They Grapple for Footholds in Gaza Strip and S. Lebanon
Two Palestinians were reported killed Sunday, August 29 in an exchange of fire at the South Lebanese Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp near the Mediterranean town of Sidon. The clash between gunmen of Yasser Arafat‘s Fatah and a local radical Islamic group, a-Sabaath al-Nasr, erupted when the Muslim extremists fired at a Fatah demonstration in the camp’s main street in support of the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources reveal there was much more to the episode that a small-time fight.
In the first place, the gunmen were not members of Sabaath al-Nasr, but officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who have taken up positions in the Palestinian camp with the help of the Tehran-backed Lebanese terrorist group, Hizballah. Only later was Sabaath ordered to join in. Their targets were indeed the Fatah officers on their way to the solidarity rally.
Furthermore, on the same day, in another part of the Ein al-Hilweh camp, our sources find an al Qaeda cell from Sidon ambushing Colonel Abdul Ayjar Jaafar, the camp’s senior Fatah officer in charge of its internal security, in an attempt to assassinate him. Jaafar was only slightly hurt, but the attack posed a blunt challenge to Arafat who regards Ein al-Hilweh as his main power center in Lebanon.
Home to more than 60,000 Palestinians, the camp boasts a force of some 5,000 Fatah fighting men, a number that can be doubled by rapid call-ups in an emergency. Arafat has invested heavily in setting up and arming this force with up-to-date weaponry and is now boosting its command structure in the camp. Some of the Fatah’s best officers serve there under the command of Colonel Sultan Abu al-Einan.
For the last 35 years, the Lebanese army has given Ein Hilweh’s murky alleys a wide berth, allowing the camp to function as a semi-autonomous enclave in Lebanon. It is of paramount importance for Arafat to maintain a first-rate military force in Lebanon with equipment as good as or superior to the Lebanese Army and the Hizballah, both for the sake of having a military base under his control in South Lebanon and as a source of legitimacy for the Palestinian refugees’ claim to recover the homes they abandoned in 1948 in Haifa, Safed, Acre and Jaffa. No Palestinian, much less Arafat, contemplates relinquishing this claim in any negotiated peace with Israel.
Attempted grab of Lebanese coastal camp
But for now, Arafat faces a more immediate headache at Ein al-Hilweh.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources, Abu al-Einan earlier this month sent him an urgent message reporting a high-powered recruitment drive al Qaeda and Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen were running in the camp. Defecting Fatah militiamen were being offered $500 a month; there were so many takers, he said, that pretty soon the al Qaeda-Revolutionary Guards militia would equal the Fatah force in strength.
In mid-August, seeing his men slipping away to a new power with covetous eyes on the strategic Mediterranean location, Arafat fought back with an order to the Fatah Ein al-Hilweh command to block entry to the camp by Iranian and al Qaeda operatives, by force if necessary.
This was no easy decision, given Hizballah’s long record of assistance to the Palestinian war against Israel. Six months before its launch in September 2000, Arafat imported Hizballah instructors to train Fatah activists on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the use of weapons and explosives and in urban combat. It was from the Lebanese terrorists that the Palestinians obtained the technology for building the Qassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip against Israeli towns.
During Israel’s April 2002 Defensive Shield operation against Palestinian West Bank strongholds, Israeli forces wiped out the two main Hizballah bases – in Jenin and Hebron. But in the Gaza Strip, the Lebanese Shiite terror cells have not been touched. There, Hizballah operates in conjunction with the Palestinian Preventive Security Service headed by Rashid Abu Shbak, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees in the south.
However, the Hizballah infiltration of Palestinian organizations in this Mediterranean coastal strip of land is steadily expanding with a constant inflow of smuggled manpower by sea or northern Sinai. Some intelligence assessments estimate that 200 to 250 Hizballah operatives are now based in the Gaza Strip.
Interspersed with them, according to our counter-terrorism sources, are 10 to 15 al Qaeda undercover agents, working in the guise of members of Hizballah’s security apparatus. Israeli intelligence knows about their presence but keeps it under wraps to avoid alarming the public.
The first al Qaeda cells filtered into the Gaza Strip and West Bank in late 2002, early 2003, intermingled with Hizballah detachments from Lebanon. Arafat opened the door to them hoping to light a fire under Palestinian suicide bombers, improve their performance and boost morale. He still believed that a determined terror onslaught would break Israel’s spirit.
Hizballah taught the Palestinians more advanced terrorist techniques, sent them more powerful explosives than they were using, by sea, through smuggling tunnels from Egyptian Sinai to Rafah in southern Gaza and through routes set up by Syrian military intelligence across the Golan border.
Buying Fatah bombers for hard cash
Still more importantly, the way was opened for the Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah to offer incentives for suicide bombings. Payment for a “quality” suicide bombing – causing heavy Israeli casualties – was as high as $50,000 at the peak of the campaign of carnage.
So when Arafat ordered Abu al-Einan to clamp restrictions on Hizballah and al Qaeda in the largest Palestinian refugee camp of Lebanon, he was contradicting the four-year old policy he had pursued in relation to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, he now sees prospects of the ground being stolen from under him by his own allies-in-terror.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report al Qaeda decided to liquidate Jaafar because he was Arafat’s instrument for rooting its cells out of Ein al-Hilweh. His murder would have forced Arafat to realize he was no longer sole master of the Palestinian camp. The Iranians and bin Laden’s men felt they could afford this showdown because they were now ready and able to seize control of large sections of the camp.
If they come out ahead, al Qaeda and an official Iranian body will have set up their first regular military base in South Lebanon.
This chain of events is interlinked with an episode four days earlier in the Gaza Strip that closely resembled the attempt on the life of Ein Hilweh Fatah commandant Colonel Jaafar.
On Wednesday, August 25, Palestinian gunmen ambushed Brigadier General Tareq Abu Rajab, deputy head of the Palestinian General Intelligence, as he drove in convoy to his office in Gaza City. He too survived, although he took two bullets in the chest and two of his bodyguards were killed.
Mindful of the chaotic conditions prevailing in the Gaza Strip, Rajab’s boss, General Intelligence chief Amin al-Hindi, appealed to Israel to admit his deputy to Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital and post a guard on his door. He expected the killers to come for another try.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report exclusively that what really alarmed al-Hindi was the discovery that the assassins were Palestinians Hizballah members acting on orders from the Lebanese group’s officers, who are stationed permanently in the Gaza Strip; their instructions undoubtedly came from much higher up in Beirut and possibly Tehran. (See HOT POINTS) Hindi was scared enough to ask Arafat for permission to turn to Israeli for help.
This was the first time Hezbollah forces on Palestinian Authority soil had attacked a Palestinian military-intelligence target. The Gaza Strip message to Arafat was identical to the warning he received in Ein al-Hilweh. The same covetous hands are ready to exploit the mayhem on the Gaza Strip to acquire a second highly-strategic foothold on the Mediterranean coast.
Hizballah certainly also had a hand on the double suicide bombings that killed 16 Israelis on two crowded buses in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, Tuesday, August 3, if only as trainers of the two Palestinian bombers from Hebron.