March 16, 2018:
One of the things Israel and Egypt agree on is the danger to everyone created by the Islamic radical Hamas government in Gaza. Hamas has always called for the destruction of Israel but the more radical Hamas factions have always wanted to impose a religious dictatorship (similar to Hamas) on Egypt. Most Egyptians do not want this and remember that Hamas began as a Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood (which has failed several times to impose religious rule on Egypt most recently in 2012.) Another problem with the Palestinians in general is that there can be no peace with Israel until there is some kind of real unity among the Palestinian factions. Egypt tried to broker such a reunification (of Palestinian governments in Gaza and the West Bank) and thought it had a deal in October 2017. But that deal is still waiting to be finalized and that means there is no peace among the Palestinians and radicals are free to make trouble with the neighbors. That has come to include Egypt with is running out of ideas on how to make peace with Hamas.
Despite all the noise the Palestinians make Israel is concentrating on what it perceives is its greatest threat; war instigated and backed by Iran on two fronts. In the north there are over 100,000 rockets in Lebanon and Syria aimed at Israel. In the south there are over 50,000 rockets in Gaza, where Iran is once again a major backer of Hamas. Iran does not have sufficient ground forces available in Gaza (Hamas) and the north (Hezbollah and Iranian mercenaries in Syria) to invade Israel. The coming war involves Israel invading Lebanon, Syria and Gaza to stop the massive rocket attacks. Thus thousands of Israel ground troops are constantly taking short (usually a week or so) courses at special facilities that provide them realistic replicas of what they will face on the ground and instruction on how best to deal with it. There's some urgency to this training effort because Israel knows from recent experience (several wars with Hamas or Hezbollah since 2006) that the best preparation is detailed training based on the latest techniques the enemy is using and the latest tech and tactical ideas Israel has available.
Meanwhile there is the mess in Syria. This is not of Israel’s making but Israel is left to deal with the side effects. Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States and Israel are all present in Syria along with the Assad government and a considerable number of Syrian rebel groups who are still not united. Everyone has different goals and a different (often constantly shifting) set of allies. Keeping track of who is doing what to whom and why (and for how long) has become increasingly difficult. A current summary of allies, foes, frenemies and chimeras goes like this;
Israel wants to keep Iran out of Syria and Lebanon and avoid a war with Iran. For this Israel has the support of the U.S., Russia and most Gulf Arab states. None of these supporters is willing to provide any military assistance, at least not until Iran actually attacks Israel.
Russia wants to get Turkey out of NATO, to keep the Iranians from starting a war with Israel and make the Americans look bad. At the same time Russia needs to do this on the cheap and make Russia look good, especially to Russians back home. That is proving difficult as most Russians were not enthusiastic about the Syrian operation in the first place and popular support has been declining. Israel sees Russia as being of limited use because of the Russian strategy. Moreover Russia is not as militarily powerful as it pretends to be. Privately the Russians agree with Israel on that and appreciate any help the Israelis can provide in this area.
Turkey wants to create a security zone on the Syrian side of the border that has no Kurds or Islamic terrorists in it. Turkey also wants to show the Sunni Moslem world that it can handle Iranian aggression (without going to war with Iran) and keep the Israelis out of Lebanon and Syria. Turkey is willing to play diplomatic games with Russia and Iran to achieve these goals as well as send troops into Syria to fight, and get killed. Turkey also likes to play (or pretend) tough with Israel. Turkish military experts know better but many Turkish politicians are clueless and that is very dangerous in this part of the world.
The U.S. wants to ensure that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) does not reestablish itself in Syria. To help with that the American are doing what they can to help the local Kurds maintain autonomy in northeast Syria (east of the Euphrates) where the Kurds have always been dominant. Secondary objectives are keeping Iran, Turley and Russia out of Syria. The U.S. and Israel are allies and any attack on Israel will trigger American intervention on the Israeli side. But short of that the Americans are quite blunt about stating that their troops are in Syria to deal with terrorists, not Iranian preparations for an attack on Israel. The Americans will not stop Kurds in the northeast from going to the aid of Kurds defending Afrin. The Turks asked the Americans to stop the Kurds and the U.S. refused.
Friends In Strange Places
In February former (2005-13) Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went public with his criticisms of the election process in Iran and demanded that the presidential and parliamentary elections be free of interference by the senior clerics. Ahmadinejad also questioned the wisdom of current Iranian policies in general and agreed with what a growing number of Iranians are saying (and often shouting) openly; the most dangerous foe of Iran is corrupt and incompetent Iranians. While in power Ahmadinejad proclaimed that he would crack down on corruption and all the damage corruption was doing to the economy. He largely failed, mainly because some senior clerics and especially the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), quietly but decisively opposed him on this. Faced with continuing corruption related problems Ahmadinejad simply repeated his belief that these misfortunes were all the work of Israel. That did not work in 2009 when Ahmadinejad was up for election to his second, and last, term as president. The widespread and blatant rigging of the vote caused nationwide protests. Since he left his job as president the IRGC and senior clerics have continued to harass Ahmadinejad for going public with corruption allegations (that were mostly true). Ahmadinejad also believes that the only way forward was to have a government that is supported by most Iranians and the current election process was moving farther and farther away from that. This, Ahmadinejad and many other Iranians believe, will do great damage to Iran. Free elections, even if it hurts many current Iranian leaders, is the only way to prevent even greater damage to the Shia clergy and Iranians in general. Ahmadinejad called for basic reforms in the Iranian government but did not provide specifics. He doesn’t have to. The December 2017 protests had many Iranians calling for a return of the constitutional monarchy the religious leaders replaced in the 1980s (after first promising true democracy). Even more disturbing is that some of the protestors are calling for Islam to be replaced with something else, like Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion that Islam replaced violently and somewhat incompletely in the 7th and 8th century. After decades of mandatory rallies where you had to shout “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” these same young Iranians were now shouting about who they believe is really the enemy rather than who they were ordered to pretend was the enemy. The government says it has things under control while admitting that the protestors do voice some (unspecified) legitimate grievances that must be attended to. Young Iranians have, like their Arab neighbors, noted the success of Israel (a former Iranian ally, before the current religious dictatorship took over in the 1980s) and are now demanding changes that involve less foreign troublemaking. The cost, in terms of money (billions) and Iranian lives (thousands) of operations in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, South America, Africa and elsewhere does most Iranians no good at all and makes the people on the receiving end hostile to Iran. The operation in Syria was seen as particularly wasteful and expensive, especially with Israel threatening to use whatever it takes (including their nukes) to prevent Iran from creating a military presence there. Iranian history is one of frequent rebellions and civil wars, but also frequent cooperation with Jews and increasingly expatriate Iranians see Israel as a potential, and traditional, ally and not another enemy Iran does not need. The current Iranian rulers were young men in the 1970s and 80s and many can sense a bit of déjà vu here. Since the senior leaders are nearly all clergy, some have always been critical of the corruption and more of them are speaking out.
Becoming A Happy Middle Eastern Country
For Israelis the internal threat of Islamic terrorism and the external threat from Iran overshadows a third major threat; corruption. Israel has seen some growth in corruption but has done a better job of dealing with it than most. Accoding to international surveys of corruption Israel ranks 32nd out of 180 countries (28 out of 176 last year).
Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.
The current Israeli score is 62 (64 in 2016) compared to 14 (13) for Syria, 18 (17) for Iraq, 40 (41) for Turkey, 49 (46) for Saudi Arabia, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 28 (26) for Bangladesh, 33 (36) for the Maldives, 38 (36) for Sri Lanka, 40 (40) for India, 15 (15) for Afghanistan, 30 (28) for Burma, 29 (29) for Russia, 41 (40) for China, 17 (14) for Libya, 71 (66) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 75 (74) for the United States, 27 (28) for Nigeria, 43 (45) for South Africa, 73 (72) for Japan, 37 (37) for Indonesia and 54 (53) for South Korea. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Israel’s corruption score has not changed much since 2012, when it was 60.
In addition to a decent rating in the corruption survey Israel did even better in the UN sponsored World Happiness Index, coming in at number 11. The top ten are all the usual suspects (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia) and then comes Israel, the happiest country in the Middle East as well as being the most powerful militarily and one of the least corrupt. The rest of the rankings are similar to the corruption survey. The U.S. is at 18th place, UAE at 2o, Saudi Arabia at 33, Kuwait at 45, Russia at 59, Japan at 54, South Korea at 57, Libya at 70, Turkey at 74, Jordan at 90, China at 86, Pakistan at 75, Venezuela at 102, Lebanon at 88, Somalia at 98, Palestinian Territories at 104, Egypt at 122, Iran at 106, Iraq at 117, Bangladesh at 115, Burma at 130, India at 133, Afghanistan at 145, Yemen at 152, Syria at 150 and at 156 (last place) Burundi. Communist dictatorships like North Korea and Cuba block access to data needed for the survey and were not rated.
March 15, 2018: In the south (Gaza) there were two explosions along the border, apparently directed at a passing Israeli patrol. There were no casualties and Israel attacked five Hamas military facilities in retaliation.
March 13, 2018: In the south (Gaza) just across the border in Gaza a convoy carrying the Palestinian prime minister was attacked by a roadside bomb. The explosion occurred prematurely and the prime minister, who travelled through Israel from the West Bank, was making a rare visit to Gaza. A second bomb was found, which failed to explode. No one took responsibility for the failed attack. The Palestinian government in the West Bank blamed Hamas (possible) while Hamas blamed Israel (unlikely). It was more likely that one of the smaller, more radical (and uncontrollable) Islamic terror groups in Gaza did it. Some of these small terror groups are on the Iranian payroll. The problem with these smaller groups is that they have been under intense attack by Hamas lately and none of them have the resources to pull off an attack like this with a high probability of success. Nevertheless the attack did inflict damage, mainly on the October deal, brokered by Egypt, for Hamas and the Palestinian government in the West Bank to hold joint elections and end the division created when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 and split from the united Palestinian government. Hamas says it is investigating the incident but the damage has been done. The October agreement has not been implemented because more radical Hamas factions are not willing to operate under West Bank Palestinian officials. There are also disagreements over how many government employees (especially armed ones) there would be and who would control them. In short there is some agreement but not enough for the two governments to actually merge. Not yet anyway and possibly not ever. The Palestinian prime minister was in Gaza to preside over the opening of a sewage treatment facility paid for by foreign aid. The explosion reminded foreign aid donors that Gaza is a dangerous and unpredictable place to do business. A growing number of foreign aid donors are moving their efforts (and money) to safer and more productive disaster areas.
March 11, 2018: Egypt released data on the performance of its latest counter-terrorism offensive in Sinai. This one has been going on since February 9th and so far has killed 121 Islamic terrorists at the cost of 18 soldiers. Nearly 3,000 suspects were arrested but most of these were soon released. However hundreds of those arrested turned out to have terrorist connections or were willing to talk about Islamic terrorist activity. That is one reason why the operation also found over 2,200 locations where weapons, ammo and other military gear was stashed. Most of this stuff, especially the explosives and locally made bombs, were destroyed. Hundreds of vehicles were seized, and some of them destroyed when they were discovered being used to transport weapons or armed terrorists. Over 500 mines and roadside bombs were located and disabled or destroyed in place.
One less publicized aspect of this campaign was the impact all the roadblocks and checkpoints had on the civilian economy. For over half a million civilians life has become a lot more difficult. Movement in general, and especially the movement of food and other essentials, has been slowed down or stopped in some areas. People are going hungry and while you can fly in emergency medical supplies you cannot do the same for the needed food supplies.
Egypt also released data on how many troops (43,000 in 88 battalions) are now in Sinai. These forces have over 800 armored vehicles. Israel has quietly agreed to the growing number of Egyptian troops in Sinai. That permission is required by treaty The terms of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel limited the number of Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula, which was to serve as a sort of “neutral zone”. Israel has to agree to any increase in Egyptian forces in Sinai. In 2012 Israel agreed to Egypt sending in 3,500 more troops to deal with the growing Islamic terrorist violence. Before that, in 2005, Israel allowed 750 more Egyptian police into Gaza to take care of increased security needs following Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The original treaty allowed about 26,000 Egyptian soldiers and police in the Sinai and about 2,500 foreign observers (mostly American). Since 2012 Israel has also allowed Egypt to bring in AH-64 helicopter gunships. Israel believes that Egypt has sent more additional troops into Sinai than are allowed by international agreements, and recent modifications to those deals. Israel is monitoring the size of Egyptian forces in the Sinai, and not saying anything as long as the Egyptians are going after Islamic terrorists there.
March 10, 2018: In the West Bank, for the second day in a row Palestinians have attacked Israeli settlements with rocks and firebombs and then attacked Israeli soldiers. For the second day in a row this tactic has left one Palestinian dead and many more wounded.
March 9, 2018: In the south (Gaza) an Islamic terrorist died and two were wounded when explosives they were working with went off. Hamas reported this as a work related incident.
March 7, 2018: Saudi and Israeli officials held a series of discreet (but hardly secret) meetings in Egypt. This was largely about a new American peace plan and the Israelis and Arab states agreeing that the Palestinians had to make peace or lose what little Arab support they had left. The Palestinians are increasingly unpopular in Arab countries, which see the Palestinians as ungrateful, untrustworthy and their own worst enemy. Israel, on the other hand, has become a valuable Arab ally in the face of Iranian aggression.
Israel enacted a new law that allows the government to take away residency rights for some of the 420,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem. The law applies to those involved in terrorist activities or advocating such activities. These Palestinians are technically Jordanians who obtained permission to remain in Jerusalem as part of various treaties over the years. But a growing number of these Jerusalem Palestinians are taking advantage of their status (living within Israel) and supporting or taking part in terror attacks on Israelis.
March 5, 2018: The Israeli military posted to the Internet video showing Hamas members stealing electric power from supplies of power sent from Israel to enable hospitals, schools and other essential services. Most Gazans get power 25 percent of the time because Hamas and Fatah are feuding over how to pay for generating power in Gaza. In the video the Hamas men are creating an illegal hookup to a nearby Hamas military facility.
March 4, 2018: Two weeks of Joint training exercises by 2,500 American and 2,000 Israeli troops began in Israel. Among the joint efforts are several that involve American and Israeli air defense systems being tested to ensure the systems from the two countries work together as planned. These joint exercises, called Juniper Cobra have occurred nine times so far and were first held in Israel in 2001.
March 3, 2018: Responding to Israeli requests Russia blocked Iranian efforts to set up a naval support facility at the Syrian port of Tartus. This is where Russia has already built a facility (and has a long-term lease) to handle the needs of its warships operating off the coast and in the Mediterranean. Tartus is also where Russian military cargo for Russian and Syrian forces is unloaded. Meanwhile Iran has built a new base 16 kilometers northwest of Damascus and is apparently planning more. These large bases tend to get hit with Israeli airstrikes before long but apparently Iran is hoping to improve air defenses enough to cause the Israelis some losses. Israel believes Iran has three large bases in Syria and seven smaller “tactical” ones near areas where there is active fighting. Iran is also bringing in more rockets, missiles, ammunitions and weapons for the 80,000 militiamen it supports in Syria. Many of the militiamen, especially the Afghans and Iraqis, are being demobilized and sent home. In response Israel is preparing for an Iranian attack from Lebanon and/or Syria. In addition to moving more troops to the Syrian border, improving the security fence and anti-aircraft/rocket defense Israel is also making deals with rebels on the Syrian side of the border in an effort to establish a 40 kilometers deep buffer zone. Israel has long provided some support (usually medical, in Israeli hospitals) for cooperative Syrian rebels. Now that support includes material aid and airstrikes and artillery fire against shared threats. Nevertheless Iran keeps pushing its mercenary forces closer to the Israeli border.
March 2, 2018: Egyptian intelligence officials visited Gaza and told Hamas that if Hamas allowed another major attack against Israel Egypt would not object to Israel invading Gaza and removing Hamas and replacing it with a local government more capable of getting along with Egypt and Israel. Details of this meeting were supposed to be kept secret but details got out in Gaza, where many locals are fed up with Hamas.
Meanwhile Hamas is cooperating with Egypt by hunting down and arresting Islamic terrorists in Gaza who are not associated with Hamas. In addition Hamas is also arresting Hamas members suspected to working with or even considering joining Islamic terror groups active in northern Sinai. Hamas resumed preventing the family of recently killed ISIL men from erecting a mourning tent. These tents are traditional but since 2017 Hamas has, in some cases, 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 for operations in Egypt. Many of the recruits are from elite Hamas units and these men are technically deserters. Such desertions continue and these former Hamas men continued to get killed in Egypt, where ISIL continues to be a problem for Egyptian security forces. As part of the existing peace deal with Egypt Hamas has to crack down on ISIL activity in Gaza.
February 28, 2018: In the south (Gaza) Israeli troops found and disposed of another bomb protestors had tried to hide near the security fence during a violent demonstration. A similar bomb went off earlier in February and wounded four soldiers.
February 27, 2018: The inability of Hamas to effectively govern Gaza has led to a growing number of strikes by unpaid government workers. This includes support staff at hospitals for weeks at a time and, increasingly, one day strikes by all the unpaid government workers. Senior officials and most armed staff always get paid on time. One side effect of this mismanagement is that a growing number of young, unemployed Gazans try to get across the security fence and into Israel to find work. Few, if any, get away with it because the security fence (and lots of sensors) are there to keep Islamic terrorists out. But in 2017 Israeli forces caught about five people a month trying to get over the fence and less than 20 percent of them were, or could be considered, a terrorist threat. Hamas security forces also stop these illegal migrants but Hamas won’t release the number they arrest for trying.
February 25, 2018: In the north (across the border in Syria) Iran has apparently moved its UAV operations from the airbase that Israel bombed on the 10th to another base in central Syria at Palmyra. The Israeli airstrikes on the 10th destroyed 75 percent of the T-4 base and Iran soon began moving surviving equipment and personnel from T-4 to the Palmyra base and flying in replacement equipment and personnel from Iran.
February 22, 2018: Israel alerted Egypt that the Egyptian cell phone jamming in northern Sinai (part of a major counter-terrorist operations) were jamming Israeli cell phones along the border as well as cell phone service in Gaza. Egypt had begun the jamming yesterday without alerting the Israelis. Egypt explained that the jamming of Israeli cell phone service took place because Egypt had discovered that some Islamic terrorists were using phones with Israeli SIM cards along the border to try and avoid the jamming that has become a common practice during major counter-terror operations. It took a couple of weeks to sort it all out to everyone’s satisfaction (except for the Sinai Islamic terrorists).
February 21, 2018: Two Russian Su-57 stealth fighter prototypes appear to have been flown to the Russian air base in Syria. The Russians apparently plan to test some Su-57 features in a combat environment. The Su-57 is nowhere near ready for combat but it can fly and some of its features (limited stealth, some electronics) are operational. Besides, it is great publicity for an aircraft Russia hopes to export someday. The two American stealth fighters are operational in Syria. F-22s have flown some missions and Israel has declared its F-35I operational, the first non-U.S. user of that new aircraft to do so.