protester fatah 298 88.
(photo credit: AP)
The suicide attack near the entrance to Kedumim on Thursday was a daring and audacious operation. It involved a young Palestinian from the Hebron area, who traveled to Nablus, picked up a bomb, crossed through an IDF checkpoint, disguised himself as a haredi and stood at a popular hitchhiking post where he caught a ride which ended up being his target.
Defense officials admitted that the attack was impressive but what concerned them the most, they said, was the group that claimed responsibility - the Aksa Martyrs Brigades armed branch of the Fatah movement.
While Fatah, the long dominant Palestinian party, has never completely abstained from terror activity and has been involved particularly in Kassam rocket attacks in Gaza, Thursday's suicide attack, officials said, was the first perpetrated by a Fatah affiliate since a February 2005 Palestinian cease-fire.
Fatah and Hamas, officials warned over the weekend, seem to have switched roles. While newly-installed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on its gunmen to stop marching around Gaza with weapons, Samir Masharawi - a senior Gaza-based Fatah figure - rejected the call. Hamas, a security official said, was trying to at least outwardly show itself as reforming and that it has cut back its terror activity in an attempt to establish itself as a non-violent government.
But Fatah, officials warned, might have other plans. With the disengagement from the Gaza Strip this past summer hailed as the result of terrorism, Fatah terrorists might be thinking that suicide attacks are the group's ticket back into office.
With Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert planning to pull out of much of the West Bank in the coming years, Fatah, security officials explained, might be trying to gain credibility with the public like Hamas did and create the impression that Israel is retreating under fire.
But whatever the case, Thursday's attack also demonstrates the new partnerships formed between the different terror groups. While the bomber, 24-year-old Ahmad Mashrake, was a Fatah operative, the bomb, officials said, was supplied by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Nablus infrastructure. The IDF's incessant operations in the territories, one military officer said, had terror groups under pressure and subsequently was creating interesting pacts and bonds between them.
The motivation was also coming from outside Israel, officials explained, with Iran, Syria and Hizbullah sending millions of dollars to the territories to fund the attacks. "Iran doesn't care to which groups the suicide bomber belongs," one official explained, adding: "As long as there is money, everyone will be vying for a piece of the action."
The IDF Planning Directorate has already begun drawing up plans in anticipation of an escalation, and predictions are that a third intifada will break out this summer. The Central Command is already sending battalions to urban warfare centers to sharpen soldiers' skills for the long operations that can be expected within Samarian terror capitals like Jenin and Nablus.
The West Bank, however, is not the army's sole problem. In Gaza, the army is waging a harsh daily battle against Kassam cells, but without much success. Even as Navy warships and IAF aircraft bombed launch sites on Saturday, the Palestinians still succeeded in firing four rockets - two of which landed near Kibbutz Zikim.
While the army doesn't like to talk about it, the Southern Command does have a contingency plan for a massive ground operation in the Gaza Strip. The Givati Brigade is currently manning the security fence and is on standby if OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant gets the green light from Olmert.
"We know how to enter Gaza in a ground operation," one field officer recently predicted. "The exact timing depends on the developments and when we will be fed up with the rocket attacks."