Friday, 23 January 2015

Iran and Hezbollah - an explosive combination

There is no disputing the fact that Hezbollah is entirely a creature of post-revolutionary Iran its stooge, if you will.  Over its thirty-year life Hezbollah has not only acted in concert with its sponsor in initiating and carrying out multiple acts of terror across the world, but it has also infiltrated itself into the political life of Lebanon.  It is the unstable nature of Lebanon’s constitution that has allowed this foreign-dominated organization to acquire a commanding position in the government of the country, and exercise so much influence on its affairs.

Hezbollah, aka “The Party of God", was born about halfway through Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Founded by religious clerics of the Shi’ite persuasion, its ideology and doctrines deliberately mirrored those of the Iranian ayatollahs. Towards the end of 1982 the nascent movement obtained critical financial support and training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.  That connection has been maintained ever since.

In its founding manifesto, issued in 1985, Hezbollah pledged loyalty to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, urged the establishment of a Shi’ite Islamic regime in Lebanon, demanded the expulsion of Western peace-keeping forces from Lebanese territory, and called for the destruction of Israel. Its struggle against Israel, it declares, “will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease-fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated."

From its foundation Hezbollah, following the Iranian pattern, endorsed the use of terror as a means of achieving its political goals. In October 1983 suicide attacks on the US embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut resulted in the deaths of 258 Americans.  Over the 1980s and 1990s the group conducted kidnappings and airplane hijackings, two bombings in Buenos Aires, several in Paris and an attempted bombing in Bangkok. In 1996 it assisted in the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 Americans an operation that resulted in Hezbollah being added to the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Syria’s civil war has both strengthened and complicated the Iranian-Hezbollah connection. 

That the Iranian regime is wholly in support of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and wholly opposed to the Sunni Islamic State (IS) that is seeking to overthrow him, is not in doubt.  Syria is a vital link in Iran’s so-called “Shia Crescent” the chain of allied interests that supports its influence in the region, and is the counterweight to IS’s ambition to establish a Sunni caliphate across the Middle East and beyond. 

Iran, however, is engaged in protracted talks with world powers about its nuclear ambitions, during which it hopes for a lifting of the sanctions that have been crippling its economy. The US has ruled out any possibility of an easier deal on the nuclear issue in exchange for Iran’s direct aid in combatting IS.  Accordingly Iran  will not allow itself to be seen to collaborate with the “Great Satan” and join President Obama’s anti-IS alliance.  Back in December, it vehemently denied that it had carried out airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq, despite Pentagon reports to the contrary. 

But there is ample evidence that Iran, both directly and under cover of its puppet, Hezbollah, has been providing massive support for the Assad regime in terms of men, material and money. Starting in 2012 Hezbollah fighters, backed by Tehran and probably augmented by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, have been directly engaged in combat.  By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria. In 2014 Iran stepped up support for Assad and, according to Syria’s Minister of Finance and Economy, "the Iranian regime has given more than 15 billion dollars" to Syria. The fact that Assad is still in power in Syria, and has made some important strategic advances against IS, is undoubtedly due to the Iranian-Hezbollah input.

Meanwhile Hezbollah, by responding so enthusiastically to Iran’s demands, has been facing difficulties at home in Lebanon.  Although its appeal within the Shi’te community remains strong, many have questioned the rationality of involving thousands of fighters in a conflict which seems to run counter to its declared purposes.  Fighting as Iran’s proxy in Syria has no connection to Lebanon’s internal problems, or to the eternal struggle against Israel.  Moreover more than 600 young Lebanese have lost their lives in the conflict, and despite Hezbollah’s generous financial grants to the families who suffer bereavement, these deaths  require some sort of justification. Accordingly, Hezbollah Secretary-General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, issues somewhat unconvincing statements from time to time reiterating that the movement’s involvement in Syria represents a fight against  the US, Israel, and Takfirism the fundamentalist Sunni movement which is anathema to Muslims who espouse the Shi’ite tradition.

        Now Nasrallah has been relieved of the necessity to make excuses to his own constituency. According to foreign media sources, Israel is responsible for a helicopter attack on January 18 in the Syrian province of Quneitra. The target was a military vehicle containing an explosive combination of Iranian and Hezbollah officials.  Eleven were killed including Jihad Mughniyeh, described by Western intelligence sources as a “relentless terrorist” plotting a series of cross-border terrorist attacks against Israel from Syria.  Other fatal casualties included Muhammad Issa, the head of Hezbollah’s operation in Syria and Iraq, and Iranian Colonel Ali Reza al-Tabatabai, commander of the Radwan force, a special operations unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon responsible for planning attacks against Israel.

        But also killed was Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Muhammad Allahdadi.  Now, killing an Iranian general is no small matter.  According to Debkafile, an independent internet website specialising in strategic analysis, Israel subsequently used Western and Arab media outlets to “clarify” the purpose of its air strike over the Golan, asserting that General Allahdadi and his staff of five were not known to be traveling in the Hezbollah convoy, and were not the target.

 “We thought we were hitting an enemy field unit that was on its way to carry out an attack on us at the frontier fence,” a senior security official in Tel Aviv informed the media. “We went on the alert, we spotted the vehicle, identified it as an enemy vehicle and took the shot.”

This semi-apology, according to Debkafile, was intended to mollify Tehran, and was almost certainly made at the instigation of Washington with one eye on the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. The Obama administration doubtless feared that the airstrike might snowball into a full-scale military confrontation, leading to the breakdown of the negotiations.

Will Iran accept Israel’s excuse for the death of a senior general? Retaliation is inevitable, emanating either directly from Iran, or more likely via its Hezbollah satrap, but the degree and consequences of any reprisal hang in the balance. 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 January 2015:

Friday, 16 January 2015

Anti-Semitism and the battle against Jihad

          Talking of cartoons, shortly after the huge and impressive Charlie Hebdo rallies had taken place in Paris and across the Western world, a telling cartoon appeared in the Jerusalem Post.  A boy sits across the table from his father. 
“Why were cartoonists killed?” he asks.
“Over freedom of speech,” says his Dad.
“So, why were Jews killed too?”
“Over freedom of existence.”

And indeed, one has to ask what connection could there be between the murderous attack on the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and the customers in a kosher supermarket?  The same question might have been asked following the Mumbai massacre of 2008, in which a series of twelve coordinated shooting and bombing attacks were carried out by Pakistani jihadists. Why was the Nariman House Jewish community centre included among the hotel, hospital and cinema targets?  

The world is beginning to understand that within the warped Islamist ideology, bitter resentment at Western intervention into the affairs of Muslim states, fury at less than respectful references to the Prophet, and hatred of Jews, Judaism and Israel are all intermingled.  In their philosophy, terrorist action directed against any is equally justifiable .  So to Amedy Coulibaly, acting to support the terrorists who attacked and killed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket seemed an entirely appropriate target to select.  Just as, in the mindset of Pakistani terrorists engaged in what was essentially an Islamist war against India, murdering Jews was a basic component in the strategy.

From phone conversations between those in Pakistan directing the Mumbai operation and the terrorists – recorded by Indian authorities on November 27, 2008, and later published in The Hindu newspaper – it is clear that the lives of those taken hostage in the attack on the Jewish community centre were of no consequence.
Pakistan caller:  If you are still threatened, then don’t saddle yourself with the burden of the hostages. Immediately kill them."
Mumbai terrorist at Nariman House: Yes, we shall do accordingly, God willing.
Pakistan caller:  Another thing: Israel has made a request through diplomatic channels to save the hostages. If the hostages are killed, it will spoil relations between India and Israel."
Mumbai terrorist: "So be it, God willing."
In the event six Jewish lives were added to the 158 victims mowed down during those four days of terror in November 2008.

Coulibaly, too, having murdered four of his hostages, spoke on the phone and gave a TV interview during the course of his siege of the kosher supermarket.  Claiming he was sent by al-Qaeda in Yemen as a defender of the Prophet, and that his attack had been synchronized with that by the Kouachi brothers on the Charlie Hebdo offices, he offered no justification for attacking a Jewish supermarket. Clearly he assumed that none was called for.

“Sir – In all the comment about last week’s atrocities in Paris, there has been much said about the rights and wrongs of insulting Muslim beliefs… Extraordinarily, I have not heard or seen a single comment that questions the motive of a killer who enters a Jewish supermarket and kills random shoppers. It seems there is no need to explain. They were killed not because they said or did things that were blasphemous or provocative, but because they were probably Jews. Is the world so inured to this that the question “Why?” is not even deemed necessary?

But the reason is not difficult to discern.  Islamists seek to destroy Western freedoms throughout the world and substitute their own version of a Muslim caliphate, and integral to their worldview is not only a total intolerance for Jews, but a positive injunction to kill them whenever possible. This hatred for Jews and Israel has been brought to Europe as part of the baggage of radical Islamist preachers. So far Western governments and organisations have failed to recognize – or at least to acknowledge – two basic truths about all jihadists, whatever their hue: first, that they are in earnest in their desire to pull down the institutions of democracy and obliterate the Western way of life; and secondly that a hatred of Jews, Judaism and Israel is locked into their ideology. 

Joining the dots, it becomes abundantly clear that for decades Israel – an island of Western democracy in a turbulent Muslim ocean – has been in the vanguard of the anti-jihadist fight.  The extremist Islamist entities of Hamas to the east, Hezbollah to the north, and Iran to the west – all vehemently anti-Semitic and dedicated to Israel’s destruction – have been joined by jihadist factions in Syria and Iraq, led by Islamic State (or “Daesh”, as Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, proposes dubbing it, a term it is said to loathe). 

Now, in the light of the assault on the French cartoonists and innocent supermarket shoppers, the Western world seems to have committed itself to a determined effort to combat Islamist terror. Many seem to have understood that this must also mean addressing the way Jew-hatred has become acceptable in European society.  To repeat the mantra “Jews are the canary in civilization’s coalmine,” is almost jejune, yet the aphorism remains as valid as the day it was coined.  If Jews cannot live freely without fear of attack in a democratic society, then everyone is at risk. The rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe is a danger signal for Western democracy as a whole.

Perhaps some are beginning to appreciate the connection between anti-Semitism and the distorted form of Islam promulgated by jihadists of all hues.  A hopeful development is the news that on January 22 the United Nations General Assembly is to hold its first-ever special meeting on “the global outbreak of anti-Semitism.”  The session was arranged following a petition to the President of the General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, signed by 36 countries and mounted on the initiative of the Israeli mission to the UN.  Appropriately enough, the signatories include all 28 members of the European Union – indicating that all acknowledge the recent worrying rise in anti-Semitic activity within the countries of Europe.

Jihadist terrorism is by no means exclusively anti-Semitic, but all anti-Semitic activity panders to the brutal, inhumane and unacceptable world-view philosophy peddled by jihadists.  The time has come for all people of goodwill, whatever their religion or none, to take a determined stand against those who believe that killing innocent people is an acceptable way to achieve their objectives.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 January 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 January 2015:

Friday, 9 January 2015

Lebanon reaches the limit

          There must be a limit to the number of immigrants, whatever their status, that any sovereign state can accommodate before its social cohesion and infrastructure begin to collapse under the strain.  Acknowledgement of this political reality has been slow to develop within Western governments, largely because it runs counter to the generally liberal approach that most adopt towards legal immigration. There has also been some reluctance to take action because of the grey area that exists between immigrants and genuine refugees, to whom governments have humanitarian obligations under international law.

There is another reason why most governments have been reluctant to recognize the political hazards of unrestricted immigration – the fact that it is an issue taken up with enthusiasm by parties of the right, often of the extreme right.  Such parties have enjoyed an upsurge in popularity in the past decade.  Many frame their appeal by emphasizing illegal immigration, which has soared to unprecedented levels.  Sometimes they use other arguments.  Just before Christmas a German group calling itself Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) drew a crowd of 17,500 people to a demonstration in Dresden.  Claiming to be neither racist nor xenophobic, Pegida says it is simply calling for the preservation of the country’s Judeo-Christian culture. It advocates a tightening of the immigration laws, not only within Germany but in the EU generally.

In the US, the Tea Party regards illegal immigrants, vast numbers of whom continue infiltrate into the country from Mexico, as “a direct to threat to ... the rule of law, free markets, private property, individual freedom, and fiscal responsibility.”  Estimates vary, but some 15 to 20 million illegal immigrants are thought to be living in the States, while the annual influx is about a million.  In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has sprung to prominence in recent years. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has said that the party is likely to go into the upcoming general election promising a five-year ban on people coming to settle in Britain while immigration policy is sorted out.

In France the National Front’s policy is to reduce annual immigration from 200,000 to 10,000, to ban all illegal immigration and to end the current right of illegal immigrants to remain in France if they have been in the country for a certain time. No doubt the National Front will ensure that the Islamist attack in Paris on the magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 feeds into the forthcoming elections.  In Norway there is the Progress Party; in Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party. In Austria the Austrian Freedom Party has had representatives in parliament since 1999. Similar examples can be found in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece, all of which have extreme right parties that hold parliamentary representation.

In Australia it was the right-wing government that took the initiative early in December to deal with a backlog of 30,000 illegal “boat people”.  For them it tightened the immigration laws, while for genuine refugees it introduced temporary visas which grant protection for up to three years but do not give them the right to settle in Australia for good.  New Zealand follows Australia’s tough approach to illegal immigration.  But none of the countries combatting uncontrolled or illegal immigration had so far declared that saturation point had been reached – until the announcement early in January from Lebanon’s Interior Minister, Nohad Machnouk: “There’s no capacity any more.”

Lebanon is hosting what is now the highest per capita number of refugees anywhere in the world. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict more than 1.5 million refugees have taken shelter in a country with a population of 4.5 million. On January 5 Lebanon imposed new restrictions to stem the flood of refugees pouring in from war-torn Syria. Travellers from Damascus will now need to make a formal application to enter the country, and will have to apply for one of six types of entry permit -- tourist, business, student, transit, medical or short stay. Each permit requires specific documentation, such as hotel bookings, and for tourists possession of $1,000, or for business people an invitation from a Lebanese company. There is no provision for those seeking asylum, but according to Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon: "The government says that it will allow those extreme humanitarian cases access."

          The unprecedented influx of homeless, desperate people has overwhelmed Lebanon's water and electricity supplies, pushed up rents and depressed the economy. Host communities across the country have been stretched to breaking point.  Villagers say they have been forced out of their jobs by Syrians willing to work for lower wages. An increasing number of attacks on the informal refugee settlements have been recorded. More than 45 Lebanese towns and villages have imposed curfews, enforced by local, often violent vigilantes, banning Syrian refugees from moving after dark.

       In addition to the disruption of ordinary life caused by accommodating hundreds of thousands of incomers, Lebanon faces a social problem all its own. The Lebanese social order has traditionally been a careful balance between the Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim and Christian elements in its society. Seats in the parliament are allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians, while the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker a Shia Muslim. The Syrians fleeing into Lebanon are almost all Sunni Muslims, and there are fears – not least among Hezbollah and its supporters, who are of the Shi’te tradition – that if they were settled permanently, they would destabilise the country's delicate sectarian balance.

          Lebanon has been pushed to the very limit of viability in absorbing incomers. It will no doubt be used as an object lesson by governments, political parties and organizations across the world with their own agendas for limiting immigration and indeed there are lessons to be learned from Lebanon’s experience. Although it has been the victim of events largely beyond its control, its ordeal does demonstrate just how disruptive to a society an uncontrolled and unplanned influx of newcomers can be. The answer surely lies in government policies that encourage controlled and planned immigration likely to benefit a society, offer humanitarian shelter to refugees fleeing from their home countries in fear of their lives, and have zero tolerance for those seeking to enter a state illegally, and for those profiting from this form of human trafficking.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 January 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 January 2015:

Friday, 2 January 2015

Libya and the anti-Islamist struggle

          Back in 1969 Muammar al-Gaddafi, universally known as Colonel Gaddafi, led a coup d'état in Libya and subsequently ruled the country for forty-two years.  He was overthrown in October 2012, a victim of the so-called “Arab Spring” the upsurge of the Arab masses, protesting against the corrupt dictatorships under which most had lived for decades and ever since Libya has been unable to achieve stability.

Today it is on the brink of a civil conflict no less unrestrained and bloody than that in strife-ridden Syria. Like Syria, Libya is currently a battlefield over which diverse armed groups, each intent on achieving its own ends, run amok.  It, too, is plagued by Islamist extremists on the rampage, intent on destroying every vestige of democratic rule and substituting their own inhumane and soul-destroying version of Sharia law.

Having endured more than four decades of authoritarian rule, even the moderates in Libya have little understanding of democracy, while those aligned to Islamist interests positively reject it. As a result, Libya has had five governments since its revolution.  In June 2014 it held its second democratic election since Gaddafi's overthrow.  Islamist political groups participated, but won only about 30 of the 188 parliamentary seatsConsequently the poll was not only unsuccessful in achieving a stable administration, but resulted in quite the reverse.  For having failed to gain popular support, an umbrella group of Islamist militias known as Libya Dawn took to the streets in August, and virtually captured the capital, Tripoli.

        What followed was a breakdown of law, order and established government.  The democratically elected and internationally recognized prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, and most of his ministers and government officials fled the city with their families, and Libya Dawn set up a rival Islamist administration led by Omar al-Hassi, a hardline former al-Qaeda affiliate As a result, Thinni has been forced to run a rump state from a grey concrete hotel in the eastern city of Tobruk, some 900 miles from the capital.

True to Islamist form, since taking control in Tripoli the self-appointed Libya Dawn government has torched the homes of dozens of rival politicians, cracked down on critical media and, according to human rights groups and the UN. hounded civil activists out of the country. Libya Dawn has also forced the central bank to stop the flow of funds to the internationally recognized parliament, alarming other governments who fear that Libya’s vast oil wealth could bolster the resources of Islamist organisations. 

The oil dimension to the civil unrest in Libya surfaced again last week, following a determined attempt by Libya Dawn – mirroring IS strategy in Iraq to grab control of the country’s sizeable oil reserves. On Christmas Day Libya Dawn attacked the country’s largest oil terminal at Es Sider, setting five giant oil storage bunkers ablaze.  In apparent revenge, jets of the Libyan Air Force, under the control of General Khalifa Heftar, launched a missile attack on the international airport at Misrata, a Libya Dawn stronghold.  At Es Sider, one of Libya’s main export hubs, Libyan officials said that 850,000 barrels of crude oil had been lost in the fire. 

Once the largest oil producer in Africa, Libya’s output 1.59 million barrels per day at the end of 2010 is thought to have dropped to as low as 352,000 barrels per day since the current outbreak of violence. Curiously, this particular cloud has a silver lining at least as far as the oil producers are concerned. Fear over the reliability of oil supplies from Libya could have the positive effect of putting a floor under the tumbling world price of crude, which has lost about 45 percent of its value since the middle of 2014.  Whether energy consumers, filling their cars or paying their gas bills, will benefit is less certain.

More to the point is evidence of a growing association between Libya’s Islamist extremists and the Islamic State (IS), currently wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq. In the dying days of 2014 the commander of US armed forces in Africa, General David Rodriguez, revealed that several hundred IS militants were in training camps in eastern Libya, now under the control of Libya Dawn.  IS loyalists have also been noted in the coastal city of Derna and the adjacent Green Mountain range.  In November the UN Security Council, learning that the Derna branch of the Libyan Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia had pledged allegiance to IS, declared it a terrorist organisation.

“Training camps are seen and heard by everybody,” said Adel al-Faydi, a tribal leader from a town near Derna. “They include large numbers from many nationalities who reached Libya by sea. Now they are not hiding, they are out and about in the city.”  He said that IS fighters and their jihadi allies recently gave Libyan tribal leaders a three-day ultimatum to withdraw their support to the government’s operations, “otherwise they'll assassinate them. That’s why we expect the violence to escalate in the coming days.”

Just like the IS in Iraq and Syria, Libya Dawn and its affiliates are intent on establishing their own regime across the country.  The parallels are chilling.  So far Libya’s three main cities – Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi have fallen into their hands.  Libya Dawn “want their own version of what an Islamic state should look like,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan commentator, quoting the words of Sadegh al-Gheriani, Libya’s grand mufti, an outspoken supporter of the Islamist militias, who has issued edicts demanding gender segregation and barring women from marrying foreigners.

In a classic political manoeuvre, Mohamed Zarroq, a Benghazi-based Islamist and co-founder of the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, claims: “People support Libya Dawn because they believe in what they are doing, They are cleansing the security forces of Gaddafi loyalists.”

Who, except for the crippled government holed up in Tobruk, is opposing these destructive Islamists?  Only a loose alliance going under the generic title of the Dignity Movement. composed of liberal political factions, militias from the western city of Zintan and armed forces loyal to General Haftar. They are fighting what might be described as a rearguard action.  Just like the democratic forces opposing IS in Syria and Iraq, they need all the help they can muster, both political and military.  Let us hope it will be forthcoming.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 January 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 January 2015:

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Palestinian problems

    Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) seems to be riding high.  Over the past few months he has witnessed declarations of support for a Palestinian state in the parliaments of country after country:  Ireland, Britain, Spain, France, Sweden – and most recently the EU parliament.

        In addition the PA seems determined to force a vote in the UN Security Council, on a draft resolution submitted by Jordan, requiring Israel to have withdrawn to the pre-1967 lines and a Palestinian state to have been established by the end of 2017. The Security Council consists of fifteen members – five permanent, with the power of veto, and ten non-permanent.  The PA requires nine votes for their resolution to be adopted, but this could occur only if it is not vetoed by one or more of the five permanent members.

        One of the permanent members, France, is preparing its own alternative resolution, and another – the US – is not in favor of by-passing a negotiated settlement.  The wording of the resolution very carefully attempts to by-pass US objections by simply affirming  “the urgent need to attain” a two-state solution, and by including “mutually agreed, limited, equivalent land swaps” plus a third-party security presence.  Nevertheless, the chances of the PA draft resolution being adopted are uncertain, but even if it fails the mere act of bringing it before the Security Council will be surely be hailed by the PA as a diplomatic coup.

        So is Abbas riding the crest of a wave?  Appearances can be deceptive.  Two major problems face the PA. First, Palestine is a house divided against itself, with the PA the weaker party; and secondly, because of it, Abbas dare not currently resubmit himself or the PA to the democratic process, for the current polls indicate political defeat. In short, he lacks democratic legitimacy. He would be vehemently and vociferously challenged from within the Palestinian camp if he plunged wholeheartedly into the peace process. To evade the possibility of a humiliating deposition, or – with the fate of Egypt’s late President Anwar Sadat in mind – worse, he would much prefer to see some sort of solution forced on Israel by the weight of world opinion.

Open hostility between Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza strip, and the PA has long been evident. In May 2014, as Abbas was announcing his new “government of national unity”, including so-called technocrats from Hamas, Israeli security forces uncovered an elaborate and well-funded Hamas plot aimed at overthrowing the PA in the West Bank. In August Shin Bet arrested 93 Hamas activists accused of setting up terror cells in 46 Palestinian towns and villages. The intention was to carry out mass attacks on Israeli targets and, under cover of this “third intifada”, to seize rule in Ramallah from Abbas and the PA. The operation would have been led by the "Mohammed Deif of the West Bank" – in other words, Hamas operations officer Saleh al-Arouri, who currently operates out of Turkey.

The inherent incompatability between the aims of Hamas and Fatah was apparent immediately after the end of the conflict in Gaza.  It became clear, even before the Egypt-sponsored talks between Israel and the Palestinians had started, that while Hamas was seeking to restore its status in Gaza – and show some positive achievements from the conflict – Fatah was intent on re-establishing a strong foothold for the PA in the strip.
These tensions, far from being resolved, have been exacerbated since Hamas nominally handed over to the PA responsibility for Gaza reconstruction.  This astute move means that Hamas is able to wash its hands of responsibility for the still unreconstructed state of Gaza.  At the October Cairo conference, donors pledged $5.4 billion to help rebuild Gaza, but barely 2% of the money has been transferred.  Transfer of the donations depends on the reconciliation government actually functioning in Gaza, for the donors want to be sure that the money reaches a leadership it can trust. Open hostility between Hamas and Fatah means that that the reconciliation government is virtually toothless in Gaza.

Abbas’s problems do not end with the PA’s stand-off with Hamas, for Fatah itself is split between his supporters and those of his main political opponent, Mohammed Dahlan – a native of Gaza, who was ousted from the PA by Abbas, and against whom a court in Ramallah is preparing an indictment on charges of corruption. Last week the PA decided to remove dozens of Fatah members affiliated with Dahlan’s faction from the Palestinian security forces in Gaza.  As news of the firings spread, anti-Abbas slogans appeared in Gaza and, with the approval of Hamas, Dahlan supporters demonstrated against Abbas in the center of Gaza.

        Nor is Dahlan his only bête noir. There is also jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, convicted in 2004 on five counts of murder for the deaths of four Israelis and a Greek monk, as well as attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and membership of a terrorist organisation. From his prison cell Barghouti took issue with the text of the PA draft resolution to the UN Security Council, accused the PA leadership of making unjustified concessions on Palestinian rights, and called on the PA leadership to undertake an immediate and comprehensive revision.

        He criticized the PA’s readiness to conduct land swaps with Israel, claiming Israel would exploit the concept to legalize settlements.  He opposed the document’s wording on Jerusalem.  The PA text says that the city should be the capital of two states; Barghouti stressed that any resolution should emphasize that east Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state. Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, and the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip were other issues he believed should be included in a revised text.

        Tayseer Khaled, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and a leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, also criticized the draft resolution and called on the PA leadership to withdraw it from the Security Council.

        In the light of all this internal Palestinian opposition, it is not perhaps surprising that rumours are making the round to the effect that the PA have recently sent the US secret messages indicating that they would not object to a veto.

        In short, in presenting his draft resolution to the Security Council Abbas may appear to the world in general to have pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke.  From the propaganda point of view, a US veto would be irrelevant, or even positively advantageous.  Within the hopelessly divided Palestinian camp, however, it has already caused even more friction, animosity and disunity than already existed, and can only generate more.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 December 2014:

Friday, 19 December 2014

The non-Arab Middle East: Iran, Turkey and Israel

A certain TV art critic, when discussing familiar masterpieces, used to insist on turning them upside down. He maintained that viewing a work of art from an unfamiliar perspective added greatly to one’s understanding. The same can apply in other spheres – for example, the geopolitics of the Middle East.

   The Arab world is located fairly and squarely within that area of the globe now designated the Middle East (it has borne other names), but the Middle East is not exclusively Arab.  In addition to the numerous non-Arab minorities that inhabit the region, three major non-Arab states straddle it – Iran, Turkey and Israel.  In today’s world there is little love lost between them. It was not always so.

   The three differ in several basic respects, the most obvious being size.  Iran consists of some one-and–a-half million square kilometres, Turkey is about half that, while Israel is tiny by comparison at 21,000 square kilometres.  Iran and Turkey both have populations pushing some 80 million; Israel barely achieves 8 million. In geopolitical influence, however, the three probably stand shoulder to shoulder.

Another basic difference is religion.  While Israel is a Jewish state – the national home of the Jewish people – Iran and Turkey represent the conflicting branches of Islam. Iran is the leading exponent of the Shi-ite tradition; Turkey is a committed Sunni Muslim state.  Accordingly Iran and Turkey are actively engaged, though from opposing points of view, in the turmoil that has engulfed the Arab world.

   In the Syrian civil war, Iran supports the Shia-associated regime of President Bashar Assad; Turkey regards Assad as its mortal enemy – partly because of his support for Kurdish independence. Many believe Turkey even goes as far as providing aid and comfort to the brutal, but Sunni, Islamic State (IS), which is intent on spreading its control over as much of Syria and Iraq as possible, before advancing even further into the Islamic world.

   Underlying Iranian-Turkish antagonism lies the Iranian bid for political hegemony in the Middle East, to be underpinned by its acquisition of nuclear military capability – a bid that runs counter to the aspirations of Turkey’s new president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also seeks to dominate the region.  The ambitions of both, of course, conflict with those of the leading state of the Arab world – Egypt. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has two major enemies:  the Muslim Brotherhood and its satellite, Hamas in Gaza.  The former is heavily supported by Turkey; the latter, despite its Sunni adherence, by Iran as part of its anti-Israel policy.

For if anything unites the political philosophies of these two non-Arab states, it is their opposition to the third – Israel.  Both Iran and Turkey seek to boost their popularity in the Arab world by unrestrained hostility towards Israel.  Iran not only engages in terrorist activities against Israeli targets worldwide, but finances and supports anti-Israel terrorist action from wherever it emanates, in particular Shi-ite Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also Sunni Hamas in Gaza.  Turkey under Erdogan, first as prime minister from 2003, now as president, has sought to enhance its credentials in the Muslim world by adopting a consistently anti-Israel stance.

It was not always so.  Once the three non-Arab states stood side by side. Back in March 1949 Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel; a year later Iran followed suit.  Following Turkish recognition, cooperation between Turkey and Israel flourished, particularly in the military, strategic, and diplomatic spheres. Trade and tourism boomed, the Israel Air Force practised manoeuvres in Turkish airspace and Israeli technicians modernized Turkish combat jets. There were also plans for high-tech cooperation and water sharing.

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister of Turkey in 2003, he initially maintained a “business as usual” approach, and indeed paid an official visit to Israel in 2005.  However his sympathies, shaped by his Muslim Brotherhood background, very quickly resulted in his realigning Turkish policy in favour of an Islamist pro-Arab stance. Relations with Israel deteriorated rapidly, reaching their nadir in the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when an attempt, backed by the Turkish government, to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza led to an armed encounter on the high seas, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish nationals. 

As for Iran, from the establishment of the State of Israel up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, the two countries maintained close ties. Israel viewed Iran as a natural ally, and fostered the relationship as part of the strategy favoured by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, of an “alliance of the periphery”. After the Six Day War in 1967, Iran supplied Israel with a significant portion of its oil needs, and Iranian oil was shipped to European markets via the joint Israeli-Iranian Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. Israeli construction firms and engineers were active in Iran, and military projects are believed to have been wide-ranging, including an Iranian-Israeli attempt to develop a new missile.

       In December 1979 the Islamist Ayatollah Khomenei became Supreme Leader of Iran. Before the end of the year, Iran had severed diplomatic relations with Israel, and withdrawn its recognition.

   How extraordinary, therefore, that the leading Arab media organization, Al-Arabiya, on its website on December 16, 2014, should run a long article by Turkish political analyst, Ceylan Ozbudak, headed: “Old Friends Can’t be Foes”.  In it she maintains that “a new warmth is in the air for Turkey-Israel relations,” citing Israel’s offer of $20 to $23 million in compensation for the families of the nine Turkish nationals killed during the Mavi Marmara incident as “a major step forward to secure a normalization process with Turkey”. This, she says, can lead to further positive developments for both countries, and the region, in terms of security, economy and foreign policy.  “Today,” she maintains, “with the latest situation in the Middle East and the ongoing Syrian situation, the countries need the partnership of each other maybe more than ever.”

In support of this, she claims that a Turkey-bound pipeline is the most feasible option for exporting the natural gas being developed in Israel’s offshore exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that four Turkish companies are currently involved in negotiations to begin importing Israeli gas starting in 2017.

Ozbudak points out that Turkey is the only regional country to which both Iranian and Israeli citizens can travel without a visa.  Turkey, she maintains, is moving towards a closer diplomatic relationship with Iran. “It’s also high time,” she asserts, “to come closer to Israel to be able to mediate between the two countries when the need emerges.”

        Turkey as honest broker between Israel and Iran?   That would indeed be an upside-down world a re-aligned Turkey and a radically different Iran. But we’ve been there before, and what goes around, comes around. It’s a thought.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 December 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 December 2014: