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.

Netanyahu’s Folly . . . or a gamble that paid off?

On the 30th April, through live broadcast from Jerusalem, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an assertive presentation to the world accusing Iran of “brazenly lying” about their nuclear weapons ambitions. The presentation itself seemed amateur and the Prime Minister delivered it as if he were at school. But his intention was to make a serious point.

His point being that various Iranian leaders have falsely denied that they had ever been working on acquiring nuclear weapons with several citing the idea as “immoral”. Netanyahu’s PowerPoint presentation featuring diagrams, photographs and blueprints sought to demonstrate that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal) and that Iran, through what was known as Project Amad (1999-2003), had had the active goal of building a nuclear weapon.

The key allegation Netanyahu made in this presentation was that Project Amad, a supposedly merely scientific program, had been a covert nuclear weapons development project and that even after the closure of Project Amad, the work had secretly continued. He said that top-secret documents proved it. However, the Next Century Foundation does not find any real merit in Netanyahu’s further suggestion that the JCPOA allows Iran to continue their alleged nuclear weapons development unabated. Evidence to support the accusation that Project Amad was a covert nuclear weapons project is definitely compelling, but is nothing new to anyone in the international community. However, Netanyahu explicitly states throughout that Iran continues with its pursuit of its nuclear weapons ambitions. For these accusations he provides no real evidence. He simply opines that the retention of these documents, already known about since before the JCPOA, indicates that they are doing so and that their denial of the existence of prior nuclear weapon development efforts means they are liars.

The Presentation in Detail:

This presentation was built around alleged evidence from 55,000 pages and 183 CDs of “top secret” documentation that only a few Iranians and Israelis were supposedly aware of. Netanyahu does not specify how or when these documents were obtained but states that they were being kept in a top-secret, unassuming compound in Tehran. The acquisition of said documents was described by Netanyahu as a “great intelligence achievement”  by the Israeli intelligence services. The Iranians refute the claims made by Netanyahu and say that they would never keep official documents in the “dilapidated warehouse” Israeli intelligence allegedly acquired them from.

Project Amad ran for four years before closing in 2003. The documents obtained by Israeli intelligence seem to show, according to Netanyahu’s presentation, the active pursuit of nuclear weapons acquisition because Iran pursued the development of ballistic missiles with high power capability. However the development of a long range missile program does not necessarily mean an intention to have nuclear warheads. Several photographs, videos, blueprints and scans of documents were presented on different slides to enforce the message Netanyahu was pushing.

Rather more importantly Netanyahu did pull up one specific document that said the project was going to “design, produce and test … four nuclear warheads each with 10 kilotons of TNT yield for integration on a missile”. Israeli intelligence analysis of the documents determined that Project Amad had the ‘five key elements of a nuclear weapons programme’ including developing nuclear cores and preparing nuclear tests. To support the latter allegation, he provided scans of maps detailing five potential test locations in eastern Iran. Furthermore, he claims that despite Amad’s closure, the project continued in a devolved and both covert and overt way with the full knowledge of Iranian leaders and under the pretence that it was for scientific knowledge development. One cannot dismiss such evidence. The evidence was lacking in  quantity but it was supportive nonetheless. When taking this evidence into consideration, his point that Iran has lied could be considered compelling.

However, this evidence and knowledge has been in the public domain for many years. Concerns about Project Amad and nuclear weapons, deriving from official documents, are not ground-breaking in the slightest. It is of course concerning, but Netanyahu is essentially regurgitating old knowledge. This knowledge was reported on by international journalists at the time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ‘nuclear watchdog’ with whom Netanyahu said he would share these documents, had their own concerns over Iran and nuclear weapons. However, they were addressed at the time and in the years following. Yes, Iran did lie about the intentions and activities of Project Amad and subsequent nuclear ambitions. However the IAEA conducted their own investigation and by the time it came to signing the JCPOA in 2015, there was confidence that Iran were no longer pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. We knew this and the world knew this. Netanyahu is not offering us anything more.

Unlike the wealth of documentation supporting claims that Project Amad and its subsequent activities do show nuclear weapons development, Netanyahu failed to prove that Iran are still lying. He believes that holding such knowledge of nuclear development and “advanced work on weaponization” shows that Iran are continuing with their nuclear weapons ambitions. In his eyes the JCPOA nuclear deal “gives Iran a clear pass to an atomic arsenal” through allowing them to continue uranium enrichment and failing to address Project Amad and any other subsequent development of nuclear weapons. He does not provide anything substantive to support this.

Conclusions

Netanyahu delivered what he believed was a ‘ground-breaking’ presentation that addressed issues previously unaddressed or acknowledged. However, this was not the case. There has been an awareness of Iran’s nuclear activities by the international community and that this supposedly top-secret documentation has been known about and is nothing new. What Israel’s premier presented did indeed show a contradiction between the denials of nuclear weapons development by Iranian leadership and what was actually happening. Whilst the presentation may have raised legitimate concerns, it was no turning point.

It is important to be aware of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own perceptions of Iran and place this presentation in a wider geopolitical context. He refers to Iran as a “terrorist regime” and expresses his distrust and disdain for Iran’s leadership. The presentation concluded with his opinion on the JCPOA and his belief that President Trump would do “the right thing” and withdraw from the nuclear deal. Stating that he would share the gathered intelligence with other countries and the IAEA, he said that “the United States [could] vouch for its authenticity”. In the ten days that have followed the presentation, President Trump has withdrawn from the deal and tensions have heightened between Israel and Iran. It appears that Netanyahu’s big presentation was successful.

Trumping Middle East Policy

statue-of-liberty-267949_960_720The Next Century Foundation takes a look at the National Security Advisors and the Senior Foreign Policy team in the new U.S. administration, as well as the sort of Middle Eastern policy that might be pursued.

Rex Tillerson: Secretary of State

Rex Tillerson joined Exxon in 1975. One of the crowning jewels of his career was the acquisition of XTO Energy by ExxonMobil in 2009 for $31 billion. Michael Corkery of the Wall Street Journal wrote that “Tillerson’s legacy rides on the XTO Deal.”

We know more about Tillerson’s views on the Middle East than we do Kushners’. One dependable policy is less involvement in the whole region. He is critical of the U.S’ involvement in Libya, and although called the Iraq war “well-intended”, he also described it as unsuccessful. In this light, we can speculate that he wants to see less American intervention in the region. Through his role at Exxon, he had close ties with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, Tillerson, on behalf of ExxonMobil, signed a deal to develop oil fields in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The agreement defied Iraqi law, which forbids companies from dealing directly with Iraqi Kurdistan. Whether this will result in more robust support for the Kurds or not remains to be seen. However, it is important to note that his diplomatic interests as Secretary of State are different to that of his economic interests as CEO of Exxon.

One big policy issue currently is Iran, Russia’s major ally in West Asia. In the wake of Trump’s forceful rhetoric towards Iran, Tillerson might be expected to project a calmer voice. Indeed, Tilerson is described by the Kremlin as a solid and very professional man, he also enjoys a less antagonistic relationship with President Putin than many other officials. Secretary Tillerson is interested in expanding the American footprint in the world at large including Iran. For example, there are large Iranian oil reserves in which Tillerson’s former company has shown interest in, there are also many opportunities for American companies to sell products to Iran. However, the imposition of new sanctions against Iran following its ballistic missile tests, as well as strong bipartisan congressional opposition against warmer Iranian ties may push bilateral commercial consideration to the backburner.

James Mattis: Secretary of Defence (Gen Ret.)

James “Mad Dog” Mattis is the U.S. Secretary of Defence. While he is criticised for being too single minded, he also has an impressive CV. A U.S. Marine since 1969, he has an M.A. in International Security Affairs and is (in)famous for carrying around a copy of ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius throughout his deployments. He is noted for his intellectualism and study of history. Having served in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, his handling of his Marines is well noted. He made them complete cultural sensitivity training, and encouraged them to maintain good relationships with Iraqi civilians.

On the Middle East, Mattis has been much clearer in his views than both Tillerson or Kushner. He has reaffirmed the U.S. – Saudi strategic relationship and praised the friendship of regional allies. These allies and friends include: Jordan, the UAE and Egypt. He wants to work more closely with these countries; strengthening ties with their spy agencies and expanding naval exercises. On Israel, he supports the two-state solution, calling the current situation “unsustainable” and believes the settlement construction could theoretically lead to an apartheid-like situation in the West Bank. He believes the lack of a two-state solution upsets the Arab allies of America, which weakens US esteem amongst its Arab allies.

The biggest threat, according to Mattis, is Iran. “The Iranian regime, in [his] mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” He believes the nuclear halt is actually only a pause. He wants to increase the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf. He also considers ISIS an excuse for Iran to “continue its mischief”. A worry concerning Mattis’ hawkish Iranian rhetoric is that it risks undermining the very real threat of ISIS. While Iran is engaged in proxy wars in the region, the very existence of ISIS sustains the threat of Jihadist terrorism not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and the West.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster: National Security Advisor

Herbert Raymond McMaster is a serving three-star general. He is a graduate of the US Military Academy and holds a PhD in military history from the University of North Carolina. He is the author of the book “Dereliction of Duty”, which heavily criticised the U.S. military policy in Vietnam. He is best known for successfully leading the 2005 counterinsurgency operations in Tal Afar in Iraq, a city of 250,000, and commanding the 140-soldier Eagle Troop, part of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment during a 1991 tank battle. Both cases pioneered tactics that are studied by the U.S. military to this day; neither approach the political complexity of the role McMaster has been assigned to in the administration.

McMaster is a strategic thinker, he has a record of military achievement and is very widely respected among national security professionals from both the Democratic and Republican sides. On the topic of the Middle East, he refuses to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism”, believing that the U.S. should not play into the jihadist propaganda that suggest that this is a religious war. He replaces Michael T. Flynn who resigned after admitting that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about a phone call with a Russian diplomat. McMaster has a reputation for speaking his mind within military ranks, causing some to wonder if that is why he was not promoted more rapidly. How this translates into White House policy and politics remains to be seen. Rumours are circulating that unlike Chief Strategist Bannon, McMaster will not have walk-in privileges to the Oval Office.

Michael Pompeo: Director, Central Intelligence Agency

A former army officer and Kansas Congressman, Mike Pompeo was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, served in the Gulf War, and served three terms in congress. He won a fourth, but resigned to take up his current position. He opposes closing Guantanamo, criticises the closing of ‘black sites’, and is currently on a visit to Turkey.

Pompeo is fiercely critical of Islam. He has said that Muslim leaders who fail to denounce acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam are “potentially complicit” in the attacks. He has also spoken of a war between the Christian West and Islamic East, emphasising the need for the west to “destroy the threat of radical Islamic terrorism”, and remove the “dozens of groups that are founded on the central principle of the destruction of the West and the imposition of Sharia Law”. He is fundamentally grounded in his Christian faith and claims that “Jesus Christ is truly the only solution for [the] world. He is also a strong critic of the Iranian nuclear deal, and agrees with the argument that Iran is “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism”. Iran, in his opinion, is the most dangerous threat to Israel. His views on Russia are reasonably common, he believes the country is aggressively reasserting itself without doing much to combat ISIS, and accuses the Russians of “siding with rogue states” as well as participating in “unpunished affronts to U.S. interests.

Jared Kushner: Senior Advisor to the President

Jared Kushner comes from an Orthodox Jewish family. His paternal grandparents were holocaust survivors, and is married to the President’s daughter Ivanka. He took the reins of his father’s property empire after Charles Kushner was convicted for tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and witness tampering. Widely known to have been instrumental in the running of Trump’s online campaign, Kushner has been made Senior White House Advisor, and given the task of ‘brokering Middle East Peace’.

Little is known of Kushner’s views on the Middle East. Trump asserts that Kushner “knows the region, knows the people, knows the players”, but his role as a ‘peace broker’ is still shrouded in vagueness. One can speculate that he is sympathetic to the state of Israel considering that his family has donated over $300,000 to Friends of the Israeli Defence Force. The Kushner foundation has also donated around $40,000 to a well-established settlement of Bet El that is considered hard-line and ideological.

Of course, supporting charities in Israel does not mean that Kushner himself is supportive of settlement expansion, or of hard-line pro-Israel views. It does mean, however, that his actions, especially those concerning Israel and Palestine will be scrutinised both domestically and abroad.

Steve Bannon: Chief Strategist

Steve Bannon has appointed himself to the National Security Council. He is a fierce outspoken critic of Islam, calling it “the most radical” religion in the world and claims that the U.S. and the Western world are engaged in a “global existential war”. There are numerous editorials stating that many of his supporters in the developing ‘alt-right’ group are anti-Semitic, despite Bannon’s apparent strong support for Israel. By reorganizing the National Security Council and elevating Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist will now sit in on the top inter-agency group for discussing national security, some experts deem this to be controversial.

Conclusions

The Trump administration’s Middle Eastern Policy will be shaped not only by the President himself, but also by four of his key advisors. There are some conclusions we can make regarding the ME policy.

Israel: Stronger support as emphasised by the plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Whether this translates into support for all Israeli communities in the West Bank, or potentially U.S. approval of the largest settlements in Israel remains to be seen.

Iran: There are attempts to renegotiate the nuclear deal, but safeguarding Israel’s security is a priority. There is strong anti-Iranian rhetoric, and a desire to increase military presence, (most likely the U.S. Navy in the Gulf), but there is also pressure from congress not to reduce sanctions.

With so many countries actively engaged in the region and sponsoring proxies, it is no wonder that the new administration wants to detangle itself from the region, however, how this translates to effective foreign policy, considering Russia’s alliance with Iran remains to be seen. We are likely to see continued support for Jordan, Sisi’s government in Egypt, and possibly Turkey, as long as they continue the fight against ISIS. We might also see an emphasis on Saudi and Gulf allies to shoulder more responsibility for combating ISIS, and acting as a bulwark against Iranian ‘meddling’. One certainty is “uncertainty”.

By Edward Tebbutt

Lord Stone responds to the Queen

Lord Stone of Blackheath spoke in the Queen’s speech debate on the government’s failure to embrace the Middle East peace Process. His remarks are interesting. He promotes the Arab Peace Initiative as well as endorsing the Two States One Homeland concept. He said:

Lord Stone of Blackheath Labour 5:05 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, to continue on that theme, the gracious Speech made no mention of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, perhaps because it seems so intractable. I want to mention two new, ambitious but viable projects for reconciliation and ask Her Majesty’s Government for their involvement in them. The United Kingdom is in a unique position to move things forward, and it would be in our interests to do so.

The first is a movement called Two States One Homeland, which asks for the people of both sides to understand the narrative of the other as their genuine beliefs and accept them with compassion. Many Israelis now accept that the Palestinians believe that the 1947 declaration of the State of Israel was a Nakba to them—a disaster—and that the region is their homeland and they want consideration of their right to return. Many Palestinians are accepting that the Israelis believe that from biblical times the whole area was their homeland and living in parts of the West Bank is precious to them. They each regard the whole region as their homeland, but they know that they cannot live together as one comfortably in one state, so they agree to two states: a state of Israel, a state of Palestine and a confederation of these two sovereign states.

Two States One Homeland is a project currently on the move. The best international lawyers are agreeing to help the people on both sides to work out a constitutional settlement for each of the two sovereign states and jointly to create an overall constitution for the new confederation. International security experts and experts from both sides are deciding how the separate countries can run their own military and police forces and how, in addition, there will be a joint military and policing authority working across the two states.

On trade and investment, finance and currency, there is a team of Palestinians, Israelis and international corporations planning to invest in the region, particularly in the new Palestinian state. On the holy sites, rabbis, bishops and imams are working together with compassion and within their own golden rule to create a system whereby the sites are open for the benefit of all peoples, who are treated with due respect. There are groups working on this project on education, health and welfare and sustainability and ecology.

Secondly, alongside Two States One Homeland, there is a team in Israel and Palestine promoting a regional plan.The Arab peace initiative, the API, of 2002 was at the time an all-in-one, take-it-or-leave-it offer to which Israel did not respond. The new team presented in 2011 an Israeli peace initiative, an IPI, that accepts the API as a framework for Israeli-Palestinian regional negotiations. The IPI team is non-left and non-right—it is the pragmatic centre-thinking in Israel, with 1,800 prominent Israeli signatories, including ex-military and ex-security figures, diplomats, scholars, Middle East experts and business leaders. They have been talking for some time with the 22 Arab countries which we hope would support those projects. Together, they have developed a regional diplomatic proposal to resume negotiations, leveraging the API and the IPI. They are about to begin the development of a regional economic plan to invest tens of billions of dollars building infrastructure projects, agro-industry, water and energy plants, health and education establishments and new cities.

President al-Sisi of Egypt is on board. In a recent speech, he addressed Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation with courage and leadership. I applaud him and call on our Government to lend support. Let me quote a couple of sentences from his historic speech of only last week. He said:

“Egypt will be quite ready to play a sincere and responsible role to help set up a real opportunity for this cause … I say to the Israelis and the Palestinians that there is already a great opportunity for a better life, a better future for greater stability and real cooperation. Shall we seize that opportunity and move forward?”.

He has invited the leaders of both countries to come to speak to him and his people in Cairo.

The IPI team is also connecting Jordan, Palestine and Israel together with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and theUnited Arab Emirates. The aim is that this whole contiguous region, containing one-third of all the people living in the Middle East—150 million people—will benefit from work, welfare, health and education and human rights. We also have media partners who will act responsibly not by talking up war and killing in order to inflate their ratings but by reporting on the processes, described here, in informed, even-handed, compassionate and positive terms.

Would Her Majesty’s Government consider convening a meeting of leaders and experts, with whom we are working on all sides to develop these two concepts; to use our soft power, the British Council, in education at all levels; to help them to build universities with British standards; in health, to plan and build hospitals and systems; and to have UKTI encourage our business community to become involved in these developments and investments?

In 1947, the UN declaration was to form two equal entities; in 1967 there was a war, in which I was a volunteer, which broke that apart. Can we get together and make 2017, the 70th anniversary of the UN declaration and the 50th anniversary of the war of that split it, a year when we begin, collectively, to heal the rift?

A New Intifada?: What Palestinians are Really “Shaking Off”.

As the wave of violence increases within the West Bank many academics are labelling the rise of Palestinian violence the Third Intifada. Unlike the uprisings of 1987 and 2000, which fully involved the PLO, it seems that Mahmoud Abbas’s PLO is not partaking this time. With two-thirds of Palestinians stating they would want to replace President Abbas, it seems that the main thing the new Intifada is “shaking off” is Abbas’s control in Palestine.

In his UN General Assembly speech two weeks ago, President Mahmoud Abbas stated that Palestinians would “no longer continue to be bound” by the Oslo accords due to Israel’s consistent violations. However, many Palestinian’s do not believe this will lead to any change in on-the-ground realities.

The attacks over the last week have taken place in areas outside of the PLO’s control: Tel Aviv and East Jerusalem. This new generation of protestors are not, and shall not be controlled by their leadership, nor will they allow the PLO to have a role in the uprisings.

Mahmoud Abbas’s uncompromising opposition to violence has left many of the new generation of Palestinians feeling disenchanted with the PLO. Over the past ten years Palestine should have benefited from numerous Western interventions, such as a regenerated West Bank economy, with help from the UK and the US. They should have also established a united Palestinian Government, and secured the release of numerous political prisoners. Instead, this generation of Palestinians have seen the gradual occupation of East Jerusalem, a security force which collaborates with the Israeli security department and the continual violation and occupation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

This new Intifada is a defiance against a government which has increased the loss and despair of the Palestinian population.

As lone wolf attacks by Palestinians continue within Jerusalem and the West Bank, each individual becomes their own leader. They “shake off” Abbas’s waning presence, and fight for their freedom. Something most believe Abbas has not succeeded in delivering.

Raising the (White) Flag?

A week ago the Palestinian state flag was raised for the first time in the rose garden of the UN, fostering hope and symbolising the refusal to abandon a Palestinian homeland. The flag honours those lost in the fight for statehood, those in jails, those killed at checkpoints and those occupied in Gaza.

However, the raising of the flag will not lead to the restarting of the peace process. Mahmoud Abbas’s statement that Palestine would no longer be bound to the Oslo Accords has confirmed the death of the 1990’s Peace Process. Just as Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Israel would “fiercely reject attempts to impose international dictates” on peace, weeks before severed Israel’s ties to peace. Such statements alongside rising tensions in the West Bank means that the peace process is now a distant memory. The flag has not rectified these issues. If anything it has created further ruptures within the already fragile relationship.

The past week has seen several people killed from clashes in the West Bank, with many more injured. These deaths have emerged from the frustrations which have developed due to a lack of a foreseeable solution. Although the flag has highlighted issues with the Peace Process, it has also galvanised the tense situation in the West Bank. The raising of the Palestinian flag has not addressed any relevant issues but rather papered over their cracks.

Whilst the UN may have willingly raised Palestine’s flag and accorded the state non-member observer state recognition, it has not come close to a solution for the conflict. As the Palestinian flag flew over the UN, Israeli Settlements deemed illegal by the UN continued to be built near the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The UN did not condemn such acts. Without UN support Palestine shall not gain statehood, nor secure the control of its towns and cities. These continual violations of marked borders have not been resolved through the raising of a flag. Nor has the flag settled the violence which erupts from these land disputes.

The fact that the Palestinian flag now flies over the UN of course represents hope. However, it also overshadows the real issues at the heart of this problem. We must take the flag at face value. As for now, there is no Palestinian state, no Peace Process, nor a solution, there is merely a flag. A flag which represents hope to many but does little to improve the lives of those within the conflict, who remain in despair.

The Shooting Down of Peace

The recent shooting of a young Palestinian student at an Israeli checkpoint has once again prompted Israel and Palestine to resort to blaming one another. Incidents like this have become indicative of the problems involved in sustaining a Peace Process, as both states attempt to garner support from the International Community for their point of view. A year on from the Gaza War, and following the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu, an end to the ever-increasing cycle of violence between both states seems unlikely. The recent shooting is a stark reminder of the one major hurdle to the Peace Process: a lack of trust.

On Sunday, an even more troubling outcome was that Israel’s security cabinet approved a crackdown on Palestinian protests. The legislation will allow Israel’s security forces to use their weapons more easily against Palestinian stone-throwers and increase punishment for young offenders. Justification for this legislation comes from the assertion that the young Palestinian student was trying to attack Israeli soldiers. Meanwhile the Palestinian state denounced the young student’s death as an inevitable outcome of a premeditated attack. It is arguably premature to enact legislation that amounts to a clamp down as a consequence of this attack when the real course events remains clouded. As both sides battle to prove the other’s hand in the killing, the collapse of trust the Peace Process becomes ever more evident.

This ‘shoot first, think later’ strategy has become Israel’s default course of action in relation to Palestinians, and given the increasingly tightened legislation towards Palestinian activism, tensions are unlikely to subside soon. As the International Community continues to support the Palestinian state, Israel’s rhetoric will harden. Such micro-level incidents have proved a useful propaganda tool when it comes to Israel’s public shaming of so-called Palestinian terrorists. And, with tensions in Jerusalem heightening, alongside, this new legislation, the road to dialogue looks almost non-existent. Such tensions arise from a mutual lack of trust inherent in the relationship between the two states, and the two communities. These societal ruptures create a never ending cycle of blame that gets in the way of the important  work that needs doing if we are actually moving towards peace.

Beyond the Anthem: What Corbyn means for Labour’s Foreign Policy

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the position of UK Labour leader, countless pundits have given their view – almost invariably pessimistic – on his leadership. In terms of Middle East foreign policy, Corbyn’s ideas are refreshing (if not strictly as radical as some have claimed), and, if he is able to stick to his principles in the face of less-than-pliant committees of Labour MPs, they represent an opportunity to reconsider British foreign policy.

Jeremy Corbyn and ‘radically different’ foreign policy

Corbyn seeks to prioritise principles over pragmatism. These principles could best be described as international humanitarianism.

There are three easily identifiable areas where he holds strong convictions: intervention in Syria, the arms trade, and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Corbyn is staunchly against any armed intervention in Syria. Citing the examples of Iraq (2003), Afghanistan (2001) and Libya (2011) he has argued that Western intervention has repeatedly been ill-thought through and has not benefited either the target country or Britain. In particular, he cites Libya’s decline from the Arab Spring to ‘civil war’ and ‘overflowing arms’ in the wider region following Western arms dealing with rebels. Corbyn believes that bombing in Syria would ‘create more mayhem’ and the West would necessarily be dealing with ‘unclear alliances’. Corbyn’s policy for defeating ISIS, by contrast, is to try to isolate the group economically by putting pressure on their international sponsors. As he succinctly put it, ‘you can’t bomb your way to peace’.

By a similar token, Corbyn has repeatedly called for Britain to restrict its arms trade. For over a decade, he has called for a boycott on arms trading to Israel, and he cites the use of imported weapons against Palestinians both in the Intifada (2000) and the most recent conflict (2014). He has similarly questioned the morality of lucrative arms contracts being made with Saudi Arabia – a staunch ally of the West – whose human rights record is problematic. It seems clear that Corbyn would seek to curb this arms trade – reported to be worth approximately $12 billion in 2013 – or at the very least restrict sales to more repressive governments.

Corbyn has been most loudly criticised for his views on the Israel-Palestine issue. Having shared a stage with members of Hamas and Hezbollah (both considered terrorist organisations by the UK Government), he has been accused of anti-Semitism and of being too sympathetic to terrorists. He has been much more radical than previous Labour and Conservative leaders (Gordon Brown in particular stressed an emotional tie to Israel on his historic visit) in his recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood. If Corbyn were able to unify his party, Labour might put far more pressure on Israel than any government in recent memory.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary and an Alternative Approach

This is, however, a big ‘if’. Quite aside from pro-Israel Labour supporters, Corbyn faces a divided party consisting of the more traditional ‘left’ and more recent ‘Blairites’. Foreign policy is not made by the leader alone; Corbyn will need the MPs on his side to create a foreign policy which the whole party can support. Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, should be seen as an appointment meant to unify MPs and the party faithful. Combining old-Left credentials from his family name with New Labour foreign policy tendencies, Benn was previously tipped as a Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and performed well at Prime Ministers Questions earlier this year. He represents the pragmatist curb to Corbyn’s idealism.

Benn’s views differ from Corbyn on some key issues – he is more unequivocally pro-Europe than Corbyn – and is in favour of keeping a nuclear deterrent. With reference to the Middle East, though, Benn and Corbyn seem able to present a somewhat united front.

On the question of intervention, Benn  is less certain in his opposition than Corbyn. Nevertheless, he argues that lessons must be learned from Iraq, and that any intervention in Syria must be based on a solid legal base. This emphasis on a legal base also suggests that, like Corbyn, Benn would support action mandated by the UN but would be reluctant to act independently from it. Indeed, he stresses that Britain should develop a ‘broad approach’ in dealing with ISIS. This stress on a more holistic foreign policy is entirely in line with Corbyn’s own strategy of ‘incremental’ steps to deal with the challenges facing the UK and the region.

Benn has been asking difficult questions about the arms trade for almost as long as Corbyn. While there will of course be opposition from arms groups,  both men seem determined to make the processes determining who contracts are sold to more transparent.

On the issue of Israel-Palestine, Benn has been more silent. In the interests of keeping the party together, it seems that Labour’s foreign policy team will choose to focus on armed intervention in Syria, the arms trade, and the related refugee crisis, rather than take on the difficult Israel-Palestine question.

Principled and Pragmatic Foreign Policy

Labour is engaged in a time of discussion and debate. Fine-tuned foreign policy will not come quickly, and besides, the party is more concerned with the twin issues of Europe and migration at present. Regardless, it seems that the shadow foreign office team – including vocal shadow minister for the Middle East Gareth Thomas – will seek to create a more ideologically charged foreign policy. If they are able to work together effectively, Corbyn and Benn could put forward an intriguing foreign policy alternative to the Conservatives which would move decisively away from the Atlanticism and neo-liberalism of the New Labour and Conservative years.

Corbyn has called for a principled foreign policy – a foreign policy based on recognisable ideals (in this case, human rights). The challenge is going to be convincing MPs, lobby groups and the rest of the UK that these principles are worth fighting for, and that Corbyn’s approach is the best way to fight for them while also keeping Britain safe.

US and EU take strong stand against Israeli demolition plan

A Palestinian man, Jihad Nuwaja, stands next to a tent in Susiya village, south of the West Bank city of Hebron, July 20, 2015. (photo by REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma)

A Senior Board Member of the Next Century Foundation writes as follows:

If Israelis wants to know why so many good people in the United States and Europe are distressed at the direction that their politics and society appear to be going, they only need to consider the plight of the small Palestinian village of Susiya on the West Bank to provide a clue.

Jewish settlers in the South Hebron hills where this small collection of houses are situated are pressing the Israeli government to obliterate this little village. Only the small left-wing Meretz party and the minute Palestinian representation in the Knesset have raised objections.

For its part, the Israeli government is preparing to bulldoze 37 structures in this village under the flimsy pretext that they were constructed without the requisite permits. The fact that few, if any, permits are granted by the Israelis to Palestinians (versus the hundreds, if not thousands granted to the settlers) is an issue which will be considered by the Israeli Supreme Court on 3 August 2015.

By then, it may be too late. Netanyahu’s government has its bulldozers ready to quash the village no later than 31 July.

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“US and EU take strong stand against Israeli demolition plan” AL-MONITOR By Akiva Eldar 21 July 2015

The timing of the announcement by US State Department spokesman John Kirby regarding the Barack Obama administration’s position on the small Palestinian village of Susiya was no less important than its content.

Kirby made the statement July 16, as the administration was going out of its way to douse the flames in US-Israeli relations following the signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

While world opinion speculated about the effect of the Iran agreement on US-Israeli relations, Kirby arrived for his briefing armed with a stern declaration about the potentially far-reaching implications of the planned demolitions in Susiya in the Judean Mountains south of Hebron.

Kirby made clear that the consequences of Israel’s harassment of Susiya residents would extend beyond the demolitions’ impact on the villagers and their families. He noted that the planned expulsions and land appropriations in Susiya were particularly glaring given the settlement activity in that same region.

Several hours beforehand, Dorothy Shea, acting US consul general in Jerusalem, had used similar language. She, too, urged Israeli authorities to abstain from demolishing the homes in the village.

These sharp public pronouncements thus turned the Susiya affair into the first test of Israeli foreign relations in the post-Iran nuclear crisis era.

According to information acquired by human rights organizations in Israel and the territories, the Israeli civil administration did not wait until the end of the month of Ramadan to hand out demolition orders for 37 structures. It intends to carry out the orders before Aug. 3, the date set for the Supreme Court to hear an appeal
submitted by the Palestinians and these organizations.

European capitals are also eyeing with concern the bulldozers parked outside the tiny village, whose residents have the dubious distinction of living in a region of the West Bank known as Area C. The Oslo Accord divided the West Bank into three zones — A, B and C — with area C under complete Israeli control.

On June 29, the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, said the EU’s humanitarian affairs agency had reported that every month, Israel destroys five to seven projects that the union funds in Area C.

“We’re talking about European taxpayer money,” the envoy said at a conference on Susiya held by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. The ambassador stressed that European aid does not free Israel of its responsibility under international humanitarian law to ensure a reasonable quality of life for the Palestinian population under its control.

He noted that Area C constitutes some 60% of the West Bank and, therefore, is a key to the establishment of a future Palestinian state.

According to EU data, said Faaborg-Andersen, recent years have brought an increase in the number of demolitions in the region (in addition to extensive demolitions in Bedouin villages in Israel).

He explained that this stems from the minute number of building permits Israel grants the residents of Palestinian villages throughout Area C.

“If people knew where they could build,” Faaborg-Andersen said, “it would prevent construction without permits and demolition orders.” He added that Yoav “Poli” Mordechai,
coordinator of government activities in the territories, shares the view that the appropriate way to overcome the problem is to prepare an Israeli-Palestinian master plan that would enable the Palestinians to build in a legal and orderly manner.

“Unfortunately,” Faaborg-Andersen remarked, “the master plan process has been taken hostage by other events that have been going on between Israel and the Palestinians,” such as complaints against Israel lodged by the Palestinian leadership with international organizations.

Like the American speakers, Faaborg-Andersen did not forget to mention that even as Palestinian homes are being destroyed, the settlements are taking over more and more land for construction and security needs.

One can assume that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not keen to see footage of bulldozers destroying the homes of indigent Palestinians on television screens worldwide, bumping reports on the condition of human rights in Iran.

Even if the prime minister could be persuaded that he should seek a way out of this affair, he could expect a fair number of obstacles along the way.

On the one hand, the international community is pressing him to stop the bulldozers. On the other, Netanyahu is being held hostage by the settlers and their representatives in the leadership of the Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi parties. They will not leave him alone until he wipes out the village stuck in the craw of the settlers of the south Hebron Hills.

Yisrael Beitenu, the right-wing opposition party led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, would have a field day were Netanyahu to surrender to the left.

This equation is missing an important element — the Israeli left-wing opposition. The Zionist Camp has once again left the Meretz Party to face the right alone. The silence of the main opposition party on the Susiya affair can be added to the absence of its members from the vote on force feeding hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners held on security-related offenses, its vote in favor of the nationality bill that tears apart Palestinian families, its support for thwarting peace activists’ Marianne flotilla to Gaza and its competition with Netanyahu to slam the Iran agreement.

This time as well, Meretz was the sole Zionist party to rush to the defense of the downtrodden. This time, too, a handful of Israeli peace activists — led by members of the organizations Ta’ayush (Living Together, in Arabic), B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights — are standing by the weakest group among the occupied Palestinian population.

A chosen few among them, like Professor David Shulman, serve as voices delivering the shepherds’ and farmers’
messages to air-conditioned administrative offices in Washington and at European Union headquarters in Brussels.

In his book “Dark Hope: Journal of a Ta’ayush Activist,” Shulman, a member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and recipient of the prestigious Emet Prize, writes about how he and his friends collected poison pellets that the settlers had scattered to kill the Palestinian residents’ goats and sheep, planted olive trees to replace the ones uprooted by settlers, helped a farmer cross the few yards to his well and provided blankets for uprooted Palestinian cave dwellers.

“Two relentless national movements are engaged in a conflict, street to street, house to house,” Shulman wrote. “One side is infinitely stronger than the other, but not more magnanimous. It abuses its power over and over — the tremendous machine of a state and army and judiciary — in order to disown, threaten, expropriate, control, destroy.”

The well-oiled mechanism of the major powers proved in reaching an agreement with Iran in Vienna on July 14 that it can use its power to achieve compromise, to bridge, to rehabilitate and to build.

Now this mechanism is free to focus on dismantling the ticking time bomb on the heights of the Hebron Hills. ###

Russia’s Game in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt
Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt

For Russia, the Middle East has historically been a region of strategic and economic importance. Russia is seen as an alternative to the Western ideological framework, granting it a special status in the area. Apart from being a consistent alternate power, Russia’s objectives and policies in the Middle East have always changed depending on its relationship with the Western powers.

In March 2012 Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency as a different figure. Seemingly more anti-Western and disappointed by the failure of Obama’s RESET policy, the Libyan crisis of 2011 and the ongoing sanctions on Iran, he is more confrontational, unpredictable and assertive in his actions with the West. Interestingly enough, this was not the case under Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, which focused on fostering relations with the West and as a result took a more hands-off approach in the Middle East. The current U-turn originates in what Putin sees as covert Western involvement in the Arab Spring of 2011, reminiscent of the colour revolutions that were inspired by the West in post-Soviet republics. For Putin, these red flags suggest that Russia’s presence in the Middle East is necessary to protect vital spheres of influence and sustain Russia’s image as a great power. For this reason, the world faces a reinvigorated return of Russia in the Middle East, albeit a confused return.

To contextualize Russia’s aims, one needs to look no further than the paramount diplomatic issue facing the country. The current crisis in Ukraine consumes almost all of Moscow’s financial, military and political capital away from the Middle East, justifying the lost long-term objective in the region. Rather than envisaging a definitive goal for Russia’s interest in the area, the agenda seems to jump from crisis to crisis. Looking at Russia’s cooperation with the Middle East on an individual basis, a pattern of cautious engagement starts to appear.

Russia’s relations with the GCC countries is one that avoids politicization. Instead of condemning various monarchies on their human rights record and lack of democratic progress, Russia takes a pragmatic stance. It vehemently believes in non-interference in internal affairs and taking a position on these issues would be an unusual precedent. Establishing democracy in Qatar or Saudi Arabia is not important. In fact, this would almost certainly be disadvantageous to Russia.

In Riyadh, those on the upper echelons of power are loyal to the U.S.-Saudi alliance so the recent secretive deals between high-ranking Russian and Saudi officials seem out of place. Putin and the Deputy Crown Prince, a less pro-Washington figure in the Saudi leadership, met in St. Petersburg in June 2015, indicating King Salman’s change of policy with Russia. There are unconfirmed talks of investing in the construction of nuclear power plants, increasing arms sales, and negotiating oil prices. This is understandable, considering the fact that the current Saudi leadership is disillusioned with Obama’s policy in the Middle East, especially regarding Iran, and thus aims at cementing bilateral ties with the Russian leadership. The Saudi objective is to dissuade Putin from his unwavering support of Assad, whereas Putin’s is to reduce Saudi’s overwhelming influential oil production, in order to spike global oil prices. Although Russia takes advantage of its position as an alternative power when cracks appear between Arab countries and the U.S., the recent Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, puts Russia in an awkward position.

Russia’s key concern over Yemen is Saudi Arabia undermining the authority of the UN Security Council and bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen without prior authorization. Apart from lucrative trade deals and opportunism, Russia is keen on maintaining the international world order and makes enormous use of the UNSC for political leverage. In a sign of dissatisfaction, Russia abstained in a vote on UNSC Resolution 2216, a vote that Saudi Arabia heavily lobbied Russia for, which called for a withdrawal of Houthis from Sanaa. With the situation in Yemen rapidly deteriorating and the recent rise of ISIS fighters, Moscow’s concern for the Gulf area is uncommonly high. Comments from the Russian Foreign Ministry echo a need for all Yemeni political forces to start a “full-fledged national dialogue under the auspices of the UN”. The nature of the situation means that Russia is intent on keeping third-party players strictly outside the political resolution.

Concerning Iran, Russia plays a balancing act due to its cordial ties with Israel. Under Putin, the current relations with Tehran suggest a positive step towards reintegrating Iran into the international arena. This is demonstrated by Russia’s decision to lift the ban on a weapons trade deal with Iran after making progress on the P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear programme. The sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles goes back to 2010, but was temporarily halted due to intense lobbying by Israel and the West. Although Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, emphasizes the defensive nature of the deal, the missile system can be used to shoot down jets and other missiles, increasing Iran’s capacity to subdue a threat to its nuclear facilities. This is a concern for Israel, which has been the most vocal advocate against the Iran nuclear deal and has warned of sanctions relief as a chance for Iran to engage in ‘sanctions for arms’. Another factor that Russia has in mind when dealing with Shia Iran is that twenty percent of Russia’s population is Muslim, of which ninety percent are Sunni. Keeping a delicate balance of not frustrating one side too much is a long-standing talent that Russia holds.

In Tel Aviv, Russia’s relationship is more complex than the other Middle Eastern nations. This is partly due to the huge Russian émigré population. There are around one million Russian speakers in Israel, with direct economic and cultural ties to Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Russian ties range from military collaboration to oil supply contracts and visa-free agreements. In the scientific sphere, Russia has numerous nuclear, space and technological agreements that it does not have with other Middle Eastern countries. In fact, the countries are so closely linked that the Russian President and the Israeli Prime Minister have encrypted communication lines to guarantee no eavesdropping. With this in mind, Russia has a stronger cultural connection to Israel than it does to any other Middle Eastern country. Moscow is also hoping to establish a long-lasting friendship that will lessen Israel’s dependency on the United States. There is potential for this to happen, as Israel recently decided to cancel its drone sale to Ukraine in the midst of the crisis.

The situation with Assad differs greatly. The problem with Syria is that after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia neglected to support and continue the well-established links with the remaining pro-Russian political base. This was indicative during the leadership change from Hafez al-Assad to Bashar al-Assad in 2000, whereby now the Russian security services are hastily trying to revive those connections in order to cement Russia’s position in Syrian politics no matter the political outcome of the civil war. In terms of the Syrian war, Russia, along with Iran, continues to sell arms to Assad. Putin is intent on keeping Assad in power and sees no better alternative to him. A repeat of Libya, where a bloody power vacuum was created after the toppling of the regime, is a worst-case scenario for Russia, considering Syria’s proximity to its borders. Bearing in mind that there are 1,500-2000 Russian foreign fighters in Syria, of which 500 have declared allegiance to ISIS, the question of their potential return to Russia is of great seriousness. Russia’s priority in Syria is for stability in the area, in order to stem the draw for violent Jihadism, as well as allowing resources to be focused on more pressing issues, such as Ukraine. Russia takes an opportunistic stance with the war in Syria, whereby it advocates peace negotiations with all sides, whilst selling arms to Assad. It has capitalized on taking on the role of a peacekeeper. Some argue that the message sent from the Kremlin to the West is one that follows the line of ‘you need us for stability in the Middle East’, which serves as a warning against intensifying the situation in Ukraine. In fact, Russia has facilitated numerous forums, talks, and conferences between the Syrian leadership and the opposition.

In the hydrocarbon sphere, Russia’s policy remains the same. That is to maximize Russian revenue from natural resource extraction and deals. Although the region is a serious challenge to Russia’s dominance of the European energy market, Russia is intent on either minimizing Middle Eastern involvement, or if unable to do so, have a stake in Middle Eastern hydrocarbon enterprises in Europe. This has been demonstrated by the activity of Russian oil companies in Iraq. Lukoil continues to work in unstable provinces, regardless of the threat of terror. During the ISIS surge in the summer of 2014, BP and ExxonMobil evacuated their personnel, whereas the Russian plant had evacuation plans but continued to operate in the West Qurna Field. Russian arms producers have increased their revenues as well, with Iraq being one of the main importers of arms.

A key aim for Russia is avoiding international isolation, as is the current case with the U.S. and Europe. The Middle East provides space for this isolation to be offset, as seen in Russia’s increased agricultural trade with the region. This has mitigated the effects of the self-imposed food sanctions of August 2014 by replacing agricultural produce with imports from Iran, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. In return, Russia exports wheat, barley, and rye to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Except for agricultural produce, Russia is mostly known for its arms sales in the region. In 2013 Russian arms sales to Syria and Egypt totaled USD$1.5 billion. In a limited sense, Russian foreign policy in the Middle East can be described as Kalashnikov diplomacy. Its policy does not have a lot of capacity and lacks a long-term goal. Much of its policies are determined by the failure of policies by the West. Furthermore, the agenda lacks any clear objective in the region.

Looking at relations as a whole shows Russia’s willingness to work with anti-Western nations but its incapacity to fulfill its promises. Whether this is due to Russia not seeing the Middle East as a priority for its foreign policy or because of resource drainage in Ukraine, this predicament is here to stay. With this in mind, there is still a pattern that can be seen from Russia’s relationship with the Middle East. Firstly, Russia continues to reject military intervention by third-party players as a way to resolve internal political issues. Secondly, it supports the current borders and advocates for stability in the region. Finally, it continues to capitalize on the desire of Middle Eastern countries to have an alternative power to work with.

Russia has a relatively pragmatic and flexible foreign policy regarding the Middle East, where Russia is keen on working with countries willing to cooperate, whilst upholding ‘red lines’ on regime change. It has learned from the mistake of allowing the Libyan no-fly zone morph into a NATO campaign to overthrow the Gaddafi government. It is keen on maximizing its revenues from the region whilst providing stability to the area. However, Russia lacks a concrete plan in the Middle East and seems to be improvising policy as it goes. Although useful at times, it is unsustainable both for Russia’s aim of remaining a credible international power and for stability in the region.

An Unlikely Partnership: Israel and Qatar in Gaza

The 2014 Israel-Gaza war decimated the Gaza strip, with around 18,000 homes destroyed or damaged in the densely populated territory by weeks of Israeli airstrikes and shelling. After the ceasefire in late August, Qatar has surged ahead as the leading player in the reconstruction process of the war-torn strip and interestingly, has partnered with Israel.

Despite the hardline parties involved in Israel’s new coalition government, there have been important signs that the Israeli government is looking towards peace with the troublesome coastal strip on its southern frontier. Israel and Hamas have had indirect contact for the last several weeks over a possible five-year truce. These secret talks have taken place with high-ranking representatives of Hamas, such as Mousa Abu Marzouk, the Deputy Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau. There is much to argue over if a peace between Israel and Hamas were to materialize, such as the highly contentious issue of creating a detached floating Gaza sea port, however, an agreement between both parties is entirely possible. The secret talks involving Mousa Abu Marzouk have taken place in Doha and the proposal has been backed by the Qatari and Turkish governments, with the proposal itself based on an outline formulated by UN special envoy to the Middle East, Nikolay Mladenov.

These fresh, albeit indirect, talks have also been accompanied by a marked easing of Egypt’s hostility toward Hamas. Egypt’s military has temporarily opened its border crossing with Gaza at Rafah in recent weeks, which allowed thousands to leave Gaza for the first time in months and a stable flow of badly-needed cement to enter the territory. With the relative thaw in Qatar’s relations with President Sisi’s government, facilitated by Saudi Arabia, it has been claimed that Qatar has reached an agreement for these construction materials to enter Gaza. It is more likely however that this was facilitated by Mohammed Dahlan, a key Palestinian figure linked to the friendly relations between Egypt and the UAE, according to sources on the ground.

Ever since hostilities ceased between Gaza and Israel, Qatar has been eager to get involved in reconstruction efforts. Of the $5.4 billion that was pledged for Gaza reconstruction in a global conference in October 2014, Qatar alone pledged $1 billion. By comparison, the EU pledged $568 million and the US $212 million. Most of the money that was pledged has not materialized at all almost one year on (only five percent materialized as of February 2015), which indicates a general unwillingness among global donors to rebuild the crumbling strip. However, Qatar is an important exception, as it has been active in overseeing the construction of key infrastructure and homes in Gaza, working not only with Hamas, but also with Israel to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction.

Mohammad al-Emadi, the head of the Qatari Committee to Rebuild Gaza and Qatari ambassador to the coastal territory, has recently been shuttling between Israel and Gaza to discuss reconstruction projects (streets, schools, housing units and hospitals) in Gaza. Al-Emadi recently met with the Israeli brigadier general in charge of letting goods and people through Israel’s Erez crossing regarding Qatar’s ongoing projects in Gaza. Indeed, in a sign of Israeli cooperation, al-Emadi last month crossed into Gaza from Israel through the Erez crossing after Egypt refused to allow the Qatari delegation through its Rafah crossing. Although relations between Qatar and Egypt have improved lately, it is still a tense relationship, which is most likely the reason why Qatar has opted to partner with Israel and resort to its assistance. According to the Israeli group Gisha, of the 5 million tons of construction materials required to rebuild Gaza, Israeli officials have so far permitted 1.3 million tons to enter Gaza since September 2014. The vast majority of these construction materials were used for the Qatari-funded development projects.

Qatar’s reasoning to get so eagerly involved in Gaza’s reconstruction is relatively straightforward. Qatar has historically had an interest in the Palestinian issue as it is a way for the tiny gas-rich emirate to punch above its weight in regional affairs and gain favourable coverage. More importantly, due to the Palestinian Authority’s reluctance to help reconstruct Gaza, Qatar sees an opportunity to fill in this void and consolidate Gaza’s political separation from the West Bank in order to secure its ambition to become an influential actor in the face of an alliance consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Moreover, if Qatar can fulfil Gaza’s needs for electricity and construction materials, it can fully assume the role of mediator between Gaza and Israel, thus superseding the long-standing roles of the PA and Egypt in this role.

On the other hand, Israel’s reasoning to get involved with Qatar is more complex, though it is apparent that it has much to gain from cooperating with it. Although Israel has attempted to isolate Hamas and for a long time publicly accused Qatar of financing Hamas, Israel is currently helping Qatar to partner with Hamas in order to rebuild the strip. This new policy U-turn is explained by Yossi Kuperwasser, the former head of research for Israel’s military intelligence, who said that “better conditions in Gaza would lessen the incentive of Hamas and the population to go again to a war.” There are also wider geopolitical reasons as well for Israel’s sudden cooperation with Qatar. Israel’s new deputy minister for regional cooperation, Ayub Carra, claimed that Qatar shares Israel’s concerns about Iran. In the face of the P5+1 striking a nuclear deal with Iran, Israel has attempted to improve relations with the Sunni Gulf monarchies due to the threat Israel faces from Iran and its militant proxies. This can also explain why Israel is allowing Qatar to remain as the main backer of Hamas. If Qatari support to Hamas was decreased substantially, it would allow for Iran to opportunistically increase its funding for the group and make Hamas more reliant on Iran, a worse case scenario for Israel.

In this context of greater foreign competition in Gaza, Fatah is increasingly getting left behind on affairs regarding the territory. With the rise of Mohammed Dahlan and his facilitation of good ties between the Egyptian government and Hamas coupled with Qatar’s efforts to procure cordial ties between Israel and Hamas, the PA is getting increasingly irrelevant in the enclave. Mahmoud Abbas has been angered by Qatar’s support for Hamas as its funding allows Hamas to stay in power in Gaza and prevent Fatah from taking control of the territory. Al-Emadi’s recent accusation that Egypt and the PA misused more than $100 million of the amount Qatar donated to help electricity needs in Gaza whilst at the same time applauding Israel’s genuine efforts in the reconstruction process have reportedly enraged Abbas.

Although Qatar’s rulers have made ample adjustments to their foreign policy to make it less adventurous and more in line with the policy of its GCC neighbours, the country is still acting independently in Gaza. This is not necessarily a bad thing, reconstruction has been far too slow since the Gaza war. Fresh infrastructure projects by Qatar, regardless of the political reasoning behind it, and its facilitation of indirect Hamas-Israel talks will go a long way in preventing another devastating war in Gaza.