Despite energetic efforts by Islamic terrorist groups in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian territories to destroy it, Israel remains the most peaceful and prosperous nation in the region. The economy continues to grow and economists see GDP increasing four percent in 2017. That is up a bit from 3.8 percent in 2016 and 3.3 percent for 2015. Most of this is due to increased exports. Unemployment remains under five percent. This achievement is increasingly discussed in Arab media, especially in Egypt. In antiquity Egypt was known as a center of scientific study and discovery. That edge disappeared centuries ago and while few Arabs want to discuss openly what has to be done to change it (other than destroying the more advanced West) this edge in productivity and ingenuity is now recognized as a basis for Israeli success. Meanwhile Israel has become a valued, and increasingly recognized openly, Arab ally in the effort to defeat Iranian aggression.
Israeli makes itself useful in many ways. For example Russia and Iran, although now allies, openly disagree over some key items. Russia openly supports Israel’s efforts to defend itself from Iran backed Hezbollah in Lebanon or Iranian missile attacks. Israel apparently launched another attack on Hezbollah early today at targets outside Damascus.
Because of the Syrian civil war many Syrians have come to see Israel as a friend rather than a threat. For example Israel continues to quietly provide medical care for badly hurt Syrians who show up (usually at night) on the Israeli border. Since 2011 nearly 3,000 Syrians have been treated, most of them in the last two years. Israeli border guards regularly allowed badly wounded Syrians in and sent them to Israeli hospitals for medical care. Until mid-2015 Israel would transport badly wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals after they showed up at border crossings on the Golan Heights. After 2015 treatment was provided at the border, using a temporary hospital set up there. By 2015 over a thousand Syrians had received such treatment. In 2013 Israel set up a military field hospital on the Golan Heights to deal with the growing number of wounded Syrians. Israel lets some of these in for treatment but considers doing this long-term a security risk. So a heavily guarded field hospital right near the Syrian border is now used to treat all the injured. No Syrians will be moved to the interior because of fears that Islamic terror groups are seeking to infiltrate their people into Israel via the hospital care program.
Another Israeli edge that Arabs admire is less corruption. Currently Israel is rated as one of 30 least corrupt nations on the planet. Israel is 28 out of 176 countries ranked in 2016 for ability to resist corruption. Israel has to work at this because the Middle East has long been one of the most corrupt regions in the world and staying clean is difficult. Currently, however, Somalia was rated the most corrupt nation in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while for the least corrupt (usually Denmark) it tends to be 90 or higher. The current Israeli score is 64 compared to 17 for Iraq, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 28 for Lebanon, 41 for Kuwait, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 29 for Iran, 25 for Afghanistan, 32 for Pakistan, 29 for Russia, 40 for China, 28 for Nigeria, 45 for South Africa, 40 for India, 72 for Japan, 37 for Indonesia, 53 for South Korea, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.
Egypt currently has 25,000 security personnel (mostly soldiers) in northern Sinai. Since 2014 the Islamic terrorist violence has persisted in Sinai, reaching a peak in 2015-16 when there were over 500 casualties a months for months at a time. But most of the dead were Islamic terrorists. Most Egyptians oppose Islamic terrorism, if only because it tends to kill lots of innocent civilians and cripple the economy. But in a few rural areas, mainly in northern Sinai, there are populations (usually Bedouin tribesmen) willing to support, or at least tolerate, Islamic terrorists. That support is dependent on how well the tribes get along with the Islamic terrorists and what benefits (like cash) outside groups bring with them. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has been trying to gain traction in Egypt and is having a hard time of it. ISIL is opposed by Hamas in Gaza but in Sinai ISIL has formed a working relationship with local Bedouin backed Islamic terror groups. The Egyptian security forces have been concentrating on ISIL for over a year now. It took a while for ISIL to establish a working relationship with the locals. 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 because of this hostility. By late 2015 ISIL learned how to behave among the Bedouin and were able to work with them.
The security forces had also adapted and intensified the use of patrols, checkpoints, intelligence gathering and regular raids. There were often carried out over days, or even a week and led to large numbers of Islamic terrorists killed or captured and many weapons destroyed or seized. The Islamic terrorists responded with greater use of roadside bombs, mines and long range (rocket and mortar) attacks. But with plenty of air power it was impossible to hide from the security forces and establish a base. Despite continuing efforts by Islamic terrorists in Gaza and throughout the region to help create a base area in Sinai that has not happened. But that’s only because the Egyptians keep at it despite new Islamic terrorist tactics, like shutting down cell phone service (usually by bombing the cell phone towers) and going after local government informants. This became particularly urgent after the military located and killed a key ISIL leader (bomb expert Hamad Salim Sulaiman) in mid-February. A week or so before that ISIL reported it had executed five of its own members for providing information to the military. It’s not a good sign when you organization of fanatics is infiltrated by government informers. That’s probably how the military located the elusive and usually well protected Sulaiman. His death was only part of increasingly effective raids in central Sinai where ISIL has been trying to use the desolate mountains found in the area. There are plenty of caves to hide it, yet with growing frequency the raids find the ones being used.
The casualties among the security forces and local civilians are a growing political problem and the government is seeking to make some kind of deal with Hamas in Gaza. That is a difficult because Hamas was created by radicalized Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood members and has sustained that high level of fanaticism. Hamas not only resists making such deals, but tends to renege when it does and pretend it wasn’t their fault. In light of that the Egyptians are seeking to make small deals (usually related to opening access to Egypt for days or weeks) in return for specific actions (that can be measured). If Hamas fails to deliver, than what the Gaza group has to offer next time increases. Hamas doesn’t like to do business like this but they have little choice this time around because the only reliable ally they have is Iran, which is largely feared, or simply despised by most Egyptians and Palestinians. Moreover Hamas is willing to make deals with the Egyptians it would never even consider doing with the Israelis.
Meanwhile Egypt is having some success in negotiating peace on its western border with Libya. Notoriously anti-Egyptian dictator Moamar Kaddafi was overthrown and killed in 2011 but Libya has still not been able to form a unified government, despite the efforts of neighbors (especially Egypt and Algeria) and the UN. National elections were held in 2014 and the new House of Representatives (HoR) government found that militias that controlled the west (including the traditional capital Tripoli) refused to recognize it. The UN backed the HoR but the western groups tended to be more tribal and religiously conservative refused to give up power, seized control of Tripoli and became known as “the Tripoli government”. The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk and became known as “the Tobruk government”. The HoR rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. By early 2016 the UN persuaded most Tripoli and HoR factions to merge and form the GNA (Government of National Accord). The main obstacles to national unity remained some Islamic terrorist groups and tribal leaders seeking a better deal. The problem is worst in the east where many HoR factions have rallied around the powerful military forces organized by Khalifa Hiftar. The HoR government is still based in Tobruk and is trying to work out a peace deal with GNA. Hiftar visits Egypt regularly and has managed to keep Egypt, a few other Arab states and Russia providing support. Egypt allows banned goods (like weapons and ammo) to cross the border unhindered. Russia is known to have printed new currency for HoR earlier in 2016 and has provided unspecified military support. Russia also provides HoR with some support inside the UN as Russia is one of the few countries that can veto proposed UN resolutions. Egypt is particularly important because it is again run by a former general and feels Libya needs the same kind of leader. But Egypt is under a lot of pressure from the UN to get behind the GNA, which Egypt sees as too cozy with Islamic conservative groups. Algeria feels the same way as do many Tunisians.
February 20, 2017: In the north (Golan Heights) near where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Israel meet the sound of fighting could be hear in Syria, where ISIL forces advanced towards the Israeli border seizing several villages and a town from FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels. The FSA forces are based in Jordan, where they have the support of Jordan, the United States and, very discreetly, Israel. ISIL has been battling FSA along the Jordanian and Israeli borders for over a year.
In the south, two rockets were fired from Egypt but landed harmlessly in the Negev desert.
February 19, 2017: In Gaza a Hama court convicted and sentenced to death three Gaza residents accused of spying for Israel. Gaza residents are always being accused by Hamas of spying for Israel and are regularly executed (often in error). Hamas really isn’t sure who is spying for Israel, only that such spies do exist and report the location of Hamas leaders and key facilities at every opportunity. Many of these spies are not working for Israel as much as they are fighting Hamas. While Hamas can still generate cheering crowds to celebrate the latest Hamas victory, most Gazans feel otherwise and quietly wish the Hamas leadership dead.
February 18, 2017: In the south, across the border in Egypt, ISIL claimed an Israeli airstrike (using an armed UAV) killed five ISIL members preparing to launch rockets into Israel from a site outside Rafah.
February 14, 2017: In the north (Golan Heights) a rocket fired from Syria landed in an uninhabited area. There was no return fire. 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.
February 12, 2017: In Gaza Hamas announced that one of its members had died in a construction accident while working on a “combat tunnel”. On the same day Egypt reported they had killed a Gaza resident who was working in a smuggling tunnel when it was flooded. This is how Egypt destroys most smuggling tunnels it discovers.
February 9, 2017: Several hours before dawn there was an explosion on the border between Gaza and Egypt. Hamas said it was an Israeli airstrike. Some Arab media reported it was the result of an Egyptian military on the border, apparently to shut down smuggling tunnels. Other Arab media reported it was an accidental explosion in a Hamas weapons smuggling tunnel. The only things everyone could agree on was that it took place on the border and left two Palestinians dead and five wounded. Further east ISIL fired four 122mm rockets into Israel towards Eilat (at the northern end of the Red Sea) from the Sinai Desert. An Israeli Iron Dome battery detected the rockets, shot down three of them and ignored the last one which was headed for an uninhabited area. Israel moved an Iron Dome battery to Eilat in mid-2013 and since then there have been few rocket or mortar attacks and no successful ones.
February 8, 2017: Egypt reported that between January 17th and February 4th they had detected and destroyed six smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Sinai. For all of 2016 only twelve such tunnels were destroyed.
February 7, 2017: A Russian official confirmed that Russia had promised Israel that Russian weapons would not be given to Hezbollah. It is believed such arrangements include quietly providing Israel with targeting information in the event that Hezbollah does get possession of Russian weapons.
February 6, 2017: In Egypt (north Sinai) troops carried out a five day series of raids in which they killed 14 Islamic terrorists, captured 13 while disabling three car bombs and capturing a large quantity of military equipment. Along the border they also discovered and destroyed a tunnel. Also destroyed were six buildings and seven other structures used by Islamic terrorists.
February 5, 2017: In Gaza a senior Hamas technical expert, who designed and supervised the building of locally made rockets, died from injuries he suffered during a recent explosion in a Hamas rocket workshop.
January 25, 2017: In the West Bank a Palestinian man was shot dead as he tried to ram his car into a bus stop used by Israelis. The dead man also had a knife with him.
In Lebanon police arrested five people (three of them foreigners) and accused them of spying for Israel.
Israel announced that it successfully completed a final round of tests for its David’s Sling (formerly Magic Wand) anti-aircraft system and would be able to begin deploying the first battery of the system in early 2017. This is a year later than expected because earlier testing had revealed some potential problems that required fixing. Israel is very exactly about such technical problems because these weapons are the first line of defense against threats that are very real and openly calling for the destruction of Israel. David’s Sling is the Israeli replacement for existing American Patriot and Hawk systems. The first battery is expected to be deployed in northern Israel.
January 20, 2017: In Gaza Hamas announced that one of its members had died in a tunnel collapse. This was the first 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.
January 13, 2017: In Syria the government accused Israel of firing missiles from northern Israel at the Mezzah airbase outside Damascus. The explosions were heard in the city and a large fire broke out. Israel refused to comment but local reports indicate that the target was recently delivered (by air) long range, satellite guided Iranian missiles. Several days later Russia broadcast a statement approving of the Israeli action, pointing out that these missiles are an obvious threat to Israel and are meant for no one else.
January 10, 2017: In the last month or so Israeli Arrow anti-missile units began receiving the first production models of the Arrow 3. This comes after several years of successful tests. One of the last major tests successfully demonstrated its new ability to hit an incoming missile trying to hide among decoys. Success in this test overcame the doubts created when Arrow 3 failed a similar tests. Getting Arrow 3 into service is important because it can destroy missiles at higher altitudes (over 100 kilometers) and farther away. It was only in February 2013 that Israel conducted the first tests of Arrow 3. That followed the successful testing of the then new Block 4 version of its Arrow 2 in 2012.
About the same time that Arrow 3 entered service neighbor Egypt received the first of four Type 209 submarines. These German built boats displace 1,300 tons, are 59 meters (183 feet) long, have eight torpedo tubes, and carry 14 torpedoes (or anti-ship missiles) and a crew of 36. Top speed on the surface is 21 kilometers an hour and twice that submerged. That speed difference is because of the tear-drop shape hull, which the 209 was among the first diesel-electric boats to adopt it. The 209s can operate for up to 50 days on internal fuel and supplies. Operating with a snorkel (a periscope like device which allows the diesel engine to be use while submerged) they can operate for 30 days. Operating submerged on battery power they can operate for about 100 hours (moving at 7 kilometers an hour, a third of the cruising speed while using the diesels). Max depth is 500 meters (1,600 feet).