In the coming week, the protagonists in the current Middle East crisis will race against time to bring matters to a head before US secretary of state Colin Powell arrives on his new mission on behalf of President George W. Bush. The Israelis, the Palestinians, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Hizballah, will all try to establish their mastery of the situation. Israel will do its best to stay in step with Washington, while all the other parties do what they can to defeat US goals and Powell’s mission.
The events in store in the days to come fall under four headings:
A. The war activity on two primary fronts: West Bank cities and the Israel-Lebanese frontier;
B. The campaign of terror pursued by the Palestinians and their Arab allies, principally the Hizballah and al Qaeda;
C. The undercover war waged around the Middle East
D. The slide towards a comprehensive regional eruption
IDF Counter-Terror Operation Chokes off Palestinian Terror – For the Moment
Israel’s tanks, infantry, special forces and air units have in ten days retaken the West Bank and gained control of major portions of its seven main towns: Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron. The Palestinian Authority has virtually buckled as a ruling entity, while its security organs’ command centers, communications, logistics and supply systems have been disabled.
The Palestinian terrorist mechanisms – the Fatah-Tanzim, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Hamas and Jihad Islami – are seriously impaired; scores of senior terror commanders have been killed and 2000 terrorists and their officers captured. The logistics and manufacturing facilities that turned out and distributed hundreds of suicide bomb belts and booby-trapped vehicles, mortars and rockets, have been wiped out, as have the Palestinian presses that turned out many millions of counterfeit US dollars and Israeli shekels for funding terror operations.
Above all, Israel has isolated Yasser Arafat, locking him away with some of his key security and terror chiefs in his narrow private quarters in Ramallah. This command structure is therefore cut off from its lines of communication with the terrorist and military units on the ground.
The initial result is dramatic: eight consecutive days without terrorist attacks, after a month of daily suicide bombings – though this is not for want of trying. The last time the terrorists struck was Sunday, March 31, when a suicide bomber blew up an Israeli Arab restaurant in Haifa and a second destroyed the Efrat first aid station south of Bethlehem.
But it is not over yet. Data gathered by debkafile‘s military sources show that Arafat anticipated the crippling effect Israel’s counter-offensive would have on his suicide campaign. He made standby arrangements that he can activate notwithstanding Israel’s military presence in all the West Bank cities.
His determination to do so was stiffened by the words he heard from President Bush Saturday, April 6, at his joint news conference with British prime minister Tony Blair. The president accused Arafat of failing in leadership, not performing and never living up to the promises he made in Oslo. Bush added he expects Israel to quit Palestinian cities “without delay”, following which Ariel Sharon called the president to assure him Israel means to complete its operation as quickly as possible. However, Powell made it clear he has no plans to call on the Palestinian leader in the course of his mission.
Arafat will now go all-out to prove to Bush, as well as to the Israelis, that he cannot be pushed aside.
His tools for achieving this were assembled in good time.
Israeli military intelligence, the CIA and other Israeli and US counter-terrorism agencies have discovered, according to debkafile‘s military sources, that the six major terrorist attacks rocking Israeli Mediterranean coastal cities in March (Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya and Ashdod) had a hidden purpose, besides killing a large number of Israelis. They diverted attention from the rubber dinghies dropping al Qaeda and Hizballah terror squads, interspersed with Palestinians, along Israeli beaches.
The discovery was confirmed in the final reports of the investigations into the two last Netanya attacks: the assault at the JeremyHotel on March 9 and the Passover Seder massacre at the seaside resort’s Park Hotel, 18 days later.
After both attacks, black dinghies were found buried on the sandy beach, prompting wide-scale searches up and down the Israeli coast from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Ashkelon in the south.
Ten dinghies turned up in at least three locations: five in Netanya; the rest in nearby Michmoret and Caesarea. Each dinghy can carry eight to 10 commandos with their weapons and gear. Tracks in the sand showed that each toted a heavy pack weighing 40 to 70 kilos (90 to 155 lb), suggesting large explosive charges or heavy weapons, such as missiles.
The last landing appears to have taken place under cover of the suicide attack on the Allenby Street cafe in Tel Aviv Saturday night, March 30.
For most of Sunday, March 31, Israeli security forces closed the old Tel Aviv-Haifa highway along a 70-mile (110-km) stretch – from the Petach Tikva junction just north of Tel Aviv to the southern entrances of Haifa. The public notice to frustrated motorists and commuters explained the measure as due to the incursion of Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank. The al Qaeda-Hizballah infiltration from the opposite direction, the Mediterranean, was not released.
Intelligence agencies and Israeli troops operating in Palestinian areas this week are actively seeking these intruders before they can be activated.
In West Bank, Israel Tests New Methods and Weapons Systems for Capturing Arab Towns
Israel’s counter-terror operation in the West Bank is on a scale that the Middle East has not seen for many years. An extended division has been fielded – roughly equal to two regular Western divisions. The massive deployment of tank and armored infantry units under the cover of warplanes also turns out to be a large-scale experiment in sophisticated combat means for rapidly capturing Arab cities. debkafile‘s military sources disclose that US special force observers were almost certainly present in some of the battle arenas. Lessons drawn from the US-led Afghanistan War appear to be undergoing tests in practice, together with advanced weapons systems developed especially for incursions into densely populated urban areas.
The differences between the two conflicts are also manifest. Whereas the Taliban and al Qaeda effected tactical withdrawals in the manner of organized armies, the Palestinian forces are falling apart. The Israeli army is therefore confronted with piecemeal combat against small bands of terrorists, a complicated and unpredictable challenge for regular combatants.
In the post-1993 Oslo period, the IDF was often described as past its peak. This week, barring a few initial slip-ups, the reserve units, which are the backbone of the IDF, proved themselves capable of deploying at high speed and functioning effectively in battle.
The call-up turnout was above 96 percent in most units – much higher than forecast; it took the new intake less than 24 hours to receive instruction, collect equipment and join their units, although many had not seen the inside of an army base for years. Morale was unexpectedly high – even among the many over-40s called away from families, jobs and businesses, with little advance warning. In short order, the units began operating smoothly.
This has been an eye-opener with profound socio-political implications. The typical 35-45 year-old Israeli city-dweller is often dismissed as a fairly self-absorbed, anti-social axe-grinder. The military operation to root out Palestinian terror has brought forth an unsuspected body of men eager to fight for what they regard as the defense of their homes.
Syria and Iran-Backed Hizballah Open Second Front
Syrian units, Hizballah and other terror bases in Lebanon may very soon expect to find themselves in Israel’s firing line.
One of Israel’s primary targets will be the 20,000-strong Syrian occupation army in Lebanon; another, the 8,000 to 10,000 Hizballah guerrillas – Iran’s proxy terror legion, and a third, units of the Iranian Pazdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, among them some 300 military commanders and instructors attached to the Shiite group.
In recent weeks, Tehran has shipped to the Hizballah more than 6,000 new missiles and rockets of various types. Aided by Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen, the Shiite group has lined them up in central and southern Lebanon, ready to hit targets as far south as the outskirts of the central Israeli town of Hadera.
Israel will first and foremost de-activate the Syrian bases in Lebanon – especially the installations in the eastern BeqaaValley – and smash Hizballah missile and Katyusha rocket bases that target Israel regularly from southern and central Lebanon. The attacking force will also take the opportunity of wiping out Hizballah and Iranian military bases in the BeqaaValley.
Another potential target is the headquarters, docks and landing strips of Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, a hardline group controlled by Syrian military intelligence. Israeli forces will also seek out Palestinian camps in south Lebanon that, according to US and Israeli intelligence, harbor al Qaeda fighters.
debkafile‘s military sources expect Israel, in the first instance, to emulate the American war model in Afghanistan, and employ crushing might. Syrian targets will be subjected to an aerial blitz and Lebanon will for the first time experience a surface-surface missile assault, as well as artillery and ship-launched missile barrages.
Different tactics will be employed just across the border in south Lebanon. There, large armored columns and mobile artillery will cross in to destroy Hizballah rocket emplacements.
On the diplomatic front, Sharon made sure of White House approval before finalizing his war plan for the Hizballah and its patrons, just as he did with his campaign against Palestinian terrorist strongholds. debkafile‘s military sources say the prime minister got the green light last week, whereupon the army began calling up reservists and concentrating large-scale forces on the Lebanese border and the Golan Heights, which is divided between Syria and Israel.
debkafile‘s military sources point out that the showdown between Syria and Israel began on March 12, when Israeli intelligence discovered that the large-scale terror strike on the Matsuba-Kabri highway in Galilee, in which 7 Israelis died, was masterminded by Syrian military intelligence fielding a combined Jibril-Hizballah-al Qaeda team.
Twelve days later, on March 24, a mysterious series of explosions destroyed Syria’s subterranean missile and chemical weapons installation in Homs. The facility produced Scud C and Scud D missiles, liquid and solid fuels, and was the largest factory in the Arab world for chemical warheads, beginning production in the 1970s with assistance from Egypt.
North Korean missiles experts were among the roughly 100 engineers and technicians killed in the blast
debkafile‘s military sources report that Syria suspects an Israeli commando unit sabotaged the plant in revenge for the Galilee highway terror attack. Another theory is that it was the work of American special forces units based on a US Sixth Fleet Mediterranean carrier, carried out to punish Syrian president Bashar Assad for affording al Qaeda operatives free transit through Syria.
Whoever did the job, it struck a central nerve in Damascus. Syria is left facing a potential war minus the bulk of its missile stocks and without the fuel for launching the remainder. A key strategic resource has been wiped out.
At the same time, since August 2001, Syria and Iraq have been bound by secret military pacts, as debkafile revealed two months after they were signed. Those pacts assure the signatories of mutual assistance if the other comes under attack.
Therefore a potential military clash between Israel and Syria in Lebanon, and possible strikes against strategic targets inside Syria. may well bring about Iraqi intervention.
This eventuality obliges the Bush administration to think hard about bringing forward its strike against Iraq.