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Israel’s extended military offensive against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah stronghold launched this morning quickly took on a wider regional context. By afternoon, DEBKAfile’s military sources began to pick up signs of unusual military movements in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
They may reflect the growing nervousness among Arab leaders over Israel’s announced partial call-up of reservists and preparations for a full mobilization, despite the Passover holiday. The first announcement of 20,000 reservists to be called up was stepped up later to 30,000. Arab governments were already put on edge by the upheavals attendant on U.S. preparations for its campaign against Iraq.
Anticipating this sensitivity, Israel conveyed its assurance to Washington in good time for relay to concerned Arab governments that the IDF call-up was solely aimed against Arafat and his terrorist apparatus and had no wider goals.
In a further series of messages conveyed through Washington, Israel provided additional clarification of its Ramallah operation.
The military operation was vital, Israel explained, not only to isolate Arafat and cut off his terror machine, but to uncover the vast stores of secret weapons he has amassed in violation of the Oslo Framework Accords he signed with Israel in 1993. Israel intelligence had learned that Arafat hid these forbidden depots beneath Palestinian administration buildings in the government compound in Ramallah. As Israeli tanks and bulldozers advanced through the compound during the day, huge tunnels came to light containing an array of weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-air missiles – apparently only one section of a many-branched storage system.
Under the headquarters of Col. Tawfiq Tirawi’s Palestinian General Security Service, Israeli elite units turned up a large bunker in which were stacked hundreds of M-72 LAWS (Light Anti-Tank Weapons). A similarly packed store was concealed under the Palestinian Authority prison, also captured by Israel forces.
Bunkers under Arafat’s offices were found to contain electronic surveillance devices for tracking Israeli military movements, as well as detailed diagrams of the bases and movements of senior Israeli officers stationed in the Ramallah region, with notes on the security details guarding them and their routines. Also found were aerial maps of at least one Israel air base.
Israel’s military and intelligence command ordered military bulldozers to systematically break through suspect buildings in the compound for two purposes: To uncover the illicit weapons stores and to leave Arafat isolated in his undamaged office and living quarters amid the ruins of his compound.
Israel’s assurance meant to calm had the opposite effect. Sharon’s declaration that the military operation could last weeks did not help soothe edgy Arab nerves either.
Moderate Arab leaders are additionally concerned lest Saddam Hussein or the Lebanese Hezbollah opt for opening a second front against Israel to ease the pressure on Arafat. The Iraqi ruler is capable of shooting missiles or suicide aircraft over Israel’s main cities, while the Hezbollah’s newly supplied rockets can cover most of northern Israel up to a point south of Haifa – and area with a population of nearly a million.
If either attack came to be, Israel would strike back against Iraq and Hezbollah bases in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley.
Faced with this potential scenario – not to speak of the complications of an American attack against Baghdad – Arab leaders do not want to be caught unprepared militarily. Hence the military movements.
The nature of the American response to these developments is anyone’s guess. Would Washington lend Israel’s military moves full or partial support? How would it react to an Iraqi or Hezbollah attack on Israel and how far would the Americans go to integrate this unfolding Middle East chapter into the broad U.S. global war on terrorism?
DEBKAfile’s military and political experts say it is too soon to offer definitive answers to these questions. The highest authorities in the U.S., Israel and Arab governments may be called upon to make such decisions at very short notice – within days or hours. In view of these uncertainties, Israel’s action against Arafat and the Palestinian Authority already has an impact on world financial and oil markets. The dollar is strengthening and oil prices, which have been rising slowly and steadily for the past several weeks, are continuing to climb.
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