Behind the News – January 2021
Dec 18, 2020 | AIJAC staff
Rocket and Terror report
On Nov. 21, two rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, with one intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system and the other causing property damage. Israel retaliated by striking Hamas targets in Gaza.
On Nov. 22, IEDs were discovered near Rachel’s Tomb and the Qalandiya Crossing in the West Bank. Suspects involved in both incidents were arrested.
A Palestinian man was shot dead after ramming his car into a border guard at a checkpoint in east Jerusalem on Nov. 25.
Incidents of Palestinians throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails in the West Bank have reportedly increased over recent weeks.
Iran’s Parliament expands nuclear program
Following the Nov. 27 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) passed a law calling for an increase in the scope and scale of the program. While the bill itself has existed for some time, it has now been ratified by the Council of Guardians as a response to the assassination.
The law requires the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) to increase uranium enrichment levels to 20% – far above the 3.67% allowed by the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) – which would drastically cut the time needed to refine it to military-grade. The JCPOA only allows Iran to retain a stockpile of 202.8 kg of low enriched uranium, but the new law orders the AEOI to stockpile 150kg of uranium enriched to 20%, as well as increase stocks of low-enriched uranium (which are already at 12 times JCPOA permitted levels)
The law also says the AEOI must install 1,000 advanced IR-2m uranium enrichment centrifuges at Natanz, as opposed to the slower IR-1m centrifuges allowed by the JCPOA; operate a uranium metal production plant; and design another 40 megawatt heavy water reactor like the one at Arak, which was temporarily disabled under the JCPOA.
Under the law, if the incoming Biden administration fails to lift sanctions on Iran within a specified time, Iran will cease cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and expel its inspectors.
Iran’s Defence Minister also said Fakhrizadeh’s organisation, the Defence Research and Innovation Organisation (SPND), would have its budget doubled.
Nuclear scientist secretly recorded
According to Israeli media reports in early December, Israel had obtained secret recordings of assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh discussing his work, including mentioning plans to manufacture “five warheads”. Material from Iran’s secret nuclear archive exposed by Israel confirmed that the Amad project, headed by Fakhrizadeh, was aimed at producing five nuclear warheads.
Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert reportedly privately played the secret recording to then-US president George W. Bush during his visit to Jerusalem in May 2008.
Iranian soldiers reportedly propping up Venezuelan regime
On Dec. 2, the top US military commander for Central and South America, Admiral Craig Faller, revealed Iran had supplied arms and paramilitary support to help Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro maintain his regime’s grip on power.
According to Faller, Venezuela is “See[ing] a growing Iranian influence” and it is “alarming and concerning” to see military support by Iran in the region.
“We’re concerned about what we see…It’s not just oil shipments, it’s arms shipments as well,” he added.
Faller also expressed concerns over members of the large Lebanese diaspora in South America, including in Venezuela, having ties to Hezbollah.
Rumours: Khamenei unwell
On Dec. 6, an Iranian reporter-in-exile claimed that Iran’s Supreme Leader, 81-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, transferred powers to his son, Sayyid Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei (51), due to health concerns. The news was vehemently denied by Iranian officials.
Additional sources suggest that Khamenei recently cancelled some scheduled meetings. In 2015, international media reported that Khamenei suffers from prostate cancer.
In addition, the Arabic press claimed that another leader close to the regime in Teheran, Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah, was considering moving to Iran, or may have already done so.
The unconfirmed reports stated that the move was discussed between Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah. Other sources claimed that Nasrallah had cancelled all travel and boosted security around himself in light of the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
Israel-Bahrain agree on new tourism and direct flights
On Dec. 1, Bahrain’s Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism Zyed Bin Rashid al-Zayani arrived in Israel with a delegation of around 40 businesspeople. Al-Zayani and Israeli Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen signed a historic memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding tourism in Jerusalem. It is the first MOU of its kind between Israel and an Arab Gulf state.
Al-Zayani also signed an MOU to allow direct flights between Tel Aviv and Manama for the first time. The first direct flight is reportedly scheduled to take place on Jan. 7, 2021.
New missile boats for Israeli navy
On Dec. 2 Israel took delivery from Germany of the first of four new missile boats which form part of a major naval upgrade to help counter the threat from Iran.
Head of naval operations, Rear Admiral Eyal Harel, said the new fleet of Sa’ar 6-class corvettes – equipped with “the (most) sophisticated radar on board any vessel in the world” – would strengthen the navy’s capacity to defend offshore natural gas rigs against attack from the Teheran-backed Lebanese Shi’ite terror group Hezbollah.
New wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel
More than 500 members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community arrived in Israel on Dec. 3 and 4. Their arrival marked the first phase of a plan to bring around 2,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel by the end of January, in what has been named “Operation Rock of Israel”.
The mission is being headed by Israel’s Absorption and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who herself arrived in Israel as a child in the 1984 Operation Moses airlift, which brought 6,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel.
Thousands more Jewish Ethiopians are today seeking to emigrate to Israel. Around 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today.
Israeli and Palestinian COVID-19 numbers
On Dec. 8, following legal challenges, Israel’s coronavirus cabinet cancelled a planned nightly curfew that was to begin the following day, just prior to the Chanukah holiday, and continue until Jan. 2.
A recent resurgence saw 1837 new infections recorded on Dec. 7, the highest number in nearly two months.
Despite this, Israeli shopping malls, museums and outdoor markets – which had remained closed even after the partial lifting of restrictions in October following the country’s second lockdown in September – were allowed to re-open on Dec. 9.
As of Dec. 11, Israel had recorded 352,397 cases including 2,961 deaths, with 16,045 cases still active. In the West Bank, there were 104,879 cases and 910 deaths recorded, with 25,254 active cases, while Gaza had 26,817 total cases.
On Dec. 3, a delegation of Arab Israeli doctors, organised by Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHRI), entered Gaza to provide free medical treatment for Gazans and training for Palestinian medical teams.