Israel’s Pullback Becomes Operation Touch-and-Go, Bringing Top US Official to Gaza
Behind the heavily televised evacuation drama afoot in the Gaza Strip, United Nations Headquarters in New York has quietly ordered all foreign staff, especially UN Refugees Works and Relief Agency personnel, to depart the Gaza Strip by Wednesday, August 17. The world body estimates any workers remaining in Palestinian areas, especially those adjoining Gush Katif, face extreme danger after the evacuations begin first thing Wednesday morning.
The International Red Cross pulled its staff out last week. A French journalist of Algerian origin kidnapped by armed Palestinians Sunday, August 14, is still missing.
Most significantly, Washington reversed its 20-month ban on US diplomats’ visits to the Gaza Strip to urgently dispatch a top official, US assistance secretary of state David Welch, for a surprise visit to Gaza Tuesday night. The ban was imposed after the Palestinian Authority refused to hand over the Palestinian Popular Committees Special unit which murdered three US security agents in a bombing attack on Oct 15, 2003.
The urgency of the Welch mission, accompanied by US security coordinator Lt. Gen William Ward, was prompted by three developments:
1. US intelligence confirms the UN estimate of the extreme security danger prevalent in the Gaza Strip. It stems from Palestinian Authority chairman Mahamoud Abbas having fallen completely under the sway of the Hamas and the Jihad Islami, which are vying with each other for first grab of evacuated Israeli properties ahead of any claim by the Palestinian Authority. Both have especially drilled guerrilla units lurking close to Gush Katif ready to pounce on their prey, each other and above all, Israeli targets.
Abu Mazen had hoped to head this dangerous contest off by bringing all the Palestinian groups together into a supreme Palestinian coordinating committee with purely advisory powers. He was outmaneuvered. Hamas sent its top man, Mahmoud al Zuhair to the panel, followed by the top-ranking operatives in the other terrorist organizations. Abu Mazen’s committee was thus perverted into an instrument for his disempowerment.
2. The Palestinian Authority and Israel agreed on a Palestinian force of 24 battalions to provide a security belt between the evacuation operation and Palestinian areas. It transpires that most of the battalions lack weapons or any means of combat and, worst of all, their deployment was subject to Hamas sanction.
3. Washington received confirmation from US intelligence of a previous debkafile report that Abu Mazen had secretly named the late Yasser Arafat’s partner, Jemal Sema Dana, the mastermind behind the assassination of the three US officials, the new Palestinian military intelligence chief. August 15, Abu Mazen sent two special couriers to assure him he had signed the new letter of appointment, upon which Sema Dana accepted the post.
Sema Dana is notorious for designing and managing the network of weapons smuggling tunnels from Sinai to the Gaza Strip, which he handed to Gen. Mussa Arafat in 2004.
As chairman of the Gaza terrorist umbrella organization, the Popular Committees, he is the most effective terrorist mastermind in the territory. He has been tagged for the May 2, 2004 murder of the Hatuel family on the Kissufim road, deadly attacks on Israeli troops guarding the Philadelphi border strip in the same month and blowing up an IDF position on the Rafah border crossing in December 2004.
The Sema Dana clan runs an extensive ring that smuggles weapons from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia to the Sinai coast, through the southern Israeli Negev, on to Jordan and Syria and thence into Iraq.
The appointment of a super-terrorist and gun-runner to Iraq, who organized the murder of Americans to a key job, to hold joint responsibility with Egypt for border security, through which he ran his smuggling tunnels, was too much for the Bush administration to stomach. On the other hand, they realize that if Abbas fails to make good on the appointment, Sema Dana will choose his moment to unleash the Popular Committees for a barrage of fire that will throw the entire Israeli pull-out into disarray.
Welch is in Gaza to seek a way out of this quandary.
The situation on the Israeli side is another source of anxiety in Washington.
While putting on a show of controlled force and confidence in their ability to bring the evacuation to a smooth and rapid close, the IDF is reported by debkafile‘s military sources as facing an uphill task which threatens to prove tougher and take longer than expected. Chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz used up his best officers as leaders of the eviction teams. The IDF command and operational officer level is now stretched to the limit with inadequate resources left over in case of contingencies arising in other sectors.
Washington is therefore concerned that both the Palestinians and Israelis will reach their breaking points at some point in the pull-out. And what if both occur together?
debkafile‘s military sources report that early Wednesday, two IDF divisions move in to dismantle the Gaza’s Jewish communities in a still undetermined order. Our sources report that the first four or five to be tackled will include the hard-core Neve Dekalim and the southern cluster of Gush Katif.