WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad have stepped up their attempts to carry out terror attacks against Israel, and the head of Israel's security service has warned the attacks already comprise a full-scale new terrorist offensive.
Yuval Diskin, head of the Shabak, or General Security Service, popularly known as the Shin Bet, told Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at least 12 potential suicide bomber attacks had been thwarted in the past 10 days alone. The country was already "at the peak of a new wave of terror," he said according to a report Monday in the respected Tel Aviv daily Haaretz.
On Sunday, one Israeli was killed and five other people injured when a knife-wielding terrorist attacked them in a taxi near Beilinson Hospital. The assailant, Ahmed Kafina, 22, from Sawiya near Nablus, was overpowered by passers-by.
This weekend alone, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet thwarted at least two suicide bombings planned by Islamic Jihad cells in Nablus, Diskin told the Cabinet. He also told the ministers that in the past 10 days, in all "12 potential suicide bombers" had been arrested and "a new and worrisome wave of terror" was taking place, Haaretz said.
Israeli security officials told Haaretz that the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah headquarters in Damascus and Beirut were streaming large sums of money into the territories to spur on terror cells to carry out attacks. The sources said they believed the most extreme Islamic groups were behind the attacks, in order to stymie efforts by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, whose victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections would make it harder for it to support further attacks, to reach an indirect agreement with Israel regarding a long-term cease-fire.
The new attacks open a series of security questions whose answers over the next few weeks will have far-ranging repercussions on the future of Israeli politics and the issues of war and peace across the entire Middle East.
First, will Hamas be willing to crack down on Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, to prevent them carrying out terror attacks on Israel? And second, even if they should prove willing to do so, will they be able to?
This is especially questionable in the case of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which operates from Southern Lebanon and which therefore is not particularly susceptible to coercion or influence by Hamas.
In the past, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat got away with playing a double game for more than a decade, repeatedly pledging to the United States and the European Union that he would crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad while in practice only going through the motions of doing so.
But Arafat was able to get away with this for so long because through his diplomatic charm and skill he had established a great deal of personal credibility with the European Union in particular, and the Clinton administration worked with him because he had signed the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and publicly committed himself to the peace process that stemmed from it.
But Hamas does not enjoy any of that maneuvering room either with the United States or the European Union. Indeed, new German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already made clear that Germany, the biggest contributor to the EU budget, will not approve a penny for the PA if it comes under Hamas' control following Hamas' landslide parliamentary election victory a few weeks ago in the West Bank and Gaza.
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is likely to seize any excuse to retaliate with overwhelming force against Hamas in order to sink his main challenger, Likud Party leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Israeli general election campaign. The vote is scheduled to be held on March 28.
Hamas leaders unleashed the wave of suicide bomber attacks that killed more Israeli civilians in the Second Intifada than any previous campaign in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They also remain ideologically committed to the goal of totally destroying the Jewish state. However, they may seek to establish their international credibility and avert the threat of a new wave of major Israeli military attacks by doing what they can to rein in Islamic Jihad, even if they lack the leverage to do so with Hezbollah. Then again, they may not.
Hamas is already on the offensive in domestic Palestinian security and political terms by seeking to purge Fatah, which has dominated the Palestinian national movement for so long. Some 35 senior Fatah leaders have just been arrested in connection with the disappearance of some $700 million in aid money from the West.
If Fatah forces look like posing a significant challenge to Hamas in its clear effort to take over total control of the Palestinian territories, Hamas may prove unwilling or unable to risk any open conflict with Islamic Jihad.
On the other hand, the breadth of popular support for Hamas and disillusionment with Fatah in the PA territories, combined with Hamas' willingness to act so boldly, suggests that Hamas may well be in a far stronger position far more quickly in the territories to impose its will on Islamic Jihad and Fatah than almost any Western or Israeli analyst anticipated.
Indeed, it may have to: For Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah appear clearly to be working in close alliance and they are together throwing down a formidable challenge to Hamas. By moving so forcefully to attack Israel and risk provoking major Israeli retaliation, they appear to be seeking to provoke a massive Israeli retaliation that could prevent Hamas taking over the PA territories lock, stock and barrel -- and marginalizing them.
But in the more than 20 years since it first established itself in Gaza in particular, Hamas has repeatedly been underestimated by both its Israeli enemies and its Palestinian rivals alike. Following its recent unanticipated election triumph, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, like Fatah, may have to accommodate themselves to recognizing Hamas as top dog -- whether they like it or not.