by DEBKAfile, 23 March 2002

"The wild Middle East reality has produced one of its most bizarre twists: According to DEBKAfile’s American and Palestinian sources, the initiative to let Yasser Afafat travel to Beirut for the Arab League summit opening next week comes from …Ariel Sharon and a group of Israeli government ministers.

The decision Thursday, March 21, to hold back on an Israeli military response - even before the blood-spattered wreckage of the latest Palestinian bombing attack had been cleared from the streets in the heart of Jerusalem – was part and parcel of the same tactic. The Israeli government decision was a spontaneous one; it was not demanded by overseas governments as usually happens.

Our sources report, moreover, that Sharon is far from happy about the US State Department’s decision to add the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant arm of Arafat’s Fatah, to its list of terrorist organizations. Since Thursday, the prime minister’s office has been pumping out leaks presenting this group as an integral part of the Tanzim militia commanded by Marwan Barghouti.

Senior US sources in Washington and the Middle East told DEBKAfile they were not part of this campaign – which emanated from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They are perfectly aware of the Brigades’ true chain of command, topped by Arafat himself. However, they are watching with interest as the Israeli prime minister maneuvers to distance the Palestinian leader from direct responsibility for the latest wave of suicide attacks, so as to release him from his three months’ confinement in Ramallah - in time to attend the Arab Summit.

Sharon believes that the Arab rulers he meets there are better placed to coax the Palestinian leader into reining in his bombers and gunmen, and accepting a truce, than anyone else. In the meantime, the Israeli prime minister is willing to hold his military horses to give the ploy a chance to play out.

The truth of the matter, according to DEBKAfile ’s military and intelligence sources, is that the Tanzim and the al Aqsa Brigades are entirely separate organizations. Barghouti heads the Tanzim, while the Brigades, which have carried out the lion’s share of suicide attacks in the last few months, is directly commanded by Arafat’s most trusted henchman, the general intelligence chief, Col. Tawfiq Tirawi. Whereas Barghouti is fond of publicity, Tirawi keeps to the shadows, even encouraging the fire-eating Tanzim chief to brag about multiple-casualty strikes he had nothing to do with - to conceal his own role and motives.

Tirawi is by far the senior of the two. While Barghout’s access to the Palestinian leader is indirect - through Jibril Rajoub, head of the West Bank security service - Tirawi sits at the Palestinian leader’s side, closer even than Rajoub’s opposite number in the Gaza Strip, Mohamed Dahlan.

Arafat’s faithful servant, the quiet Palestinian colonel runs the Brigades as a tight quasi-military outfit. The command level below him is assigned regional jurisdictions: Bethlehem’s criminal Abayat clan is responsible for keeping Jerusalem and Israeli West Bank traffic under fire; Muhamed Titi from Nablus’s Balata camp runs the terror campaign in the Jordan Rift Valley and the northern West Bank; Jihad Massini from Nablus and Abdallah Awis from Jenin orchestrate the bombings and shootings in Israeli border districts and the Sharon area, north of Tel Aviv.
Orders to hand out the bomb belts, explosive device and assault rifle to the killer squads come directly from Tirawi at Arafat’s instigation. The security chief Arafat is also entrusted with his leader’s most sensitive tasks, such as liaison Iraqi military intelligence agents operating in the kingdom of Jordan and the West bank.

Sharon’s actions in throwing Arafat a lifebelt is one of the most crucial decisions he has taken since taking office. It was influenced by Arafat’s success in twisting his confinement in Ramallah round. By dint of terror brutalities on an unheard-of scale, he has turned the tables on Sharon and is by now holding Israel to siege.

And not just Israel. This week, the Egyptian and Jordanian capitals saw their first pro-Palestinian demonstrations featuring lines of volunteer suicides dressed in white with toy bomb belts tied round their waists – just like the Hamas funeral processions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II, like most other Arab leaders, were appalled at the way Arafat’s suicide ethos, designed to undermine Israel, had been transplanted to the Arab world. DEBKAfile ’s Middle East sources report that they too see no easy way of stemming the spread of Palestinian terror against their own regimes.
Therefore, Sharon calculated, the heads of Arab governments have an interest in getting Arafat to Beirut, where they can reason with him. This interest they share with Israel and the Americans too, since their ceasefire broker, Anthony Zinni, is clearly getting nowhere in his trilateral security officers meetings. The Palestinian price for a truce is so exorbitant by now that it is recognized as noting but an obstacle. On the other hand, sending vice president Cheney to the Middle East especially to meet Arafat would be totally inappropriate.

DEBKAfile ’s Middle East analysts do not rate the chances of Sharon gambit succeeding any higher than the Zinni mission. In fact he may have risked too much on a single throw. At the outset of his Intifada 18 months ago, Arafat cared about standing well with Arab rulers. Now his ambitions have soared to the point that he believes his strategy of terror is capable of lighting fires under the regimes in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Damascus, just as he has in Israel. He sees his revolution as a worldwide Islamic upheaval that can reach as far as Israel’s patron, the United States.
These ambitions cannot be quenched by letting him off the hook – or rewarding him with fine American gestures, such as the Bush-Chirac statement Friday, March 22, urging Israel to allow the Palestinian leader to attend the Arab summit – and return. Time has proved that each time he gets away with horrific acts of terror, Arafat is encouraged to step up the violence. The Arafat affliction has gone way beyond any reasonable formulae; it demands root treatment for him and his terror machine, starting with its most effective instrument, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Sharon would do well to learn from his predecessors’ misreadings of the Arafat mnifestation. In 1997, Binyamin Netanyahu, after signing the Wye Plantations interim accord with Arafat, encouraged President Clinton to become the first US president to address the Palestinian National Assembly in Gaza and voice support for a Palestinian State. Three years later, Ehud Barak opened the doors of the White House to the Palestinian leader and his terror chiefs.
Sharon’s tactic of clearing Arafat’s path to Beirut will fail in the same way as did those of the prime ministers before him, both of whose terms were sharply curtailed." [Emphasis added]