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From Damascus to Ramallah

Michael Freund- Friday 10th Oct 2003

What a difference an air strike can make. Israel's daring attack this past Sunday against a Palestinian terrorist training camp on the outskirts of Damascus was one of the most encouraging signs to emerge from the Middle East in a long time.

After years of ineffectual and unimaginative efforts to counter anti-Israel terror, the government chose to hit the terrorists where they least expected it: in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, right under the nose of Bashar Assad and his dictatorial regime.

The attack was a slap in the face to the Syrian autocrat and a well-deserved one at that, underlining his regime's continued support for an array of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Coming at a time when the US Congress is considering the Syria Accountability Act, a bill that would empower the president to impose sanctions on Damascus for its sponsorship of terror, the Israeli air strike is bound to reinforce the need for this important piece of legislation.

Sunday's raid also laid bare the failure of US Secretary of State Colin Powell's Syria policy, which has thus far relied on diplomacy to persuade Assad to desist from harboring terrorist groups.

It was less than five months ago, in May 2003, that Powell visited Syria and politely asked Assad to close down the terrorist network operating in his country.

That request, as Sunday's attack made clear, was about as effective as asking the Taliban in Afghanistan to turn over Osama bin Laden. It fell on deaf ears, for the simple reason that Assad is not someone who can be reasoned with.

As Deputy Defense Minister Zev Boim told Israel Radio on Sunday, Damascus remains the headquarters for Islamic Jihad and Hamas, where the two groups plan their strategy and issue instructions to their members in the territories to carry out terrorist acts.

And, Boim noted, the Islamic Jihad cell in Jenin, which was responsible for this past Saturday's massacre of 19 Israelis in Haifa, maintains regular and ongoing contact with the leadership in Damascus. Hence, for all intents and purposes, Powell's approach has proven entirely unsuccessful.

More importantly, though, the air strike demonstrated that Israel is prepared to cross an international frontier and infringe upon its neighbor's sovereignty when the safety and security of its citizens is at stake.

In other words, it showed that Israel has not forsaken the will to live, and that it is ready to put aside concerns over international condemnation and strike hard at those who seek its destruction.

But the attack outside Damascus was not the only one Israel carried out that day. A second operation, which took place in the Gaza Strip, showed that the old, outmoded way of thinking is still very much alive in Israel's defense establishment.

Hours after the suicide bombing in Haifa, IAF jets reportedly targeted a house in Gaza, firing missiles at a compound that Yasser Arafat is said to use when he visits the city.

But that house was as empty as the thinking behind its destruction, because Arafat is safely holed up in Ramallah, and is known not to have visited the Gaza compound in nearly two years.

According to the media, the house was likely targeted to "send a signal" to Arafat, as though such a course of action had never been tried before.

But the time for signals is over. Arafat and his minions are beyond signals, far beyond.

If anything, the targeting of one of their empty compounds sends precisely the wrong message, suggesting that Israel is unwilling or unable to hit them directly and therefore settles for the next best thing by taking out their weekend retreat.

But the message Israel needs to be sending Arafat and the entire leadership of the Palestinian Authority is the same as the one it sent to Islamic Jihad on Sunday, namely that they are not safe anywhere.

There is no "out of bounds" in this war, and there can be no sanctuaries for terror, regardless of whether they are in Ramallah, Damascus, or Gaza.

The only way to get rid of terrorism is not to "isolate" it or ostensibly make it "irrelevant," but to eliminate its practitioners, the terrorists themselves. And that includes Yasser Arafat.

If Sunday's air raid near Damascus turns out to have been a one-time occurrence or a blip on the counter-terror radar screen, then its impact will last only as long as the smoke billowing over the terrorists' training camp.

But if it heralds a new strategy in Israel's war on terror, one in which it adopts bolder and more forceful measures which ultimately result in the elimination of the PA itself, then it just might prove to be the turning point we have all been hoping and praying for.

The writer served as deputy director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister's Office under former premier Binyamin Netanyahu.



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