Behind the News – July 2019

“March of Return” Gaza border protests continue unabated

 

Rocket and Terror Report

An unofficial ceasefire after the most recent flare-up between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza on May 6 succeeded in halting rocket and mortar fire from the Strip for over a month. However, a rocket was launched and intercepted on June 12, while a second launched the following day struck a religious seminary in Sderot, drawing Israeli strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the use of improvised explosive devices and incendiary balloons has markedly increased over the same period, resulting in more than 35 fires in Israeli territory since May 6. “March of Return” riots and associated violence have also continued unabated along the security fence with Gaza. 

On June 12, Israel intercepted a delivery of commercial drones to Gaza. Recently, Palestinian terror groups have begun fitting drones with explosives to target Israeli troops. 

Israel’s Shin Bet security service reported that, excluding the rockets fired from Gaza, May saw a decrease in attacks compared to April, with 60 attacks – mostly firebombs, pipebombs and arson – occurring in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. 

Israel destroys last Hezbollah tunnel

The IDF announced on June 3 that it had sealed off the last, and longest, of six Hezbollah attack tunnels leading from Lebanon into Israel’s north discovered during Operation Northern Shield launched on Dec. 4. The kilometre-long tunnel, which penetrated 77 metres into Israeli territory and was dug to a depth of 80 metres, was equipped with electricity, ventilation and communications infrastructure. The IDF believes Hezbollah planned to use the tunnels to achieve the symbolic victory of the surprise capture of an Israeli town in a future war.

Israel hits more Syrian targets

Israel continues to target Iranian infrastructure and weapons transfers to Hezbollah in Syria, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft systems that lock on to Israeli planes. 

On May 27, Israel struck a Syrian anti-aircraft system in response to the system targeting the Israeli Air Force. On June 2, Israel reportedly struck several other Syrian and Iranian systems, including an alleged Iranian drone base, in response to two rockets fired towards the Golan Heights. On June 12, Israel reportedly launched strikes against Hezbollah positions near the Golan Heights, apparently while jamming Syrian radar systems. 

Syrian refugees under threat

As of early June, more than 164,000 refugees who fled the Syrian civil war have returned to their country, according to United Nations figures. However, many returnees report experiencing harsh interrogation, arrest, and even torture at the hands of the Assad regime.

More than 2,000 people have been detained upon arrival, according to the Washington Post, while 75% of returnees reported harassment and interrogation by police, pressure to sign loyalty pledges, pay bribes or inform upon family members. 

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Government has reportedly been demolishing any dwellings deemed “permanent” structures in refugee camps housing Syrians. As Lebanon struggles to prevent the perpetual settlement of one million Syrian refugees, families who have built more sturdy and protective concrete houses are being forced to tear them down and live in tents instead. 

Another Syrian chemical attack

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has again been accused of using chemical weapons in his country’s civil war. After reports of a chlorine gas attack in Syria on May 19, the US State Department warned that, if such an attack is confirmed, the US and its allies will “respond quickly and appropriately”. Doctors working in Idlib testified to spotting more than 40 rockets being fired at the area, which did not explode but instead emitted gases. The doctors later treated patients who smelled of chlorine and suffered symptoms typical of chlorine gas victims.

On May 9, Damascus informed the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that it would refuse access to a team of international experts from the organisation assigned by the UN to examine chemical attacks in Syria. 

Iran soon to break JCPOA limits

Following its announcement in May that Iran would quadruple its output of enriched uranium, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (IAEO) declared on June 17 that Teheran would exceed the 300kg stockpile limit allowed in the JCPOA nuclear agreement within 10 days. The IAEO spokesperson also threatened that Iran might enrich uranium up to 20%, far higher than the 3.67% permitted by the nuclear deal, and a level which would significantly shorten the time needed to reach weapons-grade enrichment of 90%. 

According to Israeli intelligence sources, Iran has also recently significantly stepped up work on a more advanced type of centrifuge, possibly in an effort to increase enrichment capabilities as part of ending adherence to JCPOA restrictions.

Iranian oil exports plunge

Iranian exports of crude oil hit an unprecedented low in May.

According to industry analysts, Iran is now exporting between 250,000 and 500,000 barrels per day (bpd). The previous nadir of 600,000 bpd was reached in 2013, at the height of sanctions leading up to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. Iran’s current budget assumes an oil export output of 1.54m bpd, with anything less than that likely to cause increasing deficits.

Until this was cancelled by the Trump Administration in April, eight countries were allowed exemptions from US sanctions to continue importing Iranian oil in small amounts. 

According to commodities analysts IHS Markit, China alone has yet to fully comply with the US ban.

UK 2015 Hezbollah terror plot revealed

A Hezbollah terror plot to stockpile tonnes of explosive materials hidden in ice packs in a secret bomb factory on London’s outskirts was exposed in 2015 but undisclosed to the media, the UK’s Sunday Telegraph reported. According to the report, the discovery by Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence agency and London’s Metropolitan Police occurred just months after the UK signed up to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), raising speculation that government figures chose not to reveal the plot in order to keep the deal intact. 

Israeli officials confirmed subsequently that the Mossad intelligence agency had provided information to British law enforcement that led to the discovery of the explosives cache.

Arab states sign up for Bahrain conference

The US-sponsored workshop in Bahrain on June 25-26 to promote Palestinian economic development was due to be attended by Arab and North African nations including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Morocco. The Palestinian Authority (PA) boycotted the Bahrain conference and has strongly criticised Arab nations for attending the summit. The White House said that Israeli Government officials would not attend the conference because it will be focused on economic issues, and “not the political”.

The conference is intended to deal with the economic portion of the Administration’s “deal of the century” plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the full plan now expected to be released in November. 

Meanwhile, Jordan is reportedly frustrated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas over his refusal to accept international aid for the West Bank, despite the PA facing bankruptcy. The PA’s economic situation has worsened following US cuts to the PA’s funding due to its continued commitment to paying salaries to terrorists and their families and Israel’s decision to withhold a portion of tax revenues to the PA over the same issue. A senior Jordanian source told an Israeli newspaper that Abbas has not only prevented PA officials from meeting Israelis to seek to resolve the crisis, but also rejected a plan supported by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE to supply funds to offset the amount that Israel deducts from the PA’s taxes.