The Great March of Return: where are the terrorists – The NCF Gaza reports

Palestinians are protesting against restrictions on what goes in and out of Gaza. They are also supporting ‘right to return’ calls from Palestinian refugees. The moving of the USA’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has exaserbated the situation. On Monday 14th May 40,000 Gazans joined the border protest. At least 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed thus far and thousands injured. Israel claims that protestors are terrorists attempting to break through the barrier. However several hundred metres separate protestors from IDF personnel. Most of the protestors were not violent and avoided getting too close to the ‘border’. Protestors included families with children. Gazans struggle to deal with increasing difficulties. Residents only have around four hours of electricity a day, there is limited access to clean water, limited health services and unemployment in the region is at around 64%. 

The response from the NCF in Gaza

The devastating reality of the situation has been reinforced by the Next Century Foundation’s office in the International Press Centre in Gaza. We were able to speak to them following the events of Monday 14th which they described as a “bloody, bloody day” and the worst so far. Award winning Gazan journalist Adel Zanoun told us that 3,288 people had been injured with a range of severity levels, including journalists. When asked about our journalist friends in Gaza, he said that they are all under threat regardless of whether they are national or international. The targeting of the press indicates that Israel’s claims that they are merely protecting themselves and responding to threats are not credible. Journalists are clearly marked with the word ‘PRESS’ across their chests. If Israel were combatting ‘terrorists’ then why have so many journalists, an estimated 175, been injured with several dead?

Regarding the use of force by Israel, Zanoun said that people were being injured by live fire against the Palestinian demonstrators that had steadily increased over the weeks; he said it was live ammunition that was injuring these people and not rubber bullets. Critical of Israel, he repeatedly tells me of how “bloody” it has been and the intense pressure that the Palestinians in Gaza are under. He makes reference to Hamas, stating that they have definitely played a role in the organisation of the demonstrations and that they may, following on from the intensity of Israel’s response, establish a counter response of their own. He also said that neither Ramadan nor the violence will deter demonstrations from continuing. However, he does not believe that the protests mask terrorism and emphasises that these were Palestinian people objecting to mistreatment.

Citing a widespread “collapse” of infrastructure, he emphasised the severity of the humanitarian situation, Public sector workers have been impacted with their salaries being cut; he says this has led to hospitals opening intermittently and no authorities in place to protect or serve the people in Gaza. There is no knowledge as to when full salaries will be reinstated. Zanoun repeatedly said that the Palestinian people are truly under such pressure that is only likely to worsen. With hospitals closing and virtually no ability to move in and out of the region, and no option for people to return if they do leave, the injured were not adequately cared for*. He says that there had been a breakdown of reconciliation between Hamas and Palestinian authorities in Ramallah thus contributing to the absence of humanitarian or political progress.

The Palestinian people in Gaza are suffering, as they have been for many years. The firing of live ammunition against thousands of mostly innocent and unarmed protestors has furthered the suffering. When I asked Zanoun what he thinks about the future and the next steps, he said “there is no hope for Gaza now”. There is uncertainty, he says, that means that “no one knows what will happen” in one hour, one day or one month. What he does know is that the pressure continues to mount against the people and that political and humanitarian solutions are needed immediately to address the declining situation in Gaza. He said that people and politicians need to be working towards helping those in Gaza.

*N.B. Since speaking to Zanoun, Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza strip throughout the month of Ramadan. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted that this would help “alleviate the burden of the brothers in the Gaza strip”

The background to the response

Since the end of March, 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s forces and thousands have been injured as they protest by the ‘border’. The response from the international community was weak to begin with, little attention was paid in the earlier days of these protests. However, since the 14th, Gaza is very much top of the international agenda with varied responses to the atrocities committed.

Israel’s representatives have denied acting wrongfully. They believe that Hamas was the driver of these protests and that the intention was to target Israel, target the borders and do so under the guise of a demonstration. Therefore, they have said their intention was to simply protect their borders and target ‘terrorists’ who were supposedly conducting a terrorist operation. It is undeniable that Hamas have been involved in the organising of these protests, something Zanoun said freely. However, to justify opening live fire on civilians because they are ‘terrorists’ is unacceptable. Not all of those who have died were terrorists, the members of the press who have been wounded, for example, were not terrorists.

In the immediate aftermath, the United States aligned themselves with Israel and did not, unlike their French and British counterparts, condemn the actions of the IDF. They believe their actions were justified. Nikki Haley spoke at the United Nations the following day where Israel was praised for showing “restraint” and blamed Hamas for the death of Palestinians and the violence, stating that it was what they wanted. The USA believed that ultimately, Israel acted in the best interests of its national security. Their stance is perhaps unsurprising given the choice to move the embassy on Nakba Day, a strong display of alliance with Israel and their lack of support for a future peace process.

Britain and France have expressed their disapproval of the actions of Israel and the wish to go forward in peace. Prime Minister Theresa May said that this level of violence is ‘destructive to peace efforts’ and that both sides should be acting with ‘restraint’. Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, stood up and passionately condemned the ‘massacre’ committed by Israel against protestors.  French President Emmanuel Macron was openly disapproving of the violence exercised by Israel’s forces and expressed empathy and compassion for the Palestinian people in Gaza.

As aforementioned, Egypt’s opening of the border crossing with the Gaza strip is emblematic of the attention and compassion that is now being shown to the Palestinians in Gaza by the international community. The United Nations has expressed its concern for the events that have happened since March in Gaza. Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the current High Commissioner for Human Rights, has emphatically highlighted the plight of those in Gaza and their suffering. He also raises the point that there have been no casualties on Israel’s side thus demonstrating the asymmetry in any violent exchanges. Israel, according to al-Hussein, has acted without constraint and excessively. On Friday 18th May the UN Human Rights Council held a special session resolving to call an urgent independent enquiry into Monday’s events. The UK was amongst the 14 countries who abstained, citing the need for Israel to carry out their own independent investigation; the USA and Israel rejected the resolution. The latter once again cited the events in Gaza as a response to Hamas’ terrorist activities.

In Gaza itself, demonstrations continue unabated. The numbers are less and people are more cautious yet there is still drive there. It was quieter though as people across the region, including Israel, said their prayers for the people of Gaza and the ones who have been lost.

The international community has taken notice of Gaza and the suffering and unfairness that its people are subjected to. Israel may affirm the idea that their use of force was a way of responding to a perceived terrorist threat, but these arguments have little credibility. Of course there were agitators and violent protestors present, but children, impartial observers and thousands who posed no threat to the IDF have been injured, some killed. The treatment of Palestinians and their human rights has long been a cause for concern. With several nation states now openly criticising recent events and condemning the use of force against civilians, it leads to hope that there may be, as Adel Zanoun wished, humanitarian and political change for the people of Gaza.

Latest Update on Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

When it comes to Syria today we need dialogue. Those who have the courage to stand up and say, “there is another way” have become so important and are much needed at this time everywhere, most especially in the Syrian conflict. We must work for solutions that are in reality something more than a quick fix. We need to look at a long-term solution, rather than a short-term one. A great friend of mine, James Lynn from Northern Ireland, says, “Hatred only destroys the soul of the person who speaks it, for it has no permanent solution to offer.” We all need to be the voice of peace and reason, and keep the Syrian nation very much in our prayers.

So, as a precursor to peace, we need to understand the nature of the war we are facing. Clearly a line must be drawn when it comes to honour in war. And chemical weapons are dishonourable. Chemical weapons are much more widespread and utilised more frequently than the other two types of W.M.D.s. Among the most common chemical agents that have been deployed are G-series nerve gas (in particular, sarin), and mustard gas. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate. Children are particularly the hardest-hit from chemical weapon attacks as their bodies are more vulnerable. Numerous countries still have large stockpiles of chemical weapons despite the Chemical Weapons Convention, which required the destruction of stockpiles by 2012. Due to the Convention, 85% of the chemical weapon stockpiles across the world have been destroyed. This is significant progress, but a considerable number of production facilities and stockpiles remain.

Chemical weapons have been around a long time. The first to use chemical weapons in the Middle East were the British who employed them in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks in 1917. Since then they have been used repeatedly, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians from 1983 to 1988 and the Kurds from 1987 to 1988.

That the Syrian government has chemical weapons is without question. Their existence has been confirmed by the Syrians in oblique statements, most notably by onetime Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi who apparently lost his job over the remark.

Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo.

The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.

Since when both extreme elements of the opposition and the government have used chemical weapons, the government moreso than the opposition but both parties have been culpable.

All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today.  The are only five countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Palestine (and yes Palestine is entitled to sign), and South Sudan. They should all be brought onboard urgently.

Back to Syria

Meanwhile let’s come back to the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria in recent days. For background, the following timeline of events is drawn from an article by ‘Urayb ar-Rintawi in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustour. These are his words edited for clarity:

On February 18th, the Syrian army began a major Eastern Ghouta offensive via a concentrated artillery and aerial bombardment. And by early March, its units had succeeded in dividing up the Ghouta into different sectors and had recaptured many villages and towns.

The factions affiliated with the “Turkish/Qatari axis” concluded an agreement with Damascus sponsored by the Russian mediators. Thousands of Ahrar ash-Sham, Nusra, and Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters left to Idlib together with their families, and then the Syrian army entered ‘Arabin, Zamalka, and Jobar.

Jaysh ul Islam then denounced ‘the treason and treachery of our brothers-in-arms’ (those affiliated with Qatar and Turkey) who had left for Idlib. Jaysh ul Islam, which is affiliated with Saudi Arabia, could not find a safe haven.

Damascus then began a dialogue via Russian mediators aimed at clearing Douma of the remaining armed opposition giving them the choice of leaving or “settling their affairs” with the Syrian state, leading to an agreement that called for the evacuation of thousands of civilians and military personnel and allowing those who did not wish to “settle their affairs” to head to Jarabulus. This was the deal that came to be known as the ‘Ghouta-for-‘Afrin’ deal.

Convoys of buses then began to carry the armed elements and their families from Douma. In addition, more than 40 thousand civilians left via the Wafideen Gateway and were moved to “shelters provided by the Syrian government”.

Then a coup occurred inside Jayshul Islam. Its leaders who were engaged in the negotiations with Damascus and had reached an agreement with it were either killed or detained. Abu-Hammam al-Buweidani disappeared amidst rumors that he had surrendered to the Russian police, while Abu Qusay and Abu ‘Abderrahman Ka’ka took over the group’s leadership. Implementation of the agreement was suspended.

Next, the Syrian army launched a ruthless offensive on Douma, most of whose stages were broadcast live on air. It tightened the noose around Jayshul Islam’s neck.
Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.

The attack itself

Victims who survived report an odourless gas. This can only be Sarin. The other main gas used in Syria, Chlorine gas, is far from odourless. Some witnesses report a smell of chlorine but our impression is these are less credible accounts from people who were not actually exposed to the gas. Other symptoms are also Sarin specific. Particularly the pinpoint pupils of the dead. For links and fuller details so that you may examine this yourself if you wish, there are full supporting details on our first NCF blog entry on this subject which answers the question “Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?“. But you will need a strong stomach if you are going to examine all of the links we provide. Some among them are very harrowing. Note that Sarin gas has been extensively deployed before in the Damascus suburbs.

“Chlorine gas generally harms far more people than it kills because it requires comparatively high concentrations (nineteen thousand milligrams per cubic meter) and prolonged exposure to achieve lethal effect”. It is useful to terrorise rather than to kill. For example, to quote National Interest magazine’s excellent extensive report on the issue (we reach slightly different conclusions however), “A helicopter-delivered chlorine bombing in Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on August 10, 2016, injured around seventy (including forty children) and killed four (including a mother and her two babies). In numerous other chlorine attacks, dozens have been injured, but deaths have numbered “only” in the single digits or even zero.”

Some of the videos relating to the current Douma attack imply that chlorine gas was used. For instance, extensive dousing with water is valuable in dealing with chlorine gas exposure, whereas the removal of clothing is considered an important step in dealing with exposure to Sarin. One repeatedly broadcast video shows the extensive dousing of children with water without the removal of clothing. But it is possible that in the panic in the aftermath of a bomb attack, standard tactics for chlorine were employed as people may not have been as familiar with standard practice for Sarin exposure. There is also a video of two yellow cylinders of the type only normally used to deliver compressed chlorine gas in Syrian government attacks. However, there are various reasons for regarding these as false. For example one of the cylinders is some distance from the blast hole in the roof through which it has supposedly fallen, resting on a bed and comparatively undamaged by the impact and / or blast to which it has been exposed (such cylinders are usually substantially damaged and sometimes blasted apart). In any case, the very high numbers of casualties and the nature of the victim reports make it clear, in our view, that chlorine gas was certainly not employed as the primary agent.

Culpability

There are a number of possibilities. We will make arbitrary assessments. We do so because we believe it is helpful for those that read this to have a benchmark opinion, which they can then use as an assessment against which to examine the available open source material for themselves and draw their own conclusions. This is inevitably just our own subjective report on the subject. The forthcoming OPCW report will not determine culpability. Even when the United Nations has sent in teams (and UN teams are generally less skilled than those of the OPCW) with the prime objective of determining culpability their reports have been confusing and less than satisfactory when it comes to providing conclusive evidence. We reiterate that this is because the government has not been the sole perpetrator of war crimes with chemical weapons in Syria. The more extreme elements of the Islamist opposition have sometimes done so, occasionally with a view to implicating the government through false flag incidents. And one of the most extreme opposition groups, Jaysh ul Islam, was present in Douma, a group that is so ruthless that it at one point held hostages in cages in Douma.

That said it must be stressed in all fairness that the Syrian government is usually the one culpable. The fact that access to the alleged site was delayed until today by Russian troops now in control of the area makes Syrian government culpability more likely. The NCF does however have direct contacts within the ranks of the Syrian military and they deny culpability in this instance. Undoubtedly your reasonable response might be “they would wouldn’t they”.  However, they say that these are victims of “suffocation” after being buried in the aftermath of shelling and that civilians panicked and imagined a gas attack and then some unscrupulous members of the opposition put out false videos or videos from other incidents which they flagged as being from this incident. We give percentage probabilities in an attempt to be helpful. Please note once again that this is an arbitrary assessment:

  1. This was done deliberately by the Syrian government: 75% probability.
  2. That this was done by overzealous elements of the Syrian Army without direct Syrian Government instruction: 5% possibility.
  3. That these were victims of suffocation and the incident was exploited by the unscrupulous: 5% possibility.
  4. That the Syrian government did not attack and this was an entirely false flag incident perpetrated by Jaysh ul Islam: 15% possibility.

What is needed now is not further military action but a concerted international effort to work for peace both at a second track and first track level that engages Russia, Iran, and the United States of America. There are so many factions operating in Syria. As I was reminded just today by a Hawaiian friend, Stafford Clary:

  • Saudi Arabia-Qatar-UAE-Turkey support aggressive Sunni Arab elements against the Syrian government
  • Russia-Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah support the Syrian government
  • Iran-Hezbollah are aggressively anti-Israel
  • Turkey is aggressively anti-PYD (the prime Kurdish faction in Syria)
  • US is aggressively anti-ISIS, pro-PYD, and pro-Israel (however the US does not currently oppose al Qaeda elements in Syria)

All people of good conscience must surely believe that the nations of the world should start working together for peace in Syria.

God bless Syria and all its people, and may his peace rest upon their shoulders.

William Morris LL.D., Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation

Afghanistan and the Difficult Road to Peace

For more than 17 years Afghanistan has been a nation torn apart by conflict. However, the current President Ashraf Ghani is trying to push for definitive peace and reconciliation between his government and the Taliban. On February the 28th 2018, he made an offer to the Taliban that was seen by some as a ‘game changer’. Ghani would like the Taliban to engage in peace talks and recognise the legitimacy of his government. In exchange, Ghani has said that the Taliban will be recognised as a legitimate political party, may open offices in locations of their choosing, and have some of their prisoners released. The government will also support efforts to remove their leaders from international sanctions lists. At face value, this offer appears to be a turning point, with Ghani pioneering a new vision for Afghanistan’s future. However, is it realistic? Ghani’s offer to work cohesively on peace and reconciliation with the Taliban may be too little too late given the fragility of the current political situation.

Just this week Ghani met with senior diplomats in Uzbekistan to discuss the next steps required in Afghanistan peace talks. The Taliban were absent. They have remained notably silent in response to Ghani’s offer. This could be regarded as indicative of the possibility that the offer may have sparked some kind of conversation amongst Taliban officials and senior members. However, whilst this may be true, it does not mean that there will be a positive outcome. The Taliban are somewhat fractured in their views. Some accept that peace negotiations could happen in Washington however the majority have a deep dislike and distrust of US intervention. A response to Ghani’s offer may not be put on the table for some time. One Taliban southern military commander said that there needs to be a huge descaling and step back by foreign interveners before the Taliban can even participate in talks. This in itself is problematic as the USA has given its unwavering commitment to supporting Afghanistan whilst President Trump has made it very clear that he is unwilling to engage with the Taliban at all. The US is not the only other actor in Afghanistan right now. The Taliban continue to engage in a fatal back-and-forth with ISIS forces that has left many dead. The presence of various different agents in Afghanistan, whether positive or negative, contributes to the complexity of the situation, a complexity that Ghani’s offer does not reflect.

The political situation in Afghanistan is one that is not conducive to peace talks between a ‘legitimate government’ and the Taliban. The government wishes the Taliban to recognise the Afghan government’s legitimacy. However, this current government came into being after 2014 elections that were fraught with accusations of voter fraud on both sides. The US ultimately stepped in and brokered a deal between Ghani and his opposition. Whilst Ghani has a clear and positive vision for his nation, this stands on shaky grounds. Furthermore, the current extension of the parliamentary mandate has been criticised as illegal by some. Parliamentary elections were meant to take place in 2016 but were then pushed back to July 2018 with the predicted date now set for October 2018. Most in the international community do not even see 2018 as a possibility. This due to multiple problems surrounding organisation of elections and disagreements within the government. Consequently, a picture emerges of a less than strong government. This is compounded by the Taliban’s continued growth in control and influence over parts of Afghanistan. Their control has doubled since 2015. The government is therefore speaking to a sizeable group that operates outside of their authority. The government is  not as strong as their offer implies.

Once you frame the offer from Ghani within this context, suddenly nothing about peace talks in Afghanistan seems clear or straightforward. He presents the incumbent government as the future for Afghanistan but the reality is that the situation is incredibly complex and conflict continues. The only way forward is for Afghanistan’s government to work with the Taliban and whilst Ghani’s offer seems like a positive step, one has to question its viability at the present moment.

The Islamic Republic of Iran as a Regional Power in 2018 and Beyond

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 4 SR on the 12th of March 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mr President. The Next Century Foundation wishes to promote peace and security in the Middle East and calls on the regional powers to pursue these aims. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one such power that has the ability to drive regional change. Iran continues its pursuit of regional dominance in competition with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and this has an undoubted influence on the politics of the Middle East. Despite their rivalry and their precarious diplomatic relationship, the Next Century Foundation hopes and believes that the two powers can take progressive and peaceful steps towards reconciliation with one another. If they did so they could then actively work in cohesion to facilitate stability in surrounding nation states, such as the Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of Yemen where civil war is still ongoing, and the Kingdom of Bahrain where tensions remain acute.

The Syrian Civil War has become an international conflict in which many nations have had some level of involvement. The Republic of Turkey, the United States of America, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Russian Federation are all powers that have a presence in Syria. As a nation in such close proximity to the conflict, Iran has the potential to contribute significantly to the possibility of a peaceful future for Syria by working closely with other members of the international community, particularly their regional neighbours, in promoting security, stability and peace. It can lead in taking the steps towards peace. The Syrian Civil War has been a direct cause for the refugee crisis witnessed in Europe in which so many people have been rendered displaced.

Similarly, the civil war in Yemen persists with the human cost mounting. Thus far, 20 million people are estimated to be displaced and almost three quarters of the population are in need of aid. A conclusion and resolution to the conflict is paramount in Yemen for the sake of the people and regional stability.

In Bahrain too, Iranian involvement, though less belligerent, has an effect. Undoubtedly there would have been fuller participation in the 2014 national elections in Bahrain had Iran not encouraged prominent opposition leaders to back down on full participation. It is to be hoped that Iran will be more constructive when it comes to promoting full engagement by all communities in the forthcoming Bahrain national elections later this year.

Iran’s position on the global stage is incredibly important but their role in promoting a peaceful future for the Middle East is paramount. It is a role they must not shirk.

Iraq’s Innocent Children – When will their Suffering End?

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 on the 6th of March 2018, Children in Armed Conflict.

Mr President. The bi-product of armed conflict is often devastation to the lives of innocent children, whether during conflict, or in the aftermath. Whilst travelling in Iraq in late 2017 the Next Century Foundation was given alarming reports of the treatment of the families of ISIS fighters. We have heard similar reports from Northern Syria.

In both locations there are camps in which the families of ISIS fighters are being detained. The families were detained without warning, and given no reason for or information about the duration of their detention at these camps. Many of these families have had their identity documents confiscated meaning a definite inability to leave. Likewise, there have been reports of the destruction of civilian property, and of villages and of the removal of livestock owned by those who are now in these camps. This has been corroborated by satellite imagery obtained by Human Rights Watch. By early 2018, over 200 families had been placed in these camps in Iraq over several weeks with 220 such displaced individuals arriving at the camp near Daquq, South of Kirkuk, Iraq, the most prominent of these camps. Children are of course amongst these numbers and there are young children and infants that are growing up in these camps. The imprisonment of women and children who have committed no offense is illegal and the Next Century Foundation wishes to express its concern over the situation as there has been no fair reason presented for the holding of these people or for their treatment. Having declared victory against ISIS, Iraq should be investigating these prison camps and rectifying the situation in order to work towards a better future for these Iraqi people and those children who are part of Iraq’s future. The continued use of these ‘prison camps’ and the current treatment of these many families could potentially be regarded as a war crime, in view of the fact that these families could be considered forcibly displaced.

This issue is not exclusive to Iraq. In northern Syria there are four Kurdish-run camps in which around 800 families from approximately 40 different countries are being held because of their alleged association with Islamic State fighters. Whilst there is the possibility that many of these families do indeed have fathers, sons or brothers who have fought or are fighting for ISIS, collective punishment is illegal. There is no reason to punish those who have done nothing wrong. There has also been little assistance given by the home nations of these families to address this problem, thus far only Russia and Indonesia have worked with Kurdish authorities to have their nationals repatriated.

In these circumstances, it really is the innocent women and children who are suffering. Their detention in such camps, and the treatment they endure, is abhorrent. The young children who have been forced out of their homes and are now living in these conditions are experiencing the fallout of a conflict that is not theirs. It is a necessity for both Iraq and the international community to respond and take action.