Terror at ground zero-in two states

MICHAEL POSNER October 14 1985

Terror at ground zero-in two states

MICHAEL POSNER October 14 1985

Terror at ground zero-in two states


Nestled amid palm and cypress trees, the Tunisian suburb of Hammam-Shatt was a quiet enclave of pastel-painted apartment buildings and villas south of the capital on the Gulf of Tunis. Then, on Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 10:15 a.m., the noisy approach of jetplanes shattered the suburban calm. Instinctively, many residents said later, they assumed that weeks of tension with their North African neighbor, Libya, had erupted into war.

They were wrong. The planes, at least six American-made F-15s, belonged to the Israeli Air Force.

Blue Stars of David were visible on the wings and fuselages as the jets swept in, low, from the sea.

And the attack was aimed not at Tunis but at the suburban command headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The raid lasted a mere six minutes. It was all the Israelis needed. With pinpoint precision, the F-15s—probably protected by a second squadron of F-16s in the skies over Tunis—dropped bombs and fired missiles on the PLO compound in the suburb’s beach area. The attack killed an estimated 73 people, levelled five buildings, including an L-shaped six-storey command centre and the personal headquarters of PLO chairman Yasser Ara-

fat, who had left his seaside villa in the complex only 15 minutes before the raid. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres insisted later that Arafat had not been a target of the attack.

Among the dead: Ali Zibaar, chief of security for Force 17, the PLO’S elite special operations unit. Force 17, a name derived from the internal telephone number at the group’s former headquarters in the Lebanese capital of Bei-

rut, had reportedly claimed responsibility for killing three Israeli civilians in the Cyprus port of Larnaca on Sept. 25—Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

The Tunis raid, said Israeli Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was a reprisal for those murders. Added Rabin: “Israel reserves the right to fight terror with

terror. The PLO has to understand that the long arm of the Israeli forces will seek it out wherever it is.” Covering a return distance of 3,000 miles and refuelling twice in midair, the Israeli strike across the Mediterranean was the longest bombing mission ever undertaken by its air force.

But the dramatic Tunis raid was not the only precedent-setting event on the tumultuous Middle East stage last week. In war-torn Lebanon, Sunni Moslem extremists kidnapped four Soviet diplomats in Beirut—the first time that Moscow had directly felt the sting of Lebanese terrorism. The Sunni objective was clear: to force the Kremlin to pressure its ally, Syria, into ending the Syrianbacked siege of Sunni militias in Tripoli. An 18-day battle for cons trol of the northern port city had o killed more than 400 civilians and forced some 500,000 residents—more than two-thirds of the population—to flee.

The terrorists were in deadly earnest. As critical ceasefire negotiations began in Damascus, the abductors shot and killed Soviet consular officer Arkady Katkov, 30, dumping his body on a deserted, rubble-strewn lot near West Beirut’s bombed-out sports stadi-

um. Not the first foreign diplomat to be murdered in Lebanon —American, French and Iraqi ambassadors are among those who have perished in the years of factional strife—Katkov had the grim distinction of being the first to be executed in cold blood after his kidnappers had issued political demands. Like Washington during past crises involving American hostages, Moscow seemed impotent in the face of the seizures. And an anonymous spokesman for the Islamic Liberation Organization, a previously unknown group which claimed responsibility, warned that without an early truce in Tripoli, “we

will continue to execute the hostages.” Said Soviet chargé d’affaires Yuri Souslikov: “I am expecting bad news every minute.”

In West Beirut, where the Soviet Embassy was ringed with antitank and anti-aircraft weapons, half the city’s resident Soviet community of 150 was evacuated under heavy guard to Damascus, the Syrian capital, and then on to Moscow. But late on Thursday a tentative breakthrough was achieved. Meeting with Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, Sunni chief Sheik Saeed Shaaban agreed to an immediate armistice under which rival militias would yield heavy weaponry to Syrian troops.

Then, early on Friday morning in Beirut, Islamic Jihad, the umbrella name for several Moslem terrorist cells, announced the execution of William Buckley, 57, a U.S. Embassy political officer kidnapped in the Lebanese capital 19 months earlier. In a statement delivered to An-Nahar, a Beirut newspaper, Islamic Jihad said that Buckley had been tried and found guilty of “intelligence crimes” and that he had been killed in

retaliation for Israel’s attack on the PLO. The statement alleged that Israel’s bombing in Tunis had been planned and carried out with the active support of U.S. intelligence—a claim Washington swiftly denied. By late Saturday, however, Buckley’s body had not been found, and some U.S. diplomats said that he might still be alive. Islamic Jihad still held five other Americans, as well as two French and one British subject, hostage.

The Israeli air attack led to a wave of international protest. Egypt—the only Arab nation not officially at war with Israel—suspended scheduled talks on a

border dispute and hinted at other possible reprisals. At the United Nations a parade of speakers endorsed a Tunisian resolution in the Security Council condemning the bombing. It was adopted by a vote of 14-0, with the United States abstaining. Indeed, the Reagan administration gave qualified support to the mission at first, calling the raid “a legitimate response” to terrorist attacks —an allusion to the Yom Kippur murders. Cypriot authorities are holding two Palestinians and a Briton pending charges.

During an impromptu White House press conference President Ronald Reagan said that the Israelis had a right to retaliate “so long as they can pick out the people responsible.” He added,

“I’ve always had great faith in their intelligence capabilities.” But in his initial response, Reagan apparently failed to as-

sess the impact of the raid on relations with Tunisia and other governments in the region. His support for Jerusalem particularly angered Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, 82, who voiced “regret and astonishment” at the U.S. reaction. A state department official, noting that Washington had helped to persuade Tunis to give the PLO sanctuary after its expulsion from Lebanon in 1982, conceded that “something like this doesn’t play very well.”

As well, Bourguiba’s weakening health and the rising incidence of Islamic fundamentalism have made U.S. analysts anxious about the stability of Tunisia’s pro-Western stance in the post-Bourguiba era. And some observers said that strong support for the Israeli attack might only serve the interests of the anti-American Moslem Brotherhood and other radical Islamic organizations. Last week, as security was tightened at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, gangs of Moslem youths ran through the capital chanting antiAmerican, pro-Palestinian slogans.

As a result, Secretary of State George Shultz advised the White House to quickly draft a new policy position on the raid. To that end, a second official statement described the attack as “understandable as an expression of selfdefence.” But it added that acts of violence “are contrary to our objective for a peaceful, stable Middle East and cannot be condoned.”

The administration was equally concerned about the consequences of the attack on the broader regional peace process. Indeed, as the Israelis attacked in Tunisia, U.S. officials were playing host to Jordan’s King Hussein in Washington. That meeting was part of a continuing U.S. effort to bring a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation into direct negotiations with Israel over the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza. In fact, only one day before the Tunis raid Reagan himself had voiced his hope that direct talks might begin “before the end of the year.”

For many observers the optimism did not seem justified. Critical issues remain unresolved, among them how to reconcile Jordan’s demand for an international peace forum —including Soviet representatives—with Washington’s refusal to give Moscow any serious stake in the process. “We were not on the verge of peace,” said William Quandt, a former U.S. I m'S National Security Counâ cil adviser now on the re-

search staff of Washington’s Brookings Institution. “We were, maybe, on the verge of a new serious round of diplomacy.” The Hussein visit, Quandt added, had moved “the Jordanians a little off dead centre.”

The shift may have been tactical. The king is seeking a new American shipment of sophisticated weapons, a package that includes 40 advanced fighter planes and anti-aircraft missiles. His apparent readiness to open talks with Israel, some analysts contended, was nothing more than an attempt to win congressional approval for the arms sale, valued at between $1.5 and $1.9 billion.

Other commentators said that Israel’s

raid, which must have been planned weeks earlier, may itself have been designed to sabotage prospective talks. But in Israel, Peres denied that claim, asking why the killings in Cyprus had not inspired the same skepticism about the PLO’s commitment to peace. Said Peres in a speech to high school students in Tel Aviv: “If an attack on a terrorist command post has to stop the peace process, why shouldn’t the murder of Jews put an end to the peace process?”

Meanwhile, the latest chapter in Lebanon’s interminable tragedy of violence continued in the battle for control of Tripoli, the nation’s second-largest city after Beirut. Thousands of shells and rockets rained down on all quarters from the nearby Syrian-controlled heights as militias armed and financed by neighboring Syria fought to dislodge the fundamentalist fighters of the Sunni Moslem “Tawheed Al-Islami” (Islamic Unification) movement, which has ruled Tripoli for two years. Water and power supplies were disrupted, fires

raged out of control, and the dead and injured lay untended in the rubble. Thousands of people in the encircled city were trapped in basements and stairwells for days.

Led by the charismatic Sheik Shaaban, the Tawheed had held off the proSyrian Arab Democratic Party, its principal rival, which is supported by Palestinian fighters loyal to Arafat, an archenemy of Syria’s Assad. But Tawheed alienated both the local Christians and the Moslem middle class by turning Tripoli into an Islamic ministate. Alcohol was banned, as were male coiffeurs in ladies’ beauty parlors. In effect, Tripoli became a quasi-autonomous fundamentalist enclave—an intol-

erable threat to Assad’s efforts to win political control in Lebanon.

When after a week of fighting a Syrian mediation team failed to persuade Tawheed to surrender, Damascus unleashed the full fury of its surrogates in Lebanon, using Syrian batteries in the hills to provide covering barrages. Then, the beseiged Sunnis surrendered. If the truce holds, Syrian troops will play a key role in policing Tripoli, and secular political parties will be allowed to resume activities, ending Tawheed’s experiment in Islamic rule.

The lives of the kidnapped Soviet diplomats appeared to depend on how the future of Tripoli is resolved. If the truce collapses, most observers said that the terrorists will likely kill their hostages. Meanwhile, 2,100 km away in Tunis, vowing vengeance, the PLO buried victims of the Israeli raid.