Bombs over Baghdad: 7 things to know for August 21
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Israel media review

Bombs over Baghdad: 7 things to know for August 21

Iraq mum on latest mystery explosion at military base housing Iran-backed militia, but media reports and lawmakers point the finger at Israel

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

In this photo from August 12, 2019, plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed)
In this photo from August 12, 2019, plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed)

1. The large explosion at an arms depot that was housing an Iranian-backed militia faction north of Baghdad on Tuesday was widely attributed to Israel in various media reports Wednesday.

  • Neither the Iraqi government nor Israel has addressed the reports, but Hebrew-language media quoted various Arab media outlets saying that the Israeli Air Force struck the weapons warehouse at the Balad airbase.
  • Iraqi media reported several casualties from the massive blast, but there was no official confirmation.
  • The Haaretz daily quoted Iraqi security officials as saying the Iran-backed Shiite militia group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces was being housed at the base and it appeared to be the intended target of the strike.
  • If Israel did carry out the bombings, it would be part of an apparent expansion of its campaign against Iran’s spreading influence in the region. Israel has struck Iranian bases in neighboring Syria on numerous occasions but only recently is accused of having done so in Iraq.

2. Meanwhile, the UK-based Arabic-language publication Asharq Al-Awsat reported Wednesday that Israel struck the Iraqi weapons depot after receiving explicit permission from the US and Russia.

Explosions at an arms depot of a Shiite militia group in Iraq, August 20, 2019 (video screenshot)
  • A Western diplomat told the paper that Moscow and Washington agreed the Israeli military could strike the Iran-linked targets to “ensure Israel’s security.”
  • As part of the reported agreement, Israel is not allowed to publicly acknowledge carrying out the strikes. However, this has not prevented Israeli officials from hinting at their involvement in these attacks.
  • In an interview with Kan Wednesday morning, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that just like in Syria, Israel was committed to preventing the buildup of militias in Iraq who sought to attack the Jewish state.

3. The recent uptick in violence along the Gaza border, tensions on the Temple Mount and the Palestinian Authority’s steady descent into severe economic crisis could see outbreak of violence ahead of the September elections, security officials tell Haaretz.

  • The paper’s Amos Harel warns that the decision by the Netanyahu government to slash the tax revenues collected on behalf of the PA was leading to increasing instability in the West Bank.
  • Defense officials said there was a “reasonable chance” of an outbreak of violence in the coming weeks.
  • “Signs of unrest in the West bank have been accumulating and intensifying,” the official said, who warned that fresh violence could quickly spiral out of control. “The success of the recent attacks encourages copycat attacks just like in 2014 and 2015,” he noted.
A Palestinian uses a slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli forces near the border with Israel in the eastern Gaza Strip on August 16, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

4. Netanyahu’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians also draw criticism from the former head of Israeli military intelligence Amos Yadlin. In a Yedioth Ahronoth column, Yadlin says that appeasing Gaza’s Hamas rulers in the wake of the 2014 war resulted in an “asymmetrical quiet” that routinely placed Israelis at risk.

  • He says Hamas was not sufficiently deterred or weakened by the last round of fighting, and the next Israeli government “must usher in a significant shift in strategic balance with Gaza’s Hamas rulers.”
  • Yadlin lays out a series of options for the incoming cabinet — from managing the conflict under its current parameters by “creating conditions for prolonged calm,” to an all-out Israeli invasion of the Strip to topple Hamas.
  • He says that whatever the decision of the next government, it must “provide residents of southern Israel the security they deserve.”

5. Yedioth’s Alex Fishman also takes Netanyahu to task over his Gaza policies. Fishman says Netanyahu is “avoiding an escalation with Hamas at all costs” out of campaign considerations. He says that in recent months, military officials have presented the prime minister with detailed plans for an operation that would significantly weaken Hamas’ military wing, but he has declined to approve them.

  • “Netanyahu is not advancing anything that would substantially change the security situation in Gaza,” Fishman charges. “If this were not an election season, the Gaza border communities would already have been experiencing an improvement in their security situation.”

6. A senior Hamas source warned that if Israel did not allow the continued entry of monthly monetary aid from Qatar and increase the electricity supply to Gaza Strip by the end of the week, there would be a significant escalation in violence.

  • In a statement carried by the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, the Hamas official said the Palestinian territory was “heating up,” and cautioned that Hamas may not be able to prevent fighters who want to carry out attacks from crossing the border into Israel.
  • He said Hamas was calling on Egyptian, Qatari and United Nations mediators to pressure Israel to implement the demands as quickly as possible to prevent escalation.
Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz (right) and Yair Lapid speak during a campaign event in Kiryat Ono, on August 7, 2019. (Flash90)

7. On Wednesday, Yedioth reported that a private intelligence firm hired by the Blue and White party had identified the person behind the leaked recordings of party leader Benny Gantz.

  • According to Yedioth, the CGI Group found that the lawmaker allegedly responsible for the series of embarrassing leaks to the media belonged to Yesh Atid, headed by Blue and White’s No. 2 Yair Lapid.
  • Recent reports in Hebrew-language media have claimed there has been infighting among top party members, but Blue and White swiftly denied the Yedioth report, saying it had “no grain of truth.”
  • The party didn’t deny hiring the private intelligence firm, saying it was “common in political campaigns,” but denied a member of the party was responsible for the leaks. “There is no Blue and White MK suspected of leaks and it is a shame that anonymous, baseless rumors are being circulated,” the party said in response.
  • Going a step further, Blue and White hinted that it was Netanyahu and his Likud party that were spreading rumors about about their main election rivals in a bid to discredit them. “Blue and White is determined to replace the Netanyahu government and is aware that there are political elements trying to sabotage that effort,” the party charged.
  • Likud and Blue and White are neck-and-neck in most polls over the past month, and whichever party emerges the larger could win the first chance to form the next coalition.
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