Israel: No One Is Particularly Optimistic

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October 31, 2017: Egypt recently replaced the head of the armed forces and several senior officers commanding counter-terrorist or internal security operations. President Sisi was not happy with the progress in eliminating the Islamic terrorist threat. A major problem has been a lack of cooperation between the military and police. This is an old custom, going back over half a century. Sisi took a while to find senior officers who appreciated this problem and had ideas on how to solve it. That’s what a lot of men recently promoted had in common.

While there have been no major attacks in cities or tourist centers lately there is still an Islamic terrorist presence in Sinai which the new peace deal with Hamas may, or may not, help reduce still further. Meanwhile a growing number of Sinai based Islamic terrorists are trying to move their personnel and operations to the Western Desert and the Libyan border. That may not be a problem if Egyptian allies in eastern Libya (the LNA, or Libyan National Army) continue to get more support from the UN and the West. The LNA and similar Libyan militias have done a lot in the past year to shut down Islamic terrorist groups in Libya but that country is still the source of most Islamic terrorists today and large parts of Libya are still, in effect, sanctuaries for Islamic terror groups.

Hamas-Fatah Merger

Hamas and Fatah officials have agreed to merge, ending a ten year old split that crippled the PA (Palestinian Authority) that was supposed to represent all Palestinians. The October 12th agreement signed in Egypt specified that the PA would take control of all the Gaza crossings on October 31st and that Egypt would allow free movement to and from Egypt. But that only happens if there is agreement on military matters. That is still not settled and even if it is such agreements have a tendency to aspirations not promises to be kept. Egypt, Israel and most of the Middle East is waiting to see how this actually works out. No one is particularly optimistic.

Since 2007 there have been two Palestinian governments; Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. The unification effort is, for Egypt (and Fatah) more about disarming Hamas and making Gaza less hospitable to Islamic terrorists who threaten Egypt. Hamas sees it differently and wants more freedom to operate in the West Bank and eventually replace Fatah there. Egypt insists on unification of the two Palestinian government and disarmament of Hamas before it will end its blockade of Gaza. It will take a few weeks for Egypt to determine if there is indeed a real merger.

Hamas is in a difficult position here and is trying to talk its way out of the mess it created. Hamas has selected a new leader and made changes that Egypt has long demanded but not the most important ones. Hamas declared its civil government in Gaza dissolved on September 17th, but that was mainly for show. Hamas has about 25,000 armed (and many are trained) men on the payroll and wants to keep them on the job. Egypt wants a through crackdown on Islamic terror groups in Gaza and Hamas seems unable to deliver on that one either although Hamas is making a real effort this time. Meanwhile Iran has once more established a presence in Gaza which Egypt, Israel and Fatah all agree is a bad thing.

Hamas continues to build “combat tunnels” inside Gaza and tells its armed followers, most of whom are on the payroll, that nothing will change. Yet Hamas also tolerates dissident Islamic terror groups to continue building tunnels in to Egypt and Israel, or at least trying to. According to Egypt and Fatah nothing will really change unless Hamas gives up its armed personnel and all those weapons. There will be no united Palestine government if Hamas retains the ability to launch major military operations on its own. The recent discovery and destruction (yesterday) of a tunnel into Israel did not help, especially since two of the men killed in the tunnel belonged to Hamas and were, as Hamas later explained it, there to assist in rescuing people injured in the explosion and not help with construction. Hamas know that the truth is many Hamas members don’t want peace and are attracted to groups, inside or outside Gaza, that will continue to fight.

The adults know better and although Hamas dislikes admitting failure there must be a united Palestinian government (and disarmed Hamas) because just about everyone (especially Palestinians and Gulf Arabs) has stopped contributing cash and there is no one lest to steal from or extort. Hamas is increasingly unpopular in Gaza and one way it maintained the peace was via the 43,000 Gazans it had on its payroll. Most of these were unarmed and handling civil administrations and if unification happens most of these Hamas supporters will be out of work and replaced with more trustworthy Fatah supporters (some from outside Gaza). But unless Hamas makes a deal these Hamas employees will go unpaid and Hamas will be blamed.

Hamas has insisted that a few thousand of the best trained and equipped Hamas security personnel had to remain on the payroll, under the control of Hamas and that was not negotiable. But Egypt and Fatah expect, in particular, that these men to be demobilized. That would be messy because it is no secret that Egypt, Fatah and Israel would like to question many of them and arrest a number of them as well. Hamas hopes to deal with this by getting everyone to agree to a multi-year schedule to carry out the reunification. During most of that time Hamas would keep its core fighters and all those weapons, which could be used to take back control of Gaza when the time was right. Fatah and Egypt have already said they are aware of this possibility and want no part of it. No one knows exactly how this mess will turn out. If the past is any guide the result will please no one and accomplish little besides setting the stage for more violence in Gaza.

Finally there is the Moslem Brotherhood. Hamas has 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.

When the Moslem Brotherhood won the national elections after the 2011 revolution and was able to lead an Egyptian government they made the mistake of giving into their radical faction and trying to impose Islamic law on all Egyptians. This was very unpopular and the Moslem Brotherhood was overthrown by another popular uprising in 2013. After that another (like recently deposed tyrant Mubarak) military man was elected president and it was back to business as usual. One side effect of that 2013 coup was a court eventually dismissed most of the charges against Mubarak who is apparently going to escape any real punishment, as are his sons. Court decisions like that bring out more protestors but not enough to overthrow the new government run by a former general elected to the job. Most Egyptians was to see if the new general-in-charge can get the economy going and restore order. The new government probably will, but at the cost of any real efforts to curb corruption or enact other needed reforms. Not a major issue as most Egyptians want peace and prosperity first. That means no Moslem Brotherhood.

In the early 1990s radical factions of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, frustrated at their inability to achieve peaceful reforms, turned to terrorism and were defeated after a bloody terrorism campaign failed. Two decades later the Islamic terrorists are again attacking the Egyptian economy, especially tourism which accounts for 11 percent of the GDP and provides jobs (directly or indirectly) for 12 percent of the work force. This time there are still radical factions of the Moslem Brotherhood but most of the damage was done by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) which continues to function in Egypt (especially Sinai) largely because there are so many potential recruits in Gaza.

This resurgence of Islamic terrorism in Egypt led to a 15 percent decline in tourist income for 2015. And as with the pre-2011 Mubarak dictatorship the current government has largely eliminated large-scale anti-government demonstrations and is concentrating on Islamic terrorist groups, which the Mubarak government fought and defeated in the 1990s. The current Egyptian government finds itself repeating that process and since Hamas is a branch of the Moslem Brotherhood it has to go, at least in its current form.

Israel recently repeated that it would not deal with any united Palestinian government that had adopted the Hamas “Israel must be destroyed at any cost” policy. That, however, is where the Palestinian unification talks are going because Hamas knows Egypt is less likely to consider that an obstacle to a peace deal. That may be true but Israel has told Egypt they have a peace deal with Israel and abandoning that will cost Egypt big time. So while Egyptian media and pundits may go on about Israel is not our friend, most Egyptian politicians and economists know better.

Lebanon

Realizing that there was likely to be a long-term threat from Iranian forces in Lebanon and Syria Israel announced it was stationing a battalion of its Iron Dome anti-rocket systems in northern Israel. There was already a battalion assigned to southern Israel to defend against the rockets Hezbollah had amassed in Gaza and had last used on a large scale in 2014. There had not been large scale rocket attacks in northern Israel since the Iran-backed Hezbollah launched a major rocket attack in 2006 and convinced Israel that Iron Dome was worth developing and deploying.

October 30, 2017: In the south (Gaza) Israel used explosives to destroy a tunnel that had entered Israeli territory after being detected and monitored by Israeli sensors. The explosion caused a tunnel collapse that killed eight and wounded a dozen. Gaza media identified six of the dead as belonging to Islamic Jihad and two were members of Hamas. Two of the Islamic Jihad dead were leaders and either inspecting the tunnel or supervising the work.

Since 2016 most tunnel deaths have been in deeper and more dangerous tunnels designed to pass under the security fence and into Israel. In response Israel has been installing new sensors. Many of these tunnels belong to Islamic Jihad (one of the smaller Islamic terror groups in Gaza) and Hamas has largely ignored this tunnel building as long as it did not attract the wrong kind of attention.

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 Israeli and Egyptian 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 Gaza) 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. In this case Israel did reveal that the tunnel destroyed today was detected and monitored with the new sensors.

In western Egypt F-16s attacked six smuggler trucks near the Libyan border. The trucks were carrying weapons as could be seen from the secondary explosions. The Egyptian F-16s returned with video of the attack and troops reached the site of the attack to seek survivors and collect evidence.

October 28, 2017: In the West Bank Israeli police arrested a Hamas man who was apparently studying an Israeli checkpoint by driving past it several times. This was noticed, he was stopped and his vehicle search. A pistol was found and an ID check revealed the Hamas connection.

October 27, 2017: In the south (Gaza) the Hamas head of security was wounded an explosive went off in his vehicle as it drove past a refugee camp. At first Hamas blamed Israel but soon realized it was the work of an ISIL faction in Gaza. Egypt apparently provided the information proving the ISIL connection. Hamas and Egypt have been cooperating to eliminate the ISIL presence in Gaza and Sinai.

October 25, 2017: In Gaza the UN allowed a school it supports to resume operations. The school had been closed for two weeks so that a Hamas tunnel found to have an entrance in the basement of one of the school buildings. The UN and other aid groups had long ignored Hamas using schools and hospitals for military purposes (tunnel entrances, storage for weapons and fighters and even rocket firing sites). The 2014 war allowed Israel to send in troops and capture these sites and document the presence of tunnels, which are a violation of international law. Since then the UN and other aid groups have been forced to investigate Israeli charges of military use of schools and hospitals. Major donors threatening to halt aid to Gaza also played a part in the UN enforcing the rules against military use of these “protected” (from attack in wartime) facilities.

October 24, 2017: Lebanese media confirmed that Hezbollah was withdrawing all its forces from Syria in early 2018. Hezbollah had earlier told the media about how soon its next war with Israel will happen but a lot of Lebanese were dubious. So were the Israelis who reported that Israeli military analysts agreed with that because the chatter (monitoring of attitudes in Lebanon among Hezbollah supporters and Lebanese in general) indicates that another Hezbollah war now would be unlikely. At the moment Hezbollah military power is crippled by losses (nearly 2,000 dead) in Syria and the continued deployment of about a third of their available forces there. In addition a significant number of veteran personnel are 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. Same with Iranian efforts to form a “Syrian Hezbollah” along the Israeli border, especially the Golan Heights. This effort is led by the Quds Force and Hezbollah commanders who have long worked directly for Quds. In the long term (the 2020s) Iran is building something that is more than a another bit of “destroy Israel” propaganda. 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. That would include the new Israeli natural gas fields off the coast near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah getting out of Syria is a necessity for Hezbollah which grew even more unpopular in Lebanon over the last five years.

October 23, 2017: In the north an Israeli airstrike across the Syrian border in Daraa province hit an ISIL camp, killing at least ten of the Islamic terrorists. This is the second Israeli airstrike against this ISIL faction in the last few months. This ISIL group has been attempting to get into Israel no matter what ceasefire or “security zone” deals Russia, Iran or the Assad government makes. These airstrikes also aid Jordan, which borders Daraa. The Jordanians are mainly concerned with the many Syrian refugees that continue to head for refuge in Jordan and Islamic terrorists who might be trying to get into Jordan disguised as refugees. This area has seen a lot of fighting since 2011. In late 2016 it was estimated that about eight percent of the Syrian war casualties since 2011 occurred in Daraa Province and along the Israeli and Jordan borders.

Israel is involved because of discreet links with Jordan (going back to the 60s) and Russia and more open ties to the United States. Some Syrian factions accuse Israel of supplying cash and other items to some Syrian rebels. Israel denies this but does admit to a very public program of allowing over 3,000 (so far) badly wounded Syrians, especially women and children, into Israel for free medical care. The Syrians benefitting from this may feel obliged to return the favor in some way (like providing information on what Iranian and other Islamic radical groups are up to) and that could be described as a relationship. But that has a different meaning in the Middle East than in other parts of the world and is often misinterpreted in the West and misrepresented in places like Russia.

In the south (Gaza) Hamas reported that masked (and armed) men kidnapped three Gaza residents who were working in one of the few operational smuggling tunnels into Egypt. This announcement indicates that the local ISIL branch in Sinai is pressuring the tunnel operators to cooperate with ISIL. This is something Hamas forbids and the tunnel operators (who pay hefty taxes to Hamas for permission to operate) are apparently after Hamas to provide some security or see the last remaining smuggling tunnels go out of business.

In western Egypt F-16s attacked smuggler trucks near the Libyan border. The trucks were carrying weapons and the Egyptian F-16s returned with video proof. Egypt had help from the LNA (Libyan National Army) and its leader general Hiftar. Egypt and the LNA have worked together for several years and as a result the LNA controls the Libyan forces on the Egyptian border and is implementing long-term plans for improving border security, which is one reason Egypt has supported the LNA for the last few years. The cooperation between LNA and Egypt has made it possible to identify when and where arms smugglers would cross the border into Egypt. At that point Egyptian Air Force F-16s can use their targeting pods and smart bombs to locate and destroy these convoys coming into Egypt from Libya via desert trails north of the “sand sea” that is largely impassable to trucks. With the targeting pods you can also record video of the airstrikes showing some of the trucks exploding twice as their cargoes of ammunition ignited. Smuggling Libyan weapons (looted from government warehouses during the 2011 revolution) into Egypt is still big business especially since Hamas and other Islamic terrorist groups, plus criminal gangs, are ready to buy whatever gets into Egypt. Far fewer of these convoys are making out of the Western Desert since the LNA took control of the Libyan side of the border and established an intelligence network. But small groups of Islamic terrorists are another matter and that’s what Egypt sees as a growing problem.

October 21, 2017: In the north (Golan Heights), five small rockets fired from Syria landed in Israel and in response Israeli artillery fired on three Syrian army artillery positions. Israel has adopted a policy of only firing on the Syrian Army if anyone fires into the Golan Heights. There are a number of different groups in southern Syria that have a presence on the Israeli border. Israel suspects this particular incident was carried out by Hezbollah. Rather than try to determine exactly who fired into Israel each time Israel retaliates against the Assad forces as an encouragement to actually take control of their southern border. Earlier in 2017 the Assads said they now controlled the border with Israel and they may or may not.

In the south (Gaza) Hamas prevented the family of a recently killed ISIL man from erecting a mourning tent. These tents are traditional but over the last few months Hamas has forbidden families of men who joined ISIL in Egypt and were killed there from openly mourning their loss. For one thing these events are often used to recruit more Gaza residents to join ISIL in Egypt. Many of the recruits are from elite Hamas units and these men are technically deserters. That was the case with two Gaza men killed two days ago in Egypt, where ISIL has been the cause of many attacks on Egyptian security forces. As part of the peace deal with Egypt Hamas has to crack down on ISIL activity in Gaza.

October 20, 2017: In Egypt an ambush in Giza province (135 kilometers southwest of Cairo) that left 16 policemen dead. The ISIL men responsible fled west towards the Libyan border. On October 27th an army raid in the same area left 13 Islamic terrorists dead. Giza province is on both sides of the Nile River but extends deep into the Western Desert because of several large oasis that have been population centers for thousands of years and were way stations for caravans. A railroad was built a century ago deep into the Western Desert because of the oasis and provided better access to the entire province. The oasis, paved roads and railroad have attracted smugglers who could more easily get stuff across the borders with Sudan and Libya.

A delegation of Hamas officials made a visit to Iran to discuss how Hamas and Iran will cooperate since formal relations were resumed in August.

October 19, 2017: In the north (Golan Heights), a mortar shell fired from Syria landed in Israel and within hours Israeli artillery tanks fired on an Syrian army mortar position visible from the Israeli side of the border.

October 16, 2017: Senior Russian military officials visited Israel and met with their Israeli counterparts. This was the first time a Russian Minister of Defense had visited Israel and, as expected, some major agreements were worked out and details of some were made public. Apparently Israel and Russia confirmed some modifications to their agreement on what Russia would do to keep Iranian forces (including Iranian backed Shia militias like Hezbollah) away from the Israeli border. Israel wanted the Russians to keep the Iranians at least 60 kilometers from the border but the Russians have agreed to smaller buffer zones (10-20 kilometers) and are willing and able to enforce those buffer zones. In part this is done by telling the Assad government that continued Russian assistance for the Assads is contingent on the Assads cooperating with the Russians in keeping the Iranians away from the border. At the same time the Russians do not interfere with Israeli air and missile strikes on Iranian weapons shipments moving from Syria to Lebanon (for Hezbollah). Syria protests via the media but does little beyond that. This cozy relationship with Israel is more valuable to Russia than any deals it has with Iran. Russia recognizes that Israel has the strongest economy in the region as well as the most capable military and nuclear weapons. After the Russian delegation left a senior Israeli official visiting Japan repeated that Israel would, if necessary, use military force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

There was another reason for the Russian Defense Minister visiting Israel. Russian migrants comprise one of the largest national groups in Israel and this was highlighted when a Russian general, in uniform, publically honored over a dozen Israelis from Russia who had served in the Red Army during World War II. Such service is a big deal in Russia where the World War II victory over Germany, despite huge losses (about 18 percent of the Soviet population died during the war) are regarded as a historic achievement. Russia and Israel have often worked together, even during the communist period (that ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union did). Russia tries to maintain its alliance with Turkey and Iran while also remaining on good terms with Israel and the Arab oil states in the region. Russia and Israel have a longer and better relationship than the one Russia has with its new allies (and traditional enemies) Iran and Turkey. It is possible for Russia and Israel to continue working together, as they have done since Israel was created in the late 1940s. Even during the communist period (especially from 1948 to 1991) Russia often worked closely with Israel while also courting Arab states that wanted Israel to disappear. Russia continues this policy of maintaining multiple alliance with Turkey and Iran while also remaining on good terms with Israel and the Arab oil states in the region. Give the Russians credit, they are getting away with it. But it is becoming increasingly difficult.

In the north (Lebanon) an Israeli reconnaissance jet flying along the Syrian border was fired on by a Syrian air defense unit based across the border in Syria. The Syrian SA-5 anti-aircraft missile missed the Israeli jet, as these missiles have done several times already in 2017. Three hours later an Israeli airstrike hit the Syrian SA-5 unit. The SA-5 is a 1960s design that Russia has updated and Syria received the latest S-200 version of the missile in 2010.

October 15, 2017: In the south (Egypt) two rockets were fired from somewhere in Sinai near Gaza but the Israeli air defense system could not confirm if the rockets landed in Israel. Israeli security forces searched and found the rockets had landed in an empty field near the border. Coordinating with Egyptian security forces the location of the areas where the rockets were launched was found. The local ISIL branch took credit for the rockets and soon an Israeli UAV attacked an ISIL camp across the border in Egypt, killing at least one ISIL member. Egyptian ground forces will follow up.

Elsewhere in northern Sinai a clash between Egyptian troops and Islamic terrorists left six soldiers and 24 of the enemy dead.

October 11, 2017: In Egypt Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement that was actually an agreement to keep negotiating, with the help of Egypt, to merge the rival Palestinian groups.

 


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