by DEBKAfile, 15 April 2002

"Israel’s triumphant capture of Marwan Barghouti, 41, the Secretary General of the West Bank’s Fatah-Tanzim and the most vocal Palestinian leader, gave a strong impetus to the Sharon government’s campaign to delegitimize and replace Yasser Arafat.
DEBKAfile’s military sources reveal that Israeli security leaders, including prime minister Ariel Sharon, have been telling US secretary of state Colin Powell that, since the Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus has buckled, the only real fighting force left on the West Bank is the Tanzim. Because Barghouti rules the Tanzim, he is by definition the strongman of the West Bank.

Our sources, looking for the battles in which Barghouti’s Tanzim was engaged, turned up empty. The Jenin refugee camp was the only place where the Palestinians showed real resistance. But the fighters there were the Jihad Islami, together with Hizballah and al Qaeda elements who had been scattered round the West Bank and mustered in Jenin for the showdown with Israeli troops.

However, the casting of Tanzim in a heroic light is part of a wider maneuver.

At the outset of the Israeli operation on March 29, the fiery Tanzim leader reportedly went into hiding in the West Bank Security Headquarters of Jibril Rajoub at Betunia, near Ramallah. When Israelis stormed the building, Barghouti was not to be found. It was said he had gone to ground in a big bunker under a nearby hill, from which he was running terror operations. The IDF was described as bulldozing the hill - but again, no Barghouti. That the Tanzim leader was so thoroughly lost defies belief. The Shin Beit, which monitors all telephone traffic going in and out of the West Bank, cannot have missed Barghouti’s telephone interview to the al Jazeera satellite network last week. But knowing where he was, Israel still held off picking him up for one important reason. It had big plans for the Tanzim leader. But first he was allowed to evade and outwit his Israeli pursuers in order to build him up as a legendary figure of the people.

His capture Monday, April 15, was a badly needed morale boost for Israelis preparing to celebrate the national memorial and independence days this week. Mentioned in the past as a possible Arafat successor, Barghouti has seen the inside of Israeli jail before now. At the age of 18, he was arrested for membership of an armed Fatah squad, served six years in prison where he became fluent in Hebrew, and was deported in 1987. He returned home in 1994, an ardent supporter of the newly signed Oslo accords.

For the Israeli secret service, the Shin Beit, Barghouti is not only the highest-ranking Palestinian terror activist to fall into their hands, but also the richest source of intelligence on the Palestinian terror machine, from top to bottom.

But he retains choices.

He can spill all he knows about some of Arafat’s top henchmen and their culpability as terror masterminds – particularly his leading rival for the succession, Col. Tawfiq Tirawi, West Bank intelligence chief and supreme commander of the al Aqasa Martyrs Brigades, which is run by Arafat’s Fatah as a factory for suicides - as well as smaller fry.

Alternatively, he can finger Arafat in person as directly involved in Palestinian acts of terror at large, and the suicide offensive in particular. The captured Palestinian knows enough to blow the close operational ties Arafat maintains with Tehran, the Hizballah and the notorious hostage taker and bomber, Imad Mughniyeh, who is on the FBI’s list of 22 most wanted terrorists in connection with the September 11 attacks.

If the Tanzim leader goes for option one, he can expect a long stretch in jail or expulsion from the country.

But if, at some point, after the hue and cry over his arrest dies down, he decides to burn Arafat, he will have bought himself a good chance to bid for the succession and a seat at the regional peace conference Sharon has asked the United States to host.

Since only moderate Arab and Palestinian leaders will be invited, Arafat is disqualified.

The data coming from Barghouti – if it does – will strengthen the case that Israel’s Attorney General, Eliyakim Rubinstein declared Monday, April 15, a few hours before Barghouti’s capture, he intends bringing charges against Arafat as a war criminal.

Later on Monday, Powell said on the plane taking him back to Israel from Damascus that in his view a regional conference could go ahead without Arafat.

In the light of Monday’s rush of events, climaxing with Barghouti’s arrest, a new lineup is taking shape on the Palestinian side of any future peace conference table. Its members are Barghouti, Gaza Strip security chief and strongman Muhamed Dahlan, West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub and veteran Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erikat, with Abu Mazen, Arafat’s official deputy, providing a more venerable presence.

This group would constitute the middle-generation Palestinian team the United States and Israel are hoping will to take over from Arafat’ and his clique.

The maneuver might not work – Arafat is still a force to be reckoned with. But if it does, the new leaders will eventually step forward to center stage, although Abu Mazen may need to fill the top man’s shoes for a period as a stabilizing interim figure."

CUTTING EDGE NOTE: Even if Arafat is replaced by more "moderate" Palestinian leadership that will cooperate with Israel instead of trying to destroy her, how will this more moderate leadership deal with the intense hatred on the streets? For decades, Arafat has built an educational and mass media establishment that inculcates intense and lively hatred toward the Jew first and his country second. One cannot just turn off this hatred; moderate Arab countries all across the Middle East are very afraid of their populations and are forced to walk a fine line between placating the West and mollifying their own people. Nowhere is the hatred against the Jew more explosive than in the Palestinian territories.