Every International Catastrophe Has Its Silver Lining

International Community Rallies Round Israel as Fires Rage
— Alan Elsner and Jennifer Packer, The Israel Project

  • 42 dead – toll expected to rise
  • Turkey, Egypt and Jordan among those sending aid
  • Massive Russian firefighting plane on the way

Turkey, Egypt and Jordan were among many countries rushing help to Israel to combat the nation’s worst-ever wildfire which has killed 42 people, destroyed homes and villages, consumed forests and is still threatening the major port city of Haifa.

“We are talking about one of the worst disasters in the country’s history. This is hard day for the entire nation,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Egypt, Jordan and Turkey were quick to offer help to the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and thanked him for his country’s help.

“We very much appreciate this mobilization and I am certain that it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries, Turkey and Israel,” Netanyahu said. It was his first conversation with the Turkish leader since the flotilla incident soured relations between the traditional allies earlier this year.”

With several people listed in critical condition and others reported missing, the death toll was expected to rise.

More after the jump.
Emergency services evacuated more than 15,000 people from their homes as flames swept through at least 5,000 acres of woodland. Police arrested two people, residents of a Druze village, on suspicion of setting fires. The Jerusalem Post said they were detained after being seen hurling Molotov cocktails in a forest on a Carmel mountain hilltop.

Israelis watched helplessly as their homes were destroyed by flames hundreds of feet high. Firefighters said one village was burnt to the ground.

The IDF sent soldiers and equipment, including helicopters, bulldozers, medics and army units to combat the blaze. More help came from Greece, Bulgaria which sent 100 firefighters, Spain, Azerbaijan, Romania Russia, Cyprus, France and Britain. The United States also offered aid. Israel is better known for sending its own rescue teams and medical personnel to other countries to help in their disaster-relief efforts.

“The Russians are sending and we are waiting for the biggest firefighting plane in the world… an Antonov with huge firefighting capacity,” Lieberman told Israel Radio.

One of the main country’s highways was closed as trees smoldered and smoke billowed toward the Mediterranean coastline and flames closed in on a hotel and a spa south of the city.

“The size of the fire is huge, the wind is very strong and there is a problem accessing the mountains and valleys,” said Yoram Levi, a spokesman for Israel’s fire and rescue service. “We don’t have big aircraft that can carry a large amount of water. It is not enough for a large-scale fire.”

“As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster,” U.S. President Barak Obama said at a candle-lighting ceremony on Thursday marking the Jewish Chanukah holiday.

Jewish organizations in the U.S. and beyond have launched campaigns to help the victims. The Jewish National Fund, which planted a large percentage of Israel’s forests, called for public support.

American firefighters are on alert to join the operation. The Israel Emergency Volunteers Project will coordinate any call up for the volunteers who have been fully trained under the auspices of the EVP.

The Israeli cabinet met on Friday to discuss the crisis with questions being asked about Israel’s preparedness for such disasters.

Wikileaks Shows Arab States Fear Iran, Not Israel

— Alan Elsner and Jennifer Packer

  • Netanyahu: Time for Arab world to speak openly about Iran threat
  • Iranian missiles could strike European capitals
  • Iran also backing Terrorist Groups in Yemen

Publication of some 250,000 classified diplomatic cables by the Wikileaks website has exposed the fact that Arab states see Iran and its nuclear weapons program and not Israel as the real threat to Middle East stability and their own security.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the documents reinforced what Israel has been saying for years about the Iranian nuclear program.

“More and more countries, governments and leaders in the Middle East and the wider world understand that this is the fundamental threat,” Netanyahu said at a news conference in Tel Aviv. “I hope the leaders will have the courage to say to their nations publicly what they’ve said about Iran.”

More after the jump.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded that the leaks were deliberately released as part of a psychological warfare campaign against his country.

But an analysis from Reuters puts the truth in stark terms:

“The revelation confirm the depth of suspicion and hatred of the Shi’ites among Sunni Arab leaders, especially in Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power and which regards Iran as an existential threat.”

“Iran should take note of the distress that its nuclear program is causing in the region — this is not something that should be ignored,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

In one key document King Hamad of Bahrain “argued forcefully for taking action to terminate the Iranian nuclear program, by whatever means necessary. “That program must be stopped,” he said. “The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it,” he said.

“The cables reveal how Iran’s ascent has unified Israel and many longtime Arab adversaries – notably the Saudis – in a common cause,” The New York Times said. “The United States had put together a largely silent front of Arab states whose positions on sanctions and a potential attack looked much like Israel’s.”

Among the important revelations in the documents, as published by The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel are the following:

  • Saudi King Abdullah repeatedly urged the United States to destroy the Iranian program. “He told you [Americans] to “cut off the head of the snake,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir said, according to a report on Abdullah’s meeting with the U.S. general David Petraeus in April 2008. Abdullah told a US diplomat: “The bottom line is that they (the Iranians) cannot be trusted.”
  • Officials from Jordan also called for the Iranian program to be stopped by any means necessary while leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referred to Iran as “evil,” and an “existential threat.”
  • Iran has obtained advanced missiles from North Korea that could let it strike at Western European capitals and Moscow.
  • Crown Prince bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi said in one cable: “Any culture that is patient and focused enough to spend years working on a single carpet is capable of waiting years and even decades to achieve even greater goals.” His greatest worry, he said, “is not how much we know about Iran, but how much we don’t.”
  • Kuwait’s military intelligence chief told Petraeus Iran was supporting Shi’ite groups in the Gulf and extremists in Yemen.
  • The United States failed to stop Syria from supplying arms to Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, who have amassed tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel. One week after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad promised a top State Department official that he would not send new arms to Hezbollah, the United States it had information that Syria was providing increasingly sophisticated weapons to the group.
  • Iran smuggled weapons to Hezballah in ambulances and medical vehicles in violation of international conventions. Hamas also used such vehicles for military and arms-smuggling operations.
  • Iran withheld from the International Atomic Energy Agency the original design documents for a secret nuclear reactor.

Here are some sources for the raw materials:

Hezbollah Arsenal “Many More than 40,000 Rockets”

  • Iranian generals “increasingly regular visitors to Lebanon” says Israel.
  • Hezbollah hides weapons among civilians in southern Lebanon.
  • Fears that Hariri report will implicate Hezbollah, bring civil war.

The buildup of rockets by Iran-backed Hezbollah is more substantial than media reports have suggested, The Israel Project has learned. In line with reportage, Israeli intelligence understands that Hezbollah has amassed in excess of 40,000 rockets in the immediate vicinity of the Israeli-Lebanese frontier.

More after the jump.
However, in Israel’s assessment the Shi’ite Hezbollah also has a considerable stockpile in other parts of Lebanon. The 40,000 weapons are located in hiding places in villages throughout southern Lebanon in contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. The resolution, which led to the 2006 ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, calls for the Lebanese government to be the sole bearer of arms in the south of the country.

Israel fears Iran is playing an ever-larger role in Lebanon. There has been a noticeable increase in visits by Iranian military and political leaders over the last two years according to Israeli officials. Tehran is spreading its sphere of influence to include both Hezbollah and Beirut.

Hezbollah gets short- and long-range missiles in three main ways: by sea, by air and via the Syrian border. Iran and Syria are the main suppliers of Hezbollah’s weaponry, while Hezbollah has also obtained Russian rockets, in Israel’s estimation.

“Iran and Syria both pose significant conventional security challenges and these conventional challenges intersect with the asymmetrical threats posed by Hezbollah…whose rockets indiscriminately target Israeli population centers,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro in July 2010.

The Lebanese border towns that face Israel are heavily Shi’ite. Hezbollah stores weapons in underground bunkers and in buildings among the civilians there. Public buildings doubly serve as Hezbollah lookout points.

United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is not allowed to enter private properties, making it difficult for UNIFIL to monitor weapons smuggling.

The Israel Defense Forces has published videos filmed by drones and from fixed positions showing explosions at three weapons depositories close to the frontier.

Israel is watching the border particularly closely at the moment fearing that Hezbollah may choose to launch rocket attacks in the next few weeks. Jerusalem believes it may do so in order to deflect attention away from the eagerly-anticipated publication of the findings of the U.N. inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Reports have circulated implicating Hezbollah in the assassination. Drawing Israel into a military campaign Hezbollah believes would move attention quickly away from the Hariri report.

Israel Removes Barrier That Protected Gilo

— Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

Despite Settlement Freeze, Palestinians Have Yet to Agree to Direct Talks

Following a dramatic decrease in attacks, Israel is removing an 8-year-old security barrier between the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo and the Arab town of Beit Jalla, where Palestinian terrorists had been using homes to shoot at Israeli civilians. The barrier between the two areas isn’t part of Israel’s security fence. Meanwhile, nine months after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) still hasn’t agreed to direct peace talks with Israel.  

Security Barrier Protecting Gilo Neighborhood

Starting in 2000, Fatah militants took over the homes of Christian Arabs living in Beit Jalla to shoot at Gilo residents. Terrorists fired on Gilo more than 400 times from 2000 – 2002. As a result, Israel erected the protective barrier in 2002, helping to decrease the attacks. Israel later launched a defensive campaign – Operation Defensive Shield – to stop terror attacks during the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising), which stopped the attacks altogether. Gilo residents have expressed mixed emotions to the barrier coming down, with some fearing a resumption in attacks; others have said they’re optimistic that there won’t be more attacks and look forward to not being forced to live behind a wall.
On Sunday (Aug. 15), the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began to take down the 2,000-foot (600-meter), barrier and plan to remove the remainder during the next two weeks.

IDF Lt. Col. Hezi Ravivo said, “Right now the security situation is better and we do not see any reason not to take it down. We will keep the parts that comprise the wall and if the need arises, we can build it anew.”

Israel’s Ongoing Settlement Freeze

Netanyahu instituted the settlement freeze in an effort to restart peace talks with the PA and bolster confidence between the two sides. His decision, which became law Nov. 25, 2009, applies to all residential building in West Bank settlements, although completion of 3,000 units already under construction was permitted. The freeze doesn’t apply to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside of the pre-1967 borders, as the Israeli government considers them distinct from those in the West Bank.

Whether the freeze continues beyond the Sept. 26, 2010 expiration date remains uncertain. Netanyahu’s government faces international pressure to extend the moratorium, even though direct talks have not come to fruition.

On July 29, 2010 Arab League foreign ministers approved Abbas entering into direct talks with Israel; if those talks begin, settlements will be among the disputed topics.

Israel’s commitment to the moratorium:

  • In February 2010, along with efforts to enforce the freeze, Israeli security forces sent 300 summonses to settlers in the West Bank who broke Israeli law by continuing construction.
  • During the freeze, Israeli security forces issued and made public a list of 28 settlements that violated the freeze. After the government received the list, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai confirmed that a court order to halt construction had been given out.
  • Settlers protested the settlement freeze, blocking security forces from entering West Bank settlements. As a result, Israeli police forces arrested the head of the Beit Aryeh council, Avi Naim. Beit Aryeh is a community with 3,900 residents. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated Israel’s commitment to the freeze saying, “…the IDF and especially the [civil] administration are getting ready to ensure that the decision [to implement the settlement freeze] is carried out.”
  • In further efforts to persuade Palestinians to restart peace talks, Israel has taken steps to stop the Jerusalem district planning committee from carrying out construction projects in Jerusalem, even though the area is excluded from the freeze.
  • On Aug. 15, 2010, Netanyahu approved building 23 temporary classrooms in select West Bank settlements – an emergency measure to enable students to attend class. Educational institutions, however, are exempt from the moratorium.

Neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Legal Settlements

Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will include boundary and land discussions. Many settlements that some in the international community consider illegal are in fact legal neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Some neighborhoods, such as Neve Yaakov and Gilo, were purchased by Jews prior to World War II.

Click here for a map of Jerusalem area neighborhoods and settlements.