Between Iran And A Hard Place


On Yom HaShoah this week, nobody in Israel needed photo archives to find haunting pictures of chemicals destroying human beings. People just needed to watch the news, and see what was happening across their northern border.

It is just over 40 miles as the crow flies from Israel to Douma in Syria, where an alleged chemical attack has left young and old dead and injured. Again.

And as the tragedy in Syria ensues, again, some of the world’s most powerful people provide cover for the perpetrators. One expects Iran to stand behind the Syrian regime, but we should be able to expect much better from the Russian regime, which appears to be unconditionally backing Damascus. The hands of the Russian regime are “covered in the blood of Syrian children,” claimed Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The UN is talking the talk. Thomas Markram, one of the body’s senior disarmament affairs officials, told the Security Council: “The use of chemical weapons is unjustifiable. Those responsible must be held to account.”

But the UN’s politics may well be too all-encompassing for it to be relevant. After all, this is a body that will next month give the chairmanship of the very UN disarmament forum that produced the treaty banning chemical weapons to none other than Syria.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the NGO United Nations Watch, had a pithy, if not disturbingly worded, comment: “Having the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad preside over global chemical and nuclear weapons disarmament will be like putting a serial rapist in charge of a women’s shelter.”

Israel is not commenting on suggestions that it unleashed a swift retaliation against the Syrian regime for the chemical attack (and perhaps against Iran, which is increasingly trying to gain a foothold there). The Russians, Syrians and Iranians are claiming that Jerusalem was behind a strike on a Syrian air base, which is said to have left 14 people dead.

But despite the silence from Israeli officials, foreign media are treating it as a given that Israel was the one to strike, and a former Israeli Air Force commander took the same view in a radio interview.

The circumstances point to the strike being Israeli, said Eitan Ben-Eliahu, who headed the Air Force from 1996 to 2000, adding that the chemical attack “could not have been allowed to pass without a response.”

Of course, the northern border is not Israel’s only hot spot at the moment. Hamas is holding weekly marches (the March of Return, it is called) on the Gaza-Israel border in the run-up to Israel Independence Day/Nakba, Day of Catastrophe. So far there have been two of these Friday marches, and both of them have led to attacks on Israeli soldiers, while Israeli responses have led to the loss of Palestinian lives.

Last Friday, an estimated nine Palestinians died, but despite the human cost, Hamas, which is organizing the march, is gearing up for more installments. “We will break the walls of the blockade, remove the occupation entity and return to all of Palestine,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared on Monday.

Israel says that the IDF is acting correctly against a possible breach of its border by marchers from Gaza that could be harmful to Israeli security, and against protestors who are attacking soldiers.

“IDF troops have been dealing with shootings against them, placing of explosive devices on the fence, throwing of grenades, firebombs and stones, as well as smoke screens to prevent IDF soldiers’ action,” the Israeli military said in a statement.

Haniyeh is insisting that Gaza residents are engaged in a “peaceful, civilized and popular march.” His claim is a hard sell to anyone who has seen images from the border, and has heard Hamas admit that five of its fighters were among those killed: “Lucky Kassam fighters were among the martyrs,” Hamas’ armed Kassam Brigades announced.

But while Haniyeh’s assertion is farfetched, Hamas is getting a propaganda boost from the fact that the march has forced Israel to respond, that there have been Palestinians killed and injured, and that there are question marks over aspects of Israel’s conduct. One of Hamas’ aims here is to put Gaza back on the international agenda.

Hamas hasn’t quite received the response it wanted from the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. As well as raising concerns over Israeli conduct on the border and saying that it may constitute crimes, she said the same of Hamas. She rang alarm bells about the organization’s “use of civilian presence for the purpose of shielding military activities.”

More valuable propaganda-wise to Hamas than the ICC is the revelation that several journalists were injured by the IDF, and a photojournalist was killed. Yaser Murtaja was a cameraman for Palestinian Ain Media, and was wearing a vest marked “press” when he was fatally shot.

Virtually every round of Israeli-Palestinian violence has iconic victims who are held up as symbols, and Murtaja is the icon of Gaza’s Palestinians this time.

Protestors claim that soldiers targeted press out of spite or because they wanted to deter media from covering the march, and Murtaja’s employer, Ain Media, says it “will knock on all doors and will continue with legal institutions to hold the Israeli occupation accountable for this heinous crime.”

The IDF insisted that it does “not intentionally target journalists,” Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that Murtaja was himself in danger by operating a drone above soldiers, and security officials have been quoted saying that he was actually a Hamas operative who had used his drones for Hamas intelligence-gathering.

The questions over IDF conduct on the Gaza border are complex, and it is likely to take time to reach any clarity. How this ongoing march unfolds over the coming weeks is largely in the hands of Hamas, but the IDF can help by acting with maximum caution, and Lieberman can help by dropping his stubborn refusal to launch an investigation into the journalist’s death.

Up on the northern border, things are more clear-cut.

It is no coincidence that the strike took place at an air base with a heavy Iranian presence. Israel is alarmed by Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and always thinking about the scenario of the day after the Syrian civil war ends, and the effectiveness with which Iran may be able to use its power against Israel. If the strike was the work of Israel, it would be a very logical move in an intensifying proxy war.

Also, the challenge in the north is not just about managing a crisis, but also about honoring a historical message. “As we approach Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, Israel should clarify that it takes a moral stance against killers who use weapons of mass murder against civilians,” declared former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.

He was speaking before news of the attack on the Syria air base, but was thinking along similar lines, saying that action should be taken to ground Assad’s helicopter fleet. Yadlin also called for a U.S. response that “damages Assad’s ability to produce and launch chemical weapons.”

Yitzchak Yosef, one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, said: “What is happening in Syria is genocide of women and children in its cruelest form, using weapons of mass destruction.”

He spoke about the Holocaust, saying: “As Jews who have experienced genocide, as Jews whose Torah is a light to the nations, it is our moral obligation to try and stop this murder.”

Rabbi Yosef referenced the recent confirmation that Israel was behind the strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, saying that stopping the murder “is an obligation no less important than the moral obligation to destroy the nuclear reactor in Syria.”

For once, the rabbinate seems to be speaking for the nation.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.