Behind the News – August 2020
Jul 30, 2020 | AIJAC staff
Rocket and Terror Report
Two rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel on June 26 and three more on July 5. The rockets caused no damage or injuries and prompted Israeli retaliatory strikes. On June 30, terror organisations in Gaza test-fired 20 missiles into the sea, presumably to send a message to Israel.
On June 24, a Border Police officer was injured at a checkpoint in a vehicular attack. The Palestinian attacker – a nephew of senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat – was shot dead by security forces.
PFLP aid links uncovered
On July 21, Israel’s Shin Bet security service announced it had uncovered a terror cell on the West Bank that was posing as an aid group, and arrested its members. A detained member of the cell, aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), revealed that the cell had been funded by Iran and Hezbollah, and members were to receive weapons training in Lebanon.
Also on July 21, the Dutch Government admitted in Parliament that the Netherlands had paid salaries to two PFLP terrorists responsible for the murder of 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb in an August 2019 bomb attack in the West Bank. The terrorists were employees of the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), which was receiving Dutch funding and allegedly has long-standing ties to the PFLP.
Senior Hamas commander defects
A senior commander in Hamas’ Gaza naval commando force reportedly defected to Israel on July 12. According to the Arabic press, the defector had been part of a spy network working for Israel since 2009.
The defector, who left Gaza for Israel by boat, reportedly carried with him sensitive information about planned attacks, weapons depots, military training grounds, and the addresses of senior members of the terrorist organisation.
In response to the defection, it was reported that several Hamas military wing members were arrested in Gaza, officers at Hamas’ internal security apparatus were removed from duty, and senior leaders were required to relocate and change mobile devices.
Mysterious explosions in Iran
From late June, Iran has been struck with a series of more than 10 fires and explosions across the country, some of which occurred at sites related to Iran’s nuclear project and ballistic missile program. An explosion in or near the Parchin military base on June 26, for example, was reportedly in the Khojir missile production complex, while a major fire or explosion destroyed a factory for constructing advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium at the Natanz nuclear facility on July 2.
Some analysts suggested many of these occurrences were malfunctions in old and rickety infrastructure in Iran, although the regime in Teheran reportedly suspects sabotage or cyber-attack by foreign elements. Intelligence sources told the New York Times that Israel was responsible for the explosion at the Natanz facility.
Rare online protest in Iran against executions
In a rare online campaign, Iranians from all walks of life joined together to deliver a message to their government to stop executing dissidents. The online campaign followed a judicial decision to uphold death sentences against three young men for joining anti-government protests in November 2019, against worsening economic conditions and rising gas prices.
It is estimated that Iranian security forces killed more than 500 protestors and arrested another 7,000 during those protests. According to Amnesty International, the Iranian government put 251 people to death in 2019, second only to China.
By July 14, the hashtag #Don’tExecute, written in Persian, was published in more than 4.5 million tweets by Iranians around the world, including famous bloggers, actors, pop stars, filmmakers, and former politicians and members of parliament.
On July 19, the Iranian judiciary announced the three men at the centre of the campaign would receive a re-trial.
Erdogan promises to liberate Al-Aqsa
In a July 10 decree widely condemned around the world, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reversed a 1935 law that had turned Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, the ancient cathedral of Constantinople, from a mosque into a museum. His speech in Turkish about the conversion of the site back into a mosque conveyed a message of tolerance, but a tweet in Arabic on the President’s personal Twitter account linked this decision to the future “liberation” of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
This coded incitement against Israel, which controls Jerusalem’s Old City where the Al-Aqsa mosque is located, is consistent with Erdogan’s frequent invocations of a glorious Ottoman and Muslim past to justify Ankara’s ambitious religious and nationalist agenda in the region.
Meanwhile, non-government organisation UN Watch noted that “Turkey’s decision to turn UNESCO-listed Hagia Sophia into a mosque violates the World Heritage Convention,” even as Turkey serves as president of the UNESCO General Conference.
Israel’s new surveillance satellite
On July 6, Israel launched the Ofek 16, an electro-optical reconnaissance satellite with advanced imaging capabilities. This is the newest in a series of military satellites launched by Israel since 1988.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the new satellite strengthened Israel’s defences against opponents. Iran recently launched its first spy satellite.
Iraqi PM takes on Iranian control
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, elected in early May, has taken his first major action against the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia responsible for rocket attacks against US troops and targets in Iraq. On June 25, an Iraqi counterterrorism unit raided a South Baghdad compound belonging to the pro-Iranian militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), arresting 14 members.
Reports said that inside the compound were Iranian rocket experts and workshop facilities for producing Katyusha rockets.
However, following threats against al-Kadhimi by a militia aligned to KH, and a judicial finding that there was no evidence to justify their arrest, the KH men were released days later.
Subsequently, on July 6, Iraqi security commentator Hisham al-Hashimi, a critic of the militias and informal advisor to al-Kadhimi, was assassinated.
Earlier, PM Kadhimi had begun requiring that Iranian General Esmail Ghaani, head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, obtain a visa before entering Iraq. He also removed several pro-Iranian senior Iraqi government officials from their posts.
Israeli, PA, COVID-19 Spikes
While both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank were initially successful in suppressing the spread of coronavirus, both have recently suffered sharp spikes, which experts have attributed, in large part, to one common factor – wedding season.
By the end of May, there had been only 400 active cases in the PA, but by July 21, the West Bank had 7,232 active cases, was averaging more than 300 new cases a day, and had suffered a total of 64 deaths.
PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told a July 6 cabinet meeting that 82% of cases at that time were linked to weddings and funerals.
Similarly, on July 6, an Israeli health official blamed the 2,092 weddings between June 15 and 25 for much of the spike in Israel. Israel, which had 30,874 cases on July 21, was averaging more than 1,500 new cases a day, and had by then suffered 425 deaths.
Both Israel and the PA have announced a raft of new restrictions to combat the virus, including cracking down on large weddings and other gatherings.