadly purpose and taught the Palestinian suicide killers how to use it.
Then, on May 2, a pregnant mother and her four small daughters, aged 2 to 11, were murdered on the Kissufim road to Gush Katif, the Israeli settlement bloc of the Gaza Strip. The killers shot up the vehicle in which they traveled, but instead of escaping, approached the stalled car and its injured travelers and coolly shot them dead one by one at point blank range.
That road is one of the most closely guarded routes in the country, secured round the clock by special operations and armored units. The attackers were nonetheless proficient enough to find a chink in this protective screen.
The two separate ambushes laid this week 36 hours apart for two Israeli armored personnel carriers in different parts of the Gaza Strip were not survived by a single member of either crew. Both vehicles were packed with explosives – the first carried 130 kilos for demolishing Palestinian weapons workshops in the Hamas bastion in Gaza City’s Zeitoun district, the second, a whole ton, for blowing up Palestinian weapons-smuggling tunnels excavated deep under the Egyptian-Gaza-Israeli frontier cutting through the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. Since the Israeli navy imposed a blockade on Gaza port, those tunnels have become the main route for the illicit importation of Palestinians fighters and weapons supplies into the Gaza Strip from around the Middle East.
The Palestinian bombers were able to pinpoint the APCs conveying explosives in the two Israeli convoys. This ability bespoke competent intelligence.
After the two ambushes, senior military and intelligence officers were willing to admit to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources their certainty that hidden somewhere in the Gaza Strip was a forward operational command of the Hizballah or a joint outfit of Hizballah, al Qaeda and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Brigade. According to one source, “It may well resemble the mixed command units conducting guerrilla and terrorist operations across Iraq.”
Asked why this possibility had not been checked out before, although it had been suggested by various counter-terror experts, including debkafile‘s sources, the officers admitted to the absence of a clear intelligence picture of the alien entity pulling the strings of terror in the Gaza Strip. The only data in Israeli military hands at the moment points to elements operated from Beirut or Damascus. Both are now in the sights of Israeli strategists even though any strikes against them would raise Middle East temperatures and tempers to boiling point.
Jerusalem sources told DEBKA-Net-Weekly Thursday, May 13, that while Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz were mulling various options, Yasser Arafat, behind his facade of isolation, is bombarding Hizballah and Palestinian leaders in the Gaza Strip with admonitions to keep the guerrilla campaign going at full blast.