• U.S.

Getting Ready For War

3 minute read
Lisa Beyer/Nablus

Palestinian security officials had a plan. Contemplating a new confrontation with the Israeli military, they took an inventory of all the tractors and bulldozers in the West Bank. Then they devised a system for appropriating the machinery to dig ditches and build other obstacles to slow an Israeli advance. But how to test the scheme? In mid-January an opportunity was literally heaven-sent. When a rare blizzard blanketed the West Bank with snow, Palestinian authorities quickly seized the earthmovers under the pretense of clearing the roads. In fact, the action was a drill for war.

The visit to the region this week by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has focused the spotlight on diplomacy for the moment. But with the peace process stalled, military commanders will get no rest. The Israeli army has long plotted and rehearsed its options in the Palestinian territories; Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s forces are now rushing to catch up.

According to a senior Palestinian security official, Arafat’s contingency plan calls for the escalation of stone and Molotov cocktail attacks by civilians on Israeli troops still stationed within and just outside Palestinian cities. The idea would be to provoke the Israelis into re-entering urban areas now under Palestinian control, where they would come under fire not only from Arafat’s official forces but also from illegally armed Palestinians. The result would be high casualties on both sides. Arafat, according to the security official, believes a large death toll would force the U.S. to step in to stop the bloodletting and, presumably, impose a diplomatic solution that would give the Palestinians greater autonomy.

In any future fight, the forces of the Palestinian Authority will be better equipped than they were for their four-day mini-war with Israel in September 1996. In that encounter they had only the small arms permitted them under the peace accords. Since then they have been smuggling in larger, forbidden weapons including, Palestinian officials say, mortars, antitank missiles and even, according to one source, a score of Katyusha rockets with a range of 12 miles. Authorities in Israel assume that several armor-piercing heavy machine guns recently stolen from Israeli army stores are in Palestinian hands. According to Israeli intelligence, the Palestinians have developed a formal war room that is mobile and headed by Brigadier General Haj Ismail, overall military commander of the West Bank. The Israelis also report that the Palestinians, anticipating future casualties, have expanded trauma units and morgues.

Arafat, in Israel’s estimation, regards the war option only as a desperate last resort in case diplomacy fails altogether. Still, Israel has developed and simulated multiple plans for battling the Palestinians anew, including one code-named “Field of Thorns,” which calls for the retaking of the West Bank cities. Both sides know two things in advance of another fight: Israel will win it, and it will be horribly painful. “It’ll be much bigger than last September,” says an Israeli commander. “Much crueler, much bloodier, much more complicated.”

–By Lisa Beyer/Nablus. With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Nablus and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com