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27 February 2005

The 02/25 Tel Aviv bombing - The case for Occam's Razor

The February 25th suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which killed four and wounded more than fifty, has been the subject of a great deal of speculation, with various parties casting accusations in all directions. However, I would argue that the most logical explanation - coupled as it is with an overt claim of responsibility - is probably the correct one.

The Israeli government was quick to blame Syria, which has been under a massive amount of pressure since the Hariri assassination in Lebanon (see my earlier commentary about that). This was quickly follow-up with Israel threatening to attack Syria as a consequence, see for example:
Israel threatens Syria after bomb attack
This Israeli claim is further reinforced by the fact that Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Islamist group that did indeed claim responsibility for the bombing, had maintained an office in Damascus with the permission of the Syrian government.

However, realistically it is not likely that Syria had anything whatsoever to do with the attack and was probably just as taken aback as everyone else. Since the Hariri assassination, Syria has become an open target of the United States with the full support and encouragement of Israel and its advocates in this country. Right now, more so than ever before in recent history, Syria is trying to desperately to maintain a low-profile. The very last thing that Bashar al-Asad and the Syrian military would want right now is to be put in the spotlight regarding something as utterly damning as a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

Syria was quick to deny the Israeli allegations and promptly closed the Islamic Jihad offices in Damascus, see for example:
Syria rejects Israel accusation on Tel Aviv bombing
"A Syrian Foreign Ministry source said: "Syria has no relation to this operation or any other (operation) and that the (Damascus) office of that group (Islamic Jihad) had been closed."

There is no reason to disbelieve that the Syrians are very upset about this, especially in view of Syria's current situation of being "under the gun" of U.S. pressure at this time.

Further, despite Israeli bluster and the potential for a limited Israeli strike on Syria, I believe Israel too realizes that Syria wasn't behind this attack. But, of course, no one accuses the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs of stupidity and thus it makes perfect sense for them to attempt to capitalize on this bombing to increase the pressure on Syria, Israel's last remaining enemy on its borders.

Although Israel can, and perhaps will, launch a limited strike on Syria, Israel will not seriously engage Syria to the extent that war become inevitable. The reason for this is that Syria still possesses its "doomsday option" - specifically vast stockpiles of chemical weapons and the Scud missiles to deliver them. See:
Syria: Chemical Weapons

Although Syrian Scud missiles are not as accurate or as effective as Iran's Shahabs or other missile systems, at the close proximity involved, they do not really need to be very advanced. Quite simply, five sarin-laden Scuds in Tel Aviv and Israel loses its demographic battle against the Palestinians by seeing an immediate halt to immigration, radically increased emigration, not to mention the loss of people directly from the attacks. Jewish Israelis are already a minority between the river and the sea (if one takes into account the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the 700,000 Israelis who reside abroad) and thus Syria has an effective means to deter an Israeli invasion. Of course this is an option of last resort because obviously Israel would destroy Syria as well - the old "mutually assured destruction" paradigm. This means Israel can get away with limited strikes on Syria and Syria cannot really respond to them. Israel has already done this before and can do it again, though they can't launch an attack of such intensity that the Syrians decide they have nothing else to lose.

This is, of course, the main reason that Israel is exerting a lot pressure on the United States to take on Syria. The reasoning being, if the U.S. does Israel's dirty work in this respect, Syria would probably use its weapons against U.S. forces in Iraq as opposed to Israel. However, I personally suspect that this is bad reasoning. Taking the example of Saddam Hussein in 1991, Syria might very well decide that if it is to go out in a bang, it would like the distinction of being remembered as the Arab power that finally destroyed Israel.

Either way, I very seriously doubt that anyone will be invading Syria. Although some minor limited strike is entirely possible, I do not think either the United States or Israel will push Syria into a position of absolute desperation.

The Palestine Authority, on the other hand, chose to blame the Lebanese Hizb-ut-Allah (Party of God, 'Hezbollah'). This, however, is patently absurd across the board and graphically illustrates Abbas' lack of political sophistication as opposed to his Israel counterparts.

First and foremost, Hizb-ut-Allah is utterly dependent on Syria to maintain its militant operations in Syria. Although much of the material and financial support is generally accepted to come from their fellow Shias in Iran, they rely upon Syrian goodwill to actually receive this aid. Further, Hizb-ut-Allah has not engaged in suicide bombing since before the ending of the Lebanese civil war, and just as importantly, has always limited its activities to Lebanon and northern Israel (as retaliation for Israeli strikes in Lebanon). Hizb-ut-Allah is a distinctively Lebanese movement and though sympathetic with the Palestinians has never played a direct role in their struggle against Israel, despite unsubstantiated pro-Israel hearsay to the contrary. While pro-Israel conspiracy theorists and propagandists constantly try to portray Hezbollah as part and parcel of the "great Arab conspiracy" to destroy Israel, in reality Hezbollah has gained its general respectability because it has always kept itself largely removed from larger international Islamist movements and has remained a specifically focused on Lebanon (though relying on support from Iran & Syria) . Hezbollah does remain in active conflict with Israel over the Shebaa Farms district (generally recognized as Syrian territory, but viewed by Syria, Lebanon, and Hezbollah as Lebanese), but its militant operations have been confined there.

The Palestine Authority claim is based on the unsubstantiated claim by two alleged Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militant's claim to have spoken to Kais Obeid (the famous Israeli Palestinian advisor to Hezbollah, his fame stemming from the fact that so few Palestinians are accepted into Hezbollah's ranks & and is related to a former Israeli MK). The allegation is that Obeid called on these AAMB militants to claim responsibility for the attack. See, for example:
Palestinians see Hizbollah behind Israel attack

However, what it ultimately comes down to is that Hezbollah would not have endangered its vital links to Syria in such a way, even if it chose to change its long-standing policy regarding limiting its militant activities to Lebanon and returned to the use of suicide bombing.

So the question is, why did Abbas decide to blame Hezbollah, an organization that is widely popular in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and viewed as something of a model for Palestinian militants? The answer is that Abbas realized that if domestic Palestinian militants were held responsible, that Israel and the U.S. would demand that he crack down on them and of course this is precisely what happened anyway. This was Abbas' attempt to get himself off the "hot seat" and it utterly failed.

Specifically, Abbas cannot - anymore than Arafat before him could - forcibly disarm and shut down the Palestinian militant factions. After Sharon's 2002 offensive, the Palestine Authority's security services were rendered utterly bereft of any overall structure or strength and due to the Israeli policy of closures and fragmentation, virtually all PA security services in any given area are virtually autonomous units with no central command and control structure whatsoever. In many of the closed areas, the PA security forces are pretty much free to do as they please. Some have simply quit and gone home, others have entered into open alliance with militants in their local areas, while others have attempted to maintain their status as the "official" security forces, despite their weakness. The most graphic illustration of this reality was the funeral for Arafat, in which the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, not the Palestine Authority police, maintained law and order. Hamas plays a similar role in Gaza. Quite simply, in sheer physical terms, the PA is not capable of disarming the militants.

Further, there is the political dimension. Despite the rise and fall of hopes - for example, the current popular outrage among Palestinians regarding this most recent bombing See:
Angry Palestinians
the militants maintain a lot of popular support which
fluctuates in direct relation to Israeli behavior in the Occupied Territories. When the Israelis slow down their raids and bombs, popular support for the militants decreases, however when Israel increases military activity the support for the militants increases. This has been the general pattern since 1993.

The point is that the Palestinians have experienced many of these "ups-and-downs" and only a complete idiot would simply take Israel's alleged "good intentions" on faith since 1996 when Netanyahu put a de facto stop to the peace process and all Palestinians hopes regarding Israel's "intentions" were dashed. Frankly, until there are very real and tangible improvements on the ground, not statements of intent or hints and rumors, there is virtually no chance of breaking popular support for the militants. And since Sharon has effectively demanded that all militant resistance be stopped before there are any tangible improvements, the Palestine Authority is really in an utterly impossible situation.

So, Abbas must stop ALL militant activity - i.e. control every single individual Palestinian in the Occupied Territories - before Israel will allow him to show any tangible improvements. At the same time, Sharon, knowing full well that this demand is utterly impossible, remains in a very comfortable position of simply doing whatever he wants without any consideration for Abbas, who has failed to hold up his (utterly impossible) end of the "deal." Thus we have Sharon making loud demands on Abbas knowing full well that Abbas simply cannot comply and survive doing so as he himself broke the PA's power and has refused to let it be reconstituted:
Sharon demands Palestinians act after Tel Aviv bomb

We've been through this farce before and it appears we're about to go through it yet again. Nevertheless, we can certainly understand why Abbas tried - and failed - to make the case that the bombing was the responsibility of some foreign "third power."

So, who was responsible? Islamic Jihad says it was and is quite clear about its motivations:
Suicide bomber: My target was the PA
"In a videotape made prior to the Friday suicide bombing that killed four people in Tel Aviv, bomber Abdullah Badran declared that the attack was intended to do harm to the Palestinian Authority, which he said served the interests of the United States."

This is completely in character for this organization and so is the rationale supplied. Further, Islamic Jihad is one of the few Palestinian militant groups that lacks significant public support, allowing it a degree of leeway to act even against popular opinion, which the other major groups utterly rely on to continue. Like all the militant factions, it is highly decentralized - a necessity to resist being brought down by Shin Bet - and thus the conflicting claims, the initial denial by the Gaza IJ leadership and then the claim from the IJ foreign bureau is also in character and quite reasonable. It is entirely possible that the Gaza leadership wasn't even aware of the attack until after the fact, despite the Israeli conspiracy theorists who claim that every terrorist in the world knows exactly what every other one is doing at all times and supports it.

In this case, I firmly believe that Occam's Razor is applicable - the mostly likely explanation is probably the correct one. As described in detail above, one can easily see why Israel would accuse Syria and why Abbas would blame Hezbollah, yet realistically, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt Islamic Jihad.

As for the consequences, all said it doesn't really matter, it was just a matter of time. Some form of Palestinian attack was inevitable sooner or later and thus a return to the old stalemate - Israel demanding the impossible of the PA, and upon the PA's failure to comply, Israel's reaction which in turn will spur on more Palestinian militant resistance and popular support for it. Don't be fooled by the media reports, in reality - the reality of those living under Israel's Occupation - despite all the rhetoric, nothing has really changed:

Did you say the Israelis are withdrawing?

"Since the Sharm El Sheikh summit things have significantly improved in the Palestinian territories. The Army has stopped its incursions in Palestinian towns, Palestinian civilians are free to move, prisoners are about to be released and economic activity is slowly recovering... At least this is the information that most western media is conveying to its people. The situation on the ground is unfortunately completely different. The Separation Wall is being completed faster than ever, all the military check points are still in place, the Palestinian detainees are still under Israeli custody and daily life is still hell for all Palestinians. ..."

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