The last weeks have seen increasingly fierce fighting at flashpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, between Palestinian police and security forces and armed civilian militants, often operating from behind youngsters and children serving as “cannon fodder.” The violence was initiated by Chairman Yasser Arafat when he realized that the Camp David summit could not deliver the kind of agreement he dreamt of - the establishment of a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and the West Bank with Jerusalem’s Old City as its capital. The events have revealed a two-fold strategy, prepared by Arafat over the past months. On the one hand, Arafat aims for the “lebanonization” of the conflict in the Territories. On the other, there is an attempt to drag the Arab countries into a conflict with Israel for the liberation of Palestine - beginning with economic conflict and possibly progressing to a full-scale military conflict.
The entanglement strategy This second aspect of Arafat’s strategy is not, in fact, new. Fatah, Arafat’s staging ground before he became chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), opened its terrorist campaign against Israel at the beginning of 1965 with the aim of implementing what Arafat himself, in his first public interview, called as “the entanglement strategy.” This involved using sabotage across the borders in order to force Israel to adopt a retaliatory policy against the Arab countries from which the Palestinian attacks were launched. This would in turn force the Arabs to step up their military preparedness. This cycle of action-retaliation-reaction was meant to lead to a gradual escalation of tension on the borders, and eventually all out war against Israel. The Syrian military activity against Israel in the contention over the sources of the Jordan River, and Egypt’s unhappy decision to deploy its troops in the Sinai did indeed trigger the Six Day War in 1967, but with disastrous consequences for the Arab armies and governments.
The last Arab League Summit, held in Cairo in October has not answered Arafat’s hopes for more active Arab intervention in the conflict with Israel. However, the deterioration of the situation and the opening of a second front in Lebanon could lead to Arab military involvment in the conflict.
The internationalization of the conflict and the resulting reduction of United States’ role in the bi-lateral negotiations is another of Arafat’s strategic goals. The new international environment favors the pacification of ethnic conflicts through the intervention of internationally military forces, on the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo. Thus, Arafat strives to obtain the intervention of the United Nations, the European countries and the Islamic world on the side of the Palestinians.
Lebanonization The main facet of Arafat’s strategy is the attempt to “lebanonize” the conflict. This involves the use of the Palestinian armed forces in the Territories and Palestinians living in the refugee camps in Lebanon and perhaps in Jordan, with the eventual aim of dragging the Palestinian citizens of Israel into the armed conflict.
Arafat hopes also that the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, enraged by the continuous murderous Palestinian attacks will begin to form militias—on the example of the Christian Phalanges in Lebanon—and will perpetrate uncontrollable violent actions. This would lead to their being outlawed by the international community and detested by the Israelis themselves.
On January 1st 2000, “Fatah day,” Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah was interviewed by the Palestinian Authority’s newspaper, Al-Ayyam. He advised the Palestinians to initiate an Intifada and guerrilla war against the Israelis, based on Hizballah’s example and promised to support the Palestinian struggle in the refugee camps in southern Lebanon, provided their actions were coordinated and guided by the Hizballah.
The hasty unilateral withdrawal by the IDF from South Lebanon in June 2000 has indeed instilled enormous hopes in the Palestinian population that the same scenario is achievable in their conflict with Israel. This has encouraged them to imitate the strategy and tactics that seemed so successful in bringing about an IDF withdrawal. Arafat initially seemed embarrassed by the great victory of Hizballah, compared with what he saw as meager results of the peaceful negotiations with Israel. However, the Palestinian Authority quickly took steps to restore its image by adopting the Hizballah strategy after the failure of the Camp David summit in September 2000.
The Palestinian Authority possesses one of the essential prerequisites for a guerrilla war: the control over a “liberated territory” from which to wage a guerrilla war of attrition against a much stronger adversary, the IDF military forces on the one hand, and the Israeli settlers, on the other hand. At the same time, it can support this low intensity warfare with strategic terrorist suicide actions by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad cells. The operatives of these groups, who were largely liberated since the beginning of the uprising, have been co-opted in the General Command of the Intifada. Actually, in case of need, the old Fatah terrorist apparatuses can also be reactivated to join forces with the Islamist groups in a terrorist campaign, as was lately demonstrated by several incidents involving the preparation of terrorist acts by Palestinian Authority policemen and Tanzim (Fatah militia) activists.
The phase strategy There are hints that Arafat has not yet abandoned the “phase strategy” adopted by the PLO at the 1974 Palestinian National Congress. The “phase strategy” advocates the liberation of every inch of Palestinian territory which can be obtained through political negotiations with Israel and the continuation of the struggle from this territory for the liberation of all occupied Palestine.
That this strategy is still a factor in Arafat’s thinking is evident from his refusal to reach a peace agreement concluded with the declaration of “the end of the conflict,” as well as his oft-repeated public declarations about the inalienable right of return for all the Palestinian refugees. An additional element supporting such a policy is the manipulation of the Palestinian inhabitants of Israel and their leaders during the solidarity riots with the intifada al-Aqsa, which aimed at opening a second front with Israel. The role of Hizballah It is essential to understand the role played by Hizballah in the current phase of the Palestinian conflict in order to understand the real background for its high standing in the eyes of the Palestinians and the Arab masses. One of the major strategic errors of the Israeli leadership over the last ten years has been to see Iran as largely responsible for Hizballah’s guerrilla and terrorist activity against Israel and the success of its operations.
In fact, all the weapons and logistic support by the Iranians has always transited through Syria and has taken place under its full control, and therefore the Syrian government can be considered co-responsible for the Iranian sponsorship of Hizballah. The Syrian “protectorate” in Lebanon has permitted the Shi’a organization to gain the approval and support of Lebanon’s government for the Hizballah control of southern Lebanese territory, without which no successful guerilla warfare could be launched. Even so, Hizballah’s 400-500-strong guerrilla force would have been no match for the IDF, but for the strategic umbrella of the Syrian military forces stationed in Lebanon, which the various Israeli governments have chosen not to confront. It should be noted that Syria also sponsors all the Palestinian radical organizations—from the Islamist Hamas and PIJ to the leftist PFLP—all of whose leadership is stationed in Damascus.
Hizballah has strengthened its stand on the Lebanese internal arena after its successes in the September 2000 elections and vis-à-vis Syria after the death of Hafez al-Assad. From the latest actions of the organization on the northern Israeli border, such as the kidnapping of the three Israeli soldiers, and the numerous declarations of its leaders, it is clear that Hizballah will continue its guerrilla and terrorist war against Israel. The Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon forces Hizballah to fight now under different pretexts, for example, its claim to support the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, the need to liberate al-Quds (Jerusalem) and the fight to reach a solution for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Policy implications for Israel The “lebanonization” of the conflict with the Palestinians is the greater danger for Israel, because of the moral and operational difficulty in using IDF’s might against a military and guerrilla force entangled with a civil population. This is all the more true when the situation is monitored by the “hungry for ratings” media and by international human rights organizations. The continuation of the conflict according to this pattern will lead to more international intervention, and in light of the balance of power in the United Nations, this intervention will assuredly not be on Israel’s side.
The “disengagement” strategy devised by the Israeli government seems at the moment, in spite of the economical and political price involved, to be the only viable way to halt the escalation and the transformation of the Territories into a new South Lebanon. The physical separation of the two populations, despite the possibility of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, must take into consideration the long-term strategic security interests of Israel, and the need for defensible borders. At the same time there is the need to minimize the points of friction and conflict by removing those settlements that can serve as hostages or subject of retaliation by the Palestinians, leading to military escalation.
In the event of the continuation of serious armed or terrorist attacks against Israeli territory or settlements outside Palestinian jurisdiction the IDF must wage a relentless and selective military campaign against the Palestinian police, armed units and militias of all sorts, their bases, leaders and economic assets.
It is quite clear today that despite the Israeli reluctance to operate on two fronts, the Hizballah-Syrian front will continue to be active and to influence the events in the conflict with the Palestinian Authority.
Without a strategic military move against the Syrian umbrella it will be impossible to prevent the consolidation of Hizballah’s dominion in the northern area and the threat of escalation through cross-border guerrilla attacks, international terrorism or even cooperation and coordination with the Palestinian Intifada inside Israel.
The Israeli move against Syria need not necessarily lead to a full-scale war, as the Turkish showdown with Syria during the autumn of 1998 has shown. However, the Israeli government must be ready for any development.
A firm and unambiguous stand by Israel on the events on both fronts must be implemented quickly. The alternative is the assured loss Israel’s deterrence, which has always been the main element on which Israel’s strategy is based.