‘What I learned in Iranian prison’ (& US airstrikes kill 22) (& Israeli nuclear expansion?)

February 26, 2021

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach a selection of articles I read today and yesterday that might interest you.

Among the points in them:

* “A secretive Israeli nuclear facility at the center of the nation’s undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show. A dig about the size of a soccer field and likely several stories deep now sits just meters from the aging reactor at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona. The facility is already home to decades-old underground laboratories that reprocess the reactor’s spent rods to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for Israel’s nuclear bomb program.”

* The Israeli army is about to become the first organization in the world to reach herd immunity to Covid-19.

* American academic Wang Xiyue (a previously pro-Iranian professor who was held hostage by Iran for more than three years, and released in a 2019 prisoner swap) writes:

Many American progressives are pressuring the Biden administration to revive the 2015 nuclear deal; official groupthink has coalesced around a singularly misguided belief: The U.S. has so badly mistreated Iran in the past that it must engage and appease the Islamic Republic now. I understand this view because I was once taught to believe it….

When I went to Iran in 2016, I shared the prevailing academic view of the Middle East. I had absorbed the oft-repeated lesson that political Islam arose in response to Western colonialism and imperialism, and that the West was chiefly responsible for the region’s chaos. My professors taught that the U.S. had treated Iran with a mixture of Orientalist condescension and imperialist aggression since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. I dismissed allegations of the regime’s malign behavior as American propaganda…

My terrible 40-month imprisonment was a period of intense re-education about the relationship between Iran and the U.S. Nothing I’d learned during my years in the ivory towers of academia had prepared me for the reality I encountered in an Iranian prison. I learned what many Iranians already know: The regime’s hostility toward the U.S. isn’t reactive, but proactive…

* Twitter has removed nearly 400 accounts that it says were part of “state-linked information operations” controlled by Iran, Russia, and Armenia. These accounts sought to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election and surreptitiously promote information favorable to both the Russian and Armenian governments.

 

CONTENTS

1. Secretive Israeli nuclear facility undergoes major project, satellite images show (AP)
2. Airstrikes in Syria kill 22 in Joe Biden's first military act as president (Guardian)
3. What I learned in an Iranian prison (By Wang Xiyue, Wall Street Journal)
4. Qatar says it will fund $60-million pipeline from Israel to Gaza (Reuters)
5. Deadly unrest roils Iranian city (Wall Street Journal)
6. Israeli, Saudi officials discussed Biden’s Iran policy (i24 News)
7. Twitter removes hundreds of accounts linked to Iran, Russia, Armenia (Washington Free Beacon)
8. While Israel is still far from COVID herd immunity, the army is about to make history (Haaretz)

 

ARTICLES

SECRETIVE ISRAELI NUCLEAR FACILITY UNDERGOES MAJOR PROJECT, SATELLITE IMAGES SHOW

Secretive Israeli Nuclear Facility Undergoes Major Project, Satellite Images Show
Digging, concrete pads seen around the nuclear research center in Dimona – possibly to retrofit its aging reactor – but the reasons remain unclear
The Associated Press
Feb. 25, 2021

A secretive Israeli nuclear facility at the center of the nation’s undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show.

A dig about the size of a soccer field and likely several stories deep now sits just meters from the aging reactor at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona. The facility is already home to decades-old underground laboratories that reprocess the reactor’s spent rods to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for Israel’s nuclear bomb program.

What the construction is for, however, remains unclear. The Israeli government did not respond to detailed questions from the AP about the work. Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons. It is among just four countries that have never joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a landmark international accord meant to stop the spread of nuclear arms.

The construction comes as Israel – under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – maintains its scathing criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, which remains under the watch of United Nations inspectors unlike its own. That has renewed calls among experts for Israel to publicly declare details of its program.

What “the Israeli government is doing at this secret nuclear weapons plant is something for the Israeli government to come clean about,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

With French assistance, Israel began secretly building the nuclear site in the late 1950s in empty desert near Dimona, a city some 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Jerusalem. It hid the military purpose of the site for years from America, now Israel’s chief ally, even referring to it as a textile factory.

With plutonium from Dimona, Israel is widely believed to have become one of only nine nuclear-armed countries in the world. Given the secrecy surrounding its program, it remains unclear how many weapons it possesses. Analysts estimate Israel has material for at least 80 bombs. Those weapons likely could be delivered by land-based ballistic missiles, fighter jets or submarines.

For decades, the Dimona facility’s layout has remained the same. However, last week, the International Panel on Fissile Materials at Princeton University noted it had seen “significant new construction” at the site via commercially available satellite photos, though few details could be made out.

Satellite images captured Monday by Planet Labs Inc. after a request from the AP provide the clearest view yet of the activity. Just southwest of the reactor, workers have dug a hole some 150 meters (165 yards) long and 60 meters (65 yards) wide. Tailings from the dig can be seen next to the site. A trench some 330 meters (360 yards) runs near the dig.

Some 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) west of the reactor, boxes are stacked in two rectangular holes that appear to have concrete bases. Tailings from the dig can be seen nearby. Similar concrete pads are often used to entomb nuclear waste.

Other images from Planet Labs suggest the dig near the reactor began in early 2019 and has progressed slowly since then.

Analysts who spoke to the AP offered several suggestions about what could be happening there.

The center’s heavy-water reactor has been operational since the 1960s, far longer than most reactors of the same era. That raises both effectiveness and safety questions. In 2004, Israeli soldiers even began handing out iodine pills in Dimona in case of a radioactive leak from the facility. Iodine helps block the body from absorbing radiation.

Those safety concerns could see authorities decommission or otherwise retrofit the reactor, analysts say.

“I believe that the Israeli government is concerned to preserve and maintain the nation’s current nuclear capabilities,” said Avner Cohen, a professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who has written extensively on Dimona.

“If indeed the Dimona reactor is getting closer to decommissioned, as I believe it is, one would expect Israel to make sure that certain functions of the reactor, which are still indispensable, will be fully replaced.”

Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, suggested Israel may want to produce more tritium, a relatively faster-decaying radioactive byproduct used to boost the explosive yield of some nuclear warheads. It also could want fresh plutonium “to replace or extend the life of warheads already in the Israeli nuclear arsenal,” he added.

Israel built its nuclear weapons as it faced several wars with its Arab neighbors since its founding in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust. An atomic weapons program, even undeclared, provided it an edge to deter enemies.

As Peres, who led the nuclear program and later served as prime minister and president of Israel, said in 1998: “We have built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima, but to have an Oslo,” referring both to the first U.S. nuclear bomb drop in World War II and Israel’s efforts to reach a peace deal with Palestinians.

But Israel’s strategy of opacity also draws criticism from opponents. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seized on the work at Dimona this week as his country prepared to limit access by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency amid tensions with the West over its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal.

“Any talk about concern about Iran’s nuclear program is absolute nonsense,” Zarif told Iranian state television’s English-language arm Press TV. “Let’s be clear on that: It’s hypocrisy.”

The timing of the Dimona construction surprised Valerie Lincy, executive director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

“I think the most puzzling thing is ... you have a country that is very aware of the power of satellite imagery and particularly the way proliferation targets are monitored using that imagery,” Lincy said. “In Israel, you have one known nuclear target for monitoring, which is the Dimona reactor. So you would think that anything that they wanted to keep under the radar would be kept under the radar.”

In the 1960s, Israel used its claims about adversary Egypt’s missile and nuclear efforts to divert attention from its work at Dimona – and may choose to do the same with Iran now.

“If you’re Israel and you are going to have to undertake a major construction project at Dimona that will draw attention, that’s probably the time that you would scream the most about the Iranians,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor also teaching nonproliferation issues at Middlebury.

 

AIRSTRIKES IN SYRIA KILL 22 IN JOE BIDEN'S FIRST MILITARY ACT AS PRESIDENT

Airstrikes in Syria kill 22 in Joe Biden's first military act as president
Strikes against Iran-backed fighters were retaliation for attack on US-led forces in Iraq, says Pentagon
By Bethan McKernan
The Guardian
Friday Feb 26, 2021

Joe Biden has carried out his first military action as president, with airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed fighters in Syria, in what the Pentagon said was retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

The overnight strikes killed 22 people after hitting three trucks loaded with munitions near the border town of Abu Kamal, a war monitor said on Friday. Border posts used by Iranian militia groups were also destroyed, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It said all of the dead were from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella force that includes many small militias with ties to Iran.

The Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, John Kirby, said the location of the strikes was used by Kataeb Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, two Iraqi pro-Iran groups operating under the Hashd umbrella. “This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners,” Kirby said. “The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

The Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers spoke in a telephone call on Friday after the strikes, and underlined “the need of the west to adhere to UN security council resolutions regarding Syria”, a statement on the Iranian government website Dolat.ir said.

A little-known Shia group, believed to be a front for more prominent Iran-backed factions hostile to the US, claimed responsibility for the 15 February attack on an airbase in Erbil, in Kurdish Iraq. It was the most deadly attack in almost a year on US-led coalition forces deployed to Iraq to fight Isis, killing a Filipino contractor and wounding nine US coalition and military staff and at least five Iraqi civilians.

Tensions between the US and its Iraqi and Kurdish allies on one side, and Iran-aligned militias on the other, soared during the Trump administration, with its stance of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic republic.

Tehran has made clear it intends further retribution for the 2020 drone strike that killed the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and the powerful Iraqi Shia militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, almost causing a proxy war.

The Erbil attack was widely interpreted as the first serious test of Biden’s Iranian policy as the president seeks to revive the nuclear deal, scrapped by Donald Trump in 2018, between Tehran and world powers.

Another salvo struck a base hosting US forces north of Baghdad days later, injuring at least one contractor, and on Monday rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the US embassy and other diplomatic missions.

Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq, at least for now, gives Iraq’s government, stuck in the middle of tensions between its two biggest allies, breathing room as it carries out its own investigation into the Erbil attack.

Since Iraq declared victory against Isis in late 2017, the coalition has been reduced to fewer than 3,500 troops, 2,500 of them Americans, who no longer take part in combat operations. Most are concentrated at the military complex at Erbil airport.

The Biden administration has in its first weeks emphasised its foreign policy priority is the challenges posed by China, even as threats in the Middle East persist.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticised the US attack as a violation of international law. “The United Nations charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is responsible,” she said. “None of those elements is met in the Syria strike.”

 

WHAT I LEARNED IN AN IRANIAN PRISON

What I Learned in an Iranian Prison
U.S. foreign policy isn’t to blame for the mullahs’ deep-rooted hatred of America and Americans.
By Wang Xiyue
Wall Street Journal
Feb. 25, 2021

Iran, Europe and many American progressives are pressuring the Biden administration to revive the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Official groupthink has coalesced around a singularly misguided belief: The U.S. has so badly mistreated Iran in the past that it must engage and appease the Islamic Republic now. I understand this view because I was once taught to believe it. This mindset is what convinced me in 2016 that I could safely do research for my dissertation in Iran. My optimism was misplaced. Not long after I arrived, I was imprisoned by Iran’s brutal regime and held hostage for more than three years.

When I went to Iran, I shared the prevailing academic view of the Middle East. I had absorbed the oft-repeated lesson that political Islam arose in response to Western colonialism and imperialism, and that the West—particularly America’s Middle East behavior—was chiefly responsible for the region’s chaos. My professors taught that the U.S. had treated Iran with a mixture of Orientalist condescension and imperialist aggression since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. I believed America’s role in the 1953 coup that removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh explained everything that had gone wrong in Iran. Convinced that the mullahs’ hostility toward the U.S. was exaggerated, I often dismissed allegations of the regime’s malign behavior as American propaganda.

Since it was obvious that American foreign policy itself was the problem, and that the regime would happily normalize relations once the U.S. pivoted away from disrespect, I assumed I’d be left alone in Iran if I remained apolitical and focused on historical research. Imagine my shock when the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence arrested me on false espionage charges in August 2016, shortly after the implementation of the JCPOA—during what appeared to be a period of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. I was thrown into solitary confinement, forced to confess things my interrogator knew I had not done, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

My interrogator made clear that my sole “crime” was being an American. He told me I was to be used as a pawn in exchange for U.S.-held Iranian prisoners and the release of frozen Iranian assets. (I was released in a 2019 prisoner swap.)

My terrible 40-month imprisonment was a period of intense re-education about the relationship between Iran and the U.S. The Islamic Republic is an ambitious power, but not a constructive one. It’s a spoiler, projecting influence by exporting revolution and terrorism via its proxies in the Middle East. Domestically, the mullahs have failed to deliver on their political and economic promises to the Iranian people, on whom they maintain their grip through oppression.

Nothing I’d learned during my years in the ivory towers of academia had prepared me for the reality I encountered in an Iranian prison. I learned what many Iranians already know: The regime’s hostility toward the U.S. isn’t reactive, but proactive, rooted in a fierce anti-Americanism enmeshed in its anti-imperialist ideology. As I witnessed firsthand, Tehran isn’t interested in normalizing relations with Washington. It survives and thrives on its self-perpetuated hostility against the West; a posture that has been integral to the regime’s identity.

The regime didn’t regard President Obama’s engagement as a goodwill gesture, but rather as an “iron fist under a velvet glove.” Iran’s revolutionary regime retains power through conspiracy and intrigue, and views everything through that lens. The notion that it will be difficult for the U.S. to regain Iran’s trust after quitting the JCPOA is incorrect. The Iranian regime has never trusted the U.S., and never will.

When I was being interrogated in Evin Prison in summer 2016, my interrogator boasted that he and his hard-line colleagues were eager to see Donald Trump elected, not because the regime viewed him as the type of pragmatic leader they could deal with, but because it would justify a more confrontational stance against the Great Satan.

The menace of the Islamic Republic can’t be appeased. It must be countered and restrained. Only the U.S. has the capacity to lead such an endeavor. For 42 years Iran has demonstrated that it changes its behavior only in response to strength in the form of American-led international pressure. If the Biden administration returns to the JCPOA without extracting concessions from Tehran beyond the nuclear threat, it will relinquish all U.S. leverage over the regime.

Diplomacy can’t succeed without leverage. Only by showing strength of will can President Biden hope for genuine progress in containing the Iranian threat to peace.

 

QATAR SAYS IT WILL FUND $60-MILLION PIPELINE FROM ISRAEL TO GAZA

Qatar Says It Will Fund $60-million Pipeline From Israel to Gaza
The plan is for natural gas from the Leviathan field operated by Chevron in the eastern Mediterranean to flow through an existing pipeline into Israel, and from there into Gaza
Reuters
Feb. 26, 2021

Qatar on Thursday pledged $60 million to build a natural gas pipeline from Israel into the Gaza Strip that will end the energy crisis that has helped cripple the Gaza economy.

The Qatari statement, published on its Foreign Ministry website, came two days after Reuters reported that closed-door negotiations on the pipeline had reached a breakthrough.

Qatar coming on board publicly gives another boost to the project, which has a 2023 target date for completion.

The plan is for natural gas from the deepwater Leviathan field operated by Chevron in the eastern Mediterranean to flow through an existing pipeline into Israel, and from there into Gaza through a proposed new extension.

The European Union has said it would fund the Gaza-side of the pipeline.

Qatar said it “pledged to provide an amount of $60 million to finance the project to supply the Gaza Strip with the gas necessary to solve the electricity crisis,” and that “this amount will be allocated for extending gas pipelines from the Israeli side.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh welcomed the pledge and said the pipeline will “resolve the problem of electricity in Gaza completely.”

With pipeline funding secured, what remains is a gas purchase agreement with the Leviathan field partners.

For years the project was a distant prospect because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as internal Palestinian rivalries, but officials said that Israeli, Palestinian, Qatari and European interests have converged in recent weeks making plans more concrete.

Israel and Egypt maintain a tight blockade on Gaza, citing security concerns about the Islamist militant group Hamas, which seized control of the territory in 2007.

Today, Gaza’s sole power station produces electricity for around 12 hours a day on diesel, a more expensive and polluting fuel.

 

DEADLY UNREST ROILS IRANIAN CITY

Deadly Unrest Roils Iranian City
Clashes between protesters and security forces in impoverished minority region follow killing of fuel traders
By Sune Engel Rasmussen
Wall Street Journal
Feb. 26, 2021

https://www.wsj.com/articles/deadly-unrest-roils-iranian-city-11614273385

Protesters in Iran’s impoverished southeast clashed with security forces for a third consecutive day, in the latest challenge for a government facing public resentment over widespread economic hardship in the country.

A crowd attacked a police station in the city of Saravan with grenades and light arms on Thursday, killing one policeman before security forces repelled the rioters, the government said.

The unrest erupted earlier this week when protesters stormed a local governor’s building and another police station. Those incidents came in response to Revolutionary Guard patrols firing at alleged fuel smugglers crossing the Pakistani border, killing at least 10 people, according to rights activists in the area.

Iran’s presidential chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi this week blamed Pakistani border guards for the shooting, saying they had fired at smugglers who intended to use border points designated for fuel traders. The government said two or three people had died.

A senior Pakistani official said he wasn’t aware of any formal complaint or allegation from Iran against his country’s forces, and that Pakistani troops hadn’t opened fire.

The Iranian government on Thursday afternoon said the situation had calmed down, but that no attackers had been arrested. The latest unrest has been limited to Saravan, but localized protests over economic discontent have in the past spread nationwide.

Internet and phone lines were partly cut off during the recent unrest, according to social-media users tracking internet traffic in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, of which Saravan is a part. Restricting internet access is a tactic used by Iranian authorities to prevent the spread of information and limit communication among protesters.

In recent years, protests rooted in economic discontent have presented significant security challenges for the government and prompted large-scale crackdowns, most recently in late 2019 when hundreds were killed in a crackdown on protests across the country. Those protests were triggered by an increase in fuel prices.

Iran’s government blames U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration for the country’s economic situation, which has been worsened by the economic slowdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sistan-Baluchistan, the second-largest of Iran’s 31 provinces by area, has for centuries been one of the country’s poorest and most marginalized areas. Its population mainly consists of the Baloch, a Sunni Muslim minority.

Iranian authorities have long maintained a strong security presence in the province because of a low-intensity insurgency there involving several militant groups—some separatist nationalists, others Sunni Islamic extremists—which have been labeled terrorists by Tehran.

The deputy provincial governor for security Mohammad Hadi Marashi told state media Thursday that some of the attackers behind the unrest were linked to opposition groups, without naming them.

Bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, the province lies on the main drug-trafficking route from South Asia to Europe. Amid high inflation, a depreciated currency and severely constrained international trade due to sanctions, smuggling petrol out of Iran can offer a significant illicit income. Iranians still enjoy some of the lowest fuel prices in the world because of large government subsidies.

President Hassan Rouhani has said he would intensify the fight against smuggling to improve the country’s economy. From March to November last year, Iranian authorities fined smugglers of particularly fuel and livestock about $570 million, a nearly 50% increase from the same period the year before.

Iranian social-media users in recent days accused authorities of resorting to violence against an impoverished population. Some drew parallels to the mass killing in the southwestern port city of Mahshahr in 2019, home to another Sunni minority, when Revolutionary Guard forces encircled protesters and killed up to 100 civilians.

The Defenders of Human Rights Center, an advocacy group headed by Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, on Wednesday wrote a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, urging an investigation into the killings by security forces in Sistan-Baluchistan.

 

ISRAELI, SAUDI OFFICIALS DISCUSSED BIDEN’S IRAN POLICY: REPORT

Israeli, Saudi Officials Discussed Biden’s Iran Policy: Report
i24 News
February 24, 2021

Israeli and Saudi officials recently discussed US President Joe Biden’s policy on Iran in phone calls, Kan 11 News reported on Tuesday.

According to the report, Riyadh is concerned with the course that the Biden administration could take on the Islamic Republic.

It is also wary of a possible cooling in the ties with the US after Biden pledged to hold the kingdom accountable for its human rights violations.

Biden also suspended US sales to a number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, for further review and said the US would no longer support the Saudi-led offensive operations in the campaign against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels

Israel and Saudi Arabia share a common threat in the Islamic Republic and are both worried about its nuclear program, which could receive a boost if the US were to rejoin the 2015 accord — something the Biden team intends to do.

According to Tuesday’s report by Axios, Biden intends to call Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Wednesday, which will be the first phone call between the two leaders after Biden’s inauguration.

The call is expected to take place ahead of the release of a report on the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in late 2018.

While the kingdom has blamed the hit on rogue security agents, other reports alleged that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been implicated in the assassination.

 

TWITTER REMOVES HUNDREDS OF ACCOUNTS LINKED TO IRAN, RUSSIA, ARMENIA

Twitter Removes Hundreds of Accounts Linked to Iran, Russia, Armenia
Rogue nations waging online disinformation campaigns
By Adam Kredo
Washington Free Beacon
February 24, 2021

Twitter removed on Tuesday nearly 400 accounts that it says were part of “state-linked information operations” controlled by Iran, Russia, and Armenia. These accounts sought to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election and surreptitiously promote information favorable to both the Russian and Armenian governments.

In total, “373 associated accounts across the four networks [two in Russia] were permanently suspended from Twitter” for using the social media giant to spread disinformation in the United States and bolster the narratives emanating from both the Russian and Armenian governments.

The disclosure provides further insight into efforts by adversarial regimes to influence American political discourse and sow division in the country. Twitter and other social media giants have been on the defense for some time as foreign actors use their platforms to disseminate propaganda, oftentimes covertly and for nefarious purposes.

At least 130 accounts linked to the Iranian government were removed late last year after the FBI informed Twitter about an effort by the Islamic Republic to “disrupt the public conversation during the first 2020 U.S. Presidential Debate,” according to Twitter. A further review identified hundreds of other Iranian-controlled accounts that sought to manipulate the social media website. So far, 238 accounts from Iran have been deleted.

In addition to the Iranian accounts, Twitter discovered two separate Russian disinformation networks and several others tied to the Armenian government, which has been locked in an ethnic battle with nearby Azerbaijan that has killed thousands and alarmed international human rights observers.

At least 69 fake Twitter accounts were “reliably tied to Russian state actors” and “amplified narratives that were aligned with the Russian government.” Similar accounts sought to undermine member states of the NATO alliance and foster instability in the Western-aligned global security group.

A second set of Russian accounts, 31 in total, were found to be affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) and other state-linked entities. “These accounts amplified narratives that had been previously associated with the IRA and other Russian influence efforts targeting the United States and European Union,” according to information provided by Twitter.

The Armenian accounts, 35 of which were removed by Twitter, were found to be controlled by the government and created “in order to advance narratives that were targeting Azerbaijan and were geostrategically favorable to the Armenian government.” The fake accounts, purporting to represent Azerbaijani political figures and new entities, appear to have been created in the aftermath of a deadly 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh border region, which still remains unstable.

 

WHILE ISRAEL IS STILL FAR FROM COVID HERD IMMUNITY, THE ARMY IS ABOUT TO MAKE HISTORY

While Israel Is Still Far From COVID Herd Immunity, the Army Is About to Make History
The IDF is expected to become the first organization in the world to reach 85 percent fully vaccinated or recovered
By Amos Harel
Haaretz
Feb. 26, 2021

By the end of the week, more than half of Israelis will have been inoculated with at least the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. A full 36 percent have already received both doses. Some 72 percent of the over-16 population have been vaccinated or soon will be.

About 90 percent of the over-50s, the main risk group, have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19. The inoculation rate remains high at about 140,000 a day on average. The bad example of the vaccination resisters and the spreaders of fake news has largely been marginalized.

This good news comes on top of February’s decline in mortality, hospitalizations and positive tests, all of them a product of the vaccination program. (At the same time, a steep decline in the infection rate is being recorded in many countries where vaccination campaigns have barely begun.)

Only at midweek, probably due to the easing of the lockdown two weeks ago, did the number of new daily infections begin to rise moderately, while the R number, the number of people that one infected person will infect, again approached 1. The main difficulty lies in the Arab community, where the infection rate is climbing steadily and the response to the vaccination project is 20 percentage points lower than in the overall population.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine hasn’t been approved for under-16s, otherwise Israel could have striven for herd immunity already after Passover at the end of March. But the fact that almost 30 percent of the population can’t be vaccinated, along with the low percentage of the adult population hesitating, means Israel will remain below herd status until the vaccine’s safety instructions are amended.

The forecasts for the spread of the virus in the coming weeks range from pessimistic to optimistic extremes; the gap is based on what will happen to the young people. This week some of the restrictions at schools were lifted, and more of the same is expected in two weeks.

The fact that a year after the first person ill with COVID-19 arrived in Israel the education authorities haven’t advanced solutions for alternative learning means the children are returning to relatively crowded classes, with lax division into “capsules” and without a good testing system in place. Hence the concern that the infection rate among children and adolescents will rise rapidly.

But that’s also the age group where serious illness and mortality are minuscule compared to older cohorts. The question is whether the disease will spread unrestrained, and whether the hospitals will be flooded again with the seriously ill (a few young people, adults who weren’t vaccinated and/or people the vaccine didn’t protect). The pessimists consider this an almost unavoidable result that will occur within a few weeks; the optimists say that the rise will be limited and that Israel is pretty well protected against a fourth wave of illness and death.

The results will probably be known before the March 23 general election. Even earlier, the consequences of the Purim celebrations at the end of this week will be felt. In the first wave a year ago, the mass celebrations were a major accelerator of the spread of the disease. A night curfew is being imposed this year in an effort to keep partygoers at home.

One entity that can already take pride in decent results is the Israel Defense Forces. In a week, the military will reach 80 to 85 percent of its people receiving both doses or recovering (nearly 15,000 soldiers have fallen ill with COVID-19 and recovered).

“Organizational herd immunity” doesn’t actually exist, because no organization can operate in a bubble, but the IDF will be the first large organization in the world to reach that status, official or not. Thus some of the military’s self-imposed restrictions are being eased. This week, ceremonies for the completion of courses were held in the presence of parents, though they had to show proof of vaccination or present a negative test result.

The IDF’s major problems in its vaccination project were foreseen: a lack of enthusiasm at rear command posts, among specific groups (immigrants from Russian-speaking countries and Ethiopia) and among wives of career personnel who have fertility concerns – a fear also seen among the wider population. Experts say this angst has no factual basis.

 

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