Behind the News – December 2019

An Iranian headquarters in Damascus allegedly struck by Israel

 

Rocket and terror report

A major, three-day escalation between Israel and the terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad began on Nov. 12, after the Israeli Air Force (IAF) killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior commander of the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) who was responsible for dozens of rocket and terror attacks against Israel and reportedly preparing more. 

PIJ fired more than 450 rockets into southern and central Israel before an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire took hold on Nov. 14. Israel’s Iron Dome defence system intercepted some 90% of the rockets it targeted and no Israelis were killed in the barrages, although there were some injuries and significant property damage.

One of PIJ’s rockets left a 16-meter-wide crater and, according to military experts, contained 300kg of explosives – the most destructive Gazan rocket to date.

In response, the IAF launched Operation Black Belt, a series of airstrikes focused exclusively on PIJ targets.

While a large majority of the 34 Palestinians killed in the fighting were members of terror groups, mostly PIJ, eight Palestinian civilians were reportedly killed amidst speculation Israeli intelligence may have tragically misidentified a target.

Hamas, which had elected not to join PIJ in the escalation, belatedly fired two rockets at Beersheva on Nov. 16, prompting Israeli retaliatory strikes.

Earlier, on Oct. 31, two rockets were fired into Israel and 12 more the next day, one of which struck a house in Sderot. The launches were attributed to PIJ.

 

Iranian rockets lead to Israeli retaliation 

On Nov. 19 four rockets were fired from Syria towards Israeli territory by Iranian-backed forces, but were intercepted by Israel’s missile defence systems. Israel responded to the attack on Nov. 20, striking dozens of targets in Syria belonging to Iran’s Quds Force and the Syrian Assad regime.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said of the Israeli response: “I made it clear that whoever harms us – we will harm back. This is what we did tonight against military targets of Iran’s Quds Force… after rockets were fired at Israel last night.”

 

‘Israel thwarted over 450 terror attacks in 2019’

Israel’s domestic security service Shin Bet averted more than 450 significant terror attacks in the past year, according to Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman.

The figures were released at a defence technology conference in Tel Aviv on Nov. 7.

Argaman credited the success rate to the use of new Israeli information-gathering technologies, cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces and Police Force, and assistance from international counterparts.

 

Hezbollah using social media to recruit Palestinian terrorists

A new US study has illustrated the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah’s use of social media to recruit Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians to attack Israeli targets.

The study, by scholars at West Point’s Combating Terror Center, highlighted Hezbollah’s use of “virtual entrepreneurs” for online recruitment and terror coordination.

The study examined six cases of Palestinians recruited by Hezbollah handlers online. In each case, Hezbollah operatives developed ties with individual Palestinians through anti-Israel Facebook groups. The recruits were then instructed to continue discussions over encrypted email and other communications platforms and then directed to merge into terror cells.

 

Iran accelerates uranium enrichment

On Nov. 11, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, told reporters that his country now produces more than 5kg of low enriched uranium each day at the Natanz and Fordow nuclear facilities. This represents a tenfold increase in Iran’s daily uranium enrichment over the past few months.

Salehi’s announcement came two days after the agency’s spokesperson, Behrouz Kamalvandi, told a news conference that Iran “has the capacity to produce [nuclear enrichment to levels of] five percent, 20%, 60%, or any percentage”. 

Uranium used in atomic bombs is enriched to 90%, but according to nuclear experts, more than half of the effort needed to enrich uranium to 90% is spent getting from 0.7% to 4%. 

 

IAEA confirms undeclared Iranian nuclear site

A Nov. 11 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that inspectors have identified the presence of nuclear material, converted from raw uranium, at a location that had not been declared by Iran as a nuclear site. 

The site, in the Teheran suburb of Turquzabad, was publicly exposed by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a September 2018 UN speech. It appears to represent yet another major Iranian violation of the 2015 nuclear deal.

In related news, in an unprecedented incident, Iranian officials denied access to an IAEA inspector at the Natanz site in early November. The inspector was detained, her accreditation cancelled, and she was forced to leave Iran.

 

UNRWA Commissioner-General resigns

The Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Swiss national Pierre Krähenbühl, resigned on Nov. 6 after a UN investigation found evidence of mismanagement.

The investigation is also considering allegations of bullying and corruption at UNRWA. Few details of the investigation have been released. Christian Saunders, who replaces Krähenbühl, told a UN committee the findings would be made available, but gave no timeline.

Saunders said the organisation faced a funding gap of US$89 million in 2019. However, this plea for new funds stood in contrast to a recently released audit of UNRWA’s finances, which revealed that UNRWA had a surplus of US$105 million in 2018, or just under 10% of total contributions that year. 

 

Jordan terminates Israeli leases on farmland

A deal that allowed Israeli farmers and tourists to access two separate tracts of land on the Jordanian side of the border has ended.

The lands, near Kibbutz Naharayim and Moshav Tzofar, had been accessed by farmers from those villages under a 25-year lease to Israel negotiated as part of the 1994 peace accords between the two countries. Last year, Jordan announced it would not renew the leases, and last-minute calls to renegotiate an extension failed.

Israeli farmers had been working the Jewish-owned land at Naharayim for more than 70 years. Known as the “Island of Peace”, the site had been guarded by Jordanian troops but open to Israeli day visitors since the peace treaty, but has now been gated and declared a closed military area.

Israeli officials lamented the expiration of the lease as a sign that Israel-Jordan relations may be weakening, while Jordanian leaders celebrated the end of the lease as an expression of Jordanian sovereignty.

 

Israel’s gas fields come online

Texas-based Noble Energy Inc. announced that production from Israel’s huge Leviathan natural gas field will begin in December, ahead of schedule. 

Noble, in a joint venture with Israel’s Delek Drilling and Egypt’s East Gas Company, has bought a stake in the East Mediterranean Gas Company subsea pipeline (EMG) in order to facilitate gas sales from both Leviathan, and the already operating Tamar field, to Egypt. The consortium also has a US$10 billion 15-year contract to supply gas to Jordan.