Palestinian Terrorists Trample Sharm Ceasefire
Not 48 hours after Israeli and Palestinian leaders solemnly united in Sharm el Sheikh on a reciprocal ceasefire, a powerful coalition of Palestinian terrorist groups made a mockery of the occasion by two swift strikes. Their contempt was directed not only at their own elected leader Abu Mazen and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, but also at Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah who endorsed the ceasefire and the meeting.
Early Thursday, February 10, Hamas mortar crews and Qassam missile launchers unleashed more than 30 rounds against Gush Katif. The barrage that lasted two hours and was continued later left no casualties, but damaged a house. Israeli troops returned the fire. Hamas claimed they were retaliating for the Israeli shooting of a Palestinian. This was but a pretext. He was exposed to Israeli gunfire as part of a group of four Palestinians creeping towards Atzmona in the dark. A second Hamas member died while building a bomb.
In the meantime, Haaretz ran an interview with the Israeli prime minister in which he disclosed that (in addition to the 900 Palestinians prisoners Israel has offered to release) he was willing to consider freeing long-serving prisoners with blood on their hands because he appreciated the supreme importance of this gesture for Mahmoud Abbas. This pledge, in breach of his own promises and the government’s position, was given to Abbas at Sharm el-Sheikh. It was made conditional on Israel being allowed to depart the Gaza Strip in peace.
Later Thursday, Sharon convened his top ministers to discuss the mortar barrage in Gaza as well as the next batch of gestures for the Palestinians, including the release of another several hundred prisoners. That same morning, 2,000 Palestinian workers and businessmen trooped into Israel from Gaza and the first Israeli roadblocks were lifted.
However, during the night, the terrorists struck again. Dozens of armed Hamas-Fatah al Aqsa Brigades- Palestinian Fronts-Popular Resistance Committees gang pre-empted Israel’s prisoner release gesture by storming the Palestinian Authority’s central prison in Gaza City. They murdered three inmates and a policeman and released all their comrades from the PA installation.
This two-stroke offensive created four new facts outside the purlieu of the Sharm talks:
1. That the order of events was to be dictated by the Palestinian terror groups – not Abu Mazen.
2. Whereas in Yasser Arafat’s day Palestinian diplomacy and hostilities were fully synchronized, now the men of violence held the upper hand and they would determine the course of diplomacy.
3. Abu Mazen, Sharon, Mubarak and King Abdullah had better forget about a truce or even the “de facto ceasefire” widely reported in the media. This was war and the operational commanders would decide when the Palestinians would shoot and when they were told to hold their fire.
4. The Middle East Club of Four – the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Palestinian Authority and Israel – established Tuesday, February 8, at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh would not be permitted to engage one another in dialogue without bringing in the Palestinian terrorist organizations. Their exclusion would spawn outbreaks of violence.
debkafile‘s analysts note that, in the space of a few hours, the Palestinian terrorists turned the clock back to 1995, 1996 and 1997, when the Oslo Peace Accords and the subsequent “peace talks” went forward amid the blasts of Israeli buses blown up by Palestinian terrorists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Seeing Gush Katif still under fire and Palestinian security forces unable to regain control of their main prison facility, Israel made haste to brief US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and President Mubarak’s bureau with a request for fast intercession to shore up the crumbling ceasefire.
OC Southern Command General Dan Harel arranged to meet Gen. Mussa Arafat to demand that his Gaza Strip security forces hunt down the escaped terrorists and put them back in prison.
By these two steps, Israel wiped out the single benefit it reaped from the Sharm summit: a direct channel of communications to Arab leaders without outside mediation. The approach to Arafat, aside from its futility, had the effect of exposing the weaknesses of Abu Mazen and Israel alike. The dead Palestinian leader’s nephew is known to be the big boss of the arms smuggling tunnels. According to debkafile‘s counter-terror sources, he works hand in glove with the terrorists and must have been the source of the mortar shells and missiles that rained down on Israeli settlements early Thursday. The approach to him will have extended his leverage, shown Israel up as wanting in the ability or willpower to overpower the terrorists and whetted their appetite for more.
Sharon is tied in knots by a strategic impossibility. He is attempting to reconcile three incompatible elements: his Gaza pullout scheme, the unchecked violence on the ground and his refusal to appreciate Abu Mazen’s ineffectiveness in quelling it.
He cannot have all three. To achieve the first, he will have to face the risks of launching a long overdue large-scale military operation to destroy terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, which should have been pursued last month to cut short the Palestinians Qassam offensive against Sderot. By continuing to wait for “the right moment”, he is prolonging the existing standoff and giving the terrorists a free hand to do their worst.
The Palestinian terrorist groups, for their part, are counting on the Israeli prime minister being tied hand and foot by fear of his fragile partnership with Labor breaking up.