Israel, Sudan and the mystery of the exploding arms factory

By Simon Allison 29 October 2012

In the Middle East and North Africa, everything is Israel’s fault. Most conspiracy theories centre on the malevolent hand of the Jewish state. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire – and there was plenty of both last week as an arms factory in Khartoum was rocked by a series of mysterious explosions. By SIMON ALLISON.

In coffee shops and shisha cafes all over the Middle East and North Africa, the malevolent hand of Israel is blamed for all manner of evils. Rising fuel prices? Probably thanks to Israel’s posturing on Iran. An offensive film about the prophet Mohamed? Produced by a Jewish businessman. The 9/11 attacks? A devilish Mossad operation designed to make Muslims look like the bad guys.

Whatever happens, Israel is the scapegoat. Occasionally, the blame is deserved: Israel has more than its fair share of blood on its hands. This is not the place to talk about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the bombardment of Gaza, or the modern Apartheid enforced on Palestine, the scale of which Hendrik Verwoerd, the Architect of Apartheid himself, could only dream.

Instead, let’s talk about a weapons factory in Sudan. Late Tuesday night last week, a series of explosions rocked the Yarmouk munitions plant in Khartoum. It is here that the Sudanese government produces small arms and ammunition, the basic firepower that the regime needs to keep its military armed and dangerous. In return, the military keeps the regime in power. After the explosions, a fire broke out that took hours to extinguish. So far, the incident has claimed four lives and injured dozens more.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, as the fire-fighters were hard at work, the government was trying to figure out what had happened. Don’t worry, the governor of Khartoum reassured the population: there were no “external” factors involved. It was an accident, in other words.

A little later, the minister of information had a rather different story and – surprise, surprise – Israel was the villain of the piece. “We think Israel did the bombing,” Ahmed Belal Osman told reporters. He described how four sophisticated aircraft approached from the east, evading Sudanese radar, and dropped bombs on the Yarmouk facility. “We reserve the right to react at a place and time we choose,” he concluded, rather ominously.

This swiftly became the official version of events, as far as the Sudanese government was concerned. Given, however, that government’s loose relationship with the truth (a trait shared by most other governments, to be fair); and given that Israel is such an inevitable scapegoat, it seemed for all the world that this was just a kneejerk reaction from embarrassed politicians looking to shift the blame somewhere else. On Friday, iMaverick – Daily Maverick’s sister publication – rather caustically arrived at the same conclusion: The Sudanese explanation “seems unlikely – the Israeli air force had its hands full bombing suspected militants in the Gaza Strip at the time.”

As more information emerges, it appears that the Sudanese blame game might not have been all that kneejerk, and that the Israeli air force is capable of operating in more than one area at once. Israel, as is its custom, has said nothing; but nonetheless there is circumstantial evidence suggesting that they might be deeply involved in this particular incident.

The biggest clue comes from the satellites belonging to the Satellite Sentinel Project, an American NGO founded by actor George Clooney. These satellites are constantly photographing Sudanese territory in search of war crimes; usually, they produce information on bombing raids launched by the Sudanese government. This time, however, their before-and-after shots of the Yarmouk factory suggest that the bombers had become the bombed.

“The imagery shows six large craters, each approximately 16 meters across and consistent with impact craters created by air-delivered munitions, centred in a location where, until recently, some 40 shipping containers had been stacked,” the group said in a statement. This is not definite proof that the plant was bombed, but it is highly suggestive.
Israel also has the motive for this kind of attack: “While the Sudanese authorities are yet to provide any evidence for their accusation that it was Israel, this is by no means as outlandish as it might sound,” wrote Jonathan Marcus, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent. “For a bitter secret war has been going on for a number of years between Israel and Hamas, with Sudan apparently very much one of the battlegrounds.”

Hamas is the Islamist group in control of the Gaza Strip, which is completely blockaded by Israel – essentially under siege, with Israel in control of everything that goes in and out the territory. Naturally, to acquire things like weapons, Hamas needs to smuggle them in, and the group uses Sudan as a transit point to do this.

The supposed origin of the majority of these weapons is even more troubling, as far as Israel is concerned: Iran. And this might be the strongest motivation of all, according to Israeli media reports which seemed fairly confident of their government’s involvement: “…some Israeli commentators saw in the alleged raid a warning to Iran, whose similarly remote nuclear facilities the Netanyahu government has hinted it could attack should diplomatic efforts to shut them down fail,” reported Reuters. “Alex Fishman, senior defence analyst for Israel’s top-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, dubbed the Sudan raid a ‘live-fire practice run’ for Iran.”

It might be a long time before we know for sure whether Israeli aircraft really were responsible for the explosions at Sudan’s Yarmouk plant. After all, Sudan has several times over the last couple of years accused Israel of similar – although far less public – raids on its territory, with nothing in the way of confirmation or denial from the tight-lipped Israeli government.

All we know for sure is that in coffee shops and shisha cafes across the Middle East and North Africa, Israel is being blamed once again – and this time, they might deserve it. DM

Read more:

“Sudan: a front for Israel’s proxy war on Sinai jihadists?” on Reuters Africa;

“Sudan accuses Israel of bombing military factory, talks of ‘inside job’,” on Sudan Tribune.

Photo: Onlookers gather to looks at a huge fire that engulf the Yarmouk ammunition factory in Khartoum October 24, 2012. A huge fire broke out after a loud explosion on Tuesday night at the arms factory in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, a Reuters witness said. Soldiers blocked roads to the factory where more explosions took place as firefighters tried to contain the blaze, a Reuters reporter at the scene in southern Khartoum said. REUTERS/Stringer.


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