Behind the News – April 2019

Missile defences over Tel Aviv on March 14

 

Rocket and Terror report

On March 17, IDF soldier Sgt Gal Keidan, 19, and Rabbi Achiad Ettinger, 47, were killed by a Palestinian terrorist near the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The terrorist reportedly stabbed the soldier first, stole his weapon and shot at civilians. The 18-year-old suspect fled and was killed several days later in a shootout with IDF forces. 

On the evening of March 14, two rockets were launched at Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip, sending thousands scrambling toward bomb shelters. In response, the Israeli Air Force targeted over 100 Hamas military sites. Hamas denied firing the rockets intentionally and the IDF later concluded the rockets may have been fired accidently.

In recent weeks, a chamber at the Temple Mount’s Golden Gate has been the site of violent protests by Palestinians. The structure, Bab al-Rahma, had been closed since 2003 by order of an Israeli court and was reopened recently by the Wakf religious trust which oversees the Temple Mount without permission or coordination with Israel. Jordan has been involved in negotiations with Israel to resolve the issue, leading to increased calm since mid-March.

Violent weekly riots continue at the Gazan border. With the winter rains ending, Gazans have resumed launching incendiary balloons into Israel, with little damage reported so far. Mass rallies are planned for Land Day on March 30, which will mark a year since the start of the “March of Return”-themed protests.

 

PA rejects Israeli tax transfers over “Pay for Slay” deductions 

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has rejected the first monthly tax transfer from Israel for 2019, after Israel withheld around 5% – equivalent to the amount of the PA budget used to pay salaries to convicted terrorists and the families of terrorists killed while carrying out attacks. 

PA Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh told media, “We have refused to receive the 700 million shekel (A$271 million) transfer after Israel deducted 42 million shekels from it.” The PA’s decision came despite its increasing financial troubles, caused in part by US aid cuts over its “pay to slay” policies. Australia has also stopped direct funding to the PA over this issue. 

Despite the financial crisis this has caused the PA, caretaker Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said his government remained committed to paying the full salaries to Palestinian terrorists and their families, but would instead cut a portion of the monthly salaries it pays to Palestinian civil servants for the month of February. 

 

Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV declared a terrorist organisation

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed an order declaring the Hamas-run Al Aqsa television channel a terrorist organisation under Israel’s Anti-Terrorism law on March 13. This followed the release of a report by Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency on Feb. 13, alleging that Hamas in the Gaza Strip had used Al-Aqsa TV broadcasts to convey agreed secret signals to communicate instructions to West Bank and east Jerusalem residents to carry out terror attacks, as well as actively inciting Palestinians to take part in violence, such as calls to the public to attack Israeli civilians.

The US designated the station as a terrorist entity because of its close relationship to Hamas in 2010.

 

US to leave 1,000 troops in Syria 

The US military is drafting plans to leave around 1,000 troops in Syria after the withdrawal of most of its forces, it was reported on March 17. The reports followed US President Donald Trump decision on Feb. 22 to keep about 200 US troops as part of a planned multinational force that would maintain a safe zone in north-eastern Syria, in addition to the 200 troops the US is planning to maintain its base in at-Tanf after the withdrawal. Trump had previously announced late last year that all 2,000 US troops would leave Syria.

NATO allies are in the process of organising a “monitoring and observer” force of around 800 to 1,500 troops to maintain a safe zone in north-eastern Syria to maintain a buffer between Turkey and US-allied Syrian opposition forces, as well as to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State.

 

Hezbollah ‘operating in Syrian Golan’, slashing salaries

On March 13, the IDF disclosed the detection of a secret Hezbollah unit operating on the Syrian Golan Heights. The unit, which the IDF says Hezbollah refers to cryptically as “the Golan file” and is headed by veteran Hezbollah commander Ali Mussa Daqduq, aims to establish a terrorist network near the Israeli-Syrian border.

According to media reports, the IDF decided to publicise the unit’s existence in order to pressure the Syrian regime to force Hezbollah to withdraw from the region.

In related news, Hezbollah has reportedly slashed salaries by up to 60% for its employees working in education, medical, and the military. Thousands of Hezbollah offices and apartments across Lebanon have been shut down, institutes merged and staff hiring stopped, while the social services budget has been reduced for the second time since 2013. 

Hezbollah’s financial crisis is reportedly mostly a result of US sanctions imposed on Iran, Hezbollah’s patron and main paymaster.

 

Iranian missile factory discovered in Syria

Satellite photographs appear to confirm the presence of a clandestine Iranian precision surface-to-surface missile factory in western Syria, an Israeli intelligence firm reported on March 14.

The plant is near the city of Safita, about 20 kilometres north of the Lebanese border and a similar distance inland from Syria’s port city of Tartus. According to reports, the satellite imagery shows the plant is under construction and probably not yet operational.

 

Microsoft exposes Iranian Cyber-attacks

According to a report released on March 6, the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center has exposed a massive cyber attack campaign by Iranian regime-affiliated hacker groups Holmium and APT33. The attack involved the stealing or destruction of sensitive commercial information, causing hundreds of millions of US dollars in damage. Among the sectors targeted were oil and gas and heavy machinery, as well as international conglomerates in several countries, including the US, Germany, Italy, UK, India and Saudi Arabia. This report is the latest in a series of revelations about Iran’s criminal cyber activity. 

 

Vatican to open Holocaust archives

On March 4, Pope Francis announced that starting next year, the Vatican will allow long-anticipated public access to its archives on Pius XII, the controversial pope who led the Catholic Church during World War II. 

The Vatican usually waits 70 years after the end of a pontificate to open up the relevant archives, but agreed to make the Pius XII documentation available sooner, while Holocaust survivors are still alive.

Since 2006, the Vatican has allowed historians to access documents from 1922 to 1939, but historians have sought greater access to the Vatican’s secret archives to clarify the role of the Church throughout WWII and the Holocaust. 

 

Israel’s Beresheet on course to Moon

On Feb. 22, Israel made history when it launched an unmanned spacecraft with a mission to land on the moon. The spacecraft, Beresheet (Genesis), was built by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, and would become the world’s first commercial craft to land on the Earth’s closest neighbour when it touches down on April 11. If successful, the mission would add Israel to the short list of countries to reach the moon, alongside the US, Russia and China.