Behind the News – June 2020

Israeli soldiers and Palestinian volunteers work together to deliver food and medical supplies in east Jerusalem

 

Rockets and Terror

A rocket was fired from Gaza into Israel on May 6, prompting Israeli retaliatory fire. 

While Gaza has largely been quiet, this is not the case on the West Bank. On May 12, IDF Sergeant First Class Amit Ben Yigal, 21, was killed when a Palestinian threw a concrete block at him during an arrest raid near Jenin. 

From late April to mid-May, there were several stabbing and car-ramming attacks against Israeli forces in the West Bank. On May 16, the IDF thwarted an attack involving improvised explosives and Molotov cocktails against a settlement outpost. 

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces have identified a terrorist network in the West Bank associated with the Marxist terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israeli reports suggest the group’s terrorist activities have been reinvigorated by the provision of financial and logistical support from Iran. 

 

Abbas renounces agreements

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced on May 19 that, in light of the new Israeli government’s stated intention to annex parts of the West Bank, the PA would be ending “all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments” and all obligations resulting from them, including security cooperation. However, Palestinian sources said that security coordination was continuing, and while the PA may reduce it, it was too soon to say whether coordination would be completely stopped.

 

Israel forces Palestinian banks to limit “pay for slay” 

Under a new Israeli regulation implemented on May 9, banks will be held liable for facilitating the payment of stipends by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to Palestinian prisoners and their families for terrorist crimes. The regulation also enables Israel to confiscate the stipends paid into these accounts.

Following the change, a number of banks in the West Bank closed the accounts of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. In response, Palestinian masked gunmen took to the streets of some Palestinian cities to protest the decision and attacked or vandalised several banks. 

Meanwhile, the PA appears to be trying to hide its payments to Palestinian terrorists and their families to avoid scrutiny from international donors. According to Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), the PA’s monthly budget performance reports for 2018 and 2019 listed the payments to prisoners as expenditure of the PA Ministry of Prisoners’ Affairs. In 2019, the total was NIS 517 million (A$225 million). However, in the 2020 budget, there was no listing for the Ministry of Prisoners’ Affairs in the PA budget and PMW suggests prisoner salaries are now being disguised as transfers to “PLO institutions.”

 

Israel helping PA with coronavirus

On May 11, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement for Israel to provide NIS 800 million (A$347 million) in loans to assist the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to fight coronavirus.

The pandemic has seen mutual cooperation reach new heights in other ways too, including in widely circulated photos of IDF soldiers working side-by-side with Palestinian volunteers in east Jerusalem to deliver food, medical and other supplies in coordination with the Jerusalem Municipality.

In other COVID-19 related cooperation, reports emerged on May 17 that, two weeks earlier, the United Arab Emirates had, at Israel’s request, rescued a group of Israelis stranded in Morocco by flying them back to Israel in a luxurious royal jet.

 

Iran’s COVID-19 cyber-mischief 

Iranian regime-backed hackers have reportedly been targeting research institutions and international organisations working on coronavirus treatments. In April and May, Iranian-linked hackers were accused of trying to hack the World Health Organisation, US biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences – makers of the antiviral drug Remdesivir – and several UK universities and facilities researching the virus.

Iran was also reportedly behind an attempted cyberattack on water infrastructure controlled by Israel’s Water Authority on April 24, although the attack was quickly detected and neutralised. 

Subsequently, a May 9 cyber-attack on Iran’s Shahid Rajaee seaport resulted in a major disruption to the port’s activity for several days. Sources cited in the US press later attributed the sophisticated attack to Israel, as a retaliatory warning to Teheran following the attempt to disrupt Israel’s water infrastructure.

Iran’s propaganda networks have also been very active in pushing coronavirus conspiracy theories targeting Israel and the US, and defending China, on social media.

 

Iran and Venezuela Fly Together

The Iranian airline Mahan Air, which has been sanctioned and banned by several countries for providing “transportation, funds transfers and personnel travel” for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, has restarted regular flights to Venezuela. 

Officially relaunched in April 2019, this flight route – once dubbed ‘Aeroterror’ because of its use to ferry terrorist and intelligence operatives, drugs and weaponry – has reportedly been used for transporting hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold from Venezuela’s vaults to Iran, in exchange for Iranian equipment and technicians helping to restore Venezuela’s oil refineries, rapidly depleting the country’s hard-currency assets.

Aside from terrorism logistics, new reports highlight that covert activities by Mahan Air may have been behind the spread of coronavirus in the Middle East. A BBC investigation has found the airline continued flying to China long after Iran officially banned flights there, and that it also flew to both Iraq and the UAE after those countries banned flights from Iran. Iraq and Lebanon’s first cases were Iranian travellers flying Mahan Air. 

 

US signals concerns about Israel-China relations

Growing links between China and Israel are increasingly being publicly highlighted as a concern in US-Israel relations, as tensions rise between Washington and Beijing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Israel has responded to US concerns by delaying approval for construction of a large desalination plant in a decision coinciding with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Jerusalem on May 13.

In an interview with an Israeli news channel, Secretary Pompeo said, “We do not want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure, Israeli communication systems, all of the things that put Israeli citizens at risk… and…put the capacity for America to work alongside Israel on important projects at risk as well.”

Chinese officials responded to Pompeo’s remarks by accusing him of raising security risks “without producing any concrete evidence.” 

 

Iran retreats from athletes ban 

On May 18, Iran’s Parliament passed a bill featuring a number of anti-Israel measures, including a ban on any Israeli software, a ban on any cooperation with anyone “affiliated with the Zionist regime,” and support for programs “aimed at exposing the Zionist regime’s nature and atrocities.”

However, an article originally in the bill, which would have banned Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis, was removed from the final version passed into law, reportedly at the behest of Iran’s Sports Ministry.

Had that article passed into law, Iran’s sporting federations would have faced the likelihood of being expelled from international competition across most sporting codes, as virtually all international sports federations prohibit the avoidance of matches for political reasons.