August 2011 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
ARMED CONFLICT RETURNS TO ISRAEL
Major clashes broke out between Palestinian and Israeli armed forces in mid August, which many analysts say might portend fuller warfare looming on the horizon. Sparked off by the worst Islamic terror attacks against Israeli citizens in several years, the clashes left scores dead and wounded on both sides. The initial Palestinian terrorist assaults were launched from the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula by a militant Muslim group closely linked to the radical Hamas movement, which repeated its calls during the month for Israel's ultimate destruction. An Egyptian government investigation later revealed that three Egyptian Muslim terrorists took part in the Palestinian raids-an ominous development indeed.
The terrorist outrages, which left eight Jews dead and several dozen wounded, were quickly met by Israeli Air Force strikes on Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip. This in turn led to the heaviest rocket bombardments of nearby Israeli population centers from the Hamas-ruled coastal zone since the IDF's Cast Lead military operation ended in January 2009. Although the new Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system successfully intercepted quite a few of the over 150 rockets fired at Israeli cities and towns in the week after the attacks, many rockets and mortar shells did succeed in reaching their targets, leaving one Jewish civilian dead and several others severely wounded, including an illegal Palestinian worker. Normal life was disrupted in Beersheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon and other areas of the south during the bombardments.
A number of Israeli Middle East analysts expressed serious concern that the Palestinian-Egyptian Islamic terror attacks may have been ordered by the extremist Shiite Muslim Iranian regime in a test run of what to expect from a massive Lebanese Hizbullah rocket blitz upon the whole of Israel. Many said the prospects of such a Hizbullah assault grew significantly in the wake of growing international calls for Syrian strongman Bashar Assad to immediately step down from power as his people's blood continues to flow in his streets. Experts warned that the rogue Iranian mullahs will not allow their main Arab ally to go down without a major blowback, most likely aimed at Israel. This came as press reports said Iran has begun moving its uranium centrifuge enrichment facilities into underground bunkers in apparent anticipation of Israeli and/or NATO air strikes against the country's threatening nuclear development program.
Another attack was launched by a lone terrorist in Tel Aviv on August 29th leaving seven Israelis wounded, several seriously. The Palestinian perpetrator from Nablus north of Jerusalem commandeered a taxi after stabbing the driver and drove it into a nearby policeman manning a roadblock in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa. Shouting out a Muslim slogan, he then jumped out of the taxi and stabbed five other policemen and a security guard. Police said the 20 year old terrorist was stopped by the roadblock while on his way to kill high school students attending a special pre-school-year function at a nearby popular nightclub. The club was filled with over 2,000 teenagers. Authorities issued warnings that additional Palestinian terror attacks are expected in the coming days and weeks.
Israeli officials also kept a close eye on several other regional tremors during the month, especially the war in Libya and growing Islamic agitation in Egypt. Concerns grew that Libyan weapons of mass destruction might make their way east to the Gaza Strip in the wake of the Gaddafi family regime's blood-soaked collapse.
Meanwhile Israeli street protests against the high cost of housing, food, fuel and other commodities continued to rock the country, with the largest public demonstration in several years held in Tel Aviv. Tent cities expanded throughout the small country while doctors finally ended their months-long work sanctions in demand of higher wages. Some charged that socialist street protest leaders are trying to topple the democratically-elected Netanyahu government in a similar "popular" fashion to the way Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power last February. Intense government focus on the large protest movement quickly waned in the wake of the renewed security crisis as officials prepared for the planned Palestinian Authority statehood declaration in New York the second half of September and the violence that might spark off.
TERROR FROM SINAI
As previously noted in these monthly reports, Israeli officials had been expressing growing alarm at the escalating breakdown of law and order in the Egyptian-ruled Sinai Peninsula this year, which was handed over to Cairo's control as part of the American-brokered Camp David peace accords signed in 1978. It seemed to many as if the interim military government that assumed power in the wake of President Mubarak's forced ouster either could not, or did not want to, enforce basic security in the large desert peninsula. Hamas and Al Qaida-backed terrorists blew up the natural gas pipeline that brings fuel to Israel and Jordan no less than five times over the past few months, causing major flow disruptions which added to ballooning fuel prices in both countries. Armed Bedouin gangs roamed freely in many areas, including near some coastal resort towns popular with European, American and Israeli tourists.
The fear in Israeli governmental circles was that, with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement now openly contending for power in Cairo in the wake of the White House-supported overthrow of America's closest Arab ally, Islamic militants felt emboldened to act as they wished in the sparsely-populated desert zone. Alarm bells increased early in the summer when intelligence reports revealed the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hamas movement was moving many of its weapons production facilities to the Sinai Peninsula, apparently assuming that IDF jets would not be politically able to attack them there due to the peace treaty and the long-standing alliance between Washington and Cairo.
The ability of Hamas to operate freely in Sinai had been severely restricted by the Mubarak government. However, recognizing that the "populist" movement to oust it was largely comprised of Islamic groups that support Hamas' extreme anti-Israel stand, the new interim government opened border crossings from the Gaza Strip into Egypt, allowing terrorists to flood into the peninsula. As a result, Israeli officials sternly warned their citizens to stay away from the Egyptian resort zone, fearing more Israelis would be kidnapped by Hamas militants. Meanwhile the desert zone became the preferred route for weapons smuggled to the Gaza Strip from the war-torn Arab country of Libya due west of Egypt. Israeli security officials pointed to substantial evidence that Egyptian security forces were looking the other way, probably greased by large bribes, as the weapons made their way across the north of the troubled country. They noted that eastern Libya, from where the latest "Arab Spring" anti-government rebel force sprouted, is a known Islamic fundamentalist stronghold that has long expressed strong support for the Hamas anti-peace stand.
Growing lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula caused Israeli leaders to privately demand that Cairo take control of the situation. Egyptian officials then decided to send a squadron of 1,000 soldiers into the area after receiving permission from Israel to do so (as part of the Camp David accords, Egyptian troop movements into the demilitarized zone must be coordinated with Jerusalem). Troops entered the area on August 15, heading mainly to the north where the pipeline attacks have taken place. An existing small border police patrol force was already operating as usual along the 150 mile shared border with Israel, where the Netanyahu government is constructing a security fence (way too slowly, say many critics). The police force had long proved to be ill-equipped to halt a constant flow of illegal infiltration into Israel across the mostly unmarked desert border, with thousands of migrants entering Israeli territory each year, mostly coming from the war-ravaged African country of Sudan, or Somalia.
DYING FOR ALLAH
Given this background, it was no surprise to Israeli officials when intelligence agents learned in early August that a major Palestinian terrorist operation was being planned in the Gaza Strip to be launched from Sinai into southern Israel. Arab sources indicated the plan was in its final stages of readiness, and would include a large number of terrorists infiltrating across the international border into the Israeli Negev Desert north of the port city of Eilat. However the sources indicated the goal would be to kidnap more Israeli soldiers in a similar fashion to the cross border Hamas raid that nabbed IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006 (talks to secure his release stalled in Cairo in August). This information led IDF and police officers to assume any infiltration would take place under the cover of darkness, not during the middle of the sun-soaked day.
Whether those reports were wrong or deliberately distorted was not immediately clear to Israeli officials, but in the end, a much more deadly operation was actually being planned. Indeed, the terrorists did hope to kidnap some additional soldiers, but their malevolent goal was to kill as many Jews as possible before undoubtedly being killed themselves. In fact, it was miraculous that dozens did not perish in the combined assaults which rocked Israel on August 18.
The attacks began just before noon after four Palestinian-Egyptian armed squads comprised of 12 men (earlier reports that up to 20 were involved were later downscaled), infiltrated the border right under the noses of an Egyptian army outpost-leading many to immediately suspect collusion. The four terrorist cells then spread out over an eight mile area. One of the squads, wearing brown Egyptian army uniforms, opened fire on a passenger bus traveling from Beersheva to Eilat on Highway 12, the main road to Eilat which runs perilously close to the border. Like most Israeli public buses, the passengers included many civilians, along with male and female soldiers returning home for the weekend. As windows shattered from the impact of the hail of bullets, the driver wisely speeded up after spotting the attacking terrorists. Around a dozen passengers, including some children, were wounded as the bullets flew, mostly when glass shards struck them. Miraculously, no one was killed.
Had the same bus been attacked by another squad, the death toll would have undoubtedly been very high. That terrorist cell managed to position itself right next to the road, springing up as a second bus approached. One of the terrorists then rushed toward the transport vehicle and detonated suicide explosives hidden under his uniform, killing the bus driver along with himself. Unbeknownst to the Islamic terrorists, the public bus was empty of passengers, with the driver on his way to pick some up. He was later buried in Beersheva. Then a third squad opened fire at an Israeli passenger car, killing its female driver. The same attacker then fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an Israeli Air Force helicopter that sped to the area after news of the first attack reached nearby military units that had been reinforced in light of the intelligence reports of an impending attack. The grenade fell short of its target and the terrorist was killed.
The deadliest incident was perpetrated by the fourth squad several minutes later. Another private vehicle carrying two sisters in their fifties and their husbands to a planned vacation in Eilat was ambushed by a hail of bullets, leaving all four civilian passengers instantly dead. With mourning relatives and friends in attendance, the two slain couples were later laid to rest in their hometown not far from Tel Aviv. Like the other assaults, the vicious killings revealed that the terrorists were not just out to capture or kill Israeli soldiers, but to murder civilian women, children and men as well.
Two of the Israeli fatalities were members of the beefed-up security forces stationed in the area to prevent the attacks. One of them, Pascal Avrahami, was a 49 year old member of an elite police anti-terror unit known as YAMAM. He had been sent to the area from his native Jerusalem. He left behind a grieving wife and three children. The other victim, 22 year old Moshe Naftali, was a well-regarded IDF staff sergeant from Ofra, a Jewish community of over 3,000 residents located in the disputed territories north of Jerusalem. Sadly, it later emerged that he had been killed by "friendly fire" in the midst of an intense gun battle with the terrorist squad. Still, both men perished in the line of duty while attempting to halt the spate of unprovoked terrorist attacks upon their civilian countrymen.
SHOWDOWN WITH EGYPT
Based on their earlier intelligence reports, Israeli official quickly announced that the so-called "Popular Resistance Committees" based in the Gaza Strip was the group behind the coordinated terror attacks. It was founded in the early days of the first Palestinian uprising in 1988. The PRC combines Hamas representatives with other terror groups including the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, several smaller Islamic militant groups with links to Al Qaida, and elements of the PLO.
Within hours of the atrocious armed assaults, IDF jets were pounding known PRC positions in the Gaza Strip, killing the overall head of the group and other operatives, along with some of their non-combatant relatives. Hamas positions were struck later on since the group is involved with the PRC and is anyway in overall control of the Gaza Strip from where the deadly assault emanated. More than that, it was quickly determined that Hamas was allowing Islamic Jihad and other groups to fire powerful Iranian-supplied Grad rockets into Israel, striking the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheva and several other cities and towns and kibbutz communities.
A number of Israelis were injured as the rockets crashed down despite the fact that many were intercepted by the Iron Dome laser system (which costs lots of money to operate due to its high electricity usage). Many buildings and cars were damaged or destroyed and fields and trees were set on fire. A Jewish yeshiva seminary in Ashdod suffered a direct hit with 12 wounded, several seriously. Three illegal Palestinian workers from Samaria were later wounded in the strategic port city, one severely, when more rockets struck two days after the terrorist infiltration. Everyone in the region was ordered to remain close to bomb shelters as sirens were periodically sounded to warn of incoming rockets. An outdoor late August festival held annually on the Ashkelon beach was cancelled.
As the initial Air Force bombing runs were being launched, IDF ground forces were clashing directly with Egyptian soldiers for the first time in many years. According to an Egyptian government report released several days later, the serious clashes began when IDF soldiers pursued some of the terrorist attackers into Egyptian territory. Egyptian border police patrols then opened fire on the Israelis who shot back at them. An IDF helicopter then fired two rockets at the fleeing terrorists, prompting more Egyptian police and army fire at the Israelis. Three Egyptians were killed in the exchange, including Ahmad Jalal, an Egyptian officer. Two other Egyptians who may have been members of the infiltrating terror squads were killed in subsequent clashes.
News that five Egyptians had been shot dead by IDF fire sparked large anti-Israel demonstrations on the streets of Cairo. An Israeli flag flying atop the Israeli embassy was torn down by an intruder who replaced it with an Egyptian flag as hundreds cheered from the street below. The Israeli flag was later burned by the mob. The intruder later received a local government reward for his action. Egged on by the Muslim Brotherhood, anti-Israel demonstrations continued for over one week. All this came despite the fact that the Egyptian government report admitted some Egyptians had participated in the Palestinian terrorist assaults; and that border security personnel had at least looked the other way as the squads illegally crossed the international border into Israel.
Fearing a complete breakdown in relations with Cairo, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement of regret that Egyptian soldiers and policemen had been killed in the clashes, while also pointing out the action came after armed Arab infiltrators entered Israel from Egyptian territory. With reported American diplomatic encouragement, the statement seemed to pacify interim government leaders, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Kamel Amr denying Arab press reports that his government was preparing to recall its ambassador to Israel from his posting in Tel Aviv to protest the Egyptian deaths.
TEST RUN FOR A HIZBULLAH ATTACK?
Regional media reports claimed the Netanyahu government was prepared to launch a major ground operation into the Gaza Strip to clear out rocket launching sites and destroy weapons caches, as occurred in the Cast Lead operation that began in late December 2008. However Egyptian military government leaders allegedly told their Israeli counterparts this would spark off massive anti-Israel riots throughout their tense country, which would only serve to strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood's already growing chances of taking over the Arab world's largest country in elections now scheduled for November. Whatever the case, it was clear that the armed Islamic infiltrations and terrorist assaults had brought the region closer to full-scale warfare than at any time since the 2006 Hizbullah missile blitz upon cities and towns in northern Israel.
Many Israeli security commentators wondered aloud if the well planned PRC-led terrorist operation, which left 10 of the 12 Muslim infiltrators dead, two of them by their own homicidal hands, was not a "dry run" test sponsored by Iran. According to this suspicion, the Shiite Islamic regime is nearing the point where it will have to actively intervene if it is to save its main Arab ally, Syria's brutal dictator Basher Assad, from suffering the same fate as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. Analysts warn that the Iranian mullahs simply cannot allow Assad and his Alawite cronies to be driven from power, period. If he were toppled, Hizbullah's hold over Lebanon would be severely weakened due to its reliance on weapons and other support from the Assad family regime. Understanding this reality, many say Hizbullah leaders are probably more than willing to obey any Iranian order to lash out at Israel with a massive missile barrage targeting Tel Aviv and all other Israeli population centers. While this would obviously provoke a powerful IDF response, it would also divert the world's attention from the expanding crisis in Syria and unify the Arab street against the common enemy, Israel.
Several analysts opined that if Hizbullah is indeed preparing for such a colossal assault-and various intelligence reports said preparations on the ground seem to confirm this is indeed the case-it would probably be sparked off in a similar fashion to the clashes now rocking southern Israel. As they did in 2006, Hizbullah militiamen would initially cross the border and attack IDF soldiers stationed along the tense border, and/or fire rockets at IDF outposts. When Israel returned the unprovoked fire, as it did along the Egyptian border, Hizbullah would keep ratcheting up the conflict until it was firing thousand of rockets into Israel. As in the south, the Iron Dome anti-rocket system would take out some of the incoming short-range rockets and longer range missiles, but not a majority of them, especially if hundreds of firings were occurring all at once. The key to preventing this scenario from becoming reality is for Israel to either take preemptive action against Hizbullah rocket stores and launching sites, or to do this once the first incidents occurred. However this also would give the radical Islamic group the upper propaganda hand in that it could claim the IDF responded to the small border incident in a hugely disproportionate manner-a contention often heard from the Palestinians.
Some Israeli commentators say the unprecedented regional events of the past few months indicate that the "Arab Spring" may turn into the "Arab winter" very quickly, possibly even a nuclear winter. Already under attack on the Arab street, the Netanyahu government might well decide it has nothing more to lose by taking out Iran's burgeoning nuclear program as any war escalated. The Syrian regime might conclude it could dose the mushrooming anti-government internal revolt by sending Scud missiles against Tel Aviv. In other words, a regional war comparable to the harrowing 1973 Yom Kippur conflict, which nearly led to a US-USSR clash, may be in the offing. Of course, Israeli government and military leaders are well aware of this prospect, and are assiduously preparing for it.
All this come amid the background of the Palestinian Authority's intention to seek United Nations General Assembly support for its planned late September unilateral declaration of statehood, which a majority of member countries have already announced they will support. While repeating that the PA will never recognize a Jewish state-implying any Palestinian state will be a springboard for further warfare against Israel-PA leader Mahmoud Abbas said on August 28th that he intends to go through with the declaration despite opposition from the United States and several other countries. Although a UN vote would not actually create "a viable Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," it would give the PA enhanced legal power to take Israeli political and military leaders to UN courts over alleged "war crimes" and other charges. It would also strengthen the PA's political standing in many countries. Some Israeli analysts maintained it might actually spur on peace negotiations, although only a small minority believes that is likely. Most think the immediate outcome will be more harsh words between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, increased tensions on the streets, and possibly a new round of uprising violence.
All this to say, the coming weeks and months appear likely to be among the most pivotal ones in Israel's short modern history. With the Middle East trembling and the entire world shaking economically, socially, and in many places like Washington DC, quite literally, the need for sustained intercession before the Lord's throne appears to be greater than ever before. Cry out to the One who said "My righteousness is near, My salvation has gone forth, and My arm will judge the peoples. The coastlands will wait for Me, and for My arm they will wait expectantly" (Isaiah 51:5).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.