The long delayed joint Gaza-West Bank elections will be held on May 22 nd . The agreement for this was made in February as Egypt finally persuaded both sides to put aside their feud and once more holding elections to select one government for both West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. While Fatah is dominant in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, there are partisans of Fatah and Hamas in both areas and if the election result is contested by either party there will be more violence, some of it directed at Israelis. The success of this agreement is in doubt but reunification of the Palestinian government is seen as a positive move. A recent poll showed that 43 percent of Palestinian voters prefer Fatah while 30 percent prefer Hamas, 18 percent undecided and the rest backing other minor parties. Fatah could still lose, because “Fatah” is actually a coalition and not all the Fatah factions back the current Fatah leader to be the head of government.
In 2020 years of Egyptian efforts got both Fatah and Hamas agreeing to take concrete steps towards forming a unified Palestinian government by holding elections in Gaza and the West Bank. This would select a new Palestinian parliament. That parliament has not functioned since 2007 because in 2005 Israeli troops left Gaza as a peace gesture that backfired. Hamas, a radical Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, had established itself in Gaza and sought to take control after the Israelis left. Hamas won the last Palestinian elections in 2006 because they were seen as less corrupt than Fatah. Hamas was also much more into using violence against Israel, and that came with a cost to all Palestinians. When Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 they refused to allow an any further elections. This left the Palestinians divided with Fatah still controlling the West Bank, where 60 percent of Palestinians lived. Holding elections is one thing; both Hamas and Fatah agreeing on the outcome is another matter. Both Fatah and Hamas openly condemn Arab states that recently made peace with Israel or are considering doing so. That means Fatah and Hamas are openly criticizing the UAE and Saudi Arabia, long the most generous Arab donors to Palestinians. No more, mainly because of the corruption that kept much of that money from getting to Palestinians that needed it. Fatah and Hamas are both turning to Iran for military and economic aid. At the moment Iran cannot afford to give much. Fatah sees Iran favoring Hamas and the Hamas plan to use subversion and violence to eliminate Fatah in a reunited Palestinian government. Fatah is desperate, having lost most foreign aid and about to lose more because of its refusal to stop diverting a large fraction of foreign aid to reward imprisoned Palestinians who have killed or at least attacked Israelis. The families of dead terrorists also receive payments. All this encourages Palestinians to undertake attacks.
Lebanon The Liability
Lebanon is a growing threat to Israel, but not for the usual reasons like Iran and Hezbollah. This time it’s an economic, political and social collapse. The government lost control of the economy and the currency in 2020. The Lebanese currency (the lira) lost most of value in dollar terms during the last year. In March 2020 it cost 2,800 lira to buy a dollar. By the March 2021 it hit 14,000 lira. Paying for most imports required dollars and Lebanese with savings considered loss of value for the lira a financial catastrophe. The GDP contracted 20 percent in 2020 and the poverty rate went past fifty percent. Covid19 was part of the problem, made worse by political chaos and the weakening of Hezbollah because of heavy losses in Syria and growing opposition to Hezbollah by the majority of Lebanese. The government could no longer borrow money to cover a decade of deficit spending. Foreign lenders no longer trusted the Lebanese government, whose mismanagement ruined the national credit rating. Finally, the huge movement of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has brought about an explosive change in the religious makeup of Lebanon.
Because of the two million Sunni Arab Syrian refugees that arrived from Syria since 2012, the Lebanese Shia are now a smaller minority and the Sunnis are nearly half the population. Even before covid19, Lebanon was overwhelmed, economically and otherwise, by the Syrian refugees it was hosting. That’s a lot of refugees for a country of only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems, their presence radically changed the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, and 46 percent Christian (and other religions) to a more volatile combination. Now there are over seven million people in Lebanon and 47 percent are Sunni, 19 percent Shia and 34 percent Christian (and others). This puts the Hezbollah militia in a bad situation. Their better armed and trained fighters have been able to dominate the other minorities since the 1980s. That was possible because of Iranian cash, weapons and advisors. But the Iranian help and better organization is no longer enough when the Sunnis are nearly half the population and out for blood because of the slaughter the Iran backed Shia Syrian government inflicted on Syrian Sunnis. Lebanon does not want another civil war over this, but it is becoming more difficult to contain the anger. Hezbollah and Iran have had some success attracting non-Shia factions (especially Christians) to be part of the Shia coalition. This is traditional Lebanese politics, with the Christians surviving by forming a coalition with non-Christian groups. Now even these Christian factions are backing away from Hezbollah because of the Iranian influence and anger towards Hezbollah for disrupting the functioning of the Lebanese democracy. Hezbollah gave itself a veto over any government decision. Politicians who opposed Hezbollah or Iran were often assassinated, no manner how senior or revered they were. Hezbollah meddling in government activities was a major reason for the recent economic crisis. Hezbollah can no longer control politics and the economy and are blamed for most of the current problems. Given the large number of families that own one or more firearms, there are a lot of local militias and these are now fighting over scarce resources and the Hezbollah and government security forces are unable to contain the violence. One thing that keeps the violence going and escalating is the ability of the Sunni Arabs to fight back against Hezbollah domination. Going into 2021 Hezbollah had too many enemies and not enough allies. Iran was unable to help decisively because Iran was broke and has cut its massive subsidies to Hezbollah by more than half in the last two years. Hezbollah has lost the support of a lot of local Shia and is desperately seeking a way of this mess.
Israel does not expect another war with Hezbollah (like the one in 2006), although Iran might try something launched from Syria or Iraq. Meanwhile there are more Lebanese trying to flee into Israel. That complicates border security because Hezbollah and smuggling gangs are still sending armed people across the border. Israeli troops will fire on those, but no so much on illegal migrants.
March 29, 2021: Egypt finally got the container ship blocking the Suez Canal free and moving again after six days. This is a big deal because the Canal is a major source of government income and a national treasure historically and economically. Over 360 commercial vessels are backed up in the Red Sea waiting for the Canal to resume operation. Actually there were about 400 that meant to use Suez but about ten percent of those ships decided to take the long-way around via South Africa. This adds two weeks travel time. The canal was blocked on the 23rd when the Ever Given, a 400 meter long, 200,000 ton container ship encountered a sand storm and heavy winds which caused both ends of the ship to veer into the sandy bank of the canal get stuck. Efforts to free the container ship began immediately. What worked was bringing in dredging ships to suck up and move sand and muck from both ends of the ship. This included clearing the ship propellers of the sediment found at the shallower waters near the sides of the canal. It was unclear how long this dredging effort would take but tugs were brought in to be at both ends of the ship. With the help of a high tide first the bow (front) of the Ever Given was afloat once more. Hours later the rear of the ship was clear and the tugs could begin moving the Ever Given towards the north exit of the 193 kilometer-long canal at a speed of about four kilometers an hour.
This accident cost Egypt a lot of income they cannot afford to lose. Nearly 20,000 ships a year pass through the Red sea headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt about $6 billion a year in transit fees and lots of good jobs for the Egyptian staff that operates the canal. The Ever Given entered service in late 2018 and is one of the largest container ships available. Two Egyptian pilots were steering the ship when the heavy winds and sandstorm showed up. The accident is already under investigation. The Ever Given accident was rare but not unknown. Since 2004 there have been three other blockages, all of them cleared more quickly because the ships involved were smaller. Fortunately the canal completed a $9 billion upgrade that increased the number of ships that could move through the canal from 49 to 97. The canal was opened in 1869 and has become increasingly busy as the world economy increased. At the time of the Ever Given accident about 60 ships a day were going through the canal. Most of the ships backed up will stay in line and wait a week or more to get through the canal. Going around Africa burns a lot of fuel and can be a risky voyage. Egypt will regain most of the billion dollars in lost transit fees because of the increased traffic over the next two weeks. The cost of freeing Ever Given was not large because dredges and tugs normally working for the canal were used.
March 27, 2021: In Iran, Chinese and Iranian officials signed the 25-year economic/political/military agreement. The basic terms are that China will buy most of Iranian oil exports at an unspecified discount and invest over $400 billion to build infrastructure in support of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) that is creating a new Silk Road via land and sea from China to the rest of Eurasia and Africa. There will also be military cooperation and intelligence sharing. Most other details of the agreement were not revealed. Negotiations on terms for the 25-year deal have been under negotiation since early 2020. The draft documents indicated Iran was willing to make a lot of concessions to become a close economic partner of China. That would mean China would have an incentive to protect Iran diplomatically and militarily. The document makes Iran the major supplier of petroleum to China and China the major source of foreign investment as well as becoming Iran’s largest trading partner. China has long been helpful to Iran. For example in mid-2019 China sided with Iran in the Iranian effort to evade the renewed American sanctions. China made this public during an emergency meeting of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). This is the group of six nations (China, France, Russia, the Britain, the U.S. and Germany) that negotiated and signed the 2015 treaty with Iran to lift economic sanctions in return for Iran halting its nuclear weapons program (which Iran insisted it did not have). Inside Iran this treaty was considered a great victory that would cost Iran nothing and provide much benefit. The nuclear program would be halted for a while but not dismantled. This angle was documented in early 2018 when an Israeli intelligence operation in Iran got away with tons of documents from an Iranian storage facility. This was a major embarrassment for Iran, which declared all the evidence fakes. Western intel agencies, especially American and Israeli ones, already knew what Iran was doing with its nuclear weapons program but did not have such explicit documentary evidence. The Americans left the 2015 treaty in 2017, citing the clause that allowed for this if Iran was in violation. That did not persuade any other JCPOA members to do the same. The Americans were seen as a special case as they were the only JCPOA member that Iran has openly been at war with since the 1980s. Iran still holds anti-American demonstrations several times a year in which everyone repeatedly shouts “death to America.” Iran perpetuates that attitude mainly because of the support the U.S. has long provided to Israel, which Iran also wants to destroy. The other JCPOA members believe they can avoid any trouble with Iran by supporting Iranian efforts to evade the American sanctions
In the Arabian Sea, near the Iranian coast, an Israeli container ship on its way from Oman to India was damaged by a small missile, apparently fired from a nearby Iranian vessel. The container ship continued on to India where the minor damage would be repaired. A month ago there was a similar attack in same area against an Israeli owned RO/RO (roll on, roll off) vehicle carrier ship. These two attacks were apparently Iranian attempts at retaliation against Israel for three years of unannounced (by either country) Israeli attacks (by air, sea and via commandos) against Iranian tankers and other commercial ships carrying oil and other contraband to Syria. Many of these shipments were for Hezbollah, which had long received such aid from Iran. But those shipments often contained weapons or other contraband. Iran could not admit these losses, which are estimated at over a billion dollars in damage to ships and cargoes.
March 24, 2021: In the south (Gaza) several Israeli airstrikes destroyed a Hamas rocket manufacturing facility and a military outpost. This was retaliation for a rocket fired from Gaza into Israel the day before. The rocket landed outside the city of Beersheba, which is 35 kilometers from the Gaza border and where the Israeli prime minister was campaigning for national elections.
March 21, 2021: In the south (Gaza border) Israeli police found debris from kites and balloons from Gaza that were meant to start fires. There was some evidence of small fires but not of the kites or balloons landed in an area with lots of combustible material or the incendiary devices used were defective. These are the first such attacks this year. Israel and Hamas signed a ceasefire agreement last August that ended nearly all rocket, mortar and other attacks.
Off the Gaza coast three Palestinian fishermen died when their boat exploded. Hamas blamed the explosion on an Israeli gunboat but when it was obvious that no such gunboats were anywhere near the area, Hamas claimed the explosion was because the fishermen had caught an Israeli quad-copter armed with explosives. That was equally unlikely. Hamas was test firing rockets into coastal waters at the time of the boat explosion, which is what Israel believes was the cause of the boat explosion.
March 20, 2021: In the south (Sinai) Salim Salma Said Mahmoud al Hamadin, the leader of the Sinai ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces was killed, along with two of his subordinates. The three ISIL men encountered a joint Egyptian-Bedouin patrol near the Israeli border. As is their custom, the ISIL men refused to surrender and opened fire. They were quickly killed, apparently without causing any casualties to their opponents. Hamadin is the second leader of the ISIL “Sinai Province” since this group was created in 2014 when an Egyptian Islamic terrorist group formed in 2011 renamed itself by pledging allegiance to the newly formed ISIL in Syria and Iraq. At its peak the ISIL Sinai branch had about 1,50o fighters. But their numerous attacks, that killed lots of local Bedouin tribal people, caused the Bedouins to work with the army and police to hunt down and eliminate the Sinai ISIL members. As a result the Sinai Province has about half its peak strength and that is shrinking. Losing their leader won’t help.
March 16, 2021: In southern Syria (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike near the Damascus airport destroyed two Iranian ammunition storage sites, setting off large secondary explosions and fires which were visible from the city.
March 9, 2021: The fighting in Syria has been going on for ten years and there is no end in sight as long as Iran continues to use Syria as a staging area for a direct attack on Israel. This has turned Iran into the widely accepted bad guy in Syria. This was something Iran sought to avoid but Iran’s “allies” Russia, Turkey and the Assads are all working against Iran. Popular opinion and governments in Iraq and Lebanon are now actively hostile towards Iran. Back home most Iranians see the Syrian War as a disaster for Iran. The cost of the war is pushing more Iranians into poverty and the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s considers the destruction of Israel as worth any cost. Most Iranians, and everyone in the region, disagrees with this. The Iranian leadership is not dissuaded because they are on a Mission From God which means no earthly power can interfere. This will not end well.
Israel is quietly working on a peace deal with the Assads by first consulting Russia, Turkey and the Arab nations Israel has diplomatic relations with. If Israel can achieve a consensus on how to offer and deliver the Assads a workable peace deal, Iran could be driven out of Syria. Israel and the Assads have been, since the 1970s willing to leave each other alone and make mutually acceptable deals. The Assads would often threaten another war with Israel but did not pose as determined threat as Iran. Because the Assads became allies of and dependent on Iran in the 1980s for protection from chaos in Iraq and Lebanon, they had to at least pretend to support the Iranian obsession with destroying Israel. The Assads knew better but until the Assad police state failed in 2011 and a rebellion got going, the Assads were able to resist Iranian presence and control of Syria.
The UN is also involved in this stealthy peace effort because Iranian interference has blocked the UN effort to create a new constitution for Syria that would assist efforts to end the civil war. The Assads are also hostile to the new constitution which would mean national elections monitored by the UN. The Assads cannot afford to lose control of the government because that would make them more vulnerable to arrest and prosecution for war crimes. The accusations continue to pile up against the Assads, which always treated Syrians who opposed them with brutality and terror. So far this year, over a hundred Syrians a month get arrested and brutally interrogated, or simply murdered, by the Assad security forces. Yet doing business with Iran can also be fatal for the Assads.
March 8, 2021: A senior Turkish official claimed that a Turkish-Egyptian diplomatic rapprochement is possible if Egypt is willing to cooperate on solving the divisive eastern Mediterranean, Libyan, and Palestinian issues. Currently Egypt opposes Turkish claims and the presence of Turkish troops and mercenaries in neighboring Libya.
March 7, 2021: Another irritating Iranian tactic in Syria has been the illegal purchase or seizure of property along the Lebanese border so that Iranian mercenaries from outside Syria can settle down and provide an armed pro-Iran population along the border. Syria has always had laws regulating who could buy property near the border, mainly to prevent what Iran is now doing along the Israeli border as well.
March 2, 2021: Israel carried out more airstrikes against Iranian targets near Damascus. The target was new Iranian bases for Iranian Arab and Afghan mercenaries as well as Iranian military, mostly IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps) personnel. This latest attacked caused over fifty casualties among the military personnel, including fifteen dead. Eight of the dead were Iranians and one of them was an IRGC general. Another three were senior IRGC officers working for or meeting with the general.