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Latest Israel News – 18th August

Israel said to have hit Hezbollah convoys dozens of times

Israel’s former air force chief said Wednesday that it has carried out dozens of airstrikes on weapons convoys destined for the Lebanese Hezbollah group over the past five years.

The remarks by Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel revealed for the first time the scale of the strikes, which are usually neither confirmed or denied by the IAF.

Eshel told the Haaretz newspaper that Israel hit weapons convoys destined for the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Syrian forces, almost 100 times since 2012.

Israel has largely stayed out of the fighting during the six-year civil war in neighboring Syria, but has repeatedly said it will act to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weapons.

Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets on Israeli communities during the 2006 war.

Eshel ended a five year term as commander of the air force on Tuesday. During his tenure, he commanded aerial operations during the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, and the 8-day Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in 2012.

He also oversaw the acquisition of the F-35 stealth fighter jet, the first of which landed in Israel in December 2016. While the Iron Dome missile defense system was declared operational approximately a year before Eshel took his position, the air force chief, who also commands Israel’s anti-aircraft and missile-defense forces, saw the full-scale deployment of the system during two military campaigns and its ongoing development.

Israel has for years been widely believed to have carried out airstrikes on advanced weapons systems in Syria — including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles — as well as Hezbollah positions, but it rarely confirms such operations on an individual basis.

In April 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted for the first time that Israel had attacked dozens of convoys transporting weapons in Syria destined for Hezbollah, which fought a 2006 war with Israel and is now battling alongside the Damascus regime.

In May, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the IDF only carries out raids in Syria for three reasons: when Israel comes under fire, to prevent arms transfers, and to avert a “ticking timebomb,” namely to thwart imminent terror attacks on Israel by groups on its borders.  (the Times of Israel)

Details of pre-planned terror attack in Jerusalem emerge

On Thursday, an indictment will be filed against an Israeli-Arab terrorist who carried out a terror attack two weeks ago.

The Arab suspect, together with two other suspects, was arrested in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on Sunday night after attacking a private security vehicle with a petrol bomb two weeks ago.

Investigations show the suspect in fact carried out the acts he was suspected of, and planned them ahead of time. The terrorist and his partners noticed a security vehicle driving near a central traffic circle, and slowed down. At that point, one of the terrorists poured flammable material on the vehicle’s hood and windshield, and then threw a firebomb at it.

The firebomb hit the vehicle, which burst into flames a few seconds later, forcing the security guards to exit the vehicle.

No injuries were reported in the attack, but the vehicle was completely destroyed.

All three of the suspects have been placed under arrest without bail until the proceedings against them are completed. Two of the suspects are brothers.

On Wednesday night, three additional Arab suspects were arrested in Silwan for involvement in violence, rioting, and disruption of order. The new suspects were brought for interrogation and their arrest is expected to be extended.  (Arutz Sheva)

IDF tests Patriot missiles in nighttime air defense exercise

The Israeli Air Force conducted a test of its Patriot air defense systems on Tuesday evening, launching multiple interceptor missiles into the skies over central Israel, the army revealed the following day.

Ahead of the exercise, the military released a statement warning residents there would be several launches and that they could expect to hear explosions, but would not elaborate on which systems would be used.

On Wednesday, the military specified that the system tested was the Patriot surface-to-air missile, an American platform that has been in use by the IAF since the first Gulf War.

In a statement, the army said the Patriot system was pitted against “various aerial threats” during the exercise.

That included testing the system to ensure it could shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles.

A video from the exercise that was released by the IDF shows the drone hovering in the clouds before it erupts into a ball of fire as the Patriot missile slams into it.

The Patriot has come up against drones in the field on multiple occasions. In April, the system successfully shot down a UAV. However, the interceptor has not always stood up to the challenge.

In July 2016, the Air Force fired two Patriot missiles at drones that breached Israeli air space near the Syrian border. (Originally feared to be a Hezbollah drone, it was later said to have been a Russian UAV that entered Israeli territory accidentally.)

In addition to testing the system against drones, Tuesday night’s exercise was designed to more generally assess the capabilities of the IDF’s Aerial Defense Command, according to officers who took part in it.

A captain from the Aerial Defense Command said it was intended to “improve our proficiency and capabilities in combat so we can be better and stronger,” in the video released by the army.

The army stressed that the exercise was not connected to any specific threats, but was instead planned in advance as part of the yearly training calendar.

With hundreds of thousands of rockets and missiles pointed at Israel from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, Israel maintains one of the world’s most advanced multi-tiered air defense system, designed to intercept incoming short-, medium- and long-range missiles.

The lowest layer of Israel’s system is the Iron Dome, capable of shooting down short-range rockets, small unmanned aerial vehicles and some mortar shells like those that have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip or from southern Lebanon.

The middle tier is the David’s Sling, also known as the Magic Wand, which was declared operational in April. It is designed to shoot down incoming missiles with ranges of 40-300 kilometers (25-190 miles), meaning it could be used against Hamas’s longer-range rockets, but would more likely be deployed against missiles fired by Hezbollah or Syria, such as the Iranian Fateh 110 or its Syrian equivalent, the M600.

Davids Sling

The David’s Sling missile defense-system seen at the Hatzor Air Base, Israel.

At the top, in addition to the Patriot system, are the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3, which are intended to engage long-range ballistic missiles. The Arrow was put in use for the first time on March 17, when it downed an incoming Syrian anti-aircraft missile.

But even with the full complement of missile defense systems, defense officials warn that it is not a hermetic seal and some rockets will inevitably slip past. (the Times of Israel)

The changing face of the Israel Navy

Some 30 meters underground in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv sits the Navy War Room, whence senior officers can see every wave crashing on the nation’s shores and every ship and plane in or over its territorial waters.

The Israel Navy is small compared to other IDF corps, and it has a large territory to protect since the expansion of the country’s Mediterranean exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from 40 miles to 150 miles four years ago, a senior naval officer said on Tuesday.

“The expansion of the EEZ has changed the face of the navy,” the officer said before showing The Jerusalem Post the Naval War Room.

The expansion is also a “significant challenge” when the navy must use everything at its disposal to gather intelligence and keep the nation’s waters safe from any threat, including working with the air and ground forces, he added.

The navy is also tasked with securing the natural gas drilling rigs that are in Israel’s EEZ, clear targets for enemies to the north. The IDF believes that Hezbollah in Lebanon has long-range missiles that can hit the rigs, which fuel much of the electricity used in Israel.

Hezbollah is a “clear and major enemy” that continues to grow in terms of battlefield experience and its arsenal of advanced weaponry coming from Iran, senior naval officers told the Post.

Due to the threat posed by Hezbollah’s arsenal of Grad rockets and other, longer-range, projectiles, the navy is reported to have changed the design of the Sa’ar-6 corvette warships that are currently being manufactured for Israel in Germany to have two Iron Dome short-range defensive missile launchers instead of one.

Israel is economically dependent on the sea and has recently began to upgrade its entire combat fleet with Sa’ar-6 corvettes and Dolphin 2-class submarines, the largest submarines to have been built in Germany since World War II. The existing Sa’ar-5 and Sa’ar-4.5 ships are being upgraded with the integration of new radars and electronic warfare systems. In November, the navy received three new Super Dvora Mk III-class patrol boats.

While the threat posed by Hezbollah remains the main focus of the navy and of the IDF in general, that posed by Islamic State to the south is just as real.

With shared interests in fighting Islamic State, Israel has in the past carried out drills in order to maintain force preparedness, and continues to have good cooperation with the Egyptians.

“The Egyptians are doing a really good job in fighting Daesh [ISIS]. They understand the importance of Sinai and how it can have an impact not only on tourism but also on the Gaza Strip,” a senior officer with knowledge of international cooperation in the navy told the Post.

“The threat posed by waterborne attacks from Sinai is a major threat,” he continued, stressing that while “it is different from rockets striking one of our ships, they won’t stop trying and we must keep it in our mind that they are capable. The group is under pressure in [its capital in the Syrian city of] Raqqa and they will need to release that pressure somewhere.”

In the Naval War Room, the senior officer told the Post that the navy has in recent years understood that sea-based terrorist attacks can also come from under the water.

During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, five Hamas frogmen (naval commandos) tried to infiltrate Kibbutz Zikim before they were engaged and killed by the IDF. In the three years since the war, Hamas has significantly expanded its naval commando unit with a reported 1,500 frogmen.

“The navy is 100% concerned about underwater threats, both on the northern border with Lebanon and from Gaza,” he said, explaining that this was not the case three or four years ago. “The state-of-mind of the navy has changed. In the past we didn’t think that an underwater threat existed, but now we do and we are fully prepared.”

In 2015, the navy began deploying dozens of sensors from a new system named Aqua Shield that can detect and report suspicious underwater movement. The sensors were placed on the sea floor near the Gaza Strip and Lebanon’s water borders with Israel.

The navy has also placed greater emphasis on training for underwater infiltrations and in the beginning of August its Salvage and Underwater Missions Unit held a wide-ranging, two-week drill in Haifa dubbed “Noble Melinda” with counterparts from the US and France.

The three navies drilled scenarios involving naval mines, underwater demolitions and sea-based terrorist attacks. The exercises also involved the use of antitank weaponry.

It was the first time that the French were invited to take part in the annual exercise, which for the past two decades only saw Israel and the US take part. According the senior officer with knowledge of international cooperation in the navy, the French have increasingly docked in Israeli ports and for the past two years have even surpassed the Americans in visiting Israel.

“We share intelligence, knowledge and drill with the French,” the senior officer told the Post, adding that the navy is “very happy” with the increase of French visits.

But it’s not only the French who are sharing experience and knowledge with the Israel Navy.

According to senior naval officers, the civil war in Syria and other regional challenges such as Islamic State, and the ongoing discoveries of offshore energy are making the eastern Mediterranean more interesting to Israel’s allies.

Several dozen ships from countries such as France, the United States, India, Great Britain and Italy have docked in Israeli naval ports over the past year, carrying out drills with the Israel Navy and coming ashore for cultural excursions.

But there are of course strong navies that officials do not foresee any increased cooperation with.

With fighting raging in Syria, the Russian Navy has increased its presence in the area over the past few years. Israeli officials have stated that while the navy does not plan to expand any sort of cooperation with the Russian Navy, there is clear communication between the two, for safety reasons.

Another regional power, Turkey, and Israel normalized ties last year after a six-year rupture that began when Ankara broke off relations with Jerusalem following a raid by Israel Navy commandos on the Mavi Marmara protest ship trying to break the blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Ten pro-Palestinian Turks were killed after they attacked the commandos. The two countries used to participate in annual joint navy and air force drills, but following the downgrading of ties Jerusalem turned instead to Greece and the Greek Cypriots instead for exercises of air, sea and ground forces.

“The Greeks are a major and natural strategic partner,” the senior international cooperation officer said, adding that “someone had to fill the empty spot when we stopped doing drills with the Turks.”

Though the IDF may also want to work with the Turkish Navy, officials don’t see that happening.  (Jerusalem Post)

Israeli Economy Picks Up Steam in 2nd Quarter

Israel’s gross domestic product picked up steam in the second quarter after a slow first quarter as consumer and capital spending rallied, data released Wednesday by the Central Bureau of Statistics showed.

GDP grew at a 2.7% annual rate in the period, compared with just 0.6% in the first quarter, though even the higher pace was slower than in 2016, when GDP expanded at a rate of more than 4%.

The CBS said consumer spending rose at a 6.5% annual rate in the quarter, boosted by consumption of durable goods, such as cars. In the first quarter, consumer spending dropped 1% as a car-buying boom triggered by more favorable taxes last year petered out.

Durables spending on a per-capita basis plunged at close to a 31% rate in the first quarter but reversed course and climbed 11.8% in the second.

Another factor lifting growth from the first quarter was an increase in investment by business. Investment in fixed assets rose at a 5.2% rate in the three months after two quarters of declines.

However, for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is trying to increase the housing stock to stem rising home prices, the investment figures were likely a disappointment. While capital spending on machinery and equipment rose at an 8% rate, spending on residential construction contracted 1.2% following a decline in housing starts since the beginning of 2016.

Exports of goods and services also declined, the CBS said. However, the overall drop of 8.8% on an annualized basis was due to a sharp decline in exports of polished diamond and high-tech goods. With them, exports rose at a 1.8% rate in the first half, the CBS said, despite an appreciation of the shekel.

Yaniv Bar, an economist at Bank Leumi, said Wednesday that goods exports would likely pick up later in 2017 after two years of declines as Intel’s Kiryat Gat semiconductor plant speeds production of next-generation products.

“It is only a single factory, but in light of its huge weighting has a major influence,” he said. “Also, the gradual improvement of Israel’s trade partners will support merchandise exports.” (Haáretz)