The Israeli government’s narrow endorsement of the Middle East road map on Sunday May 25 – and acceptance of a Palestinian state at the end of the road - far from removing the obstacles to peacemaking, accentuates the difficulties facing the next stages.
DEBKAfile’s US and Israeli security sources report increasing signs that Yasser Arafat is now seriously gunning for the new Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas. He will do anything to abort the summit expected to take place in early June with President George W. Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Arafat cannot abide the notion of any top-level conference going forward without him. The plot he is thought to be preparing would inculpate Israel for any harm befalling Abu Mazen or his associates. He would thus show the Palestinians and the Muslim world that his arm is still long and that if anyone is bent on sabotaging the prospects of peace it is Israel. Conscious of the hot winds of menace blowing in from Ramallah, American officials are striving to be vague and non-committal about the mooted summit and its timeline – “in two or three weeks.”
According to a DEBKAfile security sources, organizing security for Bush, Sharon and Abbas at the most likely venue, Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba, will be a nightmare, given the town’s proximity to the Iraqi border and the presence of al Qaeda elements in the vicinity. But the most acute headache of all will be keeping Abu Mazen safe up until the summit, because he is unlikely to acquiesce in any special security operation the Americans – and certainly the Israelis - may set up. Hoping to blunt the threat, our sources reveal the Americans are trying to go through Europeans with access to Arafat. US secretary of state Colin Powell asked French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin to take with him on his visit to Arafat in Ramallah Monday, May 26, a last warning from Washington: Stop trying to disempower or eliminate Abu Mazen. If you continue to obstruct Washington’s plans for the region you risk a direct American reprisal.
Villepin will find Arafat busy with a complicated scheme that may start with an attack on someone close to Abbas or a Washington-backed appointee as a warning to the Palestinian prime minister to remove himself while he still has time. Aware of the threat, Palestinian interior minister Mohamed Dahlan is ducking his duties in terror prevention saying he needs much more time to get a handle on the job. Abu Mazen, for his part, looks more frightened of high-powered summitry than eager to be part of it. He may even come up with delaying tactics, such as demands for more Israeli gestures to prove it is in earnest about peacemaking.
Arafat is reported going to the lengths of waking up or importing secret sleeper terror cells kept till now in reserve. Not all their members are Palestinian. They include bearers of Canadian and European passports, genuine or forged, like the two British terrorists who carried out the April 30 Mike’s Place bombing. The attack, which was meant to hit the US embassy, was set up and prepared in Damascus by Hamas and Hizballah planners and comprehensively supported by Fatah and Hamas teams in the Gaza Strip as well as Fatah, al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas accomplices on the West Bank.
Each segment of the terror chain spent months preparing for its particular role. There are few doubts among counter-terror authorities that Syrian military intelligence in Damascus was in on the terror conspiracy, that Syrian president Bashar Assad was briefed and that he knew that the last command to activate the Tel Aviv bomb team was issued by Arafat in Ramallah.
This chain linking terror command centers in Damascus, the Hizballah in Beirut, the Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Yasser Arafat at his Ramallah headquarters, is still jumping with unusual signs of activity. One sign was the dispatch of the Hizballah bomb expert aboard the Abu Hassan that the Israeli navy intercepted last Wednesday, May 20, as Syria and the Hizballah invest enormous efforts to upgrade the force and scale of anti-Israel terrorist operations, pressing every terrorist body available into action.
DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources totally refute the reports broadcast last week claiming Syria had shut down the Damascus offices of Palestinian terror groups in response to a sharp American ultimatum. They discovered that Jihad Islami and Hamas operational leaders supposedly expelled to Beirut, Cairo and Qatar to throw the Americans off the scent have all gone to ground in Syria. The Jihad Islami’s Abdullah Salah Ramadan, Zeid Nahla and Ibrahim Shehada, as well as the Hamas’s Mussa Abu Marzuk, Khaled Mashal and operations chief Imad al Alami are all in hiding under the protection of Syrian military intelligence. A senior Israeli security source commented: “Having this collection of top terror operatives under cover and working overtime is not good news for anyone.”