News Digest — 6/3/21

Massive Blaze Breaks Out At Oil Refinery In Iran

A massive fire broke out Wednesday night (2nd) at the oil refinery serving Iran’s capital, sending thick plumes of black smoke over Tehran.

It wasn’t immediately clear if there were injuries or what caused the blaze at the Tondgooyan Petrochemical Company, though temperatures in the capital reached nearly 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

The fire broke out hours after the largest warship in the Iranian navy caught fire and later sank Wednesday (2nd) in the Gulf of Oman under unclear circumstances, the latest calamity to strike one of the country’s vessels in recent years amid tensions with the West.

The ship’s blaze began around 2:25 a.m. and firefighters tried to contain it, the Fars News Agency reported, but their efforts failed to save the 679 foot Kharg, which was used to resupply other ships in the fleet at sea and conduct training exercises.  State media reported 400 sailors and trainee cadets on board fled the vessel, with 33 suffering injuries.

The ship sank near the Iranian port of Jask, some 790 miles southeast of Tehran on the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz – the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf. Satellite photos from Planet Labs Inc. analyzed by The Associated Press showed the Kharg off Jask with no sign of a fire as late as 11 a.m. Tuesday (1st).

Photos circulating on social media showed sailors wearing life jackets evacuating the vessels as a fire burned behind them. Fars published a video of thick, black smoke rising from the ship early Wednesday morning (2nd).  Satellites from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that track fires from space detected a blaze near Jask that started just before the time of the fire reported by Fars.

Iranian officials offered no cause for the fire aboard the Kharg, though they said an investigation had begun.

The fire aboard the Kharg warship follows a series of mysterious explosions that began in 2019 targeting commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman.  The US Navy accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, timed explosives typically attached by divers to a vessel’s hull.  

Iran denied that, though US Navy footage showed Revolutionary Guard members removing one unexploded limpet mine from a ship.  The attacks came amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran after then-President Donald Trump withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.  Negotiations on the nuclear accord continue in Vienna.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday (2nd) regarding the Kharg.  Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the US was aware of the loss of the ship, but declined to comment further.

The sinking of the Kharg marks the latest naval disaster for Iran.  In 2020, during an Iranian military training exercise, a missile mistakenly struck a naval vessel near Jask, killing 19 sailors and wounding 15.  Another Iranian destroyer sank in the Caspian Sea in 2018.



Who Is Isaac Herzog, Israel’s Newly Elected President?

Isaac Herzog, who was elected Israel’s 11th president Wednesday morning (2nd), has an illustrious career in Israeli politics. 

He was born to a prominent family in 1960 in Tel Aviv, where he would spend his early childhood years, some of which were in the prestigious national religious school Zeitlin.

When his father, the future President Chaim Herzog, became Israel’s UN ambassador, the family moved to New York and the young Herzog was sent to Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox Jewish High School.

After returning to Israel in 1978, Herzog was drafted to the Israel Defense Forces and joined the Intelligence Directorate’s Unit 8200, which deals with signal intelligence.  It was there that he met his future wife Michal.  The two married in a small ceremony in the family home.

He was first elected to the Knesset in 2003 as a Labor MK and a decade later, after serving in several ministerial portfolios, became the party chairman.

In 2015 he was considered the main challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the parliamentary election that year, but that vote ended with a decisive win for Netanyahu and his allies in the Knesset.

Herzog remained the head of the opposition until 2018, when he successfully ran for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Herzog’s father was Israel’s 6th president.  His uncle, Abba Eban, was the Jewish state’s first foreign minister and ambassador to the UN and the US.  Herzog was named after his grandfather, Isaac Herzog, who was the country’s first chief Ashkenazi rabbi and the spiritual leader of pre-state Jews, as well as the chief rabbi of Ireland.

Herzog succeeds current President Reuven Rivlin, who leaves office in July, at the end of his seven-year term.



IDF Arrests Hamas Leader Planning Base In West Bank

The IDF said Wednesday (2nd) it arrested a Hamas leader in the West Bank accused of setting up a base for the Palestinian terror group in the territory.

Special forces arrested Sheikh Jamal al-Tawil in the city of Ramallah late Tuesday (1st), the army said.

The military said Tawil took an active part in organizing violent riots and in the re-establishment of the Hamas headquarters in Ramallah.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem in Gaza confirmed the arrest.

“The occupation forces’ arrest of movement leader Jamal al-Tawil will not quell the voice of resistance in the West Bank,” he said.

The arrest came after a May 21 Egyptian-brokered ceasefire halted 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

On Wednesday (2nd), Iyad al-Bozom, a spokesman for the Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza, said two more Hamas combatants died while dismantling Israeli ordnance in the enclave.

Israel has arrested dozens of Hamas members in past weeks in the West Bank, including several who had planned to run in Palestinian elections scheduled for late may that were postponed by PA Leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas controls the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, while Fatah dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Israel, the United States and the European Union consider Hamas a “terrorist” organization.



Gantz Heads To Washington For A Meeting With Top US Security Officials

Defense Minister Benny Gantz was slated Wednesday (2nd) to travel to the United States for a meeting with top US security officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Lloyd Austin.

During Gantz’s trip to the US, he is expected to submit a request for $1 billion to replenish the Iron Dome, as many of its missiles were deployed during the 11-day clash between Israel and Hamas-based terror groups.

Senator Lindsay Graham (R.-NC), who is a longtime Israel advocate, said he believed the request would be granted.

“Iron Dome performed incredibly well, saving thousands of Israeli lives and tens of thousands of Palestinian lives,” Graham said.  “I would imagine that the administration would say yes to this request and it will sail through Congress.”



Bomb Shelter Windows In Gaza Border Communities To Be Reinforced

The steel shutters of the windows in the bomb shelters in communities within four miles of the Gaza Strip will be replaced with thicker windows due to the projected increased lethality of rockets fired from the enclave.

The steel shutters that are on the outside of the windows will be replaced with 32 mm. thick shutters instead of the standard 24 mm.  However, the shutters of many bomb shelters are only 16 mm. thick as regulations do not demand more.

The decision was announced by the IDF following a recommendation from the Home Front Command which has a detailed series of regulations regarding the construction of bomb shelters that must be blast- and shrapnel-resistant.

The recommendation was made following a secondary investigation into the death of six-year-old Ido Avigail, who was killed when a piece of shrapnel penetrated the window of the bomb shelter where he and his family were sheltering from a rocket attack during Operation Guardian of the Walls.

The IDF said it was the first time such a decision was made retroactively and was done “to ensure the safety of the citizens of Israel in accordance with the threats posed.”

The decision to thicken the windows was also made following an updated intelligence report that found that terror groups in the Hamas-run enclave are in possession of rockets with new capabilities.

The new capabilities are only relevant within a range of 4 miles.

Avigail was killed on May 12 during a barrage of rockets targeting Sderot and border communities as well as the Tel Aviv area.

Spokesperson Brig.-Gen Hidai Zilberman said at the time of the incident that it was the result of an “incredibly rare” convergence of events.

“The piece of rocket that hit Avigail came in at a specific angle, at a very specific speed and at a very specific point,” adding that the window plating had been constructed properly.

Hamas fired more than 4,000 rockets, mortars and anti-tank guided missiles toward Israel during the 11 days of fighting, killing 11 Israeli civilians and one IDF soldier.