Roiling Middle East
By: David Dolan
Violence flared throughout the Middle East and North Africa during September as Muslim militants took to the streets to attack American and other Western diplomatic outposts. The initial assault, on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington, left four Americans dead in Libya, including a diplomat who had earlier served in Israel. Unrest quickly spread to Egypt, Tunisia, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and other Arab countries. Protests later broke out in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, central Africa and parts of Europe.
Ostensibly, the Islamic demonstrations, some of which turned violent, were a reaction to a short film said to be disparaging of the founder of the Muslim faith, Muhammad, posted on the American-owned YouTube web site. However the film, titled Innocence of Muslims, was apparently not produced by native Americans but by an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in the United States. Israeli security forces were placed on heightened alert as demonstrations were staged near the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and the US consulate in Jerusalem. In many locations, Israeli flags were burned along with American ones, or replicas of the same.
Israeli military leaders held an unannounced snap drill during September, sending troops scrambling to the northern border with Syria as if an actual surprise attack was underway. Another major drill was held in Jerusalem. This came as Iran stepped up its ground support for the besieged Assad regime in neighboring Syria, turning the tide of battle back toward government forces. Illegal air corridors were said to be transporting thousands of Iranian fighters to the battlefront, as pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite and anti-Assad Sunni militiamen joined the expanding conflict by simply crossing the mostly now unguarded Syrian-Iraqi border. More Sunni Muslim fighters arrived to bolster the rebel forces from Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and some Gulf Arab states. Reports said the besieged Syrian dictator was grouping his most loyal forces up in the northwest mountains of Syria, home to the Alawite Muslim sect that the Assad family is part of. A Syrian army general who defected to the Sunni Muslim-led Free Syrian Army warned that the embattled regime may use some of its chemical weapons to slaughter opposition fighters. This came after news reports said Syrian forces had test fired chemical weapons near the city of Aleppo
In Lebanon, Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah took "credit" for organizing an anti-American rally attended by Arab residents of Jerusalem. This came soon after he vowed to attack Israel if any IDF military strike is launched on Iran's burgeoning nuclear facilities. Meanwhile a war of words over how and when to launch any military operation against the nuclear production targets heated up between Israeli and American government officials. Iranian leaders were said to be keeping a close eye on a major NATO naval drill that began in late September in the Persian Gulf, while staging more war exercises of their own.
More Palestinian rockets were fired at Israeli civilian centers during the month as anti-government social protests broke out in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Demonstrators demanded that financial corruption be halted inside the PA as more money is spent on creating jobs and reducing the cost of housing and food items. The street protests subsided when Palestinian Muslims took to the streets to join in the expanding anti-American and anti-Israel demonstrations.
Some months ago, a short video was posted on the popular YouTube web site about the life of Islam's founder, Muhammad, considered by Muslims to be the greatest "prophet" to have ever walked the earth. It later emerged that the video was produced by an Egyptian Coptic Christian named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who lives in California. It came to the attention of the Muslim world after a television network in Egypt broadcast portions of the video, which many Muslims say mocks the life of Muhammad. The video gained additional notoriety after Florida Christian Pastor Terry Jones, who called several years ago for public burnings of the Quran Muslim holy book, announced on September 11 that he had released a short video promoting the Innocence of Muslims production posted on YouTube. The California-based media giant said it had vetted the anti-Muhammad video and it did not find that it violated company rules concerning banned video content.
That same afternoon, around 50 heavily armed Muslim men attacked the American consulate in the coastal Libyan city of Bengazi, which was the center of last year's American-supported Islamic insurgent campaign to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi from power. Four Americans holed up inside a supposed "safe house" near the consulate were killed when the attackers stormed it, including veteran US diplomat Christopher Stevens, who served as ambassador to Libya. The Obama White House originally maintained that the deadly attack, which left the consulate and "safe house" in ruins, was a spontaneous assault by Muslims angry over the YouTube posting. However most regional analysts said the operation was obviously well planned and executed, meaning it was undoubtedly concocted by Muslim terror groups and was deliberately designed to take place on the eleventh anniversary of the Al Qaida attacks in America. They noted that some of the Muslim fighters used rocket propelled grenades in the armed attack, not something usually found in people's personal arsenals. Later reports said the American government had been warned of a pending terrorist assault in Libya three days before the attack took place, but had apparently failed to notify Ambassador Stevens with that pertinent news. Two weeks later, a Muslim mob attacked the headquarters of an Islamic extremist group which experts say is linked to Al Qaida, blaming the group for the deadly consulate assault. The attackers said they were avenging the killing of the Americans who, they noted, helped them oust Gadaffi.
Soon after reports emerged that the American consulate in Bengazi had been sacked, violent protests spread to Cairo, where thousands gathered outside the American embassy chanting "Death to America." The action came hours after Cairo's Al Azhar university issued a strong statement denouncing an announcement put out by the Florida church headed by Pastor Jones. The church said that it and associated American groups would hold a symbolic "trial" focusing on the life of Muhammad. The "trial" would highlight the well known facts that the Islamic founder had many wives, including teenage girls, and participated in violent attacks upon Arabia's Jewish community and on Arab trade convoys plying the regional roads during his lifetime. The same points are made in the controversial video posted on YouTube.
Within days of the Bengazi attack, anti-American protests had spread to many Arab countries, and then to Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even to Australia and the United States itself. Near the American Embassy located on the Mediterranean coast in Tel Aviv, dozens of Arab Muslim Israeli citizens chanted anti-American slogans and waved the black flag of Islam, which has featured in Islamic-led revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere. A spokesman for the Islamic Movement, which is closely related to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood group, delivered a speech near the heavily-guarded embassy expressing his movement's "rage about this despicable movie that has harmed the honor of our prophet." He charged that unspecified American government policies and actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were "directly responsible for inspiring people to express hatred towards Muslims and Islam." Israeli commentators noted that it was actually the Muslim protestors who were expressing pathological hatred against the United States and other countries with mainly Christian heritages, apparently not grasping the reality that the American government does not control internet content on YouTube or any other privately owned media outlet.
Both in Egypt and Iran, government officials encouraged their citizens to take to the streets to denounce the United States. While that was hardly surprising or for the first time in the case of Tehran, it was an ominous new development for Egyptian officials to back such a call. After the American State Department strongly denounced the Muslim Brotherhood action, the government reversed itself and ordered protestors to stay home. Still many young Muslim men, encouraged by their local immams, turned out daily near the American embassy, burning US flags, clashing with local police and throwing objects at the embassy wall. In Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed what he termed as "Islamophobic policies of arrogant powers and Zionists" for the outbreak of violent protests near US embassies in many Muslim countries. Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi vowed to go after the people responsible for producing the anti-Muhammad satire video, charging "The guilty person has insulted 1.5 billion Muslims in the world." Hizbullah's Sheik Nasrallah issued a similar threat to track down and kill the sponsors of the offensive video.
The morning after the attack in Bengazi, President Barack Obama read out a statement about it in the White House Rose Garden, saying "those responsible will be brought to justice." He then ordered the FBI to join the investigation into who was behind the armed assault, thought to be Al Qaida sympathizers if not actual operatives. The President also ordered that American military and security forces be rapidly beefed up in the turbulent Middle East and at US embassies around the world. After condemning the consulate attack, Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney subsequently denounced the Obama administration's initial reluctance to label it as a "terrorist" operation.
President Obama surprised many reporters that had gathered to hear him speak in the Rose Garden when he stated that Egypt is neither an ally nor an enemy of the United States. Until former president Hosni Mubarak was violently ousted from power early last year—an act that was strongly encouraged by the White House and the State Department—Egypt was considered to be America's closest Arab ally. Obama said that, "We are going to have to see how they respond to this incident, and how they respond to, for example, maintaining the peace treaty with Israel." The statement came just before Obama spoke by phone with Egyptian President Muhammad Morsy, reportedly stressing "the importance of Egypt securing US diplomatic facilities and personnel." During the conversation, termed "frank" by the White House, Obama denounced the controversial Innocence of Muslims video, saying he is opposed to "all efforts to denigrate Islam." Mitt Romney and other Republican leaders criticized Obama for spending what they saw as too much time apologizing for a privately produced errant video, which the US government and people have no legal control over under current US law.
Many Israeli Middle East commentators opined that the spreading anti-American protests are another sign that US power and influence in the Muslim world is continuing to wane under the Obama administration. They say although this trend began under previous administrations, it has seemingly accelerated under the current one. Some commentators said they had expected four years ago that relations between the United States and most Muslim nations would improve under Obama, whose father was a Muslim and who had vowed before taking the oath of office to make enhancing such ties a central plank of his presidency. Instead, the commentators say most Muslims perceive that America has grown weaker and less willing to use its power under President Obama, which they add has only encouraged the upsurge in anti-American Islamic sentiment being violently demonstrated at present around the world.
IDF ON FULL ALERT
Reports went out around the world via the internet during September that Israel was in the final stages of massive war preparations, said to be in anticipation of an imminent Israeli military strike upon Iran's nuclear facilities. However government and military spokesmen said that while Israel is indeed preparing for war, this has been the case for some time, and nothing unusual has been occurring in recent months or weeks. Well placed Israeli military sources have informed me that this was an accurate assertion, although all also realize that growing regional instability means that war could break out at virtually any time.
Some of the spreading war rumors may have been sparked by an unusual Israeli military drill held during the month. IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz put out an unexpected order to many army unit commanders to immediately rush their forces to Israel's northern border with Syria on the Golan Heights. Once they got there, live fire exercises and other drills were carried out under conditions that simulated an enemy attack upon the area. Many of the participating soldiers said they did not initially realize that it was only a drill, thinking an armed attack had indeed been launched by the Syrian Assad regime. Although the drill was quite unusual, the IDF later issued a bland statement claiming "This drill is part of a routine program of checks and surprise exercises held throughout the year." Despite this, many Israelis said the drill was another indication that the escalating internal war in Syria, which has left an estimated 20,000 people dead, may soon grow to directly involve Israel. This concern only grew after Hizbullah leader Sheik Nasrallah issued his vow to attack Israeli targets if a military operation is launched against Iran's nuclear facilities.
In another indication that Israeli officials fear a spillover from the conflict in neighboring Syria, the IDF has announced plans to reinforce the border security fence on the Golan Heights. Featuring state of the art motion sensors and surveillance cameras, the fence is expected to cost around 1.5 million US dollars to construct. Dirt roads that run along the border fence will also be expanded and upgraded, making it easier for troops to be rushed to the sight of any clandestine breach of the border fence. In earlier wars, the verdant Golan Heights was the scene of some of Israel's fiercest battles.
Israeli officials continue to prepare their soldiers and other citizens concerning the possibility that chemical weapons may be used in any pending conflict. This comes as the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, reported that security forces loyal to the Assad regime test-fired several missiles, artillery shells and other military munitions that are designed to deliver chemical weapons. The magazine added that the test firings were held in the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards who are now heavily backing Assad, their main Arab ally along with the Shiite Hizbullah group in Lebanon. The chemical weapons linked tests were reportedly carried our in August at a chemical weapons research center in the town of Safira, east of the embattled city of Aleppo. Earlier in the month, President Obama stated that even if the Assad regime begins to move such weapons around, as is reportedly already taking place, that would be a "game changer" that would spark off a major American military response. Some Free Syrian Army commanders claim that such weapons have already been deployed on several occasions against rebel fighters.
In mid September, a major drill was held in and around Israel's capital city, Jerusalem, to test the city's readiness to deal with a possible chemical weapons attack. The drill was led by the IDF's Home Front Command, working in cooperation with the Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David) medical rescue group and city police, firemen, and medical personnel from area hospitals. The test drill simulated a mass casualty attack in northern Jerusalem, focusing on how the closest hospital, Hadassah on Mount Scopus next to the main Hebrew University city campus, would cope with such an attack. The Home Front Command later issued a public statement about the mass drill, noting it is "responsible for the readiness of the community, and as a result, the preparation of hospitals. The Home Front Command is confident in its ability to prepare the Israeli medical system for a myriad of disasters."
With the prospect of another major war involving Israel apparently looming in the explosive region, the Knesset Finance Committee decided to add an additional 500 million shekels (about 130 million dollars) to the IDF budget for this year. This brings the annual military spending up to around 15 billion dollars. To help pay for the increase, the committee voted to cut 286 million shekels from several other government ministries. Analysts said the fact that the ministries agreed to the cuts is another indication that a major war is expected involving Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had earlier told the country that "The threats directed at the State of Israel are changing, and we need to be prepared for that. We need to ensure that the security Israeli citizens have enjoyed in the past three-and-a-half years continues through the changing conditions."
WAR OF WORDS
The Israeli media was full of reports during September of the seemingly growing rift between Barrack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House reacted quite negatively to the suggestion by the Israeli leader, made on several weekend television news programs aired in the Untied States, that "red lines" need to be clearly drawn in the sand concerning Iran's threatening nuclear development program. He said the country's extremist Shiite Muslim leaders need to know now exactly what would trigger a military response from the West, adding that spelling this out now might succeed in stopping the clerical regime from crossing the demarcated "red line." After stating that the Iranian government was within just six to seven months of being technically ready to construct a nuclear warhead, Netanyahu apparently directed his comments to the Obama administration, saying "You have to place that red line before them now, before it's too late." He then asked rhetorically if the United States, under attack from many Muslims around the world, "wants these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?"
The White House showed its displeasure with Netanyahu's comments in a very concrete way—by turning down his request to meet with the American President during the Israeli leader's scheduled visit to United Nations headquarters in New York for the annual fall General Assembly opening sessions. The American Fox News network was widely quoted in the Israeli press during the month for pointing out that Obama had time to appear on several entertainment television and radio programs while seemingly not having time to meet with the leader of one of America's closest allies during a time of possibly pending war. However some Israeli commentators speculated that the supposed "dispute" was merely a sham to lull Iranian leaders into a false confidence that the significant US military forces in the region will not be ordered to back Israel if it become embroiled in a fullscale war involving Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and possibly the Assad regime in Syria. After the White House was heavily criticized by many Republicans and even some Democrats for failing to schedule a meeting between the President and the Prime Minister, the two leaders held an hour long telephone discussion which was termed "conciliatory" by both of their offices.
On the ground in the Middle East, both Iran and its allies and Israel and its friends continued to prepare for a possible military showdown in the coming weeks or months. The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said his well-trained forces would close the strategic Strait of Hormuz and launch attacks upon all American military bases in the region if the IDF strikes at Iranian nuclear targets. He vowed once again to entirely destroy the world's only Jewish State, boasting that "nothing of Israel will be left, considering its small size." He also confirmed news reports that Iran is sending army commandos, various weapons and financial assistance to help the Assad regime cling to power. News reports said that Sunni Muslim elements in the Iraqi government are trying to shut down an illegal air corridor that Iran has been operating in the direction of Syria, flying over the northern third of the country.
Near the Straits of Hormuz during September, a large multi-national naval war exercise was staged, involving ships from the United States, Britain, France and 27 other nations. The joint exercise focused on mine detection in the Gulf. Military experts say Iran is ready to mine the vital waterway, where a significant amount of the world's oil supply passes out of the Gulf and then on to destinations all over the globe, at the first sign of war with either Israel or the West. Regional analysts said the large and very public naval exercise was at least partially designed to send a stern message to Iran's militant leaders that the world will not allow Iranian forces to shut down the vital ocean passageway.
Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics published a report at the start of the Jewish fall holidays revealing that Israel has the highest rate in the entire developed world for investments in research and development as a percentage of gross national product. This came as Israel's population reached 7,933,200, almost six million of them Jews. Let us pray like never before that Hitler's Holocaust slaughter of the around that number of Jews during World War Two will in no way be repeated in the Lord's land in the coming months or years. "Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me in the shadow of Your wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me" (Psalm 17:8).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.