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Commentary: Saudi F-15s in Gulf of Eilat worry Israeli

Wednesday, 10-Sep-2003 12:20PM PDT
Story from United Press International
Copyright 2003 by United Press International (via ClariNet)

TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- An al-Qaida attempt to recruit a Saudi Arabian pilot for a kamikazi-like suicide strike against the Jewish state has got the Israeli military worried over the presence of Saudi F-15S fighter planes in Tabouk, on the eastern bank of the Gulf of Eilat.

The Saudi base is situated some 120 miles from Israel. Eilat, Israel's southern-most town that attracts thousands of holidaymakers is at the northern tip of that gulf. The gulf, also known as the Gulf of Aqaba, juts out of the Red Sea.

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Military Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant Gen. Moshe Ya'alon Tuesday told the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, in Herzliya, that al-Qaida detainees interrogated abroad said their organization "sought to recruit a Saudi Arabian pilot to use either an F-15 or a civilian plane for a suicide air strike attack ...from Tabouk."

The F-15S is a derivative of the U.S. F-15E. The Saudi version - hence the "S" - lacks some of the advanced avionics that the U.S. deemed too sensitive to give them.

The fighter planes' deployment in Tabouk is a new phenomenon and, "We worry about it," Ya'alon said.

Israel has asked the U.S. to see that they be removed. "We sent a very clear message that as far as we are concerned this is a threat," an authoritative military source Wednesday told United Press International.

Former Israeli Air Force Commander, retired Major Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, told UPI his country had tried to block the F-15S' sale to Saudi Arabia. It argued the planes capabilities "could change the balance in the Middle East and endanger Israel."

It failed to block the deal just at it failed to block the sale of AWACS airborne early warning systems in the 1980s. However, to prove these planes were not designed to threaten Israel and, "to prevent misunderstandings, and suspicions" Saudi Arabia undertook not to station them at Tabouk, the kingdom's closest base to Israel, Ben-Eliyahu recalled.

Once before they sent the F-15S there, Israel complained, and the Saudis pulled them out. They reportedly sent the planes again in March, Israel complained, and they are still there.

Shaul Shai, a research fellow at the ICT said it was "definitely possible" a Saudi pilot would launch a suicide attack. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania were Saudi, he noted.

Saudis are involved in terror though "we don't always know in what way or how much. We have only a partial picture," ICT research fellow Yoram Kahati said.

Former air force officers estimated it would take an F-15 plane some 12 to 20 minutes to reach Eilat.

Yiftah Shapir of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies told UPI Israel's radar would detect such a flight. Its Uvda air force base, in the southern Negev desert, is a few minutes flight from Eilat. Israeli planes that would be scrambled over could have a few minutes in which to wait for a Saudi plane to arrive and shoot it down.

The Yediot Aharonot newspaper said Israel has Hawk anti-aircraft missiles in the vicinity.

The problem would be at the decision maker's level, Shapir and retired Air Force Col. Shmuel L. Gordon said.

Eilat is wedged between Egypt and Jordan with the Saudi Arabian border just a few miles away. A plane that crosses the Israeli border is already over Eilat. A decision maker might thus have to decide whether to authorize shooting it down over a foreign country. In that case, "you invite a diplomatic incident," Shapir said.

Gordon, who had headed the Air Force's Command and Control Center, suggested an F-15 plane would present a lesser dilemma because it is a clearly identifiable enemy fighter plane.

The big problem, with which Israel has been grappling for years, is what to do if a civilian plane approaches on an unauthorized flight, he maintained.

In February 1973 Israel mistakenly shot down a civilian Libyan airliner that flew over the Sinai (that Israel occupied at that time) and killed 105 passengers. "We've got a trauma," he said.

Gordon, who now lectures on strategic issues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the key problem would be the need to take very difficult decisions when there is no time and the situation is not clear. Several years ago a light Lebanese plane flew along Israel's coast, passed near Haifa and was shot down only when it neared Tel Aviv, he recalled. The decision making process took a long time, he explained.