by DEBKAfile 11 May 2002

"Wednesday, May 8, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was fighting mad over the Rishon Lezion suicide attack that killed 15 Israelis the day before, while he was closed with US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. He impressed the reporters flying with him with his determination to complete the other half of his military operation for breaking the back of the Palestinian terror machine. After all but winding up the West Bank campaign, he told correspondents in a confidential mid-air briefing: “Now we can get the Hamas and Jihad Islami!” (the headquarters of which are in the Gaza Strip).

His determination was not directly motivated by the Rishon Lezion attack which, by then, he suspected on the strength of intelligence data may not have been the work of a Gaza-based Hamas operative at all, but more likely perpetrated by an Israeli Arab - or a Palestinian with logistical aid from an Israeli Arab group.

This hypothesis was supported by the format of less effective terrorist attack three days later, on Friday, May 10. Two terrorists threw an explosive bank outside a bank in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, gateway to the Negev Desert, injuring 11 Israelis. Both were caught and turned out to have been driven to the scene of attack by an Israeli Arab in a car in which he tried to get them away.

In recent weeks, indications keep on cropping up of increasing Israeli Arab complicity in Palestinian terrorism. One cell was caught in the Israeli Arab town of Taibeh; in Nazareth, three locals were caught red-handed preparing a suicide hit in the Nazareth Elite Shopping Mall. In various Israeli town centers, Israeli Arab citizens have been found loitering at potential sites on observation missions.

On his flight home, Sharon was handed an assessment that Yasser Arafat had begun activating sleeper terrorist cells, to fill in the operational gap created after Operation Defensive Shield wiped out most of his terrorist machinery in the West Bank and left Palestinian cities heavily encircled. Those cells were planted in the Israel Arab community by Hizballah, al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence, who also introduced their own operatives. Arafat had now ordered them to surface.

There was therefore another, hidden reason behind the Israeli prime minister’s decision to go for the Gaza Strip at this time. That reason was political.

A large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip beginning on Saturday night, May 11, the night before a crucial Likud central committee session on Sunday, May 12, would have strengthened Sharon’s hand against his critics. Above all, it might have helped him ward off a party vote, spearheaded by his rival, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, constraining a Likud leader from endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state.

The IDF command, picking up the signal from the prime minister, lost no time in handing out call-up orders for reservists to join the units massing outside the Gaza Strip ready for action – even before Sharon landed at Ben Gurion late Wednesday.

Israel’s military planners were more than ready for the Gaza campaign for two reasons:
A. Without it, the West Bank operation was unfinished business. The Palestinian terror strongholds demolished on the West Bank were still fully functional in the Gaza Strip. For the IDF, this was an assignment only half-done.
B. By the same token, knocking over Jibril Rajoub’s security services in the West Bank – thereby upending Palestinian control over the territory – must to be effective be complemented by a corresponding operation against Rajoub’s opposite number, Mohamed Dahlan, head of Gaza Strip security. As long as Dahlan has troops, Arafat commands the option of going back to Gaza and using it as a territorial base to rebuild his authority and fortunes. Destruction of the Gaza Strip security organs will leave Arafat with nothing solid to build on.

The prime minister’s political and strategic interests converged perfectly at that moment with the generals’ objectives.
However, three politicians – Labor’s foreign minister Shimon Peres and defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, as well as Netanyahu - were equally determined to deny Sharon his triumphant appearance at Sunday’s party meeting. They achieved this by driving a wedge between the prime minister and the army command.

Suddenly, on Thursday, May 9, TV camera crews and press photographers were told to present themselves at army installations and allowed to film the reservists arriving at bases and the convoys of trucks hauling tanks southward to the battlefront. Military correspondents and commentators produced lengthy, incredibly detailed predictions and analyses of the coming campaign. This sort of access must have been sanctioned by the defense minister himself.

Foreign minister Peres put in his two bits by naming the Gaza campaign’s targets as Hamas and the Jihad Islami’s centers. He stressed that the operation would pinpoint targets and not aim at destroying Palestinian Authority institutions, still less Dahlan’s security service.

Netanyahu, for his part, accused Sharon of going soft on Arafat and encouraging people to believe he was in favor of Palestinian statehood.

The three succeeded in puncturing Sharon’s sense of satisfaction over his talks at the White House. In no time, mutual recriminations were flying between the military command, the prime minister’s office, the defense ministry and cabinet members, each accusing the other of sabotaging a crucial military action by giving the game away to the enemy.

The gambit worked. Sharon called off Defensive Shield Part 2 in the Gaza Strip. The fact that he was caught unawares may have been due to the absence of his politically savvy watchdog, his former chef de bureau, Uri Shani, whose his successor, Dov Weissglass, is untried in political machinations at that level.

However, the word finis may not be written to that episode until the reservists get their release papers and the military concentrations around the Gaza Strip are dispersed."