Israel Update for June 2012

David Dolan
David Dolan

The tense Middle East continued to quake during June, with regional violence and turbulence spreading to portions of southern Israel as fighting escalated in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood won a foreboding presidential victory in Egypt. After several months of relative quiet, a new wave of Palestinian rocket attacks was launched mid-month aimed mainly at Israeli civilian centres in the vicinity of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Hundreds of thousands of area residents were forced to take shelter as air raid sirens sounded in several cities and towns, warning of incoming rockets. School classes were cancelled along with many public events. Several Israelis were wounded by Palestinian rocket shrapnel.

IDF military helicopters and jets went into action in response to the bombardments, killing around 15 Palestinians in the week-long clashes, including a man they said was behind an earlier terror attack along Israel's border with the Sinai Peninsula. That attack, which left an Arab Israeli worker dead, sparked off the latest round of conflict. Over 100 rockets and mortar shells were fired over a three-day period before an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire was supposed to go into effect. However over 50 additional rockets were directed at Israeli cities after that, most likely fired by Iran's main Palestinian ally, the Islamic jihad group. Suspecting that Iranian leaders were trying to goad Israel into another major conflict to deflect them away from attacking Iranian nuclear targets, Israeli defense officials nevertheless warned of a possible new ground offensive in the Gaza Strip if radical Hamas leaders-whose movement was born in 1988 out of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood group-did not enforce the declared truce.

The Palestinian attacks came as fresh political chaos rocked neighboring Egypt and warfare escalated in Syria. The American-trained Egyptian military basically took back the reigns of governmental power on the eve of the mid-June presidential election by canceling the results of the earlier parliamentary vote won by two Muslim fundamentalist parties. The military leaders also made clear that they, and not any future parliament, would oversee drawing up a new Egyptian constitution. The Islamic parties strongly objected to the dramatic moves, calling them a virtual military coup. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest. Days later, both the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president, Muhammad Morsi, and his rival Ahmed Shafik claimed victory in the presidential race. Israeli officials were said to be extremely concerned when it was announced that Morsi had defeated Shafik in the election, significantly moving forward the march of militant Islam in the quaking region. Hamas supporters danced in the streets of Gaza City after the election results were announced. Earlier a senior Muslim Brotherhood official called for Israel's total destruction, vowing the militant group would help make that happen.

To the north, a United Nations official used the term "civil war" to describe the escalating conflict in Syria. Several mass civilian killings were blamed on the Assad regime. Human Rights groups say the death toll in the 16 month-old conflict is now over 14,000. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad denied his forces were responsible for the latest atrocities, claiming the horrendous slaughters of men, women and children were occurring at the hands of unnamed "enemies of the state."

Officials from NATO countries announced they would hold an urgent meeting to discuss Syria's downing of an F-4 Phantom Turkish warplane off of the northern Syrian coast on June 22. The Assad regime claimed the jet had strayed into Syrian airspace near its Latakia seaport, where Russian naval forces are stationed. The Turkish Muslim government denied this charge while strongly denouncing the Syrian action. This came after various Middle East analysts warned that the intensifying fighting in Syria could spread to other regional countries. More armed clashes broke out in Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the embattled Syrian regime. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Syrian refugees continued to pour into neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. A Syrian air force pilot defected with his MIG jet to a Jordanian air force base in the north of the Hashemite kingdom. Several top Assad government officials were said to be preparing to defect to the rebel side of the mushrooming civil war.

The possibility that Israel could get drawn into the Syrian conflict was highlighted by news reports saying Israeli officials have warned they would not allow the Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia to transfer SCUD missiles from Syria into Lebanon. Hizbullah leaders are apparently concerned that the SCUDS could fall into the hands of mainly Sunni Muslim forces fighting the Assad regime. A rebel military-style attack was launched earlier in the month against a Syrian air force base near the border with Jordan, not far from the Golan Heights. Israeli military forces were placed on full war alert in the north as the internal fighting in Syria ominously spread to the border area.

The brutal Syrian regime denied Iranian media reports claiming that a massive war exercise would soon be held in Syria involving Russian, Chinese and Iranian military forces. The Kremlin also denied the reports, which came just before Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel for a short visit. American and European leaders made clear during June that they might be compelled to enter the conflict if mass civilian slaughters continue. Press reports said the CIA is helping to smuggle weapons to the "Free Syrian Army" from Turkey. Meanwhile UN monitors operating in the crumbling country were ordered back to their bases after armed attacks were launched against them. The UN said civilian thugs working for the Assad regime were most likely behind the assaults, along with at least most of the mass slaughters. Russia denied American government claims that it was sending new defense helicopters to the besieged Assad regime. However the Kremlin later announced that additional Russian warships were en route to two Syrian Mediterranean ports to supposedly "protect" Russian citizens working in the war-torn country.

With the headlines dominated by the jarring news from Egypt, Syria and the fresh Palestinian rocket attacks, the crisis with Iran continued to simmer on the back burner. A new round of international talks, this time in Moscow, failed once again to persuade the defiant Iranian clerical government to halt its apparent rush towards developing nuclear weapons. It was not even clear if any further meetings would be held. Israeli officials again warned that the defiant Shiite Muslim regime is simply using the talks as a cover while racing to reach its goal to be in a position to quickly produce nuclear weapons. Media reports in late June said American military forces were being beefed up in several Arab Gulf states opposite Iran.

Two other domestic news items received extensive coverage in Israel during the month. One was the government's decision to begin deporting some of the African migrants that have entered the country illegally over the past six years. Officials say at least 60,000 migrants, mostly young men, have entered the country, with some estimates reaching double that number. While some Israeli groups opposed the deportation moves, surveys showed that a large majority of Israelis support the action, especially in light of a growing crime wave involving some of the migrants who are mostly living in south Tel Aviv. The second item was a serious riot in the centre of Tel Aviv, which took place after police stopped left wing "social justice" Israeli protestors from setting up a new tent camp in the centre of the city. Hundreds of protestors responded one day later by smashing windows in three city banks and shutting down the main Ayalon freeway for half an hour. Unrest then spread to Jerusalem where protestors held an unlicensed demonstration in the heart of city, blocking light rail trains from running on Jaffa Road. Analysts warned that additional violent encounters between anarchist protestors and security forces were likely this summer.

Attacks On The Borders

An Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian who infiltrated from the Gaza Strip on the first day of June, setting off a month of intense violence in the area. Sergeant Nethanel Mushyashvili from Ashkelon was shot dead by an armed terrorist who broke through Israel's security fence. The soldier, 21, was a member of the Golani brigade. The attacker was then killed by other Golani troops patrolling in the area. Israel tanks and helicopters were sent into action, entering territory near the site of the attack and also in the southern portion of the Gaza Strip where it was believed the infiltrator had come from. Israelis living in nearby communities were ordered to stay indoors near their bomb shelters in case the Palestinians responded with rocket attacks. Some reports said the infiltrator had hoped to take at least one soldier hostage.

Early in the morning on June 18, Arab Muslim terrorists attacked two Israeli work crews constructing the new security fence along Israel's porous Sinai border with Egypt. The attackers, later identified as Egyptian and Saudi citizens, fired rocket-propelled grenades and other explosive devices at the civilian workers, killing Saed Phashpashe, an Arab Israeli from Haifa, and wounding several others. Israeli army units rushed to the scene and entered into armed combat with the Muslim squad. The army later announced that "several terrorists" were killed in the encounter. The next day, an Arab group calling itself the "Shura Council of the Mujahideen in the Holy Land" said it had carried out the terrorist attack. Israeli security sources said the group, probably linked to Al Qaida, is based in the southern Gaza Strip.

In response to the unprovoked attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the air force into action against several targets in the Gaza Strip. This came after the Premier issued a statement saying the terrorist assault would not halt work on the border fence. "This barrier is meant both to prevent terrorism and also to prevent the entrance of infiltrators. Its construction is of supreme national interest." Officials say the security fence should be fully constructed by the end of this year. The term "infiltrators" is used by the government to describe the illegal African migrants-most of them Muslims-that have crossed into Israel in recent years.

Israeli aircraft struck several targets in the southern Gaza Strip soon after the border terrorist attack, killing a number of Palestinians. When the Palestinians responded by firing rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilian centres around the coastal zone, the IDF launched further air force strikes, killing or wounding a number of Palestinians the army spokesman said were members of various terrorist cells. The spokesman said one of the planners of the Sinai border assault named Aleb Armilat was among the dead. His superior, identified as Muhammad Rashdan, was reportedly seriously wounded in the strike. Palestinian groups, especially Islamic Jihad, then stepped up rocket attacks, many of them aimed at the nearby Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. This was followed by the firing of a more powerful, longer-range Iranian-supplied Grad rocket at the Negev Desert city of Beersheva. The Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system was put into action two days after a rocket struck a border police base in Ashkelon, wounding four Israeli border policemen working there, one of them seriously. The system successfully destroyed a rocket that advanced Iron Dome computer projections showed was heading to a built up area of the coastal city. The system was deployed again later in the week, destroying ten more rockets in flight. However another rocket struck a factory in the hard-hit town of Sderot, seriously wounding a male Israeli worker.