Behind the News – March 2020

Abbas: Not a fan of the Trump plan

 

Rocket and Terror Report

Rocket fire from Gaza increased after the US Administration released its “Vision” for Middle East peace on Jan. 28. From Jan. 15 to 28, five rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza. From Jan. 29 to 31, seven rockets and three mortars were fired, and in the first half of February there were eight rocket and two mortar attacks. Israel has responded with airstrikes against Hamas targets. 

Waves of balloons carrying explosives targeting Israeli communities drastically increased in February, although Hamas and Islamic Jihad reportedly agreed on Feb. 11 to cease launching them after a meeting with Egypt. Yet the balloons continued after that, prompting a warning from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. 

On Feb. 6, three terror attacks took place in quick succession. Twelve soldiers were injured in Jerusalem when a Palestinian rammed them with his car. Near the Temple Mount, a man opened fire on police officers, wounding one before being shot and killed. Outside the Dolev settlement, a drive-by shooter targeted Israeli security forces, lightly injuring one. 

 

Muted Response to Trump Plan

In response to US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other Ramallah-based officials called for “days of rage”, hoping for a large surge of demonstrations in the West Bank. Instead there was a relatively muted response in Palestinian streets, disappointing the PA leadership. 

Abbas announced in a speech on Feb. 1 that, in response to the plan, the Palestinians would cut all ties with Israel and the US, including security cooperation. However, EU officials and Western diplomats confirmed in subsequent talks with senior Palestinian officials that the PA was not breaking existing security arrangements.

On Feb. 11, a UN Security Council resolution critical of the peace plan – formally sponsored by Indonesia and Tunisia – that the PA was promoting, was withdrawn after it looked unlikely to gain the nine out of 15 votes needed to secure its passage and necessitate a US veto. 

 

Hamas steals tech 

In early February, Hamas forces broke into a warehouse in Gaza, stealing millions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art communications equipment that had been provided by Israel to the PA for civilian use, such as providing internet connections. Hamas will reportedly instead use the equipment to improve its military communications, including in tunnels into Israel. 

In January, Hamas had also misappropriated heavy machinery that Israel had allowed to be imported into Gaza to repair flood damage, instead using the machinery to build military fortifications.

On Feb. 13, Israeli security company Cybereason announced that it had uncovered several cyber-attacks by a Hamas hackers unit targeting various Palestinian organisations and individuals in the West Bank and Gaza, including PA officials. 

 

Alleged Israeli strikes in Syria continue

On Feb. 13, warehouses, headquarters and other infrastructure owned by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) at Damascus Airport were destroyed or severely damaged in airstrikes. Turkish media reported that the strikes, which occurred shortly after an Iranian cargo plane landed, killed four IRGC officers and three Syrian soldiers. Syrian regime media blamed Israel.

The attack came a week after a series of strikes on several targets near Damascus, which were attributed to Israel by Syrian state media, reportedly killed 15 pro-Iranian militia fighters and eight Syrian soldiers, and destroyed air defence batteries and weapons and ammunition depots. 

 

Iran again fails to launch 

On Feb. 9, Iran again failed to put a satellite into orbit. The Simorgh (“Phoenix”) vehicle carrying the Iranian-produced Zafar (“Victory”) satellite failed to reach the required speed and fell into the Indian ocean. 

In Jan. and Feb. 2019, Iran suffered two unsuccessful attempts to launch satellites. Subsequently, a fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre killed three researchers in February and a rocket exploded on the launch pad in August. 

The US and EU have warned that the Iranian satellite program is actually cover for developing ballistic missiles for military use. 

 

Cyberattacks Thwarted

As Israel hosted dozens of world leaders on Jan. 23 for the World Holocaust Forum, officials from Israel’s Airports Authority Cyber Division revealed at least 800 distinct cyberattacks from Iran, China, North Korea, Russia and Poland had targeted Israeli aviation, attempting to disrupt the flight paths of the more than 60 planes carrying visiting heads of state, royalty and presidents. All the attacks were successfully countered, officials said.

 

Turkey-Libya deal sparks Mediterranean tensions

A recent accord between Turkey and the Turkish-backed nominal government of Libya, purporting to divide economic control of a broad expanse of the eastern Mediterranean seabed between them, has potentially damaging repercussions for several states in the region.

Under threat is a proposed undersea pipeline that would link large natural gas fields off the coasts of Israel, Cyprus and Egypt with Europe. These three countries, together with Greece, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority, have established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum to facilitate exports to Europe. Turkey is now seeking to block any such energy exports that are not under Ankara’s control.

EU members Greece and Cyprus, with the support of EU leaders, have denounced the Libya accord as void and in violation of international maritime law. Egypt has called it illegal, and Israel says it could jeopardise peace and stability in the region.

Meanwhile, Turkish vessels, escorted by warships, have been drilling in Cypriot waters, a right Turkey claims as a result of its 1974 occupation of Northern Cyprus. 

 

Israel-Sudan developments 

On Feb. 3, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held a historic meeting with Sudanese leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Uganda to discuss normalisation, as part of a recent push by Israel to build relations with African Muslim states. 

Although normalisation efforts reportedly began under deposed leader Omar al-Bashir, this is the first time the current heads of government have met. 

Both countries have established teams to continue working on normalising ties, but the most immediate outcome was that Sudanese airspace is now open to commercial flights to and from Israel.

 

Warming Saudi Arabia-Israeli ties?

According to reports published on Feb. 9, discussions are under way between the US, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to hold a summit in Cairo, which would include a meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. These plans come amid reports of Israeli delegations quietly visiting Saudi Arabia for the past two years and senior Saudi Arabian government officials openly hosting a delegation of 30 American Jewish leaders in Riyadh for a four-day summit in February. 

Meanwhile, a Feb. 9 tweet by former Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani predicted “a non-aggression pact between Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council countries as well as Egypt, Jordan and possibly Morocco” to follow the release of the Trump peace plan. Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in January that Israel was working on negotiating such non-aggression treaties with Arab countries.

 

Australia to purchase Israeli Spike missile 

Australia’s Department of Defence announced on Feb. 5 that the Australian Defence Force will purchase the Spike LR2 anti-armour guided missile system, manufactured by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems. 

In a joint venture between Australia’s Varley Group and Israel’s Rafael, the Spike system will be integrated with the Boxer armoured vehicle, 211 units of which are now on order for the army.