1. U.S. IN TALKS WITH SYRIA ON IRAQI BORDER ISSUES… The United States and the Iraqi interim government are holding two days of talks in Damascus with the Syrian government on issues of security on the Syria-Iraq border. Anti-coalition forces have used Syria to enter and leave Iraq since the start of the war. Syria is also believed to be the safe haven for wanted Iraqi fugitives, including some of Saddam Hussein’s senior people, and the place where anti-coalition forces organize and even fundraise. The United States has mounted a strenuous campaign of pressure on Syria, including American sanctions and United Nations resolutions. Media reports this week again raised speculation that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were hidden in Syria before the outbreak of the war and remain there.
2. NEW ISRAELI OPERATION WILL AGAIN TRY TO SILENCE MORTARS, ROCKETS IN GAZA… The Israeli military has launched yet another operation aimed at silencing the launching of Qassam rockets and the firing of mortars at Israeli targets from the Gaza Strip. The army says this time it will remain until the “Qassam menace has been rooted out.” The latest deployment is in the area of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lihiya and the Jabaliyya refugee camp in the north of Gaza. The operation is the 12th attempt the army has made to prevent the firing of rockets and mortars. None have been successful. The latest operation includes a large force comprised of an elite infantry unit, armored units and combat engineer units. Israeli residents of communities that are often on the receiving end of the Qassam and mortar launches are becoming increasingly angry at the government’s failure to protect them. It is also an embarrassment and problematic for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he draws closer to unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. Critics of the plan argue that chaos will follow the pullout and that missiles and mortars will be fired incessantly at Israeli targets.
3. CNN EMPLOYEE RELEASED IN GAZA… Riyad ‘Ali was released by his captors in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, one day after being kidnapped at gunpoint. ‘Ali, an Israeli Druze, is a producer and translator for CNN. The Al-Aq’sa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the abduction, which appears in part to be a message to Israel’s Druze population not to fight in the Israeli army. In what one analyst described to The Media Line as “dark humor,” Yassir Arafat was taking credit for arranging ‘Ali’s release. Indeed, ‘Ali thanked Arafat and the Israeli government for their respective efforts. Yet, the analyst pointed out, it was Arafat’s own group – Al-Aq’sa – that admittedly snatched ‘Ali in the first place, “sort of akin to the arsonist wanting a medal for helping to put out a fire he started.”
4. ISRAEL FACES GAS-MASK DILEMMA: HOW TO GET THEM BACK… Much was made of Israel’s decision to issue gas masks to all of its citizens before the outbreak of the latest Gulf war. Controversy then erupted over the Home Front Command’s order to activate the masks on the eve of the war, a move many said was premature and excessively costly. The scene now switches to the question of how to retrieve the masks from the public. There are seven million of them with a value of $25 million. The government is trying to outsource the collection process, unleashing an avalanche of potential strategic partnerships. Bidders are coming up with ideas to offer goods and services as inducement to get Israelis to part with their masks — a strategy pollsters say will work. What represented life-or-death a year ago today can be had for a liter of Coke or a few DVDs.