by DEBKAfile, 1 March 2002

"Israel set out on Thursday, February 28, to break the back of the Fatah-Tanzim’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, by thrusting for the first time in force into the large Nablus and Jenin refugee camps, the main forward bases for the suicide assailants who plague Israeli towns, villages, roads and military targets.

DEBKAfile’s military sources believe the current showdown between the Palestinians and Israel may last into the weekend, with the Palestinians possibly firing Qasam rockets and mortars at Israeli cities within range of the West Bank, especially Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Raanana, Hadera and Afula. They may also direct rockets and gunfire at settlements and army camps inside the West Bank and dispatch suicide attackers into Israeli town centers. On Thursday night, Tanzim and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades West Bank leaders and the muezzin at many Palestinian mosques publicly called on the masses to take to the streets and fight Israeli forces. As heavy battles raged on the West Bank, the Gaza Strip was quiet most of the day.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the main operational arm of the Palestinian terror network in the West Bank led by Tanzim chief Marwan Barghouthi and intelligence commander Colonel Tawfik Tirawi, operate out of three main bases: the Balata refugee camp in eastern Nablus, the Jenin refugee camp – which Palestinians recently dubbed Camp Kandahar -- and the Nur Shams refugee camp near Tulkarm. Some 40,000 Palestinians live in those camps.
Most West Bank terrorists’ explosive belts, bombs, mortars and Qassam rocket warheads are manufactured and stored in those three camps.

Israeli forces have never gone into those locations since the Palestinians launched their confrontation in September 2000, although nearby cities, such as Tulkarm and Jenin as well as several suburbs of Nablus, have been seized repeatedly or hit by tanks, warplanes and helicopters. The only military strikes mounted in the camps were targeted killings of terrorists, either by long-range missiles fired from helicopters or by booby-trapped vehicles.

Israel avoided major military actions inside the refugee camps for two main reasons:
A. Until recently, the al-Aqsa Brigades and the Tanzim were not at the cutting edge of the Palestinian terror campaign, but the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and officials of the Palestinian security apparatus and members of Arafat’s presidential guard, Force 17.

B . Israel preferred to leave security in the camps to Palestinian Authority law enforcement elements not directly involved in terrorism, such as Jibril Rajoub’s Preventive Security apparatus.

Arafat himself had an interest in keeping the balance of forces inside the refugee camps on an even keel, to prevent the factions in opposition to him from gaining the upper hand. But things changed drastically over the past two months. Arafat channeled his attention and resources into a new terror campaign launched by his own Fatah Tanzim and al Aqsa Brigades, funneling funds to them through Marwan Barghouti and Tawfiq Tirawi. As a result, while Israel was busy eliminating Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist cells and networks, it failed to perceive that Arafat was establishing under its nose a new terrorist infrastructure with a fresh intake of recruits – the residents of refugee camps adjacent to the West Bank’s biggest cities.

In this way, Arafat shifted the Palestinian terror hub from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.
Since the start of 2002 most Palestinian terrorist operations have been launched from Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm, and only a few from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli security and intelligence services were unprepared for the number of terror strikes to soar to 10 to 12 shooting and suicide assaults per day, as they have in February. When they discovered that the level was to be tripled over the coming weeks, the decision was taken to root out the threat at its source.

Arafat had been warned repeatedly to disband the al Aqsa Brigades – and not only by Israel. After ignoring repeated cautions from Washington, the Palestinian leader shrugged off the last advice issued by the usually forbearing Europeans, in the person of the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, when he visited Arafat earlier this week in Ramallah.

Sharon decided to break up the al Aqsa Brigades without delay for another reason revealed here by DEBKAfile’s military sources: the massive US military offensive against Iraq looming ahead. In the past week, according to those sources, there were a number of key developments: US special forces landed in small units in northern Iraq; the United States and Israel completed the deployment of a US-Israeli air and missile defense system for protecting Israeli air space from Iraqi missiles and air attack. The system should have been in place and ready for action in mid-December, but there were delays in the deployment of Israeli Arrow anti-missile missile batteries.

To bridge the gap, the United States in the last two weeks airlifted additional batteries of upgraded Patriot missiles. They were deployed last week near Israel’s major cities. US and Israeli intelligence have taken into account that Saddam Hussein and the Lebanese Hizballah might decide not to wait for the Americans to strike first but mount a pre-emptive attack.

In the past two weeks, too, as Palestinian terrorist attacks progressively paralyzed Israel’s city centers and main transportation routes, Israeli policy-makers and strategists came to realize a hard fact: It was not much use to secure the country against hostile missiles and planes if Palestinian terrorists maintained a stranglehold on national highways and army camps by keeping them under constant attack.

Israel therefore decided on the destruction of the al-Aqsa Brigades in the Balata and Jenin refugee camps as a top priority, to enable free military movement in the event of war."