A few days ago, a crew from Israel's state-run television was secretly invited to a detention center in the West Bank town of Jericho, now under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. They were guests of Col. Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian security service in Jericho. To their surprise, they were allowed to interview and film Muhammad Abu Varda, a member of the Izzidin al-Qassam military wing of Hamas. In a quiet voice, Abu Varda told his interviewer how he was instructed by his commander to select suitable candidates for suicide bombings and send them on their missions. At the end of the interview, he was asked what Hamas hopes to achieve by killing innocent people (60 have died in the four latest Hamas bombings). "We wanted to create chaos," he said, "which would generate a political change in Israel. It was our intention to bring down the Labor government in the elections and crown the right-wing Likud to power."
It is difficult to accept Abu Varda's statement at face value. The interview was conducted after he had been interrogated by Rajoub's investigators and sentenced to life in prison by a Palestinian security tribunal. On the other hand, it is not inconceivable that Hamas, which does not recognize the right of Israel to exist and conspires to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, had indeed sought to bring down the Israeli government. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu does not conceal his intention to stop the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority if he becomes prime minister, a goal shared by Hamas.
Thus, despite its dubious and tragic circumstances, the interview shows how closely linked terrorism and Israeli domestic politics are. Issues of security, terrorism, political stability and personal safety have always dominated Israel's national agenda, especially during election campaigns. As such, the fight against terrorism, in many ways, is damage-control politics.
With his ratings sharply dropping 80 days before important elections, Prime Minister Shimon Peres eagerly seized the opportunity given to him by the terrorist's claim. Professing his lack of surprise upon learning that Hamas wants Likud in power, Peres called upon Israelis to show responsibility and "not to allow bloody terrorists to determine our future."
The Likud angrily reacted to Peres' remarks. Zeev Benjamin Begin, a prominent member of Parliament and the son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, charged that the interview with Abu Varda was a joint venture by "the two partners, Arafat and Peres" to influence the Israeli electorate and "divert attention" from the government's failure to stop terrorism.
What Begin and other opposition leaders refer to as a "failure" is a package of 14 steps, undertaken last week by the Labor-led government, to crush Hamas' military wing and terrorist infrastructure. The heart of the strategy is a new structure to fight terrorism, with Gen. Ami Ayalon, the chief of Shabak, Israel's General Security Service, as its head. The anti-terrorist center will coordinate the activities of Israel's military and security establishment, with police, military intelligence, Mossad, the foreign-espionage agency and Shabak all represented. But the measures adopted to eradicate terrorism are hardly new nor have they distinguished themselves by being effective. Some of them violate basic democratic values.
Since the four suicidal attacks, several villages on the West Bank still controlled by Israel were put under curfew. These villages are hotbeds of fundamentalist agitation and recruitment. Ayalon disclosed that his agents had identified, in one village of 6,000 inhabitants, more than 40 teenagers eager to die for the Hamas cause. Several religious seminars that harbored Hamas activists were shut down. Dozens of people suspected of belonging to Izzidin al-Qassam were detained and are now being interrogated by Shabak agents. Families of exposed Hamas activists, including the families of the terrorists who blew themselves up in the recent attacks, were evacuated from their homes, which were sealed and prepared for demolition.
Although it has not been officially confirmed, it is understood that the Peres government authorized Ayalon and his center to use all means available, including assassination. In the past 20 years, Israel has occasionally resorted to assassination in its struggle against Palestinian and Arab terrorism. Following the murder, at the Munich Olympics in September 1972, of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir sanctioned the intelligence community to assassinate all involved in the murders. During the five-year Palestinian intifada, Israeli special forces followed a policy of "shoot on sight" for suspects identified by Israeli intelligence as terrorists. Last November, Mossad agents killed Dr. Fathi Shikaki, leader of the Islamic Jihad, on Malta. A month later, Shabak agents assassinated Yehiya Ayash, better-known as the "engineer," by booby-trapping his cellular phone. Ayash was a senior operative of the Izzidin al-Qassam.
The recent wave of Hamas attacks on Israeli cities is thought to be the revenge of the "pupils of the engineer." His case, agrees Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, reflects the dilemma facing Israeli planners. In 1992, when Saguy was head of military intelligence, he recommended, at a Cabinet meeting, the elimination of Sheik Abbas Moussawi, leader of Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian, Lebanon-based Muslim fundamentalist organization. In retaliation for Moussawi's death, Hezbollah agents blew up the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing dozens of Israeli diplomats and passersby. "I thought then," Saguy admits, "and still think today that it is right to kill him, despite the heavy price we paid. How can you fight terrorism without killing its leaders? True, the liquidation of master terrorists can be very effective but occasionally counterproductive. The dilemma always exists: Is the damage you cause to the enemy bigger than his revenge?"
Less risky and probably the most effective measure at Israel's disposal is the enhanced cooperation between Israeli security services and their Palestinian counterparts. Most of the wanted terrorists, the leaders of Izzidin al-Qassam, have found shelter in the areas under control of the Palestinian Authority. Since the signing, in September 1993, of the Israeli-PLO agreement, Israeli prime ministers have urged Arafat to act against Hamas. The Palestinian president, however, was reluctant. He was and still is afraid that a serious confrontation with the fundamentalists will turn into a civil war. Thus, to maintain his acrobatic dance on a tightrope between Israeli pressures and his self-perceived interests, Arafat would occasionally order the arrest of some Hamas members, who would be released in a matter of days or weeks.
But Israeli experts on terrorism now believe that Arafat has no choice but to act firmly. Indeed, there are signs he has instructed his security apparatus to crack down on Hamas militants and to strengthen cooperation with Israel's security services. Rajoub's agents arrested nearly 300 Hamas members and stormed several religious colleges in Gaza and on the West Bank. Izzidin al-Qassam and Islamic Jihad were declared unlawful organizations. Two Israeli agents were present at the interrogation of Abu Varda. But, according to Moshe Shahal, the Israeli minister for internal security, "the steps taken by the Palestinian Authority are encouraging but insufficient." Over the weekend, Shabak supplied its Palestinian counterpart with a list of 13 most-wanted Hamas terrorists, hoping that Rajoub and his agents will be permitted to arrest them. "The test is not in declarations but in deeds." said Shahal.
Shahal and his Cabinet colleagues know there is no magic recipe to eliminate terrorism. Coordinated and surgical operations, made possible by good intelligence-gathering, can only reduce the threat. "The fight against terrorism," says a senior Shabak official, "is basically an exercise in damage control." The problem is, the public refuses to accept the limits of the war against terrorism. People want 100% security; they eagerly hang on to promises "to get rid of, once and forever, terrorists."
Recent polls indicate that if the Palestinian president indeed produces evidence and tangible results showing his determination to fight terrorism, the Israeli public may give Labor's Peres another chance. But if the public questions Arafat's sincerity and is unsatisfied with his actions, they would blame their own government--not Arafat. This means, as some polls already predict, that Netanyahu will be the next prime minister of Israel.