On Tuesday, Israel increased the tempo of offensive operations against Hamas targets on the Gaza Strip. In response, heavy militant rocket fire was directed against parts of Israel for much of the day. This has been the heaviest fighting between Israel and Hamas since 2014 and shows no signs of letting up in the near future. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to expand the offensive in the face of the militant rocket attacks.
This round of Israel-Hamas hostilities has escalated rapidly. Jerusalem was the flashpoint this time, with religious tensions serving as the fuse. Confrontations broke out last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Through four days, Israeli police fired tear gas rubber bullets at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs at the police. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque. On Monday evening, Hamas started firing rockets from Gaza. From that point forward, escalation was swift and inevitable.
Diplomats moved on the crisis immediately. Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations are working to bring about a cease-fire. All three act as mediators between Israel and Hamas. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded end to the violence. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to the Israeli foreign minister to condemn the Hamas attacks and “reiterate the important message of de-escalation,” the State Department said. The interesting exclusion in Blinken’s message is any form of support by the Biden administration. So far, it appears that the White House wants the US to be seen as a potential peacemaker or mediator and not an ally of Israel.
An errant Syrian surface-to-air missile caused alarm inside of Israel last night when it missed its intended target (an Israeli warplane apparently) and continued flying south into Israel and approached Dimona, the location of Israel’s nuclear reactor. The missile, an SA-5 Gammon did not damage the reactor and exploded 30 km away. Israeli air and anti-missile defenses attempted to engage the missile but were unsuccessful. Air raid sirens were heard across southern Israel. Shortly after the missile landed, Israel launched attacks against the SA-5 sites around Damascus. Syria’s state news agency claimed Syrian air defense forces intercepted Israeli rockets over the suburbs of Damascus “and downed most of them.” The incident has sparked the most significant round of violence between Israel and Syria in years. The initial Israeli air attacks, which triggered the SA-5 launch, were targeting Iranian assets which could be used for a potential attack against Israel.
The incident comes at a point of considerable tension between Israel and Iran, who are in the midst of a tit-for-tat shadow war. As negotiations aimed at bringing the United States back on board the JCPOA continue, there is concern that last night’s event will have an adverse effect on that effort. Most likely it will not. Sources close to those negotiations claim the US and Iran are nearing a diplomatic breakthrough.
As for the matter of the SA-5, there was initial concern that Iran had played a hand in it somehow. More than likely this isn’t the case. The missile is a long-range SAM, perfectly capable of reaching the area around Dimona from southern Syria. Israel does take the possibility of Iranian action against its reactor seriously though. It has recently bolstered the air defenses around Dimona to better protect the area from an Iranian drone or missile attack.
Natanz, a key facility in the Iranian nuclear program suffered a paralyzing blackout over the weekend. The power outage was caused by an apparent cyberattack which caused considerable damage to centrifuges located at the site. According to a source in the US intelligence community, the damage will set the entire nuclear program back by seven months at minimum. This includes uranium enrichment, which Iran has ramped up in the past eighteen months. This past weekend’s attack was not the first. Natanz has proven to be a primary target of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies over the past eleven years. The most well-known intelligence operation to involve Natanz was the 2010 the Stuxnet cyberattack that caused major delays to the nuclear program. In the summer of 2020, an explosion and fire occurred at the facility. Some sources have speculated that the cause was a cyberattack, although the Iranian government has never responded directly to the speculation.
With regards to the latest incident, Iran naturally suspects Israeli involvement. This morning Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laid the blame directly on Israel and vowed revenge. “The Zionists want to take revenge on the Iranian people for their success in lifting the oppressive sanctions, but we will not allow it and we will take revenge on the Zionists themselves.” The incident could have an adverse effect on the talks now taking place in Vienna to revive the JCPOA and bring the United States back on board.
This is the second suspected Israeli action against Iranian interests in a week. Last Tuesday, around the same time the JCPOA discussions were beginning in Vienna, the Saviz, an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, was damaged by an explosion and fire. This ship has long held a reputation for serving as a platform for the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) intelligence operations around the region. As with Natanz, Iran immediately placed blame for the attack on Israel and in all likelihood, they’re probably correct.
Israel’s shadow war against Iran is not a new topic. What is, however, is the tempo of operations. As it grew apparent that the Biden administration does not intend on adopting a firm position on Iran and its ambitions, Tel Aviv realized it had to keep the pressure on. The Israelis are going to do everything possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Even if some of the actions taken ruffle the feathers of its closest ally in the world.
Merry Christmas! Well, a slightly belated Merry Christmas, but a sincere greeting nonetheless. 😊 I hope that all of you enjoyed the holiday. I know this has not been the most typical Holiday Season, but most of us are trying to do the best we can, given the present circumstances. The last week has been active on the international front. As we look forward to the final full week of 2020, some long running dramas are coming to a close while hints of what may loom on the horizon are starting to show.
Foremost is the Brexit finality. Negotiators from Great Britain and the European Union have agreed on a Brexit deal with less than a week remaining before the transition period ends. With a deal now in place the prospect of a messy, disruptive no-deal Brexit can now be laid to rest. The majority of outstanding issues between the UK and EU have been settled and compromises reached.
Now comes the point in time for all of the pundits and talking heads to find a new angle that satisfies their “Brexit is Bad” bylines. Some journalists have made a career out of predicting for the past four years how Brexit would never come about for a myriad of reasons. Instead of admitting the were wrong, eating crow and moving on to a new subject, they’re going to beat the dead Brexit horse for the time being. Oh well, no surprise there.
Iranian proxy groups in Iraq have been busy over the past ten days. Responsibility for the failed rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad was placed on Iranian shoulders by the Trump administration. Tehran has, naturally, denied playing a role in the attack. Despite its insistence, Iranian involvement is very likely. The Iranian government has been seeking a way to strike back at the US following a year in which Iran has not been able to respond effectively to US, Saudi, and Israeli actions in the region. There’s growing concern that the Iranians are preparing to conduct a fresh wave of attacks against US and Israeli targets. The one-year anniversary of Qassem Soleimani could be used as an occasion to begin these attacks.
The Iranian government is certain Friday’s assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was undertaken on orders issued by the Israeli government. Tehran’s suspicions immediately keyed on Israel and with good reason. The chances of this operation being an Israeli undertaking are high. After all, Fakhrizadeh was a senior scientist and an integral contributor to the Iranian nuclear program. Targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists would be a logical next step for Israeli intelligence following a summer campaign that saw Iranian nuclear sites targeted by sabotage, unexplained explosions and fires.
Outside of the Israeli possibility, there are two competing theories emerging among Western geopolitical analysts, and journalists. The first is that Farkhrizadeh’s killing was a political act intended to sour US-Iranian relations before the Biden administration has an opportunity to settle in. For this theory, the party responsible for the killing does not necessarily have to belong to a foreign intelligence agency. With US economic sanctions, and COVID-19 placing significant pressure on Iran’s economy, hardliners in Tehran have been demanding action against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The death of Farkhrizadeh certainly fits the bill as being an act worthy of retribution. The second theory is that the Trump administration is the responsible party, with its motivation being steeped in a deep desire to push Iran’s nuclear ambitions as far back as possible before 20 January, 2021. A third, less likely prospect is Saudi Arabia. Although the motivation is present, Riyadh’s General Intelligence Presidency does not have the ability to execute an operation as intricately planned as the Fakhrizadeh assassination apparently was.
Israel’s capabilities and motives are far more evident. The Mossad is more than capable of pulling off an operation such as this one. Given the present situation in the region, Tel Aviv has ample justification for ordering it. The Fakhrizadeh assassination might very well be a hedge against a future change in US policy regarding Iran. A Biden administration will be considerably less hawkish when it comes to Iran. Biden unveiled his foreign policy team last week and as expected, it appears weak. As we’ve seen in the past, a US willingness to engage in diplomacy to ease tensions with Iran encourages the Tehran regime to push ahead with its nuclear program, albeit in more inconspicuous fashion. Next month Israel could find its Iran policies and goals strikingly different from those of its US ally. Knocking off a senior Iranian scientist now deals a blow to the Iranian nuclear program, and as an added bonus informs the incoming Biden administration that its policies and stance towards Iran will not affect Israel’s own.