April 2011 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
ROCKETS SPARK FEARS OF FULLSCALE CONFLICT
As anti-government protests intensified during April in neighboring Syria and Jordan, Palestinian terrorists based in the Gaza Strip attacked an Israeli school bus, severely wounding a teenage boy who later died from his injuries. Several weeks later, a Jewish worshipper whose aunt serves in the Israeli cabinet was shot dead by a Palestinian near Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. Five others were wounded in the incident.
The bus attack sparked off the worst clashes between Hamas and Islamic Jihad rocket- firing militiamen and Israeli Defense Forces in nearly two and a half years. With around one-fourth of Israel's civilian population now under deadly Palestinian rocket range, besieged residents were ordered to keep students out of school for several days while staying close to local bomb shelters, seriously disrupting normal life in several large cities and many smaller communities. As a result of the rocket barrage, the IDF prepared for a possible new air and ground operation against the Iranian-backed Hamas militia and its allies, which analysts said could potentially spark off a wider war with Lebanon and Syria. This came as calls increased for a new violent Palestinian uprising to be launched in the coming weeks or months.
In Syria itself, anti-Assad regime street protests further intensified, leaving hundreds more dead and injured and the country in chaos. For the first time during the current crisis, the Syrian army was sent into action against demonstrators in the port city of Latakiya where Russian naval vessels are regularly stationed. The army was subsequently sent to other areas as well. Israeli military forces remained on high alert along the Golan Heights border, where concern grew that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad might order an armed strike in an attempt to reunify his crumbling nation against the external "Zionist enemy." Vigilance was also the order of the day along the tense border with Lebanon, where two IDF soldiers were killed last year.
Intensifying unrest in nearby Jordan during the month was also being closely monitored in Jerusalem; with signs growing that a new government might emerge out of the crisis that, at the very least, weakens ties with Israel, as demanded by most protestors. The continuing conflict in Libya was also being followed with interest, given that Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi has been a longtime supporter of international terrorist actions that have sometimes been directed at Jews. The violent upheaval in Yemen-widely believed to be backed by Al Qaida operatives-and the continuing unrest in Bahrain were also being watched with keen interest, as was the case in Egypt where fierce clashes erupted between Christians and Muslims in the south of the country.
Israeli officials were gladdened by a NATO decision to stage a strong international naval show of force in the Gulf during late April and early May-a clear warning to nearby Iran that its threats to close off oil shipments from the area during any regional conflict would be met with significant world opposition. At the same time, the soaring cost of oil-due mainly to the spreading political turbulence stretching from North Africa to Iran-hit the Israeli pocketbook hard during April as the government-controlled price of a US gallon of gasoline rose to the shekel equivalent of eight dollars. Analysts warned that surging petroleum prices could seriously weaken Israel's economy, which had been performing very well before the regional upheaval began in Tunisia and Egypt early this year.
PALESTINIAN ROCKETS MEET IRON DOME
The month of April began with another round of Palestinian rocket, mortar and Grad missile strikes on Israeli population centers north and east of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, some thirty miles south of Tel Aviv. Israeli Air Force jets were sent into action to counter the attacks, hitting a smuggling tunnel from Egypt that runs underground into the southern Gaza border town of Rafiah. A terrorist from the Islamic Jihad group was killed while preparing to fire additional rockets at Israeli civilian communities.
The clashes came just days after Palestinian Muslim warriors fired powerful Iranian-supplied Grad missiles in the vicinity of Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor. The reactor is situated in the northern Negev Desert not far from Israel's sixth largest city, Beersheva. Coming just as Japanese emergency workers were struggling to prevent a nuclear meltdown following the massive earthquake and tsunami which rocked the northeast of the island nation in early March, senior Israeli defense officials said the missile attack in the direction of Israel's main nuclear reactor crossed a serious red line. This prompted Defense Minister Ehud Barak to order the deployment for the first time in the area of Israel's new Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, jointly developed with US financial and technical support in recent years.
Speaking at an inaugural ceremony in Beersheva at the beginning of April, Barak told the assembled guests that "we trust the system will be operated as well as it can be, even though we know that no trial run can be one hundred percent." Still, he added optimistically that "if this will be like the previous test runs, it should be very good." He later said four additional Iron Dome batteries would be deployed in the Gaza area in the coming years.
Attending the ceremony, Air Force Commander Ido Nehushtan said, "This battery is ready for action," noting that the IDF is "the first army in the world to use this type of defense system against enemy missiles." He also predicted that the Iron Dome system, which deploys highly sophisticated laser and radar technology to intercept low flying enemy projectiles, will become "an integral part of the Air Force." However the senior commander echoed Defense Minister Barak's words of caution, admitting that the system "has limitations and cannot give a full defense."
Talking with reporters earlier the same day in Jerusalem, Israeli rocket scientist Uzi Rubin said the Iron Dome system had indeed done remarkably well in test trial runs, adding it "offered the best protection against Katyusha rockets available to any civilian population anywhere on earth." Although the Palestinian Kassam rockets are homemade versions of the Soviet-era rockets he mentioned (which are possessed in great quantities by Hizbullah forces in Lebanon, and also by Syria), they are nevertheless very similar in structure and flying capabilities. The more powerful Iranian Grad missiles-which can potentially destroy entire buildings in one go-likewise travel on trajectories and heights comparable to Katyusha rockets, meaning the new Iron Dome system is also capable of taking them out of commission while in route to their intended targets.
BUS ATTACK SPARKS FIERCE CLASHES
As additional Palestinian rocket attacks took place the first week of April, IDF jets struck and killed three Hamas operatives who intelligence sources said were planning to kidnap Israeli tourists visiting the Sinai Peninsula during the annual Passover holidays. This in turn prompted the radical Sunni Arab group to declare that Israel would face "grave consequences" for the action. The Israeli government subsequently urged all Israelis to stay away from the Egyptian resorts which many usually visit during the spring holidays when Sinai's temperatures are still relatively moderate. This came as the IDF military intelligence director, Major General Avi Kochavi, told a Knesset committee that Hamas continues to receive substantial aid from Iran, including "money, weapons, knowledge, experts and ideology."
On April 7th, a Palestinian Russian-built Kornet anti-tank missile fired from the Gaza Strip zeroed in on an Israeli school bus as it passed a kibbutz community near the Arab coastal zone. Fortunately most young passengers had already gotten off the bus. Still the driver and a 16 year old teenage boy were injured, the latter critically. Several weeks later, Daniel Viflic died of his wounds at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.
Just days before the stricken victim passed away, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu personally visited the unconscious boy and his grieving family at the hospital, signaling just how seriously government leaders viewed the outrageous attack. Speaking at a United Nations meeting in New York, President Shimon Peres used unusually strong words to denounce the assault, saying it was "another clear example of Gaza's transformation into a terrorist state." While Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas called for an end to the rocket firings, he also condemned what he characteristically termed "the Israeli aggression" launched against Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in response to the heinous attack.
There was some initial question as to whether or not Hamas militiamen were behind the bus assault. However Hamas leaders later admitted that their extremist group was indeed the culprit for the vile act, deeming it their "first response to the continuing crimes of the occupation"-as if IDF forces and settlers were still "occupying" the crowded coastal zone. Netanyahu said that whether or not Hamas members had fired the missile at the civilian bus, he held the group ultimately responsible since it exerts overall control in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military went into swift and intense action in the immediate wake of the attack. Dozens of Hamas targets were hit all over the Gaza Strip. In response, scores of rockets, mortar shells and several Grad missiles were fired at Israeli targets within the space of just a few hours, with one Grad reaching the city of Rishon Letzion on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv for the first time. The city is also just a few miles from Israel's strategic Ben Gurion international airport.
In response to a slew of missiles being fired at the coastal city of Ashkelon, the Iron Dome system was activated for the first time in actual combat, successfully intercepting two of the incoming rockets which were instantly projected by the system's advanced computers to land and explode in heavily populated portions of the city. An Iron Dome battery was also dispatched to protect the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Palestinian sources said five people were killed and over thirty injured in the IDF counter-action. Late the same evening, Hamas announced that it was ordering all militia forces in the coastal zone to hold their fire, including the unruly Islamic Jihad terrorist group that has become a virtual adjunct of the Shiite Iranian regime.
Despite the ceasefire call, dozens of additional rockets pounded down on Israeli territory before the barrage ultimately ended several days later-at least for the time being. Israeli official said more than 120 mortar shells and missiles had been launched at Jewish civilian centers in just a three day period. Meanwhile the Netanyahu cabinet authorized the use of whatever force was deemed necessary to end the blitz, while defense officials warned once again that a major military operation was ready to be launched with little notice against the Hamas zone if deemed necessary. While visiting an Iron Dome battery outside of Ashkelon after the weekly cabinet meeting ended in Jerusalem, PM Netanyahu said "There is no state that would be willing to absorb the intentional firing of an anti-tank missile on a school bus, to say nothing of criminal attacks on civilians, and Israel is certainly not willing to tolerate this."
PA POLICE KILL JEWISH WORSHIPPER
On April 24th, Ben Yosef Livnat, a 24 year old nephew of Likud party cabinet minister Limor Livnat, was shot and killed near Joseph's Tomb on the southern outskirts of Nablus, north of Jerusalem. Several other Orthodox Jews accompanying the slain man were wounded. The incident was especially grave in that it was apparently Palestinian Authority security agents who carried out the shootings (some speculated at first that it might have been terrorists dressed up as PA policemen). A PA spokesman claimed that three cars carrying the victims approached a PA checkpoint near the sacred site where Jacob's son Joseph was buried after his remains were returned from ancient Egypt. Israeli officials said 15 observant men from the large Breslov Hassidic sect had driven to the revered tomb in three cars without prior arrangement with either PA or IDF officials. A PA spokesman claimed the victims did not stop as requested at a checkpoint, but another report said they were fired upon by a passing PA security jeep without provocation.
Orthodox Jews throughout the disputed territories and all of Israel were incensed by the PA shootings. Thousands marched to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem for the young man's highly emotional internment. Noting at the funeral that eyewitness reports said PA security personnel kept firing on the Israeli cars even after her nephew was clearly hit by bullets and severely wounded, Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat declared that the young man's death was "nothing but cold-blooded murder." The cabinet minister's father, Azriel Livnat, compared the shooting death of his grandson Ben Josef to that of the first Jew executed by British forces during the Mandate period, Shlomo Ben Yosef.
However PA security forces spokesman Adnan Damiri maintained that "armed settlers" come to pray at the tomb without official permission on many occasions, especially during Jewish holidays. He complained that IDF soldiers stationed at a nearby outpost should have halted the three Israeli vehicles before they approached the PA checkpoint, which he said would have prevented PA intervention. Still, Israeli officials pointed out that American-funded and trained PA security forces know full well that most Orthodox Jews sincerely come to the sacred synagogue to pray, not to stir up trouble. Therefore the armed intervention was excessive, to say the least. Some security sources warned that it might be an early indication that heavily armed PA police forces might support any new Palestinian uprising, as most did during the horrific Al Aksa attrition war that was launched with Yasser Arafat's approval in September, 2000. Calls for such a new violent terrorist offensive have been increasing in recent months, endorsed by a controversial page on the popular Facebook website.
A brother of one of the four wounded observant Jews told reporters that all realized they were taking a risk by not getting official permission to pray at the site. However he also pointed out that due to the Passover holidays, their rabbi who usually coordinates such visits was not free to do so. Therefore he said the young men took the risk of just showing up at the tomb. Meanwhile the Israeli police asked a court near Tel Aviv to remand in custody three members of the Hassidic sect on charges of violating a posted restricted military zone.
Israeli media reports noted that it is a known fact that not all religious Jews clear their visits to Joseph's Tomb in advance with PA officials. Still, they note that according to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accord, the holy site was meant to remain under overall Israeli control, and certainly open for Jewish prayers on special occasions such as during the Passover holidays (the shooting took place just before the end of the week-long festival). On top of this, they point out that the tomb was taken over by Muslims in the Middle Ages who forbade all Jewish prayer at the site for several centuries (as they did at Abraham's Tomb in Hebron), even though it is not an Islamic holy site per se. After Israel captured the area during the 1967 Six Day War, it was renovated and reopened to Jewish prayer. However Palestinian rioters took it back again at the end of the first week of the violent Al Aksa revolt in 2000, with Israeli Jews only gaining very limited access to the ancient holy site since then.
On another, very sad terrorist note connected to the same area, Israeli security forces arrested two Palestinians during April who were charged with the brutal early March slaughter of five members of a family living in the Jewish Orthodox community of Itamar, not far from Nablus. The three murdered children-ranging in age from an 11 year old boy to a baby girl just three months old-were knifed to death in their home just hours after completing their weekly Friday night Sabbath meal with their parents, who were also slain. Police named the two terrorists as Hakim Maazan Niad Awad, an 18-year-old high school student, and Amjad Mahmud Fauzi Awad, 19, both from the Arab village of Awarta located just over one mile south of Itamar. Police said the suspects confessed to the vicious crime and reenacted their stabbing spree. Israel Army Radio reported that the two young Muslim men did not express even the slightest remorse for their abominable slaughter, with one actually boasting that he went back into the home to stab the baby girl to death after initially leaving her alone. Media reports said the terrorists are members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) group.
US TO RESIST UNILATERAL PALESTINIAN STATE
PA leaders once again declared during April that they plan to unilaterally establish an independent Palestinian state later this year, probably in September. This came after the World Bank and several other international institutions opined that the PA economy is strong enough to function in such a climate, but only with continuing substantial financial support from Israel, the United States, the European Union, Japan, and other foreign aid donors. Israeli assistance was deemed the most vital, given that the IDF still controls the overall movement of food, medicine and fuel supplies through various checkpoints into most PA zones of control.
Toward the end of the month, the American government headed by President Barack Obama launched a diplomatic initiative aimed at attempting to prevent the Palestinian Authority from taking its case for a self-declared state to the United Nations. The Obama administration has already received backing from the German government for the initiative, which came after PM Netanyahu flew to Berlin to request German assistance in preventing such a one-sided PA declaration in the face of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Netanyahu plans to publicly spell out his country's opposition to any unilateral action during a visit to Washington in May, where he is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress among other things. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is also planning a US visit to put forward his arguments for a statehood declaration.
Both the PA and the rival Hamas movement quickly condemned the US diplomatic initiative. This came as PLO Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo repeated the PA determination to proceed with its unilateral action. Speaking to the London-based Al Hayat Arabic newspaper, the veteran PLO chief said "the Palestinian leadership will not back down unless real and serious peace negotiations are launched on the basis of the 1967 borders," which were actually only ceasefire lines from the massive pan-Arab attempt to wipe out the nascent state of Israel in 1948. He added that the PLO was prepared to sanction some sort of land swap with Israel that would leave some Jewish settlement clusters in Israeli hands. However he insisted that the city of Jerusalem-the main traditional stumbling block to any final peace accord-must be re-divided, with the eastern half falling under full PA sovereignty.
The PLO leader revealed for the first time just exactly what the PA's diplomatic strategy will be if such negotiations do not get underway, as few expect will occur, especially in light of the massive political turmoil currently engulfing much of the turbulent neighborhood. He said the PA will "go to the UN, and after winning recognition, we will demand that Israel's military and settler presence on our land be considered an act of aggression upon the sovereignty of a full member of the UN." Many analysts believe that this will be followed by a call for UN troops to be sent into the area to force the IDF out-an act certain to face stiff resistance in Washington and elsewhere.
Meanwhile President Obama is said to be weighing the possibility of enacting economic sanctions on Syria, where spreading street protests were met by a brutal army crackdown in April, leaving hundreds of Syrians dead and injured. The sanctions would probably come in the form of a freeze on Syrian assets in the United States and a ban on any further business dealings with the Assad regime, Iran's closest Arab ally. At the same time, IDF forces remained extra vigilant lest the repressive police state try to divert attention from its internal crisis by lashing out at Israel. This came after the IDF released a map showing that heavily armed Hizbullah forces in Lebanon have spread their bases of operation to every part of the small country, including in south Lebanon where their presence was supposedly outlawed by the UN ceasefire resolution that ended the 2006 Hizbullah rocket blitz on the northern third of the Jewish State.
With many parts of the region currently engulfed in intensifying tumult, there is only one solid rock that its residents can firmly rest upon-the Word of God, which reveals that the final outcome of all "wars and rumors of wars" will be nothing less than the feet of Israel's anointed Messiah standing on the Mount of Olives, brining lasting peace to the holy city and to the entire world. "And the Lord will be King over all the earth. In that day, the Lord will be the only one; and His name the only one (Zechariah 14:9).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.