Israel saves "moderate" Fatah terrorists - showdown with Hamas -Al Qaeda may be imminent
June 16, 2007
June 17, 2007
After Hamas's bloody triumph, showdown with Israel looms
padding-top-5 padding-bottom-15">The Palestinian civil war is about to become a wider conflictUzi Mahnaimi
THROUGH the heat haze, the sounds of shots and screams carried to the desperate men holed up inside a great white building in Gaza City.
This was the American-built headquarters of the Office of General Security, a "moderate" Palestinian intelligence service charged with tracking and curbing the activities of Hamas extremists in an attempt to bring stability to Gaza and pave the way to peace.
Sweating, terrified, gabbling into their dying mobile phones to the outside world, the hunters were now the besieged.
Nearby, neighbours cowered in their high-rise flats overlooking the deceptive calm of the Mediterranean. They cringed at the din of mortar shells and blasts of machinegun fire. They could tell, after years of grim experience, that these were not the usual amateurish volleys let off by teenage gunmen. It was regular, disciplined shooting.
A meticulous plan, drawn up by Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, with tactical guidance from their Iranian mentors, was being put into action, and to devastating effect.
It was designed to defeat, once and for all, Fatah, the secular Palestinian nationalist party that talked peace with Israel. And it worked with lightning speed in a fratricidal three-day war in which at least 116 people died.
Inside the security headquarters, Abu Fadi, a Fatah intelligence officer, could hear what was happening to his colleagues. Their masked attackers had sprinted in, heedless of casualties. Their doors had been kicked down and they had been dragged outside, their arms flailing in gestures imploring mercy.
Then the black-masked gunmen bowed their heads to the dust in prayer and separated those of their foes who might live from those about to die.
The victims were killed immediately, some in front of their wives and children, said a Palestinian witness hiding in a building overlooking the scene.
The witness, who gave his name only as Amjad, got on the phone to a local reporter in Gaza and told him: "They are executing them one by one."
As he watched, he described what was happening. "They are carrying one of them on their shoulders . . . putting him on a sand dune . . . turning him around - and shooting."
The testimony, direct from an Arab source, is crucial to refuting Hamas claims that its fighters killed only in hot blood.
Now those zealots - many just back, armed and trained, from Iran, were at Fadi's door to wreak vengeance on him.
It was when he heard the Hamas battle cry - Allahu akbar! (God is the greatest!) - that Fadi realised it was all over. He grabbed his service handgun and escaped through a secret exit door. He ran for his life to the beach. A fisherman's boat was waiting for him.
Not all his colleagues were so lucky. Minutes later the first Hamas hand grenade exploded in Fadi's office. Dozens of fighters, with gleaming new weapons, ran wild through the building.
Amid the chaos, a Hamas man grabbed a laptop computer and ran a name search while the grenades were still exploding. When he found the people he was looking for they were handcuffed and taken away.
Soon after, bursts of AK47 fire were heard. The officials were shot dead at point blank range and thrown into an alley. Several hours later their families found their bodies - some mutilated - in the nearby morgue.
By late on Thursday, the green flag of Hamas flew from the building that had once been visited regularly by liaison officers from MI6 and the CIA.
As dusk fell over the Gaza Strip, its teeming refugee camps and its tenements housing 1.4m Palestinians, Hamas's spokesman, Islam Shahawan, proclaimed: "The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived."
For the Palestinians, the "two-state solution", so often talked of as a solution to their entanglement with Israel, had arrived in brutally unexpected form.
Gaza was always poorer, more radical, more pious and more violent than the West Bank, where Fatah's leader, President Mah-moud Abbas, has taken refuge amid 2m of his people and where Hamas members are being rounded up.
Although both sides still cling to a belief in a single Palestinian state, they are now irredeemably divided by soil and ideology, one pinning its hopes to compromise and peace, the other infused with a mission to conquer Jerusalem, expel the Jews and rejoin the lands of Islam in a holy union.
It was the most significant moment for Palestinians since the death of Yasser Arafat three years ago.
ACROSS the heavily guarded border in Israel, a fighting general who had tried and failed to make peace with Arafat woke up to the news that the Jewish state faced an implacable new reality in the south: Hamastan.
Ehud Barak, 65, is the classic Israeli man of action turned politician. After years in the wilderness - after his own unpopular spell as prime minister - he had just taken back the helm of Israel's Labour party.
It was Friday morning when Barak talked to Ehud Olmert, the Kadima prime minister. They agreed the crisis in Gaza was so grave that they would rush through his appointment as defence minister in Olmert's coalition government.
Olmert, whose conduct of Israel's fight in Lebanon last summer against another Islamic guerrilla movement, Hezbollah, had been bitterly criticised, needed Barak's support. Morale in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had taken a blow.
The IDF, for all its history of rapid victories over Arab armies, found Hezbollah's martyrdom-seeking fighters hard to defeat.
Now the fragile Lebanese state was beset by Islamic militants and undermined by the hardline regime in Syria. Hezbollah might see an ally and a second front in the south - so there could be worse to come.
Barak, the decorated veteran, and Olmert, the smooth civilian operator, quickly agreed a two-pronged strategy. They would help Abbas with cash and intelligence to shore up his power in the West Bank.
Israel had never wanted to get enmeshed in Gaza anyway. It had withdrawn, pulled down its settlements and tried to fence in the problem in 2005.
This could be an opportunity for Israel to divide and bargain, they reasoned. On the other hand, there stood Hamas, exultant, fired with victory and poised on Israel's southern doorstep with its crude rockets, its growing arsenal of weapons from Iran and Syria and a legion of would-be suicide bombers at its command.
Barak, according to close sources, argued that Israel could not avoid a fight. It must go in to shatter the military mystique of the fundamentalists; after that, perhaps, the Israelis could agree to a United Nations peacekeeping force including Arab units.
As Israel's best military brains got to work analysing the flow of information on the uprising - almost every minute of it had been monitored by drones and signals intelligence - there was growing unease.
For not only had Hamas displayed superb tactical skills, allied with ruthless determination; its engineers, bomb makers and planners, some who devised Iranian trench and bunker systems in the Gulf war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, had turned Gaza into a Middle Eastern Stalingrad.
THE Israelis sealed Gaza's gates last Monday. Tension was crackling in the air, though after months of feuding, that was nothing new. On Fatah's radio station, a commander named Samih al-Madhun boasted: "I swear I'll kill all Hamas, civilian or not. I'll kill them all!"
Coming from one of Abbas's chief lieutenants, it was a declaration of war that Hamas was happy to accept. By Tuesday morning, Gaza's on-off skirmishes had turned deadly serious.
Fatah fired rocket-propelled grenades at the home of Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader who served as Palestinian prime minister in the "unity government".
An hour later, Hamas landed mortar shells around the presidential compound of Abbas. This seems to have been the start of the Hamas offensive.
On Wednesday, its fighters consolidated control of the north and seized the south of Gaza. Then they tightened a vice around Gaza City and Fatah's four command centres. A huge bomb, planted in a tunnel under the General Security building, shattered the morale of its defenders and started a battle that raged overnight.
By Thursday morning, fast-moving Hamas squads were deployed to attack all four Fatah posts. As they did so, 200 Hamas men surrounded the house where the loudmouthed al-Madhun was cornered.
Witnesses told how the mob shouted at him to get out of his house. He must have known he was doomed as he was dragged out, already wounded in the stomach from a single shot.
The mob was now all but hysterical. A Hamas television crew recorded what happened next. Al-Madhun begged for his life, crawling in the dirt, bleeding, surrounded. He was beaten and thrown to the ground. Then at least five gunmen riddled him with bullets.
That night, all Gaza saw al-Madhun's killing on Al-Aqsa TV, which intersperses its war coverage with breaks for the call to prayer.
Victory was assured after Hamas took the main road that runs from north to south through the territory. Fatah soldiers, who fought poorly, ran or were easily outmanoeuvred.
On Friday morning, Hamas announced the "liberation" of Gaza and began changing well known place names into Islamic ones. The Tal-al Hawa, or the Hill of Winds, as it was known for hundreds of years, is now officially Tal al-Islam.
While his people were being slaughtered in Gaza, the Palestinian president was sitting in his well protected compound in Ramallah on the West Bank. The co-founder of Fatah, Abbas, Arafat's heir, saw part of his movement crushed.
In Gaza, looters swarmed through his offices and a laughing gunman sat in his chair, picked up his phone and pretended to call Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state. Abbas was being humiliated.
Israel and the US moved fast to prop him up. Abbas, who was choosing a new government yesterday, immediately denounced by Hamas, was boosted by an announcement that Washington was prepared to lift its embargo on aid, clearing the way for Israel and Europe to follow suit. But a cash infusion may be too little too late. His defeat has greatly diminished his authority.
Matti Steinberg, an Israeli analyst, claimed Israel itself was partly to blame. "Israel systematically destroyed the Palestinian Authority's institutions," he said. "Those who didn't want to deal with Arafat and said he was irrelevant have now got Hamas. And, if they don't help Abbas, they'll get Al-Qaeda."
"GOING into Gaza is inevitable," said Brigadier-General Moshe Yaalon, a former chief of staff of the Israeli army. "No one will do the job for us, we should prepare for a land attack in Gaza, and the question is not if but how and when."
Yaalon said he was aware of the heavy price Israel might pay for a major land incursion into Gaza. But that was the army's job, he insisted.
Military sources said three Israeli divisions amounting to 20,000 soldiers stood ready for an onslaught. An attack is not imminent, but the troops are on standby for a possible incursion later this summer.
Earlier this year, in the remote Negev desert, the army rehearsed a full-scale offensive into Gaza. A giant Palestinian "refugee camp" was built to help troops practice assault methods in the tightly packed camps.
Since its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel has lost control of the southern border separating Gaza from Egypt. As a result, tons of explosives and arms have been smuggled in. "We even know about Iranian instructors who've arrived in Gaza," said the commander of the southern sector, Brigadier-General Aluf Yoav Galant.
Palestinian security sources claim that hundreds of Hamas militants returned recently from weeks of training in Iran. "They left Gaza for Cairo, then flew to Tehran without anyone to stop them," said a Palestinian official.
A warren of tenement flats, camps and shanty towns strung among the desert sands along the coast, Gaza is a perfect laboratory for the street fighting skills that Iran perfected in the ruins of Khorramshahr and Abadan during its own war against Iraq.
Israeli military intelligence says Gaza's 115 square miles have been turned into a giant arms warehouse, honeycombed with strongpoints, booby traps and tunnels.
Having learnt from last summer's conflict in Lebanon, the Israelis will go for a quick onslaught, aimed at killing as many militants as possible in a matter of days. Hamas will try to bog down the Israeli army in close-quarter fighting.
"We won't have more than a week for the fighting," said an Israeli source familiar with the plan. "We've been instructed to cause as little damage as possible to the local population."
So enormous are the political and diplomatic sensitivities that Israel's prime minister is flying to Washington this weekend to outline his plan at the White House.
America does not want another summer of gruesome television pictures showing its ally at war with an elusive Muslim foe in a landscape of shattered homes and dead civilians. It also knows that if Gaza is to remain cut off, short of food and denied money from overseas, this could prompt a humanitarian crisis that will be quickly exploited for propaganda throughout the Middle East.
Israel move swiftly yesterday to announce it would allow food and humanitarian aid into Gaza, and in London Gordon Brown promised new investment.
Tel Aviv knows it will have to show it has been goaded beyond endurance - perhaps by an esca-lated Hamas campaign of rocket attacks or, worse, a resumption of suicide bombings - before it can show it has no alternative but to storm Gaza.
The US will urge caution. Officials close to Rice fear a raid on Gaza could deal another blow to American influence. Against this, the Israelis will argue that Hamas will only get stronger with every passing day unless it is defeated.
Among Palestinians, of whom Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, remarked that they never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity, many will complain of another self-inflicted wound in Gaza.
Long wedded to the dream of unity, Palestinians are confronted with the truth that their society is fractured by clan, by religion, by ideology and by political loyalty.
Last week, witnesses in Gaza told of celebrating Hamas fighters who sent small boys to distribute sweets to passers-by. Previously, it was a gesture made only when Israelis were killed by a suicide bomb. This time the sweets were offered to celebrate the killing of Fatah men.
Down on the Gaza shore, the fleeing intelligence man, Fadi, jumped into his waiting boat. An Israeli gunboat signalled to the crew as he and his men scrambled aboard – Palestinian fugitives on an Israeli vessel saving them from the Hamas hit squads.
There are many strange allies in wartime, and, if Hamas has anything to do with it, the covert British and American alliance with Palestinian "moderates" is about to be made embarrassingly public.
Ransacking Fadi's office, the masked gunmen will have found a treasure trove of intelligence files. "We've discovered documents that will shock the world when published," the movement proclaimed. The propaganda war, at least, has already started.