Why did the Gaza bombing happen exactly when key Palestinian groups that were using terror had committed themselves to stop?

Alex Fishman
The two articles that follow took up two full pages of Yediot Achronot, a mass-circulation israeli newspapaer that has a right-of-center politics. Alex Fishman is their veteran correspondent for covering military, intelligence, and security affairs.

'Tanzim intended to stop terrorism'
Alex Fishman in Yediot Aharonot, 7/24/02

An hour and half after the heads of Tanzim agreed on publishing a declaration of a unilateral cease-fire, Israel liquidated Salim Shehade in Gaza. Thus was cut off a two-month old move aimed at achieving a cease-fire.

Day before yesterday, at 22:30, the heads of Tanzim, convened at Jenin, approved the text of a communique calling unilaterally for an end to fighting by Tanzim, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. A few hours before, Muhammad Dahlan [influntial former head of Palestinian Security in the Gaza Strip] met with [Hamas Leader] Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in which meeting Yassin accepted the principles of the cease-fire communique.

In fact, already starting on the past weekend, Sheik Yassin and [senior Hamas member] Abd-El-Aziz Rantisi started making statements aimed at creating a public atmosphere among the public conducive to accepting the cease-fire communique.

The Israeli military system ands the country's high political echelons were briefed officially on Monday by the European Union. In fact, that briefing was not needed, since Israel is already for weeks following the deliberations inside Tanzim on the idea of declaring a unilateral cease-fire without making any immediate demands upon Israel. The Tanzim initiative -backed by the European Community, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — is an ongoing move already deliberated for the past two months. Moreover, the organization's leader Marwan Barghouti, held in an Israeli prison, was informed of the initiative, and Palestinian sources say he was expected to give it his endorsement.

One and a half hour after the Tanzim leadership approved the document at its Jenin gathering, Israel carried out the assassination of Salah Shehadeh, in the course of which dozens of civilians were killed and wounded as well. In this way, Israel apparently destroyed the chance to test the viability of a cease-fire. The initiative did not originate from the Palestinian Authority, but from the grassroots level. Arafat was aware of the initiative, but neither led nor impeded it.

But for the Shehade liquidation, the Tanzim communique — calling for an end to suicide bombings, to the shooting of mortar shells and missiles and to any other activity against Israeli civilians — was due to be published already yesterday. Today, it was to be published as an article in the Washington Post and simultaneously in the Palestinian and Israeli press. The US Administration was also briefed on this initiative, though in essence it was internationally sponsored by the EU.

In the course of their two months' dialogue with the Tanzim, the Europeans were initially skeptical of the Tanzim choosing for a unilateral move, and even more skeptical about the Hamas and Islamic Jihad joining it, but to their surprise it came to fruition at the beginning of this week.

During their talks, the Europeans asked the Tanzim leader for their demands upon Israel. The text of the communique spoke of a unilateral cease-fire (see box). However, the Tanzim leaders told the Europeans that they were asking for an end to "targeted killings" by Israel, and to the demolition of houses, and for Israel to avoid deportations and withdraw its forces from the Palestinian cities.

The Tanzim people were asked for their envisioned timeline of Israeli withdrawal from the cities. Their answer, transmitted also to the Israeli military, was that they would like to get to January 2003, when Palestinian Authority elections are due to take place, with the cities free of Israeli military presence. Israeli military elements who were aware of the Tanzim move being formulated took it seriously. They made, however, the reservation that the Tanzim was in fact seeking to delay by about a year the decision in the conflict with Israel. They said that the Tanzim communuqe made no reference to essential issues such as the Right of Return, and that it continues to back Arafat.

In the defence establishment it was yesterday emphasized that they give no weight whatsoever to the Tanzim's projected communique, and that Hamas was not going to be a party to it.

The Tanzim Communique — full text

According to West European sources, the following is the text of the Tanzim communique which was due to be published today in the territories:

We, representatives of the Tanzim and Fatah, in the name of our comrades and organizations in all the towns and villages of the West Bank and Gaza, declare that from this moment on we are stopping any and all attacks on innocent, non-combatant men, women and children. We call upon all Palestinian political organizations and movements to put an immediate end to such attacks, and to do so without any hesitations or preconditions.

For our part, we will halt all such attacks and work with other Palestinian political organizations in order to achieve their support. We will monitor the activities of organizations in order to ensure that no such actions are being planned or carried out, and we will take part in a national dialogue aimed at convincing our people that this is the right course to take. We undertake a permanent commitment to this policy, and our efforts in promoting it will be determined and tireless.

Our revolution is stating out under a new principle. We will continue our struggle and defend our people. We will oppose any aggression aimed at our cities and our families, against the confiscation of our land and the deportation of our people, against the slow, deliberate, pitiless destruction of our society and our aspirations, against the ongoing occupation of the West Bank by the Israeli army. All these we will go on opposing and rebelling against.

[second article — published alongside the first one]

A justified target, a strange timing
By Alex Fishman

Is it possible that somebody in Israel's high political and military echeleons wanted to deliberately sabotage the chances for a cease-fire? God forbid. Such a thing is unthinkable in our country. But then, how to explain that exactly an hour and half after the Tanzim heads agreed upon the text of their call for a unilateral ceasefire, Israel liquidated in such a clumsy way the head of the Hamas military wing in the Gaza Strip, thereby also liquidating a chance — faint as it may have been — to calm down the region? Is it just coincidence? Or are we locked upon the concept that any Palestinian move is always a lie or conspiracy?

The target was more than justified: Shehadeh was an arch-terrorist who should have been liquidated years ago. But the timing of the liquidation is very strange, and the clumsy implementation very untypical of Military Intelligence and the Air Force. As if somebody was in a very big hurry to carry it out right this moment, no matter what.

Shehadeh was a target whose "targeted killing" was approved many months ago. The collection of intelligence about him involved an enormous effort. Just two weeks ago it was found out that he had moved to a new house, the same where he was yesterday liquidated. Already last Friday the missile sights were turned upon him, but the attack was called off when it turned out that a female relative of his was nearby. As far as the armed forces were concerned, there was no doubt — this was a legitimate target approved by the political echelon.

But what would have happened had the political echelon decided to postpone the liquidation and wait to see what would come of the Tanzim/European initiative? Military Intelligence has no confidence in the Tanzim cease-fire initiative, still less in Tanzim's ability to get Hamas involved in that initiative. But Military Intelligence makes no more than recommendations. It was for the political echelon to consider and decide upon the importance of that declaration. After all, Tanzim declaring a unilateral cease-fire would amount to declaring the failure of the Intifada. It could have amounted to a victory of Ariel Sharon's policies. But somebody's finger seemed to itching on the trigger.

It is reasonable to assume that a pinpoint liquidation of the man alone would not have aroused the would anger against us in such a way. But a plane with a bomb can go wrong. In this case, the pilot made no mistake — he landed the bomb exactly where he was instructed to land it. The mistake was in another place, in the basic considerations — and not only those of the armed forces. For almost two years, the Air Force is carrying out attacks in the Territories.

Pilots involved in targeted killing speak proudly — and present action footage to prove their point — of enormous effort invested and the many safety precautions taken before the trigger is pressed, in order to avoid harming innocent civilians. So far, the Air Force and the IDF kept this ethical code in a most respectful way. And suddenly, exactly yesterday, Intelligence gave wrong information which led to wrong action. This is no small "intelligece discrepency". It is a very big hole in the intelligence-gathering process. Mistakes always happen, but the liquidation of Shehade was no tactical move of liquidating yet another local terrorist. It was a strategic move.

Where was the Minister of Defence, who is supposed to be a balancing factor between the political and military echelons and weigh carefully all the considerations before taking such a significant military move? So, instead of trying to measure the seriousness of the Tanzim's intentions to declare a cease-fire, we are preparing ourselves to absorb a new wave of suicide bombings, which will require of us more painful and justified reactions. Did we already talk of the conquest of Gaza?