Rockets and Terror
The last ten days of February saw a dramatic escalation in rocket fire from Gaza. On Feb. 23-24, more than 110 rockets were fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) forces into Israel, prompting Israeli retaliatory strikes against PIJ positions in both Gaza and Syria. Most of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, although there was some property damage in Israel. The catalyst for the flare-up was allegedly an Israeli bulldozer attempting to recover the body of a PIJ militant shot and killed while trying to place an IED near the fence on Feb. 23.
On March 1 and 6, there were additional unsuccessful attempts to fire a rocket into Israel. In Israel’s north, the IDF reported a foiled Hezbollah-Syrian sniper attack on March 2.
Meanwhile, according to the IDF, the coronavirus has forced Iran to scale back the activities of its forces and proxies along Israel’s borders.
The virus has also had a dampening effect on terrorism and unrest in the Palestinian territories, with only one shooting attack in the West Bank on March 12, and an attempted stabbing in Jerusalem on March 10.
IAEA: Iran has nearly enough enriched uranium for a bomb
On March 3, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued two reports about Iran’s nuclear program. The public report recorded Teheran’s escalating breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) and noted that Iran has now amassed more than one tonne of low-enriched uranium – almost the amount required to build a nuclear warhead if further enriched to weapons-grade.
The second report, confidentially distributed among IAEA member states, harshly criticised Teheran for denying inspectors access to three sites in Iran where forbidden atomic bomb-related work was allegedly conducted.
The IAEA’s new Director-General, Rafael Grossi, explained on March 4 that he considered the matter “serious enough” to call for the unusual step of issuing two reports simultaneously. He urged Iran to cooperate with the agency’s work, saying otherwise “we will be walking towards a crisis.”
A grave situation for Iran
On Feb. 19, Iran announced its first cases of COVID-19 at the holy Shia city of Qom, 140 km south of Teheran. Two days later, satellite images revealed a mass grave pit being dug outside Qom. By the end of February, two large trenches, totalling over 90 metres in length, were visible at the site.
Despite the clear evidence of the deteriorating situation, the Iranian Government apparently underreported the number of local coronavirus cases and allegedly discouraged individuals and institutions from revealing the extent of the disease’s spread in Iran. However, on March 16, Radio Farda, a US government-funded radio station, claimed that by collating statements from local officials and anonymous medical data, they were able to identify twice the number of coronavirus infection cases as Iranian Government figures admitted.
Dr. Rick Brennan, a World Health Organisation official who visited Iran in March, warned that the actual number of cases could be up to five times higher than reported.
Iran: an epicentre for COVID-19’s spread
Iran is among the countries with the highest rates of infections of COVID-19, and, as of March 23 had the fourth-most deaths, according to World Health Organisation data. It also experienced one of the earliest major escalations of cases outside China, leading it to become a major source of the virus’s spread to other countries around the world.
In the early days of March, one of the first cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand came from a family who had recently travelled to Iran. In Canada, at least three of the first 12 cases were traced back to Iran, as were all initial cases reported in Iraq.
In the United States, the first confirmed COVID-19 case in New York City was a health-care worker who had returned from Iran, and Los Angeles also identified a coronavirus patient from Iran who passed through the local airport.
US consolidates in Iraq as Iran-backed militias strike
Despite COVID-19, Iran-backed militias continued to attack the US and its allies in Iraq. On March 11, two US and one British soldier were killed and 14 others wounded, when more than 15 rockets hit Camp Taji, an Iraqi army base hosting coalition troops.
The US retaliated the next day, striking five weapon depots belonging to Katai’b Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian militia, amidst reports US President Donald Trump wanted a limited response.
There was also an attack on March 12 on the Imam Ali Iranian military base in Albukamal, Syria, near the Iraq border, which killed 26 Iranian-allied fighters and destroyed a warehouse. The US denied responsibility for this attack.
On March 14, Camp Taji was again hit by a large salvo of more than 25 rockets, injuring five. These were claimed by a “new” Iranian front group, the League of Revolutionaries (Usbat al-Thairen). On March 17, another Iraqi base hosting coalition troops was hit by two rockets.
Meanwhile, the US announced its training of Iraqi forces had been essentially halted due to fears of COVID-19 and it would be pulling some troops out of the country and consolidating its remaining forces by withdrawing them from smaller bases and outposts.
West Bank settlement construction falls
Media reports based on data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) showed that the construction of housing in West Bank settlements in 2019 was down by almost a third (32%), and the number of completed homes down by 39%, compared to the previous year. According to the CBS, there were 1,528 settlement housing starts in 2019 and 1,431 dwellings completed, the lowest rate of construction since 2012.
This fall in building occurred despite an increase in construction plan announcements and the publication of tenders for future construction in settlements.
Australian ICC submission on jurisdiction over “Palestine”
On March 16, the Australian Government provided a formal submission to the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) of the International Criminal Court (ICC), outlining legal “Observations” that suggest the ICC does not have territorial jurisdiction to investigate “The situation in Palestine”.
The submission said Australia does not recognise a “State of Palestine”, and argued that ICC efforts to assert jurisdiction over this “state” are both legally incorrect and risk jeopardising hopes of negotiating a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The matter is before the ICC’s PTC following an announcement in December by the Court’s Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that she wanted to launch a formal investigation into the “Situation in Palestine” because there was a “reasonable basis to believe that war crimes were committed” by the Israel Defence Forces, Hamas and other “Palestinian armed groups.”
Israel, which is not a party to the ICC, has strongly criticised the decision, arguing the Court does not have jurisdiction to consider the matter, as “Palestine” is not a sovereign state and does not have a defined territory that the ICC can claim jurisdiction over.
Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Brazil and Uganda also made submissions offering similar arguments to Australia’s.