Israel is pressuring Hamas to admit that it is holding two Israeli civilians and to release them. Both of the captives have mental illness which is believed to have played a role in their entering Gaza. One of the men is an Ethiopian Jew while the other is an Israeli Arab. The Jewish captive has been held since September 2014 while the Israeli Arab has been held since April. Israel kept the captivity of these two men quiet until July in an effort to convince Hamas to release the two, which Hamas will not even admit it has them. Apparently Hamas leaders realize that holding Israeli soldiers for ransom is one thing but to use mentally ill Israelis, one African and the other Arab, might be more difficult to pull off and could backfire in the media. The Palestinian battle with Israel, which is constantly promoted in Palestinian media, is mostly one of symbolism. So media spin matters more than military or political reality.
Speaking of spin, in the West Bank the head (Abu Mazen) of the ruling PA (Palestinian Authority) is dealing with a PR crises. This all began when word got out that Mazen was seeking more money be spent on his new estate, which has been under construction since 2013 and is nearly complete. It is a five hectare (13 acre) walled compound outside Ramallah. The estate has a large garden, a helicopter pad, swimming pool, underground bunker and what is described as a palatial main building. Total cost for this is now about $14 million and that is an issue in the West Bank because the PA is always short of money and currently claims it cannot pay all the salaries for PA employees. Mazen says the estate is really for visiting dignitaries, a “guest house” so to speak. No one in the West Bank believes him and that is a growing problem.
One thing Israel and the PA agree on is that Lebanese Shia Islamic terror group Hezbollah is again trying to recruit West Bank Palestinians for attacks on Israel or Israelis. Hezbollah is financed by Iran and rarely does anything that Iran does not want done. The recruitment efforts have never disappeared but in the last few months have been more intense. While the PA and Hamas appreciate help from Hezbollah and Iran they don’t like outsiders running their own terror operations in the West Bank.
The 2012 Fatah and Hamas reconciliation agreement is apparently really dead. According to that deal the head of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, was to become president of the reunited Palestinian people, at least until new elections could be held. These elections are not going to happen. The senior Hamas leadership, which does not live in Gaza, conducted the negotiations. This resulted in open protests from Hamas leaders in Gaza, who are not willing to submit to Fatah leadership, even on a temporary basis. Whatever the case Hamas did not tone down its demand for Israel to be destroyed and Fatah became more public with similar demands. These were usually confined to its Arab language media but have, since 2012, more frequently appeared in English. Hamas and Fatah have now stopped even pretending that this reconciliation agreement is anything more than a publicity stunt to placate foreign donors angry at the constant bickering between Hamas and Fatah.
At the moment the most active military opponent has is ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other Sunni Islamic terror groups operating in Syria, Lebanon and, much less frequently, Jordan. In response to this Israel has increased its security cooperation with the Kingdom of Jordan, which has long been a prime target for Islamic terror groups. Yet compared to other nations in the region the kingdom has, next to Israel, had the fewest Islamic terrorist incidents within its borders. This is no accident and is the result of having one of the best trained and reliable security forces in the region and being the beneficiary of a lot of help with equipment and specialist training from the United States and Israel. Jordan has been particularly good at keeping Islamic terrorists and professional smugglers from getting across its long borders with nations suffering from Islamic terrorism. The border with Iraq is 179 kilometers long and Syria is 379 kilometers. Less troublesome, but still requiring tight controls is the 731 kilometers long border with Saudi Arabia and 148 kilometer border with the West Bank. This last one has Israelis controlling the other side and the Israelis and Jordanians cooperate to keep illegal traffic from going in either direction. In the last year Israel has sent Jordan helicopter gunships, UAVs and specialized electronic equipment and software to assist in intelligence collection and analysis.
Meanwhile Egypt has become less of a problem for Israel since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. Although Egypt again has a former general as an elected leader and a return to many of the police state features of the pre-2011 government, Egypt is now much less tolerant of Islamic terrorism, even if it is groups that say they are only interested in attacking Israel. Egypt and Israel now cooperate a lot more in counter-terrorism matters although there has apparently been no big shift in Egyptian public opinion (still largely hostile) towards Israel. In some ways Egypt is getting back to normal with large demonstrations planned by government employees (including police) demanding better pay and working conditions. Islamic terrorists are still active, especially in Sinai but these groups are less and less active, apparently because of heavy losses due to very active security forces.
August 30, 2015: Egypt announced the discovery of the largest natural gas deposits get found in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is up to 30 trillion cubic feet of gas, worth more than the existing (and quite enormous) Israeli discoveries.
In late 2014 Israel announced a third major natural gas discovery off their coast. This one was worth over $100 billion dollars. The two previous ones are worth over a trillion dollars. These discoveries make Israel largely energy independent and a major exporter of natural gas. The Egyptian gas field could make Egypt much less dependent on oil imports and be a major boost to the economy.
August 29, 2015: Hamas admitted that one of its members had recently died while working on a tunnel. Hamas used to try and hide these deaths but there have been a lot of them (400 or more) since Hamas began building more since got into tunnel building in a big way after 2005. Both Egypt and Israel have become much more active, and effective, at locating and destroying tunnels from Gaza into Israel and Egypt.
August 27, 2015: Israeli warplanes bombed a Hamas military facility in response to a Hamas rocket fired into Israel from Gaza. It is one year since the end of 50 Day War between Hamas and Israel. The war ended when Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. That meant no more rockets fired into Israel from Gaza. Since then at least one rocket a month has been fired into Israel. All but the last one were fired by other Islamic terror groups in Gaza. Hamas is supposed to prevent anyone from firing rockets or mortar shells into Israel but does not. The latest rocket firing was yesterday and Israel believes it was launched by Hamas personnel.
August 21, 2015: Russia denied that six Mig-31M fighters had been delivered to an airbase outside Damascus, Syria on the 16th. Syria also denied it and Israel has said nothing. Russia has lied about arms deliveries before, according to the Israelis who keep close tabs on Russian weapons deliveries to Syria and have bombed the more advanced stuff. Russia sold these MiG-31Ms to Syria back in 2007 thus Russia considers delivery legal. Russia has shipped over a billion dollars’ worth of weapons to Syria since the civil war there began in 2011. Russia insists that this is not in violation of arms embargoes against Syria and are simply deliveries of weapons ordered before 2011. Syria delivers cash to Russian banks to keep these weapons coming and their warranties operational. These purchases are being paid for by Iran, which flies in the cash to a Syrian financial operation in Moscow. The cash is then delivered to Russian government accounts via a Moscow bank. The Syrian Moscow operation is run by an uncle of Syrian dictator Basher Assad. While Russia has ideological and political reasons for supporting the Assads, there’s also the money angle. These Russian shipments are not challenged by the international community because they are, technically, defensive weapons and cannot be used to attack the rebels. The MiG-31s are used as interceptors and recon aircraft. Meanwhile Russian cargo ships continue to arrive and unload in Syria, plus numerous air freight flights. Russia quietly approved new shipments of small arms and electronic equipment, which is forbidden but can be flown in and join similar weapons Syria had before 2011. Russia appears to believe that no one will challenge this either.
An Israeli air raid in Syria killed five pro-Iranian Islamic terrorists believed responsible for a rocket attack on Israel yesterday.
August 20, 2015: Israel blamed Iran for a rocket attack launched from Syria against northern Israel. Four Iranian made rockets were launched but did no damage to people or property. A pro-Iran Palestinian terror group (Islamic Jihad) is believed responsible. Iranian Quds Force (the foreign terrorists support group) troops are known to be operating near the Israeli border. Quds Force has been caught supporting terror attacks against Jews and Israelis in other countries before. The immediate response to this rocket attack was Israeli warplanes attacking 14 Syrian Army bunkers along the Israeli border. The Israelis expect the Syrian Army to prevent such attacks along parts of the border they still control.
Hamas is demanding that Egypt return four Hamas members who had received permission to travel to Egypt but were taken from a bus by armed men. Hamas calls this a police kidnapping while the Egyptians are unsure who stopped the bus (by firing at it) and went after and took the four Hamas men. Witnesses described the four attackers as dressed “like Pakistanis” indicating that the four may have been taken by some rival Islamic terror group. Egypt does consider many Hamas members anti-Egyptian terrorists. Some Hamas officials openly claim that Arab states are working with Israel to round up Hamas members who are outside of Gaza. That is partly true because most Arab countries are fed up with Hamas rhetoric (incendiary and counterproductive) and incompetence (in war and peace). Many Arab nations have been quite public in their criticism of Hamas and refusing to give Hamas any more money until Hamas demonstrates it can use if honestly and effectively. Hamas officials prefer to talk about conspiracies against them.
August 18, 2015: In the West Bank Israeli police raids arrested eight Palestinians on terrorism charges. Seven were accused of planning attacks against Israeli civilians while one was accused of working for Hamas.
August 17, 2015: In the West Bank a Palestinian stabbed (and wounded) an Israeli border policeman and was promptly shot dead by another Israeli policeman.
August 15, 2015: In the West Bank there were two separate incidents when Palestinians stabbed (and wounded) Israeli soldiers. In one case the attacker was shot dead in the other the attacker was wounded and arrested.
In Egypt the Libyan border was closed because the Libyan border guard were withdrawn. It is still unclear why that happened but the Libyan Tobruk government (recognized by the UN) is actively working with Egypt to get Libyan guards back on duty so the border can be reopened sometime in September. The border is over a thousand kilometers long and most of it is in thinly populated areas that makes it easy for smugglers to get across.