Palestinian Terrorists Reorganize for Escalation under Syrian Aegis

The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation plunged this week into its most violent and potentially crucial stage, with both sides steeling themselves for a military – or possibly political resolution. Momentum built up on a number of tracks – not all immediately visible.
In Damascus, Syrian president Bashar Assad picked up the gauntlets thrown down by the US – congressional legislation for sanctions against his country – and by Israel, whose government spokesman warned that the October 5 air strike near Damascus would not be the last if the Syrians continued to dabble in anti-Israel terrorism.
Far from being deterred, the Syrian ruler called a terror summit to close ranks and launch a fresh onslaught. For the first time, the external Damascus-based head of the Palestinian Jihad Islami, Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, and Hamas chief, Khaled Mashal, came together this week to launch without delay a joint massive campaign of suicide and multi-casualty attacks in Israel. Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah representatives at the unprecedented get-together consecrated the new coalition.
It was Assad’s way of showing contempt for Washington and stressing his commitment not only to keep up the flow of anti-American fighters through his country into Iraq, but to top it up with parallel incursions of terrorists into Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas.
The new Hamas-Jihad Islami alliance is of more than passing importance. While both Palestinian fundamentalist groups are regarded as extremist, there are important differences. Jihad is largely composed of former Hamas defectors who moved over for personal, conceptual or tactical reasons. Up until the Damascus “terror summit, the Jihad was the less extremist of the two and closer to the Fatah. Its acceptance of Syrian patronage has three epic consequences:
1. The group has distanced itself from the influence of Fatah, including its political wing, and made common cause with the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hizballah, thereby fortifying the Syrian terror machine and offering reinforcements to Yasser Arafat’s suicidal al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.
Iran which bankrolls the Jihad Islami fully endorses the group’s new orientation.
2. The German-mediated Hizballah-Israel prisoner exchange deal is off. Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah has lost interest in the recovery of Arab prisoners in return for the kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenboim and the bodies of four abducted Israeli soldiers. With the confrontation heating up and a bruising row at home over the prisoner issue, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon may also not be too sorry about the holdup.
3. Israel’s air blitz over the Gaza Strip Monday, in which at least 14 Palestinians were killed and several score were injured, including non-combatants, was a stop-start exercise. The Israeli air force synchronized its strikes against Hamas terrorist chiefs and strategic locations to match the deliberations at the Damascus terror summit. The raids halted when the discussions broke for an interval and were resumed when the session reconvened.
The bombardment invited Assad to observe the fate of Gaza City and told him that Damascus was not immune to more of the same should the meeting he instigated at a location on the outskirts of his capital produce a new wave of terror against Israel.
Arafat’s Terror Front
On Monday, October 20, the Americans gave the Palestinians a 48-hour deadline to come up with information for advancing their investigation into the remote-controlled bomb attack in the northern Gaza Strip Beit Hanoun district on October 15, in which three US security agents lost their lives. That time limit was also a temporary damper on Arafat’s campaign of terror. debkafile‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources report that Monday’s meeting between the US investigators and Palestinian security officials at Beit Hanoun got exactly nowhere.
The Palestinians continued to insist the attack was the work of Arab or unrecognized Palestinian bodies controlled from overseas, such as the Arab Liberation Front that Saddam Hussein once ran from Baghdad. They claimed that, of the nine suspects in their custody, three were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and six belonged to the Popular Resistance Committees ruled by the Sema Dana smugglers of Rafah.
Palestinian interrogators claimed they had found nothing to shed light on how the bombing was rigged or by whom. They refused to permit the Americans to question or even see the suspects.
After hearing the Palestinians out, the US agents accused them of leading the investigation down a blind alley and gave them 48 hours to come up with solid data for their next meeting Thursday.
This 48-hour deadline was addressed indirectly to Arafat on whose goodwill the Americans know the progress of their probe depends, rather than on Palestinian security command center in Gaza.
According to debkafile‘s Palestinian sources, Arafat has not yet made up his mind how to handle the virtual ultimatum or what the US agents will be told on Thursday. To appease Washington, he appears to be cooling his terrorist campaign temporarily, much satisfied with having pulled off two major operations, the murders of three US agents and three Israeli members of the crack Duchifat special forces unit.
Informal Palestinian mission to Washington
In the midst of this whirlpool of bloodshed, intrigue and disinformation, a group of Palestinians regarded as the young generation of the Fatah movement and Arafat’s would-be successors was invited to Washington. Monday, October 20, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East David Satterfield and former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross received Palestinian legislative council member Hatem Abdel-Qader, Quaddoura Fares and Ahmed Ghneim.
What they certainly did not discuss was the “Geneva understandings” initiated by Israeli opposition left-wingers. Their talking point, according to debkafile‘s Washington sources, was a Palestinian proposal of an unannounced Palestinian-Israeli truce to be achieved in stages with the backing of American guarantees. The thinking behind this proposal is that terrorist attacks as the key element in Arafat’s strategic toolbox cannot be completely eliminated, only reduced. On the other hand, the Palestinian group wants the US and Israel to stop calling for total dismantlement of terrorist organizations against a Palestinians promise to deal with truce violators. For example, Palestinian security will not touch a known Hamas arms dump in the Gaza Strip unless it becomes the source of weapons for terror attacks.
The Palestinians also promise to continue reforming the Palestinian authority according to the program begun by the Abu Mazen government, especially the changes made by the US-backed finance minister Salim Fayyad. The bulk of those reforms aimed at restricting Arafat’s authority and segregating him from the reins of power.
The American guarantees the Palestinians seek are to secure them against military initiatives by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz.
The Palestinian trio told Satterfield that a stable ceasefire on these lines might persuade the Hamas to join. For the present, the Hamas will not be part of any sort of truce initiative. However, they might make the gesture of handing over stores of Qassam missiles as a token of tacit acceptance of an undeclared ceasefire.
The Washington dialogue continues.
Following debkafile‘s disclosure Monday, October 20, of the flight of the top Palestinian soldier, General Yousuf Nasser to Europe, our Palestinian sources now reveal that a few days ago, Abu Mazen’s internal security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, also secretly decamped from the Gaza Strip for Cairo along with his family and close associates. Both Palestinian leaders were anxious to create a distance between themselves and the perils in store in Ramallah and Gaza.

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