Israel Report

July 2001         

Iron Fists in Cotton Wool

18 July 2001: The Palestinian-Israel conflict escalated sharply last night in a new and chilling way: For the first time in the ten-month confrontation, Jerusalem took its place alongside three other world capitals under mortar fire, the Macedonian capital of Skopje, the Chechen capital Grozni and, occasionally, Tehran.

In Macedonia, a ragtag army of Moslem Albanians and the "Atlantic Brigade" of international irregulars, has been battering with mortars the Balkan capital for three weeks; in Grozni, an assortment of radical Islamic militant groups from time to time directs mortar fire against pro-Russian government offices and Russian units and, in Tehran, the underground Mujeheddin Khalq hits Iranian government defense, military and intelligence installations with mortar shells now and again.

The mortar bombers in all four cases are Moslem of one stripe or another.

Jerusalem's ascent to the world league of mortar targets did not happen overnight. It was predestined by a long line of policy-makers. Yizhak Shamir, Likud, was the first Israeli prime minister to commit Israel to military restraint when Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan in 1991. That forced the first major detent in the country's deterrent ability. The late Yizhak Rabin signed the 1993 Oslo Accords two years later leading to fresh waves of terrorist strikes, after which Shimon Peres who, as prime minister after Rabin's assassination, coined the memorable slogan "victims of peace" for the casualties of the series of buses exploded by Palestinians. (An earlier Peres coinage, "The Good Fence" dates from the seventies, when Israeli troops first established a presence in South Lebanon.).

Later, in 1996, Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu allowed Hebron to be partitioned without care for the defense of the Jewish suburbs.

He also handed over Solomon's Stables underneath Temple Mount to the Israeli Islamic movement, which has since spread out under the shrine's surface to create the largest mosque in the Middle East. That project finally cemented the affinity between Israeli Arabs and the Palestinian entity.

He was succeeded by Labor leader Ehud Barak who can never escape his responsibility for leading the country head-on into the intifada.

Ariel Sharon's role in this conflict is still unclear. The more he follows in the footsteps of his predecessors in allowing Yasser Arafat to make the rules, the more he finds himself squeezed into a corner with diminishing options for combating mounting perils.

DEBKAfile political analysts stress that the timing of the mortars falling on Jerusalem Tuesday was set by the Palestinian leader out of considerations that had nothing to do with Israeli's hit against a top Hamas bomber squad in Jerusalem Tuesday. That was a convenient handle for Palestinian propaganda. The mortars should more properly be linked to the Genoa summit of the eight industrialized nations in Genoa on Saturday, July 21.

Yasser Arafat, who keeps a weather eye open for these opportunities, used mortars to focus the eight richest and most powerful men in the world on the fate of the Palestinians, not the fate of the world. Dropping 60mm mortars on Jerusalem was the opening shot of what is likely to be a five-day campaign of violence, especially designed to capture world attention.

And what better way than to regionalize the conflict?

Judging from his previous record, Arafat will raise the stakes, bombard Israel with bombs, suicides, shells and bullets on both sides of the Green Line. According to the intelligence reaching Israel, Iraq and the Hizballah are preparing to use this moment for a limited entry to the fray, possibly by launching missiles.

Arafat is out to prove that peace will never be restored to the Middle East and the world at large until he gets his way and the Palestinian dispute with Israel becomes international. His next step will be to wrest from Israel all the lands the Arabs lost by going to war in 1948 and 1967 - in reverse order. In the end, he plans to roll the map back so as to wipe out two major Arab defeats.

Tuesday, July 17, Iraqi warplanes were sighted on an unusually western flight path, maneuvering for four hours over the Iraqi-Jordanian frontier region, to the accompaniment of a saber-rattling speech by Saddam Hussein, in which he called on the Arabs the world over to rise up and fight Israel alongside the Palestinians.

In advance of the expected Palestinian onslaught with potential outside support, Israel Tuesday night concentrated substantially beefed up tank and armored infantry units around the Palestinian West Bank towns of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Tulkarm and Nablus, iron fists ready for the worst. Only no sooner were the fists in place when the policy-makers wrapped them round in cotton wool.

Wednesday, July 18, an urgent consultation in the defense minister's office in Tel Aviv among national military and security chiefs ended up deciding that having the tank and armored forces sitting where they were was enough of a deterrent for the time being. There was no need to for Israel to initiate action.

Sharon and Ben-Eliezer, in other words, are again leaving the initiative to Arafat.

And Arafat makes no secret of his hostile intentions. They have already let him get away with placing Israeli cities under siege, harassing its highway traffic, crippling its economy and playing cat and mouse with its army.

But no country can be expected to accept mortar attacks on its capital lying down. That was the limit even for little Macedonia – but not for Israel. Israel' s mighty army is still a tethered giant even in the face of this rising menace.

Arafat is fond of claiming he caused the downfall of three Israeli prime ministers, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. He asserts he has the power to do the same for Ariel Sharon.

©2001 - Debkafile

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