Israel Update for February 2007

David Dolan
David Dolan

With violence reaching a boiling point, warring Palestinian factions accepted a Saudi-mediated truce in February designed to lead to the formation of a new Palestinian Authority unity government. However the accord was quickly dismissed as inadequate by Israeli officials, since the radical Hamas movement, which totally rejects Israel's existence and all peace process moves, will continue to dominate the new cabinet. Israel's stance was later supported by the international "quartet" members who put forward the Road Map peace plan in 2003, although some countries, including Britain, expressed new willingness to deal directly with some Hamas officials.

In the midst of the escalating inter-Palestinian clashes, some Muslim clerics attempted to spark a new wave of violence against Israel, claiming that government-authorized repair work next to the Temple Mount endangered Islamic shrines on the site that is sacred to three faiths. Meanwhile Palestinian terrorists succeeded in carrying out a deadly attack in the southern resort city of Eilat, while another planned assault was thwarted at the last minute near Tel Aviv.

In the north, Lebanese army units opened fire on Israeli soldiers patrolling the border amid reports that Hizbullah militiamen are nearly up to pre-war weapons strength, due mainly to continuing illegal arms transfers from Syria. Israeli defense officials later confirmed that an ominous Syrian military buildup is underway near the Golan Heights, largely funded by Iran, which continued to utter threats of annihilation against the world's only Jewish-run state.

Facing Mecca

Palestinian Hamas militiamen fought pitched battles with their PLO Fatah rivals in late January and early February, leaving dozens dead and hundreds wounded, including women and children caught up in the intensifying civil strife. Despite the announcement of several ceasefires, some of them mediated by Egyptian officials, the fighting escalated to near civil war proportions by the end of the first week of February. Hamas gunmen succeeded in capturing most of the northern third of the Gaza Strip from PA security forces and Fatah fighters after destroying a number of Fatah linked buildings and killing several senior Fatah officials. As violence spread throughout the coastal zone, security analysts warned that the internecine struggle, which left nearly 100 people dead from early January, was likely to spill over into Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, Jordan and southern Lebanon, and possibly even into parts of Jerusalem.

With Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups battling each other in violence-plagued Iraq, and with possible civil war also brewing in Lebanon-in both countries, fanned by Shiite-ruled Iran and Syria-regional Sunni leaders stepped up their efforts to thwart all out civil war in Sunni-dominated Palestinian zones of control. Following failed mediation efforts by the Syrian Assad regime in January, Saudi Arabia, supported by Egypt and Jordan, stepped up to the plate in February, inviting senior Hamas and Fatah officials to Mecca for intensive talks to end the crisis.

As formal negotiations got underway on February 7, Saudi officials made clear they would not let PLO and Hamas leaders leave Islam's holiest city until they had settled their differences and agreed to the establishment of a new unity coalition government. Overall Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, a former top aid to the late PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, vowed that his Fatah delegation would not exit Mecca "until we have agreed on everything good, with Allah's blessing." Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal echoed this, stating that the warring sides had "no other option but to succeed." Indeed, many analysts said Saudi officials were determined to keep the rival Palestinian leaders holed up in Mecca until an accord was ironed out.

The negotiations opened with a major Saudi sweetener: An offer of one billion dollars in immediate economic aid if the two sides would agree to settle their differences. With this tempting promise in hand, Abbas and Mashaal announced they had reached an accord just one day later. The agreement was spelled out in the form of a letter written by Abbas to PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who was asked to form a new unity government led by Hamas, but also including Fatah representatives.

Ambigious Accord

The PLO-Hamas accord featured a request to Haniyeh to form a unity government within the space of five weeks, or before the middle of March. Hamas would continue to hold the balance of power in the new government, being assigned nine cabinet seats, while Fatah would garner just six government posts. Four other cabinet seats would go to smaller factions represented in the Palestinian Legislative Council. The new government would then be submitted for approval by the Hamas-dominated Palestinian legislature.

Abbas formally called upon the Hamas Premier to "commit to the higher interests of the Palestinian people, to preserve its rights and to preserve its achievements and to develop them, and to work in order to achieve its national goals as was approved by the PLO Palestine National Council, the clauses of the Basic Law and the National Reconciliation Document." In other words, the Fatah chief requested, but did not demand, that the extremist Islamic movement accept previous peace agreements with Israel that were negotiated by Yasser Arafat.

The rather ambigious call upon Hamas to recognize previous PLO accords was amplified in the final sentence of the letter. "Based on this, I call upon you to respect international resolutions and the agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization." Israeli analysts noted that Hamas leader Mashaal did not make any real concessions in order to reach the unity accord, nor even a written commitment to accept the "advice" given to his movement by the Fatah chief. In fact, no Hamas pledges at all were actually contained in the announced settlement, just an implied Hamas nod to the Quartet-backed peace process.

Hamas By Any Other Name

Israeli officials expressed immediate aversion to the Mecca accord, and especially to the fact that the Iranian-backed Hamas movement did not even begin to overtly meet the requirements spelled out by the Quartet sponsors for further participation in the international peace process. In a meeting held in Europe on February 21, Quartet members issued a statement reaffirming that any PA government must adhere to the three basic requirements for participation in any future peace moves: Recognition of Israel's right to exist in the Middle East, formal renunciation of terrorism, and acceptance of previous peace accords signed between Israel and the PLO.

Hamas officials openly boasted that they had come out on top in the Mecca accord, forcing Abbas to formally admit that the once-vaulted PLO is now effectively suvbservient to the radical Palestinian Islamic movement. They especially noted that Mashaal had succeeded in getting Abbas to accept a new government that will not formally recognize Israel's existence, nor necessarily build upon previous Israeli-PLO peace accords as the basis for future negotiations. Indeed, Hamas leaders reiterated that they have absolutely no intention of sitting down with the detested "Zionist entity" to conduct any further peace talks. While Abbas himself may do so on behalf of his Fatah party, his power to secure overall PA government approval for any agreements, let alone Palestinain Legislative Council consent, remains virtually nil, said Israeli analysts.

In his initial response to the Mecca agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet on February 11th that "Israel still insists that all of the Quartet's demands are met, as they were presented in the past." However he added that he intended to keep up contacts with Abbas, indicating he understood that the PA leader was basically forced to make major concessions to Hamas given the Islamic group's ongoing popularity with the Palestinian people.

Knesset opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu warned Olmert that any dealings with Abbas from now on would basically mean he was dealing indirectly with Hamas as well. "Hamas has not moved in the direction of Abbas, rather he has moved in the direction of Hamas," the Likud party leader told reporters in Jerusalem. He added that if Abbas "gives legitimacy to Hamas, then that is bad, but if we give legitimacy to Hamas, that is even worse."

Israeli officials are concerned that the unity accord might further erode Western determination to keep the Hamas movement at bay unless it meets the Quartet conditions. Russian officials immediately announced they would invite Hamas representatives to Moscow for diplomatic discussions. Even more distressing to officials in Jerusalem, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament on February 21 that "It's far easier to deal with the situation in Palestine if there is a national unity government. I hope we can make progress, including even with the more sensible elements of Hamas." Israeli officials noted that the militant Islamic group has resisted all international and PLO attempts over the past year to persuade it to modify its Koranic-based rejection of Israel's permanent right to exist in the turbulent Middle East, giving scant indication that "more sensible elements" in the deeply religious group even exist, let alone hold any sway over fundamentalist leaders like Khaled Mashaal or Ismail Haniyeh.

World Illusions

Netanyahu's warning did not stop the Israeli Premier from holding a summit meeting one week later with Abbas in Jerusalem, hosted by visiting American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. However the fact that relations between Olmert and the PA leader remain strained was amply illustrated by the fact that neither leader joined Rice in making a public statement after the summit, as had previously been expected. Indeed, the Secretary of State refused to take reporters questions, simply stating that the Bush Administration would continue its efforts to shepherd a final peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, adding that Olmert and Abbas had pledged to meet again.

Many Israeli political analysts termed the summit meeting a total waste of time. They noted that Abbas has been the leader of the Palestinian people in name only ever since Hamas won a landslide victory in PA legislative elections in January 2006. With Palestinian opinion surveys indicating that the fundamentalist movement would triumph in any new ballot as well-despite strong economic sanctions imposed upon the PA government by international donor nations-they said it is abundantly clear that the PLO and its previous peace accords with Israel are now basically relics of history.

On top of this, the Kadima party head has become the weakest Israeli leader in living memory, with public approval ratings hovering below 20%. Olmert is widely perceived to have badly mishandled last year's conflict with Hizbullah forces in Lebanon, and has abandoned his party's election platform commitment to carry out further unilateral withdrawals from portions of Judea and Samaria. Analysts note that he spends a good deal of time just staying in office, especially after the resignation of Armed Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz in late January which drew many calls for Olmert to immediately follow suit.

How the emasculated Palestinian and Israeli leaders could hammer out any serious final peace accord that would be acceptable to their respective parliaments and people is anybody's guess, said many analysts. Added to this, the Bush Administration itself is now viewed with intense suspicion by most Palestinians, along with many Muslims around the region, given the continuing crisis in Iraq. This means its ability to successfully oversee any new Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is also highly questionable at best.

Terror Returns

Palestinian groups continued to launch Kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory in February amid reports that plans for a major IDF military operation to stem the assaults were being formulated. Fresh attempts to damage Israel's sprawling electrical power plant south of Ashkelon took place. This came as intelligence officials said even deadlier weapons were being smuggled into the PA coastal zone, including Russian-made Kornet anti-tank rockets that produced over half the IDF casualties in last year's Lebanon conflict.

The southern Israeli city of Eilat suffered its first ever Palestinian suicide attack on January 29 when an Islamic Jihad terrorist blew up a bakery in the Red Sea resort, killing its two Israeli owners-both married with children-along with a Jewish employee. The 20 year old Arab attacker from Gaza City had earlier infiltrated Israel from the largely unguarded Sinai border with Egypt. Several weeks later, Israeli officials warned all Israeli tourists to immediately leave the Sinai Peninsula after Egyptian officials apprehended a Palestinian wearing an explosive belt who had tunneled under the Gaza border with Egypt heading toward Sinai's coastal resorts. Several other suspected Palestinian terrorists were said to be still on the loose in the area. Just days earlier, another Islamic Jihad homicide bomber was arrested outside of Tel Aviv on his way to carry out an atrocity near the city's central bus station. After the terrorist revealed that he had been sent on his deadly mission by the Iranian-backed group's Jenin branch, IDF forces killed the Islamic Jihad commander in the Palestinian town. Troops later entered the town of Nablus to apprehend wanted Palestinian terrorists.

Meanwhile trouble returned to Jerusalem's Temple Mount in early February after Israeli workers began scheduled repairs on a foot bridge onto the hallowed site which was partially destroyed in an earthquake several years ago. When diggers discovered ancient archeological remains at the site next to the Western Wall, as widely expected, all construction work was halted so experts could study the remains, as mandated in such circumstances by Israeli law.

This action prompted numerous Muslim leaders to issue ludicrous accusations that Israel was attempting to somehow destroy Islamic shrines on the nearby mount, which in turn sparked rioting in and around the walled Old City. The violence later spread to Bethlehem and other places. It was fanned by a prominent Arab Muslim leader from the Galilee region who rushed to the city to lead protests against the archeological work while calling for a "new intifada" against Israel. However when most international media outlets accurately reported that the factual basis for the shrill allegations was nonexistent, the violence subsided, although scattered clashes were still occurring at the end of the month.

On Alert

Lebanese soldiers fired upon their Israeli counterparts in early February, and later in the month at IDF jets flying reconnaissance missions over Lebanese territory. This came as Israeli security officials confirmed that the extremist Shiite Hizbullah group is nearing pre-war missile strength, due to constant illegal arms smuggling from Syria. Reports said additional Russian anti-tank rockets are also being delivered to the Iranian-funded force.

Israeli media outlets reported in late February that Syria is significantly reinforcing army positions near its Golan Heights border with Israel while also receiving new Iranian-funded equipment for the small Syrian navy. The reports came just before intelligence officials briefed the Olmert cabinet on various regional threats facing Israel in 2007, stating that while the chances for a major regional conflict are considered fairly slim, armed clashes could break out again with Hizbullah militia forces, and also with Syria. Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin spoke of a "deterioration in the strategic environment" that has increased the danger of conflict in the region. He added that the prospects for peace with the Palestinians are extremely remote.

The officials also noted that tensions remain extremely high with Iran, which defied yet another UN deadline in late February to halt its uranium enrichment program. Israeli government leaders, who believe the program is a likely prelude to the construction of nuclear weapons, denied media reports that Israel has asked the White House for permission to fly over Iraq in planned air strikes designed to cripple the Iranian program. Various Arab media reports said Israel had already received such permission from three small Gulf countries known to be extremely concerned over the prospect that their aggressive Iranian neighbor will become a nuclear power.

Meanwhile Israeli officials announced that they had conducted a successful test in early February of the sophisticated Arrow anti-missile system, which demonstrated its ability to destroy strategic missiles slicing through the planet's upper atmosphere. Iran has threatened to fire such missiles, built with North Korean assistance, against Israel.

From Darkness To Light

One thing seems beyond question: 2007 is destined to be another unsettled year for the violence-plagued Middle East. But despite it all, the God of Israel still reigns over the troubled affairs of men, and His plans and purposes will stand in the end.

Indeed, some rabbis note that a full lunar eclipse will take place hours after the Purim holiday begins on the evening of March 3, reaching its climax in the Middle East just after midnight. The eclipse is especially unique in that scientists say it will be at least partially visible from every continent on earth. It is also occurring on the very day that marks Israel's deliverance from ancient Persia's nefarious plans to wipe out all of the Jews living in Queen Esther's day.

With modern Persian leaders issuing the exact same vows today, some rabbis see the celestial event as a divine sign that the God of Israel intends once again to eclipse the contemporary annihilation plot emanating from Iran. If so, King David's modern kin can repeat his ancient words of praise, uttered in the midst of turmoil: "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me. You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand will save me." (Psalm 138:7). CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.