Over the last few days there have been several news items from local Israeli news and the wider Middle East which got lost amongst the welter of other news, so here’s a quick round-up:
After several incidents of cross-border shooting it appears that at least one if not more of these cases were not simple stray bullets but deliberate shooting at Israeli positions. IDF Chief of Staff issues stern warning to Syria over the rapidly heating border, and the IDF returned accurate fire at the Syrian position:
Israel’s military chief issued a severe warning to Bashar Assad on Tuesday, saying the Syrian leader would “bear the consequences” of any more attacks on Israeli forces near the Syrian border.
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz issued his threat hours after an Israeli jeep came under fire during a patrol in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Syria claimed it destroyed an Israeli vehicle that crossed the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights overnight. A statement issued by the Syrian Armed Forces said its troops destroyed the vehicle “with those in it.” It did not elaborate, but said any attempt to infiltrate Syria’s territory will face “immediate and firm retaliation.”
The IDF said the vehicle, which had not entered Syrian territory, suffered light damage. It said that the Israeli troops reported a “direct hit” from their return fire — a Tamuz missile, fired seven minutes after the Syrian fire.
Gantz said there was no doubt whatsoever that the routine IDF patrol was inside Israeli territory, and no doubt either that it was deliberately fired upon by Assad’s forces — “from a clearly marked Syrian position… not once, not twice, but three times.” Israel, he said, “cannot allow the Golan Heights area to become a comfortable space for Assad to operate from. If he causes [the situation on] the Golan Heights to deteriorate, he will have to bear the consequences.”
Although Israeli analysts said Tuesday’s incident was apparently a local initiative, “Assad encourages and directs the widening of different operations against Israel, including the Golan Heights,” Gantz told a conference at the University of Haifa.
Tuesday’s was the latest in a string of incidents in which gunfire and mortar shells have struck the Golan in recent months. Israel believes that most of the fire has been spillover from the Syrian civil war, but that several cases, including Tuesday’s, were intentional.
That was bolstered by the fact that Tuesday marked the first time the Syrian army has acknowledged firing at Israeli troops across the frontier, in what appeared to be an attempt by Assad’s regime to project toughness following three Israeli airstrikes near Damascus this year.
Ehud Ya’ari, a leading Arab affairs analyst, told Channel 2 news on Tuesday night that the situation between Israel and Syria was now “several times more explosive than it was this morning.”
He noted that a Syrian member of parliament, Sharif Shehadeh, warned after the Golan exchange of fire that Syria would respond to any future Israeli attacks; Shehadeh also spoke of “other regional forces” allied with Syria — in reference to Iran and Hezbollah.
“This marks a serious change of policy by Assad,” said Ya’ari. Assad has now “tied his own hands… committing himself to respond” to any future Israeli attacks.” This was something the Syrian president had avoided doing for two years, because he didn’t want direct confrontation with Israel.
Meanwhile, as Syria’s citizens are being viciously slaughtered by both sides of the civil war, and while Assad is trying to heat things up on Israel’s border, the Syrians had the gall to accuse Israel in the UN World Health Organization (WHO) of burying nuclear waste on the Golan Heights, placing “nuclear land mines” on cease-fire line and conducting medical experiments on Syrian prisoners!
In an act of macabre political theater, Syria presented a report to the U.N.’s World Health Organization on Monday slamming what it says is the “deterioration of the health conditions of the Syrian population in the occupied Golan as a result of the suppressive practices of the Israeli occupation.”
Under the rubric of “Health Conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Including East Jerusalem, and in the Occupied Syrian Golan,” the conference featured four reports scrutinizing Israel, and a brief reply from the Jewish state. According to U.N. Watch, nowhere in the WHO agenda or supporting documents is there any mention of the more than 80,000 civilians slaughtered in Syria, the tens of thousands more who have been injured or disfigured, the 2.5 million refugees, including 600,000 children, strewn across the region, or the 2 million children internally displaced.
In a report to the WHO’s 66th World Health Assembly, Syria’s Health Ministry said that Syrians were being deprived of medical treatment for rejecting Israeli citizenship, and there was an “acute shortage of primary and tertiary health care services owing to the lack of integrated medical centres in the occupied Syrian Golan.”
The Syrian report accuses Israel of torturing Syrians held in Israeli prisons, saying they “continue to be held in inhumane conditions of detention.”
It also accuses Israel of using Arab and Syrian detainees for “testing medicines,” after which they are “brutally tortured and coerced into confessing crimes they never committed. Prisoners are also injected with dangerous viruses that cause them to develop diseases and disabilities, even with a fatal outcome.”
The report also accuses Israel of burying nuclear waste in the Golan and “planting the cease-fire line with nuclear and radioactive land mines.”
In a statement, Israel’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. and other international organizations in Geneva said: “The position of the State of Israel has always been that a politically motivated debate and resolution on the item ‘Health Conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Including East Jerusalem, and in the Occupied Syrian Golan’ has no place on the agenda of the World Health Assembly. The Health Assembly should not discuss the health situation of a population in a specific conflict, as it is not of a general public health nature.
The chutzpah of Syria is simply breathtaking. First of all, it is patently obvious to everyone that not one of these accusations is true. Secondly, the exact opposite is the case. The only people doing the torturing, mistreating and using WMD are the Syrians themselves. And the only people providing medical care to the Syrians are the Israelis.
Shame on the UN for even allowing the Syrians to present this paper in the first place. But of course for anyone who has been following the UN’s antics over the years, none of this should come as a surprise.
Still on the subject of terrorism, the UK and the US are struggling to convince the EU to include Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations:
Britain said on Tuesday it had asked the European Union to put Hezbollah’s military arm on its list of terrorist organizations, urging Europe to respond robustly to evidence of the Islamist group’s involvement in an attack that killed five Israelis.
Britain’s request came after Bulgaria accused the Lebanese terrorist movement in February of carrying out a bomb attack on a bus in the Black Sea city of Burgas that killed the Israelis and their Bulgarian driver in July last year.
Britain also cited a four-year jail sentence handed down by a Cypriot court in March to a Hezbollah member accused of plotting to attack Israeli interests on the island.
In an email, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told AFP the U.S. was “increasingly concerned about Hezbollah’s activities on a number of fronts — including its stepped up terrorist campaign around the world, and their critical and ongoing support” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Countering these activities has been, and will remain, one of our highest priorities,” Ventrell said.
The United States already lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and U.S. and Israeli authorities want the EU to do likewise. But many European governments are cautious about imposing sanctions on Hezbollah, arguing it could fuel tensions in the Middle East, but the real reason could be fear of reprisals against their troops serving with the UNIFIL peace keepers in southern Lebanon.
In Europe, only the Netherlands lists Hezbollah as a terrorist group, while Britain blacklists its military wing.
European governments and companies must cease any financial dealings with groups on the list.
France has traditionally been cautious about backing steps to sanction Hezbollah, fearing it could destabilize Lebanon and potentially put U.N. peacekeepers at risk, but in recent weeks it has said it would consider all options. France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, has contributed about 900 troops to the U.N. peacekeeping force, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
Over to the east, Iran is making rapid progress on its nuclear programs according to the IAEA:
The U.N. atomic agency on Wednesday detailed rapid Iranian progress in two programs that the West fears are geared toward making nuclear weapons, saying Tehran has upgraded its uranium enrichment facilities and advanced in building a plutonium-producing reactor.
In a confidential report obtained by The Associated Press, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Tehran had installed close to 700 high-tech centrifuges used for uranium enrichment, which can produce the core of nuclear weapons. It also said Tehran had added hundreds of older-generation machines at its main enrichment site to bring the total number to more than 13,000.
Iran denies that either its enrichment program or the reactor will be used to make nuclear arms. Most international concern has focused on its enrichment, because it is further advanced than the reactor and already has the capacity to enrich to weapons-grade uranium.
But the IAEA devoted more space to the reactor Wednesday than it has in previous reports. While its language was technical, a senior diplomat who closely follows the IAEA’s monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities said that reflected increased international concerns about the potential proliferation dangers it represents as a completion date approaches.
The IAEA first reported initial installations in February. It said then that agency inspectors counted 180 of the advanced IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz, Tehran’s main enrichment site, less than a month after Iran’s Jan. 23 announcement that it would start mounting them.
Diplomats said none of the machines appeared to be operating and some may only be partially set up. But the rapid pace of installations indicates that Iran possesses the technology and materials to mass-produce the centrifuges and make its enrichment program much more potent.
Iranian nuclear chief Fereidoun Abbasi said earlier this year that more than 3,000 high-tech centrifuges have already been produced and will soon phase out its older-generation enriching machines at Natanz, south of Tehran.
The report also noted Iran’s decision to keep its stockpile of uranium enriched to a level just a technical step away from weapons-grade to below the amount needed for a bomb.
The only small comfort in this story is that the US Senate backs Israel in the event of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities:
In a show of force, the United States Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution urging an uncompromising US stance against Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, calling for Washington’s support should Israel strike the program. “If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence,” the resolution reads.
It also calls for the US to take “such action as may be necessary” to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability.
“The bottom line: Israel should always understand that the United States has its back, that we will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability, and, if we are forced to, we will take whatever means necessary to prevent this outcome,” he said.
The resolution itself “declares that the United States has a vital national interest in, and unbreakable commitment to, ensuring the existence, survival, and security of the State of Israel, and reaffirms United States support for Israel’s right to self-defense.”
I hope this commitment will still stand firm when and if the time comes that Israel does feel the need to strike.
In local Israel news, an IDF soldier was tragically killed this week while clearing old mines in the Golan Heights:
The soldier was named as Roi Israel Alphi, 19, from Gan Yavne near the southern coastal city of Ashdod.
[…] The mines were laid in the 1990s. The Israel Defense Forces said it has detailed maps with the exact locations of the mines. The mine that exploded had been located by the squad, but exploded unexpectedly during the identification process. Alphi was killed immediately. Two additional soldiers in close proximity to the anti-tank mine were flung into the air by the explosion but were not injured. Routine searches were due to continue Wednesday morning.
Friends and relatives of the slain soldier said that the “shock was absolute.”
A senior IDF officer on Tuesday said that the soldier’s company had completed all the necessary preparations before entering the field, although this was the company’s first mine-clearing exercise. An anti-tank mine packs 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of explosives and should only be triggered by at least 120 kilograms (265 pounds) of weight pressed on it. The official said it was still unclear whether the soldier had begun handling the mine, adding that he was equipped with the appropriate protective equipment.
“We’re talking about a mine that was marked and uncovered in the exercise along with other mines,” the official explained.
OC Ground Forces Maj. Gen. Guy Tzur has appointed a team of specialists headed by a colonel to investigate the incident. All minefield clearing exercises have been suspended pending the preliminary conclusions of the investigation.
May the memory of Roi Alphi be for a blessing. יהי זכרו ברוך
A much more heartening news item from today tells us of Muslim clerics from around the world who were highly moved on visiting the Nazi death camps and learning about Jewish history in Europe:
Thirteen imams from Indonesia, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bosnia and other Muslim lands, along with five American imams, visited the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw on Monday.
The imams, many of whom are teachers at Islamic universities, came to learn more about the history of the Jewish people, including Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust.
The group visited Auschwitz on Wednesday and conducted a traditional Islamic prayer for the dead at the site.
“When I saw what happened for the people here, I tried to prevent my tears from my eyes because it’s very difficult to see how many people were killed without any reason,” Barakat Hasan, an imam from Ramallah, told the AFP.
“I am from Palestine and my people are suffering now since 65 years until now, so of course I feel for others who have suffering,” he said.
“What can you say? You’re speechless. What you have seen is beyond human imagination,” said Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America. “Whether in Europe today or in the Muslim world, my call to humanity: End racism, for God’s sake, end anti-Semitism, for God’s sake, end Islamophobia for God’s sake, end sexism for God’s sake… Enough is enough,” he added.
The imams also were scheduled to visit places connected to the Warsaw and Krakow ghettos, and to meet with Polish Righteous Among the Nations, as well as Catholic, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. The imams also will eat a kosher dinner with Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.
If only this visit could be the beginning of a proper rapprochement between Israel and its Arab neighbours.