Australia/Israel Review

Behind the News – September 2020

Sep 3, 2020 | AIJAC staff

The Aug. 4 blast at Beirut’s port devastated the city
The Aug. 4 blast at Beirut’s port devastated the city


Rocket and Terror Report

After months of relative quiet, there have been frequent rocket launches and explosive and incendiary balloon attacks from Gaza in recent weeks. Israel has retaliated with strikes against Hamas targets. 

One rocket was fired on Aug. 3, several on Aug. 16, one on Aug. 19, 12 on Aug. 21, one on Aug. 22, and a failed launch on Aug. 23. 

Incendiary balloon terrorism has been a very frequent occurrence over recent weeks, with dozens of fires being lit daily, causing environmental and agricultural damage in southern Israel.

On Aug. 22, Israeli officials accused Hamas of deliberately diverting sewage into Israel after sewage treatment plants in Gaza were shut down due to restrictions on fuel imports imposed by Israel in retaliation for the balloon attacks. 

On Aug. 26, Rabbi Shai Ohayon, 39, a father of four, was stabbed to death by a Palestinian in Petah Tikva – the first death in a year of an Israeli citizen as a result of Palestinian terror. 

In the north, on July 25, the IDF reported munitions had been fired from Syria towards Israel, prompting retaliatory strikes. On July 28, a Hezbollah infiltration attempt from Lebanon was thwarted. On Aug. 3, an Iran-linked terrorist cell tried to plant explosives along the security fence between Syria and Israel. A shooting attack on IDF soldiers along the Lebanon border on Aug. 25, most likely by Hezbollah, saw Israel respond by shelling several Hezbollah surveillance outposts on the Lebanese side of the border.


Hamas politics fuels violence

Analysts say that internal Hamas politics is likely a major factor fueling the escalation in violence towards Israel from Gaza over recent weeks. An internal election for the leadership of Hamas, both inside and outside Gaza, which started a few months ago, is expected to conclude by early next year. Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, is competing against current Head of the Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh, who recently left Gaza, and Qatar-based former leader Khaled Meshaal. 

All candidates are seeking credit for extracting concessions, benefits and money from Israel and Qatar, and the recent upsurge in rockets and incendiary balloons directed at Israel from Gaza is understood to be part of these efforts.


Intriguing reports about Beirut port explosion

The ammonium nitrate store held at the Beirut port, which exploded on Aug. 4 killing at least 220 people, was originally carried by a ship called the Rhosus, owned by a Cypriot businessman named Charalambos Manoli. 

The ship, bound for Africa, docked in Beirut in 2013, reportedly due to leaks and technical defects, and never left because local authorities deemed it unseaworthy. Its cargo was kept in unsafe storage at the port until the explosion.

According to a report by Der Spiegel and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Manoli offered the Rhosus as collateral for a US$1.1 million debt to a Lebanese-owned Tanzanian-registered bank, FBME, which has been accused by the US of laundering money for Hezbollah. 

The report also noted that a large quantity of ammonium nitrate that had originally been aboard the ship went missing from the warehouse prior to the August explosion.

Israeli geophysics experts also revealed the massive port explosion was preceded by six smaller explosions at exactly 11-second intervals, leading to speculation the original source of the explosion may have been a cache of Hezbollah weaponry stored at the port. 


Israel offered aid to Lebanon after the blast 

Shortly after the Aug. 4 Beirut explosion, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi announced that Israel had offered Lebanon medical and humanitarian aid. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) confirmed that Israel was holding advanced talks to transfer equipment capable of detecting missing people under collapsed buildings, as well as medical supplies. 

The heads of several Israeli hospitals also offered assistance, suggesting UNIFIL could transfer the blast victims to and from Israel. 

After a lack of response from Lebanon, Israeli disaster specialists offered to fly to European countries to work in teams there in order to help treat the injured. 


Hariri tribunal verdict

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established with the backing of the UN Security Council in 2009 to try, in absentia, suspects allegedly responsible for the truck bomb that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and dozens of others in 2005, handed down its verdict on Aug. 18. Of the four suspects – Salim Jalil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra – all of whom were affiliated with Hezbollah, only Ayyash, whose whereabouts are unknown, was convicted. The court did not directly implicate either the Syrian regime or Hezbollah of involvement in the bombing, saying it lacked evidence to do so.

However, Dr. Matthew Levitt, a Hezbollah expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told AIJAC, “My takeaway is that a senior Hezbollah commander has been convicted by an international court with carrying out and overseeing the assassination of Rafiq Hariri…They make it very, very clear that this was not an operation that could have been carried out by… some renegade.” 


Revelations about past Israel-UAE ties 

The Israel-UAE normalisation deal announced on Aug. 13 has led to new revelations about the many business arrangements that have already been taking place covertly between the two countries. 

According to the Manufacturers Association of Israel, about 200 Israeli companies are already exporting products to the UAE, particularly medical, telecommunications and defence equipment. The trade was coordinated through subsidiaries in a third country, often in the US or Europe. 

In addition, there has reportedly been significant interest from the UAE recently in employing Israeli experts in cybersecurity and big data analysis.

Reports have also revealed that top officials from Israeli intelligence agencies have been frequent visitors to the UAE in recent years to discuss plans to thwart Iran’s regional aggression. 


Gulf nuclear facilities

According to media reports from early August, US intelligence has detected an undeclared facility in Saudi Arabia that is processing yellow cake, used in uranium enrichment, and was allegedly built with Chinese assistance. 

Elsewhere in the Gulf, the UAE successfully began operating its Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, the first in the Arab world, on Aug. 1. The South Korea-made reactor will be fully monitored by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. 


Israeli and Palestinian COVID-19 numbers 

Israel continues to endure high morbidity during its second wave of coronavirus infections. As of Aug. 26, there were 21,779 active cases in Israel with 427 serious cases, and a seven-day moving average of more than 1,400 new cases per day. The national death toll was 859.

In the PA-controlled areas at that time, there were 7,210 active cases of coronavirus, and had been 133 deaths. In the week to Aug. 24, 2,653 new cases were identified, compared to 2,324 the previous week. 

On Aug. 25, the first cases of coronavirus were detected within the Gaza Strip outside its quarantine facilities, with four people from the same family testing positive. There had until then been 109 coronavirus infections among those quarantined in the Gaza Strip and one death.


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