In Egypt ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is making spectacular attacks to remind the world that ISIL still exists and can still punish those it considers heretics and enemies of Islam. The heretics includes anyone who does not practice the extremely conservative form of Sunni Islam ISIL has adopted. The main heretic targets tend to be Shia (which Iran represents and defends) and Sufi (a notably non-militant form of Islam that will only get violent if attacked.) For that reason ISIL has learned that it is not beneficial to kill civilians that cannot be identified as heretics or enemies of Islam. In Egypt that means Sufis are available as targets as are Coptic Christians. Although Israel is next door to Egypt the Israelis have been very successful to keeping ISIL out. That is one reason many Arabs (and Moslems in general) accept the convenient myth that ISIL was somehow invented by Israel. In Libya ISIL has learned that it is best not to carry out attacks that kill any Moslem civilians. In fact ISIL appears to have decided that using as little violence inside Libya is the best way to survive and thrive there. ISIL needs a base are and at the moment Libya is one of the most likely areas to operate in. This is essential because a Libya base provides access to the rest of Africa as well as the Middle East via Egypt. There are still restrictions. Getting across the Egyptian border is difficult as long as Libyan general Hiftar and his LNA (Libyan National Army) operate throughout eastern Libya. The LNA has more problems with the Egyptian border since the collapse of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Many of the surviving ISIL men are seeking to reach Libya via Egypt. Some of these ISIL personnel decide to join ISIL factions already established in Sinai (near the Israeli border) or western Egypt (near the Libyan border). This is the main reason why Hiftar still has a lot of support from Egypt and other Arab nations. Hiftar is genuinely hostile to Islamic terrorism but to the West he is seen as a potential new Libyan dictator. That is important to Libyans, but not as important as personal safety and enough national unity to get the economy going again.
The Israeli-Arab Alliance
The recent ISIL attacks in Egypt against Sufi Moslems will generate more enthusiasm in the Egyptian security forces for greater cooperation with Israel in the war against ISIL and Islamic terrorism in general. Israel was more successful governing Sinai (from 1967-82) than Egypt but that has been something Egypt was rarely willing to talk about. The Israelis always treated the Bedouin and Islamic outcasts like the Druze with more fairness than anyone else in the region. Although most Arabs in Arabia are Bedouin (or identify as such) outside of Arabia (especially in Egypt, Iraq and Syria) being seen as Bedouin was rarely a good thing. The Israeli Bedouin, like the Druze, are subject to conscription in Israel and many make a career of it. Some of the Israeli Bedouin from the Negev (the desert area of southern Israel adjacent to Sinai) keep in touch with kin in Sinai just as Israeli Druze kept in touch with kin in Syria. These family links across borders is an ancient tradition in this part of the world because it can be a lifesaver in wartime. ISIL tried to force Sinai Bedouin
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have gone public in support of an Arab-Israeli alliance to oppose Iran. Many (Arabs, Israelis and Iranians) believe that such an alliance won’t last long but that is not crucial. The alliance only has to last long enough to halt the spread of Iranian power and influence. Israel has been through this before. The peace deals with Jordan and Israel have largely held even though there are ups and downs. The Israelis know that the anti-Semitic attitudes in the Arab world go back to before the emergence of Islam in the 7th century and have waxed and waned ever since.
Currently the Arabs of Arabia, or at least key leaders, have decided that decades of denouncing the one nation in the region with a functioning democracy, the most advanced and successful economy and the most powerful armed forces, ought to be seen as a potential ally, not a battlefield opponent. As a result Arab journalists and leaders are speaking openly, and more frequently, about such an alliance. Some countries, like the UAE, can now speak openly of the discreet (and often not so secret) commercial, military and diplomatic links they developed with Israel over the years. To a lesser extent Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian connections are now admitted. The motivation here is survival against an increasingly aggressive Iran. Hang together or hang separately. Israel already has powerful allies for dealing with Iran and welcomes an Arab alliance, even if it won’t last, or at least will be under constant attack going forward, as was the case with the Jordanian and Egyptian peace deals.
The young Saudi crown prince (and soon to be the king as his elderly father announced his abdication) pointed out that Iran is officially obsessed with destroying Israel while a growing number of Arabs see Israel as a potential ally. Everyone knows that before the current religious dictatorship took control of Iran in the 1980s Israel and Iran had many diplomatic and economic links, far more that Israel had with the Arab world. But Iranian religious leaders decided that Israel was at the top of the list of things that had to change. Next on the list was who should control the Islamic shrines in Saudi Arabia and so on. Iran has always been scary to its neighbors but was usually ruled by some aristocrat. Now that the Iranian Shia clergy (who were long known to be aggressive) are in charge it is time for neighbors to reconsider traditional alliances.
Meanwhile Israeli and Arab military officials are working out a joint strategy and procedures for how it will work. This includes many Arab nations quietly urging Hamas and Fatah to make a serious and public effort to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. The implication is that if the Palestinians refuse (which seems likely) or simply fail again more Arab leaders will go public with their opinions on the hopelessness of the Palestinian leadership. That will lead to Palestinians becoming more isolated and dependent on charity from the West, Iran and Israel and that source of support is running out of patience as well. .
Here is an example of how that will turn out. Hamas made a lot of bad decisions since 2007 and the Iran link is seen as one of the worst. In response to the Iran link Arab states who cut aid were quietly informed by Palestinian leaders that 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) 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 to do anything in their own best interest. Iran is making the most of this situation and few Palestinians will do much to stop it.
PA Sort Of Returns To Gaza
In October Hamas and Fatah officials 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. This is especially the case when Hamas and Fatah officials give different answers to the same question. For example, Fatah is more popular because it does not impose strict lifestyle rules. Thus in the West Bank you can buy alcoholic beverages and visit night clubs that often feature traditional dancing (belly dancing and such). Both of these are forbidden in Gaza and Hamas officials admit that they have no intention of changing that.
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 and Fatah have until the end of November to work out all these differences between themselves and bring a final and agreed-upon agreement to Egypt for signing and endorsement by Egypt and most other Arab states. Yet many of those Arab states, especially the ones that used to be major supporters (financial and otherwise) of the Palestinians have declared the Palestinian cause hopeless and see nothing but more broken promises coming out of the Hamas-Fatah unification talks.
Who Controls Syria
For Israel anyone but Iran is tolerable. When it comes to opposing Iran Israel has some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this puts Russia at odds with their two other allies (Turkey and Iran) in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally that the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey. Russia has long tried to play peacemaker even though to make any progress it must offend its new allies Turkey and Iran. Russia is recognizing the key role the Syrian Kurds played in defeating ISIL in Syria and driving ISIL out of Raqqa. In contrast Turkey and Iran want to attack the Syrian Kurds and force them to submit to Assad rule.
The Israelis keep pointing out that Iran and their dependency Syria have, since the 1980s, openly called for the destruction of Israel. Many Westerners saw this as absurd while Russia sees it as an opportunity and the Israelis point out that they have nukes, the most effective military (and economy) in the region and no tolerance for more Iranian forces moving into Syria or agreeing that the Assads are a legitimate government. For Russia this is a challenge since as outsiders they realize that Israel is right and long-term a more dependable and desirable ally. But the current Russian government is getting by on uncertainty, deception and hope that this approach will work. There are reasons why Russian roulette is accepted as a typically Russian form of whatever.
November 26, 2017: Egypt carried out several airstrikes in Sinai against ISIL camps. Locals angry at the Rawda mosque attack provided the information, which the Egyptians could double check via pro-government tribal leaders and the high-tech targeting pods carried by their F-16s which enable pilots to get close up video of the target (and record it) before releasing the smart bombs.
November 25, 2017: One side effect of the Rawda mosque attack was more Sinai tribes (most of them Bedouin) declaring support for the government and willingness to do what it takes to avenge the dead from yesterday’s mosque attack. This sort of support makes it more difficult for young men in some tribes to join ISIL or keep ISIL support or membership secret from family or tribe.
November 24, 2017: In Egypt (northern Sinai) about 40 armed men carrying ISIL flags used bombs and firearms to attack a Sufi mosque in al Rawda. The attack left over 300 Sufi worshippers at the mosque dead. Many of the attackers were dressed in police or army uniforms and arrived in SUVs and other civilian vehicles. The Egyptian government said it would avenge this attack but there are also questions about how and why Egyptian security forces missed the clear signs that such an attack was coming and did nothing to deal with the situation (like more checkpoints and patrols, which has worked in the past). The government ordered three days of national mourning and cancelled a scheduled (November 25-27) three day opening of the Gaza Rafah crossing.
Sufis are a Moslem sect (or simply a method to study Islam) that is more mystical, and much less violent, than most. More violent and conservative forms of Islam, like those al Qaeda and ISIL believe in, consider Sufis heretics and often attack them and their mosques. Sufis can and will fight back, as they have done in Somalia and Yemen but they generally do so as a last resort.
The government is waiting to see if this attack will have an impact on the resurgence of foreign tourism, which is up over 50 percent (from 2016) so far in 2017. Islamic terrorists attacking tourism is nothing new because tourism accounts for 11 percent of the Egyptian GDP and provides jobs (directly or indirectly) for 12 percent of the work force. The resurgence of Islamic terrorism in Egypt since 2013 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.
November 23, 2017: Israel revealed that it had indeed (as some media earlier reported) obtained a lot of useful information from a Hamas member who was captured as he tried to enter (or defect to) Israel in September. Israel named the Hamas man, and that he was being tried for crimes, so there is probably something else going on here.
Egyptian revealed that it had recently raided hideouts of Islamic terror groups (mainly Lewaa Al Thawra) associated with the Moslem Brotherhood and arrested nine suspects while killing three others who opened fire during one of the raids (all of them outside of Sinai and mostly along the Nile).
November 22, 2017: In the south Israeli troops caught two unarmed men from Gaza crossing the border fence. One man surrendered when confronted while the other did not and was captured after he was shot and wounded.
In western Egypt and warplanes attacked ten 4x4 vehicles from Libya that were trying to move weapons and ammunition into Egypt. The F-16s can operate at night and that has made it possible for more of these attacks to take place.
November 21, 2017: Israel seized several tons of chemicals used in the production of explosives. These were being smuggled into Gaza via the Israeli crossing for commercial goods and foreign aid. The explosives were disguised as motor oil and their true nature could not be proven without a lab analysis of the material. Details were not released but since it is known that the Israelis carefully examine all the components of rockets or bombs used to attack them a lab test revealed Hamas using a new type of explosive and the rest is following up that lead. The Israelis are also expecting some more effective smuggling efforts now that Hamas and Iran are working together once again.
Further south in Sinai Egyptian police raided an Islamic terrorist hideout and killed four armed men who fired at them. Police found over 25,000 rounds of ammunition and bomb making materials.
In Egypt (Cairo) another round of unifications negotiations between Hamas and Fatah took place. Not much was accomplished other than a vague promise to hold elections by the end of 2018.
November 19, 2017: In the north (Golan Heights) Israeli tanks fired on Syrian troops attempting to build a fortified outpost in the UN mandated demilitarized zone. This was the second day in a row Israeli forces fired on this illegal outpost.
November 18, 2017: Bowing to political pressure India cancelled a half billion dollar deal worked out in 2016 for an Israel firm to set up a factory and team with an Indian firm to produce Spike ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). The Indian army has been warning for over a decade that without a new ATGM India would be at a serious disadvantage. But the procurement bureaucracy and DRDO (the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization) said it could develop and build a comparable ATGM in four years. That would be a miracle. No one in the military believed the DRDO but this was not about what DRDO could do but about the incompetence and corruption that has characterized DRDO for decades. DRDO may not be of much use for the military but for Indian politicians it is a vital part of getting elected and staying in power. DRDO provides jobs and cash for that. Meanwhile Israel remains a major military supplier for India. A July visit by the Indian president marked the official end of 70 years of India deferring to its Moslem population (which is larger than that of Pakistan) and decades of close ties with Moslem states at the expense of good relations with Israel. Since 2000 Israel has provided India help dealing with Islamic terrorists that Pakistan began using aggressively against India in the 1990s. India noted that Israel was a major supplier of military equipment worldwide and was especially good when it came to border security and dealing with Islamic terrorism. The alliance between Israel and India has grown stronger since 2001 and now India is quite open about it. There are more and more signs of shifts in long-established alliances involving Israel.
November 17, 2017: Islamic Jihad, the Gaza based Islamic terror group most outspoken about its hostility for Israel, declared it would avenge the Israeli use of explosives (on October 30) to destroy a tunnel that had entered Israeli territory. Islamic Jihad declared this an Israeli act of aggression even though the explosives were set off in the portion of the tunnel that had entered Israel and nearly all the dead were the result of a rescue effort for some of the tunnel builders working on the tunnel when the explosives went off. Right after the explosion Gaza media identified six of the dead as belonging to Islamic Jihad and two as members of Hamas. Two of the Islamic Jihad dead were leaders and either inspecting the tunnel or supervising the work. It was later revealed that the death toll was higher (at least a dozen Islamic Jihad members and three or more from Hamas). Since this was more a case of Islamic Jihad and Hamas incompetence than anything else the standard response is to blame Israel and call for retaliation. This usually works because anyone in Gaza who points out what really happened (and is known by most in Gaza) they can more easily be accused of acting as an Israeli agent, or maybe even an Israeli spy.
November 15, 2017: Leaders from Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria met in Egypt to update their common Libya policy. All three nations continue to vigorously (loudly and repeatedly) support the July peace agreement for Libya. A major reason for the July agreement was the need to avoid mass starvation in Libya. Since 2011 Libyan oil exports had shrunk and the Libyan Central Bank cash reserves are nearly gone. If peace and unity are not achieved soon no government would be able to buy and import food and other essentials. Even by Middle Eastern standards Libya was setting new records in self-destructive behavior. By 2017 more Libyans were agreeing that the situation was indeed becoming desperate and a lot more compromise was the only solution. Even with the current national compromise the tribal (Arab, Berber and black African) and religious differences (Islamic radicals versus everyone else) plus epic levels of corruption and entitlement keep peace and prosperity out of reach. At this point most Libyans will settle for survival. The neighbors (particularly Egypt, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Algeria) back the new peace deal as do European nations. How long it will last is another matter. So far, the deal is still on track. If achieved by the end of the year or early in 2108 it would mean the first national government in Libya since 2011 and fewer worries about smuggling and Islamic terrorism coming out of Libya. The only major disagreement the Arab countries have with the West is Arab preference for LNA commander Khalifa Hiftar, which a growing number of Western leaders want to prosecute as a war criminal. That has not stopped Hiftar from travelling. Hiftar visited Egypt on November 3rd to report on conditions in areas he controls and discuss what can be done to improve security along the Libyan-Egyptian border. On the 13th Hiftar visited the UAE and while there attended the Dubai Air Show to meet with other Arab military and political leaders. Egypt and UAE have always been the primary supporters of the LNA and Hiftar.
November 14, 2017: Israel deployed an Iron Dome battery to central Israel. Normally Iron Dome is sent to the northern or southern borders, where the most rockets are deployed against Israel in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. Deploying Iron Dome in central Israel indicates a potential rocket or mortar threat from the West Bank.
November 13, 2017: Without admitting it, Iran has been spotted building a military base in Syria, about 15 kilometers south of Damascus and too close (50 kilometers) to the Israeli border as far as the Israelis are concerned. The base is not large and appears to have facilities for about 500 troops. Israel believes this will be a headquarters for Iranian operations against Israel. Normally Israel waits for construction to finish before launching an attack (usually an air strike).
Further south the head of the Russian intelligence agency (the FIS) visited Israel to discuss how to handle the dispute between Israel and Iran over the continued presence of Iran controlled (and often led) irregular forces. There are still as many as 3,000 armed ISIL fighters in Syria and they are scattered in over a dozen locations, none of them close to Israel. Turkey wants Russia to pressure the United States to stop providing weapons and other assistance to Syrian Kurds, something the U.S. has been doing more of since mid-2016 when it became obvious that the Kurdish led SDF rebel coalition had the best chance of driving ISIL out of Raqqa, which the SDF proceeded to do by late 2017. The SDF is still the most effective armed group fighting ISIL in Syria and the U.S. will continue supporting the SDF until ISIL no longer has a presence in Syria. That is fine with Israel but not with Turkey or Iran. Russia is trying to negotiate a peace deal between all the major antagonists and is having some success. But ultimately Israel sees this as a fool’s errand.
November 11, 2017: In southern Syria Israeli air defenses shot down a Russian UAV carrying out a surveillance mission of the Israeli Golan Heights. Apparently Hezbollah was controlling the UAV and the Israelis continue to investigate who was doing what for whom on the Syrian side of the border to make this happen.
November 9, 2017: In Egypt (Sinai) ISIL is believed responsible for ambushing a convoy carrying construction materials and guarded by soldiers. The seven trucks were destroyed, eight civilians and two soldiers were killed. Weapons and other equipment were taken by the attackers before they fled.
November 5, 2017: In the south (on the Gaza border) Israeli troops have built a monitoring station in the tunnel from Gaza it partially destroyed on October 30th. Israel wants to ensure that Hamas does not resume work on this tunnel. Israel now believes 14 Palestinians were killed in the tunnel, most of them after the explosion because of an inept rescue effort. Most of the collapsed portion of the tunnel was on the Gaza side of the border but while examining the aftereffects of the explosion Israeli engineers found the bodies of five Palestinians belonging to Islamic Jihad. Israel will preserve the bodies and return them as part of a deal (as yet not agreed to by Hamas) to get back the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014 and several Israelis who illegally entered Gaza and were arrested.
November 3, 2017: In the north (Golan Heights) a large bomb could be heard exploding across the border in Syria Soon a large smoke cloud rose over the explosion and was visible as far as the Israeli border. It was soon revealed that al Nusra Islamic terrorists (affiliated with al Qaeda) had attacked Hader, an Assad controlled Druze village near the Israeli border. The attack began with a suicide car bomb exploding. The attack killed at least nine and wounded over 20. There was a lot of gunfire after that but the remaining rebels in the attack force appeared to retreat. Later that day, under pressure from the Druze community on the Israeli side of the border, Israel agreed to do what it could to keep the Islamic terrorists away from the Hader but would not send Israeli troops into Syria. By the end of the day a member of the Israeli parliament, who was Druze, revealed that four of those killed in the Hader attack were kin of his. Hundreds of Israeli Druze men attempted to force their way past the Israeli border fence and border guards to get into Syria to aid their fellow Druze but were prevented from doing so. Ten of the Israeli Druze did make it into Syria, briefly, before being forcibly returned to Israel by Israeli troops. There were no injuries but it was yet another indication that Israeli Druze are desperate to aid their fellow Druze (and often kin) just across the border (and sometimes visible from Israel).
November 1, 2017: In central Syria (Homs province) an Israeli airstrike (four sorties) did major damage to an industrial facility outside the city. Locals indicated that that plant and storage area had long been used by the Syrian military and may have contained a chemical weapons facility. All Syrian chemical weapons are supposed to be gone since a 2013 Russian brokered deal. But in the last few years there have been a number of confirmed instances where Syrian forces used chemical weapons.
October 31, 2017: In the West Bank Israeli troops fired on a car that accelerated towards them and refused to stop. The Palestinian driver of the car was shot dead and that stopped the vehicle. A Palestinian passenger was wounded.