On Friday night, November 10, at 7:35 p.m. Israel time (12:35 p.m. EST), an unknown number of gunmen directed a heavy hail of bullets at Israeli army and border police contingents escorting Jewish worshippers returning on foot to Kiryat Arba, after they had prayed at Hebron’s Tombs of the Patriarchs. It soon transpired that the assailants were attacking Israeli security personnel – not Jewish worshippers. A few minutes earlier, some 300 dancing, singing teenagers had gone past the same spot. A single burst of fire would have cut down dozens, but the assailants held back until the Israeli border police came into their sights.
The gunfire brought officers and soldiers of the Hebron Brigade which secures the district rushing to the aid of the victims. They were cut down in their turn. Kiryat Arba’s emergency response team (the Israeli version of the American National Guard) then rushed to the rescue and ran into the same ambush.
As the casualties piled up and reinforcements poured in, Palestinian gunfire intensified and the assailants grew bolder.
An officer who took part in the battle said the barrage the attackers laid down was the heaviest he had encountered since the bloody April 9 battle in Jenin refugee camp, where 13 Israeli soldiers were killed. When the smoke cleared over the killing-ground, 12 members of the security forces were found dead – the highest Israeli military casualty toll since Jenin. Among the fatalities was Colonel Doron Weinberg, commander of the Hebron Brigade and the highest-ranking Israeli officer to die in the more than two years of the Palestinian confrontation.
The Israeli counter-attack and pursuit of the gunmen yielded three bodies. They were clearly only a fragment of the Palestinian assault team, the rest of whom had got away. The ballistic evidence at the scene pointed to at least eight gunmen. The Islamic Jihad, which is run by Syrian military intelligence and a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards from its Damascus headquarters, claimed responsibility for the attack.
But intelligence reports reaching Washington and Jerusalem tell a different story.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources, the Hebron ambush was orchestrated by Iraqi military intelligence and executed by a sleeper cell of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezballah buried in the student body at the Muslim Polytechnic Institute in Hebron. Aside from Israeli targets, this cell was briefed for an operation that would convey a message of menace from Baghdad to Washington. The message was that US commandos undergoing urban warfare training in Israel for combat in Iraqi cities should steel themselves for heavy casualties. The battles to capture Saddam’s bastions, Baghdad and Tikrit, for which the US troops were preparing parachute drops, would draw them into bloody and protracted warfare.
The Hebron ambush was designed to undermine US combat morale by demonstrating the fallibility of foreign troops fighting in the streets of Arab cities. Even the Israelis, with their experience of urban warfare and military supremacy over the Palestinians, were badly bloodied in ambushes staged in narrow city alleyways.
According to this intelligence information, Iraqi military intelligence officers pre-planned the Hebron attack for months, training the gunmen and laying in vast amounts of ammunition. The Iraqi officers are lodged in the West Bank town of Nablus, at the headquarters of Colonel Tawfik Tirawi, commander of the Fatah’s suicide arm, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The Iraqi undercover agents worked closely with the senior Hezballah terrorist commander in Hebron, a Canadian Shiite named Fawzi Ayoub (more about whom in HOT POINTS below), and assumed control of his network when he fell into Israeli hands last July.
The Hebron battle was the first joint military operation mounted by Iraq, Hizballah and the Palestinians. They expanded their ties of cooperation especially for a terrorist action calculated to convey a powerful military threat to Washington via a bloody assault on Israel.
It would not be the first time Iraq used Israel in this way. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources recall the battle in the Jenin refugee camp as the stage for clandestine Hizballah operatives to spearhead the Palestinian warfront, exacting a heavy toll of Israeli military forces. After that confrontation, US special forces assigned to the invasion of Baghdad and Tikrit revised their training and operational programs in consultation with Israeli military planners, who staged a re-enactment of the Jenin battle for their benefit.
Those plans are likely to be revised again once the lessons of the Hebron ambush are studied.