November 12, 2004
Arafat's first warBy Douglas Hanson
The death of PLO terrorist leader Yassar Arafat has brought out the predictable fawning obituaries in the media that, at best, attempt to portray Arafat's life in a neutral fashion, rather than as the world's terror master. Some of these accounts at least mention his terrorist activities, but rarely delve into the details of a man who was actually groomed as the ultimate special operator fighting for his Soviet masters against American interests in the Middle East.
In September of 2003, Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former chief of Romanian intelligence detailed in the Wall Street Journal the true origins of the renowned 'statesman,' Yassar Arafat. Plucked from his native Egypt (a Soviet—client state) in the mid—60s, the young Arafat was sent for training at the Balashikha special operations school near Moscow. In addition to the training he received, Arafat's original citizenship documents were destroyed by the KGB, and he was then given phony papers stating that he had been born in Jerusalem. In common intell parlance, a 'legend' had been created for Arafat giving the world the impression he was a poor Palestinian native, who only desired a homeland for his oppressed people.
Some may argue that Pacepa's account is exaggerated in order to curry favor with the government of his new country. However, the timing of Arafat's arrival on the Middle East scene, and the type of training he received, point to a long—range strategic plan to avenge the Arab defeat at the hands of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) during the 1967 Six—Day War. Shortly after the IDF's US—made M48 Pattons and up—gunned Shermans defeated the Egyptian and Syrian Soviet—made T—34s and heavy T—10Ms, the USSR succeeded in getting Arafat appointed as head of the PLO. Coincidentally, the Arab nations then embarked on an operation that became known as The War of Attrition. In retrospect, this war fit perfectly within the New Arab Way of War concept, and, with a trained special operator at the helm, the Arab nations could now start preparing the battlefield for their next confrontation with the IDF.
Key to understanding the scope of this operation is that historically, a few units of the Spetsnaz were markedly different in training and missions from what we normally associate with US and Western special operations units. Some Spetsnaz were trained specifically not only in terrorist tactics, but to also structure the political landscape to weaken the population of the target country in preparation for a large scale conventional assault. To this end, Arafat was well—suited to lead a similar effort in the Middle East.
The War of Attrition was coordinated by the largest of Israel's enemies and the birthplace of Arafat: Egypt. Yet, it more than likely commenced with the infiltration of terrorists and political operatives into Judea and Samaria in mid—1967. While terrorists were hitting targets in Israel, there were a series of labor strikes in the West Bank territories including the disruption of public transportation. The Israeli military responded by implementing a series of economic sanctions, by expelling the strike leaders to Jordan, and by conducting vigorous anti—terrorist operations. In 1967 the Fatah headquarters was destroyed, and in Hebron, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had been defeated. All told, about 200 terrorists were killed and 1,000 had been arrested. By January 1968 the PLO in Judea and Samaria had ceased to exist, with the remnants withdrawing to Jordanian territory, however, Arafat and the Arabs had gained valuable information during this 'reconnaissance in force.'
1968 was relatively calm on the Golan Heights, but then terrorists from Syria began infiltrating from the east in February of 1969. Once this Eastern Front was established, Arafat, at the request of his KGB handlers,
...declare[ed] war on American "imperial—Zionism" during the first summit of the Black Terrorist International, a neo—Fascist pro—Palestine organization financed by the KGB and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
Now that the political fa�ade was in place, Egypt got into the act with heavy artillery attacks launched on the Israeli Bar—Lev line along the Suez Canal. This was the main front in the War of Attrition, but the significance of Egypt's attacks in 1969—1970 would not be fully realized until that fateful day in October of 1973. For ten months, the Egyptians and the IDF conducted intense artillery duels across the Suez Canal. Finally, in December of 1969, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) struck key Egyptian anti—aircraft sites, and in January 1970 hit other strategic targets deep in Egypt itself.
Nevertheless, Egypt intensified its artillery bombardments, along with air and sea attacks on the Bar—Lev line. Under cover of these attacks, the Egyptians succeeded in one of their most critical tasks in preparation for the next war: they moved their entire air defense network eastward in order to provide a dense anti—aircraft umbrella over the Suez Canal. Once this was accomplished, Egypt agreed to a cease—fire in August of 1970.
Meanwhile, in March of 1970, Syria had succeeded in infiltrating commando units behind Israeli lines on the Golan Heights. The IAF responded with air strikes, but the Syrians only intensified their attacks. Again, the IDF launched a series of in—depth combined operations, and finally brought the Syrians to the negotiating table to hammer out a cease—fire in August of 1970.
Two years earlier however, Arafat and the PLO had returned to establish a Northern Front. They set up terrorist camps near Mt. Hermon in southern Lebanon in an area that eventually was labeled as 'Fatahland.' In 1969, these bases supported over 97 terrorist attacks on Israel. To counter this threat from Lebanon, the IDF established security strong points, and at times executed cross—border operations.
During this same time period, the Southern Front, i.e., the Gaza Strip, was extremely active. The PFLP had gained control of the Shati and Jabilyah refugee camps, and executed anyone cooperating with Israel or who belonged to rival terrorist groups (sound familiar?). In 1970, 16 Israelis and 45—five Arabs were killed, and 144 Israelis and 667 Arabs were wounded.
At face value, Arafat's terrorists were simply doing what the experts said that terrorists always do: threaten and kill innocents to effect political change by preying on the fears of the people and their government. In reality, Arafat's operators were expertly preparing the battlefield for the next major fight between the Arabs and the Israelis, just like his Soviet masters had taught him. And the effects of conducting this prolonged War of Attrition on the IDF would not be fully known until the Yom Kippur War erupted in the fall of 1973.
Capitalizing on lessons learned from the Six Day War, the IDF sunk resources and manpower primarily into three branches of their Armed Forces: the Air Force, the Armored Corps, and the Paratroopers. Successful IDF operations during the War of Attrition only reinforced these perceived priorities.
For example, the IAF was highly trained and equipped to conduct air strikes across the entire depth of the battlefield. After all, this is what had forced both the Egyptians and the Syrians to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, IDF tankers who had not previously excelled at long—range tank gunnery, had developed a strict training regimen to become superior gunners because of the need to destroy Syrian artillery and engineer equipment at extremely long ranges across the Golan Heights. The Paratroopers of course, maintained a high state of readiness in order to conduct precision anti—terror raids.
But Arafat's operations during the War of Attrition forced the Israeli's to neglect a critical capability to fight a massive conventional war: line infantry. Not only was the infantry viewed as secondarily important to the previously mentioned branches, they had spent the War of Attrition chasing down guerillas and terrorists, while alternately manning static checkpoints and fortifications. This is not the way to produce proficient infantry units. In 1969 alone, there were 700 landmine and IED attacks on Israeli patrols in the Gaza Strip resulting in eight Israelis killed and 80 wounded. Even though Arafat and his terrorists were expelled from Jordan in September of 1970, his network carried even out more extensive guerilla operations. 1970 and 1971 saw terrorist activity peak, which meant infantry units had to increase patrols and security missions. Additionally, the IDF embarked on humanitarian missions to reduce the overcrowding in the Gaza refugee camps.
The end result of Arafat's coordinated special ops campaign is that when the Yom Kippur War started in October of 1973, the IDF was woefully short of trained infantry, especially mechanized infantry to accompany the tanks into battle. While much was made in the press of the Arabs' success at employing the new Anti—tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) such as the Soviet—made Saggers, their effect was exaggerated. What hurt the Israeli tank units the most was rushing pell—mell into the fight without a key component of the combined arms team. Later, as Ariel Sharon was staging for his attack to encircle the Egyptian 3d Army, the situation was so dire with the poorly trained and led Israeli infantry, that Sharon was forced to call on paratroopers to mount up on half—tracks to go with his tanks into the fight.
The opening attack across the Suez Canal and seizing the Bar—Lev line to start the Yom Kippur War is still viewed today as one of the best planned and executed operations of the 20th century. It involved synchronized artillery, commando, and engineer attacks along with superb deception operations. Also, the Israeli plan to respond to an attack on the Bar—Lev Line with massive air strikes was negated by the Egyptian placement of their air defense batteries well forward next to the Suez Canal.
Ultimately, the Israelis drove the Egyptians from the Sinai and counterattacked along the Golan Heights to maneuver within artillery range of Damascus. But it was all a very close thing, and we can look to Yassar Arafat and his 'special operators' for strategically preparing the battlefield in a way his former Soviet teachers would be proud of.
For this and many other reasons, we should all be glad he is gone.
Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent