The Dimona Attack: Security Experts Fear New Wave of Terrorism in Israel

By Pierre Heumann in Tel Aviv

Terror is back in Israel. Monday's bloody deed has confirmed Israeli officials' worst fears that the newly opened border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt has made Israel more accessible to suicide bombers -- with fatal consequences.

A religious Jew from the ZAKA volunteer organization collects body parts at the blood-stained scene of a Palestinian suicide bombing on Feb. 4 in the southerm Israeli town of Dimona.
Getty Images

A religious Jew from the ZAKA volunteer organization collects body parts at the blood-stained scene of a Palestinian suicide bombing on Feb. 4 in the southerm Israeli town of Dimona.

Terrorists struck again in Israel on Monday in the first suicide bombing the country has seen in a year. It was an attack that politicians and military officers say they have seen coming for days. The bloody deed, which claimed the lives of one Israeli woman and the two suicide bombers, came as no surprise for many Israelis. Now that the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is open, it has become easier for terrorists to reach Israel from Gaza. Security experts have been warning that terrorists in Gaza would see this as a new opportunity -- and would take advantage of it. This week, they were proven right.

Three organizations claimed responsibility for the attack in a shopping center in the southern Israeli city of Dimona. The first is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is fighting an uncompromising battle against Israel. The second is the previously unknown National Resistance Brigades, a group of former activists who consider Hamas too moderate. Finally, the military wing of the Fatah Party says that it was involved in the suicide bombing.

This last claim is especially damaging to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Fatah Party and is in peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Abbas denies his supporters had anything to do with the attack, but Mussa Arafat, the terrorist who was wearing the belt of explosives in Dimona, was a member of Fatah's military wing.

Abbas, who has condemned the attack, must now face questions (not for the first time) over whether he has his organization under control. Interestingly enough, the one organization that has not boasted about the attack is the radical Islamic group Hamas. Although a spokesman for Hamas praised the attack, calling it "justified," he also said that his organization was not involved. This reticence may have something to do with the fact that Hamas is eager not to create any new problems with Egypt. Cairo is concerned that the opening of the Gaza Strip toward Egypt could strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood within its own borders.

A Palestinian man carries supplies on his back as he heads back into Gaza next to a section of the destroyed barrier in the border town of Rafah, Egypt. In recent days, Palestinians have also taken advantage of the breach to bring weapons into Gaza.
AP

A Palestinian man carries supplies on his back as he heads back into Gaza next to a section of the destroyed barrier in the border town of Rafah, Egypt. In recent days, Palestinians have also taken advantage of the breach to bring weapons into Gaza.

The suicide bomber, Mussa Arafat, who came from the southern Gaza Strip, had an easy time of it. He probably chose the route through Egypt to reach Israel. He was able to cross the border into Egypt in Rafah, where Palestinians bulldozed a border wall separating Egypt and Gaza a week and a half ago. This meant that Arafat could easily reach his real target, Israel, through the Sinai Peninsula. The border between Sinai, which is part of Egypt, and Israel is porous and mostly unguarded. After crossing into Israel's Negev Desert, Arafat had to travel only 100 kilometers (62 miles) to reach Dimona. It hasn't yet been determined whether he had local helpers for his trek to Dimona.

Drug Dealers, Prostitutes, Refugees -- and Terrorists

The nonchalance with which Israel has accepted the gaps in its border fence is astonishing. At the international airport in Tel Aviv, Israeli border agents question arriving passengers in painstaking detail before issuing entry visas, and the West Bank is being sealed off with a security fence. But at its border with Egypt, Israel tolerates "that anyone can get in who wants to get in," says Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit.

Israel's roughly 300-kilometer (186-mile) desert border with Egypt is not secured and in many places not even marked by a fence. Israeli intelligence is aware of at least 30 locations where it is possible to cross the border between the two countries without having to pass through a border control. Many of Israel's military observation posts are either permanently or often unmanned. This lack of security is attributable to successive administrations' unwillingness to pay the necessary costs of a fence that would run upwards of €500 million ($734 million), as Sheetrit estimates.

For years, the journey through the Sinai Desert -- either on foot, on camelback or in SUVs -- has been the preferred route from Egypt into Israel for drug dealers, prostitutes and African refugees. Officials in Jerusalem now fear that terrorists will join the influx -- and will come equipped with explosives.

Hardliners Demand Military Action in Gaza

The situation is more explosive than ever. In recent days, Egyptian security officials have arrested 15 armed Palestinians in the Sinai Peninsula, including 12 members of the radical Islamic Hamas organization. A short time earlier, the Egyptians apprehended two members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were carrying explosive belts. And in recent weeks, authorities cracked another terrorist cell that was in possession of explosive materials.

Despite these successes, it may already be too late to avoid an escalation. In recent days, Palestinians have taken advantage of the open border to bring weapons and ammunition into the Gaza Strip, including armor-piercing grenades, rockets and anti-aircraft missiles, Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's domestic security agency told the Israeli cabinet on Sunday. According to Diskin, dozens of Palestinian activists trained in Iranian camps have also returned to Gaza in recent days.

In the wake of the Dimona bombing, Israeli hardliners are calling for a large-scale military campaign against the Gaza Strip so that Israel can put a stop to the terrorists once and for all. But a look into the annals of the Israeli military reveals that this wouldn't be the first time. Besides, there is no evidence that military force is even capable of solving the problem.

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent for the Swiss weekly magazine Weltwoche.

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