Trouble Grows at Home and Abroad
By David Dolan
It is rare for Israeli media reports to focus for many days on events happening outside of the country. However that was the case from the middle of April when the Boston Islamic terror attack took place, closely followed by the deadly chemical disaster in Texas. Both stories deeply resonated with the Israeli public, which has obviously been the target of many Muslim terrorist assaults and powerful blasts in the past. The fact that these horrific things were taking place inside the borders of Israel's closest ally, the United States, only added to Israeli interest and concern.
The escalating violence in the Palestinian territories during the month was another major focus of media attention. Fears that a new Palestinian uprising might be brewing grew as clashes took place in many locations, including parts of Jerusalem. Israeli forces arrested a number of Hamas terrorist suspects in the area during the month.
Meanwhile Palestinian rockets were once again fired from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Several Iranian-built Grad rockets later struck the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat. Others reportedly landed in nearby Aqaba Jordan. Israeli officials said the rockets were fired from the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, which has become a haven for terrorist groups ever since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power over two years ago. This came as unrest spread in the Arab world's largest country, with thousands of anti-government demonstrators calling for current President Muhammad Morsi to resign. Scores of Egyptian Coptic Christians clashed with Muslims who attacked the Coptic cathedral in the Egyptian capital city.
The chances that Hamas will reconcile with the Palestinian Authority seemed to increase after PA Prime Minister Salam Fayad resigned mid month. Strongly backed by the United States and other western powers, Fayad was known to be engaged in an increasingly bitter dispute with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Analysts said the departure of the relatively moderate politician would seriously harm American government efforts to re-start peace talks between Israel and the PA.
Diplomatic relations between Israel and its former ally Turkey remained strained during April despite the Israeli government's official apology last month to Ankara over the deaths of nine Turkish Muslim militants aboard the Mavi Marmara ship. The ship was part of an international flotilla that attempted to break through the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan displayed his continuing contempt for the Jewish State by announcing he would visit the Hamas-ruled coastal zone in late May to mark the third anniversary of the incident.
The Palestinian Authority expressed opposition to the pending visit, saying it would "deepen divisions" between itself and the rival Hamas movement. An official statement went on to note that "The Gaza Strip is not an independent Palestinian state and Hamas is not the legitimate representative of the Palestinians." Meanwhile an accord was signed between the Palestinian Authority and Jordan that supposedly gives the Jordanian government "responsibility and control" over all Moslem and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.
In the north, Israeli military forces came under renewed fire from across the Golan Heights border with war-torn Syria. IDF forces returned the fire. This came soon after an Islamic rebel militia force fighting with others to topple the Syrian Assad regime announced its allegiance to the Al Qaida terrorist group. The radical Muslim group is known to be operating in territory near the Israeli border. UN peacekeeping forces that had been patrolling there for many years were ordered to stay indoors all month after rebel forces kidnapped a group of UN soldiers from the Philippines in March. Israeli officials once again warned they would not permit the massive Syrian chemical weapons arsenal to fall into rebel hands or to be transferred to Shiite Hizbullah militia forces in neighboring Lebanon. A French newspaper said armed Israeli drones have been flying nightly over Syrian skies, monitoring the situation on the ground in the blood-soaked Arab country. The report said the pilot-less surveillance aircraft enter Syrian airspace via a corridor opened over Jordan.
Fears of a possible rocket and missile attack from the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia increased in Israel after Iran's longtime ally, North Korea, declared it was preparing to launch an imminent nuclear war against the United States and its East Asian allies. A former Israeli military officer warned at an annual security conference in Herzliya last month that if conflict broke out on the divided Korean Peninsula, it could quickly be followed by another round of attacks from Hizbullah. Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders are known to be operating alongside the Lebanese Shiite militia force.
On a far more positive note, natural gas from the huge Tamar field located under the Mediterranean Sea west of Haifa began to arrive at a terminal in the Israeli port city of Ashdod the last day of March. The gas is projected to meet Israel's domestic needs for at least the next three decades. Soon after the gas began flowing via an underwater pipeline, the Water and Energy Ministry issued a statement saying the high cost of electricity in Israel would soon decline due to the natural gas flow. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the flow, saying it will "enhance Israel's economy and benefit all it's citizens." However security experts warn that the large petroleum platform located above the gas flow pipeline outlet will be a major target for Israel's enemies. Although Israeli naval vessels have been permanently stationed near the platform, they add that Hizbullah rockets could easily be directed at it.
PALESTINIANS FIRE MORE ROCKETS AT ISRAEL
The month of April began with more Palestinian rocket attacks aimed at Israeli civilian communities near the Gaza Strip. One day after the weeklong Passover celebration ended on April 1, Palestinians fired two short-range mortar shells at Israeli targets. However both shells landed just inside the Gaza Strip border fence. A third shell later struck Israeli territory in the Eshkol region. No injuries or damage was reported in the attacks. Despite this, the Israeli Air Force was sent into action over the Gaza Strip for the first time since last November's "Pillar of Defense" operation ended. Despite evidence that the rockets were fired by Muslims who are not members of the large Hamas militia, several Hamas targets were bombed, but no casualties were reported. The IAF action came soon after new Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon told reporters that the government "sees Hamas as being responsible for everything that is fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel. We won't allow any routine involving a drizzle of rockets at our civilians and military forces."
The following morning, two rockets landed in the frequently struck Israeli town of S'derot. The rockets landed as local parents were dropping off their children at several area schools. Although again no damage or injuries were reported, PM Netanyahu reacted by warning Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip that, "If the quiet is violated, we will respond strongly." After calling upon Israel to "act with restraint," United Nations Middle East envoy Robert Serry denounced the Palestinian "indiscriminate firing of rockets into civilian areas." The US, Britain and France also spoke out against the rocket attacks, with the French government saying it "harshly condemns the rocket fire on the civilian population in south Israel."
The Palestinian Mujahedeen Shura Council claimed responsibility for the rocket firings. Soon afterwards, the radical Sunni Muslim group said the Hamas regime ruling the Gaza Strip had arrested two of its members charged with carrying out the attacks. However Hamas denied it had apprehended the two men, saying "Our security apparatus is part of the resistance and does not arrest anyone who resists the occupation. On the contrary, we encourage resistance."
Strongly linked to Al Qaida, The Mujahedeen Council carried out a border attack last June launched from the Sinai Peninsula upon Israeli workers constructing a new border fence in the area. The attackers detonated an improvised explosive device and also opened fire on Israeli vehicles carrying some of the workers to their jobs. A 35-year-old Arab-Israeli father of two from Haifa was killed, as were at least two of the attacking terrorists.
One week after the early April rocket and mortar attacks, Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired three more rockets at Israel. This attack came on Israel's annual Holocaust Remembrance Day as American Secretary of State John Kerry was visiting the country. One rocket exploded in the Sha'ar Ha Negav region west of Beersheva while the other two landed inside the Gaza Strip. Despite the fact that no injuries were reported from the unprovoked assault, the chief American diplomat denounced it, as did Israeli leaders. Defense Minister Ya'alon ordered the closure of several Israeli border crossing checkpoints, while allowing the civilian Erez checkpoint to remain open for Palestinians needing urgent medical care in Israeli hospitals. All of the crossings were reopened five days later. On the evening of April 18, two mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip into the western Negev Desert area, again thankfully causing no casualties or damage. Another Kassam rocket landed in Israel on April 20.
DEATH SPARKS OFF PALESTINIAN VIOLENCE
The Mudahedeen Council said its latest assaults were in reaction to the April 2 death of a Palestinian convict who was being treated for throat cancer at Beersheva's Soroka Medical Center. The man, 64-yar-old Maysara Abuhamdia, had been sentenced to life in prison after he was found guilty of plotting with other Palestinians to blow up a popular cafe in the Jerusalem German Colony neighborhood in 2002. Another restaurant in the area was destroyed by a suicide bomb blast at that time as the second Palestinian uprising reached its peak. A former general in the PA security services, Abuhamdia was a member of the PA-linked Fatah movement before joining the Hamas movement. Both the PA and Hamas accused Israel of deliberately killing him. However an autopsy found he died of natural causes while receiving a chemotherapy treatment at the hospital. Before his death, the convict had accused Israeli prison authorities of medical neglect, claiming he was only being given painkillers to treat his throat cancer. Israeli officials denied the charge.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas quickly poured oil on the news that Abuhamdia had perished. "Today, we were surprised to hear about the martyrdom of prisoner Abu Hamdiyeh," he said before vowing to "continue our efforts to liberate the homeland and the prisoners." The comment helped to ignite violent protests in several Israeli prisons and the eastern half of Jerusalem and surrounding Arab communities. Clashes also broke out in Hebron and other cities and towns in the disputed territories under full PA control. Hundreds of Palestinian youths threw stones and firebombs at Israeli soldiers and police forces, who replied with tear gas and rubber bullets.
On April 4, two Palestinian teenagers aged 17 and 18 were killed by IDF gunfire as they were hurling homemade firebombs at soldiers manning an IDF checkpoint near the community of Einav. Another attacker was wounded in the incident, which sparked additional clashes in the tense disputed territories. More clashes occurred as many Palestinians and Israeli Arabs marked "Prisoner Day" on April 18. It was held to express "solidarity" with the approximately 4,800 convicts being held in Israeli prisons, many of them for terrorist related crimes.
One day before, at least two Grad rockets were fired at the southern port city of Eilat from the nearby Sinai Peninsula, with two others landing in nearby Jordan. The Palestinian Mujahedeen Shura Council was thought to have been behind the attack. One rocket landed next to a home in the city. The rocket attack prompted officials to close Eilat's international airport for a time. Several area residents were treated for shock. An Iron Dome anti-missile battery was moved to the area to protect Eilat from future attacks.
The Jerusalem District Attorney indicted five Arab residents from the eastern half of the city on charges of conspiring to carry out terrorist shooting and kidnapping attacks against Jews near the Temple Mount. According to the April 18 indictment, Nor Hamdan decided in February to plot assaults upon Jewish worshipers near Judaism's holiest site on earth and against security forces in the area. Hamdan allegedly recruited the other four defendants and formed a terror cell. He then made contact with several Palestinian terror organizations in order to receive training, guidance and weapons from them. The indictment said cell members gathered several times in February and March, intending "to help enemy terror organizations in their war with Israel." The indictment added the Palestinian cell intended to kidnap an Israeli Jew in order to kill him and steal his weapon for use in future terrorist operations.
KERRY RETURNS BEFORE FAYYAD RESIGNS
Two senior American officials visited Israel during the month: John Kerry, who flew back to the country the first week of April after accompanying President Obama to Israel in March, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who came to discuss new US arms supplies to Israel and the situation in Syria and Iraq. Hagel wrapped up details of a ten billion dollar American sale of V-22 Osprey troop transport aircraft to Israel, along with refueling tankers, advanced radars for IAF fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles.
The declared intention of Kerry's stop this time was to put pressure on both Israeli and Palestinian officials to get back to the negotiation table. However the diplomat's visit appeared doomed to failure even before he arrived when Nimr Hammad, an aid to PA President Abbas, totd a French news agency on April 4 that his boss "wants to know, through a map to be presented by Benjamin Netanyahu to Kerry, what the Prime Minister's view of a two-state solution would be, especially the borders."
An unnamed Israeli official in Netanyahu's office replied that Israel "will agree to put borders on the table when we know what we are getting from the Palestinians," noting that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had "presented a generous map, and that led him nowhere." The official said a final peace accord will have to include a Palestinian pledge to waive the so-called "right of return" to family homes inside of Israel's current borders. He added it must also include formal PA recognition of Israel as a Jewish State, and acknowledgment that IDF forces will continue to have overall security control in the strategic Jordan Valley near the border with Jordan. Analysts said the latter condition is probably an indirect admission by Israeli leaders that Jordanian King Abdullah may eventually be toppled from his throne by Muslim militants who want to transform the kingdom into an Islamic theocratic state that annuls the country's current peace treaty with Israel.
Soon after the Secretary of State departed the country, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned from the PA government. The April 13 resignation was quickly accepted by Abbas, who was known to be unhappy that the Western-orientated politician was being treated with more respect by world leaders than he was. Fayyad's departure was one of the conditions Hamas put forward in reconciliation talks with PA officials. Palestinian media reports said Abbas might hold the PM position for the time being or possibly appoint a technocrat to it. The PA constitution says the PA President has to make his selection within two weeks of any cabinet resignation. However Israeli analysts note that Abbas has ignored many other legalities ever since taking over the PA from Yasser Arafat in 2004.
Salah Bardawil, a senior Hamas official, said Ismail Haniyeh, who acts as Prime Minister of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, should replace Fayyad. "Ismail ought to be the legitimate Prime Minister since he was granted the confidence of the Legislative Council," he said in a newspaper interview. "Fayyad, on the other hand, has been the Prime Minister of an illegitimate government. He has been cooperating with the occupation forces and his name has been associated with General Dayton." Dayton was the former American military liaison in charge of US-funded training of PA security forces.
Several Israeli analysts pointed out that despite Fayyad's popularity with American and other Western leaders, he was largely unable to slow the rapid downward spiral of the Palestinian economy, which is heavily reliant on foreign aid. In March, the International Monetary Fund issued a report that said "The Palestinian economy in Gaza and the West Bank is in a far more precarious situation that it was six months ago." It noted that a quarter of Palestinian workers were unemployed by the end of 2012.
An accord was signed during April between the PA and Jordan, supposedly granting the Jordanian government "responsibility and control over all the Moslem and Christian holy sites" in Jerusalem. It states that Jordanian King Abdullah enjoys the "full right to exert all legal efforts to safeguard and preserve Al Quds (Jerusalem) holy sites." In a joint statement issued by both the PA and Jordan, the accord was said to be designed to "thwart Zionist attempts to Judaize Al Quds and its holy sites." Israeli government officials made no public comments on the accord, although analysts said they definitely prefer to have Jordan declared the responsible party over the holy sites rather than the PA, even though neither Arab government has any actual control on the ground in Jerusalem.
NETANYAHU WARNS IRAN AGAIN OF POSSIBLE ATTACK
After attending the funeral of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on May 18, Benjamin Netanyahu told the BBC that Israel does not need anyone's approval to exercise its right to self defense. He added the United States and other countries concur that Israel has the right under international law to defend itself as its leaders see fit. The PM said "Israel's right to defend its existence is not subject to a traffic light. We don't need anyone to give us the right to prevent a new Holocaust." Netanyahu added he is certain that Iran's Shiite Muslim leaders are determined to construct nuclear weapons and are only buying themselves more time to enrich uranium by engaging in talks with world leaders about their nuclear program. The Premier added that Israeli intelligence officials believe Iran needs to produce just 80 more kilograms of highly enriched uranium in order to construct a bomb, having already produced 170 kilograms. He said the vow that Iran's ally North Korea has made to launch a nuclear strike upon US forces and allies in East Asia should serve to underscore the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.
On the same day Netanyahu was interviewed, senior diplomats stationed in Vienna told reporters the Iranian regime is increasing the number of advanced centrifuges that are rapidly enriching uranium at its Natanz underground plant. "It is clear Iran can build nuclear bombs. The question is how many and how good they are," one unidentified Western envoy was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile Iran's armed forces chief, Major General Ataollah Salehi, told an Iranian TV network that Israel is not capable of launching a military strike against Iran. He claimed "the Zionist regime is too weak to challenge Iran militarily. The Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran will give a swift and crushing response to any aggression by enemies against our country with full preparedness."
Salehi's bombastic remarks came soon after both Israeli Defense Minister Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said that Israel is preparing for the possibility of a unilateral military strike upon Iran's nuclear program. Gantz added that, "The IDF has the ability to attack the Iranian nuclear sites without help from other nations," adding that top Israeli military and political leaders are "holding ongoing discussions" about the critical issue. In response, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi dismissed the comments as "worthless threats" since "the Zionist regime is not so unwise as to commit suicide." He boasted that his military forces are "prepared for a rapid reaction to any adventure by the Zionist regime."
Last month, supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei vowed that both Tel Aviv and Haifa would be obliterated if Israeli leaders "make the slightest mistake" against the Islamic Republic. Some Israeli analysts warn that Iran may have already moved short-range field nuclear weapons into Lebanon, controlled by Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed with Hizbullah militia forces in the country. They say such weapons, which were positioned on both side of divided Germany during the Cold War, could have been constructed by either North Korea or Pakistan, both declared nuclear powers with ties to Iran.
Concerning the warfare in neighboring Syria, Gantz said the IDF is preparing for a possible military confrontation with both Syria and Lebanon. "We are ready, at any given time, and in an immediate manner, for a war with Syria, both on the defense and on the offense. I don't see it happening tomorrow morning, but despite that we are ready." In his BBC interview, PM Netanyahu also spoke of the fighting in Syria, repeating earlier statements that Israel will not allow the regime's large chemical weapons stockpile to fall into either the hands of Syrian rebel forces or Hizbullah. As for the question of whether or not Western nations should help arm the rebel forces, the Premier noted that "terrorist groups such as Al Qaida, Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad" are all operating inside Syria alongside local fighters. He warned that if any of these groups gain control over the regime's chemical weapons, it could "present a terrorist threat on a worldwide scale."
In these days of increasing terror attacks, wars and rumors of wars, it is a blessing to recall the many prophecies of ultimate shalom that have come from the Father of Lights. Among them is this one found in Isaiah 62:11: "Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the ends of the earth; say to the daughter of Zion, behold your salvation comes. And His reward is with Him and His recompense before Him."
DAVID DOLAN s a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.