Yet another round of Gaza violence/ The effects of renewed US sanctions on Iran

Aug 10, 2018 | AIJAC staff

478552 01 02

Update from AIJAC

Update 08/18 #02


This Update deals with the latest round of violence centred around Gaza over Wednesday night and Thursday, which, as we reported in a quick note yesterday, saw more than 200 rockets and mortars fired into Israel, several Israelis injured, and Israeli counterstrikes on Hamas targets which led to three Palestinians being killed.

It also contains a piece discussing the likely effects of the renewal of some US economic sanctions on Iran on Tuesday, following the US pullout from the JCPOA nuclear deal in May (a good summary of what the sanctions are and what they are intended to do is here.)

We lead wth security correspondent Amos Harel of Haaretz, who explains what happened in the latest round of violence, how it ended, and how it fits in to the cycle of repeated such rounds of major violence lasting a day or two over the past month and a half. He says the repeated rounds of violence are being described as “Groundhog Day”, after the classic Bill Murray movie, with the Israeli government under pressure to do something about the violence – as well as the ongoing “molotov kite” arson attacks – even as there are Egyptian-mediated negotiations going on which Hamas was predicting would lead to a truce deal within a few weeks.  He also notes that there is currently a race between the diplomatic and military timetable, and that if some sort of truce agreement is not reached, more military confrontation is almost certain. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.

Next up is another Israeli security corresponent, Yaakov Lappin, discussing with various knowledgeable Israeli analysts the possibility of a mediated deal to end the repeated rounds of Gaza violence of recent weeks. The experts he consults pour cold water on the possibility of any sort of comprehensive truce between Hamas and and Israel, because that would require major investment in Gaza, which would in turn require a Hamas-Palestinian Authority arrangement, which looks highly unlikely. They suggest that a much more limited arrangement, such as the end of border arson attacks in exchange for limited Israeli economic concessions, looks more feasible. For more expert views on the ceasefire being considered and its prospects, CLICK HERE. Lappin also later offered his own comments on the latest Gaza violence here.

Finally, former Israeli military intelligence head Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser makes the case that the renewed US sanctions on Iran are likely to have strong effects on the regime, and likely will ultimately force it back to the negotiating table. He argues the effects on the faltering Iranian economy are going to be harsh and the Europeans can do little to prevent this, despite their efforts to appease Teheran. He concludes that in the short term Teheran will choose defiance, but as additional energy sanctions come into force in November, if the US keep up the pressure, the regime may decide that the imperative of regime survival requires Iran to negotiate even from a position of weakness, as it sometimes has in the past. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE.

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Israel’s Groundhog Day in Gaza: Stuck in endless, bloody loop with Hamas

Gaza factions’ announcement that the current round is over may only be a temporary pause in fighting ■ Israel is not looking for war, but public pressure may lead to more severe steps

Amos Harel 

Haaretz, Aug. 9, 2018

An Israeli strike in Gaza City, August 8, 2018 (Photo – AFP)

When it comes to the confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel seems to find itself in a situation like that of Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day.” Murray plays a TV weatherman who, after covering an event on February 2, gets caught in a time loop, endlessly repeating the same day, trapped in a vicious cycle that no one but he notices. (And sure enough, Israeli politicians and defense officials also now use the term “groundhog day” to describe a recurring situation.)

That’s more or less what’s happening to Israel in Gaza. Since March 30, when the weekly Palestinian demonstrations along the border fence began, tensions in the Strip have been notched up significantly. Once every few weeks they erupt into a “round”: a day or two when Hamas fires hundreds of rockets at Israeli communities on the Gaza border (usually in reaction to the killing of members of its military wing). Israel responds with dozens of airstrikes, and Egypt and the UN envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, intervene and achieve a partial cease-fire – until the next round.

That’s what happened this week too, but this time it stemmed from a misunderstanding on the Israeli side. On Tuesday morning, senior Hamas officials, apparently some from abroad who came to Gaza for consultations on international efforts to achieve an interim agreement with Israel, visited a Hamas naval commando outpost in the northern Strip. They were there to observe a demonstration of the commandos’ capabilities.

An Israeli army lookout noticed two snipers on a tower and saw them opening fire. Although the tower is about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the fence, there were concerns (which proved mistaken) that the shooting could endanger Israeli troops along the fence. The Israeli commanders in the sector decided to strike, and the two Hamas snipers were killed by tank fire.

The Israeli intelligence gap that contributed to the incident is worrisome. Military Intelligence should have known about such an exercise, or at least kept track of the movements of the Hamas officials from abroad.  The army admits that had it known that this was a Hamas exercise, it would not have opened fire.

Hamas would certainly have found another excuse for firing rockets sooner or later, but this was still an unnecessary mistake. The excuse that the outpost is “behind a high hillock” isn’t convincing. More can be expected of a country that invests billions each year in intelligence.

Hamas threatened a response and on Wednesday delivered – first with sniper fire at the fence in the afternoon, which didn’t cause any casualties, and later with rocket barrages throughout the evening and the night.

By Thursday morning, 180 rockets had been shot; a woman on the Israeli side was moderately wounded. More than 20 civilians were hospitalized for shrapnel wounds and shock. This was the most massive shelling of Israel in recent months.

Hamas is still talking about “calculated firing.” Al Jazeera on Thursday  even deemed the escalation part of the negotiations. The Israeli response has also been measured. Although military spokespeople are pointing to the many targets attacked by Israel – almost 150 – the small number of Palestinian casualties and the fact that there was no attempt to strike at senior Hamas military commanders attest to the restraint.

Aftermath of a rocket attack from Gaza, Sderot, August 8, 2018 (Photo – Eliyahu Hershkovitz)

A senior official from the General Staff told reporters Thursday about steps the army was taking: deployment of additional Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries, a small mobilization of reservists to reinforce the batteries, preparations for the dispatch of additional ground forces to the Southern Command, strict instructions to residents of communities near Gaza to use caution – and if necessary, even preparations to evacuate people from these communities.

The atmosphere near Gaza is tense. The rockets are far more dangerous than the fires that have been started by the incendiary kites and balloons in recent months.

Perhaps worst of all are the dozens of alarm sirens going off at the height of the summer vacation, when the children are at home. Some weekends recently have seen a quiet exodus from border communities. When reports increased of Hamas’ intentions to heat things up near the fence, many residents preferred to keep their distance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a series of consultations on Thursday morning, ending with a cabinet meeting. Despite the threats against Hamas, Israel isn’t looking for a war in the Strip. The political leaders are concerned about the consequences of sending infantry and tanks into the heart of a densely populated area, including its own losses. They’re asking themselves if at the end of such a war, the situation would be better than it is now.

On the other hand, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman are facing increasing criticism from the right, and even from the left, for showing weakness vis-à-vis Hamas. Under pressure from public opinion and the media, they might approve a broader action by the army.

At noon Thursday, the Palestinian factions announced the end of the current round of hostilities. Three hours later, a rocket was fired from Gaza toward Be’er Sheva some 40 kilometers away. This was the first time the city was targeted since the 2014 Gaza war. As in previous cases, it seems Israel is ignoring the factions’ declarations in the first hours so as not to admit it’s negotiating, even if through mediators, with terrorist organizations.

On Thursday afternoon, the Palestinian factions declared the end of the current round. As in the previous episodes, Israel has ignored these announcements over a period of hours, amid concerns about admitting that it’s indirectly negotiating with terror groups. If the halt to Palestinian rocket fire is met by an end to Israeli attacks, we’ll know by evening that the round really has ended – until the next time, of course.

If the exchange continues, the reasonable possible direction is a demonstration of what the forces are capable of – this time from our side – with several days of offense making clear to Hamas the damage Israel is capable of if Hamas insists on continuing the hostilities.

There’s a measure of logic in such a step. As opposed to the necessity for restraint regarding the kites, here there’s genuine danger. At the moment, Hamas believes that it’s dictating events and apparently doesn’t feel sufficiently threatened. There is still a range of choices in the spectrum between restraint and war.

The danger, as always, lies in the law of unexpected consequences, which works overtime during combat. Losses on the Israeli side, or an unintentional mass killing of Palestinian civilians during an airstrike, could lead to a worse deterioration, even to the point of war.

In the coming hours and days, a race will be on between the military and diplomatic timetables. If Egypt and the United Nations can’t achieve a binding “small agreement” – a full cease-fire in exchange for concessions on the movement of goods into the Strip along with enlarging Gaza’s fishing zone and perhaps the beginning of economic concessions – Israel will take further military action to force an agreement on Hamas. It’s not yet war in Gaza, but we could be slowly heading in that direction.

Hamas-Israel Truce Would Be “Painkiller, not Antibiotic”


By Yaakov Lappin

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 917, August 9, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: All the economic benefits being offered to Gaza as part of a package deal – an improvement in water and electricity supplies, the construction of a seaport, the cancellation of debts owed by the Hamas government, a relaxation of the Israeli security blockade – hinge on Hamas accepting conditions it is categorically unwilling to countenance.

Israel Defense Forces Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, GOC of the Southern Command, near the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip in late January after a Hamas tunnel was destroyed. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. via JNS.org.

Intensive efforts are underway to reach a long-term, comprehensive truce arrangement between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israel. Former members of the Israeli defense establishment have expressed skepticism that such a truce is feasible. In their view, a limited truce might be more realistic.

Reaching a broad cease-fire arrangement would be “a very complex maneuver,” said Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, former deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel.

Egypt is leading the attempt, mediating talks and hosting senior Palestinian delegations in Cairo. A high-ranking UN coordinator in the region, Nickolay Mladenov, is also involved.

Shay, who today serves as director of research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) in Israel, pointed out that a long-term arrangement for Gaza would be possible only if two components are put into place. The first is a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, and the second “is a period of calm between Hamas and the State of Israel. The two things are interlinked,” Shay said.

“In order to obtain a long-term period of calm, there needs to be major investment in the Gazan economy and infrastructure,” he went on. “That means bringing the Palestinian Authority (PA) to Gaza. Because this is a condition, it is very problematic. If you look back, ever since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, there have been countless attempts, led by Egypt, to reach Palestinian national reconciliation.” None of them have succeeded, Shay pointed out.

Today, while Hamas has an interest in reaching reconciliation with its Palestinian rival, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has no similar sentiment. “Abbas is dragging his feet because he has no interest in promoting this procedure, which would give Hamas gains, but not the PA,” said Shay. “If internal Palestinian reconciliation is the condition for an Israel-Hamas arrangement, then very large question marks will remain over this.”

On the other hand, a more limited truce involving the end of Gazan border demonstrations – and the cessation of incendiary kite and balloon attacks from Gaza, which have burned large swaths of Israeli farmland, harmed wildlife, and affected Israel’s honey production before Rosh Hashanah – is feasible.

In exchange, Shay said, Israel could reopen the Kerem Shalom border crossing, allowing more materials to flow into Gaza, and expand the fishing zone for Palestinian fishermen.

Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay: any ceasefire deal likely will not “significantly change the situation on the ground.”

“The more limited the agreement, the more limited its ability to improve the Gazan economic situation,” he cautioned. Therefore, “it is like a painkiller, not an antibiotic. It does not significantly change the situation on the ground.”

Any such arrangement should also include the return of the bodies of two IDF soldiers held by Hamas, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed in combat during the 2014 Gaza conflict, in addition to the return of two Israeli nationals being held captive by Hamas. “This must be a condition,” Shay said.

Echoing Shay’s assessment, Dr. Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, one of the designers of the security coordination between the IDF and the PA, said any attempt to reach a full agreement was very likely to end in failure.

“There are a number of arenas involved; each is more complex than the other,” said Elad, currently a lecturer at Western Galilee College. Hamas and the PA have failed at all previous attempts to settle their differences, and “this time will be no different,” he said.

On the Israel-Hamas front, Israel will want “full quiet” as part of a large package deal. But “Hamas has never agreed to full quiet,” Elad noted. “I don’t remember it ever agreeing to this.”

“There are smaller [armed] groups in Gaza that are known as the rebellious groups. The truth is, if Hamas wants to, it can rein them in. But the problem is that Hamas does not want to stop them. It wants to use them to threaten Israel. Israel will insist on full quiet. It will insist that not even a single shot is fired. Hamas won’t agree to that,” Elad said.

“Hamas has never agreed to ‘full quiet’ with Israel and likely never will”: Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh speaks during a meeting in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza on Jan. 7, 2016.

All the economic benefits being offered to Gaza as part of a package deal – an improvement in water and electricity supplies, the construction of a seaport, the cancellation of debts owed by the Hamas government, a relaxation of the Israeli security blockade – hinge on a PA-Hamas agreement, but Elad does not see “any intention” by the PA to agree to this since Abbas would emerge as “the main loser.” “What incentive does he have for it to
succeed?” he asked.

At best, if Hamas finds its back to the wall, it might agree to freeze the activities of its military wing and place its members on leave, said Elad. “But they will never disband the military wing” as the PA has demanded. Doing so would symbolize “cancelling the resistance” from Hamas’s perspective, which would be unthinkable for the hardline Islamist organization.

According to Elad, recriminations over “why this didn’t work out” will likely emerge within days.

Yaakov Lappin is a Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He specializes in Israel’s defense establishment, military affairs, and the Middle Eastern strategic environment.

The Iranian regime is in deep trouble

Yossi Kuperwasser

Re-imposition of American sanctions may force the Islamic Republic to make concessions for the sake of the regime’s survival

Times of Israel, AUG 7, 2018, 9:02 PM

The re-imposition of the first round of sanctions by the Trump administration proves much of what we already knew regarding Iran’s future policies and the confrontation over its nuclear project:

  • It demonstrates that US administration is true to its word and fulfills its campaign commitments when it comes to acting in the interests of the US and global security.
  • The impact on the Iranian economy, which already is in tatters, is going to be harsh and the efforts of Iran and Europe to mitigate it are doomed to fail. This is because the “blocking statute” that the EU has announced in response does not have the power to prevent any reasonable company from cutting its economic relations with Iran or incentivize it to enter a costly legal adventure against the US.
  • The JCPOA was such a wonderful gift given by the Obama administration to Iran that even after the re-imposition of the sanctions, Iran prefers to stay in the deal than to leave it. Even without the US, the deal is still the best course for the Iranians to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons in less than thirteen years.
  • Iran does not have a real confrontational option as long as the US is perceived ready and capable to use force in case Iran challenges it. The bravado of Iran regarding closing the Hormuz Straits and the show of force in the Bab-el-Mandeb are empty threats. The fact is that in his official response to the re-imposition of sanctions, President Rouhani made no mention of these earlier threats.
  • The European Union is exposed once again as an appeaser of Iran and as a very weak force that can be totally ignored by the United States. Its only importance is in providing the Iranians with an excuse they can use to explain why Iran chooses to stay in the deal. In fact, the EU statement is based on blatant inaccuracies such as the claim that the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency) has said that the Iranian nuclear project “remains exclusively peaceful.” The truth is that the only thing that the agency has said is that it does not identify a diversion of uranium to a parallel nuclear project in Iran in addition to the one it already monitors. The EU claims that Iran abides by their JCPOA commitments (of course they do, it is a wonderful deal for them from an Iranian point of view), however, amazingly, or not so amazingly, the Europeans totally ignore the archive of documents Israel exposed that proves the Iranian nuclear project was a military project aimed at producing five nuclear bombs to be mounted on missiles.

So What Will Happen Now?

The credibility gained by the US administration will further embolden the pressure on the Iranian economy and government. The unrest in Iran may gain more momentum, especially as the US makes it clear, unlike the Obama administration in 2009, that it supports the people in the streets in their protests and is probably helping them clandestinely. This may cause a power struggle inside the Iranian regime between the realistic hardliners led by President Rouhani (who are identified with the JCPOA) and the radical hardliners.

New sanction may set up a struggle between the more realistic hardliners, like President Rouhani (above), and the radicals, but ultimately the priority of regime survival should push Teheran back to the negotiating table.

In the short to medium term, Iran will probably choose defiance, relying on the funds it already received as a result of the JCPOA, and will speak highly of unity in facing external threats. At this stage, no major changes are expected in Tehran’s regional policy and it will continue with its efforts to consolidate its bases throughout the region, especially in Syria.

However, as the second round of sanctions draws closer and following its implementation, the growing pressure may force the Iranian government to go through some soul-searching in an attempt to guarantee the survival of the regime – the only value more important to the regime than moving towards a nuclear arsenal and securing a hegemony in the Middle East.

This may cause a confrontation between the opposing forces in the regime and one outcome of it may eventuality be readiness to go back to negotiations, which at the moment is considered an unacceptable humiliation. Another eventuality can be a more belligerent attitude led by the radical hardliners towards the US and its allies, like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. Further along the line, the Iranians may consider making progress on their nuclear program, either within the framework of the JCPOA or by leaving it. In both cases, the American resolve and commitment to prevent Iran from doing so will be put to the test.

To sum up, the Iranian Islamic regime is in deep trouble, with no easy escape route. The feeble European attempts to come to Iran’s rescue will not be sufficient. Whether this would lead Iran again, as they did a couple of times in the past, to drink from the poisoned chalice (i.e. return to negotiations from a point of complete weakness), depends on the resolve of the United States to keep strengthening economic pressure. It also requires the US to convince Iran that the military option is credible and this depends, to some extent, on the outcome on the North Korean front.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is an Israeli intelligence and security expert. Formerly, Kuperwasser served as the head of the research division in the Israel Defence Force Military Intelligence division and Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Kuperwasser is currently a Senior Project Manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in the security dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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