Avi Dichter: Sharon's most potent weapon in the battle to expel the settlers from Gaza

The Monday Interview: Former head of Israel's security services, Shin Bet
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"I talked to colleagues in the States and offered any assistance if they needed it and they told me they suspected Eta. I said, look, I am not familiar with what is going on in the region, but according to the results, and watching the TV and the pictures... forget about Eta, because it bears all the hallmarks of Islamic terrorism."

It would be tempting to see the benefits of hindsight in this recollection if it were not for a curious fact. Last Friday, The Independent reported that British intelligence and the police had concluded there was no evidence of a link between the deadly attacks in London on 7 July and the unsuccessful ones a fortnight later. The investigators' initial conclusions were that 21 July was the work of "copycat" attackers.

It happens to have been several days earlier that Mr Dichter sat in his modern kitchen in Ashkelon and said confidently over coffee and his wife's home-made cake: "I don't know that the first cell is responsible for the second session of events. I guess it's not. Four bombs that are not detonated due to mechanical failure or whatever was probably another cell. I don't know what the interrogation results are but it is probably another cell ... After a successful session, from the terrorists' point of view, there may be other terrorists who will try to imitate it, to use this success and to follow up what happened. It happens even here in Israel." Mr Dichter is either better informed than he says or he has a very well-honed ability to read such events.

It would be surprising, of course, if the latter were not true. Mr Dichter, 53, has just stepped down as head of Israel's domestic intelligence agency, a post he held for almost all the period of the second Palestinian uprising. He is widely credited in the Israeli establishment with having progressively reduced the number of attacks against Israel since its peak in 2002.

And that reputation is now being exploited with a clear political purpose. Having come out in strong support of the plan to evacuate all 8,500 settlers from Gaza by force if they will not go voluntarily, Mr Dichter is Ariel Sharon's most potent weapon against the settlers' argument that withdrawal from Gaza is a "surrender to terrorism" and will increase rather than decrease attacks by Palestinian militants.

He argues that withdrawing from Gaza drastically reduces the "carpet of targets" open to militants in Gaza in the first place. He is optimistic that there won't be an organised outbreak of violence - as opposed to sporadic attacks like that on Kfar Darom yesterday - during the disengagement process against settlers and soldiers by Palestinian militants, who have been warned to expect heavy retaliation if there is. More importantly perhaps, he is sceptical that there will be after disengagement too.

Almost every settler you speak to in Gaza mentions the likelihood that Hamas will soon have the range to fire Qassams at Mr Dichter's own home town. Yet he professes bemusement that the international community sometimes seems disproportionately exercised about the militants' use of its makeshift artillery when its success has been so - relatively - small.

"From 600 to 700 Qassam rockets fired we suffered eight fatalities and from 3,500 mortar shells we suffered five fatalities. Which is one suicide bomber."

By contrast, he says, without withdrawing from Gaza the militants can attack both Israeli settlements and military positions. "They can use snipers on the settlements and the vehicles on the road. They know that they can put some bombs along the Green Line against Israeli military vehicles. Which means the probability to hit civilians or carry out successful terror attacks, is going to decrease dramatically."

This is the narrow argument of an Israeli security professional, which leaves to one side the question of whether the settlers have any right to be in Gaza at all. But with many Israelis, not least those whose sons may be obliged to do combat duty in Gaza, it is also a powerful one.

On fears about what Jewish extremists might do to combat disengagement at this late stage, fears compounded by the killing of four Arabs by an Army deserter in northern Israel 13 days ago, Mr Dichter says "it is very clear that the really crazy people they know for sure that all the demonstrations, all the protests and protesters, [are not] to stop this disengagement ... An attack against the Prime Minister ... that's what's the main threat".

He has been a passionate advocate of the deeply controversial security barrier, which he reels off statistics to argue has drastically reduced militant attacks from the West Bank. He also backs the policy, condemned - at least in public - by the international community, of targeted assassination of militants (targeting killing as Mr Dichter prefers it, or "focused preventative acts" in the wonderfully bloodless terminology of the security establishment). He insists that the killings are carried out only in cases where, as in Gaza and in certain periods in the West Bank, it is impossible to make much more fruitful arrests.

But he also refers to "one of the biggest mistakes that countries make, in some cases that we even made in Israel at the beginning of the intifada".

"We thought there was some kind of a fair play. There isn't. If we attack you with rifles, fight back with rifles. If they fight you with terrorists, so you fight them with infantry. Don't give any other platforms. That is a huge mistake. Countries should use all conventional means.

"Never mind, believe me, about [killing] a single terrorist with an F-16 - its OK" .

Even if, as in the case of Sheikh Salah Shehadeh, the military commander of Hamas who was assassinated in July 2002 by an F-16 missile, 12 civilians were also killed?

Here, he pauses. It was never the intention. Indeed, he insists there were occasions when planned attempts on Shehadeh were postponed because of intelligence that "he was surrounded by innocent people." But there were occasions when "due to our mistakes, that due to the limitations, attacking from places too far, in some cases things were changed too fast and we failed to change the situation and sometimes people got hurt".

The case is topical, despite being three years old, because it features in a new book, Boomerang by two prominent Israeli journalists, which is highly critical of the conduct of Israeli leaders during the intifada. The book also challenges Mr Dichter's recommendation for the targeted killing of a Fatah leader, Raed Karmi in Tulkarem, arguing that the timing, in a period of calm, may have triggered Fatah's decision to mount attacks on the Israeli side of the Green Line.

Mr Dichter rejects the claim. He appears anyway critical of the distinction often drawn between militant attacks launched in territory occupied since 1967 and those within Israel.

He says: "I am in this business 34 years. I heard tens of times terrorists declaring that we are going to kill ourselves only within 1967 borders. Not even once have they fulfilled this. Simply for one reason, it is easier for them to carry out terror attacks within Israel's borders."

He also rejects allegations that one reason for Shin Bet's success in achieving results through arrest and interrogation is the continued use of torture despite a 1999 Supreme Court ruling against physical abuse of detainees. Even, he insists, the extra licence afforded interrogators of so-called "ticking bombs" has to be approved in each case by the Attorney General.

While he won't go into detail on the "tricks" played on interrogatees - sometimes believed to include veiled, if unfulfilled, threats to the families of prisoners - he declares that he told a previous attorney general that he "hoped that what we are allowed to do in case of a ticking bomb will never be published, because if it is we are going to be in trouble. Nobody is going to believe that we are so poor in our means to interrogate these ticking bombs and everybody is going to laugh at us." If that were not the case, he remarks, more lives might have been saved.

Former Shin Bet heads are much in demand and Mr Dichter, has been mentioned in recent days as a potential founder member of a new "centre" party, if one is formed. But he won't make up his mind till the end of the year whether to pursue a second career in business or politics.

What he doesn't, so far, share with his predecessor Ami Ayalon, now active in the Labour Party, is a distinctive vision, or at least one he is making public, about the political, as well as the security, dimension of the pursuit of peace.

Where Mr Ayalon says the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas requires from Israel and the US a "political horizon" - some prospect of what a final status settlement might look like - if he is going to have the popular legitimacy to disable Hamas, Mr Dichter repeats the familiar mantra that if Mr Abbas - who he claims badly "disappointed" President Bush at their last meeting - fails to crack down on the armed factions Israel will have to do it for him.

Meanwhile, he retains his close interest in the investigation into the London bombings. He says that every sinew has to be strained through intelligence to prevent attacks before they happen. But "if you fail to stop them a minute before, it is still important to stop them a minute later, because there is a basic rule ... that a repeat will probably be stronger and tougher than the first one because the appetite you get from success in terrorism is like any other kind of gambling. If you win at the casino the first time, be sure the second time will be soon and the amount of money will be quite big".

The CV

BORN: Ashkelon, 1953

EDUCATION: BA in psychology and criminology, as well as an MBA. Speaks fluent Arabic.

CAREER: Compulsory army service where he received a commendation for bravery. Joined Shin Bet on demobilisation and rose through the ranks. Appointed to command Shin Bet in March 2000. Exploited informers and electronic surveillance to maintain flow of information on Palestinian terrorists. Championed construction of West Bank barrier. Retired this year.

FAMILY: Married with two children.