Israel has made it clear to the new American government that it is willing to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians but such an effort cannot have any preconditions. The Israelis have presented ample evidence (from Palestinian media, especially that controlled by Fatah and Hamas) that the official Palestinian position (at least in Arabic to its own people) is that Israel should not exist and must be destroyed. Previous American governments ignored that or explained it away. But even Moslem nations that have long backed the Palestinians have reduced that support because they see the Palestinian goals as hopeless. Moreover the Palestinians are still divided (Fatah controls the West Bank, Hamas Gaza) and all efforts to the two factions to form a united government have failed.
In addition to the Palestinian problem Israel considers Iran the major military threat and for that reason is at war with Iran in Syria. Iran’s allies there, Russia and Turkey, are not backing Iranian efforts to destroy Israel once ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is destroyed in Syria. Russia is quite open about its good relationships and cooperation with Israel while Turkey is making it clear that if pressed to choose sides, they would prefer Israel to Iran. Nevertheless Turkey is still run by an Islamic political party that is highly critical of Israel, and the West in general. But that’s another problem.
Taking advantage of the situation in Syria Israel has been more aggressive with its attacks on Iranian weapons shipments to Syria, many of them actually intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel keeps careful track of Iranian air freight flights to Syria and has noted these flights have become more frequent since 2015. This was because economic sanctions were eased and Iran could buy new air transports and spare parts for reviving the elderly air freight fleet it already has. Israel is seeing a lot of Iranian refurbished air transports showing up in Syria. Many of them carry missile components. Iran is attempting to update the Hezbollah rocket and missile arsenal to include a lot more projectiles that are guided (usually by GPS). Currently only about one percent of the more than hundred thousand Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel are guided, and often not very accurately or reliably. Iran wants to change that so Hezbollah can launch a large enough number of guided rockets to overwhelm Israeli anti-missile defenses and do serious damage to Israeli military and economic targets as well as cause massive casualties.
Iran is losing this war with Israel and seeking a way to do better. This is important inside Iran where the government has long publicized victories (usually invented) over Israel. Highly visible defeats by Israel, as are happening in Syria, does little to prop up the unpopular religious dictatorship that has been running the country since the 1980s. Another embarrassment is the success of Russian air power and ground forces (mainly special operations and artillery) to help the Assad forces win back territory. Until 2016 Iranian forces were seen as the key to Assad survival and the Assads were not shy about praising their Iranian saviors. But that changed in 2017 as the alliance with Turkey and Russia began to come apart. Iran blames this on Israel which, in this case, is partially correct. Israel knows that Iran wants to establish a pro-Iranian militia in Syria similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Assads know this would mean they would have to share power in Syria with Iran. Most Syrians don’t care for this, just as most Lebanese don’t care for the Hezbollah presence since the 1980s. No one, including Russia, Turkey and Israel, want another Hezbollah established in Syria. Iran will not back down on this and that has damaged their relationships with their allies.
Turkey is still technically an Iranian ally in Syria but that has changed since late 2016. This is mainly because Turkey is trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous region in northern Syria and that goal outweighs everything else. The Turks are the only member of the anti-ISIL coalition that wants to keep the Kurds out of the final offensive to crush ISIL in Syria. The Turks are also opposed to the growing Iranian presence in Syria and Iranian plans to make that presence (and control of the Syrian government) permanent. Turkey also favors the Sunni Arab states when it comes to disputes between Iran and the Arabs. This was clearly the case when Turkey demanded that the Assads be overthrown in the wake of the April 4th nerve gas attack. Israel also opposes the Iranian presence but is neutral about the Kurds and has the support of Russia and the United States for that.
Russia and the United States are trying to prevent the offensive against ISIL from being disrupted because of growing hostility between the Turks and the SDF (Kurdish led secular rebel coalition) but are not having much success.
While Russia is officially in Syria to defeat ISIL and keep the Assads in power they (semi-officially) also want to maintain good relations with Israel and Sunni Arab countries while doing it. This annoys Iran. Israel has made it clear that there can never be peace in Syria if Iran tries to establish a permanent presence there. The Iranians say they are in Syria to stay and the Russians (so far) have said they oppose that. Iran wants to stay in Syria as part of its decades old effort to destroy Israel and a centuries old effort to make the Shia form of Islam dominant in the Islamic world (that is over 80 percent non-Shia). Meanwhile Israel says it can live with the Assads as long as Iran is not maintaining a military presence in Syria. Many Turks agree with Israel on that point and newly elected U.S. government has come out strongly against any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. The Americans still want the Assads gone but despite that the U.S., Israel and Turkey agree on some key goals.
The Egyptian government is unable to eliminate the Islamic terrorist groups in part because the Egyptian religious establishment, especially the senior scholars, refuse to block attempts to separate church and state. This is seen as fundamental to progress in the non-Moslem world and a major obstacle defeating the endless (since the early days of Islam) supply of Islamic terrorist groups attacking those they consider “enemies of Islam”. These enemies are usually fellow Moslems but non-Moslems will do if they are easily available. Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL thrive on this fundamentalism. But even Moslem monarchs and dictators realize that this is a major obstacle to achieving economic and military power. The resurgence of Islamic terrorism in Egypt has crippled the economy, as it did in the 1990s and numerous other times in the past. Egyptian universities that have long been recognized as the most authoritative voice on Islam but even here the traditionalists prevail. Mindful of this Islamic terrorist groups like ISIL are concentrating on wrecking the economy to create more unrest and eventually turn Egypt into a religious dictatorship. This is the same strategy used in the 1990s and it eventually failed. The less fanatic and more widespread Moslem Brotherhood also seeks religious rule, but is willing to tolerate democracy as long as the primacy of Islam is not challenged. The practical result of all this is continued civil disorder and a crippled economy, in large part because the wealthier non-Moslem world is reluctant to do business, or even visit, Egypt. Native Christians (the Copts) are suffering increased persecution, often in the form of murder and kidnapping. This is a major blemish on Egypt, which has long touted its large native Christian population as a sign that the country was safe for non-Moslems. That no longer works. Even Israel has backed off and the Israeli embassy has remained closed since the end of 2016 because of the Islamic terrorist threat.
In Sinai the local ISIL franchise appears to have changed its strategy and returned to enforcing its strict Islamic lifestyle rules. Since 2015 the Sinai ISIL have refrained from such enforcement. But now the enforcement is back and so is the active hostility of the local Bedouin. What caused this ISIL decision is unclear but it is counterproductive. In the beginning (2014) Bedouins, who have long supported armed opposition to the government, were openly hostile to ISIL because ISIL tried to impose harsh “Islamic” lifestyle rules on the Bedouins. That is one thing you do not try to do and the Bedouins forced ISIL to back down on several occasions over this issue. By late 2015 ISIL learned how to behave among the Bedouin and were able to work with them. This has made it possible for ISIL to survive there and even send small teams to the Nile River valley, where most Egyptians live. ISIL is still planning to become the only Islamic terror group in Sinai (and eventually the world) and eventually return to strict enforcement of their lifestyle rules. This was announced in late March when an online ISIL video described how the Hisba (what ISIL calls its lifestyle police) would begin operating in Sinai, as they have been doing in Iraq and Syria. Local Bedouin leaders warned ISIL men they knew that turning Hisba loose on the Bedouins would backfire. Apparently some ISIL members told the Bedouins that the Hisba were just for the non-Bedouin population in Sinai. That was not reassuring because many Bedouin work the same jobs as non-Bedouin and unless you know a lot about Bedouin life and politics it’s difficult to tell, even after questioning, who is a Bedouin and who isn’t. Naturally the new ISIL policy backfired, just like it did in 2014.
May 8, 2017: In western Egypt, ground troops and warplanes have been searching for and destroying a large number of 4x4 vehicles from Libya that were trying to move weapons and ammunition into Egypt. Over the weekend 15 of these vehicles were destroyed, apparently by air strikes. The operation continues.
May 6, 2017: In Gaza Hamas elected a new leader, the first one since 2004 who actually lives in Gaza. Since 2004 Hamas leaders have lived in places where they were safer from being captured or killed by Israeli counter-terrorism efforts. The new Hamas leader is offering Israel a truce but that is seen as an act of desperation because the previous hardline Hamas leaders, ruling from exile in places like Syria or Qatar (in the Persian Gulf) were seen as leaders of international Islamic terrorist organizations and were no longer safe anywhere.
Egypt will allow relatively free movement of people (and some goods) via the Rafah border crossing into Egypt for three days. This is described as a humanitarian gesture. Rafah is the only exit from Gaza that is not controlled by Israel. Meanwhile ISIL left the decapitated bodies of three men in the streets of Rafah. A few days earlier ISIL had raided the nearby town the three victims (a father and two sons) lived in and kidnapped them. Whatever negotiations that might have ensured did not work out. ISIL often tries to intimidate locals by kidnapping or killing them. Further west, outside Cairo, police raided a location where two men were building bombs. The two would not surrender and were killed in a gun battle.
May 5, 2017: The Israeli army has decided to punish two officers for not preventing a Lebanese civilian from crossing the Israeli border undetected. Fortunately the man was not a terrorist and was found, arrested and sent back to Lebanon within two days. There was an investigation and it was determined that a deputy company commander was directly responsible for the lax discipline that led to the incident. This officer was removed from his job and this will be a black mark on his career. The battalion commander was given a letter of reprimand, which makes it more difficult to get promoted.
May 3, 2017: Israeli and Russian officials are increasingly open about how the two nations coordinate military operations in Syria and cooperate in other areas as well.
May 2, 2017: In Lebanon Hezbollah criticized Hamas for changing its official policy on Israel. Hezbollah still calls for the destruction of Israel.
Egyptian efforts to get the two main factions in Libya to at least discuss a peace deal appear to have had some visible success. This was visible at a meeting today in the Arab Gulf State of Abu Dhabi between Libyan military leader Khalifa Hiftar and the prime minister of the UN organized and backed Libyan GNA government. This was the first time these two men met. This meeting led to more Moslem nations backing Egypt in its effort to support Hiftar. Egypt has resisted pressure from the UN to get behind the GNA (Government of National Accord) which the UN organized in 2015 but has been unable to convince all Libyans to support. Egypt sees GNA as too cozy with Islamic conservative groups. Algeria feels the same way as do many other local Moslem nations. These attitudes are no secret because leaders from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have met several times since 2012 to discuss Libya and continue to agree that none of them wants to intervene militarily (on a large scale) to deal with the chaos next door. But at the same time all three nations, which have long borders with Libya, will cooperate with whatever faction is controlling the Libyan side of the border and will work to keep Islamic terrorists from freely moving back and forth across the border. Thus Egypt has become very close to the HoR (elected House of Representatives that GNA replaced) government while Tunisia is on good terms with both the GNA and pro-HoR groups who have worked with Tunisia to control Islamic terrorism, especially ISIL. Tunisia noted that general Hiftar (the HoR military leader) keeps ISIL out of eastern Libya while pro-GNA militias drove ISIL out of their new base in Sirte by the end of 2016. All this greatly reduced ISIL activity in Tunisia. Algeria noted the same thing and all three neighboring countries have increased their border security to contain the lawlessness that still predominates throughout Libya. The GNA has not ignored neighborhood politics and has recently sent officials to Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Russia to make their case for being the only national government in Libya. These officials came back with vague promises to help and some blunt assessments by foreigners about what HoR does right especially compared to GNA efforts. The GNA is also advised to make more of an effort to reconcile their differences with HoR, especially when it comes to general Hiftar.
May 1, 2017: In Gaza Hamas was forced to deal with its cash shortage by announcing that it no longer insisted on the destruction of Israel. Hamas also renounced its support for the Moslem Brotherhood, especially the Egyptian branch that Hamas originally belonged to before becoming a separate group in 1987. Israeli analysts pointed out that this is an old tactic for Islamic terrorists in general and Hamas in particular. In short, Hamas is lying because it is a useful tactical move. Arab oil states (especially Saudi Arabia) are now the primary source of cash and Egypt is at war with the Moslem Brotherhood and considers Hamas an enemy and treats it like one. That means access to Egypt (legal or otherwise) has become almost as difficult as access to Israel. This sort of thing is more about style than substance. For example the Sunni Arab oil states can count it as another win in their war with Shia Iran. This conflict is over a thousand years old and heated up in 2011 when the Sunni Arab majority in Syria rebelled against Shia minority rule (by the Assad clan) that was backed by Iran. At first Hamas backed the Syrian Sunnis (because most Palestinians are Sunnis). But that meant Iran, one of its main supporters (of cash and weapons), cut them off. In early 2012 Iran and Hamas made peace over this dispute and Iran resumed supplying cash and weapons. Apparently deciding that Hamas was more important as a threat to Israel, than as a shunned critic of the pro-Iranian dictatorship in Syria, Iranian cash and terrorism advisors reappeared in Gaza. The reconciliation also meant an end to cooperation with rival Palestinian group Fatah, which controls the West Bank. While most Palestinians would like to see Hamas and Fatah operate together, Iran is more interested in having control of an Islamic terrorist group that operates on Israel's border. Iran, and most Arab nations, consider the Palestinians losers and incapable of achieving self-rule or any kind of independence. No one will say that out loud, but it's the attitude that governs relationships with the Palestinians. That attitude has not changed but the Arab oil states have become allies of Israel against their common enemy Iran and Hamas was given a choice; support Sunnis or become collateral damage. Inside Gaza the word on the street, from Hamas supporters and opponents alike is that it’s all theater and that nothing has changed.
Hamas also needed a way to deal with recent defeats in its feud with Fatah, the Palestinian faction that runs the West Bank. Fatah was cutting financial support to Gaza in an effort to force Hamas to allow elections. Fatah thought it could win elections. Not because Fatah had more support among Palestinians but more because Hamas was much less popular.
In the midst of all this Israel revived an offer they had made to Hamas at the start of the year. Hamas turned the offer down but apparently some Hamas leaders saw an opportunity. The Israeli peace deal included building an international airport, a seaport and industrial zones in Gaza and lifting the blockade if Hamas would renounce its efforts to destroy Israel and cease all military operations against Israel. There would have to be guarantees and freedom to monitor compliance. That may still be a deal breaker.
April 30, 2017: After several years of litigation an international appeals court confirmed that Egypt was wrong when it cancelled a long-term natural gas supply to Israel because Islamic terrorists constantly attacked the pipeline. The courts found that Egypt must pay $3 billion to the two Israeli energy companies that were importing the Egyptian natural gas. There is still room for further negotiation but at this point Egypt is forced to confront the fact that if they want to participate in the world economy they have to play by the rules.
April 27, 2017:
In Syria Israeli missiles, apparently fired from inside Israel, hit Iranian warehouses near the Mazzeh Air Base outside Damascus. This was a night attack and cell phone videos showed that these buildings apparently contained weapons because there were numerous secondary explosions as in a missile setting off ammunition or missiles stored there. The Israeli missiles also hit a fuel storage site, causing large secondary explosions and fires. This attack went after munitions and fuel used by Iran mercenaries in Syria in addition to missiles and other weapons meant to be smuggled into Lebanon. Some Iranian and Hezbollah personnel were killed. Later in the day Russia condemned the attack as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Despite this public demonstration of anger Russia understands that Israel has a legitimate need to protect itself from Iranian attack via Hezbollah or similar Assad forces. This angers Iran but so far the Iranians have kept their criticisms quiet. Before the end of the day Israel confirmed that it had fired one of its Patriot missiles at an aircraft (apparently an Iranian made UAV) flying from Syrian into Israel. Iran is desperate to obtain some kind of “victory” over Israel and the Gulf Arabs are content to stand aside and watch these two unpredictable adversaries have at each other. Israel has tweaked (modified) the software in its two AWACS (Airborne Early Warning Aircraft) so the CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) radar system can spot small, low flying UAVs as well as manned aircraft.
April 23, 2017: Israeli warplanes attacked a pro-Assad militia in Quneitra province (adjacent to Golan Heights) as well as several other targets. This was retaliation for Syrian mortar fire that landed inside Israel on the 21st. Most of the damage from the airstrikes was to property but three men were killed and two wounded. Since the casualties belonged to pro-Assad forces Syria accused Israel of backing the rebels. This was not true, it’s just that many of the pro-Assad militias and mercenaries belong to groups that seek to destroy Israel. The recent airstrike casualties belonged to a Palestinian terror group that had long enjoyed sanctuary in Syria and unlike most Palestinians in Syria (who favored the rebels) remained loyal to the Assads. The most frequent target of Israeli airstrikes is Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Islamic terror group that exists mainly to destroy Israel. The Assads also see Israeli influence in the fact that the local al Qaeda affiliate (Tahir al Sham, formerly Jabhat Fatah al Sham and originally Al Nusra) is now spending more time attacking Hezbollah and trying to carry out attacks in Lebanon. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL but that alliance was always temporary because ISIL wanted to eventually absorb al Nusra. The two groups put that battle off to deal with the Assad government first. Even before mid-2016 al Nusra tried to distance itself from ISIL and began openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo. As recently as late 2016 more than half the Sunni Islamic terrorist rebels belonged to groups hostile to ISIL and most of these are controlled or allied with the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra/Jabhat Fatah rebels. But now ISIL is rapidly disappearing in Syria and Iraq because of constant air and ground attack. Al Nusra’s fight with ISIL was seen as a family feud (as both groups are Sunni) while Hezbollah is the local rep for Shia Islam and its main proponents; Iran. Israel sees Iran its primary foe in the region and so do most Sunni Arabs. But groups like al Qaead/al Nusra also want Israel destroyed. But for the moment the strategy is deal with the Shia scourge first.
April 22, 2017: In Egypt the government is scrambling to deal with recently released video showing soldiers questioning civilians about Moslem Brotherhood activities and murdering those who will not cooperate. The troops are seen placing weapons next to the dead bodies so that photos of “Islamic terrorists killed by the security forces” can be taken and published. The Egyptian security forces have long been accused of this sort of thing, which is actually an old practice for the police. The 2011 revolution was supposed to eliminate this sort of thing but is not what happened because the revolution never reached the point where any changes were made in the leadership of the security forces.
April 21, 2017: In the north (Golan Heights), three mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Israel but caused no damage. When the fire from Syria is deliberate the Israelis always fire back, but if it appears to have been the result of fighting between government and rebels forces inside Syria, which is the cause of most bullets, rockets and shells crossing the border, there is a verbal protest but no artillery or air strikes in response. When it is unclear, the Israelis fire back. In some cases whichever group in Syria responsible for the incident will quietly communicate to Israel that it was an accident and if their explanation is adequate there will be no return fire. Israel recently revealed that this policy applies to ISIL affiliated groups as well. One of these ISIL groups that operates along the Golan Heights border had caused fire to land in Israel and convinced Israel that it was an accident and there was no return fire. What is not publicized is that these arrangements often, if not always, involve the groups in Syria avoiding an Israeli attack by returning the favor, often with information. This is very much a matter of life or death for both sides because in addition to holding its retaliatory fire Israel can also provide useful information as well as access to life-saving medical treatment for badly hurt Syrians. There are always opportunities for a deal, depending on who wants to pay what.
April 20, 2017: A recent ranking of nations according to the stability of their economies ranked Israeli third, behind Hong Kong and South Korea. The rest of the top ten (Denmark, Taiwan, Iceland, Japan, Switzerland, Singapore and Thailand) were not surprising nor was the nation that came in last (Venezuela). Israel is consistently ranked highly in worldwide surveys of economic, political, military and scientific effectiveness. This is one reason why a growing number of Arab states are, at least unofficially, making peace with Israel and establishing military and economic links. While Israel is often in the top ten of these worldwide surveys they are usually first for the Middle East. Turkey used to be a contender (and an ally) but since the late 1990s an Islamic government has turned that around. Turkey was in the bottom ten of the economic stability survey, as were nations like Syria and Libya.
April 19, 2017: In Egypt (northern Sinai) soldiers and warplanes were used to kill 19 ISIL members, including the senior ISIL cleric in Egypt. Elsewhere in Sinai police and soldiers, with the help of local Bedouins, tracked down an armed man who apparently took part in the recent attack near St Catherine’s monastery yesterday. The armed suspect refused to surrender and was killed in a gun battle.
On the Gaza border two Gaza women were arrested when they were caught trying to smuggle explosives into Israel. The two sisters had permission to enter Israel so one of them could receive treatment for her cancer. Questioning the two revealed that the explosives were sent by Hamas for use in a bombing attack in Israel.
In the West Bank a Palestinian man was shot dead after he drove his car into some Israelis, wounding one of them.
April 18, 2017: In Egypt (south Sinai) several gunmen attacked a checkpoint near the Coptic St Catherine’s monastery. The attack was repulsed but a policeman was killed and three wounded. ISIL later took credit for this attack in a remote area where ISIL had not been active very much.
April 17, 2017: In Gaza another Hamas member died while working on a tunnel. This was the second such death in 2017. Hamas earlier revealed that 22 of its members (or those employed by them) had died while working on a tunnels in 2016. Most of these tunnel deaths took place in those being built or repaired near the Israeli border. The similar deaths near the Egyptian border are usually not Hamas members. Most tunnel deaths recently have been in deeper and more dangerous tunnels designed to pass under the Israeli security fence or the improved Egyptian security measures. Most of the more than 30 tunnel deaths in 2016 were known to have been Hamas men or Palestinians working for Hamas. Tunnel collapses and accidents have been common in Gaza since 2007, when Hamas backed the construction of more smuggling and “combat” tunnels. Since 2007 over 400 Gazans have died in tunnel accidents. Hamas usually blames such collapses on natural causes (like heavy rains) but Israel believes Israel and Egypt efforts to limit lumber and cement shipments entering Gaza has played a role because many of these recent accidents seem to be the result of poor tunnel construction compared to earlier, sturdier and safer tunnels. As a result of all these accidents, which began to accelerate in late 2015, a growing number of Gazans are refusing to work in the tunnels because there is a widely believed (in Gazan) rumor that the real cause of all these tunnel collapses (including the unreported ones that didn’t kill anyone) are 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 detection 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 new tunnel detection sensors. It is believed that Hamas spends about 40 percent of its $100 million annual military budget on tunnels. Israel believes Hamas digs about ten kilometers of tunnels a month. Most of these tunnels remain inside Gaza, to protect Hamas forces and military material from Israeli detection and attack. Israel recently offered Hamas a peace deal that included building an international airport, a seaport and industrial zones in Gaza and lifting the blockade if Hamas would renounce its efforts to destroy Israel, cease all military operations against Israel. Hamas turned the offer down.
April 16, 2017: Israeli intelligence analysts believe the Assad government use of nerve gas on April 4th was the result of the Assads trying to assert their independence from Russian or Iranian control. This foreign help has been essential for the Assads to survive but apparently the Assads would prefer a long-term relationship with Russia rather than Iran. The reason is simple; Iran wants to literally occupy Syria with military personnel in the form of a pro-Iran militia similar to Hezbollah and thus dedicated to a war with Israel. The Russians and Turks are more inclined to work with Israel and so is Assad and the various minorities in his ruling coalition. The Assads want no part of the religious war Iran is waging with Saudi Arabia over control of the Moslem holy places and such. Exactly how using nerve gas against Sunni rebels and firing anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli aircraft supports this strategy is unclear. But that lack of coherence is the norm in this part of the world.
April 14, 2017: In Jerusalem a Palestinian Islamic terrorist using a knife killed a British student on a trolley car. The victim was studying at a local university. The attacker wounded two other passengers before a policeman and a civilian subdued and disarmed him. The attacker was suffering from mental problems and Palestinian propaganda encourages such people to become a heroic martyr for Islam, which many of them do.
April 12, 2017: In Egypt (Sinai) police found the body of a man burned to death by local Bedouin who suspected he belonged to ISIL. The Bedouin are angry at ISIL because an ISIL suicide bomber attacked a Bedouin checkpoint yesterday and killed four Tarabeen tribesmen.