July 2010 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
LIBYAN SHIP JOINS GAZA BLOCKADE FRAY
Following the violent late May clash at sea between Israeli military forces and a Turkish flotilla attempting to penetrate an IDF naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, another regional Muslim country tried to do the same thing during July. However this time, the ship-chartered by a son of notorious Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi-was peacefully escorted by IDF naval vessels to a port in nearby Egypt.
Still this outcome did not prevent the militant pro-Hamas Turkish group which sponsored the original flotilla from vowing to launch further provocative sea convoys in the coming months. Nor did it stop a Syrian national from chartering two Lebanese ships that plan to depart from the Lebanese port of Tripoli. Israeli officials warned they would regard such ships as hostile vessels since they are coming from a country still officially at war with Israel. Meanwhile Rashid Khalidi, a close Arab friend of Barack Obama, announced he is raising money to charter a ship headed for Gaza.
The Libyan vessel departed from a port in Greece just a couple weeks after the Israeli government officially liberalized the rules for humanitarian aid transfers into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The move was welcomed in many capitals, although Hamas echoed Iran in terming it mere window dressing by the "Zionist enemy regime." An Israeli military enquiry committee released a report on the controversial naval operation that concluded mistakes were made by IDF military commanders and intelligence agents.
Tensions escalated along Israel's northern border with Lebanon during July amid media reports that the Iranian-backed Shiite Hizbullah militia was moving thousands of fighters into frontline positions in violation of the UN ceasefire that ended the 2006 war. This came as hundreds of Shiite Lebanese villagers clashed with UN peacekeeping forces who are supposed to enforce the ceasefire conditions on the ground in south Lebanon. Acceding to the growing military power of Hizbullah in his country, the American-backed Lebanese prime minister traveled to Damascus during the month to sign a number of mutual accords with the Assad regime.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made his own foreign visit during July-a return trip to the White House in Washington. However unlike last March, he received a very warm reception this time from President Obama. Soon after returning from abroad, the Premier led his cabinet in a controversial decision to cut Israel's military spending by 750 million dollars, which prompted a confrontation with his number two coalition partner, the Yisrael Beiteinu party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Unconfirmed press reports said Israel's Mossad security chief recently visited Saudi Arabia to discuss possible military action against Iran. The Saudi government has publicly asked the Obama administration to take action against the Shiite country's outlawed nuclear program. Meantime concern is growing over the failing health of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is said to be suffering from cancer with less than one year to live.
THE SEA SHOW GOES ON
Israeli officials were visibly relieved the end of June when two planned Lebanese cargo ships that had announced their intention to break through the IDF naval blockade of the Gaza Strip did not even set sail in the end. Several Lebanese Maronite Christian politicians and groups had strongly opposed the announced operation, saying it would only hand another propaganda victory to the radical Hamas movement following the violent clash aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship the last day of May. The same people were said to be attempting to halt the same ships from departing in late July, the new date set by the ships Syrian sponsor.
Activists from another Mediterranean Arab country saw an opportunity to jump on board the popular anti-Israel campaign-this time from the North African desert country of Libya. As was the case in Turkey and Lebanon, it was not the Libyan government that was officially behind the effort, but a "private" charity organization that claimed it merely had the best interests of Gaza's over one million Palestinian residents at heart.
However as in Turkey, where the sponsoring pro-Hamas IHH organization has strong ties to the Erdogan government, so this time it was the second oldest son of longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who was behind the operation. Named Saif al-Islam, he heads a group called the International Charity and Development Association. Israeli analysts said he has been attempting for some time to buck strong indications coming from his notorious father that his younger brother Moatessem-Billah will be hand picked to succeed him as the next Libyan leader (Gaddafi has been in power since staging a coup in 1969, making him the longest serving ruler on earth).
An architect by profession, Seif had a public fallout with his father in 2006, leaving the country briefly after criticizing Gaddafi's repressive regime. His younger brother, a former army leader, currently serves as national security advisor.
In his apparent campaign to gain popular support inside Libya, Saif decided that his charity would charter an aid ship and set sail for the Gaza Strip. He traveled to Greece in early July where he rented a Greek-owned ship called the Amalthia. Flying the Moldavian flag, it departed on July 12 from the Greek port of Lavrio, southeast of Athens. It set off carrying 15 pro-Palestinian activists and a crew of 12, along with 2,000 tons of aid supplies, including sugar, rice and corn paid for by Saif's charity and supplied by several Greek groups.
Israeli officials had already been in touch with their Greek counterparts in order to secure a commitment that the ship would not actually clash with IDF forces at sea, but would instead accept an Egyptian offer to host the vessel at the port of El Arish, where the cargo would be offloaded and transferred by land to the Gaza Strip. The contacts came just one week before the Greek prime minister visited Israel in another sign of improving relations between the two countries. Officials were also in contact with American and European Union diplomats in an apparently successful attempt to get them to persuade Athens to make sure another violent clash was averted.
After suffering engine troubles en route, the ship's Cuban captain-in communication by radio with nearby Israeli naval vessels-obeyed instructions to turn south toward the Egyptian coast, thus defusing a potential confrontation at sea. Hamas officials and others heavily criticized the move. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said such "land and sea convoys must continue," adding he hoped "we can depend on the Islamic nations to help us lift the blockade." Saif then announced he had negotiated the transfer of 50 million US dollars worth of construction supplies and funds into the Gaza Strip by land. The transfer will be coordinated with UN relief workers stationed in the area, he added, indicating that Israel had agreed to allow the operation to take place.
The Turkish Muslim "charity" that launched the campaign to challenge Israel's naval blockade was apparently angry that the Libyan-chartered ship had so quickly diverted to El Arish. Meeting in Ankara two days later, IHH leaders vowed to organize future flotillas in the coming weeks and months designed to provide a string of provocative challenges to Israeli security forces.
At the same time, Egypt signaled that it has no intention of becoming a dumping ground for endless aid bound for the small Palestinian coastal zone. A passenger ferry carrying Jordanian supply trucks and 150 pro-Hamas Jordanian and Palestinian activists was turned back before it was able to land at the small port of Nuweibeh on the Egyptian Sinai coast. The convoy left Amman on June 13 while the Greek ship was heading toward Gaza. The activists intended to drive the trucks up to the Egyptian border crossing point into the Gaza Strip.
WORLD OF INTRIGUE
Adding dramatic and embarrassing weight to the failed Libyan attempt to run the IDF naval blockade, a little noticed article published in the London Sunday Times last August resurfaced with a bang as the Libyan-chartered ship was heading toward the Gaza Strip. The article had stated that Gordon Brown's government quietly consented to the Scottish decision last summer to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan man convicted of plotting the heinous 1988 terror attack on a US Pan Am jet above Lockerbie Scotland which left over 250 people dead, mostly Americans. He was subsequently greeted as a returning hero by Col. Gaddafi and his sons, including Saif.
As if in a spy novel, the decision to free the mass murderer-who was supposedly on the brink of death but now seems miraculously quite well-was said to be linked to British Petroleum, which is not exactly America's favorite oil company at present. BP was involved in prolonged negotiations to acquire huge oil exploration rights off the Libya coast. However the talks had stalled until the Labour government agreed that the Libyan terrorist mastermind should be set free, said the Times report, producing strong suspicions that BP had lobbied UK officials to secure his release.
At any rate, the Israeli government had already gone a long way to deflect the furious international condemnations which followed the late May fight with Muslim activists at sea. They pointed out that after the cabinet's late June decision to significantly ease restrictions placed on goods and building supplies heading into the Gaza Strip, it was superfluous for cargo ships to head toward the Gaza coast.
UN chief Ban Ki Moon backed the Israeli stand in late July. The US State Department agreed with this assessment as well, issuing a statement that was an apparent rebuke of Turkish government policy. It said direct deliveries of aid by sea "are neither appropriate nor responsible, and certainly not effective under the circumstances." The statement added there was "no need for unnecessary confrontations, and we call on all parties to act responsibly in meeting the needs of the people of Gaza." This came after Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar told the British Independent newspaper that "at least eight more ships will come to us from the Gulf" in the coming months.
In yet another case of bad timing, a new fully stocked shopping mall opened in Gaza City just a few days after the Greek ship landed at Al Arish. Decorated with thousands of balloons and other festoons, the large mall was featured on Israeli television news reports. Video clips showed hundreds of happy Palestinian shoppers milling around the modern mall, featuring ample luxury items, well-stocked food, electronic and clothing stores, pharmacies, entertainment outlets, etc. Of course, Hamas leaders blame Israel for their high unemployment rate which makes it difficult for many Gaza residents to actually purchase the goods. However Israeli officials point out that the area's jobless rate was already high before Israel enacted the blockade after Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from PA forces in June 2007, and then stepped up rocket attacks upon nearby Israeli civilian communities.
PROBE FINDS IDF MISTAKES
Soon after the international firestorm surrounding the clash at sea began to die down, Israeli military leaders announced they would launch an internal probe to examine what exactly happened during the violent confrontation, especially to determine if the IDF had bungled the operation, as some Israeli politicians and pundits maintained. The examination was conducted by retired Major General Giora Eiland, who served as a government national security advisor and is highly respected in Israel.
Eiland presented his findings to IDF chief of staff General Gabi Ashkenazi on July 19. The 100 page report listed a number of "mistakes" in both the planning and implementation stages of the operation. However the former commander wrote that he found "no operational failures," meaning that the mistakes were genuine but did not radically affect the necessity or outcome of the operation.
In particular, Eiland criticized the Israeli navy for failing to prepare a "Plan B" in case the resistance to Israel's attempt to enforce its naval blockade of Gaza turned violent, as it obviously did. He noted a serious confrontation should have been anticipated after IDF personnel spotted several dozen Muslim men on board the Turkish ship armed with clubs and metal pipes-clearly ready to attack boarding IDF forces.
Eiland detailed evidence that at least one of the Turkish activists was armed with a pistol, noting that a slug removed from the knee of an IDF soldier was different than those used by Israeli forces. He also described the capture of three soldiers, who were then thrown over a railing onto the lower deck of the ship, leaving one of them severely injured. He noted they were only rescued by other IDF commandos 40 minutes later after dozens of hostile passengers on board the ship were finally driven away from the injured Israelis.
The report also found that IDF military intelligence agents had not fully taken into account the growing antagonism against Israel emanating from the Turkish government in recent years, and therefore had discounted the possibility of armed resistance to any IDF naval boarding.
Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told reporters in Ankara he was pleased with Eiland's report. However he added his government will nevertheless still pursue efforts to force an international inquiry into the incident. Israeli leaders said in late July they will not cooperate with an investigation that the UN is planning to launch in August.
The Turkish official also indicated once again that diplomatic ties may be severed if the Israeli government does not formally apologize for the deaths of nine Muslim Turks on board the ship who took part in the assaults on rappelling IDF soldiers. He also demanded that Israeli "financial restitution" be given to the families of the slain activists, along with the return of several IHH-owned ships still in Israeli possession (the latter request was granted on July 22). Ankara had earlier announced that Turkish airspace had been closed to all IDF military flights traveling to and from Europe and the United States.
Meanwhile a private group linked to Israeli intelligence published a report one day after Eiland's findings were made public, stating that seven of the Turks who died on board the ship were members of the IHH who had declared in advance their desire to be "martyred" while attempting to violate the IDF naval blockade. The report quoted a page from the diary of a slain 19 year old Muslim activist that had been published in the Turkish press. The young man wrote that "these are the last hours before I join the sweet experience of being a shahid" (Arabic for martyr), adding "is there anything more beautiful than this?"
WAR CLOUDS KEEP BUILDING
On his way back to Damascus following a tour of several Latin American countries, Syrian President Bashar Assad stopped over in Madrid, where he said "the prospects of war are growing" in the wake of Turkey's diplomatic fray with Israel. This came as Israeli intelligence reports revealed that the Syrian and Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizbullah militia has been busy moving men and supplies into frontline positions in southern Lebanon, in violation of the UN resolution 1701 which formally ended the over month-long war between Hizbullah and IDF forces in August 2006. IDF troops are also being beefed up along the border. Meanwhile army sources expressed growing concern that Hizbullah may be digging illicit tunnels under the international border in order to kidnap IDF soldiers. Above ground Hizbullah abductions sparked off the 2006 conflict.
Intelligence reports said up to 20,000 fully trained and equipped Hizbullah fighters have been moved into forward positions in recent months, most of them located in and around the 160 Shiite towns and villages scattered throughout South Lebanon. Israeli drone surveillance aircraft took aerial photos of one such buildup, in the town of El Khiam located in the western foothills of Mount Hermon. Broadcast on Israeli television stations during July, the pictures mapped out military positions being constructed in civilian neighborhoods, and showed weapon supplies being moved around in the town.
Further evidence that Hizbullah may be preparing for a new war with Israel came when hundreds of local Shiite residents suddenly launched a number of attacks upon the 12,000 member UN peacekeeping force operating in the area. Rocks were thrown by dozens of Shiite residents of the town of Touline the end of June and early July, aimed at French soldiers who had staged a 36 hour military exercise in the area. Several days later, over 100 civilians blocked the main road in the village of Kabrikha, preventing a French UN patrol from passing through the village. An Israeli military analyst told journalists that "a mob of 100 people does not suddenly appear by accident in southern Lebanon; an area not known for spontaneous gatherings," adding that the operation was undoubtedly staged by Hizbullah in order to intimidate UN forces accused of siding with Israel.
MEET THE PRESIDENT
Several Israeli political pundits averred that the chances of regional war this summer may have been significantly reduced by the evidently warm reception that PM Netanyahu received at the White House on July 6. They said Iran, Syria and Turkey cannot help but notice that President Obama apparently went out of his way to repair the damage caused by his earlier frosty reception of the Israeli leader during his last visit in March. However some added this was not necessarily the result of a genuine change of heart, but mostly for domestic display in light of opinion polls suggesting the ruling Democratic party-the usual home for most Jewish voters-may get trounced in November's mid-term congressional elections.
Although the topic of Iran's ongoing nuclear program was discussed, the two leaders focused their public comments on peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu said he is eager to open direct negotiations with the PA, as advocated by Obama. However chances for such talks beginning anytime soon receded when PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki added a new pre-condition-the presence of a "third party mediator" with the "power to intervene," in other words, to impose solutions. Earlier the PA said it would not agree to direct talks unless the current settlement building freeze is extended beyond late September, a condition rejected by senior Israeli officials in July. The PA also wants negotiations to resume where they ended under former PM Ehud Olmert.
President Obama appeared on Israel's Channel Two soon after the summit ended, saying Netanyahu is "well positioned to bring about peace." The American leader acknowledged opinion polls showing most Israelis do not trust him, maintaining this might be because "my middle name is Hussein." However he defended what he called his "outreach to the Muslim world" as being designed to "reduce the dangers posed by a hostile Muslim world to Israel and the West."
It is especially good in times like these that we who know the Lord can proclaim like Job of old: "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth" (Job 19:25).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.