Israeli report finds link in Lebanon to terror attacks

Support of militants adds new complication

May 30, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not ignited a wider Middle East war, signs of broader regional involvement are growing. The signs range from foreign financial support for Palestinian militias to weapons smuggling into the Palestinian territories and televised incitement beamed by radical groups abroad.

In the latest example, an Israeli report says that a leader at a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon played a key role in directing and financing the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group linked with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement that has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings and shooting attacks in Israel.

The Israeli report, which U.S. officials are trying to assess, adds a volatile new complication to American and Israeli efforts to curb Palestinian violence and terror against Israelis. The Bush administration's efforts will intensify this weekend when CIA Director George J. Tenet arrives in the region to help rebuild Palestinian security services.

The report also shines a new spotlight on an often-overlooked element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the 200,000 refugees in Lebanon who are generally described as the worst-off people in the Palestinian diaspora.

The Lebanon link

The suspected Lebanon link to the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades focuses on Col. Munir Makdah, a charismatic local chieftain in the teeming Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon, south of Beirut. Israel says its intelligence agents obtained evidence of his role in directing and financing "serious attacks against Israeli citizens" during the interrogation of suspects jailed in a sweep of Palestinian militants during the army's recent three-week offensive in the West Bank.

One suspect, Nasser Awis of Nablus, told interrogators that he received $40,000 to $50,000 from Makdah for weapons, daily expenses and raw materials for bombs, according to a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The money was transferred from a bank in Lebanon to one in Nablus, according to the statement.

Awis would report by telephone to Makdah on attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and inside Israel, according to the statement.

"After the attacks inside Israel, [Makdah] encouraged Awis to continue the attacks, and most of the funds used to finance the activities came from [Makdah] from this point on. A number of months before Awis' arrest, [Makdah] inquired as to the possibility of sending one of his men to perpetrate a suicide attack in Israel."

Israel said the interrogations provide "a clear and comprehensive picture" of Makdah's involvement in Fatah terror activities.

Reached by telephone yesterday by a Lebanese-based journalist on behalf of The Sun, Makdah said he knew about the Israeli charges but declined to comment further.

U.S. officials expressed interest in the Israeli report.

"It's a serious allegation," said a senior U.S. official who declined to be named. "We don't dismiss it, and we're looking at it."

Lebanon's ambassador to Washington, Farid Abboud, said that he was not familiar with the Israeli report but dismissed it as the "usual political interaction in the Middle East." He said Lebanon had cracked down on Palestinians who tried to launch guerrilla attacks across Israel's northern border.

In the past, Lebanon-based elements have claimed or been reported to have had a role in helping the Palestinians in their guerrilla war against Israeli occupation. Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim guerrilla and political movement that played a key role in bringing an end to the Israeli control of southern Lebanon, is reported to have shipped weapons to Palestinian fighters. Its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, complained recently that Jordan blocked such a shipment.

Hezbollah has used its television station, which is widely watched in the Palestinian territories, to beam incendiary broadcasts exhorting Palestinians to fight.

Jihad Jibril, son of the leader of the extremist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, attempted to smuggle a boatload of weapons to the Palestinians from Lebanon, according to the Israeli government. He was recently assassinated in Lebanon.

Apart from Lebanon, Iran attempted to smuggle 50 tons of sophisticated weapons to the Palestinian Authority by boat late last year, and individual Saudis and Saudi companies have been implicated in funding groups affiliated with the Islamic militant group Hamas.

A loose cannon

Makdah, who is about 40, has described himself as Arafat's point man at Ein el-Hilweh, a congested and lawless pocket of poverty and despair. But analysts describe him as a loose cannon who has sided with various groups and might not hold firm loyalties to anyone.

"He's a radical, frothing-at-the-mouth kind of guy," says Matthew Levitt, a terrorism specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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