Archive for February 16, 2020

Iranian FM: Trump, led by novice advisers, brought region close to war 

February 16, 2020

Source: Iranian FM: Trump, led by novice advisers, brought region close to war | The Times of Israel

Zarif claims ‘cowardly’ killing of Soleimani backfired, served as ‘the beginning of the end of the US in the region’; says Pompeo sent Tehran ‘inappropriate,’ threatening letter

In this Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a forum titled "Common Security in the Islamic World" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File)

In this Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a forum titled “Common Security in the Islamic World” in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File)

US President Donald Trump was misled by “novice” advisers to bring his country and Iran to the brink of war in January, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday night.

In an interview with NBC News, Zarif said “Trump was misled to believe that the United States would get away with this, that this would augment US security. It worked the other way around, it’s the beginning of the end of the US in the region.”

He said the January 3 drone strike that killed top general Qassem Soleimani was a “cowardly” act. “They couldn’t confront Soleimani in the battlefield so they hit him during the dark of night.”

It brought the sides “very close to a war,” he stated.

Zarif said the Iranian response — a missile strike on US troops in Iraq that did not kill anyone but left over 100 soldiers with traumatic brain injury — was a “proportionate” response. “The intention was not to kill anybody. The intention was to send a message, a very clear message to the United States, that if they kill Iranians, we will hit back.”

He said the US killing of Soleimani, “based on misinformation, based on ignorance and arrogance… brought the region very close to the brink.

“It is important for President Trump to listen to advisers who have better knowledge of our region, rather than novices who know nothing about our region.”

Zarif also said that in the days following the US strike US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote an “extremely inappropriate letter to Iran” that contained “threats,” though he refused to divulge its details. “Let him say what he put in that letter.”

Soleimani, as head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, ran Iran’s overseas military operations and was Tehran’s pointman on Iraqi affairs.

Soleimani and eight others were killed in the strike outside Baghdad’s International Airport that Iraq’s government slammed as a violation of its sovereignty.

Following the attack, which Iran has alleged also came from the US base in Iraq that it later attacked, Baghdad threatened to oust the roughly 5,200 US troops stationed in Iraq. Trump said he would to hit Iraq with severe sanctions if it expelled the American forces.

Iran enjoys tremendous political and military sway in Iraq, and is the country’s most important regional partner.

But losing access to American funds would have devastating ramifications for the country.

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone strike, in the city of Kerman, Iran, January 7, 2020 (Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

On Thursday the US Senate approved a bipartisan measure limiting Trump’s authority to launch military operations against Iran.

The measure, authored by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, says Trump must win approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Eight Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the resolution by a 55-45 vote.

Kaine and other supporters said the resolution was not about Trump or even the presidency, but instead was an important reassertion of congressional power to declare war.

Trump argued in tweets Wednesday that “We are doing very well with Iran and this is not the time to show weakness. Americans overwhelmingly support our attack on terrorist Soleimani.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno in the Oval Office of the White House, February 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day. Sends a very bad signal. The Democrats are only doing this as an attempt to embarrass the Republican Party. Don’t let it happen!”

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Emirati and Iranian officials held secret talks in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi in September in an effort to cool Middle East tensions amid escalating violence between Tehran and Washington.

The meeting was held behind Washington’s back and alarmed the White House and American security officials, who worried that Washington’s regional effort to oppose Iran could be falling apart.

The UAE is a firm ally to the US in the region, and had encouraged Washington to take an assertive stance against Tehran.

The secret meeting came amid the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of financial measures aimed at curbing Iranian aggression and nuclear ambitions. Instead of bowing to the pressure, Iran launched attacks in several countries on oil installations, fuel tankers, and US forces.

Washington’s failure to respond to those attacks prompted doubts about its commitment in its Middle East allies, including the Emiratis, especially after Trump’s firing in September of National Security Adviser John Bolton, who long advocated for a tough stance against Iran.


IDF strikes Gaza after two rockets fired at Israel 

February 16, 2020

Source: IDF strikes Gaza after two rockets fired at Israel | The Times of Israel

Military says raids targeted Hamas sites in central Gaza; no immediate reports of damage or injuries

Illustrative: Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel on November 13, 2019. (Anas Baba/AFP)

Illustrative: Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel on November 13, 2019. (Anas Baba/AFP)

Israeli jets carried out airstrikes in the Gaza Strip overnight Saturday-Sunday in response to rocket fire from the restive Palestinian enclave, the army said.

The raids in central Gaza targeted Hamas installations, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF said the strikes undermined the terror organization’s military capabilities and said Israeli forces remained “on high alert for various scenarios,” without elaborating.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries in the retaliatory strikes.

Palestinian terrorists fired at least two rockets at southern Israel on Saturday night, apparently hitting open fields and causing no injuries, despite recent reports from both sides of the border of a ceasefire agreement, the military said.

The rockets appeared to strike outside the community of Kibbutz Kissufim, just east of the Gaza border, in the Eshkol region. Residents of the area reported hearing the sound of an explosion.

Security forces began searching the area for the impact sites, an Eshkol spokesperson said.

The army later announced that it had cancelled the revocation of some 500 permits allowing businessmen out of Gaza, an increase on the fishing zone, and an agreement to allow cement to be imported into the Strip.

The retaliatory sanctions that Israel put in place against Palestinians in the Strip were to be eased in exchange for the cessation of attacks, an Israeli defense official told reporters on Thursday.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett attends the campaign launch of his right-wing Yamina party, ahead of the general elections, February 12, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

The official had said that Hamas “sent messages to Israel that they’d decided unilaterally to stop launching balloons and rocket fire at Israel.”

Saturday’s attack came less than an hour after Defense Minister Naftali Bennett boasted in an interview on Channel 12 news that rocket fire from the Gaza Strip had decreased dramatically under his four-month tenure as defense minister, though it was not immediately clear how he reached this claim.

“From the three months before to the three months after I entered [the position of defense minister], the number of rockets dropped by 80 percent, and the riots on the border stopped completely,” Bennett said.

It was unclear how Bennett calculated this 80 percent drop, as just his first two days as defense minister saw a massive battle with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza in which hundreds of rockets were fired at Israel, compared to the 13 rockets and mortar shells fired at Israel in the three months prior to his entering the position, according to statistics from the Shin Bet security service.

The defense minister also made a somewhat dubious claim about the Israel Defense Forces’ response to the launching of balloon-borne explosive devices from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

“We are blowing up Hamas bases because of balloon launches, something we never did before,” Bennett said. The IDF did, in fact, conduct airstrikes on Hamas positions in response to these airborne explosives attacks multiple times over the years under previous defense ministers.

Saturday’s rocket fire came amid reports of an emerging ceasefire between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, following weeks of tensions and low-level clashes around the border, with regular rocket attacks and the daily launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into the country’s south.

Balloons carrying an incendiary device floats after being released near Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, along the Israel-Gaza border fence, on February 10, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

A Hamas official told a Lebanese newspaper on Saturday that the terror group had in fact decided to reduce the number of incendiary balloons launched toward Israel, not stop them entirely.

The Lebanese pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper, citing an unnamed Hamas official, said that the number of launches would be reduced only after Israel met the group’s demands.

Indeed, bunches of balloons carrying suspected explosive devices from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel throughout the day on Friday and Saturday. Police sappers were called to the scenes. Nobody was hurt in any of the incidents.

Thursday saw a number of balloon-borne incendiary devices explode over Israeli communities near the Gaza border, including one that detonated above a school.

The potential breakthrough between Israel and the terror group came after the Egyptian military and the United Nations intervened last week, sending in delegations on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, according to Palestinian reports.

Al-Akhbar, citing unnamed sources in Palestinian terror groups, reported on Tuesday that the Egyptian delegation had conveyed a message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hamas in which he demanded “a return to calm.”

The sources told the daily that Netanyahu’s message, which the Egyptian delegation received from Israeli security officials in Tel Aviv on Sunday, included a threat that Israel would “deliver a major blow to Hamas with American and international cover” if calm is not restored.

This week, Israeli politicians publicly threatened a harsh military response if attacks from the Gaza Strip continued.

“I want to make this clear: We won’t accept any aggression from Gaza. Just a few weeks ago, we took out the top commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and I suggest that Islamic Jihad and Hamas refresh their memories,” Netanyahu said, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday.

“I won’t lay out in detail all our actions and plans in the media, but we’re prepared for crushing action against the terror groups in Gaza. Our actions are powerful, and they’re not finished yet, to put it mildly,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett similarly issued a warning to Hamas leaders in Gaza last Sunday, warning that Israel would take “lethal action against them” if their “irresponsible behavior” didn’t cease.

No Israelis have been injured directly by the latest round of rocket and airborne explosives. In response to the attacks, the Israel Defense Forces conducted strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, which have not injured Palestinians. However, last month, a group of three Palestinians armed with explosives crossed the security fence into southern Israel from Gaza and, once surrounded, attacked a group of Israeli soldiers, who returned fire, killing the trio.

Israeli defense officials believe that the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group was trying to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in the ceasefire negotiations.

Fears have also mounted in recent weeks of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last month of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel and which Palestinian leaders have rejected.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.