September 2010 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
PEACE TALKS BEGIN AMID NEW ACTS OF WAR
Israel suffered its worth month of Palestinian terrorist violence and rocket attacks in nearly two years during September as the inauguration of American-sponsored direct peace negotiations apparently enflamed festering tensions in the region. Now, with the negotiations teetering on the verge of collapse in the wake of renewed Israeli construction in contested Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and in eastern Jerusalem, Israeli authorities and security services are preparing for the possibility of even more intense trouble ahead.
The worst unrest in Jerusalem in several years broke out near the walled Old City on the eve of the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration. Israeli riot forces stormed the Temple Mount after dozens of Palestinian men hurled stones and other objects at Jewish worshipers below. Buses and cars were set on fire and around 20 people were injured during the fierce clashes. The violence came exactly one week before the tenth anniversary of the start of the Al Aksa attrition war in September 2000.
The Jerusalem clashes broke out after the brutal slayings of four Israeli civilians at the beginning of the month, including a pregnant mother, as Hamas launched its expected violent campaign to scuttle the revived peace process. The attack was quickly followed by another drive by shooting the next day, which left two Israelis injured, and later in the month by a third assault which also targeted a pregnant woman.
A series of rocket and artillery attacks were launched upon Israeli cities and towns from the Gaza Strip. Powerful Iranian-supplied Grad missiles struck the strategic port city of Ashdod south of Tel Aviv, and the coastal city of Ashkelon. Miraculously no one was injured in those assaults. For the first time ever, some of the Palestinian mortar shells fired at other Israeli civilian targets contained deadly phosphorous agents.
The Hamas terrorist blitz did not stop Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from attending the ceremonial opening round of direct peace negotiations in Washington sponsored by the Obama administration, despite many calls inside Israel for him to immediately return home. The first substantive discussions between the Premier and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas followed two weeks later in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of El Arish-the same day the phosphorous shells were deployed.
Netanyahu was able to deflect some of the growing right-wing criticism against him by declaring that he would not alter plans to lift the ten month building moratorium in Judea and Samaria on September 26. However the move, backed by his cabinet, was strongly condemned by the PA which had been threatening all month to bolt the renewed negotiations if the decision was not overturned. American and EU leaders urged the Israeli government to keep the controversial freeze in place as well.
Tensions remained high in Lebanon where reports circulated that the Iranian-founded and funded Hizbullah militia may be planning to stage an imminent military coup to oust Maronite Christians and others from the government. This came soon after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a lightening visit to Syria to shore up his alliance with the subservient Arab state after a senior US diplomat visited Damascus. Days later, reports surfaced that Russia is planning a major weapons sale to Syria, including powerful anti-ship missiles. The radical Iranian leader's Syria visit came just a couple weeks before he is scheduled to head to Lebanon in a clear effort to bolster his country's puppet militia force operating there. Meanwhile a senior Israeli diplomat hinted in public that the Netanyahu government may have already decided to attack Iran's menacing nuclear program.
JEWISH BUILDING RESUMES
The ten month moratorium on all Jewish building in Judea and Samaria has expired, allowing some 2,000 construction projects, which received government permits to build before the freeze began last November, to move forward. However analysts said many of the projects will not be reactivated at this time, since bank loans are hard to acquire due to fears that the building halt will be renewed in the not too distant future.
Although Mahmoud Abbas had threatened to immediately bolt US sponsored peace talks if the ban was lifted, he decided to wait until the Arab League meets in early October to get the verdict of his fellow Arab leaders. PM Netanyahu called on him to stay at the negotiating table: "I hope President Abbas will remain in the talks and continue with me on the path of peace, on which we set out two weeks ago; with many across the world now convinced that my intention to secure peace is serious and honest and that I honor my obligations."
Political analysts said Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers decided to make the building issue the litmus test of PA intentions at this early stage in the renewed peace process. If the PA is serious about a final peace deal, it will have to allow the three large Jewish settlement blocks near Israel's pre-1967 borders to remain in place. It will also have to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state, in other words, to drop demands that millions of Palestinians have a "right of return" to pre-1948 family homes inside of Israel. Israel in turn will have to dismantle dozens of more isolated Jewish communities and swap land with the PA in other locations. Believing that Abbas and his PLO Fatah party-with Hamas breathing down their necks-are unlikely to yield on these issues, Netanyahu choose to keep his coalition intact by lifting the building ban instead of bending to world demands to keep the moratorium in place at this time.
WORST JERUSALEM RIOTS IN SEVERAL YEARS
Sounds of border police stun grenade fire and ambulance sirens reverberated for many hours throughout the center of Jerusalem on September 22 as Israeli Jews put the finishing touches on their outdoor Succot booths which are central to the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration. To many local residents, it was a carbon copy of the days when the Palestinian uprising attrition war raged in the city from late 2000 until 2004.
The ferocious clashes erupted in the troubled Silwan neighborhood near the Temple Mount. Although founded by Yemenite Jews in the early 1900s, Silwan has mostly been populated by Arabs since Islamic mobs violently chased the Jewish residents out during the 1929 riots, which left dozens of Jews dead all over the land. However in recent years, Silwan, with around 50,000 residents, also contains a growing Jewish enclave because it is adjacent to the ancient City of David, which is revered by many religious Jews.
At least ten Israelis, five of them policemen, were wounded during the prolonged clashes, which quickly spread to other Arab neighborhoods. Around fifteen Palestinians were also injured, most of them active rioters. One Israeli man was stabbed in the back during the unrest. Several police and private cars were torched or smashed, along with a number of city buses. Thick smoke covered the Temple Mount complex and the nearby Mount of Olives for much of the day. Dozens of Palestinians hurled stones and metal objects upon thousands of Jewish worshipers gathered for pre-Feast of Tabernacles prayers at the Western Wall. Israeli riot police then rushed to the contested holy site, clashing with Palestinian stone throwers while pushing them back from above the hallowed Western Wall.
The intense violence began when an armed Israeli security guard, who works at the City of David Jewish enclave, stopped at an intersection in Silwan as he was driving to a private Jewish home before dawn. He was quickly surrounded by a group of local Palestinians men wielding rocks, including 32 year old Sami Sirhan, a known activist who has been involved in a series of clashes with Jews in the area. Police reports said the incident appeared to be a deliberately staged ambush. The guard told police investigators he pulled out his gun and attempted to escape the area, shooting first in the air and then at Sirhan after the men surrounding his car refused to move back. Sirhan was instantly killed. His subsequent funeral later in the day sparked off the worst rioting in the city since the Al Aksa uprising ended in 2004. Some media reports said he was a member of the large Sirhan family clan which spawned Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian who assassinated US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968.
Israeli police and paramilitary forces were quickly reinforced in the city. Officials pledged to do everything possible to keep the incident localized, and to prevent another full blown Palestinian attrition war from breaking out. However sporadic clashes have been continuing in the city every day since, with occasional gunfire cutting through the air. A Jewish apartment was firebombed in the mixed Abu Tor neighborhood on September 26. While PA leaders publicly urged calm, some Israeli critics charged their purported attempts to maintain the peace were thin at best. Hamas and its allies continued to urge Palestinians to use "all means possible to resist Zionist occupation of Palestinian land."
FLOOD OF FIRE
Weeks before the Jerusalem riots, the Hamas terrorist group had already launched its program, dubbed Flood of Fire, to oppose renewed Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations by means of violent unprovoked attacks upon Israeli civilians. Two days before the elaborate early August White House ceremony took place that formally inaugurated the US-mediated talks, four Israeli civilians were brutally slaughtered in a Hamas ambush near Judaism's second holiest city on earth, Hebron. The following evening, Hamas terrorists attempted to kill two more Israeli male civilians who were driving northeast of Ramallah. Although the men survived the attack, one was seriously wounded. On September 26, a young Jewish couple was shot and seriously wounded in the same area as the first attack near Hebron, but this time both victims survived. As before, the wife was nine months pregnant, but thankfully this time the baby was born alive, delivered by caesarian section
Many Israeli news reports pointed out that the number of Jewish victims in the initial assault should have read five, since a 40 year old mother of six who was due to deliver her seventh child this month was among the dead. Her husband, driving their family car, was also slain, leaving their six other children instantly orphaned. Two younger passengers in the back seat, a man and a woman, were also killed. They were acquaintances of the car owner who was simply giving them rides to their homes in the Jewish community of Beit Haggai after picking them up at a hitchhiking outpost.
The sheer brutality of the armed assault was demonstrated by the fact that after shooting their victims from a passing car, the Muslim terrorists jumped out and pummeled their bodies with bullets at point blank range to make sure they were all dead, at which time they would have realized that one of the women was clearly pregnant with child. This did not stop them from riddling her swollen belly with bullets.
KILL ALL THE JEWS
The Hamas group took full responsibility for the atrocious attack, the worst terrorist incident in several years. A Hamas statement hailed the murderous assault as a "heroic operation" that would be repeated many times in the future. The statement claimed it was not just timed to coincide with the Washington 'peace summit,' but was "a continuation of the jihad and resistance project against the Zionist enemy until the liberation of the land."
Although PA leader Abbas echoed President Barrack Obama in denouncing both attacks during his Washington summit comments, he used the very same language as the Hamas statement, calling them "operations." And Abbas mainly decried the violent assaults because they might affect the renewed peace process, not because they had taken innocent Jewish lives, including an unborn baby. PA security forces did at least arrest some leading Hamas activists in the Hebron area, a move denounced by the radical Islamic group which put out a threatening statement saying, "The hands that have reached the heart of the occupier can reach you too."
Israeli army officials indicated that the three terror attacks may have been ordered by Iran and/or Syria, who actively support the radical Muslim group with money and arms. They said army intelligence had detected increased text communications prior to the attacks, without specifying what that entailed.
Palestinian rockets and mortar shells were fired on many days during September at various Israeli targets around the Gaza Strip, mostly civilian centers. Grad missiles landed on several occasions either inside or on the outskirts of the large city of Ashkelon, just a few miles north of the Hamas-ruled coastal zone. Others struck near the port of Ashdod, which is halfway between Gaza and metropolitan Tel Aviv. One shell exploded between two kindergartens in an Israeli kibbutz community thirty minutes prior to the scheduled arrival of youngsters for their daily activities.
The discovery of phosphorous inside some of the mortar shells was particularly worrisome since it can badly burn skin and lead to permanent nerve damage. Hamas accused Israel of dropping phosphorous bombs on Palestinian civilian zones during the Cast Iron war nearly two years ago. The IDF countered that traces of the element found on the ground came from flares exploded high above in the air, designed to light up the night sky during ground combat engagements.
A popular new film produced in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip vividly illustrates the Hamas vow to wage jihad until Israel is totally destroyed. Titled, The Great Liberation, it shows Palestinians blowing up central Israeli government and economic institutions, including the Bank of Israel in Jerusalem and the nearby Supreme Court building. The movie later pictures jubuliant Palestinian forces 'liberating' Tel Aviv from Israeli Zionist rule. Palestinian national flags are shown flying over the city's buildings as Arabs drive through the streets celebrating their 'triumph.'
IDF GETS READY
On the tenth anniversary of the start of one of Israel's worst ever conflicts-the Palestinian Al Aksa attrition war, which took over 1,100 Israeli lives, mostly civilians, and over 5,000 Palestinians, a majority of them armed fighters-IDF commanders were busy preparing for the possibility of a major new wave of violence if American mediated peace negotiations break down once again, as many expect. However unlike during that four year conflict, Israeli security officials warn that a renewed wave of Palestinian violence today could be quickly supported with active military intervention by Syria and Hizbullah, along with Hamas militia forces that now fully control the Gaza Strip. In other words, a full blown conflict may result on a scale not seen since the1973 Yom Kippur war.
Such a conflict could also be sparked by an IDF strike on Iranian nuclear targets or a successful Hizbullah or Hamas assassination of a senior Israeli political or military official. Hizbullah leaders threatened again during September to revenge the car bomb killing of a top Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyehin in Damascus in February 2008 by carrying out assassinations of Jewish officials, even though Israel has strongly denied any responsibility for his death.
In continuing preparations for a potential major conflict, full-scale brigade level military exercises involving live fire are now being held on a regular basis. Military forces have been reinforced on the Golan Heights and along the Lebanese border, and sea patrols have been stepped up off the coasts of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile a Kuwaiti newspaper says Syrian army leaders have signed a formal "defense alliance pact" with the Hizbullah militia. The paper, Al-Rai, reported that in the event of war, Syrian and Hizbullah missile launchers will "split a bank of targets" inside of Israel while Syrian radar outposts pass on intelligence pinpointing the exact locations of airborne Israeli Air Force jets and helicopter gunships. The report came soon after a large house filled with Hizbullah rockets blew up in south Lebanon. According to the 2006 UN ceasefire resolution, the Iranian and Syrian backed militia is not supposed to be operating in the area.
Meanwhile Israeli officials have decided not to publicly oppose the largest ever American weapons sale in the region, worth close to 60 billion dollars, even though it could potentially threaten Israel. The sale, to oil rich Saudi Arabia, will include around 70 F-15 warplanes and over 140 Apache and Black Hawk helicopters.
With regional war possibly looming, Israel's new incoming armed forces chief of staff, Major General Yoav Galant, was busy during September putting together his new military team. His vacated position as head of the Southern Command, in charge of all operations involving the Gaza Strip, will be taken over next February by Major General Tal Russo, who previously served on the general staff. In a surprise move, the new head of Military Intelligence-a crucial position given that he is responsible for giving regular strategic assessments to senior government officials-is not someone serving on the general staff, as is usually the case. The new head is Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, a widely respected officer that previously served as Russo's deputy.
'STAND WITH US AGAINST IRAN'
US President Obama publicly admitted in late September that an American military strike against Iran's threatening nuclear program may become unavoidable. Speaking during a televised town hall meeting, he first stated that "We don't think a war between Israel and Iran or other military options would be the ideal way to solve the problem"-a statement Israeli leaders agree with, although they would be quick to add there may be no other realistic choice if Iran is to be kept from developing deadly nuclear warheads. However the President then added that his administration is "keeping all our options on the table," which is not something he was saying soon after coming into office when he expressed confidence that diplomacy alone would suffice to deflect the radical Shiite regime from developing nuclear weapons.
The same day that Obama spoke, visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Fox News Network that Iran may be capable of producing nuclear warheads within two years. The statement squared with others issued recently by the UN Atomic Energy Agency and French government officials. Barak added that "We have to start to consider what follows if sanctions won't work." In reality, most security experts believe that the Israeli government is far beyond just 'starting to consider' its options.
The clearest hint that Israel may be closer than many experts think to selecting a "military option" against Iran came from Israel's Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, said to have a close working relationship with Netanyahu. He stated quite clearly that Israeli leaders believe Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and called upon American Jews to support them in whatever actions they may deem necessary to counter this portentous reality. The diplomat's comments were widely reported in Israel.
Speaking before a Jewish audience at a Yom Kippur synagogue service in the American capital city, Oren said Israeli leaders are more concerned with the Iranian threat than with Hamas activities in the Gaza Strip and the current peace process with the Palestinians. "More than Gaza, more than peace, the ultimate quandary of statecraft centers on Iran. This is the radical, genocidal Iran whose leaders regularly call for Israel's annihilation and provides terrorists with the means for accomplishing that goal. This is the Iran that undermines governments throughout the Middle East and even South America, and an Iran that shoots its own people protesting for freedom. Iran does all this without nuclear weapons: Imagine what it would do with the nuclear arms it is assiduously developing." He ended his address by calling for American Jewish support as Israeli leaders grapple with difficult issues, especially Iran: "Stand with us as we resist Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons."
As the all too familiar dance carries on featuring words of 'peace' swirling around acts of terror and threats of regional war, it is comforting to recall the Word of the Lord delivered through the great Hebrew prophet Isaiah many centuries ago: "Your sun will set no more, neither will your moon wane. For you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and the days of your mourning will be finished."(Isaiah 60:20)
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.