On Friday, May 18, Israel sent F-16 bomber aircraft over Palestinian towns for the first time since the Palestinian uprising erupted eight months ago. In two nocturnal waves, the bombers and gunships swooped down on Nablus, Ramallah, Gaza and Tulkarm, in retaliation for the suicide bombing which earlier that day killed 5 Israelis and injured 96 in Netanya's central shopping mall. Since 9 bombs either went off or were discovered in time in this Mediterranean town, family shoppers have felt safer doing their Friday shopping in the closed mall, where every gate is manned by security guards, than in the open-air market.
The suicide bomber, in fact, detonated the charge strapped to his body after being turned away by a guard who smelled a rat - else the casualty count would have been higher.
Saturday morning, the fighter jets and helicopters went into action for the second day running, for another strike at Tulkarm as well as Jenin, both on the West Bank. Tulkarm suffered 30 casualties; in Jenin, buildings were damaged and the electricity network knocked out.
DEBKAfile's military analysts, examining the reasons for Israel's injection of jet fighters into its battle with the Palestinians, suggest that, unlike helicopters, the jets can reach altitudes outside the range of anti-air missiles the Palestinians are known to have acquired.
But most of all, according to DEBKAfile's military sources, Israel's generals were impelled to radically step up their counter-action by Arafat's deliberate disclosure of the operational coalition he has set up with Islamic radical groups - the Palestinian Hamas, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Jordanian Moslem Brotherhood - as well as the Lebanese Command of Syrian Intelligence.
The Netanya bombing occurred at 11.20 a.m. Friday. Exactly one hour, ten minutes later, the Hizballah's south Beirut TV station named the bomber, a Hamas member called Mahmoud Ahmed Marmash from Tulkarm.
Never since Palestinian terror operations were launched against Israel has the name of a terrorist been released first by the Hizballah station across the border. It was delivered, moreover in a tone of triumphant defiance. A quarter of an hour later, a large Hamas rally formed up in the center of the West Bank town of Ramallah and, under the eye of the Palestinian police, began calling "Death to the Jews!"
The rally was not spontaneous; its organizers, the Islamic Hamas and the local Tanzim militia were at work in concert two hours before the bombing in Netanya!
This series of actions announced plainly to the Israelis and the Americans that Arafat is all set for a fresh escalation with two active partners, the Hamas and the Hizballah, by his side. Backing up this message, Israeli intelligence reported to prime minister Ariel Sharon and the defense minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, on a private meeting Arafat held in his office on Thursday, May 17, the day before the Netanya outrage, with leaders of West Bank and Gaza Strip groups, principally the Hamas and the Jihad Islami. He announced that from that moment, the Islamic groups shared a unity of purpose and common ranks with his own Fatah and Tanzim and they would fight the Zionist enemy shoulder to shoulder. He accordingly lifted all the restrictions formerly imposed on their operations.
Within hours of that meeting, on Thursday, Hamas and Jihad Islami leaders were on TV screens calling on their partisans to kill Israeli children to prevent them growing up to be soldiers.
The step-by-step buildup to the attack in Netanya was taken by Israeli leaders as an arrogant provocation reflecting the Palestinian leader's fearless and utter certainty that he was on the way to victory. They decided not to let him get away with it. The F-16 jets were lofted to fracture that arrogance. DEBKAfile's military analysts, while granting that the decision was effective in the short term - especially as a morale booster at home - question its overall efficacy.