1. Late Sunday and early Monday served as a poignant reminder that missile defense systems, nearly taken for granted in Israel, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, are still imperfect.
- In Israel, a military drill by Hamas somehow pinged Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile battery, sending 10 interceptors streaking into the sky to chase down … nothing.
- The barrage of anti-missile missiles had rocket sirens ringing throughout the Gaza border region, until it became clear it was in response to what the army called “unusual machine gun fire” in the Hamas live-fire drill, which did include rocket fire, according to pictures of trails of smoke published by AFP.
- The army also shot tank shells at posts in Gaza in response to the machine gun fire, which it said had reached into Israel, though Hamas denied it shot toward the border. “The enemy (Israel) bears responsibility for any escalation and we will not stand handcuffed against any aggression,” a Hamas spokesman is quoted telling Reuters.
- The incident was a reminder of how sensitive Israel’s defense array can be. In the past, machine gun fire has set off rocket alarms and birds and rain have been known to set off false alarms of border fence infiltrations. However, Iron Dome actually being deployed in response to machine gun fire is rare.
2. The incident was also a reminder of how tough it can be for a journalist when official army statements get it wrong (and when rocket fire is rarely acknowledged from the other side). Most Israeli news sites reported that Iron Dome had shot down rockets as a matter of fact. Some took the trouble to cite the IDF as the source of the false information. All were wrong.
- Luckily for the print press, the mea culpa about the fake interceptions came at around 11 p.m., giving them enough time to get the correct story into their morning editions, which can’t be corrected with the push of a button. An hour or so later, and they would have all had (understandable) Dewey-defeats-Truman moments on their hands.
- However, the Hamas drill and hair-trigger Israeli response are symptomatic of rising tensions along the border, which are not fake.
- “Tensions are at a peak,” reports Israel Hayom.
3. With 10 anti-missile rockets shot at a cost of $50,000 each, the boo-boo will cost Israel half a million dollars, not exactly chump change for the small country.
- Luckily, the US’s omnibus spending bill passed Friday includes $706 million for missile defense programs with Israel, $558 million beyond what the government had requested, according to Defense News.
- The Iron Dome’s false positive also took a human toll. Six people, including five tourists, were treated for stress-related symptoms, according to Haaretz. “It was a little scary seeing all this over our heads,” one area resident tells the paper.
4. The poor optics of Israel shooting a barrage of 10 missiles at thin air is regrettable, but does not compare to Saudi Arabia’s bad night. The kingdom was hit by a barrage of seven rockets from Yemen overnight, and while the army says all were knocked out of the sky, one man was killed and two others were injured by falling shrapnel.
- Shortly after the interceptions, videos emerged on social media showing what appeared to be at least one interceptor going awry and exploding into the ground in Riyadh.
#BREAKING – First footage of #Saudi Arabian patriot missile failure and hitting capital city of Riyadh after failed attempt at intercepting a #Yemeni ballistic missile. pic.twitter.com/w7UBSvmZTb https://t.co/6gWdjPrubT
— SURA (@AlSuraEnglish) March 25, 2018
- Another video shows what purports to be missiles being intercepted, with shrapnel raining on Riyadh.
#VIDEO: Footage sent to Al Arabiya shows moment before missiles from #Saudi Patriot batteries were fired to intercept apparent #Houthi missile over #Riyadh. — @AlArabiya_Eng pic.twitter.com/wpJQecEWCo
— Saudi Gazette (@Saudi_Gazette) March 25, 2018
- While the Saudis did not report any misfires, and blamed the death on ballistic missile parts, according to The Aviationist blog, both videos show Patriot missile failures.
5. The barrage came on the third anniversary of the Yemen civil war, and multiple reports suggest the missiles were based on an Iranian design.
- Tehran denies supplying arms to the Houthi rebels, but a report Monday brings more evidence that the Islamic Republic is fighting a proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
- According to the Conflict Armament Research group, bombs disguised as rocks have been found in Yemen, their design strikingly similar to that used by Iran proxy Hezbollah against Israel in southern Lebanon.
- “Construction indicates that the bomb maker had a degree of knowledge in constructing devices that resembled, and possibly functioned in a manner similar to (explosively formed projectile bombs) that have been forensically tied to Iran and Hezbollah,” the report reads, according to the Associated Press.
- “You can’t really deny this anymore once the components these things are made with are traced to Iranian distributors,” Tim Michetti, head of regional operations for the group, tells the agency.
- Iran may also have a new proxy in the region, with Israel’s Military Intelligence chief saying Sunday that Hamas is “running into the arms of Iran.”
- While there’s no known connection to the rock bombs, Israel has been targeted along the Gaza border fence several times in recent months by IEDs.
6. The fatality and two injuries in Riyadh were both from Egypt, and Egypt was already in the news Monday thanks to an election, if one can call it that.
- The vote is seen as a formality, with strongman Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi all but assured to keep his seat after neutering any possible opposition.
- “This is a meaningful election in the same way that the 2013 power seizure that brought Mr Sissi to the top was not a coup. The truth is obvious; the question is whether it is more convenient for some to ignore it,” an editorial in The Guardian reads.
7. Israel’s press is showing little interest in the Egyptian elections, with its own politicians’ dirty laundry to contend with instead. Monday, for instance, will see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara and son Yair all questioned by police in the Bezeq-Walla bribery scandal.
- “Family under investigation,” reads a headline in Yedioth Ahronoth, reporting that this is the first time Yair will be asked to provide testimony in the case.
- Much of the questioning will revolve around the testimony of former aide turned state’s witness Nir Hefetz, who is said to have spilled the beans about a deal to give Bezeq regulatory kickbacks in exchange for fawning coverage for the Netanyahus in the Walla news site, both owned by the same man, Shaul Elovitch.
- The papers do not address Yair’s role in the case, but Hefetz has also in the past reportedly accused Yair Netanyahu of having an undue influence over his father’s policy decisions.
8. Another Israeli politician under fire is brand new Meretz chief Tamar Zandberg, who is being pilloried for having consulted with an adviser who had been behind virulent right-wing campaigns during her bid to win the leadership of the left-wing party.
- Haaretz’s lead editorial writes that Zandberg is now “on probation” and will be eyed with suspicion for having consulted with Moshe Klughaft and then lied about it.
- Zandberg “pretended to be bringing a new, fresh spirit to the left and to Israeli politics in general,” the paper, read by many in Meretz’s liberal base, accuses. “She raised doubts about her judgment and her image as a principled politician. From now on, she will be scrutinized with extra care, in the hope that she has learned the lessons of the wretched scandal with which she began her term.”
- In a strange twist, and probably unhelpfully for Zandberg, right-wing daily Israel Hayom actually comes to Zandberg’s defense, with columnist Amnon Lord writing that the whole affair is much ado about nothing: “In terms of everything to do with her in the political arena, Klughaft won’t hurt her. It may even help. She’ll be seen as a political leader who does not take prisoners. Someone who is willing to get her hands dirty to advance her own interests and those of her party, whose agenda is already known,” he writes.
9. Another politician hoping to find himself on the way up is Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who announced Sunday he is leaving local politics and heading to the big show, seeking a Likud Knesset seat in the next party primary.
- The decision is no big surprise, as Barkat has been expected to make the leap for several years now.
- Barkat is reportedly seeking to swap roles with Jerusalem Minister Ze’ev Elkin, though Elkin would have to swap out his digs in the settlement of Kfar Eldad for a place in Jerusalem to run.
- There’s a precedent for a non-Jerusalemite running for mayor. In the last election, Barkat beat out Moshe Lion, who also did not live in Jerusalem at the time. Lion announced Sunday he will run again to head the city.
- Swept to power on a secular backlash against the city’s ultra-Orthodox mayor in 2008, Barkat is seen as a classic Likud moderate. He has retained relatively high popularity in a city comprising religious, ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, as well as Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Secular residents are seen to have made some recent gains in the ongoing culture war over the city’s identity.
- In a wide-ranging summation of Barkat’s time in office, Haaretz’s Nir Hasson praises him: “Despite all the criticism of his personal and political behavior, Barkat’s Jerusalem is a well-run, and in many ways a more livable city in 2018. The downtown area is in better shape, there is more business and culture, the schools are decent and the public spaces, at least in the western part of the city, are improving.”
- Yet he also notes that “Barkat will also be remembered for at times favoring his political image over what was really best for the city and his residents. He was beholden to his right-wing supporters and thus enthusiastically supported every settlement project in East Jerusalem, no matter how destructive.”
10. All three of Israel’s major dailies lead with dramatic pictures of a girl leaping from an 8th story balcony to escape a raging fire in Beersheba Sunday night.
- The girl’s toddler sister died and her brother is in intensive care, but she managed to survive by jumping to a balcony two stories below the raging fire, into the waiting arms of neighbors holding a bedspread to catch her.
- Dramatic video of the scene shows the girl hesitating as neighbors yell at her to jump and she finally does, landing softly and only suffering minor injuries.
- According to Yedioth, which calls her an “8-year-old hero,” several neighbors and passersby tried to rush into the building to save the children but were stopped. “Whoever went in there would not be coming out,” a firefighter is quoted saying. Firefighters are still investigating the cause of the blaze.