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Intelligence 'Black Hole' on Palestinians Spurs Israeli Debate

Mideast: Critics say Jewish state's security services are too dependent on Arafat's forces in anti-terrorism fight.


JERUSALEM — The two latest suicide bombing attacks in Jerusalem have laid bare what some officials call an intelligence "black hole" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, prompting public debate over whether the country's vaunted security services have become too dependent on the Palestinians in the fight against terrorism.

At the same time, politicians and security officials have been arguing whether an intelligence leak may have contributed to the failed military operation in southern Lebanon last week that claimed the lives of 12 Israeli commandos.

The criticism has put Israel's intelligence agencies on the defensive and has them quarreling with each other, scrambling for solutions to their lost capacity for gathering information in Palestinian-ruled areas.

"The peace process was based on the fact that if we withdrew from the territories, the Palestinian security forces would do the job we've done, and cooperation would bridge the gap," said Yaakov Perry, who retired as chief of the internal security service, known as Shin Bet, in February 1995.

"The fact they are not fighting terrorism, gathering intelligence, arresting people and neutralizing [the violent groups]--it's a disaster," he said.

This is the Israeli government's assessment. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a four-page list of demands to the Palestinians for "fighting terror" in exchange for his continuation with the so-called Oslo accords to trade land for peace.

It calls for the renewal of full security cooperation, which the Palestinians suspended in March after Israel began construction on a 6,500-unit Jewish housing project in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem; the arrest of those involved in "planning, financing, supplying or abetting terrorism"; the extradition of Palestinian suspects wanted in Israel; and other measures.

The Palestinians say they will renew security cooperation if Israel ceases the new construction in Jerusalem and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and keeps its outstanding commitments under the agreements.

But the Israeli political elite is divided about this cooperation with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu's hawkish Cabinet member Ariel Sharon, a former defense minister, has called for a halt to intelligence collaboration instead of a rapprochement.

"True, there was always terror, but we warred against it with our own forces with the help of our excellent intelligence and [Shin Bet] services. Today we are begging to receive just a little information, and the Palestinians are laughing," Sharon wrote in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot this week.

"No cooperation with the Palestinian police, Palestinian [security services] or Palestinian intelligence can be trusted any longer. Such collaboration corrupts and destroys our security forces, our police and army," he wrote.

Ori Orr, an opposition Labor Party member of the parliament's defense and intelligence committee, argued the opposite--that Israel cannot fight violent Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad without the help of Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

"Our problem is not intelligence; our problem is conflict with the Palestinians," Orr said. "What this government means when it says better intelligence is 'Let's take control of Gaza.' Of course it would be better for intelligence if we controlled Cairo too, but is that the answer? No. You cannot win this war with control and power."

The security services echo the split among politicians. In a meeting of the security Cabinet on Friday, Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon reportedly said he believes Arafat is not interested in seeing more terrorist attacks, while the chief of army intelligence, Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, argued that Arafat reserves the use of terror as an instrument of political leverage.

At heart is the question of whether Arafat is able to control terrorism against Israel any better than Israel could when it occupied Palestinian cities, or simply will not do it. Most security officials believe that there is a lack of will on Arafat's part now, pointing to his apparently successful crackdown on Hamas and Islamic Jihad following a wave of suicide bombings in February and March of 1996.

At that time, Arafat detained hundreds of Islamic militants and the bombings ceased for a year.

Now, Arafat asserts that Israel has not given him proof that the bombers came from the areas under his control. Political analysts say that Arafat apparently fears a massive crackdown on Hamas, which has a relatively strong base of popular support, while his peace process is crumbling.

Additionally, some Israeli analysts argue that the Palestinian security forces are encountering the same difficulties Shin Bet did when Israel ran the territories.

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