Fresh Turmoil Rocks the Middle East
By David Dolan
Fresh Turmoil Rocks the Middle East
The tense Middle East continued to quake during June, with regional violence and turbulence spreading to portions of southern Israel as fighting escalated in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood won a foreboding presidential victory in Egypt. After several months of relative quiet, a new wave of Palestinian rocket attacks was launched mid-month aimed mainly at Israeli civilian centers in the vicinity of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Hundreds of thousands of area residents were forced to take shelter as air raid sirens sounded in several cities and towns, warning of incoming rockets. School classes were cancelled along with many public events. Several Israelis were wounded by Palestinian rocket shrapnel.
IDF military helicopters and jets went into action in response to the bombardments, killing around 15 Palestinians in the week-long clashes, including a man they said was behind an earlier terror attack along Israel's border with the Sinai Peninsula. That attack, which left an Arab Israeli worker dead, sparked off the latest round of conflict. Over 100 rockets and mortar shells were fired over a three-day period before an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire was supposed to go into effect. However over 50 additional rockets were directed at Israeli cities after that, most likely fired by Iran's main Palestinian ally, the Islamic jihad group. Suspecting that Iranian leaders were trying to goad Israel into another major conflict to deflect them away from attacking Iranian nuclear targets, Israeli defense officials nevertheless warned of a possible new ground offensive in the Gaza Strip if radical Hamas leaders-whose movement was born in 1988 out of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood group-did not enforce the declared truce.
The Palestinian attacks came as fresh political chaos rocked neighboring Egypt and warfare escalated in Syria. The American-trained Egyptian military basically took back the reigns of governmental power on the eve of the mid-June presidential election by canceling the results of the earlier parliamentary vote won by two Muslim fundamentalist parties. The military leaders also made clear that they, and not any future parliament, would oversee the drawing up a new Egyptian constitution. The Islamic parties strongly objected to the dramatic moves, calling them a virtual military coup. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest. Days later, both the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president, Muhammad Morsi, and his rival Ahmed Shafik claimed victory in the presidential race. Israeli officials were said to be extremely concerned when it was announced that Morsi had defeated Shafik in the election, significantly moving forward the march of militant Islam in the quaking region. Hamas supporters danced in the streets of Gaza City after the election results were announced. Earlier a senior Muslim Brotherhood official called for Israel's total destruction, vowing the militant group would help make that happen.
To the north, a United Nations official used the term "civil war" to describe the escalating conflict in Syria. Several mass civilian killings were blamed on the Assad regime. Human Rights groups say the death toll in the 16 month-old conflict is now over 14,000. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad denied his forces were responsible for the latest atrocities, claiming the horrendous slaughters of men, women and children were occurring at the hands of unnamed "enemies of the state."
Officials from NATO countries announced they would hold an urgent meeting to discuss Syria's downing of an F-4 Phantom Turkish warplane off of the northern Syrian coast on June 22. The Assad regime claimed the jet had strayed into Syrian airspace near its Latakia seaport, where Russian naval forces are stationed. The Turkish Muslim government denied this charge while strongly denouncing the Syrian action. This came after various Middle East analysts warned that the intensifying fighting in Syria could spread to other regional countries. More armed clashes broke out in Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the embattled Syrian regime. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Syrian refugees continued to pour into neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. A Syrian air force pilot defected with his MIG jet to a Jordanian air force base in the north of the Hashemite kingdom. Several top Assad government officials were said to be preparing to defect to the rebel side of the mushrooming civil war.
The possibility that Israel could get drawn into the Syrian conflict was highlighted by news reports saying Israeli officials have warned they would not allow the Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia to transfer SCUD missiles from Syria into Lebanon. Hizbullah leaders are apparently concerned that the SCUDS could fall into the hands of mainly Sunni Muslim forces fighting the Assad regime. A rebel military-style attack was launched earlier in the month against a Syrian air force base near the border with Jordan, not far from the Golan Heights. Israeli military forces were placed on full war alert in the north as the internal fighting in Syria ominously spread to the border area.
The brutal Syrian regime denied Iranian media reports claiming that a massive war exercise would soon be held in Syria involving Russian, Chinese and Iranian military forces. The Kremlin also denied the reports, which came just before Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel for a short visit. American and European leaders made clear during June that they might be compelled to enter the conflict if mass civilian slaughters continue. Press reports said the CIA is helping to smuggle weapons to the "Free Syrian Army" from Turkey. Meanwhile UN monitors operating in the crumbling country were ordered back to their bases after armed attacks were launched against them. The UN said civilian thugs working for the Assad regime were most likely behind the assaults, along with at least most of the mass slaughters. Russia denied American government claims that it was sending new defense helicopters to the besieged Assad regime. However the Kremlin later announced that additional Russian warships were en route to two Syrian Mediterranean ports to supposedly "protect" Russian citizens working in the war-torn country
With the headlines dominated by the jarring news from Egypt, Syria and the fresh Palestinian rocket attacks, the crisis with Iran continued to simmer on the back burner. A new round of international talks, this time in Moscow, failed once again to persuade the defiant Iranian clerical government to halt its apparent rush towards developing nuclear weapons. It was not even clear if any further meetings would be held. Israeli officials again warned that the defiant Shiite Muslim regime is simply using the talks as a cover while racing to reach its goal to be in a position to quickly produce nuclear weapons. Media reports in late June said American military forces were being beefed up in several Arab Gulf states opposite Iran.
Two other domestic news items received extensive coverage in Israel during the month. One was the government's decision to begin deporting some of the African migrants that have entered the country illegally over the past six years. Officials say at least 60,000 migrants, mostly young men, have entered the country, with some estimates reaching double that number. While some Israeli groups opposed the deportation moves, surveys showed that a large majority of Israelis support the action, especially in light of a growing crime wave involving some of the migrants who are mostly living in south Tel Aviv. The second item was a serious riot in the center of Tel Aviv, which took place after police stopped leftwing "social justice" Israeli protestors from setting up a new tent camp in the center of the city. Hundreds of protestors responded one day later by smashing windows in three city banks and shutting down the main Ayalon freeway for half an hour. Unrest then spread to Jerusalem where protestors held an unlicensed demonstration in the heart of city, blocking light rail trains from running on Jaffa Road. Analysts warned that additional violent encounters between anarchist protestors and security forces were likely this summer.
ATTACKS ON THE BORDERS
An Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian who infiltrated from the Gaza Strip on the first day of June, setting off a month of intense violence in the area. Sergeant Nethanel Mushyashvili from Ashkelon was shot dead by an armed terrorist who broke through Israel's security fence. The soldier, 21, was a member of the Golani brigade. The attacker was then killed by other Golani troops patrolling in the area. Israel tanks and helicopters were sent into action, entering territory near the site of the attack and also in the southern portion of the Gaza Strip where it was believed the infiltrator had come from. Israelis living in nearby communities were ordered to stay indoors near their bomb shelters in case the Palestinians responded with rocket attacks. Some reports said the infiltrator had hoped to take at least one soldier hostage.
Early in the morning on June 18, Arab Muslim terrorists attacked two Israeli work crews constructing the new security fence along Israel's porous Sinai border with Egypt. The attackers, later identified as Egyptian and Saudi citizens, fired rocket-propelled grenades and other explosive devices at the civilian workers, killing Saed Phashpashe, an Arab Israeli from Haifa, and wounding several others. Israeli army units rushed to the scene and entered into armed combat with the Muslim squad. The army later announced that "several terrorists" were killed in the encounter. The next day, an Arab group calling itself the "Shura Council of the Mujahideen in the Holy Land" said it had carried out the terrorist attack. Israeli security sources said the group, probably linked to Al Qaida, is based in the southern Gaza Strip.
In response to the unprovoked attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the air force into action against several targets in the Gaza Strip. This came after the Premier issued a statement saying the terrorist assault would not halt work on the border fence. "This barrier is meant both to prevent terrorism and also to prevent the entrance of infiltrators. Its construction is of supreme national interest." Officials say the security fence should be fully constructed by the end of this year. The term "infiltrators" is used by the government to describe the illegal African migrants-most of them Muslims-that have crossed into Israel in recent years.
Israeli aircraft struck several targets in the southern Gaza Strip soon after the border terrorist attack, killing a number of Palestinians. When the Palestinians responded by firing rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilian centers around the coastal zone, the IDF launched further air force strikes, killing or wounding a number of Palestinians the army spokesman said were members of various terrorist cells. The spokesman said one of the planners of the Sinai border assault named Aleb Armilat was among the dead. His superior, identified as Muhammad Rashdan, was reportedly seriously wounded in the strike. Palestinian groups, especially Islamic Jihad, then stepped up rocket attacks, many of them aimed at the nearby Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. This was followed by the firing of a more powerful, longer-range Iranian-supplied Grad rocket at the Negev Desert city of Beersheva. The Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system was put into action two days after a rocket struck a border police base in Ashkelon, wounding four Israeli border policemen working there, one of them seriously. The system successfully destroyed a rocket that advanced Iron Dome computer projections showed was heading to a built up area of the coastal city. The system was deployed again later in the week, destroying ten more rockets in flight. However another rocket struck a factory in the hard-hit town of Sderot, seriously wounding a male Israeli worker.
HAMAS OWNS UP
The Hamas movement, which usually claims its forces are not involved in rocket attacks, took "credit" for some of the firings. Probably emboldened by developments in neighboring Egypt, it was the first time the ruling Palestinian group had done so since April 2011. This admission prompted further IDF air strikes on Hamas militia positions. The IDF spokesman said several Palestinian were killed as they were preparing to fire rockets or mortar shells, or in some cases right after they had done so. On the morning of June 19, military helicopters spotted a group of militiamen planting roadside bombs just inside of the Gaza border security fence, apparently in anticipation of a possible IDF military move into the area. Several more Palestinian men were killed or wounded in that encounter. Later several non-combatants died when a wall collapsed after the IDF struck a nearby rocket launcher. Defense Minister Barak and other senior government officials made clear Israel was not afraid to launch a full-scale ground operation into the Gaza Strip if necessary. Vice Premier Silvan Shalom of the Likud party warned that "The more things deteriorate, the closer we come to a decision we don't want to make."
On the evening of June 20-a day which saw over 60 rockets directed at Israel-the so-called "military wing" of Hamas announced it had agreed to accept an Egyptian proposal to halt its fire if Israel would also do so. A statement posted on the Hamas web site said "Responding to the Egyptian efforts, we and the armed resistance announce our commitment to stop this round of confrontation as long as the occupation stops its aggression." Of course, it was a terror attack on unarmed civilian workers, planned by militant Palestinian Muslims in the southern Gaza Strip, which set in motion the so-called Israeli "aggression." As usual, IDF military strikes were directed at carefully pinpointed terrorist targets while Hamas and its cronies deliberately lobbed most of their rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilian communities.
The IDF spokesman's office said the weapons arsenal under overall Hamas control includes many Iranian-produced Fajr-3 Grad rockets featuring more powerful explosive heads and longer ranges than older Palestinian-made Kassam rockets. The office added that longer range Katyusha and Grad rockets are being smuggled all the time into the Gaza Strip from Egypt, along with new anti-tank missiles and heavy mortars. Some of the weaponry is thought to be coming from the large arsenal once controlled by slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The office reported that during the past six years, rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has killed 44 Israeli civilians and injured nearly 1,700 others, some of them children.
Several Israeli commentators noted that the latest rocket barrage was barely reported by the international media, being especially ignored by television and radio networks like the BBC and CNN which are viewed all over the world. Some opined that if Israeli leaders feel forced to respond to continuing rocket fire by sending ground forces once again into the Gaza Strip-an option they are hardly pining for-that story would be heavily reported. In New York, Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, handed a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, noting that "the lives of about a million Israelis are being paralyzed" by the ongoing Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.
TROUBLE ALL AROUND
While focused on the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials were also closely monitoring the jarring developments in neighboring Syria and Egypt during June. Military analysts noted that while the dramatic news coming out of Cairo has very grave implications for the future, the expanding civil war inside of Syria has the potential to directly involve Israel in a new military conflict at virtually any moment. Israel's Channel 10 network reported on June 16 that concern is mounting that the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah militia might be preparing to try to move advanced weaponry, including SCUD missiles, into Lebanon from Syria. It added that the move would come in order to protect the weapons from falling into Sunni Muslim hands if the Assad regime is overthrown, as many predict will eventually occur. Veteran military reporter Alon Ben-David narrated the news story as video pictures showed some SCUDS being recently moved from the Syrian capital Damascus to undisclosed locations. It was not revealed how Channel 10 obtained the footage. Other reports said the missiles were moved to two air force bases outside of the city. Analysts said the SCUDS are actually owned by Hizbullah, which reportedly purchased them from the Syrian regime using Iranian money two years ago. An attempt to smuggle them into Lebanon at that time was met by public Israeli warnings that such transfers would not be allowed to take place.
Analysts warn that any fresh Hizbullah attempts to smuggle heavy weapons into Lebanon could easily spark off another round of conflict with the Muslim militia, which has received copious amounts of new weaponry since the 2006 war in clear violation of the UN-backed ceasefire which ended that conflict. Some say extremist Hizbullah leaders might not be terribly worried about any IDF interdiction since the militant group could then blame Israel for starting any subsequent full-scale conflict. This is precisely what occurred when the Israeli government ordered a first strike in 1967 after Egypt blockaded the southern port city of Eilat and moved troops into the Sinai Peninsula after signing a war alliance with Syria, both then backed by the powerful Soviet Union
The disturbing Channel 10 report came just a few weeks after regional media outlets said Sunni Muslim rebel forces brazenly attacked a Syrian air force base known as As Suwayda. It is located near the city of Daraa some ten miles east of the Golan Heights on the Syrian border with Jordan. The main highway from Damascus to Amman runs through the city. Thousands of refugees continue to pour through Daraa every week on their way to seek refuge in Jordan. Arab media reports said that on the morning of June 3, heavily armed rebel forces fired mortar shells at the air force base, setting scores of warplanes and assault helicopters on fire. They also reportedly managed to destroy some of the aircraft runways at the base. Israeli analysts say the strategic base is extremely important to the besieged Assad regime, being the closest to Israeli military forces stationed on the nearby Golan Heights. The attack came just days before Israeli Armed Forces Chief Benny Gantz expressed concern that Sunni Muslim terrorists might take advantage of the chaos in Syria to aim their weapons at IDF troops in the area. "We may face terrorist attacks on the Golan border fence," he told reporters while visiting the area.
The armed rebel assault near Daraa was significant for another reason. The Syrian uprising against the Assad regime actually began in the city in early March 2011. Syrian security forces arrested a number of children, all belonging to the same family, after some of them wrote anti-Assad slogans on a local school wall. When government officials refused to release the children, who ranged in ages from 9 to 15, anti-regime protests began outside a neighborhood mosque, calling for government reforms and an end to corruption. Syrian forces opened fire on the protestors, leaving four dead. Anti-Assad demonstrations and deadly government suppressions of them have continued in the city almost every day since then, as they have all over the fracturing country, leaving an average of 100 Syrians dead now every day.
Just a few days before the reported rebel action in the south of Syria-apparently conducted by military defectors-over 100 civilians were slaughtered in several villages near the town of Houla, north of the city of Homs in western Syria. The UN said among the dead were 49 children and 34 women. A UN probe concluded that the victims had been "summarily executed in two separate incidents." They added that survivors of the massacre testified the perpetrators were members of a pro-Assad group popularly known as the Shabiha, which is an Arabic word that roughly translates as "thugs." Like Hitler's "brown shirts," they are known to be doing the dirty work of the regime. The Syrian dictator claimed the attack was part of an "external war using domestic tools," which analysts said was probably a reference to some Al Qaida members thought to be fighting with the rebel Muslim forces. For the first time since the Syrian revolt began in March last year, PM Netanyahu condemned the Assad regime over the slaughters, calling for "the international community to act in the light of continuous Syrian atrocities."
Several other mass killings took place in the war torn country during June; the largest in the city of Hama where the UN said 70 people were murdered. Admitting his peace plan had totally fallen apart, UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan warned, "If the situation doesn't change, Syria faces all-out civil war." Others said it is now evident that such a conflict is already well underway. This seemed to be confirmed when UN monitors attempting to check on the Hama slaughter came under armed attack as they approached the city, prompting the UN mission chief to order all his monitors back to their bases until further notice. He added that the situation does indeed now appear to have escalated into a full-blown civil war.
American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the Russian government during June that its refusal to sanction UN action against Syria would add explosive fuel the conflict, which she added "could morph into a proxy war in the region." She also accused Moscow of supplying the embattled Assad regime with arms, including attack helicopters. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the allegation, claiming his country was only sending back older Syrian helicopters that had been refurbished in Russia. Later in the month, the Kremlin announced it was sending more warships and military personnel to two naval bases it operates out of on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. Military analysts said while they were officially being dispatched in order to prepare to evacuate Russian citizens working in Syria, they would obviously act as a major deterrence to any Sunni Arab, NATO, or other foreign intervention in the conflict. This came after regional media outlets claimed that US President Barrack Hussein Obama had vetoed a French-Saudi proposal to bomb Assad's palace in order to either kill him or drive him from power.
Meanwhile the British newspaper Daily Telegraph reported on June 21 that unnamed "senior Syrian government officials" are quietly preparing to defect to the country's opposition if rebel forces manage to destabilize the Assad regime. "We are seeing members of Bashar Assad's inner circle make plans to leave," an unnamed senior American official told the newspaper. The report said the Syrian officials have already been in contact with opposition leaders, while quietly transferring their private money to overseas banks.
With regional birth pangs becoming stronger and more frequent with every passing day, we can only look to the Holy One of Israel who promised long ago that a day will come when "Violence will not be heard again in your land, nor devastation or destruction within your borders. But you will call your walls salvation, and your gates praise (Isaiah 60:18).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.