News Digest — 12/14/21

Hamas-Linked Sheikh Receives Hero’s Welcome Upon Release From Israeli Prison

An Islamic preacher with rumored ties to Hamas received a hero’s welcome in his hometown in northern Israel on Monday (13th) after serving a 17-month sentence for sermons encouraging terrorism and inciting violence.

In a video that went viral on social media, Sheikh Raed Salah is seen waving to supporters from the sunroof of a slow-moving car to celebratory fireworks and chanting from his supporters in Umm El-Fahm.

Many of those who gathered to welcome him held flags associated with Islamic Movement in Israel.  Salah is the head of the northern branch of the movement, which was banned by the Israeli government for its links to terror.

In 2019, Salah was convicted of incitement after praising the killers of two Border Policemen, slain in a Jerusalem attack.  His case reached the Israeli Supreme Court, where he tried to argue that his sermons encouraging followers to spill blood in order to redeem Al-Aqsa Mosque fell under the category of free speech.

Israel’s highest court disagreed, explaining in their ruling that Salah’s words went beyond the boundaries of political commentary.

“This case is not about restricting freedom of expression, but about preventing and prohibiting incitement and supporting a terrorist organization,” wrote justices Ron Shapira, Batina Tauber and Tamar Neot Perry at the time of the ruling.

“The defendant has the right, like everyone else, to criticize the government and its leaders.  However, as a person and especially a leader in his community, he does not have the right to incite and support illegal acts of terrorism.”

Before beginning his prison sentence in August 2020, Salah told the Middle East Eye that he was the victim of inaccurate translation from Arabic and that the Israeli government had misinterpreted Palestinian folklore and Quranic verses as incitement, effectively “criminalizing” the material.

The Gaza-based Hamas terror group celebrated Salah’s release in a statement on Monday (13th), referring to him as “a symbol of struggle and sacrifice in our Palestinian people.”

Channel 14 reported that past investigations found Salah was closely-linked to a dubious charity, which was revealed to be a front for raising funds for Hamas.



Report: Israeli Airstrikes Targeted Chemical Weapons Facilities In Syria

Alleged Israeli airstrikes in June targeted three chemical weapons facilities in Syria, The Washington Post reported on Monday (13th).

The June 8 airstrikes that hit the three military targets near Damascus and Homs killed seven soldiers including a Syrian colonel who worked at a top-secret military lab, according to the report.

The officer, identified as Ayham Ismail, was reportedly stationed at a chemical weapons manufacturing facility in Masyaf as a military engineer.

The alleged Israeli airstrikes, which in the past have targeted pro-Iranian militias – Iranian proxies – based in Syria, were deemed unusual due to their targeting of Syrian military facilities.

The strikes were reportedly part of an Israeli campaign to halt attempts by Syria to restart its production of chemical weapons before any weapons could be made, two intelligence officers told the Post.  A strike on an existing stockpile of nerve weapons, or nerve gases, could release dangerous and lethal gases to nearby Syrian towns and villages in the area.

Israel ordered the airstrikes after intelligence reports suggested Syria was rebuilding its chemical weapons capabilities and after its military successfully imported a chemical that could be used to make sarin gas, four Western intelligence officers said, according to the Post.

A massive sarin gas attack carried out by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in August 2013, during the Syrian Civil War, killed more than 1,400 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Chouta.

In addition, there have been numerous reports of the use of chemical weapons during the civil war by both Assad’s regime and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Two reports published last year spoke of four chemical weapons attacks against its own citizens in 2017 and 2018, Israeli ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan told the UN General Assembly’s First Committee in October, adding that the Assad regime had done this even though it had acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

A report from Syrian state news agency SANA states that the June 8 airstrikes targeted the town of Sahnaya and sites belonging to the First Division in Al-Kiswah, as well as air defense batteries and a missile battalion belonging to the 155th Brigade north of Damascus.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the attacks.  Syrian officials have denied using or making chemical weapons since 2013.



Iran Condemns Bennett’s Visit To the UAE

Iran on Monday (13th) condemned Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), claiming it was detrimental to the security and interests of the region and world Muslims,” Reuters reported.

“Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, referring to the visit of the Zionist regime’s prime minister to the UAE, said such actions are disruptive to the region’s security and go against the interests of the Islamic nation and the people of the region and Arab countries,” state media said.

Bennett met on Monday (13th) with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“The Israeli Prime Minister’s successful visit to the United Arab Emirates is another milestone in the development of warm relations and a tremendous partnership forged between the two countries,” the Prime Minister’s Office and the Crown Prince’s Office said in a joint statement.

The leaders discussed a variety of economic and civil issues in which there has been significant progress in the past year, including private and public sector cooperation in R&D, technology, food security, climate, water, energy, environment, health and tourism.

Bennett’s visit to the UAE took place as the UAE seeks rapprochement with Iran.  Reports last month said that a high-level delegation from the UAE would visit Tehran and seek to de-escalate tensions between the two countries.

Amwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, said last month that while his country remained concerned by Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East, it had “taken steps to de-escalate tensions as we have no interest in a confrontation.  The whole region would pay the price of such a confrontation for decades to come.”     

“I am realistic about the chances of success.  It will be a slow process, but we hope that over time we can build together greater confidence between us and start to make progress towards a more sustainable and mutually beneficial status quo,” Gargash said.



Should Israel Worry About Warming UAE-Iran Ties? – Lahav Harkov

→ UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan met on Dec. 6 with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran.

→ Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President Dore Gold said the Emiratis are probably trying to place themselves in a position of greater neutrality so they won’t be targeted by Iran.  However, he said, that effort is misguided.  “If anyone thinks that by giving in to Iran, it will make them suddenly behave better, they’re sorely mistaken.  That will only invite greater Iranian intervention in the Middle East,” Gold warned.

→ Gold, who was in Bahrain for the recent Global Think Tank Summit, saw the meeting in terms of the UAE bracing itself for a Middle East with less support and intervention from the U.S.  After the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Emiratis “perceive some kind of American weakness,” Gold said.  “The buzz is all about what is going on with the UAE and the U.S.  Their perception is that America is leaving the Middle East – something that Iran talks about all the time, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is a strategic goal.”

→ “Iran has had a long-term interest in undermining the Abraham Accords….When the UAE sends a senior minister from the royal family to Tehran, it’s the strongest indication that that strategy is starting to work.  It’s one thing to have a meeting at the UN or a European capital, but it’s another to go to Tehran and invite the president of Iran to come to your capital.  In terms of effort, they’re moving very fast, very hard.”

→ “It may be close to too late” to head off the warming of UAE-Iran ties, “but it’s important that we try,” Gold said.  “In a period in which Israeli-Iranian relations are more problematic than ever, Israel needs a strong strategic partner in the Middle East, and the UAE is certainly that kind of partner.”



Hundreds Of Jewish Heritage Sites In Morocco To Be Restored

Hundreds of historical Jewish sites are set to be restored in Morocco as part of a new initiative introduced by King Mohammed VI, Israel Hayom reported.

The move comes as Rabat and Jerusalem celebrate one year since the signing of a normalization agreement between the two countries.  Earlier this year diplomatic ties were restored as part of the Abraham Accords.

The initiative will oversee the renovation of hundreds of synagogues and Jewish heritage sites including cemeteries. One, the  Fes city cemetery is home to over 13,000 graves.  Moreover, original names of some Jewish neighborhoods will be restored.

Many actions have already been taken to strengthen Jewish heritage in Morocco, including opening Jewish museums and strengthening ties Morocco already has with Israel.

Israel and Morocco recently signed a historic defense agreement in November, universities in the respective countries are collaborating, and trade agreements have been created.  In July, direct flights between the two nations were officially launched.

While Morocco is only home to an estimated 2,750 Jews, Israel, on the other hand, has a high number of Jews with Moroccan descent, estimated to be just shy of 475,000, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.