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What does it mean if Israel bombs an Iranian warehouse in Iraq?

For 38 years, there’s been no mention of Israeli strikes in Iraq. All that changed this week, when the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-35 jets bombed Iranian warehouses storing arms and missiles near Baghdad.

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PAULA SLIER

According to the newspaper, which cites anonymous Western diplomats, the IAF struck twice in the past month.

At the time of writing, there’s been no comment from the Israel Defense Forces, nor is any expected. Jerusalem has long practiced a policy of keeping mum when it comes to aerial strikes it (allegedly) conducts in enemy countries.

But, usually, those strikes are concentrated in Syria, and are aimed at preventing Iranian shipments of weapons from reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon.

They are mostly successful. Which is why it makes sense that Tehran has been looking at building an alternative “missile base”.

The target of the first reported strike in Iraq was food refrigeration trucks that concealed Iranian-produced ballistic missiles. Several Hezbollah officers and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Iranian armed forces tasked with protecting the Islamic system from foreign interference, were killed.

The second attack was on an Iranian base formerly used by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a militia that fought against the Iranian regime. Reports suggest that a number of Iranian advisors were injured, and a shipment of ballistic missiles that had recently been brought from Iran to Iraq was destroyed.

Lending credence to the speculation that Israel was behind the attacks, Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said last week that, “Israel is the only country in the world that has been killing Iranians for two years now.”

Israel “strikes the Iranians hundreds of times in Syria. Sometimes it admits it, and sometimes foreign reports reveal it. We still don’t see the Iranians backing off from their intention to entrench themselves militarily in Syria. This campaign isn’t over.”

Western and Israeli intelligence suggest that, particularly in recent months, Tehran has been providing militia groups in Iraq with dozens of guided ballistic missiles. Already a few weeks ago, Israeli sources warned that Tehran was building a logistical storage base in Iraq for missiles to be deployed to Syria or Lebanon for attacks against Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently warned Baghdad against allowing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to operate in the country.

So, it makes sense that Jerusalem would do everything in its power to prevent Iran from using Iraq to target the Jewish state. Iraq straddles Syria, and the border area is empty desert and perfect for smugglers to exploit. The bases hit are in this region, and it seems highly likely that Iran was planning to move the missiles into Syria.

Baghdad is in a difficult position. On the one hand, it receives a lot of financial and other help from Tehran, which means it has trouble standing up to it. It relies on the support of pro-Iranian Shiite factions inside the country who naturally refuse to be part of American President Donald Trump’s sanctions regime against Tehran.

On the other hand, Baghdad’s security and stability depends on its relationship with the United States, and the Iraqi government seeks to curry favour with the American government.

Trump still has about 5 200 troops in Iraq, and is hesitant to withdraw them, in part because doing so would force Baghdad to align more closely with Tehran. Iran sees these forces as a direct threat to its interests, and has expressed this to Baghdad in no uncertain terms.

So, Iraq finds itself in a difficult position, and since the new government took power in October last year, its relationship with the US has deteriorated.

Complicating matters – although in Israel’s favour – were comments made a few weeks ago by Fareed Yasseen, the Iraqi ambassador in Washington. “There are objective reasons that may call for the establishment of relations between Iraq and Israel,” he said on 27 June.

A backlash on social media from Iraqi activists and politicians followed, but the ambassador was neither recalled nor punished. The Iraqi foreign ministry said his statements had been misreported, and reiterated the country’s unwavering allegiance to the Palestinian cause. But, no doubt, the ambassador would have first cleared his remarks with the prime minister.

Israel and Iraq share common concerns about an increasingly belligerent Iran. Both have good relations with the Kurds, and there is a sizeable Iraqi Jewish community in Israel. But, still, like Jerusalem’s clandestine relations with Sunni-Arab Gulf capitals Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, full diplomatic ties are a long way off.

As many as 60% of young Iraqis are unemployed – and this is more important to them than the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. However, until the conflict is resolved, it’s unlikely Iraq or any other Arab states for that matter will openly engage with the Jewish state.

If these recent attacks in Iraq were indeed carried out by the IAF – and the feeling in the region is that they were – it’s good that Jerusalem is staying silent. It won’t do its potential relationship with Baghdad any good to be seen to be striking in a sovereign country. Also, it will merely complicate US-Iraqi-Iranian relations.

Still, Israel can’t afford to stop hitting Iranian targets intended to open new fronts against it, whether they be in the Syrian Golan Heights or in Iraq. And, indeed, if these strikes are Israeli, they mark an escalation and expansion of IAF strikes against Iranian forces operating in the region.

* On 7 June 1981 Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction 17km southeast of Baghdad, destroying Saddam Hussein’s nascent nuclear programme. I interviewed the commander of the operation, who said that the rear pilot of the six Israeli fighter jets that carried out the mission was none other than Ilan Ramon who became Israel’s first man in space. At the time, he joked that if the Iraqis retaliated, his plane would be the first to be hit. Tragically, he died in 2003 aboard space shuttle Columbia as it returned to earth.

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Closer ties between Zim and Israel rattles ANC

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Zimbabwe and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1993, but further overtures by our northern neighbour to the Jewish state could cause conflict with South Africa, particularly certain factions in the African National Congress (ANC).

According to an article by Carien du Plessis published on News24 on Wednesday, 3 February, “Zimbabwe has been seeking closer ties with Israel in the hope of securing more investment and doing away with sanctions. This move has caused unease within the ANC, which has a pro-Palestinian stance, although it’s unlikely the party will act on it.

“The ruling party [in Zimbabwe], ZANU-PF, has historically positioned itself as pro-Palestinian, but Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s latest move closer to Israel represents a change in policy direction,” Du Plessis writes.

She reports that although the head of the ANC committee on international relations, Lindiwe Zulu, said that, “We cannot interfere with the sovereign decisions of the governing party of any other government”, there have been divisions within ZANU-PF and within the ANC about the Israel matter.

“A pro-Palestine lobby within the ANC wants South Africa’s governing party to take a more hardline approach to its Zimbabwean counterpart, while the pragmatists prefer not to push this issue for diplomatic reasons,” Du Plessis says.

Darren Bergman, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation and a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Human Rights Committee, didn’t mince his words about South Africa’s response.

“The people of Zimbabwe are suffering. The internal affairs of Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, the situation in Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, but the relationship with Israel gets South Africa to act,” he said.

“This is a sinister situation that must make the SADC and African Union [AU] question what exactly South Africa’s situation is with regard to the Middle East,” Bergman said.

“It’s one thing to have an opinion and a position, but it’s another to keep a hard-pressed, almost spiteful stance at all times that can actually harm and injure the people and the continent. To this I would say that South Africa should show diplomatic constraint, and hold back.”

One of Mnangagwa’s recent moves to improve relations with Israel is the appointment last year of Israeli national Ronny Levi Musan as honorary consul of Zimbabwe to Israel.

The Afro-Middle East Centre reported in October 2020 that, “Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe. On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem.”

Musan told the SA Jewish Report he had worked in Africa for the past 20 years to strengthen links between churches and the Holy Land. “About five years ago, I was invited to visit Zimbabwe which lasted about two weeks. I tried to do everything possible to connect Zimbabwe to Israel on a practical level. After the first visit, I visited Zimbabwe several more times, and met a number of ministers and church leaders, and just fell in love with the place.

“From there, it continued through my activities with the Israeli foreign ministry and the foreign ministry in Zimbabwe to promote diplomatic relations between the countries.” He was eventually appointed to this role.

“My main responsibility is to do everything possible in every field to bring knowledge and support from Israel to Zimbabwe, and vice versa. The main issue is technology in the field of agriculture, education, and innovation. These are the cornerstones that will return the crown to Zimbabwe as the ‘grain basket of Africa’.”

Local political analyst Daniel Silke says that Zimbabwe’s overtures to Israel “could well be an attempt by Zimbabwe to follow the Sudan example, in which currying favour with the United States via the channel of restoring relations with Israel allows the country to receive assistance and perhaps even escape some of the worst sanctions. But, of course, [former US] President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Whether this will have any traction with Joe Biden, who I think will be a lot more critical of the Zimbabwean regime, remains to be seen.”

In terms of the impact it could have on South African-Israel relations, Silke says, “Many other African countries are forging their own path in terms of relations with Israel. For President [Cyril] Ramaphosa, it’s a difficult balancing act given the demands from within his own party. But I don’t think South Africa has any leg to stand on in terms of interference with any country which wishes to forge some sort of close relationship with the Jewish state. As head of the AU, Ramaphosa is again in a tough position because of the changing dynamics across Africa, but I don’t think it’s an issue that will really get much attention.”

Rowan Polovin, the chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, says, “We see this as a positive development, particularly for Southern Africa, which is part of the momentum that is being created by the Abraham Accords.

“Northern Africa has been very much part of the momentum. In the southern region, Malawi, which is diplomatically and geographically close to South Africa, has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Israel. If all this has an impact on South Africa’s neighbours, then South Africa will see the benefits. It’s very hard to ignore the importance of building ties with Israel, which has so many solutions for African issues, particularly water, electricity, agriculture, and security. Notwithstanding the noise that the ANC might make, ultimately it’s positive.”

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Just how successful is Israel’s vaccine push?

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Israel is reporting promising initial results from its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the fastest in the world.

The first official findings released by the health ministry show that only 0.04% of people caught the virus a week after their second dose, and a mere 0.002% needed hospital treatment.

Clalit, the country’s largest health service organisation, has also released its preliminary data. It compared 200 000 people aged 60 and over who’ve been vaccinated with 200 000 similar unvaccinated older adults. It found that the rate of those who tested positive dropped 33% among the vaccinated 14 days after they received it. No decline was seen in the unvaccinated.

Maccabi, another healthcare organisation, saw an even larger drop. Infections decreased 60% among 430 000 people 13 to 21 days after they received the vaccine. The data also suggested the vaccine was 92% effective, close to the 95% efficacy claimed by Pfizer.

Israeli researchers are conducting more in-depth analysis, and point out that real-world effectiveness of vaccines is often lower than the efficacy seen in clinical trials due to a number of factors.

But experts warn that this data has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal so it should be viewed with some caution.

There are also various factors that could be influencing the results. The current lockdown and behaviour such as travelling and gathering less, wearing masks, and greater physical distancing might be decreasing infections.

The first people to receive the vaccine were mostly from vulnerable populations, so they are more likely to take precautions which could also skew the data.

In spite of the encouraging news, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb. Of the 4 816 fatalities at the time of writing, 30% occurred in January when the vaccination rollout was already in full swing. The government blames this on the more transmissible British variant of the virus, especially among children. According to Clalit, when the vaccination campaign started in late December, the new variant caused 30% to 40% of infections, whereas now that figure has doubled.

As for the South African strain, there are currently 80 detected cases in Israel, and there is concern that the vaccine isn’t as effective against this variant. A number of Israelis who previously had COVID-19 have been re-infected with the South African strain, with the most recent case identified two days ago.

Compounding the situation is the flagrant disregard by the ultra-Orthodox community, that comprises just less than 13% of the population, for lockdown rules. Since the start of the pandemic, one in five ultra-Orthodox has tested positive.

Many in the community doubt the safety of the vaccine or believe the country’s citizens are being used as guinea pigs to test its efficacy. Prominent rabbis have also said that communal prayer and study needs to overwrite lockdown concerns.

Last Sunday, 31 January, thousands of ultra-Orthodox mourners, many without masks, crowded together to attend two funerals of famous rabbis who died from coronavirus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticised for not cracking down harshly enough on the community for political reasons – he needs their votes in the upcoming 23 March election.

Residents of Tel Aviv spoke to the SA Jewish Report, complaining that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox were forcing the whole country to go repeatedly into lockdown, and it wasn’t fair. It’s no surprise thus that the latest word from the government is that the current – third – nationwide lockdown may not be Israel’s last.

Many Israelis want cities and towns to once again be divided into red, orange, yellow, and green zones and scales of restrictions to be put in place accordingly. This would mean those who obey the restrictions wouldn’t have to pay the price of those who don’t.

In recent days, there’s also growing concern in some quarters in Israel that because the mass vaccination campaign is running in parallel with an active coronavirus outbreak, it could lead to an “evolutionary pressure” on the virus in which it would ultimately become immune to vaccination. Doctors are suggesting that in future, people will need to take an annual anti-COVID-19 jab, much in the same way the annual flu injection is taken.

But for now, the race to innoculate everyone is on. Among the first to be injected were people aged 60 or older. More than two-thirds of this age group have already received the required two doses. Up to 200 000 people are being injected each day, and the vaccine is now available to anyone over the age of 35. High-school students aged 16 to 18 are also included in the hope that they will be able to sit for exams. It seems Netanyahu is on track to fulfil his promise of innoculating five million of the country’s nine million citizens by the end of March.

To date, just more than one in three Israelis has been inoculated – about 1.7 million of them twice. Because this is a far higher fraction than anywhere else in the world, it makes the country a test case for the international vaccine push.

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The right to demonstrate, even during lockdown

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Israelis are being allowed out of their homes in full lockdown to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), who is viewed by many on both sides of the political spectrum as corrupt.

This freedom in a lockdown which ordinarily limits you to being no more than one kilometre from your house is based on the country’s constitutional right to protest. On bridges, at junctions, and outside Bibi’s house in Jerusalem, daily protests occur, resuming after Shabbat goes out on Saturday night.

Lech! Lech!” (Go!) is shouted loudly – which is also the name for the movement against Netanyahu.

There are some staunch Likud followers who scream, “Arafat and Rabin sold out the country,” prompting laughter amongst some demonstrators, who point out that their arguments are old and outdated. Demonstrators including doctors, lawyers, pilots, accountants, and students point out that this isn’t about the Israel-Palestine issue, it’s not about being leftist or rightist, but about ethics and bringing to justice an allegedly corrupt prime minister.

The protestors are passionate, some defying orders not to camp outside Bibi’s residence. At 21:30, police order the drums, trumpets, and whistles to cease. The protestors obey, but continue to demonstrate quietly, so as not to disturb the Jerusalem neighbourhood.

Then, at about 23:00, carrying Israeli flags in blue and white and others in red and white, the protestors pack up and go home to lockdown.

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