Jewish World Review July 24, 2002 / 15 Menachem-Av, 5762

David Warren

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Evil Sharon | Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, got his hand seriously slapped yesterday by George W. Bush, the U.S. president, for the way he eliminated Sheik Salah Sheheda, the Hamas military commander in the Gaza strip, from the Middle Eastern equation. He did this with guided rockets from an F-16, which killed not only Sheheda but his wife and three children and up to a dozen others in his house and the immediate surroundings. "Heavy-handed," was Mr. Bush's way of putting it. Nor were other world leaders shy.

In a separate and less-publicized operation yesterday morning, the Israelis also managed to kill Nasser Asida, a prominent Hamas commander on the West Bank, together with two of his associates in a shoot-out near Kedumim -- without any civilian casualties.

For the last two years, Sheheda had been at the top of Israel's most wanted list. The Israelis had tried and failed to kill him at least twice before. Within the Hamas operation in the Gaza Strip, he ranked below only the spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, though above him in lethality. (Yassin has been reported to have offered Israel a ceasefire; Sheheda was reported to have opposed this.) He was the "tactical genius" behind two massacres of Israeli soldiers (one of raw recruits), and Qassim rocket "sucker punches" on several Israeli settlements; behind the murder of yeshiva students in Atzmona; and behind an unknown but very high number of Hamas suicide bombers and snipers, each of them sent to kill as many Jews as possible as part of the "Aqsa Intifada" launched in September 2000.

The Israelis must have realized the risk of "collateral" casualties was high -- including probably children -- when they decided to attack from above. Sheheda was known to travel, like other leading terrorists, with fairly extensive "human shields"; in this case he seems to have had at least six children sleeping in his vicinity, in addition to his own. Among the dead was also Zahar Nasser, identified in the Western media as Sheheda's bodyguard, but in fact his lieutenant.

So why did the Israelis risk the publicity pummelling from such a mission? They chose their method because the alternative, going in on the ground, would have resulted in far more casualties, and on both sides. For Sheheda was found to be, late Monday night, at home in a small apartment building near the centre of Gaza City. To get to it on the ground would have meant a Mogadishu-style helicopter drop into the heart of the city, or going in the long way with tanks; in either case, carnage on several times the scale of Jenin. The method chosen was the most economical of human life.

Why kill him at all? This is a question that can only be asked at a great distance.

In addition to the obvious, it is apparent that having mostly pacified the West Bank, Israel is currently facing the threat of eruptions on two other fronts. One of them is Gaza, where Hamas, trapped within the Israeli security fence that surrounds the whole enclave, has been accumulating weapons by drop-off at sea and in its own backstreet bomb and rocket-making factories. Israeli intelligence believes a major "breakout" is planned, co-ordinated with Hezbollah and Fatah operations elsewhere. Indeed, Sheheda was known to be the personal link between Hamas in Gaza, and Hamas's main business office in Damascus, Syria (the point where Saddam Hussein would enter the picture).

Gaza is the lesser, more containable problem. Israel's recent incursions into the West Bank have been unmatched in Gaza; sooner or later they must march in to face Hamas down there. I would guess that the strike against Hamas leadership presages such an encounter. It makes sense to attack Hamas to the head, first. Not only do they kill the mastermind, but by doing so they set off what an Israeli intelligence source described as "premature fire works" -- when Hamas hotheads attempt immediate reprisals. (Classical Arab tactics, the Israelis are using here.)

Within hours, the Qassim rockets were being fired wildly towards Israeli positions, in Gaza and the Negev. And the IDF were ready to track them all to source.

The greater, less containable problem for Israel is in the north. On two occasions earlier this year, Israel and Syria almost went to war, over the Iranian-supplied and Syrian-protected build-up of Hezbollah arms and personnel in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. In both cases, war was averted by direct U.S. intervention, in which the secretary of state, Colin Powell, secured promises from the lips of the Syrian dictator, Bashir Assad, to rein in Hezbollah, and close down Palestinian terrorist fronts operating out of Damascus. Mr. Powell then made solemn promises to the Israelis, to stay on the case. But in neither event did anything happen after Mr. Assad's promises were made.

The Syrian dictator seems now to have taken strike three, looking. This was an Israeli warning made through the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. The gravity of the matter is underlined by a remark Mr. Mubarak is believed to have made to the Israeli defence minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, to the effect that, "Young Assad does not seem clever enough to understand his situation. I don't think he can read the geopolitical map."

The Israelis hardly need to be fighting on a new front, with forces to conserve against what may fall out of the impending U.S. confrontations with Iraq and Iran. Worse, there is the risk of triggering Iraqi or Iranian long-range missile strikes against Israeli urban centres, protected by anti-missile defences that have yet to be tested in war.

On the other hand, an attack on Syria and its Lebanese clients would be a welcome return to what the Israel Defence Forces are trained for, and do best: not guerilla, but conventional warfare.

As I understand, the IDF has now prepared and even rehearsed plans for something that could resemble the lightning strikes of 1967, but against Syrian interests alone. The intention would be to take out most of Syria's air and forward tank defences in one stroke, then weed out Hezbollah in a very thorough manner. Such an operation might possibly involve special forces incursions into Damascus itself, to touch previously untouchable terror command centres. It would certainly involve air strikes on such targets, and on official Syrian control and command; and could easily entail the end of the Assad family regime. Such an attack would also tend to free Lebanon from Syrian occupation.

What makes Israel hesitate, is the risk to Israeli civilians if some part of the mission were to go terribly wrong; in particular the danger presented by the sheer number of Iranian ground-to-ground missiles that Hezbollah and the Syrians have accumulated. On the other hand, since they are still being accumulated, why wait for the enemy to strike first?

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JWR contributor David Warren is a Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Comment by clicking here.

06/19/02: The end is nigh
06/17/02: Those darn American imperialists!

© 2002, Ottawa Citizen