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Hijacking the Intifada? Ed Blanche reports from Beirut on what appears to be Al Qaeda's widening infiltration of Lebanon and the prospects of the Palestinian Intifada being hijacked to promote terror.

THE DEMISE OF YASSER ARAFAT, WHO for four decades embodied the struggle for Palestinian statehood, may well ignite a potentially catastrophic power struggle that could forever wreck any prospect of an independent homeland, or it could break the impasse in the peace process with Israel. But there is another scenario: with Arafat out of the picture there are opportunities for outside powers to intervene more forcefully in the Intifada--possibly even take it over--and escalate the attacks on Israel, turning up the heat on the Jewish state. All this at a time when the war against the US-led occupation in Iraq is reaching fever pitch ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for this month (January 2005).

Hizbullah and its patrons in Iran, already in US and Israeli crosshairs over the Tehran regime's alleged nuclear weapons programme, are becoming increasingly involved in the Intifada, and according to some accounts are responsible for much of the current violence by providing funding, weapons and paramilitary expertise.

Al Qaeda, which appears to be widening its infiltration of Lebanon, supposedly with Hizbullah's sanction, would also like to move into the Palestinian Territories, using them as a springboard for a campaign of violence against Israel. Like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda seeks the defeat of Israel and the more an accommodation seems possible, the greater the fundamentalists' wrath.

Security officials in Israel are concerned that one of Arafat's leading heirs, Mahmoud Abbas, universally known by his nom de guerre of Abu Mazen, and a contender for the chairmanship of the Palestinian Authority, may be assassinated by Iranian-backed extremists because he is prepared to seek a peace agreement with Israel. The Israelis believe Abbas, who openly opposed the Intifada as counter-productive to Palestinian aspirations for an independent state is in danger.

Iran, Hizbullah and Bin Laden oppose vehemently any Palestinian accommodation with Israel, however temporary and there is a danger, some fear, that as the insurgency in Iraq has been heavily infiltrated by jihadists who now appear to dominate many of the anti-US forces there, so the Intifada will become another extension of the global war against terrorism rather than the localised conflict led by nationalist Palestinians, Islamist or secular, it is currently.

Osama bin Laden declared war against the "Zionists and Crusaders" as far back as February 1998, and he underlined his interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in his latest videotape, in which he claims that the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States were inspired by his fury at America's role in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. In that conflict, west Beirut, controlled by the Muslims and the headquarters of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation, was pounded by artillery fire, air strikes and naval bombardment for weeks on end.

"The incidents that affected me directly go back to 1982 and afterwards, when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, with the help of the American 6th Fleet," Bin Laden said in his new videotape. "As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust the same way, to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women."

The US federal commission that investigated the 11 September 2001 attacks concluded in its report released in June 2004, that there existed "far greater potential for collaboration between Hizbullah and Al Qaeda than many had previously thought".

The report noted "the relationship between Al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shi'ite divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations". Hizbullah has repeatedly denied any links with Al Qaeda, and some counter-terrorism experts are dismissive of any operational alliance between the two organisations because of their religious and ideological differences. But claims by Israel and others have been given some weight, as evidence has mounted of Hizbullah's direct involvement in the Intifada, while Al Qaeda's presence in Lebanon seems to be intensifying.

Former senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst Michael Scheuer said in his best-selling book, Imperial Hubris, that Al Qaeda's presence in Lebanon is not necessarily aimed at coordinating operations with Hizbullah, but rather to establish bases close to Israel so it can launch attacks directly on the Jewish state, something the Israelis have dreaded since 9/11.

According to As Safir, a leading leftist newspaper published in Beirut, Al Qaeda planted roots in Lebanon as far back as 1996, with commanders, now either in prison or dead, linked directly to Osama bin Laden's eminence grise, Ayman Al Zawahiri, a leading Egyptian jihadist. In October 2001, Lebanese military intelligence arrested two men in the northern port city of Tripoli, a bastion of Sunni extremists and charged them with planning attacks against western targets in Lebanon.

Both men belonged to a small Tripoli-based offshoot of Egypt's Al Gamma Al Islamiyah and an extremist Sunni group called Asbat Al Ansar--formed by veterans of the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan, and the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya--which in turn was involved in a December 1999 mini-rebellion by Sunni militants of another fundamentalist group, Takfir wal Al Hijra, in the Dinniyeh region of northern Lebanon. The leader of Takfir wal Al Hijra, Bassam Ahmed Al Kanj, who fought alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan, was killed along with 40 others in the clash. But those of his group who escaped were given shelter by Asbat in its stronghold in the Ein Al Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon.

The sprawling shantytown, the largest refugee camp in Lebanon, is a no-go zone for Lebanese authorities, the last autonomous Palestinian stronghold in Lebanon and Arafat's most important base there. It has been the scene for the last couple of years of constant clashes between Arafat loyalists and groups allegedly linked to Al Qaeda. On 3 March 2003, Egyptian-born Afghan war veteran Mohammed Masri, identified by Israel as Al Qaeda's representative in Ein Al Hilweh, was assassinated there in a car bombing widely attributed to Israel.

According to various sources in Lebanon and elsewhere, Hizbullah (aided by Iranian agents) and Al Qaeda wanted to take over Ein Al Hilweh covertly (while making it seem as though it remained under Arafat's control) as a logistics base to build up Hizbullah cells in Gaza by sea through northern Sinai.

With Gaza in turmoil, with pro-and anti-Arafat forces openly battling in the streets, the Territory is apparently seen as ripe for exploitation by Hizbullah.

A 25 August 2004 attempt to assassinate the deputy chief of Arafat's General Intelligence Service, Brigadier General Tarek Abu Rajab, in Gaza City was seen by some of Arafat's lieutenants as a bid by Hizbullah, presumably sanctioned by Tehran, to weaken his security apparatus in a bold challenge to the Palestinian Authority leadership. Rajab was wounded in the chest, but survived.

Arafat's people believe the attack, which they say was carried out by Palestinians recruited by Hizbullah, was linked to an attempt a few days later to kill senior Arafat officers in Ein Al Hilweh. As it happens, two junior Fatah officers were killed while the intended targets, including Colonel Abdul Jaafar, who heads Fatah security in the camp, escaped injury.

The overall strategy seems to be that Hizbullah, possibly in tandem with Al Qaeda, essentially hijack the Intifada and take over Gaza, presumably with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to threaten Israel from the south, as Hizbullah has done in the north for two decades.

This is anathema to Egypt, as well as Israel. But the bombing of three hotels in Egyptian Red Sea resorts on 7 October, killing 34 people, many of them Israelis, was seen as the work of Islamic militants linked to Al Qaeda since the Palestinians would not want to harm their relations with Cairo. Those bombings, a stone's throw from Israel, followed calls by Zawahiri for attacks on Israel and Egypt.

Israeli security chiefs have been saying since 2002 that Al Qaeda has been active in the Palestinian Territories. Following the Red Sea bombings in October 2004, Israel's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, told the Knesset's Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee the military had recently foiled an attempt by Al Qaeda to establish a stronghold in the Territories.

Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi, a Palestinian-Jordanian who is the leading jihadist fighting the US-led occupation in Iraq, also seems to showing a growing interest in Lebanon. He had links with Asbat's Al Khanj from their days in Afghanistan and in October supposedly pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. According to declassified information released by the US Treasury in September 2003, he and his associates in Germany had been involved in "smuggling terrorists into Israel", apparently through Lebanon.

Zarqawi, who has been blamed for bomb attacks against Jewish targets in Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere, will presumably also seek to do the same through Jordan, where his Tawheed wal Jihad organisation had its roots. With Arafat out of the frame, the jihadists could find infiltrating the Occupied Territories much easier. But that won't help the Palestinian cause at all; rather it will taint the struggle for a Palestinian state with the jihadist stamp and alienate what little support the Palestinians still have.

Hizbullah raised the stakes in November by sending an Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over northern Israel, the first such incursion of Israeli air space and a highly provocative move. The propeller-driven craft evaded Israel's vaunted air defences and caused fury and fretting in the military. Iranian sources said Hizbullah had been supplied with eight of the UAVs. Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, declared that the movement could produce its own UAVs and that the one they had could carry 40kg of explosives--raising the prospect of a "mega attack" of the kind carried out by jihadists in the US, Morocco, Spain, East Africa, Turkey and elsewhere.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Comment:Hijacking the Intifada? Ed Blanche reports from Beirut on what appears to be Al Qaeda's widening infiltration of Lebanon and the prospects of the Palestinian Intifada being hijacked to promote terror.(Current Affairs)
Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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