Just Short of War

The Israeli tanks that halted their progress into the West Bank Palestinian hub town of Ramallah early Tuesday just 200 meters short of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters were carrying out their orders with fine precision. They were told to surround, hem in, pin down and ground the Palestinian Authority chairman and strike at the symbols of his authority – but not to touch him. That was the line drawn by US president George W. Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in their White House exchange Sunday, as debkafile reported December 3.
Arafat, whose offices in GazaCity and personal helicopters were hit by Israeli missiles Monday, always feels threatened and exposed in Ramallah, dependent on Israeli permission to leave for Gaza or on his frequent foreign travels. Now, when he looks out of his window, he can see Israeli tanks within striking distance and Israel spy drones watching him overhead. Tuesday morning, Israeli helicopters raided interior ministry headquarters on the same street. The building housed Palestinian police and security service offices.
An Israeli army spokesman denied targeting Arafat in person. “We could have hit his residence and headquarters at any time if we wanted.”
But Palestinian leader was truly trapped after Israeli bulldozers Monday night tore up the runways of Dahaniyeh, Gaza, the only Palestinian airfield, as well as deepening their penetration of the West Bank towns of Nablus and Betunia, occupying a village near Tulkarm and tightening the blockade on all Palestinian locations. Israel has evidently decided that Arafat caged and within full view is less of a menace than Arafat at large.
debkafile‘s intelligence experts point out that Ramallah is a hotbed for every known intelligence agency. Not only Israeli, but Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Saudi, American, French, Belgian, German and British agents – to name just some – make free of this West Bank town. Whereas in Gaza Arafat can operate in the dark, in Ramallah he must live in the full glare of observation.
He will have lost no time in casting about for an escape hatch, given that the Israeli anti-terror offensive is just beginning. The fact that it is fully coordinated with Washington further shrinks his formerly limited options. Deserting his troops at their moment of peril will also require some fast talking.
debkafile, examining Arafat’s escape options, rules out the nearest, Jordan. Israel and Jordan are closely synchronized on the Palestinian question. Jordanian authorities would anyway need Israel’s permission to send over a rescue helicopter for the stranded Palestinian leader. Equally, jumping into an armored limo and heading for Egypt, is out. The route from Ramallah via Israel and Gaza to the Israel-Egyptian frontier post would have to be cleared with Israel too. It is hard to see Arafat bending far enough to apply to Israeli government authorities for such clearance, when only recently he arrogantly sent anyone disapproving of his policies to go and “drink Gaza seawater”.
Escaping in disguise would be just as much of a comedown for the 72-year old Palestinian leader, after he high-handedly summoned the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference into urgent session on the fresh Palestinian crisis.
Before America was shocked into a reassessment of terrorism the September 11, Arafat might have been able to appeal to some Arab governments for sanctuary. While unenthusiastic, they would not have turned away a brother in distress. Since America declared war on terror, Baghdad and Damascus are the only possible options.
By walking into Saddam Hussein’s parlor Arafat would be seen to throws his lot in with a regime branded as terrorist, thereby supporting Israel’s accusations that he is a terrorist at heart. He would also burn his world image for good as a legitimate national leader, even in Europe.
For Iraq he would anyway be a liability, giving America good reason to strike at the Saddam regime. The Iraqi ruler would much rather leave America and the free world to their preoccupations with Palestinian anti-Israel terror and the Afghanistan conflict, leaving him alone.
The situation of the Syrian president Bashar Assad is more complicated. His power base in his army and intelligence is shrinking. He is also suffering from heavy US pressure to rein in the Lebanese Hizballah and the Damascus-based extremist Palestinian Fronts, the Hamas and the Jihad Islami. So far, he has stood up to the pressure, but he cannot hold out much longer without support. Arafat, as Palestinian leader in exile would be that support. As a strongman he would also be a prop for Assad regime. It will not be lost on Assad too that Arafat is a world-class tycoon, richer even than Osama bin Laden. He could easily afford to inject tens of millions of dollars annually into Syria’s dwindling coffers.
Another option not ruled out by debkafile‘s Middle East experts is the Palestinian El Arish community in Egypt’s Sinai desert, according to the following scenario.
To appease his Labor coalition partners, Sharon lets Arafat reach Gaza as a staging-post for moving on across the frontier into Sinai. The Egyptians grind their teeth at Arafat making this corner of Sinai his newest seat of Palestinian military and political action, a lot closer to Gaza than Baghdad or Damascus, but they will not throw him out. From there, he can keep his administration and machinery of terror ticking over against Israel.
During most of Monday night, the Israeli government was locked in debate over the prime minister Ariel’s Sharon’s motion to declare the Palestinian Authority a terror-supporting entity. The motion was carried by a majority of 18 ministers out of 28. Dissenting Laborites, including foreign minister Shimon Peres and defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, walked out before the vote when their demand for a 7-day grace period was outvoted. Peres issued a statement defining the government decision as aimed at destroying the Palestinian Authority. His faction is to meet Wednesday to decide on Labor’s future in the broad coalition government. Its withdrawal would not endanger the Sharon government, leaving it with a comfortable parliamentary majority.
Categorizing the Palestinian Authority as an entity supporting terror is short of a formal declaration of war although the heads of its intelligence, security and police branches are henceforth added to Israel’s list of targets for arrest or assassination. They include the members of Arafat’s closest circle and chiefs of his Fatah Tanzim militia and presidential guard Force 17. This, plus stepped up military operations inside Palestinian-ruled territory will add to the pressure on Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon holds fully responsible for the violence and terror sweeping the country since the onset of his anti-Israel confrontation 14 months ago. Tuesday morning Israeli gunships struck at Palestinian police and internal ministry headquarters near Arafat’s offices.
Israel can reverse its decision if and when the Palestinian Authority effectively reins in the terror. For the moment, Palestinian Authority detentions of more than 100 mostly Hamas militants are viewed as a repeat of past charades, when the detainees were released and terror attacks resumed as soon as the heat was off.
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo denied the Authority dealt in terror, branding the Israeli occupation as the source of terrorism. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb accused Sharon of declaring war. Palestinian officials consistently deny that Arafat bears responsibility for last weekend’s coordinated suicide blasts in Jerusalem and Haifa that left 25 Israelis dead and more than 200 injured. Half of the injured remain in hospital and another six still fighting for their lives.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email