Israel Update for July 2012

David Dolan
David Dolan

Israel stepped several paces closer to becoming involved in a major new Middle East conflict during July after officials named Syria's ally Iran and its surrogate Lebanese Hizbullah militia as being behind the worst terrorist atrocity against Israeli civilians traveling abroad in many years. The suicide bomb blast on a chartered bus at a coastal airport in Bulgaria took the lives of five Israeli tourists, including an expectant mother and her unborn baby. Dozens of others were wounded, several seriously, including a number of children. A Bulgarian bus driver was also killed. Several severely wounded victims were flown to the capital city, Sofia, for emergency surgery. The remaining wounded tourists were quickly flown back to Israel on IAF transporters for medical treatment at home, along with the remains of the fatalities. Two pregnant women were among those injured in the assault. One week before, Israeli and Cypriot security agents apprehended a suspected Hizbullah terrorist plotting to attack Israeli tourists in Limassol Cyprus.

Israeli leaders wasted no time in pledging a "firm response" to the outrageous terrorist atrocity. They cancelled all flights to several popular tourist destinations, including Greece and Thailand, where intelligence officials believe similar Iranian-linked atrocities might be in the offing. Some analysts warned the foreign bus bombing could soon be matched by a new wave of similar attacks inside of Israel, where dozens of buses were targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers between September 2000 and February 2004, leaving hundreds of Israelis dead and many more seriously wounded.

The latest terrorist assault came on the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when violent attacks often escalate in the region. Ramadan coincides this year with the Jewish month of Av, marked by the fast on the ninth of the month (July 28th this year) which marks the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem temples and other disasters that have marred Jewish history over the centuries.

The horrendous homicide bombing also came just hours after the crumbling Syrian Assad regime suffered a massive setback in the escalating armed conflict engulfing the Arab country. Anti-government forces, believed to have been Muslim Brotherhood agents, audaciously planted a powerful bomb inside the national security headquarters building in the capital city, Damascus, killing the Syrian Defense Minister and his deputy, the brother-in-law of besieged Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Other senior government and military officials were killed or wounded in the bomb blast. With fighting raging all over Damascus and much of the rest of the country and senior military defections continuing, rumors abounded that Assad himself had either been wounded or slain, or had fled the Syrian capital for the Mediterranean coast where his Muslim Alawite sect, related to Shiite Islam, has its stronghold.

Ominously, the embattled regime quickly put out a statement blaming Israel and the United States for being behind the deadly bombing, implying it might have either been carried out by Israeli agents or Saudis backed by America. The jarring accusation of possible Israeli involvement prompted Israeli security leaders to hold emergency discussions about the possibility of imminent aggression being launched against Israel by the disintegrating Assad regime. Weekend army leave was cancelled for many IDF soldiers - a clear message to the public that a major conflict is possibly at hand.

After the Bulgaria attack, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak quickly toured the northern Golan Heights border with Syria, warning that the government will not allow the heavily-armed Hizbullah militia to transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon. He later told reporters he has ordered preparations for possible IDF action to prevent such transfers from taking place - seen by many as another warning of possibly pending war. This came soon after major defense drills were carried out in Haifa and the Tel Aviv area simulating enemy chemical attacks.

Barak also stated that the Russian-backed Syrian regime is nearing its end. Israeli leaders worry that Assad may seek to take Israel down with him, or at least engulf the Jewish State in a serious conflict that might act to deter an IDF strike against Assad's main regional ally, Iran. How the Kremlin - which angered Sunni Arab and Western leaders by vetoing yet another UN resolution against the Assad regime last week while rapidly reinforcing Russia's naval presence in the area - might react to a Syrian and/or Hizbullah attack upon Israel, or an Israeli strike against Hizbullah and/or Syria, is anyone's guess.

The deadly bomb blasts in Bulgaria and Syria came two days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Israel to meet with senior officials. After holding discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, she stated that the Obama administration is fully committed to Israel's security and remains strongly opposed to Iran's threatening nuclear production programme. This came as news reports said additional American military forces and equipment are being rushed to the Gulf region, including crew-less mine-destroying mini submarines.

Before arriving at Ben Gurion airport, the senior US diplomat met with new Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi - the first-ever top level American contact with a leader of the militant Muslim Brotherhood group that parented the radical Palestinian Hamas movement in 1988. However Clinton also expressed continuing support for the Egyptian military, closely allied with the United States since 1978. Mursi has been trying to legally reinstate the Islamist-controlled parliament suspended in June by the military's ruling council while resisting the council's attempts to prevent his movement from overseeing the writing of a new Egyptian constitution. In Israel, intelligence officers said the IDF has thwarted over ten terror attacks in recent months from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula.

While the turbulent tremors shook the tense region, the new Israeli "national unity" government fell apart after the centrist Kadima party withdrew from the broad coalition in mid-July, just ten weeks after its formation. Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz pulled his party, the largest in the Knesset, out of the unity coalition after he failed to come to agreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the conscription of Orthodox Hassidic Jews and Arab Israeli citizens into either national military or community service (as if that was the most pressing matter facing Israel at present). However some analysts speculated he may re-join the government if Israel becomes embroiled in a major new war. Several Kadima Knesset members want to split away from the party and join the ruling Likud.

Terror In Bulgaria

As diplomatic relations soured with the Islamic nation of Turkey over the past few years, Israeli tourists sought out other relatively close and inexpensive vacation destinations. Several former Soviet-block Eastern European countries and nearby Cyprus and Greece - whose ties have vastly improved with the Jewish state in the same time period - have rapidly replaced Turkey as preferred recreation stops. Among them is Bulgaria, located due north of Turkey and Greece, whose Black Sea resorts have especially become popular with young Israeli tourists. It was there, in the coastal city of Burgas, that a suicide terrorist blew himself up on a chartered bus at the local airport, pretending to be among the Israeli tourists boarding it after arriving on Air Bulgaria flight 392, which had taken off a couple hours before from Israel's Ben Gurion airport.

The attack left five Israelis dead, one of them a 43 year old pregnant woman (so the death toll was actually six). Kochava Shriki, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, had finally gotten pregnant after years of fertility treatments. She was traveling with her husband Yitzhak after happily learning just that morning that she was with child. Her wounded spouse desperately searched through the destroyed bus rubble for his wife, only to learn one day later that Kochava and their unborn offspring were among the murdered victims. The other four fatalities were all males in their 20s. Itzik Colangi and his best friend Amir Menashe, from the city of Petach Tikva ("Portal of Hope" in Hebrew) near Tel Aviv, had traveled with their spouses to Bulgaria four months after Colangi's wife Gilat gave birth to their first (and now only) child. The widowed mother was severely wounded in the attack. The two male friends were slaughtered while packing their luggage onto the bus. Menashe's widow, who was more lightly wounded, gave birth to the couple's first (and now only) son ten months ago.

The two other fatalities, Elior Price and Maor Harosh, grew up together in the coastal city of Acre (ancient Acco), north of Haifa. Price was a student and Harosh an electrician. The bachelors had gone on vacation with another close friend, Daniel Fahima, who was severely wounded in the vicious terrorist bombing. Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov spoke at a late night army ceremony at Ben Gurion one day after the slain tourists had happily departed from the airport on a chartered vacation airplane. As the coffins were carried off the military plane that fettered them home to their final resting places, he told grieving relatives and close friends that the victim's "only mistake was that they were Israelis. They were not randomly targeted."