A Grave Moment in the Middle East
Oct 29, 2015 | Ehud Yaari
The context of the recent violence in Israel is that there has been a frightening loss of control by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its security organs over the refugee camps of the West Bank. In the refugee camps, new gangs have emerged who do not feel any respect towards Mahmoud Abbas and his PA, with the Palestinian security forces very reluctant to enter the refugee camps. Most of the stabbings we have seen over the past few weeks have emanated from the refugee camps, from these gangs.
Now, top it up with the consistent campaign maintained by Mr Abbas and his lieutenants, arguing that Israel is out to change the status quo over the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“The Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger,” this is the slogan. “Al-Aqsa in danger” is always the slogan in every round of conflict between Jews and Arabs in this piece of real estate. It has been the Arab slogan, the Palestinian slogan for a century or more and has repeatedly helped fan the flames of violence.
What is important to understand now is that what we are seeing is not an intifada. Please believe me, I wrote the book on the intifada, which they use as the history of the intifada. This is no intifada – so far, it doesn’t have the command. The Second Intifada had a commander, his name was Yasser Arafat and he was running the Intifada from the presidential residence in Ramallah. This time, there is no central command orchestrating, so far. But what we are seeing is a growing level of co-ordination, dialogue between those different armed groups in the refugee camps.
So far it’s stabbings. I hope it will not go beyond that, and that it will be contained – because the main body that carried on its shoulders the last intifada was the Fatah Tanzim, the organisation of the ruling party, Mr. Abbas’ faction Fatah. The Tanzim is armed, well organised and paid by the PA with funds that are directed from donor states. If the Tanzim joins the fray then you have firearms, not just knives, and you have firearms on all the roads and arteries along the West Bank. So if you hear they are shooting, not occasionally, but systematic shootings on the roads, that means Fatah is in the picture.
So far it hasn’t happened, Mr. Abbas is trying to take a step back and tell his security forces and the Tanzim of his party to cool it down, so we will see.
I think that there could be a prospect of calming it down if the PA takes a clearer stance against the stabbings and violence in general and if there is more denunciation and condemnation of these acts of terrorism coming from abroad – which currently there isn’t. The Palestinian public feels that they were burnt by the previous intifadas. They view Arafat’s intifada, the Second Intifada, as a catastrophe, a fiasco. So those that are involved in violence now belong to the generation that do not remember the second Intifada of 2000. That is why at least 50% of those involved in stabbings are teenagers.
The larger picture is that the Middle East is disintegrating. You no longer have the system of borders made a century ago; the Sykes-Picot agreement made by the French and the British is no longer there. The borders remain on the maps because we are using old maps – they do not exist in reality. It’s collapsing for many reasons – but it is partly the result of the retreat of the United States from the region.
I’ll give you an example; an American pilot over Syria, sent to bomb ISIS, cannot release the bomb or rocket. He needs to call back to the Central Command in Tampa, Florida which is in charge of the Middle East arena. Tampa has to call the National Security Council in Washington to get permission for the pilot over the Euphrates river in Syria to fire. It’s a joke, it doesn’t work.
Since the Americans over a year ago started the coalition campaign against ISIS, ISIS has only been expanding. Did it lose some personnel? Of course it did, but it is expanding. A year ago, people were talking about recapturing Mosul in Northern Iraq, a city of 2 million people. Anybody talking about it lately?
The American campaign against ISIS is going nowhere. The Syrian rebels do not get US support in a significant way and the US does not arm the Kurds who have proven their capabilities on the battlefield. So Mr. Putin steps in, and now we Israelis have the Russian air force operating next to our air force, and we need a hotline to co-ordinate. We don’t want a dogfight with the Russians, they don’t want it either.
It’s a new situation. Russia is expanding its air defence systems in Syria – you don’t need that against ISIS, it doesn’t have an air force. That’s to deny everybody else access. Putin is building an axis, Iran, Iraq under the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, Syria still under Assad, Hezbollah on the Mediterranean, I call it the new Baghdad pact. The Baghdad Pact of the ’50s which the Americans and the British established was destroyed in ’79; now it’s Russia’s Baghdad pact, Russia in alliance with the Shi’ite axis led by Iran. It’s a new situation for us Israelis – no America around and Russia very close.
Which leads me to the nuclear deal. Today (Oct. 18) is “Adoption Day”, when they wake up in America. Adoption day is when the deal becomes effective and sanctions begin to be lifted. Many people thought that the nuclear deal would be a prelude to some sort of tacit, undeclared American-Iranian co-operation against ISIS – that all the Shi’ite militias trained by Iran in Iraq would fight with American air cover against ISIS. It didn’t happen. What happened is something entirely different; the Iranians are taking the deal and moving to do business with the Russians. They will buy a lot of Russian arms.
So the whole region is different. We in Israel now have Russians as neighbours. We have also given consent to the Egyptians to introduce their army in substantial numbers into the Sinai Peninsula, a mechanised division in those areas prohibited from hosting any military presence under the peace treaty of ’79. They are there now and, in fact, they are bombing within 500 metres of the Israeli border, targeting the terrorists in the Sinai, the Bedouins who have declared themselves as the Sinai province of ISIS. So you have Russians in the north and the new phenomenon that is ISIS in the south. Meanwhile, the Iranians are trying to open a front against Israel on the Golan Heights by pushing into Syria by the thousands militias comprised of Afghan and Pakistani Shi’ites.
It’s a situation where you have multiple threats, each different to the other, and on top of that you now have the domestic situation to deal with in Israel. It’s a very grave moment in time.
Ehud Yaari is the veteran Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel Two television, an Israel-based Lafer international fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East policy and the author of eight books on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The above is a rapporteur’s summary of an exclusive briefing he gave to AIJAC in Sydney in mid-October. This summary was prepared by Glen Falkenstein.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.