More War Clouds Gather Over Tense Middle East
By David Dolan
Armed attacks upon the world's only Jewish state escalated sharply during March, coming from both the northern and southern border regions. For the first time in over 40 years, Israeli air force jets struck several Syrian Army military positions after four Israeli soldiers, including a battalion deputy commander, were wounded in a border attack that the IDF said was launched by Syrian soldiers stationed on the tense Golan Heights. One week later, two Syrian infiltrators were shot and wounded as they tried to penetrate the Golan border fence.
Earlier in the month in the south, Iranian-backed Palestinian Muslim terrorists once again fired nearly 100 rockets at Israeli civilian communities near the Gaza Strip. One landed just outside of a library in the often attacked Israeli town of S'derot. It was the largest barrage of rockets to be fired in the same timeframe since Israel fought a six day battle with the radical Hamas movement in November 2012.
The Israeli Air Force was quickly ordered into action, hitting a number of rocket shooting positions and other targets connected to the Islamic Jihad group, which said it carried out at least most of the rocket assaults. As they have done several times before as rocket attacks escalated over the past year, Israeli government officials warned that a major military incursion into the small Palestinian coastal zone might become necessary if the shootings continued, prompting the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers to put at least a temporary halt to the sustained firings.
As fierce fighting continued to envelop neighboring Syria, the embattled Assad regime made more gains against its multifaceted Sunni Arab Muslim opponents during the month, recapturing a strategic town near the border with Lebanon with the help of Iran's surrogate Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia force. This came as the regime continued to drag its feet on commitments made to the United Nations last year to hand over all of its huge chemical weapons arsenal to international control and destruction. Israeli leaders are said to be worried that the chemical weapons deal may fall entirely apart in the coming weeks and months, since Syria's main big power ally, Russia, is now at loggerheads with much of the world after Vladimir Putin invaded portions of the country of Georgia during March.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met once again with American President Barrack Obama during the month in Washington, with discussions reportedly focusing on faltering peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, the war in Syria and Iran's nuclear program. The meetings came just a couple weeks before a deadline set by the PA last summer for suspending the talks if they did not make any tangible progress by the end of March. Meanwhile the Israeli government decided to halt the fourth and final round of Palestinian prisoner releases that was agreed to last year as part of the peace talk's resumption, prompting outrage from Palestinian leader who issued more threats that a new terrorist attrition war may be on the horizon.
Meanwhile PA leader Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his hard line position that the Palestinians will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state-a basic requirement spelled out by Israeli leaders for many years if there is to be a final peaceful resolution of this portion of the wider Arab-Muslim conflict, which has morphed in recent decades into a struggle with non-Arab Iran and its allies. Further sinking the always extremely slim prospects that an American-brokered peace treaty could be ironed out sometime this year, the Arab League subsequently formally endorsed the PA's rejectionist stand.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon got into more hot water during March after he delivered a speech in which he termed President Obama's response to the so-called "Arab Spring" regional upheaval, and the recent Russian invasion of Crimea, as "feeble." He noted that widely perceived growing American weakness in the region can only spell ill for Israel. This came as Egypt's military leaders finalized a major arms deal with Moscow that will provide the large Arab country with some of Russia's most advances weapons systems, said media reports from Cairo.
Senior Iranian government leaders praised their Palestinian allies for lashing out at Israel. Defense Minister General Hossein Dehqan said that Iranian weapons shipments, training and financial aid had left Palestinian militiamen in the Gaza Strip "a thousand times more powerful than they were before." This came as the country's Foreign Minister predicted that international talks to curb the regime's rogue nuclear production will fail to reach that goal.
OMINOUS ATTACK FROM SYRIA
Four Israeli soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously, when a powerful bomb exploded near their army jeep along the Golan Heights border with Syria on March 17. The Israeli Army issued a statement saying they had strong evidence that Syrian soldiers loyal to the Assad regime had planted the explosive device, which injured a deputy army commander operating in the area. The wounded paratroopers were rushed to a nearby hospital in the north after receiving initial treatment at the scene from army medics.
The four Israeli soldiers, from the 202nd Battalion, were riding in their patrol jeep when they spotted a suspicious object on the ground near the border patrol road. The bomb exploded just as they were approaching it, indicating that spotters with a remote detonator, probably a cell phone, were hiding on the Syrian side of the border. The soldiers then spotted two armed Syrian soldiers running from the scene and opened fire on them.
The IDF quickly responded to the unprovoked bombing assault by shelling nearby Syrian army positions. Early the next day, a more extensive response was unleashed after it became clearer to IDF officers and the Netanyahu government that the border bomb had been planted by Assad's agents, possibly local Arab Druze citizens who are connected to the regime through family ties in Syria. Israeli Air Force warplanes and helicopter gunships were ordered into extensive action, targeting several area Syrian army command posts, artillery batteries and a training base. Middle East analysts said it was the most substantial IDF operation against Syrian military positions inside of the blood-soaked Arab country since the end of the Yom Kippur war in late October, 1973, although Syrian and Israeli warplanes fought pitched battles over the skies of Lebanon in June, 1982 when the IDF went into action to push Yasser Arafat's PLO fighters from southern Lebanon.
Officials in Damascus later said that one soldier was killed and seven others wounded in the IDF's reprise operation. They also accused the Israeli government of "violating international law and making desperate attempts to escalate the situation" along the border. Israeli leaders replied that the Assad regime, which since the start of the internal war in March , 2011, has been behind the deaths of tens of thousands of its own citizens in some of the most savage attacks ever seen in the region during a war that has so far driven some two million Syrians to flee their homes and country, is hardly in a lofty position to issue moralistic statements about supposed Israeli violations of international law.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon later revealed that the chosen Syrian targets were hit because they "allowed and assisted in yesterday's terror attack." He added that he and other Israeli leaders "will not tolerate any infringement of our sovereignty or harm to our soldiers and civilians. We will respond resolutely and powerfully to anyone who acts against us, at any time and place, as we've done tonight." Ya'alon pointed the ultimate finger of responsibility at the brutal Syrian regime, proclaiming that Israel views Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's regime as being ultimately responsible for whatever occurs in its territory, even if the army itself had not carried out the attack, as claimed by authorities in Damascus. He warned that if the regime "continued to cooperate with terrorist elements seeking to harm Israel, it will "regret its actions."
Just a few hours after the IDF operation took place, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet meeting that "Our policy is very clear. We attack those who attack us." He noted that this policy is not designed to exact revenge upon those carrying out such assaults, but on deterring future attacks against the small Jewish state. He added that this policy, along with the periodic IDF interception of enemy weapons shipments to Palestinian and Lebanese Islamic militants, mostly from Iran, has led to a sharp drop in terrorist attacks in recent years, and especially during 2013. "Last year was the lowest level (of attacks) in a decade, both in the number of fatalities and in the firing of missiles and rockets. From time to time, it is necessary to take aggressive action, as we are doing now, to ensure that the quiet continues." The veteran Premier added that the policy has left Israel as "the most secure and stable country in a Middle East that is undergoing profound turmoil."
DARK DAYS AHEAD
Although the Syrian/Israeli clash was not widely reported around the planet because of the escalating east-west crisis due to Vladimir Putin's military aggression near the Black Sea, along with the dramatic disappearance of the Malaysian jet under very suspicious circumstances and other serious trouble brewing around the tottering world, Middle East experts said it may well portend a major escalation in the Syrian war, and/or a looming clash with the war mongering Hizbullah militia and its Iranian Shiite clerical masters based in Tehran.
The fact that Putin is Assad's main international protector, and is apparently interested in intensifying his military offensives in order to expand the Kremlin's power and influence around the turbulent region, if not to actually rebuild the once mighty Soviet empire, only adds to Israeli concerns that a major conflict may be brewing with the Syrian regime. Israeli fears were only buttressed when Turkish forces shot down a Syrian MIG jet that they said had provocatively flown into Turkish airspace soon after the IDF struck Syrian military positions near the Golan Heights.
Some Israeli commentators speculated during March that the longtime Russian leader may have drawn up secret plans with both his Iranian and Syrian counterparts to unleash a new regional war designed to enhance Russia's standing in the region. Although he is not considered an enemy of Israel, there is some concern that Putin might even attempt to make some claims on Israeli territory since well over one million native Russian speakers now reside in the country. Although this is considered to be a extremely remote possibility by most security experts, Putin is thought to be more than capable of dreaming that his personal road to greatness lies in controlling the region. If so, he would only be following in the footsteps of earlier megalomaniacs like Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolph Hitler.
Some Israeli analysts say that Putin's seemingly strong desire to achieve "greatness," despite the fact that his actions could set off a new regional or even world war, may help explain his government's rush to seal a major arms sale to Egypt. Negotiations to wrap up such a deal began soon after President Obama decided to "punish" the new interim government that ousted Mohammad Morsi from power in Cairo last July by slashing American financial and military aid to Egypt. The move provoked wrath in Egyptian military ranks, and also in the capitals of some of America's other close regional Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states who shared the Egyptian military's opposition to Morsi's growing attempts to transform Egypt into a Muslim theocratic state. In an apparent attempt to stem the damage, Obama flew four hours from Brussels to Riyad on March 28 to visit in person with Saudi King Abdullah, who reportedly warned the American leader that the oil rich desert kingdom may begin its own nuclear development program if Iran is allowed by the United States and other world powers to continue enriching uranium.
Deteriorating diplomatic ties between Washington and Jerusalem were highlighted during March when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon publicly called into question American government actions in the area. This came after he was earlier quoted as denigrating US Secretary of State John Kerry for his "messianic" efforts to wrap up a very unlikely peace accord this year between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Speaking at the University of Tel Aviv the in late March, the former IDF chief of staff said he sensed international "disappointment" over the Obama administration's performance in the region. Pointing to recent developments in the Middle East, Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, ongoing big power talks with Iran over its nuclear program, and strained relations between the US and China, Ya'alon said that the Obama government's "image in the world is one of feebleness."
Ya'alon was particularly critical of President Obama's handling of the nuclear talks with Iran, stating that "At some stage, the United States entered into negotiations with Iran's leaders, and unhappily when it comes to negotiating at a Persian bazaar, the Iranians are better." He went on to imply that the American leader and his political comrades are pushing Israel to take on Iran militarily if the international nuclear negotiations come to nothing, as now appears to be increasingly likely.
On the crisis in with Moscow, the senior Israeli official was even more scathing of the Obama administration's response. He said the US was "demonstrating weakness, unfortunately" in its reactions to Vladimir Putin's bold seizure of power in Ukraine. This came soon after he warned that that America must "come to its senses" or risk a sharp escalation of terrorist threats from all over the world. Several Israeli commentators reacted to the comments about Iran and Russia by adding that Putin is apparently also much better at playing chess than Obama is.
"OUTRAGE" IN WASHINTON
While hailed by many in Israel as being candid and accurate, the Defense Minister's remarks sparked off an immediate uproar in Washington and in Jerusalem. Opposition Israeli politicians claimed Ya'alon was undermining the country's immensely importance alliance with the United States at a time when that friendship is more vital than ever. However most fellow cabinet ministers backed their colleague, although the Prime Minister reportedly prevailed upon his Defense Minister to apologize for the remarks. Ya'alon then phoned American Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to do that very thing. According to a statement released by Ya'alon's office, he told the American government official that his controversial remarks contained "no defiance of criticism or intention to hurt the United States or its relations with Israel." He added that "the strategic relationship between the two countries is of the upmost importance, as are the personal relations and common interests" shared by the two allies.
The "clarification" of Ya'alon's remarks-considered disparaging, even if quite accurate, by many Israelis-came soon after official Washington blew a gasket over his critical comments. An anonymous senior American official told the Jerusalem Post newspaper that the administration was "shocked by Moshe Ya'alon's insulting comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel's relationship with the United States." Top aids to the Defense Minister characterized the statement as "ridiculous" since he of all people understands how vital America's support is for Israel present and future security.
PRISONER RELEASE HALTED
Palestinian Authority leaders expressed anger over the Israeli government's last minute decision to hold off on a final release of Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails. The inmates, most of them imprisoned after being convicted of carrying out or supporting terrorist crimes, had been due to be set free on March 29. The Netanyahu government had reluctantly agreed to PA demands, supported by the White House, to release 104 prisoners who had been behind bars since the PA was created as part of the 1993 Oslo peace accord. A total of 78 prisoners had been set free in three different batches since the middle of last year. In exchange for the promised prisoner releases, the PA had agreed to Israeli and American demands that it drop its bid for unilateral statehood recognition at the United Nations.
However, it was also made clear by government authorities in Jerusalem that the prisoner releases would be affected by the outcome of the US-sponsored negotiations, which media reports say have been virtually stalled since they began last July at the State Department in Washington DC before moving to the Middle East. There were even increasing call from many members of PM Netanyahu's own coalition government for a suspension of the releases, especially after PA President Abbas declared in mid March that the Palestinian people will never recognize Israel as a country primarily run by and for the long stateless Jewish people, whose ancestors lived in the land. A subsequent endorsement of his intransigent position by Arab League leaders only fueled growing calls for the final release to be suspended.
Analysts said another major factor in the Israeli government decision to go no further at this time was the continuing warning by the Palestinian Authority that it will walk away from the rocky peace negotiations if no framework accord is reached by April 29-which no one remotely expects to occur at this stage. An attempt by President Obama to persuade Abbas to reverse his position when the PA leader visited the White House during March came to nothing, as had similar attempts by John Kerry and various European Union leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron who visited the Holy Land the second week of the month.
With dramatic and ominous news continuing to pour out of the Middle East and from troubled areas near it like Ukraine, we can take heart in the reality that despite it all, our God reigns!
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.