It’s decision time for Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian president was in London Tuesday collecting $1.2 billion in pledges for the Palestinian people when news came that a Palestinian terrorist group was claiming responsibility for last Friday’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and was reportedly plotting other spectacular attacks.
Israeli experts say Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, must take action against terror or forfeit gains he has made with Jerusalem in recent weeks.
The attacks planned by the group, Damascus-based Islamic Jihad, included a car bombing, a rocket attack on the Israeli town of Afula, and a double suicide bombing in a Jerusalem school. They were thwarted by Israeli authorities acting on information from a captured Islamic Jihad terrorist, according to Israeli media reports. The terrorist, however, apparently did not provide information about the location of the car bomb. It was discovered by an alert Israeli soldier parked near a junction in the West Bank city of Jenin and packed with half a ton of explosives, the largest bomb built in four years of Palestinian violence. There was a long cable running from the car to a video camera that was meant to record the explosion.
Although Abbas has agreed to the international road map to peace that requires the Palestinian Authority to stop Palestinian violence, disarm terrorists and destroy their bomb-making workshops, he has adopted a different approach, according to Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University and former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “He is trying to take them on [and include them in his own security force],” he said. “Israel is saying to him at the same time, ‘Bite the bullet, if not it will bite you. And since you are not, people can give orders from Damascus and kill people in Tel Aviv.’”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Abbas has “done nothing of any substance to prevent attacks” and that this can’t last for long. “Either he will have to do it, or the whole process will stop,” he said. “Palestinian terrorism is basically still a major threat, and all the talk of reform and a peace process and a London conference are so far only words. He has made no move to date to stop it and the clock is running.”
After the suicide bombing outside a nightclub last Friday night that killed five and injured 65, Islamic Jihad in Damascus released a videotape of the bomber — flanked by an Islamic Jihad flag — saying he was carrying out the attack in behalf of Islamic Jihad.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said Monday that the group represented a clear challenge to the Palestinian Authority and that “something needs to be done about that.”
Israeli authorities were quoted as saying they had no intention of launching a raid against Islamic Jihad offices in Damascus. But Rabinovich, who is also a Syrian expert and was Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria, said that recently there have been two unexplained explosions in Damascus.
“I don’t know who is behind it,” he said, adding that the blasts were “aimed at people who engaged in terrorism.”
(On Wednesday, Israeli soldiers uncovered a large Hamas factory for the production of bombs — including a partly assembled Kassam rocket — near Jenin. Until now, Kassam rockets have been fired exclusively from the Gaza Strip, which Israel plans to evacuate during a four-week period beginning July 20.)
After the Tel Aviv attack, the head of Israel’s military intelligence research division, Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, reportedly told diplomats that Israel had “proof” of Syrian involvement despite a denial by Syrian President Bashar Assad that he had nothing to do with it.
Richard Murphy, a former American ambassador to Syria, said incontrovertible proof must mean that Israel had “intercepted” communications between those involved in the attack.
But Ami Pedahzur, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa, said just because Syria provides Islamic Jihad a haven does not mean it conspired in the attack.
“All through the intifada, Syria was blamed for hosting the terrorist groups, and Israel even attacked Syria once for doing that,” he said. “But we cannot show causality. … I’m not sure the Syrian regime was aware of or actually launched this attack.”
The suicide bomber reportedly came from the West Bank, and the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was reportedly told by a military official that had the security barrier been completed, the terrorist would not have been able to reach Tel Aviv.
The Damascus-planned attack, coupled with the assassination Feb. 14 of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has placed increasing pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad, from the U.S. and from Lebanese citizens for Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon. The pressure mounted last week with street demonstrations in Beirut, which resulted in the surprise resignation of the Lebanese prime minister and his entire cabinet. Demonstrations continued the next day with demands for the resignation of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. But Murphy said he doubted Syria would allow that to happen.
“It would be a slap in the face of the Syrians,” he said. “The Syrians made such a public campaign — and quite clumsily — to keep him there three more years.”
He was referring to the campaign to have the Lebanese parliament change the constitution in order to permit Lahoud to stay in office.
“I can see them [the Lebanese] having a caretaker government with some control by Syria, and when there are parliamentary elections in two months [Syria] will be able to work its magic,” Murphy said. “They have ways of sending messages — down to knocking on doors.”
In an interview with Time magazine, Assad said the 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon might leave by the end of the year, but Western officials are not holding their breath. Syrian troops entered in 1976 after the start of the Lebanese civil war and have not left despite entreaties from the international community. Rice said Monday that the U.S. wants to see the troops out before May’s parliamentary election, and an Israeli official told The Jewish Week Syria will sooner give up its claims to the Golan Heights than leave Lebanon, an important component of the Syrian economy. Murphy pointed out that it is “not the army that matters, it’s the intelligence service.” Rabinovich stressed that Syria has “economic, political and strategic [interests in Lebanon]” and that it now may try to retain its hold there “in a less direct way. Theoretically they need to show greater flexibility, so they will try to introduce cosmetic changes but retain their control. … On the whole, Israel would like to see democracy in Lebanon, but we have no illusions. I wouldn’t anticipate democracy in Lebanon anytime soon.”