March 9, 2016:
In the West Bank and Israel the Fatah sponsored “knife terrorism” campaign continues. Since last October 28 Israelis and over 170 Palestinians and have been killed. This is all about making the corrupt and incompetent Fatah more popular in the West Bank but opinion polls show that many (but not most) Palestinians would vote for anyone but Fatah and Hamas if elections were held right now. Moreover polls show enthusiasm for the knife terrorism campaign is waning. Like many past Fatah publicity stunts the knife terrorism makes life worse for most Palestinians and provides one more reason for foreign investment to stay away from the West Bank. Despite the Palestinian terrorists trying to go after tourists (and sometimes succeeding) the latest Palestinian terror campaign has had little impact on the Israeli economy. In 2015 the Israeli economy grew 3.3 percent while the West Bank economy declined nearly as much.
Fatah and Hamas failed to hold another scheduled round of unifications talks in Qatar during late February. The main reason was that too many participants realized that between 2007 and 2014 five earlier unification agreements failed to accomplish anything. Moreover the growing economic and political problems Hamas is having in Gaza are reducing popular support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. This comes ten years after Hamas won control of Gaza via elections. Hamas made a lot of promises back then and the only one it kept was to attack Israel. That was a failure multiple times as were all the promises to improve the economy. Hamas did not win much favor for refusing to hold anymore elections. Turning Gaza into an Islamic terrorist sanctuary was also generally unpopular as were efforts to impose Sharia (Islamic) law and the usual lifestyle restrictions. The Hamas alliance with Iran was and is also unpopular. The latest opinion polls show that 45 percent of Gazans would vote for Fatah if elections were held. That is way up over the past few years. Hamas has also lost a lot of support in the West Bank. The latest opinion polls show that if all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were allowed to vote for a new leader of the Palestinian people Hamas would get only 17 percent of the votes. While Fatah would get 39 percent this reminds everyone that most Palestinians still despise Fatah for its decades of corruption and mismanagement. One thing Fatah and Hamas have succeeded at is preventing any more rival political groups from freely operating in the Palestinian territories.
Meanwhile Fatah leaders announced that they would never negotiate with Israel again. At the same time Hamas officially (via diplomats from major Moslem nations like Turkey) let Israel know that Hamas was not planning any major attacks and while it as not joining in the Fatah sponsored “knife terrorism” campaign the Hamas controlled media was praising all the West Bank Palestinians killed while attacking Israelis. Hamas is also still preparing for another war with Israel and constantly supporting anyone else who shares this obsession. Many Islamic terrorist groups still have sanctuary inside Gaza. While not technically a violation of the ceasefire with Israel it is seen as a way for Hamas to facilitate attacks against Israel without having to take responsibility. Both Israel and Egypt disagree which is why access to Gaza remains so tightly controlled by Egypt and Israel.
As if Hamas didn’t have enough trouble it now has to contend with rumors (apparently true) that the recent execution of a senior Hamas military leader (Mahmoud Eshtewi) was not just about his spying for Israel but also because he was a homosexual and had stolen Hamas money to support that and to pay blackmail to his male lovers. Hamas had kept quiet about the sex and embezzlement but the family of the executed man did not. Hamas said Eshtewi admitted that he supplied Israel with information about where the most senior Hamas military commander (Mohammed Deif) was during the mid-2014 “50 Day War” with Israel. The subsequent Israeli missile attack wounded Deif and killed his wife and child and other Hamas personnel. A year later Israel confirmed that Deif was still alive and hiding in Gaza. Israel considered Mohammed Deif a mass murderer and have been after him since the 1990s. Hamas would not reveal how Eshtewi was found out but now it is clear that it was first the embezzlement and then the homosexuality and then the Israeli connection. All this was very embarrassing for Hamas as Eshtewi was a Hamas member since the 1990s. Eshtewi was arrested in January 2015 and after months of torture his crimes were found out and confirmed.
Egypt continues to insist that it will not intervene militarily in Libya, at least not openly. Egypt does still call for international help, from anyone, to help stop the violence and chaos in neighboring Libya. Egypt has been making this appeal since early 2015 and the response, so far, has been silence. Egypt has carried out some unofficial air strikes but wants an “international effort” (at least one other nation besides Egypt) to carry out an open and official air support campaign as occurred in 2011. One of the two governments in Libya (Tobruk, the UN approved one) also called for some international help and got the same response as Egypt. In the meantime Egypt has developed closer, and sometimes official, economic relations with the Tobruk government. This includes a deal to buy two million barrels of oil a year from fields Tobruk controls. Egypt probably got a big discount but this deal was probably worth over $50 million to the Tobruk government. Egypt has, since at least 2013, provided the Tobruk forces some covert military support (trainers, advisors, special equipment). That appears to be continuing. What is done quite openly is continually increase security along the Libyan border. So far in 2016 more special operations troops have been sent to the Libyan border to deal with Islamic terrorists and smugglers who are using more innovative methods to get back and forth across the border. Sometimes this means more firepower, finding more obscure routes or a combination of both. Special operations troops are best suited to deal with this. Egypt wants to keep weapons and Islamic terrorists from entering Egypt and stop illegal migrants, some of them new recruits for ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Libya, from crossing into Libya. Smugglers still get a lot of people and goods into and out of Libya using the fact that the 1,100 kilometer long border largely runs through thinly populated desert. The desert route is more expensive and many illegals cannot afford it.
Egypt has stabilized the Islamic terrorist situation in Sinai but many Islamic terrorists remain active there, especially inside Gaza. Because of this Egypt is now shifting to a longer term solution and is already spending a lot of money on new roads, infrastructure and housing for Sinai. The lack of this sort of thing has caused growing unrest in Sinai for decades. It will take years of better government and lots of local investment to turn this around. In the meantime Gaza has become enemy territory as far as Egypt is concerned. This is one of the few things Egypt and Israel agree on. Egypt continues to go after tunnels from Gaza. This Egyptian effort has eliminated 98 percent of the tunnels over the last few years. But Hamas finds it worthwhile to keep building more deeper and longer tunnels because Islamic terrorists will pay lots of cash to have access to such tunnels. About a dozen of them remain operational and Hamas replaces them as they are discovered and destroyed. While Egypt and Israel allow lots of legitimate goods into Gaza (after carefully screening them for contraband) Hamas still needs access to weapons and ammo, as well as illegal cash donations. Illegal drugs also still have a market in Gaza, even though Hamas officially opposes this sort of thing. The tunnels will take whatever business they can get to remain operational.
Outside of Sinai there is a growing perception that Egypt is turning into what it was before the 2011; a corrupt police state. There are growing incidents of police acting in a lawless fashion (murder, kidnapping, torture and corruption). The government responds that any misbehavior is the work of rogue cops or lies being spread by the Moslem Brotherhood. At the same time people are desperate for economic growth and less violence. As happened in the 1990s the Islamic terrorists (at least the more extreme ones like ISIL) are attacking the economy, especially tourism which accounts for 11 percent of the GDP and provides jobs (directly or indirectly) for 12 percent of the work force. ISIL attacks against tourists led to a 15 percent decline in tourist income for 2015. For most Egyptians the most important task of the government is improving the economy, followed by reducing Islamic terrorist violence.
March 7, 2016: Off the Egyptian coast French and Egyptian ships and aircraft began several days of joint military exercises. A French aircraft carrier provided most of the French warplanes participating.
March 6, 2016: Egypt announced the results of a long investigation into who killed a senior government official (Hisham Barakat, the chief prosecutor) in June 2015. The conclusion was that the killers were Islamic terrorists associated with the Moslem Brotherhood who were hiding out in Gaza under the protection of Hamas. Barakat was killed by a bomb detonated outside his home. No group took credit for the killing but then that is common with many of the terror attacks in the last few years. Many Egyptians believe the government was responsible and such conspiracy theories often turn out to be true in this part of the world.
March 3, 2016: Hamas revealed that another of its men had died because of a recent tunnel collapse. Hamas blames the six similar incidents (and twelve deaths) since late 2015 on unusually heavy rain storms. Now Hamas has a problem because a growing number of their men are refusing to work in the tunnels because there is a widely believed (among Gazans) rumor that the real cause of all these tunnel collapses (including the unreported ones that didn’t kill anyone) were the result of new Israeli anti-tunnel weapons. This sort of thing has been mentioned in the Israeli media, but mainly in terms of new sensors not devices that could remotely trigger a tunnel collapse. Hamas denies Israel has any such weapon and Israel won’t discuss classified military matters (like the new sensors). Hamas also does not like to openly discuss the energetic Egyptian anti-tunnel methods which include digging a canal along the Gaza border and flooding it with sea water to collapse tunnels and make it more difficult (because of the unstable wet sand) to build new tunnels into Egypt. Hamas also adds to the mystery by refusing to release any details of their tunneling activities. That is because a lot of the underground work is on rebuilding “combat tunnels” destroyed by Israel during the mid-2014 “50 Day War”. In addition new tunnels are being built. Israelis living near the Gaza border complain that they can sometimes hear (or feel) Hamas tunnel building efforts. In 2014 the Israeli military said they would erect a detection system to locate new tunnels so they could be destroyed. The detection system has been delayed because of defense spending cuts but now the government says the detection system is coming soon.
The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) declared the Lebanese Shia militia to be a terrorist group. The rest of the world has long identified Hezbollah as an Islamic terrorist organization but the GCC did not because it was (and still is) popular in the Middle East to try and support any group that is fighting Israel. Hezbollah and Palestinian groups like Hamas are the only ones doing that. In 2013 the GCC criticized Hezbollah for supporting the Assad dictatorship in Syria. Iranian leaders reacted to all this by accusing the GCC of doing this because of Israeli influence and pressure.
February 25, 2016: Iran announced an aid program to Palestinians that would pay $7,000 to the families of Palestinians killed while trying to kill Israelis. Over 120 Palestinians have died that way since September 2015. Iran will also pay $30,000 to Palestinian families who have their homes destroyed by Israel (to encourage families to dissuade their children from being terrorists). Until 2003 Saddam Hussein had a similar Palestinian aid program.
February 20, 2016: Iranian officials came to Russia to discuss a multi-billion dollar deal to buy Russian Su-30 jet fighters, Yak-130 jet trainers and Mi-17 helicopters. The Su-30s are a direct threat to any Israeli efforts to bomb Iranian nuclear weapons facilities, an option that Israel still has. Warplanes sales to Iran are still forbidden without explicit permission from the UN. At the same time it was confirmed that Iran is still discussing details of the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft systems sale. This was thought to be a done deal. In December Russian announced that deliveries would be made via the Caspian Sea. Some supporting equipment has already been flown in or came by sea as non-military equipment. Apparently the key S-300 components (missiles and fire control systems) have not been delivered. This is good news for Israel as the S-300s could be more of a threat to Israeli warplanes than Su-30s.
February 19, 2016: Saudi Arabia is suspending military aid to Lebanon largely because the Lebanese government has been unable to curb Iranian use of Hezbollah fighters in Syria and Yemen. The $3 billion in weapons and equipment is being supplied for by France, paid for by Saudi Arabia and was arranged back in 2013. Deliveries began in early 2015 and were to have been completed by 2018. Training and maintenance services were to continue into the 2020s.