The Hamas “fire kite” (and balloon) attacks from Gaza have diminished, largely because balloon shipments are no longer allowed into Gaza and Israeli attacks on construction and launching sites have disrupted and discouraged this still-popular form of attack. Since these attacks began in early May Israeli firefighters have had to deal with nearly 1,200 fires. The kites and balloons are more of a nuisance than a threat. Yet in the Arab media, the fire kites get a lot more attention than in the Israeli press. Arson is not a new tactic for the Palestinians as they have been setting fire to Israeli crops and woodlands since the 1930s. Launching kites from inside Gaza means you are unlikely to get arrested for arson but there is increased risk of getting killed by Israeli air or artillery attacks.
Russia is backing away from Iran in general because Iran is becoming more of a liability than an asset. Working closely with Iran in Syria was mainly about the 2015 treaty that lifted most sanctions on Iran and enabled Russia to do a lot more business in Iran. That did not work out as the corruption inside Iran delayed a lot of the expected new business and the Arab oil states pointed out that anyone who was really close to Iran would be getting a lot less business from the Arab states in general and the Arab oil states (which controlled more oil than Iran) in particular. Then the Americans pulled out of the 2015 treaty in March and are restoring many of the sanctions. European nations are finding that the U.S. revival of sanctions makes it impossible for many European firms to do business in Iran. Then there is the continued Iranian threats to attack Israel, especially from newly established bases in Syria. Israel has made it clear it will not allow those bases to remain and has warned Russia to stand aside when Israeli airstrikes hit the Iranians in Syria. Now Russia, the Americans and Israel have agreed to cooperate in getting Iran out of Syria. Turkey and Iraq would also prefer this. Until recently there were few press releases or other official announcements about this but you can see the plan unfolding as Iran finds itself abandoned in Syria and under growing attack. Russia has long-term interests in the Middle East and opportunities in Syria because of deals already made with the Assad government. Russia has been on good terms with Israel for a long time and sees that as more important than anything Iran has to offer.
Russia made it clear for over a year that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal. Despite that Israel has concluded that Russian pressure will not persuade Iran to back off on their efforts to increase Iranian controlled military forces in Syria and then launch attacks on Israel. But Russia will cooperate with Israel and has an open channel with Iranian military leaders. This means the Russians can explain, in terms the Iranians can better understand and accept, what their military position is versus Israel. That explains the recent Iranian withdrawal of its mercenary and special operations forces from the Israeli border. As a practical matter, this means Iran withdrew the easily identifiable and resolved to work on new techniques to better disguise its forces so they can get near the Israeli border. Iran takes advantage of the fact that Russian aircraft handle most of the aerial and electronic reconnaissance for the pro-government forces. The Russians can show what their high-res and multispectral photos of Iranian troops revealed and add what their electronic eavesdropping picked. All the Russians will say about the Israelis is that the Israelis are even better at this stuff. How much better the Russians won’t say. In part that’s because they are not sure and Russia does not want to anger Israel, which has been on good terms with Russia far longer than Iran.
Russia demonstrates its pro-Israel proclivities by openly accepting Israeli use of Jerusalem as their capital and moving functions normally held in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This angers many Moslems, and especially Iran. This support for Israel is one the few things the United States and Russia agree on these days. The durability of this alliance is mainly a matter of paying attention to who can do what. For example, unclassified rankings of “the most powerful nations” tend to include tiny Israel in the top ten, as in; U.S., Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). These rankings combine economic, technical, military and diplomatic capabilities. Israel may be small in population but they are world class in many technology areas, have nukes and the most capable armed forces in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and UAE have much of the world oil reserves and armed forces they have built up over decades at great expense and, to the surprise of many (including Iran) made it work. Their combat pilots are competent and their anti-missile defenses work (as they have intercepted over a 100 ballistic missiles, many of them Iranian made, fired by Yemeni Shia rebels at targets in Saudi Arabia.) Iran and Turkey are not in the top ten and Russia notices that. Despite all that the Israeli alliance with Russia is unwritten and has limits. Yet it is real because Israel has not attacked any Russian targets with its growing air offensive against Iranian forces.
Iran And Syria
A major complaint of the Iranian protestors is the long and futile effort by their government to destroy Israel. Iranian leaders need a win against Israel and they are not having much luck in getting one. Israel has told the Assads that if they stick with Iran they will be destroyed. The Assads realize that the Iranians are fanatics about destroying Israel and that the Israelis have demonstrated their ability to counter any move the Iranians make. Moreover, all the other Arab states consider the Assads traitors for aligning themselves with the Iranians, who are quite openly at war with Arab control of Arabia and much else. Worse, no one has much sympathy for the Assads, who have very few good qualities. Despite this, the Assads apparently try to side with Russia and Israel rather than Iran.
What this comes down to is the fact that Iran is a foreign (Indo-European, not Arab) power that wants to increase its direct control over Syria. Russia and Israel do not have such ambitions. Many Iranians (but few of their leaders) note that the three most powerful Middle Eastern states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE) are now allies, mainly against Iran. While the Turks are now led by a nationalistic Islamic leader who also wants to destroy Israel the Turks also admit that Iran is a traditional rival and the Arabs are not as weak as they were during the centuries the Turks (the Ottoman Empire) ruled them. Many Turks are smitten with the nationalism thing, just as they once were when they had an empire. But the Turks didn’t get their empire and then transition to a modern, industrial age state when the empire collapsed a century ago by being stupid. The only dummies at this point are key factions of the religious dictatorship that rules Iran.
The anti-government protests inside Iran continue, despite increasingly desperate measures by the government to calm things down. The main reason for the protests is the economic woes and those are getting worse. The senior clerics running Iran are also divided over what to do. Iran can no longer posture and negotiate from a position of strength because their potential is diminishing along with their local and foreign support.
Canceling Hereditary Refugee Status
The United States is proposing a novel solution to the Palestinian problem; cancel the unique status Palestinian refugees were granted by the UN after Israel was created that enables Palestinian refugees to pass their refugee status on to all their descendants. No other refugee group has ever been granted that status. As a result, the original 700,000 Palestinian refugees have grown to over four million. The UN established the UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) to provide for the support of the original refugees and succeeding generations. The U.S. is the largest contributor to the UNRWA effort that provides most of these refugees with benefits on other refugees get. Now the U.S. announced it will stop paying $350 million a year for this.
Western efforts to obtain a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians keep failing because of Palestinian refusal to give up demands that Israel cannot accept (if they want to continue to exist as a Jewish state). What caused this mess was a mistake made by the Arab world over sixty years ago when the UN was persuaded to grant Palestinian refugees hereditary status. Initially, this was because the Arab nations were certain that they would eventually be able to crush Israel and allow Palestinians back to homes and property they had fled at the urging of other Arabs. As part of this policy no Arab nation would permit Palestinians to become citizens but instead always treated them as refugees and confined them to “camps” (which were usually special towns and neighborhoods just for Palestinians). But by the 1970s it was pretty clear that the Israelis had become too powerful militarily (and now had nukes) for the Arabs to defeat. Instead, the Arab nations got behind various proposals for a peace deal. Some progress was made by the 1990s but Palestinian radicals refused to allow any peace agreement and threatened civil war is Palestinian leaders did not renounce peace proposals and work towards the destruction of Israel.
One obstacle to any peace deal was Palestinians insisting on Israel recognizing "right of return without discrimination." That means that the Palestinians who fled the newly formed Israel in the late 1940s, and their millions of descendants, can return to Israel and get all their abandoned property back. Israel would also have to pay compensation. While most of those original refugees are now dead, many Palestinians would not return, but enough could do so and change the demographic composition of Israel, turning it into a country with an Arab majority. This, for both the Palestinians and Israel, is the equivalent of "destroying Israel." This is something all Palestinian factions want to accomplish, and Israelis want to avoid. Getting around this obstacle would be very difficult, as the Palestinian public has endured decades of Palestinian (and Arab) media messages insisting that the right of return is an essential part of any peace deal. Westerners believe that money (a bribe) might make this problem go away. That could backfire because the real problem is the Arab decision in the late 1940s to not offer citizenship to any Palestinian refugees. The other Arab states insisted that Palestinian refugees must remain stateless, preferably living in refugee camps (and receiving food and other aid from largely Western donors). At the time, an equal number of Jews were expelled from Arab countries. All these Jewish refugees found new homes, most of them in Israel. Thus just giving the Palestinian refugees a few hundred billion dollars would not be sufficient. They need citizenship somewhere, either in the country where they are currently refugees or in the West. Undoing this old Arab error, which the Arab nations insisted on and Palestinians went along with, has not been easy. Now the Americans are willing to act, which is meaningful since the United States has always been the largest supplier of aid for the Palestinian “refugees”. The Americans can make this work because now most Arab states are hostile to Palestinians who have regularly acted in a self-destructive manner and now refuse to even form a united government that someone could negotiate with. But the American approach also puts some responsibility on other Arab nations to change their citizenship policy (which is similar for all foreigners, not just the Palestinians) and make it easier for Palestinians who have been living among them for decades to become citizens.
Of the original 700,000 Palestinian refugees, only about 50,000 are still alive. In 1967 there was another wave of Palestinian refugees as Israel took control of the West Bank and about 300,000 West Bank Arabs joined the Palestinian refugee community. Over 50,000 of these are still alive. Most of the original refugees would be willing to accept cash or property compensation and permission to settle in areas where that they could be citizens, not refugees. Some 10 percent would even be willing to move to Israel, where the Arabs who did not flee became Israeli citizens and prospered. Many of the original refugees settled in the West, where they could become citizens. But that was complicated by the unrelenting Arab demands that “Israel must be destroyed.” For Arab nations, that attitude has mellowed and most Arab nations see Israel as an actual or potential ally and economic partner. But the Palestinian refugee community still insists Israel be destroyed.
Meanwhile, the worst threat Palestinians face is themselves. Hamas and Fatah continue refusing to cooperate. Fatah opposes an Israeli ceasefire deal with Hamas until Fatah has control of Gaza, which Hamas refuses to let happen. Fatah continues to be crippled by corruption, which is one reason why Hamas still has support in the West Bank despite Palestinian police cooperating with Israel to find and arrest (0r kill) Hamas members in the West Bank. In Gaza Hamas seems incapable of controlling its various factions, each trying to be more radical than the other and too many of them eager to violate any ceasefire agreement. Some Hamas radicals welcome another Israeli invasion as that would create more opportunities to kill Israelis by firing a lot more rockets and fighting Israeli forces inside Gaza urban areas, which have been prepared for this sort of thing. The fighting would cause a lot of destruction in Gaza and kill civilians there, which would turn Hamas into a victim. That puts pressure on Arab states to condemn Israel as well as send more cash. After the last war, in 2014, Hamas was able to divert much of that reconstruction money to military projects. Some Hamas leaders point out that Arab donors are aware of how the “aid for Gaza” scam worked last time and are not ready to get robbed again. But the Hamas radicals live in an imaginary world that is occasionally shot to pieces by reality. They don’t seem to care and Hamas leadership cannot control what they created.
Egypt has been frustrated by its attempts to broker a unification deal for Hamas and Fatah as well as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The unification talks are currently suspended and the ceasefire discussions unable to overcome factionalism inside Hamas.
August 29, 2018: In the West Bank Israeli police uncovered and destroyed a Hamas communications network run by the widow of a man killed while carrying out a 2010 attack that left four dead. The Hamas network used women to move information around the West Bank to other Hamas cells.
August 28, 2018: In the West Bank Israeli police arrested 27 Palestinians wanted for participating in various forms of violence against Israel. Because of this and similar operations Israelis praised the Palestinian police for their cooperation.
August 27, 2018: A growing number of senior Israeli politicians are giving up on trying to make peace with Hamas. The Israeli leaders are going public this and joining the majority of Israelis who have also come to this conclusion.
In Egypt (390 kilometers south of Cairo) police raided an Islamic terrorists hideout and killed five Islamic terrorists and seized weapons, equipment and documents.
August 25, 2018: In Egypt (Sinai) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) attempted to attack a police checkpoint but were detected and repulsed. Four of the dozen or more attackers died as did four policemen. ISIL later claimed a successful attack that killed twelve police but the police cannot hide their losses (there are funerals and the dead are hailed as heroes in the media) and local civilians reported the reality of a failed attack. What was unusual about this attack is that it was rare. The Egyptian counter-terror campaign that began in February continues and has killed some 350 Islamic terrorists so far and arrested over a thousand suspects. At least once a month the military releases a summary of recent operations and the list always contains many hideouts and much equipment (and weapons) seized as well as many (often fifty or more) mines and roadside bombs disabled. These operations are doing a lot of damage to Sinai based smuggling operations. The government is telling the smugglers (usually Bedouins) that if they want to avoid these counter-terrorism raids, don’t work with the Islamic terrorists, especially ISIL. That has had some impact although by now most of the Sinai tribes have turned against ISIL, which is now the primary Islamic terror group operating in Sinai.
August 24, 2018: In Gaza, the Friday attacks on the border fence continued. Today Hamas gathered about 5,000 civilians to try and get through the border. Nearly 200 were wounded as they were repulsed.
Hamas condemned Palestinian police in the West Bank for finding a disabling a large roadside bomb apparently intended for use against one of the Israeli military convoys that regularly use that road.
The U.S. announced it was cutting its aid to Gaza and the West Bank by another $200 million a year. The money is being assigned to aid projects elsewhere in the world. The Americans have always been a major contributor of economic aid to the Palestinians but given the continued corruption and calls for the destruction of Israel (and failed attempts at making it happen), the United States believes it has better uses for its aid money elsewhere.
August 22, 2018: In Gaza, the UN says it has no more aid money to pay for fuel to keep hospitals and water supply facilities working. The UN needs $4.5 million for the fuel and is running out of donors who will respond to “emergencies” in Gaza. This is the result of more aid donors cutting ties with Gaza because so much of the aid money is diverted by Hamas to support terrorism and other illegal activities.
August 21, 2018: In Egypt, the government has succeeded in doing what it was elected to do; fix the economy. GDP growth has increased and is now nearly 6 percent a year. The government is aiming for 7 percent by 2022. Unemployment is lower (9.9 percent versus 12 percent a year ago) and the borders are largely safe and neighbors non-threatening. Gaza, Libya and Yemen are still violent but Egypt has been able to protect itself by sealing its Gaza border and tightly restricting access. All this economic success is important if Egypt is to develop its newly discovered natural gas fields and export the growing quantity of natural gas it does not need for the local economy. Currency reforms and effective counter-terrorism efforts have brought back foreign investors. Egypt is now considered a safe place to visit and invest in. At the same time, Egypt is returning to the police state ways that the 2011 revolution sought to address. The Mubarak dictatorship was overthrown in 2011 but elections brought to power an Islamic party (the Moslem Brotherhood) that lost most of its support when it announced plans to turn Egypt into an Islamic dictatorship. The resulted in another retired general, like Mubarak, elected amid promises to improve public safety and the economy. General Sisi, as head of the government, has managed to do that. But not much interest in dealing with the corruption and harsh government policies like Internet censorship and a growing list of restrictions on what Egyptians can legally say or do when it comes to politics or criticizing the government.
August 20, 2018: In the south (Gaza) an armed Palestinian trying to get though the security fence was killed when he opened fire on Israeli soldiers who sought to arrest him. The dead man turned out to be a nurse who had worked for an NGO (Doctors Without Borders) in Gaza.
In Egypt (north Sinai) a roadside bomb killed a soldier and wounded four others.
August 19, 2018: An American official confirmed that the United States, Israel and Russia agreed that Iran must not be allowed to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. Apparently, the Syrian government agrees with this as there have been some recent clashes between Assad forces and Iranian mercenaries.
August 18, 2018: In northern Syria, an army intelligence officer working for the Syrian Army “Palestinian Department” was assassinated by gunfire. Israeli involvement was suspected.
August 17, 2018: In Gaza, the Friday attacks on the border fence continue. Today the attacks on the border fence were somewhat less intense but still involved explosives and firebombs thrown at the fence and a few Palestinians getting across. Those are the ones who are shot and two were killed (and 25 wounded) by gunfire. In March Hamas began its current campaign against Israel which, like all the earlier ones, is not working and has gotten over 170 Gazans (and one Israeli) killed so far.
In Jerusalem, a Moslem man was leaving a mosque when he pulled out a knife and tried to attack two nearby policemen, who shot the man dead.
August 14, 2018: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Iranian mercenaries have been fighting with Syrian Army (Assad) troops for control of the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Apparently, there is a dispute between the Assads and Iran over who will control border crossings for routes that are part of the Iran to the Mediterranean land route. This route is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon.
August 13, 2018: Israel recently seized three shipping containers carrying balloons for Gaza and this has contributed to a reduction in the number of fire balloon attacks into Israel.
August 12, 2018: In Egypt (outside Cairo) police, acting on a tip, raided a building and found six armed Islamic terrorists who resisted arrest and fired on the police. The suspects refused to surrender and all were killed.
August 11, 2018: Israel released satellite photos showing the massive damage done by a July 22nd attack on an Iranian run missile assembly plant in northwest Syria.
In Egypt (north of Cairo) heavy security around a Christian church prevented a suicide bomber from getting in. The attacker detonated his explosives outside the church killing only himself. Police quickly identified the bomber, raided his home and found weapons and bomb-making materials and documents that led to the arrest of six suspects who also possessed weapons and bomb-making materials.
August 10, 2018: In the south (Gaza) there were still attacks on the border fence by crowds of Palestinians despite the ceasefire. Hamas insisted that the border protests did not count. There was less border fence violence but still a lot of people trying to get through the fence and one Palestinian was killed and 40 wounded.
August 9, 2018: Israel used airstrikes and artillery to hit Hamas targets in Gaza. Three Palestinians were killed. This was in response to yesterday’s Hamas attacks on Israel and was the largest such exchange since 2014. This led to Hamas agreeing to a ceasefire which took effect a midnight but did not last long.
August 8, 2018: Hamas fired 180 rockets and mortar shells into Israel. Although 30 were intercepted by Iron Dome there were still seven wounded on the Israeli side of the border.
August 4, 2018: In northwest Syria (the city of Masyaf) Aziz Asbar, a senior Syrian scientist died when his car exploded. Asbar ran many programs at the main government research center for advanced weapons in Masyaf. Israel is the prime suspect, although it could have been any number of rebel groups because this research center was also in charge of developing and manufacturing chemical weapons. The Aziz Asbar was linked to design and construction of new underground factories for assembling Iranian ballistic missiles. Asbar also got credit for designing the “barrel bombs” shoved out of helicopters and transports onto pro-rebel civilians to encourage them to flee the country. Even the Assads believe Israel carried out this attack because it requires skilled operatives and planners to make it work as well as agents apparently able to operate anywhere in Syria. Killing Asbar not only removes a key person in the Syrian special weapons effort but also reminds the Syrians that cooperating with Iran will lead to more targeted assassination and airstrikes on Syrian locations used by Iran. Asbar was known to have worked closely with Iran on various projects including delivering weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon via Syria.