by DEBKAfile, 5 March 2002

"Tuesday, between 02:15 and 09:00 hours Israel time, Palestinian terrorists slew 5 Israelis and injured 63 in attacks in Tel Aviv, Afula and the Tunnel Road leading out of Jerusalem. Each time the level of bloodshed hits a new and intolerable high – as it did last Saturday and Sunday – it gets worse.

By upping the pace of terror attacks and killing more Israelis, Arafat is throwing a gauntlet at the feet of US president George W. Bush - namely, he will prove he can topple Ariel Sharon before the Americans even get started on overturning Saddam Hussein.

DEBKAfile’s military, intelligence and Palestinian sources report Arafat is determined to turn his confrontation against Israel into Saddam Hussein’s front line against the United States. Certain the Americans will fail, he is standing solidly behind the side he expects to win, Iraq – and challenging the losers, the United States and Israel.
This is a repeat of Arafat’s 1991Gulf War performance. Then too, he advised Saddam to tie his strategy to the Palestinian problem, whereupon the Iraqi ruler defined his 1990 invasion of Kuwait as the first round in the war of liberation for Palestine.

To help Saddam, therefore, two weeks ago, Arafat unleashed two of his private militias, the 30,000-strong Tanzim and the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – who are in close communication with Iraqi military intelligence - for the current terror offensive against Israeli targets, scaling the level of violence up every three days.

In the small hours of Tuesday March 5, a Palestinian armed with an M-16 assault rifle, a long knife, hand grenades and a bomb-belt, climbed onto the MaarivBridge in south Tel Aviv and opened fire on the traffic passing below and two of the many restaurants nearby. When hand grenades began flying, a Tel Aviv police officer, Salim Barakat, 33, from the Druse village of Yarka, Galilee, performed an outstanding act of bravery that stopped the rampage of terror: he gave chase and tackled his quarry at close quarters, upon which the Palestinian slashed his throat. Salim Barakat’s last action before he died was to shoot the terrorist dead.

Arafat’s spokesmen appearing over the media on Tuesday made no bones about their objectives. The Palestinian Authority has declared war on Israel, they say, and aims by means of terrorist strikes to kill as many Israelis as possible and bring down the Sharon government.

Sharon’s handling of the crisis shows hesitancy. With the Arab League summit due to convene on March 28 in Beirut, he is reluctant to play into Arafat’s hands and confront Palesitnian violence with all the strength at Israel’s disposal, lest even moderate Arab rulers, like those of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar, turn their backs on the forthcoming American campaign against Iraq. His hands are also held tight by his dovish Labor coalition partners, the defense and foreign ministers, Binyamin bin Eliezer and Shimon Peres, who oppose permitting the army to tackle the Palestinian offensive head-on. A Labor walkout, by enfeebling the Sharon government, would also weaken the pro-American Middle East front and devalue Israeli military support for a US military offensive. A former general, the Israeli prime minister is also aware of the cost in bloodshed – military and civilian - of a full-scale war campaign against the Palestinians.

Arafat is aware of these constraints, but by piling on the terror day by day, he may push Israel too far. If Sharon is driven into a corner, he will have to take the gloves off or lose his seat."