Behind the News – May 2020
May 5, 2020 | AIJAC staff
Rockets and Terror Report
Israel’s Shin Bet security agency recently announced it had arrested three Hamas operatives who had attempted a number of attacks in Israel and the West Bank, including planning an attack at the Teddy Stadium soccer venue in Jerusalem.
Only a single rocket was fired from Gaza into Israel in recent weeks, on March 27, as Hamas and other Palestinian groups focussed efforts on containing the spread of COVID-19. While the March of Return riots have been cancelled for now, three Palestinians armed with a knife and fire accelerants snuck through the fence from Gaza into Israel on April 14. The death of a Palestinian prisoner on April 21 led to explosive balloons again being launched into Israel from Gaza after a month of quiet.
On April 22, a Palestinian armed with a pipe bomb rammed his van into a border police officer in the West Bank and then tried to stab him before being shot and killed.
An Israeli citizen and leading Palestinian activist, Ayman Haj Yahya, was indicted for spying for Iran on April 19.
On 22 April, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) announced that it had found a hand grenade and military vest hidden in one of its now vacant schools in Gaza.
Israel trains Gaza medics
Israeli medical staff have trained a team of Palestinian doctors and nurses from Gaza to treat coronavirus patients. A team from the Sheba Medical Centre in Ramat Gan conducted the training sessions at the Erez Border Crossing.
Israel’s Defence Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories has, since the start of the medical emergency, transferred hundreds of tonnes of medical equipment, as well as food, agricultural products and building materials to Gaza, and provided information on preventing coronavirus in Arabic to the Palestinian public via a digital platform. Israel has also been regularly processing coronavirus tests from Gaza in an IDF lab and removed restrictions on previously banned dual-use items entering Gaza if these are needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Mossad helps with medical effort
As part of the battle against coronavirus, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly ordered the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, to focus on sourcing medical supplies for Israel via its overseas contacts.
Between mid-March and mid-April, the Mossad obtained at least 100,000 coronavirus detection kits; millions of protective gear items such as surgical masks, overalls and glasses; 50,000 doses of potential coronavirus medicines and hundreds of crucially needed ventilators.
US breaks Palestinian aid freeze due to pandemic
On April 6, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman announced that the US would give US$5 million to Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank to help fight coronavirus. The decision came despite the US cutting most of its aid funding to the Palestinians in recent years.
Relations between the US and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have been increasingly strained since the PA cut communications with the US following President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The Trump Administration later clarified that the funding was part of a wider US effort to support coronavirus responses in the Middle East, and did not reverse existing policy on aid to the Palestinians.
Zoom with Israelis, get arrested
On April 6, Palestinian activists in Gaza took part in a two-hour discussion with Israeli peace activists via Zoom, conversing about topics including the current COVID-19 crisis. In the days following, Hamas-run security forces arrested several of the Palestinians involved.
“Holding any activity or contact with the Israeli occupation under any cover is a crime punishable by law and a betrayal of the people and their sacrifices,” a Hamas statement read.
Meanwhile, in early April, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, stated he was interested in resuming negotiations with Israel for a long-discussed prisoner swap deal. The proposed deal is to trade the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, and two living Israeli civilians who had entered Gaza voluntarily, for Hamas prisoners in two stages, according to Arab media reports.
Assad regime assisting Hezbollah in Golan
On April 10, the IDF released footage of the Syrian military helping the Hezbollah terror group establish a permanent military presence on the Syrian section of the Golan Heights.
The footage showed the commander of the Syrian Army’s 1st Division and other Syrian army officers walking with the head of Hezbollah’s southern command. According to an Israeli agreement with Russia, the regime is supposed to keep Hezbollah forces away from the Golan border.
On April 20, Israel struck Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria, reportedly killing nine fighters. Israel also struck Syria’s Shayrat Airbase on April 1.
Iran nuclear breakout time: “3-5 months”
The US-based Institute for Science and International Security concluded on April 21 that Iran would require only three to five months to amass 25kg of weapons-grade enriched uranium, enough for one atomic warhead, if it were to decide to do so.
This significantly shorter breakout time is based on Iran’s nuclear stockpiles as of late February. Since then, Teheran has escalated breaches of its nuclear commitments and is currently in possession of at least one ton of low-enriched uranium.
Furthermore, on April 8, an Institute for Science and International Security report exposed the Shahid Mahallati Uranium Metals Workshop near Teheran as a previously undisclosed plant for manufacturing nuclear weapon cores that was in operation between 2002 and 2003.
On April 22, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched a military satellite into orbit. In response, US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, emphasised that “Iran’s space program is clearly a cover for its intercontinental ballistic missile aspirations.”
Iran ups the ante in Persian Gulf
Iran continues to harass both military and civilian vessels in the strategic Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.
On March 27, ships approached a US-flagged tanker with raised ladders, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) approached another vessel on April 2. On April 15, the IRGC seized a Hong Kong-flagged tanker, but released it upon realising it was Chinese. Also on April 15, 11 IRGCN fast boats harassed a US naval exercise in international waters, racing back and forth across the bows and sterns of ships at high speed and at extremely close range. In response, on April 22 US President Donald Trump announced orders to fire upon any Iranian gunboat that hassles US ships.
Reports also indicate Iran has deployed Fajr-5 missile batteries on beaches along the strategically and economically vital Strait of Hormuz.
Mahan Air’s COVID-19 role
Until overtaken in late April by Turkey, Iran had been the epicentre of COVID-19 in the Middle East. Newly revealed aviation data shows that a prime cause may be the continuation of flights between Iran and China, including Wuhan, by Mahan Air, for several weeks after the pandemic began. Mahan Air is a privately-owned Iranian airline linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and has allegedly frequently been used by the IRGC for ferrying weapons and fighters into Syria and elsewhere. Although the Iranian Government declared the suspension of the flights on Jan. 31, and Mahan Air insists it stopped flying to China on Feb. 5, flight data assembled by outside researchers appears to reveal flights continuing until early March.