President George W. Bush may have muddled the name of the new Palestinian leader, calling him Abu Amas in a Washington Post interview last weekend, but secretary of state-designate Condoleezza Rice named him correctly as Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, Tuesday, January 18, when she told him he must rein in the men of terror.
“The new Palestinian leadership in word is devoted to fighting terror; it needs to be devoted in deed to fighting terror,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing to consider her nomination. The Bush administration, Rice added, has pressed the Palestinians hard on the issue.
Stephen Hadley, Rice’s replacement as head of the national security council, and Elliot Abrams, chief of its Middle East desk, put in urgent phone calls to Abu Mazen in Ramallah urging him to head out to Gaza and put a stop to the daily firing of Qassam missiles and mortars at Israeli settlements and the southern town of Sderot, near Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch. This, they said, echoing Rice’s words, is a “time of responsibility”.
Under US pressure and Israeli threats of a new military offensive in the Gaza Strip, Abu Mazen got out his motorcade and drove out to the turbulent territory, his personal and political future very much on the line.
Talking to close confidants on his way there, he charted two main goals for his meetings in Gaza with local Palestinian terrorist chiefs:
A. To procure a ceasefire by persuasion.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian sources say he has his work cut out for him: Although both Israel and Abu Mazen have been at pains to impress the world that Hamas alone is behind the assaults and barrages, the fact is that they are the work of a combined front of all the Palestinian terrorist groups, including al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – part of Abu Mazen’s own Fatah movement – and the Popular Resistance Committees. Most of their members also belong to the Palestinian Authority’s own security forces and take home two salaries for two jobs. Aware of this, Washington refrained from pointing the finger at any specific offender.
B. To deploy the 30,000 Palestinian security troops in official uniform – or as many as he can muster – as force for policing the border areas between Gaza and Israel.
Abu Mazen confided to his aides that by achieving this deployment soon after his election, he would show the world he had taken real action to curb terrorism and get the Americans off his back. Should a Palestinian missile or mortar shell nonetheless slam into a crowded Israeli classroom, he, Abu Mazen, could claim that for his part he had made a 100 percent effort to stem the bloodletting.
Terrorist front defiant
But when he arrived in Gaza, the Palestinian leader received a rude reality check. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources, the bad news was delivered by the two men whom he appointed his go-betweens with Hamas and other extremist factions: Saher Basiso, secretary general of the Fatah council, and Col. Samir Mashrawi, deputy chief of the Palestinian preventive security service.
They reported that Hamas and all the other terrorist groups were determined on no account to follow Abu Mazen’s orders.
They raised three points:
1. Hamas will need tougher pressure or incentives, such as a cash payoff, before it can be persuaded to call off its offensive against Israelis.
2. A ploy Abbas had been counting on had no effect. Abbas elicited from senior Palestinian operatives in Israeli jails, led by Marwan Barghouti, and some al Aqsa Brigades chiefs in Jenin pledges to renounce terrorist attacks inside Israel. Those pledges did not resonate in the Gaza Strip as a call to end missile attacks on Sderot, disappointing Abbas’ hopes. One reason for this is that the real commander of al Aqsa Brigades, Nasser Jumaa, told Brigades members to pay no heed to their local commanders’ pledge, dismissing it as a stratagem to facilitate Abu Mazen’s ceasefire efforts in Gaza. The Brigades, he stressed, were committed to resuming routine attacks inside Israel if the truce talks with Hamas broke down.
Aware of its enhanced leverage, Hamas is holding fast to the flat refusal to give up its offensive, fully expecting all the other Palestinian factions to follow its lead.
3. Abbas was also informed that the deployment of Palestinian security forces in terrorist prevention array is chancy at best.
First, there is no way of guaranteeing that their commanders will obey his orders. They also stand to lose income. Many uniformed troops moonlight with Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and other terrorist groups. It is hard to imagine them forcing their comrades or commanders to stop at checkpoints for searches of their car trunks.
Second, even the few Palestinian security men who do obey Abu Mazen may be forced into armed confrontations at these checkpoints with better-armed Hamas or other operatives. Abu Mazen cannot afford the humiliation of seeing his forces outgunned.
Qureia departs for Paris taking security authority with him
Third, although a team from Britain’s MI6 intelligence service has been busy for months setting up a Palestinian rapid deployment force in Gaza, Basiso and Mashrawi informed their boss that it is far from ready for any operational mission. The British team had planned the force to be field-ready by this winter. But the target-complement of 800 men trained for guerrilla and urban warfare is nowhere near being attained. No more than one platoon comprising 180 trained men is ready.
Around 700 members of this force Palestinian commanders assured Israeli generals at their meeting in Erez Wednesday night, January 19, would be posted in the northern Gaza Strip – although only 200 are ready for operational duties – to combat the Qassam missile-launchers – the term “combat” being a euphemism for the verbal persuasion advocated by Abu Mazen.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian and military sources strongly doubt that this inadequate force will stand up to superior Hamas strength.
Fourth, seeking a short cut to results, Basiso and Mashrawi advised Abu Mazen to summon three rival Palestinian commanders to sit down and seek ways to cooperate. They named Rashid Abu Shbak, chief of general security, Gen. Mussa Arafat, Palestinian armed forces commander in Gaza and Gen. Sayid al-Ajas, who commands the Rafah and Khan Younis sectors. This show of unity might impress the heads of the other Palestinian security forces and command their obedience.
But the advice fell on deaf ears. Abu Mazen knows he is playing with low cards against Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie‘s royal flush.
This came about, according to our Palestinian sources, as a result of a power-sharing deal he cut with the prime minister on the eve of the January 9 election. Abbas ceded to Qurie full control of operational and administrative security issues and the appointment and dismissal of security service chiefs. That was Abu Ala’s price for not challenging Abu Mazen at the polls.
So when the going got tough early this week, Qureia made a beeline for foreign shores without advance notice, taking his powers with him. He is reported by our sources to be enjoying a comfortable stay in Paris while at the same time punishing Abbas for vetoing his cabinet line-up. Since all the Palestinian security chiefs are subject to the prime minister’s authority, Abbas is pretty much powerless to force their obedience.
This was brought home humiliatingly by the spectacular attacks Palestinian terrorists staged on January 19, the day he arrived in Gaza for ceasefire talks. One was Hamas’ first suicide bomb attack on Gaza-based agents of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. An agent was killed and eight other Israelis – agents and soldiers – were wounded.