Israel Loses A Great Leader
By David Dolan
Israel lost one its greatest leaders during January when Ariel Sharon finally departed this life after lying in a deep coma for eight years. Dignitaries from around the world attended a state memorial ceremony for the former Prime Minister and army general in Jerusalem. Among the foreign attendees were American Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who delivered a moving eulogy focusing on the achievements of the veteran Israeli leader. Another speaker was Israeli President Shimon Peres, a longtime political opponent of the Likud party founder. Despite this fact, Peres lauded Sharon for his many decades of service to the Jewish state.
There was a sharp upsurge of rocket attacks from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip during the first month of the new year, with one attack coming just minutes after Sharon's funeral ended. Fortunately the Iron Dome anti-rocket system managed to intercept and destroy the potentially deadly rockets before they reached their targets, mainly aimed at the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. The Israeli government ordered swift reprisals for the attacks, warning that heavier action will follow if the rocket assaults continue. This came just before Israeli security officials revealed they had thwarted a plot by Al Qaida linked Palestinians to attack the American embassy in Tel Aviv and other targets in Jerusalem.
Behind the scenes peace negotiations continued during January between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as American Secretary of State John Kerry returned once again to the Holy Land to prod the talks along. Growing tensions between the Obama administration and the Israeli government mushroomed after Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon blasted Kerry for his "misguided" efforts and his "messianic" ambitions. The White House and State Department quickly demanded a full apology from Israeli officials despite the fact that Ya'alon was speaking off the record and was widely known to be expressing the views of most cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In contrast to deteriorating relations between the United States and Israel, an official visit during January by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper highlighted the very warm ties between that North American country and the Jewish state.
Ariel Sharon was forced to resign as Defense Minister in 1983 after allied Lebanese Maronite Catholic militiamen slaughtered several thousand Palestinians living in two south Beirut refugee camps. Over 30 years later, the country once again appears to be precariously poised to fall back into civil war. Several powerful car bombs went off during the month in and around Beirut, all thought to be linked to the bitter war raging in neighboring Syria. Another one exploded near the border with Syria. Lebanese security officials said Al Qaida argents were behind most of the attacks. Four powerful bombs were later detonated in the Egyptian capital city just one week after voters in the troubled Arab country overwhelmingly approved a new constitution put forward by the military-backed government.
In Syria, the northern city of Allepo was once again the focus of intense battles between troops loyal to the Syrian Assad regime and rebel Sunni Muslim forces fighting to topple it. Human rights organizations condemned the oppressive regime for dropping hundreds of barrel bombs (barrels loaded with explosive sticks of TNT) on civilian neighborhoods in Allepo and elsewhere. In southern Beirut, aid was finally given to Sunni Muslim Palestinians living there who had been besieged by government forces, with reports that many were starving to death. Pictures of emaciated and apparently tortured Syrian bodies were published by human rights groups who are demanding that Assad face international trial as a war criminal.
Meanwhile a majority of Syrian rebel groups voted to attend a United Nations sponsored peace conference in Geneva Switzerland. Diplomats from over 40 nations convened for the opening ceremony on January 22. However a preview of the difficult road ahead for the talks came on the very first morning when the Syrian Foreign Minister refused to cut short his prolonged, bombastic speech after repeatedly being asked to do so by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Rebel groups are demanding that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad step down from power-a demand also made by John Kerry on the opening day of the conference-something Assad has already made abundantly clear he will never voluntarily do.
The six month interim nuclear accord signed last November by six world powers and Syria's main regional ally, Iran, went into effect on January 20. United Nations Atomic Energy inspectors immediately went to work helping Iran destroy its large stockpile of uranium that had previously been enriched to 20 percent, which experts say is just a short sprint from what is needed to construct nuclear bombs. However Israeli leaders, along with many Arab officials, continued to express deep skepticism that Iran's extremist Shiite Muslim theocratic regime will fully comply with the terms of the interim accord, which is supposed to be followed by a still to be negotiated permanent agreement at the end of the half year period.
ARIEL SHARON LAID TO REST
One of Israel's greatest and most controversial leaders, Ariel Sharon, passed away quietly on the Jewish Sabbath on January 11, almost exactly eight years to the day after he suffered a massive stroke in January 2006 while serving as Prime Minister. Interestingly enough, Sharon was Israel's 11th Prime Minister; in office from 2001 until he suffered his debilitating stoke which would leave him on life support systems for eight long years. Under bright winter sunshine, official representatives from some 22 countries attended the state memorial service on Monday morning, January 13. It was held in front of the Knesset building in Jerusalem, where Sharon's coffin was draped in an Israeli flag.
Later the same day, the international dignitaries traveled south to the Negev Desert to the Sharon family's beloved farm, where the former army general and politician, who was born in the land he loved in 1928, often retreated to for privacy and rest. They were joined by many of Sharon's Israeli and international friends and his surviving sons and their families who watched in silence as his coffin was lowered into the ground next to the remains of his lifelong love, his late wife Lily. Given Sharon's long and distinguished military career, the final eulogy was delivered by IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, who lauded "Arik's" army leadership. Sharon's coffin was borne by eight army major generals, with the funeral service being led by the military rabbinate. A large police force of 800 men and women guarded the area, which is not far from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
ROCKET ATTACKS ESCALATE FROM GAZA
There was a sharp escalation of violence emanating from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip during January, with at least ten rockets launched against Israeli civilian centers, especially at the coastal city of Ashkelon and surrounding areas. Following an attack early in the month, there was a brief lull until a batch of rockets landed in the vicinity of Ariel Sharon's family ranch in the northern Negev Desert not far from the Palestinian Gaza Strip coastal zone. Two grad rockets were also reportedly fired at the southern resort city of Eilat, again causing no casualties or damage.
Three days later, five Iranian-made rockets were launched at the city of Ashkelon-the heaviest rocket barrage since last spring. Schools were closed in the city as they were in the nearby port city of Ashdod. The sophisticated Iron Dome anti-rocket system immediately went into action to intercept and destroy the rockets. The Iranian-backed Islamic jihad group took "credit" for the attack, which thankfully caused no damage or casualties.
The Israeli Air Force quickly retaliated for the Palestinian rocket barrage, striking four known terrorist sites in the Hamas-ruled zone, including a building where rockets and other weapons are known to be produced. The Israeli military spokesman said that Ahmed Za'anin, a senior commander of the Islamic Jihad terrorist militia, was killed in the one of the IAF strikes. He was thought to have been behind at least most of the January rocket firings. An Islamic Jihad spokesman issued a bitter statement in the wake of Za'anin's death, vowing that "the blood of the martyrs will not be in vain, but will be a curse that chases the occupier everywhere."
Several days later, an improvised explosive device was detonated next to the Israeli border fence with Gaza, exploding not far from a group of IDF soldiers patrolling in the area. The army spokesman quickly issued a stern statement, warning that "the IDF takes a grave view" of such attacks and will respond accordingly. This was followed by warnings from the Prime Minister that the IDF could be ordered to launch another major military operation in the Gaza Strip if deemed necessary to halt the rocket firings.
Although Hamas denied it had ordered the Islamic Jihad rocket firings, Israeli leaders once again said the militant Muslim group would be held responsible for the attacks since Hamas controls the small coastal zone, having seized power in a bloody coup against the Palestinian Authority in the summer of 2007. Soon after Israeli military and governmental leaders issued their warnings of another possible military operation to curb terror groups based in the Gaza Strip, Hamas militia forces were seen being deployed along the border in an apparent attempt to bring the rocket firings under control.
Israeli officials called upon their Palestinian Authority colleagues to at least publicly denounce the rocket firings, saying they could harm the struggling peace talks going on between the two parties. In response, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement that began with a verbal blast aimed at Israel, demanding that Israeli leaders put a halt to what he termed "unjustified assaults on Palestinian civilians and their properties, as well as mosques and churches." He was apparently referring to several so-called "price tag" attacks upon Palestinians in the disputed territories in recent months that police say were carried out by small groups of Jews residing in the disputed territories north and south of Jerusalem.
MORE PRISONERS SET FREE
Senior Hamas leader Hassan Youssef was released from an Israeli prison in January after serving 28 months in jail for security and administrative offenses committed against the Jewish state. In recent years, Youseff became well known around the world after his son, Mosab, converted to Christianity and then published his book "Son of Hamas" which exposed the inner workings of the radical terrorist movement.
Earlier in the month, two other senior Hamas leaders were also set free, and the remains of 36 Palestinian terrorists, some of them convicted suicide attackers, were handed over to the Palestinian Authority. The three men were freed as part of a general Israeli-Palestinian prisoner release that was first suggested by American Secretary of State John Kerry as a "goodwill gesture" to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going again. As was the case in previous releases last year, many Israeli citizens and some politicians held rallies to protest the freeing of over 100 terrorist criminals, saying Israeli leaders are in effect rewarding terrorism by releasing Palestinians who had directly participated in various deadly attacks against Israeli Jews.
Hamas leaders reacted with outrage when the Reuters news agency reported mid month that the new military-backed government in Egypt is preparing to crack down on the radical movement when it finishes its current campaign to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt-the parent organization that helped found The Islamic Resistance Movement (whose acronym in Arabic is HAMAS) in 1988. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri strongly denounced what he termed "Egyptian interference in internal Palestinian affairs" while urging officials in Cairo to turn their guns on Israel.
Meanwhile Egyptian police sources said the Muslim Brotherhood was behind four powerful bombs that exploded in central Cairo on January 24. The blasts came just one week after Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution drawn up by a legal committee set up by the current Egyptian government, which is unofficially headed by former army general Abdel Al Asisi who is now expected to run for president sometime this spring. The constitution guarantees the rights of women and of the minority Coptic Christian community, which suffered frequent attacks from Muslim supporters of former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, who was forced out of power by the army last July. A previous constitution proposed by a committee established by Morsi linked all new Egyptian laws to Islamic Sharia law and made it a crime to "insult" the founder of the Islamic faith, Muhammad.
Israel's main security agency, the Shin Bet, announced on January 22 that it successfully halted a plot by two Palestinians living in the eastern half of Jerusalem and another in Samaria to attack the American embassy building located next to the Mediterranean coast in central Tel Aviv. The plotters were also planning to bomb several other public places in Israel, including the largest auditorium in Jerusalem where the annual Christian celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles is held, along with many other events.
The three Palestinian suspects reportedly confessed to having been recruited online to carry out the assaults by Al Qaida operatives living in the Gaza Strip. They told their interrogators other Al Qaida supported terrorists living in Russia were planning to enter Israel as tourists before joining the Palestinian plotters in attacking the targets with suicide blasts. Security analysts noted that despite Barrack Obama's contention before the 2012 US presidential elections that Al Qaida is a waning force in the world, it is clearly on the ascendency in the region, launching major operations in Iraq and Lebanon in recent months, as it did in Libya on the 2012 anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America.
PEACE TREATY BY APRIL?
America's senior diplomat, John Kerry, returned to the Middle East during January to prod along faltering peace talks that he fathered between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. As usual, he met with senior Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, including PM Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, followed by meetings with Mahmoud Abbas and other senior PA leaders in Ramallah, due north of Jerusalem. While in the Israeli capital city, Kerry confirmed media reports that the Obama administration wants a final peace accord to be ironed out by April, when Jews in Israel and all around the world will celebrate Passover with the first of four full lunar "Tetrad" eclipses that will darken the moon on successive Passovers and Feast of Tabernacles over the next two years.
However the prospects that a final peace accord will be arrived at seemed to dim significantly when PA leaders publicly rejected several of the core proposals brought by the US Secretary of State, including one for some sort of Israeli security presence remaining in the strategic Jordan Valley after the area is handed over to the PA. Abbas and company also reiterated their earlier statements that they will never recognize Israel as a legitimate Jewish state, while continuing to demand that the Palestinian capital be inside Jerusalem's current municipal boundaries. They also repeated that all Palestinian refugees whose families owned land inside of Israel's current borders be permitted to return to those locations. All of these positions are non-starters for both the Israeli government and most of its citizens, according to all opinion surveys. The hardline PA positions were subsequently endorsed by Arab foreign minister who formally convened in Paris just before the UN's peace conference on Syria began in nearby Geneva.
The already slim prospects that John Kerry's relentless diplomatic efforts will bear any fruit at all seemed to wane still further when Israeli media outlets reported some off the record comments attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon soon after the Secretary of State completed his latest regional visit. The former Israeli armed forces chief stated that Kerry was doggedly pursuing peace talks at this time due to "a misplaced obsession and messianic fervor." He also said that an American plan designed to bolster Israel's security if it signs a final peace deal involving more land withdrawals, which was brought by Kerry during his visit, was "not worth the paper it was written on."
Israeli media outlets have been reporting for many months that PM Netanyahu and most of his cabinet ministers are mystified by Kerry's decision to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute at a time when the Palestinian people are divided between PA and Hamas rule, neighboring Syria is engulfed in what one security analyst is calling "the worst war anywhere on earth during the first quarter of the 21st century," not to mention while Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq are in a state of crisis, and especially while Iran's Muslim fundamentalist leaders are openly vowing to wipe Israel off the face of the earth with nuclear warheads.
The White House and State Department in Washington reacted with outrage over Ya'alon's frank remarks, demanding that he issue an immediate apology to Kerry. Netanyahu then intervened and basically ordered his Defense Minister to comply, which he did. Several Israeli Middle East political experts saw the row with Obama and his political comrades as another sign that US power and influence in the turbulent region continues to tumble due to the administration's "misguided" policies concerning Israel, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
An opinion poll released by Israel's Channel Two in late January showed that almost all Israelis surveyed-87 percent-believe that the peace talks will fail to produce an accord. President Obama himself expressed strong doubts that Kerry's efforts to forge a final Israeli-Palestinian peace pact will succeed. He told the New Yorker magazine during January that "there is less than a 50 percent chance" of achieving a peace accord this year. Obama gave the same assessment for the chances of a positive outcome to international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program and to end the deadly Syrian civil war. However the US leader added that, "In all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder part way up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn't roll back on us." However Israeli leaders pointed out that the Americans and their allies have no choice but to try to end the horrendous war in Syria and to eliminate Iran's ability to construct nuclear warheads, while there was absolutely no need to stir up always simmering tensions between the Palestinians and Israel this year, which renewed peace talks with little prospects for success have apparently already done.
Prime Minister Netanyahu flew unannounced to Amman during the month to discuss the peace process with Jordanian King Abdullah. The Arab monarch is known to share Israel's concerns that radical Hamas forces will attempt to take over any Palestinian state that might emerge as a result of John Kerry's efforts. After the meeting, Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying that Jordan "continues to play an important role" in the clandestine peace negotiations and that "Israel places high value on security cooperation" with the Jordanian government.
FIGHTING RAGES IN SYRIA AS PEACE TALKS BEGIN
Nearly three years after Syrian Sunni Muslims started their violent revolt against the minority Alowite Assad regime that has been entrenched in Damascus since the 1960s, there was finally a small ray of hope that the bloody war-which has left at least 120,000 people dead and over a million exiled as war refugees-may come to an end this year. Peace talks finally began in Geneva the third week of January. The embattled regime reluctantly agreed to participate in the UN sponsored talks after being strong armed to do so by Assad's most important international ally, Russia. However by the second day of the talks in the beautiful Swiss city, Syrian government officials threatened to head home after expressing fierce anger over statements made by John Kerry and other Western diplomats insisting that Assad and company must leave office before any actual peace accord can be arrived at.
At the opening ceremony, the American Secretary of State declared that the United States government "sees only on option-negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent. That means that Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is now way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern." Syrian representatives at the conference swiftly dismissed the notion that Assad will voluntarily step down, signaling that the international parlay, like Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, will probably fail to end the conflict.
Meanwhile many people around the world were shocked to view dozens of pictures released by a human rights group just before the conference got underway. They showed many emaciated dead bodies that some commentators said reminded them of those taken at several Nazi death camps at the end of World War II. Others had ropes tied around their necks, having apparently been chocked to death. The human rights group blamed the Syrian regime for the crimes, while a spokesman for Assad blamed Sunni Muslim rebel forces. Meanwhile aid workers finally managed to get food into a neighborhood in southern Damascus that is mostly populated by Sunni Muslim Palestinians whose families had fled to Syria during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. News reports showed dozens of obviously starving people pleading for food supplies after their area was besieged by Assad's forces.
In neighboring Lebanon, several powerful car bombs were detonated during January, most of them in and around Beirut. The targets were linked to the Iranian-founded and funded Hizbullah militia which has sent fighters to aid the Assad regime on the ground. An Al Qaida-linked Sunni Muslim group took responsibility for most of the blasts.
Meanwhile in Iran, a six month interim nuclear accord went into effect on January 20, with UN inspectors announcing that Iranian leaders were cooperating in the destruction of their existing stockpile of uranium that had earlier been enriched to 20 percent. One day before, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told CNN that the regime would not destroy any of its existing enrichment centrifuges "under any circumstances," adding that Israel would "rue the day" that it attacked Iran's nuclear facilities. In Jerusalem, visiting American Vice President Joe Biden refused to honor PM Netanyahu's request that he share details about the exact terms of the accord, which are being interpreted in Tehran as an international "endorsement of Iran's right" to enrich uranium, since the interim accord allows them to keep doing that, although only up to five percent enrichment.
All indications are that 2014 will be another year of intense upheaval in the turbulent Middle East. Despite this, we can rejoice that "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever" (Psalm 125:1).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.