Israel’s surprise air strike in Syria Sunday on what it described as a Palestinian terrorist training camp may not be the last, Israeli officials warned this week as they pursued a new way to halt terror attacks that claimed another 19 Israeli lives at a restaurant in Haifa last weekend.
“This [Syrian raid] is not our main effort and never was in our war against terrorism,” Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said by phone from Tel Aviv. “The main effort is right here in this country. But if foreign countries — and Syria specifically — continue to support terrorist activities directly and indirectly … [it] may be faced with additional military activities on the part of Israel.”
As if to demonstrate that this was just not an idle threat, Israel released Tuesday a map showing 10 sites in Damascus it said were the political, military and media offices of Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. In addition, the map showed what it said were the homes of senior terrorist leaders, including Khalid Mashal of Hamas and Ahmad Jibril of the PFLP.
Although Israel said it did not alert the Bush administration in advance of the Syrian raid, President George W. Bush later told reporters in Washington that “Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland.”
Thus Bush, who has seen largely eye-to-eye with Sharon in private since both men took office, reaffirmed that affinity publicly this week.
Analysts said the raid was designed to send a message. But each had a different understanding of that message. Shoval said it was to warn Syrian President Bashar Assad to “stop doing what you are doing” in supporting terrorist groups that attack Israel.
Shoshana Bryen, special projects director of the Jewish Institute for National Security, said the attack “was to make the point that one should not become fixated about discussions of the security fence.”
“Terrorism that affects Israel is a multinational problem that is not just in the West Bank,” she explained. “Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the PFLP have their headquarters in Damascus and this was to remind the Syrians that Israel has not forgotten that. Israel needed to be clear that this issue is larger than the other side of the security fence.”
In taking this step, Bryen said, Israel was adopting the Bush doctrine of waging war against terrorists and states that harbor and support them.
Maggie Mitchell, senior adviser to the president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said an attack 14 miles from the capital of Damascus and perhaps close enough for smoke to be seen at the presidential palace “was to make sure the government couldn’t miss it.”
“Is it going to cripple the operations of Islamic Jihad?” she asked rhetorically. “No. Is it going to send a message to Damascus? Yes.”
But she predicted that it would not produce the desired results, and said the presumed Hezbollah sniper who shot and killed an Israeli soldier patrolling Israel’s northern border Monday may have been acting in Syria’s behalf. She noted that Hezbollah is Syria’s proxy in Lebanon.
Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. ambassador in Syria in the mid-1970s said the raid may have been a way for Sharon to “vent” his rage after the suicide bombing.
“He had done all the usual things — blowing up the bomber’s house, restricting [Palestinian] travel, deciding that this was not the moment to move against [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat,” he said.
Now that the “mold has been broken, it makes it easier to justify doing it again,” Murphy said of the Syrian air strikes. “It makes it easier for them to say, ‘What do we have to fear?’ The Arab concern is that Sharon has in his quiver his military options and that he does not believe in negotiations.”
Syria warned Wednesday that it would respond militarily if there are more Israeli air strikes. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said at the same time that the air attack was launched after Israel obtained proof that the Haifa suicide bombing was planned in Damascus.
Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, suggested that Sharon launched the raid for domestic consumption. He argued that previous Israeli responses had failed to deter continued terrorist attacks and that to appease the Israeli public, “he had to find a new enemy.”
Cohen said he could not be certain that this is a “serious decision to go after Islamic Jihad” because all of Israel’s efforts thus far have been to attack the Palestinian Authority.
“Does this mean that Israel is not going to keep blaming the Palestinian Authority for everybody’s actions but rather go after those who commit them?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
Michael Kleiner, a right-wing member of the Knesset, said that although he was not upset with the Syrian attack, he would prefer to see Israel target “Ramallah and Gaza and all of the other sources that launch attacks against Israel.”
“We have to bomb the Palestinian headquarters and the thousands of military targets in Palestinian cities,” he said. “We have to attack them to finish the war.”
All of these developments came just days after Israel announced its intention to build another 550 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank — 530 in the fervently Orthodox settlement of Beitar Elit near Bethlehem, 11 in Maaleh Adumim and another 24 in Ariel. Palestinian leaders condemned the move as a “land grab,” and Peace Now claimed it would bring the number of new settlement homes authorized this year to 1,300.
Hard Line On Qureia
In other developments, Israel took a hard line with the new emergency Palestinian government of Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, which was quickly sworn in by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat Tuesday. The speed with which Arafat acted — particularly after he reportedly suffered a mild heart attack just days earlier — was widely seen as his attempt to forestall Israeli military action against him following the Haifa suicide bombing by a 29-year-old woman, one of the worst in three years of Palestinian violence.
Qureia told the Israeli newspaper Maariv that one of his first actions was to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups. A self-imposed cease-fire by the terrorist groups ended Aug. 21 after just seven weeks when a suicide bomber aboard a bus in Jerusalem killed 23 people.
“Give us a chance and an opportunity to prevent the continuation of the deterioration,” Qureia said.
But Israeli leaders dismissed the overture, fearing that a cease-fire would only provide terrorists with a chance to rearm and plan new attacks, as they did during their first cease-fire.
“Israel will not agree to repeat this experience of a cease-fire unless it is tied-in with concrete actions by the Palestinian government against terrorist organizations,” Shoval said.
Qureia made clear, however, that he would never seek to force terrorist groups to give up their weapons for fear it would spark a civil war. Shoval said that Israel, nevertheless, is “willing to give him a chance to prove that he is doing something. … We’ll give him some rope, even without him declaring that he will act against terrorist organizations.”
Even as Qureia spoke of a cease-fire, however, Israel was on a high alert Wednesday following three dozen intelligence warnings of new terror attacks. Some of the warnings were quite specific, despite the tight lid kept on the territories since before Yom Kippur. The woman who blew herself up in Haifa was from Jenin in the West Bank and had apparently managed to get through the new 26-foot high security barrier.
The Israeli air strike in Syria only 14 miles from the capital of Damascus was the first since the Yom Kippur War. It came just hours before celebrations were held in Damascus to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that conflict. Although it ended inconclusively after 18 days of fighting, it is hailed by Syria as a great victory for having recaptured some of the Golan Heights lost to Israel in 1967.
The surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack caught the Israeli military off-guard, cost more than 2,500 Israeli lives and shattered the myth of Israeli military invincibility created in the Six Day War of 1967.
In comments after this week’s air strike, Sharon suggested that his nation will not be caught flat-footed ever again. He said Israel must prepare “as if the next war is waiting just around the corner.”
“Israel will not be deterred from protecting its citizens and will strike its enemies in every place and in every way,” he added during ceremonies marking the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.
His spokesman, Ranaan Gissin, was quoted as saying: “We will tolerate the continuation of this axis of terror between Tehran, Damascus and Gaza to continue to operate and kill innocent men, women and children.”
But Mitchell said that does not mean Israel is going to target Iran next.
“I don’t think you can put [Syria and Iran] in the same basket,” she said. “They post different levels of threat and reacting the same way will produce different consequences. Attacking Iran would be a serious blunder. Attacking Syria delivered a message that many in Washington have wanted to deliver since 9-11 — that terrorism is unacceptable no matter the ideological clarifications; it’s terrorism, plain and simple.”
Mitchell said Syria should have expected the air strike because of its refusal to shut down Palestinian terrorist offices operating in Damascus, despite such a promise to Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this year.