Sunday, January 27, 2002

Bombings, Shootings, and Intrigue

Eli Hobeika made the headlines again. He was the Christian Phalangist Warlord who, while allied with then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon in 1982, commanded the Christian militia which entered the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian camps and massacred hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian civilians. The massacre was conducted in revenge for the assassination of Hobeika’s commander, Bashir Gemayel, the self-declared Maronite Christian president of Lebanon. Ariel Sharon is facing an indictment for war crimes in Belgium; charges which were, by pure coincidence, brought immediately after he was elected Prime Minister, nineteen years after the incident. Hobekia, the man who planned, coordinated, and executed the massacre, was not mentioned in the indictment and has announced his desire to testify against Sharon. This week, several prominent Belgian members of parliament came to visit him and he agreed to testify. Those plans were indefinitely postponed, however, when he and three of his bodyguards were blown to smithereens by a massive car bomb as they entered his armored humvee at 9:40 Thursday morning.

The car bombing will be attributed to Israel. There is, or course, the motive of getting rid of a witness, and the Arabs attribute everything from currency fluctuations to hailstorms to Zionist conspiracies anyway. A new organization called “Lebanese for a Free and Independent Lebanon” claimed responsibility for the assassination. After Israel’s withdrawal from the Lebanese Civil War, Hobeika switched sides and supported Syrian Dictator Hafez al-Assad’s decision to invade and occupy Lebanon, where the Syrian army has been ever since. Hobeika’s support for Syria may be what made him a target, but we’ll never know. Imagine the frustration of planning and carrying out a perfect car bombing operation to publicize your cause, only to have it attributed to Israel.

Hafez Assad’s sickly son, Bashar Assad, took power after his father’s death about two years ago. He is quite young and inexperienced at 37, and has been facing increasing challenges to his country’s occupation of Lebanon. His response to challenges to his authority has been to attack Israel in order to provoke an Israeli retaliation, thus justifying his country’s presence in Lebanon to protect the defenseless Lebanese from Israeli aggression. Thursday night, Hizbullah forces, also under the command of Bashar Assad, launched a barrage of rockets and mortars on Israel’s northern cities, but there were no injuries. Israel responded by launching incursions into Southern Lebanon and bombing some targets to no effect. Sharon has, in the past, responded to Hizbullah attacks in northern Israel by bombing Syrian military installations in Lebanon.

Otherwise, the situation is continuing as normal. There was a shooting attack on a bus stop in Jerusalem on Thursday and two people were killed. One of the victims was a survivor of the massacre at Hebron in 1939, when that ancient Jewish community was destroyed in a previous “intifadah.” All the Palestinian terror organizations have now agreed to launch all-out war on Israel. This must be the seventh or eighth time Hamas has “declared all out war,” and promised to make the lives of Israelis “living hell.” One wonders how many times they have to declare war before they think we get it. Arafat also launched into a tirade of scathing clich├ęs that Israel has “Crossed every red line” and is “humiliating” him.

Today, the Sbarro Italian restaurant in downtown Jerusalem was blown up for a second time, having reopened its doors just a few months ago after completing repairs from the first time it was bombed. One passerby was killed and there are at least 100 casualties. Interestingly, this time it appears that the suicide bomber was a woman. That would be yet another first for Arafat.

Israel has been busy too, running in and out of “Area A”, areas of supposedly full Palestinian sovereignty, a term with less and less meaning by the hour. Last week, the army reoccupied the entire city of Tulkarm for several days and made house-to-house searches for weapons, and then raided a Hamas bomb factory, killing four. It seems that Israel is gradually losing its fear of guerilla warfare. At the beginning of the conflict, most analysts were terrified of reentering Palestinian areas and engaging in street fighting. It was assumed that there were thousands of suicide bombers ready to throw themselves onto approaching Israeli tanks, and that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas had worked out elaborate plans to inflict huge casualties on the Israeli Defense Forces. That now appears not to be the case. Israel keeps stepping up its actions, and there is relatively little resistance.

That’s not to say that Hamas and the PA aren’t trying. Yesterday, they launched three crude Kassam 2 rockets on Jewish communities in the Gaza area. The Kassam 2 is an easily constructed but inaccurate home-made rocket capable of carrying 10 pounds of explosives. The rocket has a long enough range to strike into the heart of every Israeli city. Hamas and the PA have also been trying to manufacture primitive chemical weapons such as mustard gas. Traces of rat poison and other chemical agents have been found on the corpses of several suicide bombers, but they so far have had no effect. The fear is that Arafat can attach a 10-pound canister of mustard gas to several Kassam 2 rockets and launch a chemical attack on Israel. The army today announced that the Palestinians have successfully smuggled Kassam 2s into Tulkarm, only a few miles from Tel Aviv, and are now capable of launching an attack at any time. Sharon announced that the army would reoccupy any city from which Kassam 2s originated, so it’s only a matter of time now.

Arafat is still contained in his headquarters in Ramallah, his office surrounded by Israeli tanks. His release is conditional the capture of two terrorists who assassinated Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi. In yet another display of increasing sanity and understanding, the Bush administration publicly backed Israel’s decision to keep Arafat imprisoned. As White House spokesman Aryeh Fleischer told reporters, “The president understands the reason that Israel has taken the action that it takes, and it is up to Chairman Arafat to demonstrate the leadership to combat terrorism." Secretary of State Colin Powell has demanded a better explanation from Arafat over the weapons ship captured a few weeks ago. Arafat’s “internal investigation” revealed that it was in fact a Romanian ship which was actually transporting construction materials to Israel. He did not say where the arms had come from. Aryeh Fleischer, however, announced that Arafat had indeed paid for the arms, and that the incident, "has immensely complicated the prospects for getting a return to the peace in the Middle East." The Bush administration is now supposedly considering cutting all contacts with Arafat, closing the Palestinian Authority office in Washington, and cutting off all American funding. The process has already started by declaring the “Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade,” a splinter of a splinter of Yassir Arafat’s Fatah gang, to be a terrorist organization. Anthony Zinni came out earlier today and compared Arafat to New York mafia boss Carlo Gambino, and said that Arafat’s security service chiefs are like mafia bosses who boast about their weapons and how many people they have killed. He referred to Sharon lovingly as a “Papa Bear.”

Meanwhile, the shekel keeps falling and falling in value. On January 1st, I could buy a bottle of coke for five shekels. Today, it costs 6.25. This is further complicated, as the 5 agurot (0.05 shekel) coin has been largely removed from circulation, so I end up paying 6.30. The shekel, which was at 4.05 per dollar at the beginning of 2000 and actually strengthened against the dollar during 1999, is expected to continue devaluing and eventually level off at around five shekels per dollar. Everyone with any savings in shekels has already converted to dollars.

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