Israel takes inventory of spoils of incursions

Seized arms, bomb labs, captured militant leaders called proof of victory

April 21, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- They found him hiding in a tunnel by a river near the West Bank city of Nablus.

Husam Badran, alleged mastermind of numerous attacks against Israeli civilians, was cornered by Israeli troops last week. To their surprise, they said, he was eager to surrender.

"Again and again, the leaders of the terror organization who send their men to the suicide missions easily surrender to save themselves," Israeli army Col. Hilik Sofer said.

The capture of Badran, accused in the deaths of about 100 Israelis, is one of the apparent successes in Israel's military offensive in the West Bank. With the fighting apparently winding down, Israeli officials are paying closer attention to the people arrested and the arms and documents seized during the campaign.

Officials say they have detained alleged ringleaders of militant groups, seized bomb-making equipment and collected everything from weapons to wigs. Since the start of the offensive, suicide bombings have significantly deceased.

"We really did a great deal toward breaking up the terrorist infrastructure," said Capt. Jacob Dalal, an Israeli army spokesman. "There is no doubt the operation was a success."

Few if any officials would claim that they have permanently vanquished the suicide bombers. But a running scorecard of arrests and weapons -- as catalogued by the army on a Web site -- is one way Israelis are measuring the operation's success.

Israeli troops captured an arsenal's worth of equipment, including 1,949 Kalashnikov rifles, 779 pistols, bomb-making laboratories and an assortment of M-16s, rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, binoculars, cell phones, grenade launchers, and explosive charges and vests.

There were also a few dark-brown wigs that the Israelis say suicide bombers could use to disguise themselves and cross checkpoints.

One of the seized wigs was on display at a media center, along with a vest used to hide explosives.

The cache might seem meager when compared to the modern weaponry possessed by the Israeli military. But over recent months, some of the arsenal has apparently been used to great effect.

"There is a military answer to terror," Dalal said. "Obviously it doesn't solve the problem forever. But there is a military option that can and has to be exercised and is successful. We've turned the clock back on the terrorists by a lot. That is significant."

Israeli soldiers are eager to display other discoveries. Lt. Col. Itay Landsberg showed a reporter a video of weapons discovered in a nursing school.

He displayed another video of a bomb-making lab, set up by a kitchen sink, which included chemical beakers, drills, ovens and nails. He said the lab was found inside a Palestinian Authority supply office in Ramallah.

He said that in the past three weeks, Israeli troops searched about 400 buildings in Ramallah and in more than half the cases, discovered ammunition, weapons or bomb-making labs.

"I think it's very amazing to have a civilian city and in most of its houses you find explosive bombs," he said. "It's not an army base."

Asked if the military campaign might provide only a temporary solution, with militants quickly re-arming, Landsberg said, "So, what do we do, sit and wait for someone to kill us?"

Beyond gathering the weaponry, the Israelis have also targeted figures they consider leaders of militant networks.

The most prominent person arrested is Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. The Israelis claim that Barghouti financed and organized terrorist attacks. Pictures of a bearded, tired-looking Barghouti surrounded by nine soldiers, their faces obscured, is among the more memorable moments of the operation.

But there have also been less-publicized arrests.

"We now have 132 people from Israel's wanted list," Dalal said. "Several hundred people make their terrorism work. They are behind the whole system, be they the bomb-makers, the operators, the planners."

Dalal said, "If you take these several hundred people out of circulation you'll have necessarily brought down the level of terrorism 80 to 90 percent."

One such leader the Israelis were looking for was Badran, accused of being a top operative for the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Israeli officials claimed that Badran was responsible for high-profile suicide bombings, including attacks at a Jerusalem pizza restaurant, a Tel Aviv disco and a hotel in Netanya during Passover.

Badran's seizure involved Israeli troops and the secret police, the Shin Bet, working together.

The soldiers were tipped of Badran's whereabouts at noon.

Apache helicopters and armored vehicles were readied, and a team of soldiers assembled. They converged on a house where Badran was seen, the helicopters firing rockets, the soldiers swooping down from ropes.

The forces discovered two dead people in the house and two others who were injured. They then fanned out across a field and toward the river to find Badran in the tunnel.

"When we asked, he immediately surrendered," Sofer said. "He was very, very scared."

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