Monday, Sep. 15, 2003
Inside the War on Hamas
How Israel's army tries to stop suicide bombers before they have a chance to strike

The order came in at midnight. The soldiers were at their base in Beit Lid, at the edge of the West Bank in northern Israel, preparing to launch an assault against wanted Palestinian militants. As the elite unit reviewed its plans, Israeli intelligence officials phoned the commanders with an updated mission. A suspected terrorist had been tracked to a residential building in Nablus, the densely populated Palestinian city known to Israelis as the West Bank's capital of terror. In the past year Israeli forces claim to have caught or killed 120 Palestinians with plans to head from Nablus to Israel to carry out a suicide bombing. Dan, 27, the burly commander of the reconnaissance unit of the Israeli army's Nahal Brigade, knew he had to strike fast. By the time his men could make it to Nablus, about 10 miles to the east, it would be nearly daybreak and by then it might be too late. "If you're going after a suicide terrorist, you have to get to him immediately," he says. "Or else the next morning he'll be in Israel."

Israelis know well what it means when a terrorist gets through. A suicide bomber detonated himself at a bus stop near Tel Aviv last week, killing eight Israeli soldiers heading home from work. Five hours later, a second bomber exploded outside a cafe in a trendy district of Jerusalem, killing seven and wounding at least 30 others. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by the terrorist group Hamas, which said it ordered the bombings in retaliation for Israel's attempted assassination a week earlier of the group's spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Few people on either side of the conflict had had much faith that Hamas would stick to the cease-fire it declared in June. But the newest attacks and the Israeli Cabinet's decision to expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing" for failing to crack down on terrorism raised the specter of a return to all-out war between Israelis and Palestinians.

A senior Israeli intelligence official says that, far from laying down its arms, Hamas used the cease-fire to reorganize, restock its bombmaking arsenal and plot a new wave of suicide attacks. Israel has responded by broadening its offensive against Hamas to include strikes aimed at killing the group's ideological and political leaders. After last week's bombings, Israeli warplanes struck the house of another Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, killing al-Zahar's son Khaled and a bodyguard, and seriously injuring his wife and daughter. The air strikes have killed 12 suspected Hamas leaders in the past month, but the accompanying loss of innocent lives has stoked Palestinian fury toward Israel, a fact Hamas and other militant groups are now seeking to exploit. "The Israeli army is mobilizing the Palestinian masses against Israel," says a top Palestinian leader. "If you look at what the military is doing in the West Bank and Gaza, you will find it is making all efforts to close any window of hope."

To many Israelis, frayed by the constant threat of suicide bombers, the war against Palestinian terrorism has become a fight for personal survival. At the spearhead of that war are the soldiers charged with hunting suicide bombers and their paymasters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Israelis like the men from the Nahal Brigade's reconnaissance unit, one of the army's most active terrorism-fighting groups. The unit is admired for its skills at waging guerrilla warfare; early this year, members of the U.S. Green Berets visited Beit Lid to pick up pointers on how to conduct urban combat in Iraq. Still, most of the unit's members are in their early 20s, driven less by any gung-ho thirst for combat than by a weighty sense of national duty. "You have to do it," says Uri, 23, a lieutenant in the reconnaissance unit. "It's an obligation to myself and to my country." Uri's boss, Captain Dan, is even less sentimental. "I'm not here to save the world," he says. "I'm here to protect myself."

The danger is rising. The number of alerts of possible terrorism attacks inside Israel climbed last week to 40 a day, up from an average of 15 a day in August. Israeli commanders in the West Bank say they have taken steps to seize the offensive. A senior Israeli intelligence official says security forces have widened the focus of their raids from "ticking time bombs"--the suicide bombers to the entire "ticking infrastructure," including the strategists, bombmakers and paymasters. The army's Operation Defensive Shield in spring 2002 left Israeli troops positioned in and around every major Palestinian city in the West Bank. Except for the Bethlehem area, from which they withdrew, the Israelis still hold those positions, allowing commanders to contain the movements of possible terrorists and deploy troops at a moment's notice when intelligence pinpoints one.

Colonel Knafo Harel, commander of the Samaria Brigade, which controls the Nablus region, says his forces have eliminated all the major Hamas leaders in the area. "They have replacements, but they're much less effective," says Harel, sitting in an army trailer high above Nablus and fielding cell-phone calls about an undercover operation in progress. "Of course, they'd like to conduct 10 bombings a day. But they don't have the power to do so."

Nevertheless, only one suicide bomber needs to slip into Israel to wreak carnage on the country's streets. Israeli intelligence officials say Hamas still has the ability to regenerate and deploy new cells faster than Israeli forces can uncover them. That explains, an official says, how two suicide bombers from the same cell in Ramallah managed to hit their targets last week.

The soldiers of the Nahal Brigade are aware of just how elusive the enemy can be. In the past three months, the reconnaissance unit has conducted 72 separate operations against terrorist targets. The group is getting faster with each mission. Immediately after receiving the midnight order to pursue the suspect in Nablus, Dan and his lieutenants began planning the raid, phoning nearby units to ask for extra vehicles, grenades and infrared light sticks to operate in the darkness. In a Spartan classroom at the Beit Lid base that functions as the unit's command center, Dan showed his troops magnified aerial images of Nablus' Old City, pointing out the target house and identifying positions for each soldier to take up on arrival. At 2 a.m., the unit piled into four armored buses and headed to Nablus to execute the strike.

While the rest of his unit unloaded its gear on the outskirts of the city, Dan went to the Tal Ara base, a rocky military outpost overlooking the city, to make a final check of the target's coordinates. Then Dan rejoined his men and gave them a pep talk. In speeches like these, he addresses his troops as "lions." Based on the accounts of the soldiers after the operation, Dan and his unit moved into the casbah at 2:30, using their preferred mode of transport their feet. "You have to walk very, very carefully," he says. In groups of two to four, the unit slowly picked its way through the winding, narrow streets of the casbah, somehow managing not to arouse anyone inside the darkened houses along the route.

After two hours of walking, Dan and his men reached the edge of the suspect's compound. But then the unit's well-rehearsed plan went awry. One team spotted a man running from the house and sprinted after him, only to lose sight of the figure. Seconds later, another man dashed into the darkness; a soldier gave chase and fired a warning shot in the air, but the man disappeared. Sensing that the unit's cover was now blown, Dan ordered one team to blow open the door to the house and begin clearing it. Speaking in Arabic and using a megaphone, Dan instructed any civilians inside to come out. About 10 women and children emerged from the building. Almost immediately, Kalashnikov fire erupted from several surrounding buildings, including the roof of a nearby school. The troops called for backup vehicles and returned fire but failed to quell the shooting. One soldier was hit in the back; the bullet went through his ceramic vest, ripping his shirt but failing to pierce the skin. The unit's bloodhound wasn't so lucky: it had to be evacuated after taking a bullet in the leg.

After an hour-long fire fight, Dan managed to load his men into the backup vehicles and speed out of the city. It was already morning, and the unit's exhaustion was compounded by the realization that the targeted suspects had got away. At 9 a.m., the convoy pulled into the base at Beit Lid. The soldiers stumbled to their barracks to sleep; after they awoke, they would spend hours reviewing how the operation went wrong. By the afternoon, Dan had moved on. "You don't always get your target. It happens," he says, dripping with sweat from a three-mile run. Then he went inside to cool off and wait for the next night's mission.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem

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