The Israeli airstrikes against Iranian bases in Syria plus another Syrian gas attack on civilians has Israelis and Americans updating plans for joint military operations. This includes a major strike against the Syrian military and the possibility that this would result in a major Iranian escalation. Major Iranian operations are unlikely, if only because most European nations agree with attacking the Syrian military in response to the recent chemical weapon attack against civilians near Damascus. Iran prefers a more indirect and less risky approach to getting what it wants.
Russia is trying to dissuade Israel and its Western allies from attacking more Syrian targets, especially those that harm the many Iranians and Iranian mercenaries supporting the Syrian forces. Russia also does not want to put its high tech weapons to the test because so far these electronic and anti-aircraft systems have proved ineffective against Israeli attacks and probably won’t do much better against the Americans. This is bad for business, as Russia has been touting the combat experience in Syria to get more sales for their new stuff. It would also be disastrous for Russian diplomacy which has presented Russia as a powerful and technically advanced ally for Syria, Iran and Turkey. Although Russia talks tough against Israel and the Americans it does not want to take this any further, nor does it want to appear like Russia is backing off. Russia is in an embarrassing situation and not getting much sympathy from anyone.
Israel (quietly) and Saudi Arabia (openly) are trying to persuade the Americans to keep their troops in Syria. The U.S. recently announced that withdrawing them was a possibility although it appears all this has more to do with negotiations with Turkey over a number of issues, like membership in NATO and relations with the EU and America. There is also little enthusiasm in the United States for continued American troop presence in Syria. The popular attitude is that Syria and Iraq are regional problems. The U.S. helped to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and that effort continues around the world. The U.S. remains committed to the defense of Israel and any Arab states who agree with that, but permanently stationing troops in the Middle East is very unpopular with Americans.
Hamas Puts On A Show
Despite the violent demonstrations in Gaza (technically because of the Israeli blockade), there has been nothing similar in the West Bank to show “support” for Gaza. Hamas declared there would be weekly demonstrations at the Israeli border starting on March 30 and continuing to May 15th (the day after the U.S. said it would open its new embassy in Jerusalem). So far about 33 Palestinians have died and 1,300 wounded. Many of the dead were identified by the Israeli as Hamas members getting up front and trying to urge more civilians to follow them right up to and through the fence. This enables Hamas operatives to bury bombs or try and cut the fence and make possible large numbers of Gazans to get into Israel. The weekly mass demonstrations will feature Hamas trying to adjust their tactics each week to obtain better results. But the Israelis also adapt and tend to do so more effectively.
In the West Bank Fatah leaders officially back the protests but privately admit that it is just a publicity stunt by Hamas that uses dead civilians to gain publicity as the “victims of Israeli aggression”. There are several reasons for this Fatah attitude. The most important one is the current crackdown on Hamas members in the West Bank. The Palestinian police have arrested over 200 suspects so far and that has sent the other West Bank Hamas agents and supporters into hiding. Since Hamas is organizing the Gaza demonstrations (and arranging the cash rewards for those who are killed or injured, especially those who manage to kill or injure Israeli personnel guarding the border) there is no incentive for West Bank Palestinians to attend violent demonstrations with Israeli forces. Moreover, living standards are much higher in the West Bank and that means fewer people are desperate enough to do anything to earn some money. Unlike Hamas, the people who run the West Bank (Fatah) are mainly into corruption and not imposing lifestyle rules on people and getting them killed because of a constant state of war with Israel.
The large Gaza demonstrations are mainly about providing cover so Hamas can get some operatives into Israel or at least plant bombs near the border fence for attacks on Israeli troops. In the last year, Israel has been increasingly effective at foiling Hamas efforts to build tunnels under the border fence or carry out smuggling operations or attacks off the coast. Without an occasional win, terror groups are seen as ineffective and unworthy of support. Hamas always has the option of launching a full scale rocket attack on southern Israel but the risk of massive Hamas defeat looms larger than ever before. That seems to be discouraging, but not eliminating, the “major attack” option.
Another thing driving the calls for violence in Gaza is an unresolved feud among senior Hamas leaders. There are several factions, divided largely by a willingness to make peace with Israel and Egypt and concentrate on economic issues in Gaza. Yet Hamas began as a local chapter of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood and has always put more emphasis on destroying Israel than in looking after the welfare of the Gaza population. Iran is again a major player in Gaza, supporting factions that are most willing to attack Israel. Then there are factions that want to at least try and make peace with Egypt (which has blockaded Gaza because of continued sanctuary provided Islamic terror groups operating in Egypt.
In the north (Lebanon) Iran has apparently ordered Hezbollah to make preparations for war with Israel. This can be seen by recent Hezbollah moves to take control of Lebanese Army forces on the Israeli border and to push the UN peacekeepers (who are supposed to prevent this sort of thing) out of the way. Hezbollah is building a new line of fortifications and anti-tank obstacles closer to the Israeli border.
Despite all the noise the Palestinians make Israel is concentrating on what it perceives is its greatest threat; war instigated and backed by Iran on two fronts. In the north, there are over 100,000 Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon and Syria aimed at Israel. In the south, there are over 50,000 rockets in Gaza, where Iran is once again a major backer of Hamas. Iran does not have sufficient ground forces available in Gaza (Hamas) and the north (Hezbollah and Iranian mercenaries in Syria) to invade Israel. The coming war involves Israel invading Lebanon, Syria and Gaza to stop the massive rocket attacks. Thus thousands of Israel ground troops are constantly taking short (usually a week or so) courses at special facilities that provide them realistic replicas of what they will face on the ground and instruction on how best to deal with it. There's some urgency to this training effort because Israel knows from recent experience (several wars with Hamas or Hezbollah since 2006) that the best preparation is detailed training based on the latest techniques the enemy is using and the latest tech and tactical ideas Israel has available. While Hezbollah seems prepared for this war Hamas is not. Hamas has a lot more political competition in Gaza and the competition is growing while Hamas fails to win even a token victory. Iran cannot provide a lot of support for Hamas because Gaza is more physically isolated than Lebanon, Syria or Yemen.
The Economic Impact
The West Bank Palestinians have tried to use all sorts of violence to kill Israelis or at least inflict economic damage. This sometimes has some impact, especially on tourism, but it is usually short lived. For example, in 2014 Fatah declared a new terror campaign that came to be known as “knife terrorism.” This emphasis on suicidal individual attacks soon lost their popularity despite Fatah still pushing them energetically in all the Palestinian media. This knife terror contributed to a 25 percent drop in tourist traffic to Israel during the first six months of 2015. In response, Israel publicized the fact that Israel is still the safest tourist destination in the region. By the end of 2015 tourist traffic was up and kept rising. So far this year tourism is up more than 50 percent over the previous 12 months. That was a continuation of the trend that began in late 2015. Palestinian terrorism efforts have never recovered from the defeat they suffered when Israel adopted new tactics that largely shut down the terror campaign that began in 2000. Fatah and Hamas have been trying to revive that effort ever since and have largely failed. Both Palestinian groups now openly admit that want Israel destroyed and will settle for nothing less and that is a poor strategy.
This cynical and self-destructive attitude by Palestinian leaders has led to more and more foreign donors to stop giving. Too much of the aid money was either stolen or diverted to finance violence against Israel. Hamas has been the worst offender and as a result economic conditions are worst in Gaza. The years of feuding between Fatah and Hamas has made it difficult for foreign aid groups to operate in Gaza. Add to that the sometimes violent disputes within Gaza between rival Islamic terror groups, some of them seeking to overthrow and replace Hamas. That has led to some violence (and kidnapping) against foreign aid workers and that led many foreign aid groups to just give up on Gaza. Even Egypt has turned hostile, especially since Gaza has long sheltered Islamic terror groups that regularly conducted attacks in Egypt.
April 12, 2018: For the fourth time this year Egypt temporarily (for three days) opened its Gaza border for carefully inspected movement in and out of Gaza.
April 11, 2018: In the south (Gaza) Hamas detonated a bomb at the border near Israeli troops. There were no casualties although a bulldozer was damaged. The Israelis responded with several air strikes. The bomb had apparently been placed during large demonstrations Hamas has been conducting along the border fence. The air strikes led to someone in Gaza firing a heavy machine-gun at Israeli aircraft and at least one bullet hit a house just across the border in Israel. That brought another airstrike that killed one Hamas man and wounded another.
Russia resumed commercial flights to and from Egypt after a two year suspension because of ISIL getting a bomb aboard a Russian airliner in 2015. That brought down the aircraft and killed 224 Russians returning from vacations. Egypt has handled ISIL and improved security since 2015
April 10, 2018: In the north (Syria) Russian ships have left the Russian naval base at Tartus. This is considered a standard move if major attacks are expected. European air control warned airlines to be careful over the eastern Mediterranean for the next 72 hours because there might be more air or missile strikes that would result in electronic countermeasures that could disrupt commercial navigations systems on airliners. Russia admitted that its electronic countermeasures were unable to stop the missiles, which they say were launched over Lebanon by Israeli F-15Is.
April 9, 2018: In central Syria, several missiles hit the Iranian T-4 airbase near Palmyra. Four Iranian IRGC personnel were killed, including a colonel known for his work with Iranian UAVs. There were at least ten other dead, all believed to be Iranian mercenaries. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on February 10th. The Americans said they had advance warning of today’s attack while Russia complained that it was not advised even though it has some personnel at the T-4 base. Israel did not take credit for the attack, which is how Israel handles most of its airstrikes in Syria.
In Egypt, the security forces completed another large counter-terrorism operation. Over the last few days, this left four Islamic terrorists dead and over 250 suspects arrested. Soldiers also seized 46 vehicles, 114 motorcycles and large quantities of weapons and ammo. Since February 9th these operations in Sinai have left nearly 200 Islamic terrorists dead and several thousand suspects arrested. Large quantities of weapons, explosives and ammunition were also taken.
April 8, 2018: In the south (Gaza) Israeli security cameras captured video of three Gazans getting across the fence at night, burying two bombs on the Israeli side and then going back to Gaza. Israeli troops came and disabled the bombs. In response, an Israeli artillery hit a Hamas facility in Gaza.
April 7, 2018: In Syria, an airstrike against Douma, a rebel held town east of Damascus, apparently involved some type of chemical weapon. Medical aid workers report at least 70 dead, including many civilians. The airstrike, like many Syria, carries out against pro-rebel civilians, involved a barrel bomb (an empty oil barrel filled with explosives and whatever else was available). These are pushed out of helicopters or transports and are equipped with a contact fuze so they explode on impact. Russian and Iranian military personnel work closely with the Syrian air force and know what goes on (and into barrel bombs). Iran has military advisors assigned to all the senior Syrian military commands and many of the lower level ones. Syria has been accused of using primitive (World War I type) chemical weapons that attack the respiratory system. These older chemical weapons are often nothing more than industrial chemicals (like chlorine) in large (and dangerous) doses. Russia believes these don’t count as chemical weapons (according to the 2013 Russian brokered deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons) and the Iranians apparently don’t care. When pressed Iran will blame Israel or the Americans. In response, the United States said it would retaliate if the Douma attack did involve any kind of chemical weapon. The evidence indicates that the Douma attack involved a combination of chlorine and a nerve gas. Israel fears Iran is permitting Syria to use these chemical weapons to test their effectiveness and the degree of international outrage. Israel has always believed Iran planned to provide Syria and Hezbollah with chemical weapons for use in a major attack on Israel.
Israel blocked trucks moving four cargo containers full of automobile tires into Gaza. There is more demand for tires in Gaza since Hamas began using thousands of them to sustain smoky fires for the thousands of demonstrators at the border.
April 6, 2018: For the second Friday in a row Hamas organized mass (over 20,000 people) demonstrations at the border. Hamas provided tires to burn and cameramen to capture the violence.
April 5, 2018: Egypt and Saudi Arabia are trying to persuade Hamas to call off or tone down its large demonstrations along the Israeli border. The Saudis and Egyptians believe these demonstrations will not succeed and their failure will reflect badly on Hamas and the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Fatah, which runs the West Bank, has been blunter and wants Hamas replaced with more effective leadership for Gaza. That would be difficult to do since Hamas has over 10,000 armed men working full time to make sure Hamas stays in power. Fatah now says that it will not be responsible for what happens in Gaza if Hamas remains in power. Fatah offers to take control of Gaza and not punish Hamas leaders if Hamas cooperates but that is not likely to happen.
April 4, 2018: In the north (Syria) Assad forces have begun moving reinforcements towards the Israeli border, apparently with the intention of destroying rebel groups that have come occupy most of the southern border since 2011. This has been accompanied by increased Syrian air strikes against rebels near the border. This move by Syria alarms the UN because they fear for the safety of their peacekeepers. In late 2016 UN Peacekeepers returned to the Syrian side of the Israeli border for the first time since 2014. Initially, only 127 peacekeepers crossed the border and it wasn’t until the end of 2016 before the full force of over a thousand troops returned to their Syrian positions. Back in 2014 UN peacekeepers from Fiji and the Philippines were forced out by al Qaeda (al Nusra) rebels, who wanted to ensure that the UN peacekeepers did not interfere with the rebel takeover of a border crossing. The Islamic terrorist rebels looted the UN camp. The rebels were driven away from the border in 2016 by the Syrian Army, which had regained control of the entire 70 kilometer long border with Israel. Up until 2014 the UN had 1,223 peacekeepers monitoring the Syrian/Israeli border and wanted that force returned. The UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Israel defeated Syria in 1967 and took the Golan Heights from Syria. In 1973 Israel defeated a strong effort by Syria to regain the Golan Heights. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace. From 2014 to 2016 the peacekeepers were only able to operate on the Israeli side of the border.
April 2, 2018: The Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview that “…Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” That was a first for any Saudi leader and something few other Arab leaders are willing to admit. There are many practical reasons for a Saudi leader to back Israel this way but the main one of Saudi Arabia and Israel have a mutual enemy, Iran which openly proclaims its intention of destroying Israel and doing the same to the Saudi royal family and all its supporters.
April 1, 2018: In Egypt, the current president (former general Sisi) won the presidential election to gain a second four-year term. Only 41 percent of eligible voters turned out but 97 percent of those who cast valid ballots chose Sisi. Nearly two million voters disqualified their votes by choosing write-in candidates, who were not allowed. Sisi succeeded in preventing any major candidates from registering to run against him in the late March presidential elections. All major candidates were either arrested on real or imaginary charges or withdrew under government pressure. Sisi appears to repeat the pattern established by previous Egyptian military dictators (Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak) and becoming what he promised to replace. Sisi got elected in 2014 because the Moslem Brotherhood won the national elections after the 2011 revolution and made the mistake of agreeing with their radical faction and trying to impose Islamic law on all Egyptians. This was very unpopular and the Moslem Brotherhood was overthrown by another popular uprising in 2013. After that, another military man (Sisi) was elected president and it was back to business as usual. One side effect of that 2013 coup was a court eventually dismissed most of the charges against Mubarak who is apparently going to escape any real punishment, as are his sons. Court decisions like that bring out more protestors but not enough to overthrow the new government run by a former general elected to the job. Most Egyptians wanted to see if the new general-in-charge could get the economy going and restore order. The new government made some progress on both counts, but at the cost of any real efforts to curb corruption or enact other needed reforms. Not a major issue as most Egyptians want peace and prosperity first. That means no Moslem Brotherhood, a group that still has a lot of popular support in Egypt. But the Brotherhood also has many factions, many of them unwilling to compromise.
March 31, 2018: In the north (Lebanon) an Israeli armed UAV bombed the crash site of an Israel UAV that went down because of technical problems earlier in the day.
March 28, 2018: Israel revealed that it had resumed airstrikes against targets in Syria. These air operations had been halted for several weeks after an F-16I crashed after returning from one of those missions. Israel rarely releases details of these missions but observers in Syria usually do and there have been reports in the last week that Hezbollah and Iranian targets are being hit from the air again.
March 27, 2018: In the south, three Palestinians from Gaza were arrested outside an army base 20 kilometers from the Gaza border. The three were carrying knives and grenades. The men had crossed the security fence several hours earlier and security forces had not acted as fast as they are supposed to. An investigation was ordered.
March 24, 2018: In the south, a number of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel. An Iron Dome battery shot down several rockets which were headed for residential areas. At least one additional Iron Dome was sent to the Gaza border because of this particular attack.
In Egypt (Alexandria) Islamic terrorists used a roadside bomb to attack the head of security for the port city. The security chief was unharmed but a policeman was killed and six wounded.
March 22, 2018: Air India began flying, for the first time, direct flights between India and Israel that pass over Saudi Arabia. This cuts about two hours from previous flight time where aircraft heading for Israel could not fly over Saudi Arabia and had to detour around it (via the Red Sea). While the Saudis allow Indian airlines to pass over now they will not allow Israeli airliners. As a result, Israeli airline El Al is suing to bar such shorter flights from landing in Israel because it puts El Al at an economic disadvantage.
In Baghdad police arrested Taha al Jubouri, a known Hamas bomb expert who had been deported from Turkey. Israel wants Jubouri. Iran tried to get Jubouri out of Iraqi custody but so far that has failed.
March 21, 2018: Israel admitted that it was responsible for the 2007 airstrike on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in northern Syria. There was never much doubt that Israel was responsible but it wasn’t until early 2011 that the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) announced that it believed the Syrian structure destroyed by an Israelis in 2007 was a nuclear reactor under construction. This was nothing new, as details of the IAEA have been leaked, but now the conclusion is official and shortly thereafter the UN released the official report on the Syrian nuclear facility. Israel apparently made this admission to send a message to Iran, which is building a lot of military facilities in Syria and still proclaims that Israel must be destroyed.
March 19, 2018: Fatah accused Hamas of being responsible for a March assassination attempt in Gaza when a convoy carrying the Palestinian prime minister was attacked by a roadside bomb. The explosion occurred prematurely and the prime minister, who traveled through Israel from the West Bank, was making a rare visit to Gaza. Hamas denies any responsibility but has been unable to pin the blame on anyone else.
March 18, 2018: During the night, on the Gaza border, sensors spotted an armed many trying to get past the security fence and into Israel. An Israeli warplane on patrol in the area fired on the intruder and killed him.