August 2010 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
BORDER CLASH NEARLY SPARKS NEW MIDEAST WAR
Israel was almost plunged into a major war in early August when Lebanese Army troops opened fire on Israeli soldiers along their shared Northern Galilee border, not far from the tense Golan Heights. One long-serving IDF reserve officer was instantly killed and another soldier severely wounded during the unprovoked attack. Subsequent press reports said Defense Minister Ehud Barak was on the verge of responding by launching a large military operation against Lebanon, which the Lebanese Army, Syria and Hizbullah would have undoubtedly fully and violently resisted. He was said to have been talked out of doing so by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is close to both Israeli and Lebanese leaders.
The intense border clash, which also left a number of Lebanese soldiers and a journalist dead, took place soon after a series of rockets were launched at two major Israeli cities, smaller communities, and at the Jordanian port city of Akaba. The Palestinian Hamas group was thought to be behind the string of hostile assaults.
The rocket firings came as announcements were made of plans for additional foreign aid flotilla sailings to the Gaza Strip, designed to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled coastal zone. One such ship was reported to have left an Algerian port on August 19 carrying Muslim clerics and aid cargo on board. Two ships ferrying some 70 women were planning an August 22 departure from Lebanon, but the flotilla was postponed after officials in Beirut and Cyprus opposed it. London is among several other port cities where additional vessels are due to depart from in September. Meanwhile a special Israeli commission took testimony from senior government and military leaders concerning the late May clash at sea aboard a Turkish ship headed for the Gaza Strip.
Tension remains high with Hizbullah's paymaster Iran, whose Russian-built nuclear reactor began to be fueled up on August 21. Several prominent pundits and diplomats, including one of America's former UN ambassadors, urged Israel to consider bombing the facility before it was fully activated. This came two weeks after Iran enhanced its public alliance with Syria during a visit by its Foreign Minister to Damascus. Days later, Iranian state television showed pictures of thousands of dug graves that it claimed would become the final resting place of anyone who dared to attack the militant Shiite country.
Amid all the war talk, American officials announced that direct peace negotiations would soon be launched with between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. PA President Mahmoud Abbas was said to have been pressured into accepting such talks by US and EU leaders, backed by Russia and the UN. Hamas leaders again condemned Abbas for his reported willingness to sit down face to face with the hated "Zionist regime."
Like people in Russia and other parts of the world, Israelis were largely preoccupied during August with staying cool as record temperatures sizzled the country. The public was asked to curb electricity use during peak hours as the national grid came close to overrunning its operating capacity several times.
ON THE BRINK
Israeli military forces remain on a heightened state of alert following the deadly border confrontation between IDF and Lebanese Army forces on August 3. The clash was the worst incident along the tense border since the Second Lebanon War ended in August 2006. It started when employees of a private Israeli landscaping firm began pruning overgrown brush and trees on the Israeli side of the international "Blue Line" border, under the protection of IDF soldiers. The border had been officially demarcated by the United Nations following the IDF pullout from southern Lebanon in May 2000. The thinning operation was fairly routine, with Israel frequently cutting back natural vegetation in order to keep a keener surveillance eye on the Lebanese side of the border from where hostile Hizbullah militia forces have often launched attacks in the past.
UN peacekeeping officers later announced that their IDF liaison counterparts had notified them in advance of the small-scale pruning operation, so that they in turn could inform the Lebanese Army about it, which they had done. They also confirmed the IDF's contention that the landscapers and protecting soldiers had not crossed the international border, as Lebanese government leaders had angrily charged, and that Lebanese soldiers had opened fire first.
After it became clear that a senior reserve army officer (a father of four in his early 40s) stationed in a nearby IDF outpost had been deliberately targeted and killed by the unprovoked sniper fire, with another nearby soldier severely wounded (an award winning immigrant from Ethiopia), the IDF responded by heavily shelling Lebanese Army positions in the area, killing two soldiers in the nearby village of Adaisseh. A journalist working for a Beirut newspaper was also slain by artillery shellfire. IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was quickly flown to the scene to oversea any potential additional operations.
The UN subsequently noted that the Israel-Lebanon border fence in the Upper Galilee area-erected by Israel following the Blue Line demarcation-does not follow the actual border line in some places, but runs inside Israeli territory for easier patrolling purposes (the UN later called for that fact to be altered). Of course, Lebanese soldiers already knew this. So while it may have appeared to local Lebanese commanders that the Israelis were violating the border (even that "violation" amounted to just a few pruning cuts administered by civilian workers from over the top of the fence), that was not actually the case. Still they opened fire, knowing this could have sparked a fresh Middle East war with untold dire consequences.
Although the over 12,000 man UNIFIL force-comprised largely of French and Italian troops but also including Indonesians and others-later confirmed the IDF's accounts of the confrontation, their actions at the time were seen by many in Israel as less than neutral. Video clips clearly show UN troops frantically shouting at the Israelis to "Stop!!" their work immediately and "Go back!!" as if they were actually violating the border. This only seemed to spur nearby Lebanese Army forces to open fire, knowing they were being filmed by Lebanese media crews, including some from Hizbullah's Manar television station who "just happened" to be on the scene.
Israeli officials later said that they did not think the order to shoot came from senior army officers, but from local commanders who were probably Shiites themselves, and sympathetic to the radical Iranian-run militia group. At any rate, someone had obviously notified the Lebanese media to come to the scene, and it wasn't the IDF. This fact only increased speculation that Shiite commanders had previously decided to make a show of force that day, and wanted the media to witness it. This may well have been planned in coordination with Lebanese Hizbullah political and militia leaders, controlled by Iran.
Israeli government officials reacted to the deadly Lebanese Army assault in strong terms, but with no further military action. Defense Minister Barak wanted to respond with a major military operation, according to many press reports, as PM Olmert had done when IDF soldiers were ambushed along the border in July 2006. Apparently the rather negative outcome of that war caused the Labor party leader to think twice, along with promptings to hold his fire from French President Sarkozy. However some military analysts pointed out that the Israeli government understands that Hizbullah's burgeoning militia force and expanding rocket arsenal will have to be dealt with sooner or later, so the unprovoked army shootings might actually have been the best time to launch a counter operation.
Binyamin Netanyahu's office issued a stern statement attributed to him, warning that "We will reach, and hit with great force, anyone who shoots at Israeli citizens, no matter from where." The Premier was not only referring to the border confrontation, but also to a series of Palestinian rocket attacks upon Israeli civilian areas that began the previous Friday when a powerful Grad missile exploded in the coastal city of Ashkelon at 8:20 in the morning, leaving significant damage in its wake, but thankfully no casualties. The first direct attack upon the popular tourist destination since Operation Cast Led ended in January 2009, the rocket was launched from the nearby Gaza Strip. Visiting friends there, I was among thousands in the city who heard the thunderous explosion. Reports say many Ashkelon children remain especially traumatized by the resumption of rocket assaults upon their home area.
The next evening, a Palestinian Kassam rocket was fired at the frequently hit town of Sderot, just a couple miles from the northeast Gaza border. The blast partially destroyed a public building often crowded with local citizens. Thankfully, it struck on the only evening of the week when the building is closed.
Just one day before the Upper Galilee border clash, a most unusual rocket barrage was launched from across the Egyptian border. At least five rockets were fired at the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat, packed with local tourists and foreign visitors this time of year. Once again, it was a virtual miracle that no one was inured or killed in the Red Sea port city.
However two of the rockets apparently overshot their target and exploded in the adjacent Jordanian city of Akaba, killing a local taxi driver and injuring three tourists heading to the beach next to their five star hotel. Israeli analysts said the Akaba landings might have been deliberate since Amman maintains a peace treaty with Israel that Islamic radicals deplore. Although Egyptian government officials initially denied that the rockets had been fired from their sovereign territory, they later admitted it had indeed been the case, blaming Islamic militants for the attack while reinforcing army forces in the area.
Many Israeli military analysts wondered aloud if the three separate rocket assaults in four days might have been coordinated in advance with the explosive Lebanese Army assault, possibly under Iranian direction. A full-scale war with the American-armed Lebanese Army, which would be fully supported by Hizbullah militiamen and their vast rocket arsenal, and by Syrian forces, vow officials in Damascus, would go a long way toward tying up IDF troops, along with Air Force pilots who might otherwise be free to attack Iran's threatening nuclear program.
WARNING TO THE WORLD
Whoever was ultimately behind the series of attacks and whatever their motivation, PM Netanyahu stated forcefully that his government will not sit still while his cities and soldiers are targeted by enemy fire. "I want it to be clear to Hamas, as well as to the Lebanese government, which we hold responsible for the violent provocations against our soldiers: Do not test our determination to protect Israeli citizens and soldiers."
The Likud party leader also had a word of caution for the nations: "For years, many in the international community have remained silent when rockets have been fired at Israeli civilians, and when unprovoked attacks have been launched against our soldiers. Expressions of outrage have largely been reserved for Israel's response to those attacks. Firing missiles on civilians is a war crime, and unprovoked attacks on soldiers are blatant acts of aggression. Israel expects the international community to condemn such attacks in the strongest possible terms."
The tough statement was thought by many to be partially aimed at the Obama administration. Senior officials were said to have been upset by the US government's initial "evenhanded" reaction to the Lebanese cross border attack, which seemed to equally blame both countries for the confrontation. However after the UN made clear that no IDF troops or civilian workers had crossed into Lebanese territory, and that the Lebanese Army had been notified of the tree trimming work in advance, the administration changed its tune, with a State Department spokesman admitting that the armed assault was "wholly unjustified and unwarranted."
In the wake of the dramatic border clash, many American legislators called for US military aid to Lebanon to be either vastly reduced or cut out altogether. President Obama quickly opposed the call. Some $750 million worth of aid has been given to the Lebanese Army since the Beirut assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri on Valentine's Day in 2005. While the stated US goal is to "strengthen the pro-Western army" against Iranian and Syrian-supported Hizbullah militia forces, many American and Israeli politicians and commentators noted that the majority of Lebanese soldiers and commanders are themselves Shiite Muslims, with at least some prone to support Hizbullah in any real showdown with Israel.
Meanwhile Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah delivered a lengthy televised speech at the start of Ramadan in which he accused Israel of being behind Hariri's assassination. Israeli leaders called the charge absurd, given that the slain leader was allied with America, France and Saudi Arabia. A special UN investigative panel has reportedly concluded that Hizbullah carried out the murder with Syrian backing (Hariri was attempting to force Syrian occupation troops out of his country at the time). Many opined that Nasrallah had ordered Lebanese Army soldiers loyal to him to open fire on IDF forces in order to spark a major conflict that would turn attention away from the UN finding, which could be released at any time.
Israel's Deputy Defense Minister, Matan Viln'i, told the Jerusalem Post newspaper that Hizbullah is not only capable of striking the capital city with medium range rockets, but can now accurately target government buildings in the western half of Jerusalem while avoiding hitting Muslim holy sites and Palestinian neighborhoods in the east. Although he believes there is "no Arab interest at present in a war," he added that "the IDF has noticed a radical shift within the Lebanese Army's top command, which has increased its anti-Israel rhetoric." He warned Israel's next war will involve missile strikes all over the country, saying the Defense Ministry is doing all it can to prepare for that probability. His comments came just a couple weeks before it was announced that additional large public bomb shelters will be constructed in cities all over Israel.
MORE SHIPS ON THE WAY
Israeli officials lobbied hard to halt a planned two ship Lebanese convoy from heading to the Gaza Strip in late August. The Beirut government subsequently announced it would not allow the ships, carrying some 70 female pro-Palestinian activists, to depart from the port of Tripoli on August 22. This came after nearby Cyprus said it would not let the vessels transit through its ports, saying to do so would threaten regional peace. Lebanese law bars direct sailings to Israeli ports or territory it controls, since Beirut is still formally in a state of war with Israel. The Greek Cypriot declaration came shortly after PM Netanyahu returned from a very warm visit to Athens, the first ever by an Israeli Premier. Ties with Greece have dramatically improved even as they have deteriorated with Greece's traditional adversary, Turkey, which illegally occupies northern Cyprus.
Meanwhile George Galloway, the former British Parliament member well know for his fierce anti-Israel stands, announced that aid ships will head to Gaza from three different locations on September 18. Writing in the socialist newspaper Morning Star, he said one set of ships will depart from London, with others coming from Casablanca, Morocco and Doha in Qatar.
Called Viva Palestina, Galloway said the flotilla would meet up in the Mediterranean and then provocatively attempt to violate Israel's Gaza Strip naval blockade. Revealing that his real intention is to harm Israel more than to help the Palestinians, he wrote that it is time for the world to challenge Israel's "criminal apartheid policy" with the goal of isolating the country and crushing its government, as occurred in South Africa during the 1980s and 90s.
Meanwhile Israeli leaders gave testimony to a special committee investigating the May 31 clash aboard a Turkish ship, which left nine Muslim activists dead and several IDF troops severely wounded. Saying he took "full responsibility" for the action, PM Netanyahu also noted he was out of the country at the time and that Defense Minister Barak was actually in charge of the operation. Barak in turn seemed to blame military leaders for any errors made. Analysts said retiring Chief of Staff Avi Ashkenazi was the only leader to actually take responsibility for the operation, admitting that army intelligence was not up to speed on the radical, and therefore potentially violent, nature of the Turkish IHH Muslim group which sponsored the flotilla.
Senior military leaders were relieved when the Israeli police cleared all of them from direct involvement in what appeared to be a smear campaign by one of the leading IDF candidates to replace Ashkenazi when his term ends next February. A document stating that current Southern Commander Gen. Yoav Galant had engaged a public relations firm to cook up false charges against his rivals for the top military job was discovered by police to be a fabrication. The story dominated local headlines in August, producing severe tension inside the IDF during a very dangerous time in Israel's modern history. Barak later announced he was appointing Galant as the next Armed Forces Chief, with the decision expected to be approved by the cabinet on August 29.
DIRECT TALKS ALSO ON THE WAY
Israeli officials expressed mixed feelings over Hillary Clinton's announcement that face to face peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority will resume on September 2 in Washington. The talks were suspended by the PA during the Cast Lead Gaza Strip conflict that began in December 2008. President Obama is expected to host Netanyahu and PA leader Abbas at the ceremonial launching of the American-mediated negotiations, along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. The US leader has asked the two sides to complete a final peace accord by the autumn of 2011. Netanyahu pledged to do everything he could to meet that goal.
However other Likud party cabinet ministers and legislators voiced strong skepticism that the negotiations will succeed, especially since Hamas and its ally Iran remain adamantly opposed to them. Similar sentiments were expressed by other government coalition partners, especially members of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party. Only the Labor party seemed to eagerly support the resumption of peace talks.
Deputy PM Eli Yishai said Netanyahu will only partially end a ten month Israeli home building freeze in Judea and Samaria, due to expire September 26. The PA demands that the suspension be permanently extended, warning it will walk out of the Washington peace talks if it is lifted. Yishai said Jewish home construction would resume in three large settlement blocks that Israel intends to retain in any final peace deal, but not in scattered isolated communities slated for evacuation. Many analysts say Abbas only agreed to resume direct talks because he knows he can shift the blame for their rapid failure onto Israel.
Several Israeli commentators warned that Obama may be pushing the region to an explosion by forcing the resumption of peace negotiations at this volatile time. One of them, Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post, noted that Iran-whom she termed "the nuclear elephant in the room"-will only exert greater pressure on Hizbullah and Hamas to stir up trouble in the region to thwart America's plans, as they are currently doing with allied Shiite groups in Iraq. Some pundits also found it ironic that the US announcement came just two days before Russia began fueling up Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor, a move that will produce weapon's grade material. Russia is supposed to supervise spent fuel rods from the power plant, but Israeli analysts note this process could be thwarted later on by extremist Iranian leaders.
At the end of yet another month of mostly unnerving news in this tempestuous region, it is comforting to proclaim that "The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice, let the many islands be glad…Fire goes before Him and burns up His adversaries round about"(Psalm 97: 1,3).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.