Australia/Israel Review


Behind the News – April 2021

Apr 8, 2021 | AIJAC staff

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas receives his first shot of COVID-19 vaccine, March 20, 2021. (Screenshot/WAFA)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas receives his first shot of COVID-19 vaccine, March 20, 2021. (Screenshot/WAFA)

 

Rocket and Terror Report

The first rocket to have been fired from Gaza into Israel since Jan. 19 landed in an open field near Beersheva on March 23, Israel’s election day, shortly after PM Binyamin Netanyahu visited the city. 

There were several attempted terrorist stabbings in the West Bank, including on Feb. 22 and 24, and two on March 8. 

 

Israeli strikes in Syria

Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria have allegedly continued, with strikes reported around Damascus on Feb. 28 and another on March 17. 

Iran was blamed for an attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the Helios Ray, in the Gulf of Oman on Feb. 25, which caused severe damage but no casualties. A report in the Wall Street Journal in March alleged that since late 2019, Israel itself had attacked at least a dozen Iranian tankers delivering oil to Syria. 

 

Palestinian prisoner chief admits massive terror stipends

On March 4, PLO Commissioner for Prisoners’ Affairs Qadri Abu Bakr confirmed to the Times of Israel that the PLO spent “around NIS 50 million [~A$20 million] per month,” or approximately NIS 600 million (A$240 million) in total in 2020, on payments to Palestinians imprisoned by Israel for security offences and their families. This practice is condemned by Israeli officials as a “pay-for-slay” scheme, and strongly opposed by the Australian, US and other governments.

 

Hamas internal elections

In mid-March, Hamas’ internal elections surprisingly saw the current Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, needing four rounds to secure a win in the Gaza district. Sinwar faced strong opposition from Nizar Awadullah, who is considered close to Iran and an ally of Sinwar’s internal opponents in Hamas, Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh. 

In addition, Jamila al-Shanti became the first woman to be nominated to Hamas’ political bureau, the organisation’s top decision-making body. 

 

Iran allegedly hiding nuclear parts

Western intelligence sources alleged on March 23 that Iran is hiding key components used in its clandestine nuclear weapons project from UN inspectors. 

According to the intelligence officials, centrifuge components, including parts, pumps and materials such as carbon fibre, have been concealed in 75 containers in various locations across Iran. Satellite images show the containers being moved between different sites belonging to the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran. 

The officials also claimed that some of the components stored in the containers were illegally procured after the 2015 nuclear deal – a direct breach of that agreement. 

 

Iranian enriched uranium update

Iran continues to escalate its breaches of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in March that Iran had started feeding uranium hexafluoride into a cascade of advanced IR-4 centrifuges at the Natanz underground plant. The Iranians are also planning to install additional advanced centrifuge models. Both of these actions represent violations of the nuclear deal. 

A February IAEA report confirmed that Iran has amassed 14 times the JCPOA limit on enriched uranium, almost enough to construct three warheads – including uranium enriched to 20% purity, a level which brings Iran much closer to 90% military grade purity. 

 

Israel oil spill

Israeli and oil industry investigations revealed that an oil spill responsible for contaminating the shores of Israel, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon emanated from a leaking Libyan tanker, the Emerald, which was smuggling crude oil from Iran to Syria in contravention of international sanctions. 

In mid-February, beaches on the Mediterranean coast from the Sinai Peninsula to southern Lebanon were polluted by tar, and large numbers of marine animals killed, as a result of the leak of an estimated 1,000 tons of petroleum. It is considered Israel’s worst ecological disaster.

 

Jerusalem hosts Kosovo Embassy, Czech diplomatic office

On March 14, Kosovo became the first European, and also the first Muslim-majority, country to establish an embassy in Jerusalem. The opening followed Kosovo’s establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel in February.

Meanwhile, on March 11, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis attended the opening of his country’s diplomatic office in Jerusalem, supplementing its embassy in Tel Aviv. The opening marked a step towards the hope expressed by Czech President Miloš Zeman in 2018 of relocating the Czech embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

 

Israel-UAE joint investment fund 

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced the establishment of a joint US$10 billion fund aimed at boosting strategic sectors, including energy, manufacturing, water, space, health care and agri-tech. The fund will be financed from both the government and private sector and build on the Abraham Accords between the two countries. 

Most of the funds will reportedly be invested in infrastructure projects, including a deep-water port in Eilat and a railway via Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Haifa port.

 

Powerful connections 

On March 8, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz signed a memorandum of understanding with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts to start construction of the world’s longest undersea power cable. This cable will link Israel’s electricity grid with that of Cyprus and Greece, and greatly improve energy security for Israel and Cyprus. Both these countries remain largely dependent on fuel imports for power production, leaving them vulnerable to supply cuts and shortages.

 

COVID-19 numbers

By March 7, statistics showed that Israel was registering 71% fewer COVID deaths and 45% fewer serious illnesses than at the peak of the epidemic in January. As of March 23, there had been a total of 828,764 coronavirus cases in Israel, up from 754,998 on Feb. 22, with a total of 6,109 deaths, up from 5,596. 

As of March 21, more than five million Israelis – 57% of the population – had received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 4.5 million, or 50.4%, had also received the second dose. 

In the Palestinian ruled areas of the West Bank, there had been 225,976 cases, up from 173,635 on Feb. 22, and 2,458 deaths, up from 1,976. In Gaza, there had been a total of 59,330 cases as of March 21, up from 54,460 as of Feb. 21.

 

Vaccines for the politically connected 

After long delays, on March 21 the Palestinian Authority (PA) began its coronavirus vaccination campaign. PA President Mahmoud Abbas received a shot on March 20. 

This campaign commenced following the arrival in Israel of 61,000 vaccines earmarked for the Palestinians, from COVAX – the international vaccine-sharing mechanism backed by the World Health Organisation. Around 40,000 of the COVAX doses reached Ramallah on March 17, while the rest were sent to the Gaza Strip. 

The PA said that hundreds of thousands of further vaccine doses are expected soon from various sources. 

However, the PA has come under fire for nepotism and corruption in its vaccine campaign, after admitting it diverted some COVID-19 vaccination doses meant for medical workers to VIPs, including the Palestinian national football team, Government ministers, presidential guards and members of the PLO Executive Committee. 

Meanwhile, Israel has vaccinated some 105,000 Palestinians who work in Israel. 

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