Israel’s military command expects a new round of Palestinian attacks this fall, after Israel completes its withdrawal from Gaza and northern West Bank.
The assessment is based partly on the pace of weapons smuggling to the West Bank detected by intelligence agencies in recent months, and partly on intercepted orders from Damascus, according to a report in last Friday’s Yediot Aharonot by respected military correspondent Alex Fishman.
Palestinian groups headquartered in Damascus, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, agreed in talks with the Palestinian Authority last month to a cessation of hostilities, but rejected the P.A.’s call for a formal, open-ended cease-fire.
The renewed attacks are expected to come from the West Bank, and will consist mainly of rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli targets, Fishman wrote.
In the view of the army’s General Staff, the Palestinians will have an interest in keeping the peace in Gaza to show that they can run their own affairs, he wrote.
“Orders coming down from Syria to the field speak of preparing attacks, choosing targets and saving them for the ‘day of decision’ — the war for the West Bank,” Fishman wrote. “The war for Gaza has already been won.”
The thinking in army circles is that after the Israeli withdrawal the Palestinians will see Gaza as “liberated” but will view the West Bank, which still will have a strong Israeli military and settler presence, as “occupied,” Fishman reported.
According to military intelligence, the Palestinians are making a major effort to obtain the materials they need to produce rockets in the West Bank, something that until now they have been able to do only in Gaza.
The report caused an outpouring of comment from the pro-settler right in Israel and the United States this week, after it was summarized on the settler radio station Arutz Sheva. The Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel and other anti-withdrawal groups cited it as evidence that the planned pullout from Gaza would weaken rather than strengthen Israel’s security.
The Arutz Sheva report, purportedly summarizing Fishman’s article, said that “official IDF sources predict that the withdrawal from Gaza will lead to Palestinian terrorism and violence worse than the previous intifadas.”
In fact, Fishman’s report did not quote any army sources saying the Gaza withdrawal would cause or “lead to” new attacks. Rather, it said the Palestinian groups, after adopting a lull in attacks to let the withdrawal proceed, would attempt to renew them in the fall. It said the army was developing new tactics to respond to the changing situation it will face in the West Bank.
Most of the Yediot report was focused on Palestinian weapons smuggling. It said the army now views smuggling as a top priority, after years of underestimating its importance.
The Gaza withdrawal, it said, was a tactical option presented by the army to the government as a response to the mounting proliferation of Palestinian weapons there. The other option presented was to “retake” Gaza as the West Bank had been retaken in 2002. The government chose the withdrawal option for a variety of reasons, not all of them military, Fishman wrote, adding that the withdrawal decision “fell on fertile ground in the army, which found itself as being in a position that could not be continued.”
The army’s top concern now is the growth of weapons smuggling into the West Bank, mainly via Israel’s largely unguarded border with Egypt. According to security sources cited by Fishman, weapons smuggled from Egypt into Israel between July 2004 and February 2005 include more than 3,000 assault rifles, 400,000 bullets, 400 pistols, 600 kilograms of explosives, 180 anti-tank missiles and five anti-aircraft missiles. The estimates are based on intercepted shipments, which are believed to total some 20% to 30% of the total.
“The most guarded state in the world is now the state with the most wide-open borders,” Fishman wrote.
Weapons are also said to be entering the West Bank from Jordan.
A top army concern is the growing involvement of Bedouins who transport the weapons through the desert, motivated not by ideology but by greed. The involvement of Bedouin Israeli citizens on the Negev smuggling route has forced a tactical shift, bringing the Israeli police into the picture. Police are now working to develop intelligence capabilities similar to the army’s and to create operational coordination, Fishman wrote.
Appearing before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in late March, Major General Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, confirmed that the Palestinian militias are trying to export technological know-how from Gaza to facilitate the manufacture of Qassam rockets in the West Bank.
Farkash added that despite a steep decline in current terrorist operations, the militias are enhancing their capabilities for future attacks. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also expressed concern.
During a visit to Washington, Mofaz said that Palestinians had smuggled Strella anti-aircraft rockets into Gaza, which he said “crosses a red line” for Israel. The Israeli fear is that if the Strellas are smuggled into the West Bank, they could be used against passenger planes taking off from Ben-Gurion Airport.