November 2008 Israel News Review
November 2008 Israel News Review
Jerusalem - 11/23/2008
ISRAEL-HAMAS TRUCE TEETERS ON COLLAPSE
by David Dolan
The Egyptian-mediated ceasefire between Israel and the radical Hamas movement came close to collapse during November as a torrent of Palestinian rockets once again came crashing down on Israeli civilian centers near the Gaza Strip. The city of Ashkelon was struck several times, along with many other locations, prompting the Israeli government to seal off the small coastal zone. Meanwhile a respected Middle East Arab leader warned that an allegedly pending major Israeli military operation into the crowded Gaza Strip could spark serious instability in the troubled region.
As always in recent years, Israeli officials also kept a wary eye on Iran as the New York Times reported that the country was now technically able to produce a nuclear weapon. This came as United Nations officials announced that trace amount of radiation were discovered at the site of a Syrian complex bombed by Israeli air force jets in September last year.
In the north, military tensions remained high between Israeli army forces and the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah militia amid more warlike words from the extremist group's clerical leaders. Hundreds of Hizbullah forces reportedly staged provocative military exercises near the border with Israel in late November in violation of the UN ceasefire resolution which ended the group's 2006 conflict with Israel.
In the wake of the fresh Palestinian rocket attacks and threats of the same from Iran, Syria and Hizbullah-but on a far more dangerous scale-Israel's political scene was alive with activity as the campaign began for a new national parliamentary vote, scheduled for February 10, 2009. Opinion surveys continued to predict that the conservative Likud party will emerge victorious in the contest, along with its traditional right wing and religious allies.
ROCKETS RETURN TO SOUTHERN ISRAEL
The six month truce that was enacted last June 19 between Israel and Hamas prematurely ran out of steam during November as dozens of Palestinian rockets rained down on Israeli communities. Over 150 rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israeli cities and towns near the Gaza Strip over a two week period. This came as Israeli military forces launched several limited counterstrikes in an effort to halt the fresh barrage. At least 17 Hamas fighters were killed in the action, while no Israeli casualties were reported.
The latest round of Palestinian assaults began after IDF forces went into action early in the month when a tunnel was discovered that officials believed was designed to facilitate the imminent kidnapping of Israeli soldiers stationed near the border fence. It was just such an abduction in June 2006-of soldier Gilad Shalit-which set off months of severe clashes between IDF military personnel and Palestinian militia fighters. Army sources said the uncovered tunnel was destroyed while in the final stages of being clandestinely constructed by Hamas workers.
Palestinian rocket attacks began within hours of the November 4 Israeli action, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad spokesmen claiming that Israel had violated the half year military time out, giving them legitimate grounds to respond. However Israeli officials pointed out that they had always maintained the right to counter any serious violations of the six month ceasefire, negotiated indirectly by Egyptian officials. Although the truce had been set to expire in December anyway, Israeli leaders had quietly hoped that it could be extended, at least until after the country holds fresh parliamentary elections next February. The prospects for that taking place now seem more remote.
READY FOR WAR?
Hamas issued a bombastic statement on November 18 claiming that the group, with an estimated 20,000 trained fighters, is "fully prepared for a confrontation with the Zionist enemy." It averred that armed Islamic militiamen would "turn the ceasefire tables on the heads of the Zionists" if the IDF undertakes a major ground operation in the Gaza Strip. The statement also warned that any full IDF resumption of pre-ceasefire targeted killings of Hamas terror squads, as openly advocated by some Israeli military officers, would be met with "fierce retaliation" by Hamas forces.
Despite the warlike statements, former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is the most senior Hamas political leader residing in the Gaza Strip, claimed several days later that the group is interested in maintaining its ceasefire with Israel, at least for now. Speaking during a Friday Muslim prayer service in Gaza City, he claimed to have "met with our armed factions over the past two days, and they stated their position clearly, that they are committed to calm as long as the Zionists abide by it."
However just hours before Haniyeh spoke, mortar shells were fired at an Israeli army patrol near the sealed Kissufim border crossing-thankfully causing no casualties. And within minutes of the end of his public speech, yet another Palestinian Kassam rocket came crashing down, this time striking inside an industrial zone located on the southern outskirts of Ashkelon. Hamas leaders insisted it was fired by a small terrorist group not under Hamas control. But an Israeli government spokesman pointed out that Hamas has made itself responsible for all attacks originating in the territory after seizing the entire Gaza Strip from PA security forces during a violent coup in June 2007.
The latest round of Palestinian rocket attacks sparked protests from many Israeli opposition politicians who maintained that the caretaker Olmert government was doing precious little to halt the barrage. Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu-widely expected to take over the premier's chair early next year-was critical of both Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who he said were not taking strong enough action to halt the attacks. The Israeli public seemed to agree, with both Barak's Labor party and Olmert's Kadima slipping further behind the Likud party in all election opinion polls.
A public rally was held at the main road entrance into the city of Ashkelon on November 20 to protest what many citizens said was a relatively weak government response to the renewed assaults upon their large coastal city. Speakers noted that the longer range Grad rockets striking the popular resort city were supplied by Iran, the main regional political and military backer of Hamas. Some held signs featuring pictures of a local shopping mall that was struck by such a rocket last spring, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
Several protestors said Olmert and Barak seemed most concerned with not doing anything to further weaken Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is under scathing criticism and threats of violence from Hamas and its radical allies for holding peace talks this year with Israel, under American tutelage. Indeed Abbas repeatedly called upon Israeli leaders to "show restraint" in the face of the renewed rocket blitz, while pressing for the adoption of the 2002 Saudi peace plan as the basis for continuing negotiations.
The near collapse of the six month ceasefire prompted Jordan's King Abdullah to urgently invite acting Prime Minister Olmert and Barak for unannounced consultations in Amman on November 18. Officials later confirmed that the unusual clandestine summit took place at the royal palace in Amman. It came after Jordanian officials allegedly learned that Israeli leaders were planning a large scale military operation before the Israeli elections, designed to entirely weed out Hamas militiamen from the Gaza Strip.
Israeli media reports said the worried Hashemite Monarch told the two Jewish leaders that any large IDF military operation designed to overturn Hamas rule could result in massive unrest in his own country and surrounding areas. Olmert and Barak reportedly assured King Abdullah that only relatively limited military measures are being considered at this time, understanding that the moderate Jordanian leader was hinting that his own rule could be threatened by a full frontal assault upon the Iranian and Syrian-backed Islamic movement.
However Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni-with her eyes apparently firmly fixed on the upcoming national elections that she hopes to win-stated several days later that while Israel would "respect the needs and wishes" of its Arab peace partners," it would also continue "to act according to the interests of Israel's citizens."
King Abdullah is also understood to have relayed to Olmert and Barak a message from Hamas officials in which they supposedly emphasized their firm desire to maintain the timeout truce with Israel. Media reports said Jordanian security officials had been holding ongoing discussions with Hamas representatives in an attempt to prevent the complete collapse of the June 19 ceasefire.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
In response to the major Hamas truce violations, the Defense Minister entirely sealed off border crossings from Israel into the Gaza Strip, as happened in the rocket-filled months leading up to the June 17 ceasefire accord. However some food and fuel supplies were allowed in for humanitarian reasons, as also occurred earlier this year. Although Barak admitted after two weeks that the blockade had only "minimal effect" in halting the rocket onslaught, he added that it would be maintained for the time being since "we cannot allow the Palestinians to fire rockets upon our cities without a response."
As before, Hamas leaders blasted the Israel border crossing closures, staging rallies against them while claiming they were causing great hardship approaching starvation to many residents of the Gaza Strip. They averred that widespread electricity blackouts were made necessary by Israeli fuel curtailments, a contention that Israel denied.
Officials said the militant Muslim group was simply trying to steal world sympathy while imposing additional hardships on its own uninvolved people. And they noted that once again, Israeli civilian communities were being deliberately targeted by rocket squads, while the IDF was trying its best to limit military responses to active Islamic fighters.
An army assessment presented to Barak on November 19 stated that Hamas leaders remain in full control of the Gaza Strip despite the closures and IDF military action. The report added that Hamas is able to supply almost all of the food and medical supplies local residents need via the dozens of hidden tunnels that operate illegally under Gaza's southern border with Egypt.
However this assessment did not stop United Nations officials from maintaining that a "humanitarian catastrophe" was in the making due to Israel's closure policy. The November 20 statement was made by Karen Abu Zayd, who heads the UN's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which provides food and medical rations to some 820,000 Palestinians classified by the UN as "refugees" in the Gaza Strip, even though most were born there.
The UN official claimed the Israeli blockade was "the gravest since the early days of the Palestinian uprising" eight years ago, adding that the border crossings "have been closed for so much longer than ever before." Speaking at UNRWA's Amman headquarters, she insisted that the relief agency had "nothing in our Gaza warehouses." However, Abu Zayd did not note that a large convoy of trucks had been allowed into the sealed off zone just a few days before she spoke carrying vital food and medical supplies to needy Palestinians.
In a new twist to an old story, the Israeli Defense Minister ordered all foreign journalists to be kept out of the Gaza Strip as long as the rocket attacks continue and the area is sealed off. The Jerusalem-based Foreign Press Association issued a stern protest statement on Nov 18 saying the action was "preventing the world media from being able to accurately report on events inside Gaza at this critical time."
The statement was featured the next day in a New York Times article, prompting the Israeli Foreign Ministry to call upon Barak to lift the ban. But an official inside his office noted that Israel is "only obligated to open the crossings for humanitarian reasons, and journalists entering Gaza does not meet that criteria."
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU
Opinion surveys published in various Israeli newspapers during November all forecast that former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is very likely to return to power early next year. Most polls projected that the Likud party he heads would receive around 27 Knesset seats in the upcoming February 10 election, more than doubling its current 12 seat total.
Still around the same number of seats will be captured by the currently ruling Kadima party, according to all the polls. However that would not necessarily mean that Kadima would remain in power. In fact, the polls show the opposite.
By the end of the month, Netanyahu's party was pulling slightly ahead of Kadima, led since mid September by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. But that was not the decisive factor in projecting the Likud's ultimate triumph.
All the polls show that several right wing and religious parties traditionally associated with the Likud will together capture at least 64 seats in the upcoming vote-to only 56 for Kadima and its leftwing allies. Therefore even if Livni's centrist party were to end up with one or two more seats than the Likud, a majority of Knesset members will probably tell President Shimon Peres that they prefer Netanyahu as the next premier, meaning that the Kadima party-affiliated ceremonial head of state would be forced to give Netanyahu-who defeated him in the 1996 national election-the first crack at forming a coalition government.
Another major factor adds credence to the growing evidence that the Likud leader, who served as prime minister from mid 1996 until mid-1999, will once again sit in the premier's chair. Polls show that at least 10 of the seats projected to go to the left will be won by several Arab political parties that are highly unlikely to actually be asked to join a Kadima-led government. Therefore such a government would be impossible to form unless at least one of the rightwing or religious parties backed it-which is also highly unlikely if Netanyahu's Likud captures at least 25 seats, as expected
Analysts say that Netanyahu's growing fortunes have been substantially aided by his ability during the month to recruit several former Likud party lights to his Knesset party list. The most prominent was former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, who along with Netanyahu was dubbed in the 1980's as a "prince" of the Likud party, then headed by the late Menachem Begin. Another recruit during November was actually Begin's son, Benny, who was also considered a "prince" in those days. He had completely left the political world in 1999, several years after his father's passing, to return to his earlier career as a scientist. Another prominent name added to Netanyahu's list was former Armed Forces Chief Moshe Ya'alon, who was dismissed by Ariel Sharon in 2005 after publicly objecting to the pending Gaza Strip pullout.
Most shocking in November's opinion polls was the projection that the once mighty Labor party, headed by Barak, is likely to win less seats than four other parties-Likud, Kadima, the Orthodox Shas party, and the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu party headed by Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman. Some analysts said such a result would effectively spell the end of the party that dominated the political scene during Israel's first three decades.
The New York Times reported on November 20 that Iran has now succeeded in producing "approximately enough" nuclear weapons grade material to assemble its first nuclear bomb. The article quoted several experts who had carefully analyzed the data contained in the latest report on Iran issued by the UN's Atomic Energy Agency. A senior UN official was quoted expressing frustration over Iran's continuing attempts to prevent the international body from adequately monitoring the rogue nation's nuclear program.
The chilling report said Iran's radical Shiite regime has produced at least 630 kilograms of low enriched uranium, which is suitable for nuclear fuel. That amount is "enough to produce a single nuclear warhead," according to the experts cited in the article, giving it around the destructive blast power of the American atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki Japan in August 1945.
However the experts opined that Iranian scientists and engineers would still need "more technological know how" in order to successfully purify the fuel to the point that it could actually be used in such a warhead-a contention that gave little comfort to Israeli officials who believe Iran's goal is to threaten to wipe out millions of Israeli citizens with just such a powerful bomb in the not too distant future. Meanwhile Israel's air force chief said during November that his highly trained pilots are "ready to deal with the Iranian threat" if ordered to do so.
The UN nuclear monitoring agency also reported in November that there was substantial evidence that Syria had been secretly building a nuclear facility that was destroyed by Israeli jets-aided by the United States-in September 2007. The report said the bombed complex "bore multiple features resembling those of a nuclear reactor," adding that UN inspectors had found "a significant number of uranium traces" at the site.
The report added that Syria had failed to cooperate with UN attempts to gather more information at the destroyed complex. American diplomat Gregory Schulte, who is assigned to the UN monitoring group, said the report "reinforces the assessment of my government that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor in its eastern desert and thereby violating its IAEA safeguard obligations."
As thousands of Israeli citizens came under renewed Palestinian rocket fire during the month, while everyone warily anticipated the possibility of far more powerful missile strikes from Lebanon, Syria and Iran in the future, it is surely a good time to humbly petition Israel's God for His continuing mercy and protection: "For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit. Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place" (Psalm 28:1-2).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.