Although Hezbollah is increasingly active in the media about how soon its next war with Israel will happen, the reality is somewhat different. Israeli wargames and monitoring of attitudes in Lebanon (among Hezbollah supporters and the majority of Lebanese who are hostile or neutral) indicates that another Hezbollah war now would be unlikely. At the moment Hezbollah military power is crippled by losses in Syria and the continued deployment of about a third of their available forces there. In addition there are significant veteran personnel working in Iraq and Yemen supporting local pro-Iran Shia militias. More Hezbollah personnel will be heading back to Gaza now that Hamas has resumed its alliance with Iran. But in the long term (the 2020s) Iran is building something that threatens Israel in a big way. By establishing military bases in Syria and organizing a branch of Hezbollah in Syria Iran has legal justification for stationing Iranian troops in Syria. Unless Israel interferes Iran could rebuild the Syrian military, especially the Syrian ballistic missile stockpile. Iran would have time (and money) to deal with the financial problems that are crippling Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus by the mid-2020s Iran would be in a much stronger position for attacking Israel. The would include the new Israeli natural gas fields off the coast near the Lebanese border.
Thus it is no surprise that Israel is openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Turkey quietly agrees and Russia is seeking opportunities for itself but seems to dislike the Iranian long range plan. Israel is quite blunt about describing Iran as replacing ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) as the new threat to just about everyone. Russia sometimes supports that openly and Israel keeps trying to improve relations with the unstable Turkish Islamic government.
There have been secret meeting between Israeli, American and Russian officials over the issue but it is obvious Russia is seeking short-term opportunities and will on occasion openly support Iran if that will help Russia. Meanwhile the only reason Russia, Iran and Turkey are currently allies is their desire for the Assads to stay in power and keep Syria free of Sunni Islamic terrorists and Kurdish separatists. Turkey, Iran and Russia back the Assads directly (with cash, personnel and weapons) and coordinate their military operations to help the Assads survive. In contrast the Sunni Arab states want the Assads gone and are more open in opposing Iranian plans for post-war Syria. Despite opposition from Israel, the Arabs, the Americans and even some Iranian allies Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria. Israel has made it clear that it will, and can, make sure that does not happen. Turkey and Russia recognize that Israel is not only the stronger military power here but also has the most at stake. For decades Iran has called for the destruction of Israel and that does not sit well with Turkey and Russia because both nations have had clashes with aggressive Iranian ambitions over the past few centuries and see the current Iranian strategy as eventually taking down Turkey (for being Sunni and an ancient rival) and Russia (for not being Moslem and defeating Iranian attempts to expand in the 19th and 20th centuries).
The Southern Front
In Gaza the new Hamas leader announced that Hamas had restored old ties with Iran. This won’t work unless Hamas and Iran can reach an understanding with Egypt, which sees both Hamas and Iran as a threat. Hamas needs peace with (and free access to) Egypt more so than it does a largely military alliance with Iran. Hamas leadership is divided on this issue with most leaning towards a peace deal with Egypt while a smaller group, including the new Hamas supreme leader, is willing to work with Iran. The feeling in Israel is that the new Hamas leadership is attempting to play Iran and Egypt off against each other and thereby gain the best economic deal with Egypt. While Hamas can offer weapons, cash and tech advice, Egypt offers greater economic benefits and the worsening poverty in Gaza is one reason there is a new Hamas leader. The other reason is to reassure Egypt that Hamas no longer poses a security threat.
Hamas has long supported Islamic terrorists active in Egypt and by 2013 that turned Egypt completely against Hamas and helped put Egypt firmly into the anti-Iran Sunni Arab coalition. In response Hamas is currently trying to make peace with Egypt by selecting a new leader and making internal changes that Egypt has long demanded. One of those changes is putting Fatah (the rival Palestinian group that controls the West Bank) in charge of the newly opened Rafah crossing with Egypt. If Iran wants to get anything into Gaza it needs access to Rafah. Egypt won’t tolerate Iran using the Rafah crossing to move people or items that will hurt Egypt. In the past the Iran link made Hamas an enemy as far as most Sunni Moslem nations were concerned but Egypt is willing to work with Hamas as long as Hamas is not a threat to Egypt. But when it comes to Hamas and Iran promises have proved hard to keep and Hamas will have a difficult time convincing Egypt that anything has changed.
Details of the renewed Iranian aid were not made available but in 2012, when Iran cut most support for Hamas, some $50 million a month in aid came from Iran as well as clandestine assistance in smuggling weapons into Gaza and training Hamas Islamic terrorists and security personnel. Some of that assistance continued after 2012 and some was quietly restored but until now Hamas was officially opposed to Iran because Iran backed the Shia Assad government in Syria. Most Sunni Arab states backed the Syrian rebels, who were largely Sunni. With the Hezbollah and Assad threat to Israel crippled by the Syrian civil war Iran has sought to find other ways to hurt their archenemy Israel from the inside. Iranian efforts to cultivate an alliance with the Palestinians in general are not working out so well. Since 2011 Arab governments have been more open with their criticism of the corrupt and inept Palestinian leadership. This process accelerated after 2016 when the Arab Gulf states admitted they could no longer trust Hamas (or Fatah either) and are put off by the Iranian boasts that it was still subsidizing Hamas, which has run Gaza and its nearly two million Palestinians since 2007. Although Sunni Hamas sometimes persecutes Shia in Gaza, Iran supports energetic Hamas efforts to attack Israel and for that Iran has always been willing to overlook hostility to fellow Shia.
Hamas made a lot of bad decisions since 2007 and the Iran link is seen as one of the worst. In response to the first one Arab states who cut aid were quietly informed by Palestinian leaders if they did not increase aid there would be violent Palestinian protests (in Gaza, West Bank and Jerusalem) against the reluctant Arab donors as well as Israel. That threat made the situation worse. These Arab donors (mainly Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait) have lost patience with the Palestinians and not only cut donor aid (which was being stolen or misused by corrupt Palestinian leaders) but also openly allied themselves with Israel against Iran. The Arab world still technically backs the Palestinians and the effort to destroy Israel but have lost confidence in the Palestinians. Iran is making the most of this new situation.
Cutting ties with Qatar in June was done for several reasons, one of the less publicized ones had to with increasing media censorship in Egypt. Since May over a hundred print and Internet based news publications have been shut down or taken over (if based in Egypt) or blocked (as much as possible) from being available in Egypt. Lately this has included a lot of foreign media that simply report what goes on in Egypt. The Egyptian government believes any new outlet that will not follow government guidelines on what to report and how is an enemy of Egypt. This is another part of the return to the way things were before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Press censorship in Egypt is not just intense it is among the harshest in the world. A recent world survey and ranking of press freedom ranked Egypt 161 out of 18o when it comes to free press. Egypt appears trying to move from the worst 20 worldwide to the worst ten.
The media crackdown influences foreign policy as well. Qatar based and subsidized al Jazeera satellite news network often reports bad behavior by Egyptian security forces, including the murder of civilians and trying to pass that off as a clash with Islamic terrorists. While that happens, al Jazeera also gives sympathetic treatment to Islamic radical and terrorist groups, especially in Egypt. Qatar also openly supports Hamas, although earlier in 2017 they ordered some senior Hamas leaders to leave Qatar for another sanctuary. Al Jazeera reporters have a hard time avoiding arrest (and worse) in Egypt and other Moslem states but they are often abused by Islamic terror groups as well. Meanwhile Egypt admits that in northern Sinai 6,000 people have died from local violence since 2013. Not all of those dead are security forces, pro-government tribal forces or Islamic terrorists. Some are civilian caught in the crossfire that the government does not want talk about. This is a common thing in Middle Eastern nations and there is apparently no easy cure.
Qatar is also seen as siding with Iran in the current struggle between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. Qatar has long been a supporter of other Islamic terrorist groups and is effective at that despite being a tiny (11,437 square kilometers/4,416 square miles) nation with a population of 2.1 million. Only about 12 percent of the population are citizens. Qatar has also long been active in trying to get the Palestinians to unite and make peace. This has not worked out well. For example in late 2012 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the ruler of Qatar visited Gaza and pledged $400 million to build 3,000 new homes in Gaza. Thani was trying to get Hamas away from its alliance with Iran and towards working with the Fatah government in the West Bank to create a united Palestinian government that can negotiate a peace deal with Israel. Qatar wants to end the state of war between Hamas and Israel and hoped cash and public support would do it. Qatar is very wealthy (it has the highest per-capita income in the Persian Gulf) and its ruler has been increasingly active in backing change in the Arab world. Qatar was an early supporter of the Syrian rebels, including the Islamic terrorist groups and urges political reforms throughout the Arab world, something that has polarized Arabs everywhere. For example, a major event during Thani’s 2012 visit to Gaza, a rally at a soccer stadium was cancelled at the last minute because most Palestinians were not interested and about 80 percent of the seats in the stadium were empty. Most Gazans are fed up with Hamas, and not showing up to honor the sheikh was one way to demonstrate their opposition without getting arrested.
In April Egypt acquired some powerful allies in Sinai as several of the Bedouin tribes actively turned against ISIL This was the result of ISIL not paying attention to tribal affairs and the impact ISIL operations were having on the Bedouin even through ISIL acknowledged that the tribes must be respected. But too many ISIL members in Sinai were unable to adjust their methods and effort to coerce the largest Bedouin tribe in Sinai (the Tarabins) into submission backfired. There are only about a thousand armed ISIL men in Sinai but they are fierce and brash. The Tarabins are five percent of the 600,000 Bedouin in the Sinai and most of the adult men are armed. Worse for ISIL the Sinai Bedouin have long been the most active smugglers in the region and will generally work with anyone who can pay. But ISIL has been making additional demands (like not smuggling alcohol or tobacco products) and Hamas is seen as collaborating with ISIL at the expense of the Bedouin. Some Bedouin tribes are more supportive of Islamic terror groups, especially those tribes that are traditional rivals of the Tarabins. ISIL has some success in manipulating those rivalries but more tribes are fed up with ISIL and see them as a bunch of suicidal losers. For Sinai Bedouin the main enemy remains the Egyptian government.
September 4, 2017: Russia and Egypt have finally, after two years of negotiations, there is an agreement on Russia building a nuclear power plant in Egypt (on the Mediterranean coast 130 kilometers from Cairo). The plant will have four reactors, generate 4,800 MW and Russia will loan Egypt $25 billion to pay for most of it. Egypt will still have to come up with $5 billion in cash. The power provided by this plant would increase the Egyptian electricity supply by 15-20 percent when it comes online in the mid-2020s.
In the West Bank Israeli soldiers and police carried out several overnight raids that by sunrise Tuesday had arrested 14 terrorism suspects and seized three firearms plus ammunition. A printing press (for pro-terrorism propaganda) was also seized as well as a large quantity of Hamas cash.
August 31, 2017: The UN has agreed to extend the UN peacekeeping force along the northern Israeli border for another year. More importantly, the UN has also agreed to operate more aggressively towards Hezbollah violations of the UN rules on the Lebanese side of the border. Israeli intelligence officers recently told visiting UN leaders that the UN and UN peacekeepers must do more to keep the peace in Lebanon. The UN head agreed that the situation was getting worse in Lebanon and that UN peacekeepers should be more aggressive in dealing with Hezbollah misbehavior. Then came American pressure on the UN over lax peacekeeping in Lebanon and Syria. Since the U.S. is a major provider of money to pay for UN peacekeeping missions and provides vital technical services plus a lot of cash to keep the UN peacekeeping operations going worldwide, that pressure (largely missing for nearly a decade) made a difference.
Israel has been increasingly concerned about Hezbollah preparations for another major attack (using Iranian missiles and rockets) from launch and storage sites near the border in areas where the UN peacekeepers are supposed to prevent that sort of thing. Hezbollah stores thousands of rockets in homes and near schools and hospitals. While members of UNIFIL (the 12,000 UN peacekeeper force on the Israeli border) will often show up when the Israelis report a particularly obvious of this, Hezbollah gunmen will keep all media out and blame it all on false claims by the Israelis. This sort of thing has been going on since the last war with Hezbollah in 2006. Hezbollah refuses to allow UNIFIL to go near any of its rocket storage sites and insists that the only weapons it has along the Israeli border are those needed to defend itself. Hezbollah has been bringing in more rockets from Syria since the civil war escalated there in 2012 and there is fear that Hezbollah will also get some of the Syrian chemical weapons. The UN refuses to declare Hezbollah an international terrorist organization, despite the fact that Hezbollah has been caught carrying out terrorist operations in several foreign countries and openly calls for the destruction of Israel. The U.S. and a number of other nations have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization but the UN refuses to do so. The UNIFIL force has been in place since 1978 and was expanded after the 2006 war.
Something else that helped change the UN attitude towards Hezbollah was what happened in Syria. In late 2016 UN Peacekeepers returned to the Syrian side of the Israeli border for the first time since 2014. Initially only 127 peacekeepers crossed the border and wasn’t until the end of 2016 before the full force of over a thousand troops returned to their Syrian positions. Back in 2014 UN peacekeepers from Fiji and the Philippines were forced out by al Nusra rebels, who wanted to ensure that the UN peacekeepers did not interfere with the rebel takeover of a border crossing. The Islamic terrorist rebels looted the UN camp. The rebels were driven away from the border in 2016 by the Syrian Army, which had regained control of the entire 70 kilometer long border with Israel. Up until 2014 the UN had 1,223 peacekeepers monitoring the Syrian/Israeli border and wanted that force returned. The UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Israel defeated Syria in 1967 and took the Golan Heights from Syria. In 1973 Israel defeated a strong effort by Syria to regain the Golan Heights. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace. From 2014 to 2016 the peacekeepers were only able to operate on the Israeli side of the border.
August 30, 2017: Russia told the media that it had warned Israel not to attack Iranian forces or bases in Syria. What the Russians told Israel and Turkey privately is another matter. The problem here is that no one in the region wants Iran turning Syria into another Lebanon. Actually Syria would be worse than Lebanon where there is a local Shia militia (Hezbollah) that is controlled by Iran. Hezbollah does what it wants in southern Lebanon and has a veto on anything the Lebanese government (technically controlled by the non-Shia majority). That veto is useful but Hezbollah was never able to coerce the Lebanese government to allow Iran to establish bases on the coast or anywhere else. Syria is different as Iran has already made deals to allow Iran and Russia to operate naval and air bases. For the moment Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Assads are all allies but no one expects that to last. The only question is when will Iran get the bad news.
August 29, 2017: In the West Bank Israeli troops conducted several night raids and seized dozens of illegal weapons and a workshop where weapons are made or altered. In addition 15 terrorism suspects were arrested.
August 24, 2017: In Egypt the U.S. withheld $300 million in foreign aid because of the press censorship and use of the security forces to arrest or murder anyone critical of the government. At the same time the government does little (from the American perspective) to protect their Christian (Coptic) minority.
August 22, 2017: Egypt plans to open the Rafah crossing regularly starting in September and continue that policy as long as Hamas does not cause problems for Egypt. Because of bad relations between Egypt and Hamas the Rafah crossing was only open (often with restrictions) for only 44 days and that got worse in 2017.
August 21, 2017: In Egypt security forces intensified operations along the Libyan border. Air Force F-16s found and destroyed nine four-wheel drive vehicles trying to smuggle weapons in from Libya. This required several sorties as there was more than one group of smuggler trucks involved. Egyptian F-16s have targeting pods that enable pilots to spot and target (for smart bombs) vehicles on the ground even when the aircraft is more than 20 kilometers away. Egypt also has more reconnaissance aircraft with night vision capability.
August 20, 2017: In the West Bank a Palestinian tried to stab an Israeli policeman at a checkpoint and was shot dead.
Fatah, which runs the West Bank, announced they were sending three truckloads of medical supplies to Venezuela. This move was criticized by many Palestinians (who often cannot get medical aid in the West Bank) and derided by Israelis.
In the southeast, near the Kerem Shalom Border Crossing to Egypt and where the borders of Israel, Gaza and Egypt meet, some gunfire on the Egyptian side sent some bullets into Israel. There were no casualties in Israel but the bullets landing in Israel was noted.
August 18, 2017: Egypt again closed the Rafah crossing. This came after it was open for five days and allowed relatively free movement of people (and some goods) into and from Egypt. This was described as a humanitarian gesture pending a new agreement with Hamas that would open the crossing full time. Rafah is the only exit from Gaza that is not controlled by Israel.
August 17, 2017: In the south (Gaza) two Gaza residents were detected trying to sneak into Egypt by Hamas border guards. The two suspects turned out to belong to a rival Islamic terrorist group and one of them was wearing an explosive vest, which he detonated rather than be captured. His companion was wounded and captured. This was the first time Hamas fought with a rival Islamic terror group on the Egyptian border. That is partly because in order to get the Rafah border crossing with Egypt opened on a regular basis Hamas has to convince Egypt that Gaza is no longer a sanctuary for Islamic terror groups that carry out attacks in Egypt. These Islamic terrorists preferred to use the smuggling tunnels but several years of Egyptian efforts to shut the tunnels down has had an impact and the few tunnels still in use are either too expensive or tightly controlled by Hamas which will not allow certain people to use them.
August 15, 2017: In Israel local media published Israeli photo satellite images of a new rocket and ballistic missile factory under construction in western Syria, near the coast. Also displayed were satellite photos of an existing factory in Iran that the new one is apparently based on. Israel has said it will destroy such factories before they can become operational and demanded the UN do something about it.
August 1, 2017: For July Israeli unemployment hit a record low of 4.1 percent. The labor participation rate is 80 percent (everyone age 25-65 who has a job or is looking).