by DEBKAfile

16 May 2002

However insistent Palestinian calls on their leaders to overhaul their ruling system may be, no single group dares suggest that Yasser Arafat be “reformed” out of his job as Palestinian Number One. He is therefore secure in the knowledge that the only reforms in his governing regime will be orchestrated by himself – or not at all. In the meantime, as a sop to his following in Europe and the Israeli left wing, he issued vague promises to overhaul his institutions in the first speech he delivered in months on May 15 to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah.

The applause from Washington was as vague as the speech’s content.

According to DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources, the information on the desks of the Bush team present a picture in sharp contrast to the general impression conveyed. In a word, during his months in confinement in Ramallah, the last thing on his mind was the rehabilitation of his people and restructuring of his government on a healthier basis. Instead he determined to take his campaign of violence further and deepen his ties with his allies in Baghdad and Tehran via the Lebanese Hizballah.

To avoid laying himself open to charges of incitement, the Palestinian leader wrapped this signal to his following round with euphemisms and subliminally inflammatory symbols, confident that references to the Prophet and religious-belligerent motifs would serve to rally his terrorists to fresh efforts.

For instance, his stress on the Truce of Hudaybiyeh, first referred to at his Johannesburg mosque speech in 1994, one year after signing the Oslo Peace accords with Israel, when he called on Muslims the world over to join the Palestinian jihad and liberate “our capital”, Jerusalem.

That truce, signed by the Prophet Muhammed with the infidel tribes of Quraish, whom he later exterminated, became the precedent for the injunction to Islams to violate accords they sign with infidels as soon as opportune. According to this precept, Arabs view an enemy’s readiness for peace as a weakness to be exploited.

Arafat’s rallying cry for a jihad to liberate Jerusalem was more subtly conveyed at the Legislative Council meeting. He singled out the high priest of the ancient Samaritan community of Nablus for four demonstrative kisses.

The Samaritans, or Shomronim, of whom there are only a few hundred, are divided between the West Bank town of Nablus - at the foot of Mount Gerizim - and the Israeli town of Holon. They recognize no Jewish writings after the Pentateuch, claim to have inhabited the Shomron (Samaria) continuously for 4,000 years, and make the burning of the sacrificial lamb on Mount Gerizim the central rite of their religious calendar. The Nablus community supports the Palestinian cause. Arafat for his part demonstratively joined one historic Samaritan claim by declaring more than once that the Jewish holy mount never was Zion in Jerusalem but in Nablus.

Arafat is not content with invoking Islamic history. Late last month, opposite the Lebanese-Israeli frontier, Israel sank a Hizballah arms ship bound for the Gaza Strip. This vessel was larger than the Karin-A Palestinian arms-running freighter, which was intercepted on the Red Sea in January with 50 tons of smuggled Iranian arms in its holds. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, hearing the vessel was gone, was furious at missing yet another chance to show the world the tools of Arafat’s “peace of the brave”: various types of missiles, heavy mortars, anti-air and anti-tank weapons, mines and quantities of explosives and ammunition.

Israeli helicopters and missiles went into action for fear the boat would slip past into Egyptian waters and unload on the Sinai coast. From there, the illegal shipment would be smuggled into the Gaza Strip through the tunnels constantly dug by the Palestinians and destroyed by the Israeli army in a cat and mouse game. This week, Israeli troops blew up a 100-meter tunnel through which ran a telephone connection at both ends. Israeli military commanders complain that Egypt is not lifting a finger to obstruct this traffic.

The Iran-Hizballah connection with the Palestinians focuses once again on the Gaza Strip’s strongman, Muhamed Dahlan, a key middleman in the alliance, who also played an important back-room role in setting up the Karin-A gun-running operation from Iran.

Looking into reports that the Americans have their eye on Dahlan as Arafat’s successor, DEBKAfile cites a senior Washington source as saying: “We know Dahlan very well indeed and know all about his operational links with the Hizballah and Iranian representatives in Lebanon. This makes him very problematical.”

Rather than the Americans, the party keenest on Dahlan’s claim is the head of Egyptian intelligence General Omar Suleiman, who has been pushing him forward.

Our sources in the US capital were also told exclusively that in view of all this information, the White House has backed off sending CIA chief George Tenet to the Middle East. President Bush’s original intention was for him to consolidate all the Palestinian security and police bodies into a single force, as the key to the reform process. No one in Washington now believes that Arafat can be separated from any overhauling of the Palestinian Authority and, with him in charge, the process will be a mockery.

The only plan being seriously weighed in Washington for now is an invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian officials to joint Tenet in Washington some time next month as a lead-in to the Middle East peace conference due this summer."