Below is my monthly Israel news review, which this month also takes a look at the ongoing brutal war in Syria and important developments in Egypt and Iran. American Secretary of State John Kerry is once again back in Jerusalem, coming just as another batch of Palestinian prisoners was released overnight…details are below.I will be sharing at Jonathan Cahn’s congregation just outside of New York City on Friday evening, January 17, and on Sunday morning, January 19. Please come along if you are in the metro area, and have a blessed and fruitful 2014, whatever it might bring to the roiling Middle East and the world.
|TERROR ATTACKS ESCALATE IN ISRAEL By David DolanAs Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued discussions that the United States government hopes will lead to a final peace accord during the first half of next year, a bomb was placed on a public bus just three days before Christmas in the city of Bat Yam, due south of Tel Aviv. Thankfully the device was discovered in time to evacuate the passengers, or a massacre could have occurred. Both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist groups issued statements hailing the attempted atrocity although neither claimed actual responsibility for the thwarted attack. The following day, an Israeli policeman was stabbed in the back near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, with the six inch knife nearly piercing his heart. Later that same day, Israeli soldiers caught a Palestinian man planting bombs near the Israeli border fence with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The upsurge of violent assaults during 2013, especially in recent months, was noted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who revealed that 150 attempted terror attacks had been successfully prevented by Israeli security forces.
The Israeli air force was quickly ordered into action after an Israeli-Arab laborer was shot and killed as he was working with others to fix a section of the border fence that straddles the Gaza Strip. Some ten sorties were carried out in the space of a few hours the day before Christmas. The Prime Minister issued a statement warning that the IDF will be ordered into action whenever such deadly terror attacks take place, adding that Israel will not allow “a trickle” of terrorist assaults to mare daily life in the country.
Earlier in the month, an Israeli soldier was shot by unknown gunmen near the northern border with Lebanon. Some media reports said Lebanese army forces had been involved in the incident, claiming the soldier had crossed into sovereign Lebanese territory along the border. This came as newspaper reports published in the Arab country of Kuwait revealed that the extremist regime ruling Iran is stepping up its arms smuggling to its surrogate Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia, using the violence-plagued country of Iraq as its main conduit. Earlier Iranian leaders were using airports in Syria as their main smuggling route until Israeli air force jets began to bomb the weapons convoys as they neared the Lebanese border. The weapons are reportedly being loaded onto commercial planes in Baghdad with the connivance of the Shiite dominated Iraqi government, with the jets heading straight to Beirut where Hizbullah workers are allowed to unload them.
This news came as the Iranian Foreign Minister gave a speech claiming that the world now formally recognizes Iran’s “right” to continue on with its nuclear development program, which many experts believe is ultimately aimed at producing atomic bombs. He noted that Iran could resume its 20 per cent uranium enrichment in just a matter of hours. It was supposed to be halted as part of the six month interim accord between Iran and six world powers signed in late November. He also boasted that the economic sanctions enacted against the rogue Iranian regime over the past decade by the international community are “falling apart.”
As Vladimir Putin’s Russian government stepped up its diplomatic and economic relations with Egypt, the Soviet Union’s former main Arab ally, a powerful bomb blast took at least 14 lives in the struggling North African country. The deadly attack north of Cairo prompted the new military government to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood movement that had triumphed in presidential and parliamentary elections held only two years ago.
As Egypt is actively looking elsewhere for big power support after President Obama cut some economic aid to the country, so apparently is Israel, with ties growing with China. This was evidenced by the official state visit during the month by Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, the highest Chinese government leader to ever visit the Jewish state. Meanwhile Israeli officials announced that Israeli commercial flights to the once popular tourist destination of Turkey will soon be resumed for the first time in five years, a clear sign of improving ties with the Islamic government based in Ankara.
Heavy fighting continued in Syria even as the worst winter storm in many years engulfed the region in mid-December. With thick snow blanketing Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the mountains of Israel, well over a million Syrian war refugees struggled to survive in basic tents provided by the United Nations. Jerusalem was paralyzed for several days as officials struggled to clear the streets and to restore electricity supplies to many customers. Many Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese homes were flooded along the Mediterranean coast. Still the heavy precipitation was welcomed by Israeli water officials who noted it will help restore Israel’s two seriously depleted underground water reservoirs, which were over pumped during several drought years over the past two decades.
PEACE DEAL BY MAY?
The United States chief diplomat, former Senator John Kerry, returned to the Middle East in December to promote his nearly yearlong effort to shepherd a final peace accord between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. While in Jerusalem, he revealed that the Obama administration is hoping to broker a final agreement by next April or May at the latest. However both Israeli and Palestinian leaders said the goal was unachievable. Saeb Erekat, the chief PA negotiator, said the two sides might reach an initial framework agreement by then, but not a final accord. “Once you reach the framework agreement, you need six to twelve months to reach a comprehensive treaty on all core issues,” he told reporters in Ramallah. Israeli politicians who back the peace process saw some sign of hope in the statement since the PA had earlier vowed to walk away from the talks if they lasted more than nine months, which would be the case if they continue until next April.
While peace talks continued between Erekat and his associates, and an Israeli team led by senior negotiator Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, further Palestinian terror attacks were launched in several places, including the attempted bus bombing near Tel Aviv and several shooting incidents noted at the beginning of this month’s report. Although none of the attacks were directly linked to the Palestinian Authority, Israeli officials continued to complain of anti-Israel rhetoric coming from senior PA leaders, and especially anti-Jewish comments on PA linked television and radio stations.
In the latest example of such negative rhetoric, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a Christmas message on December 24, calling Jesus “a Palestinian messenger.” Palestinian leaders often maintain that Jesus was not actually Jewish, which is considered absurd by biblical scholars. He added that, “As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later, we do our best to follow his example. Our hearts and prayers will be with the millions who are being denied their right to worship in their homeland. We are thinking of our people in Gaza, trapped under siege, and of those who are prevented from worshiping in Bethlehem. Our prayers are with the churches and mosques of Jerusalem which remind the world of the Arab identity of our occupied capital.” The fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem when it was a Jewish city, had Jewish parents, and ministered in the mainly Jewish city of Jerusalem—and that Christianity was a mostly a Jewish movement in its early decades—was obviously not noted by Abbas. Nor was the fact that the Palestinians have never had a capital city in Jerusalem. Abbas also failed to note that the Hamas group, which rules the supposedly “besieged” Gaza Strip, has lunched frequent unprovoked rocket and other attacks against Israel ever since Israeli soldiers and settlers evacuated the coastal area in 2005, which is the obvious cause of the partial blockade that he referred to.
Meanwhile Hamas leaders stepped up their calls for the peace talks to be immediately suspended in favor of another violent Palestinian “uprising” against Israel. However Palestinian opinion surveys continue to show a majority of respondents do not want to see a return to the widespread violence, death and upheaval of the two previous revolts. Analysts note that Palestinian television viewers are often reminded of how difficult life can be under daily warfare as they watch jarring footage of the brutal power struggle going on in neighboring Syria, basically pitting two branches of Islam against each other.
The recent upsurge in anti-Jewish attacks by Arab terrorist groups will seemingly not disrupt Israeli government plans to free another 26 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The latest release is part of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment last July to John Kerry that Israel would set free 104 Arab prisoners as a “good will gesture” to help jumpstart the peace talks the Secretary of State was then trying hard to get off the ground. However all Israeli opinion surveys show a large majority of Israelis are not happy with the ongoing release, especially since many of the prisoners were involved in deadly terror attacks aimed at Israeli Jews. One of the prisoners, Yusuf Abdul-Jawwad, had been scheduled to be released earlier in 2013, but the Obama administration objected at the time since he had been convicted of killing a Jewish man who held duo American and Israeli citizenship. This only increased calls by many rightwing Israeli politicians for a halt to the release program, with one saying the United States was showing some concern for American victims of terror but not much for exclusively Israeli victims.
FIGHTING RAGES IN SYRIA
The largest Syrian city and main commercial capital, Aleppo, was the target of sustained Syrian air force bombardment during the month, with around 350 people reportedly killed in just eight days. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that some 87 of the victims were children and another 30 women. The group condemned the latest Syrian regime tactic of dropping barrels filled with highly explosive TNT into heavily populated areas, indiscriminately killing and maiming people in the area. Sunni Muslim commanders fighting to topple the Russian-backed Assad regime again asked the United States and its Western allies to impose a no-fly zone over Syrian territory in an effort to halt the almost daily bombardments. Rebel groups are threatening to boycott a peace conference scheduled to be held in Geneva early next year if the air bombings continue. The United Nations says at least 126,000 Syrians have been killed in the war which broke out in March, 2011. However some human rights groups say the actual number is much closer to 200,000, making it one of the deadliest wars around the world for several decades.
The US government was joined by the UK and other Western powers in strongly denouncing the Syrian regime’s bombardment blitz, especially the fact that it was almost all civilian neighborhoods that were being pummeled. In response, a government-controlled Syrian media outlets likened the Americans to “a pirate that only looks with one eye at the conflict,” meaning Washington largely ignores infractions committed by Sunni Muslim rebel forces while pointing a constant finger of blame at the embattled Assad regime. However Israeli Middle East experts noted that on one side of the conflict is a sitting government that is using its own air force jets and other deadly weapons to kill thousands of its own people, while rebel forces are mostly using their far more limited weapons to mainly target government and military sites.
Five universities based in and around London have issued a joint report that reveals at least 3,300 foreign fighters are now participating in the internal Syrian warfare that has caused several million Syrians to flee the country. The report added the actual total could be over 11,000. The mostly Sunni Muslim fighters have come from some 70 countries says the report, mostly Mideast Arab ones like Libya and Iraq. However others have come from North America and Europe, and also from Pakistan and other Asian countries. The report also confirmed media accounts that an unknown number of Shiite fighters from Iran and Lebanon are also participating in the battles, but on the Assad regime’s side. Some media outlets say at least 3,000 Lebanese Hizbullah militiamen have been active in Syria since 2012.
Meanwhile the United Nations announced that it will attempt to raise some one billion dollars from donor countries to aid struggling Syrian students. UN officials say the education system in the Arab country has been shattered by the nearly three year old conflict. Saying the Syrian education system has suffered what was termed “a staggering decline” during that time, the UN added that of the nearly five million Syrian children who are currently of school age, only around four million are still in the country. The rest have fled with their families to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The UN reports that only about one million Syrian children are still attending school, meaning nearly four-fifths of all young students are not currently receiving any formal education at all. Human rights groups say some 4,000 school buildings have been destroyed by the intense warfare.
The former Lebanese ambassador to the United States, was killed by a powerful car bomb explosion in the heart of Beirut’s main business district in late December. The victim was close to former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who blamed Hizbullah for the atrocity, which also left several other people dead and wounded.
COUP BREWING IN IRAN?
Israeli security officials are closely monitoring an apparent rift inside the leadership of Bashar Assad’s main regional ally, Iran. The possibility that a military coup might be brewing in the large Shiite Muslim nation emerged when the overall commander of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards questioned the current course of the new government headed by President Hassan Rouhani. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who has headed the Revolutionary Guards Corps for many years, told reporters in Tehran that the Rouhani government was “making serious mistakes” and needed to be changed: “The military systems and procedures governing the administrative system of the country are the same as before, but they have been slightly modified, and unfortunately infected by Western doctrine, and a fundamental change must occur.” Israeli security officials say they suspect General Jafari was issuing a thinly veiled threat to lead a military coup if President Rouhani continues his current agenda of improving relations with the United States and other Western countries while negotiating with them to curb Iran’s renegade nuclear program. Experts note the Revolutionary Guards play a major role in Iran’s political, economic and social arenas.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Muhammad Javad Zarif, is certainly showing no signs of acting more “moderate” under President Rouhani’s rule. He delivered a defiant speech before Shiite Muslim students in Tehran before Christmas in which he hinted that the government could resume its uranium enrichment program within 24 hours if it desired to do so. Analysts noted such action would amount to a flagrant violation of the regime’s agreement to halt enrichment up to 20 per cent, which is a crucial step in producing nuclear warheads. Like overall Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last month, Zarif claimed the November 24 interim agreement signed between the Iranian regime and six world powers “recognizes the legitimacy” of Iran’s renegade nuclear production program, which he stressed will be not ever be halted. On top of that, the Foreign Minister boasted that international economic and political sanctions imposed on the regime over the past decade have being overturned as a result of the accord. He said “the structure of the sanctions and the antagonistic atmosphere created by the West against Iran is falling apart.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had earlier warned that under the accord, the sanctions would begin to disappear while Iran’s nuclear program went on apace. Some Middle East experts say the likelihood of an IDF strike upon Iran’s nuclear sites has substantially increased as a result of the controversial international accord, which has been questioned, if not opposed, by a growing number of American politicians, even some from Obama’s own Democratic party.
In yet another important sign of growing Iranian defiance in the face of the interim nuclear accord, the head of Iran’s atomic energy program announced on December 27 that a new generation of centrifuges to enrich uranium are being readied for use in his country, with the intention that they will one day be put into action. Under the agreement, the radical Iranian regime was allowed to continue enriching uranium, but only up to five and a half per cent. PM Netanyahu reacted at the time by calling for all centrifuges to be removed from Iran, noting it would be easy for the apparently determined regime to restart its program at any second—as Zarif pointed out—even if UN inspectors were allowed greater access to the country’s sprawling nuclear production sites. The demand to destroy or remove all of the centrifuges was repeated in a statement that the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued in reaction to Zarif’s statements.
Prime Minister Netanyahu came under withering criticism during December for his stand on Iran and other issues. The verbal blasts came from his immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert of the centrist Kadima Party. Both Olmert and Netanyahu were once up and coming leaders in the Likud before Olmert persuaded former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to break away to form the Kadima, or “Forward” party in 2005. Since then, there has been increasing tension between the two politicians. Olmert accused his successor of jeopardizing Israel’s vital diplomatic relations with Washington by opposing the American-brokered nuclear deal with Iran. Using language considered harsh by many pundits, the former Premier alleged that the current Israeli leader has been “waging war” against the Obama administration. Netanyahu replied that it is his right and duty to warn of the dangers posed by the “very bad” nuclear deal, whatever the ramifications at the White House or elsewhere.
IDF RESTORES TRAINING
As the Israeli economy slowed down over the past two years, mainly due to continuing financial weakness in many European and other international trading partners like China and India, the Netanyahu government was forced to slash spending for the country’s military forces. In particular, training exercises were drastically curtailed for ground army units and reserve forces, halting all “nonessential” training in recent months as military leaders tried to find the money to resume the exercises. The government has now decided to pump more funds into the military budget as tax revenue increased somewhat the second half of the year. IDF commanders warmly welcomed the decision after warning that ground forces might not be ready for potential battle next year if vital training exercises were not quickly resumed.
The biggest threat to Israel during 2014 is forecast to once again be the possibility of fullscale conflict with Iran and/or with its main militia allies, Hizbullah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terrorist group. In order to cope with the threat, Israeli government and military leaders are continuing to carry on with several costly defense programs, some of them financially aided by the United States. Among them is development of the so-called “David’s Sling” mid-range air defense system, meant to supplement older rocket systems currently in operation. Israeli officials are closely following developments in Washington where some funding for the new system and other items is pending on Capitol Hill.
Although Israeli leaders do not expect to deal with any military attacks from the new Egyptian government during 2014, they continue to closely monitor internal developments in the large Arab country that is officially at peace with Israel. There was quiet approval in government halls in Jerusalem when the Egyptian interim government, strongly backed by the military, outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood movement at the end of December. The move came soon after a car bomb attack in the Nile Delta north of Cairo took the lives of 14 people, some of them when a nearby building collapsed as a result of the powerful blast. An Egyptian government spokesman accused the Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012, of being behind the attack, calling the group “a terrorist organization.” He alleged that the group was “messing with Egyptian security,” which he added would no longer be tolerated by the interim government. Muslim Brotherhood officials denied they were behind the deadly attack before calling for a new round of anti-government demonstrations across the country.
Meanwhile an Al Qaida linked Sunni Muslim terrorist group operating in the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula called upon all Egyptian soldiers to defect from the army or face possible death from pro-Muslim Brotherhood forces. Analysts said this could be a warning sign that the Brotherhood is preparing a major armed response to the new government’s actions against the group. Some Middle East security analysts said that is exactly what they anticipate in the wake of the banning, which they earn might spark off a civil war in the country that could make Syria’s carnage pale by comparison.
A WHITE CHRISTMAS
Although Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said otherwise, Israel allowed over half of the 1,500 or so Christians living in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to travel through Israeli territory to Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations. Most of the rest are members of the dominant Greek Orthodox Church, which annually celebrates the birth of Jesus on January sixth and seventh. This year’s Christmas festivities in the city where the Messiah was born over 2,000 years ago produced some controversy when Israel barred two Arab tourism ministers from traveling overland from Jordan to attend midnight mass next door to the Nativity Church near Bethlehem’s Manger Square. The barred ministers were from two countries that have not yet formally recognized the Jewish state, the Gulf state of Qatar and the North African country of Tunisia, where the so-called Arab Spring began exactly three years ago. Israeli Foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor defended the decision, saying it was “based on the two countries’ prominent and unrestrained attacks against Israel and the Jewish people.”
In response to the Israeli action, tourism ministers from several other Arab countries who were invited to attend midnight mass with PA President Abbas boycotted the event. PA Tourism Minister Rola Mayya accused Israel of deliberately attempting to harm the Palestinian tourism industry, which she noted has been growing in recent years, as it has in Israel—with a big jump expected next spring when Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the Holy Land along with a large contingent of Roman Catholic tourists, many from the Pontiff’s native South America. In response to the flap, the European Union’s unofficial foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, announced that a trip by herself and her husband to Bethlehem for the Roman Catholic Christmas mass was “a private visit,” despite the fact that she was seated in a place of honor right next to Abbas.
As the world keeps an eye focused on the explosive Middle East during 2014—a year that will be marked by lunar eclipses on Israel’s two main holidays, Passover and Succot, as will also be the case in 2015—it is good to recall that the God of Israel keeps His eyes focused on His Holy Land as well, and especially on His chosen people residing there in fulfillment of many biblical prophecies. “Sing for joy and be glad oh daughters of Zion, for behold I am coming and will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord” (Zechariah 2:10).