James Gurd: The deadly attacks in Israel as three great religious celebrations meet – Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

15 Apr

James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

News of the brutal terror attack at a busy bar in the heart of Tel Aviv broke during CFI’s first parliamentary delegation since the pandemic. The attack was the fourth such incident in little over a week – the deadliest in 15 years. Our week had been shaped by an inescapable question – was this the beginning of a Third Intifada?

Israelis have an inbuilt resilience to these sorts of tragic incidents. You will be hard pressed to find an Israeli that wasn’t affected in some way by the hundreds of Palestinian terror attacks during the Second Intifada of 2000-2005 which killed over a thousand. There is a growing feeling that something is again brewing.

The night of the Tel Aviv attack I was out and about along Jerusalem’s main Jaffa Street. The security presence was palpable and the city felt unusually quiet – a far cry from previous visits. Police cars patrolled the streets methodically at short intervals and armed police and soldiers were ever present.

The scene will have been similar across much of the country and is likely to continue for another few weeks yet as Israel experiences a rare confluence of three major religious festivals – Passover, Ramadan and Easter.

Ramadan has historically been a time of increased tensions and attacks, and the overlap with Passover and Easter has certainly added to the combustibility of this period. The approaching one-year anniversary of Israel’s latest conflict with the Hamas terror group, as well as Israel’s Independence Day (5th May), will likely serve as additional flashpoints down the line. This period of tension will not be abating any time soon.

The threat of attacks had been anticipated. Jordan – custodian of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem – had publicly hosted senior Israeli ministers ahead of the holidays and the two countries had been closely and publicly coordinating.

Israel, for its part, has waived permit restrictions for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers to visit the al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount throughout Ramadan. Israeli officials made no change to this policy in the wake of the attacks, perhaps mindful of Hamas’s long history of presenting any perceived Israeli restriction on access to al-Aqsa Mosque as a call to arms.

Hamas has chosen to dial up its rhetoric over Jerusalem regardless but it still seems unlikely that the group will initiate another round of conflict from the Gaza Strip. Less than a year ago, Gaza was the centre of the world’s attention as Israelis sheltered from thousands of rockets and Gazans endured another tragic conflict inflicted by their Hamas overseers. Today, there is relative calm.

In our recent briefing with the Israel Defense Forces on the border with Gaza, it was noted that Hamas was not ready for a major escalation as it was busy rebuilding after Israel delivered a heavy blow to its military capabilities. Hamas is even understood to be preventing rival terror groups – including Palestinian Islamic Jihad – from launching rockets into Israel. This threat level, as always, can change rapidly though.

For now, Hamas appears to be far more willing to unleash its extensive network of cells across the West Bank. A strategy of arms length violence works well for the group as it looks to jointly deliver fatal blows across Israel and threaten the rule of its fierce rival, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority which governs the West Bank. As ever in the Middle East, Iran is usually no more than one-degree of separation away from any instability and as one of the Islamic Republic’s premier terror franchises it is likely that Hamas is being encouraged to agitate again now.

The PA is vehemently opposed to Hamas strengthening its position in the West Bank through a campaign of violence. 17 years into his four-year term, President Mahmoud Abbas and his PA old-guard are deeply unpopular among Palestinians for their well-documented corruption and there is a growing sense of malaise exacerbated by high-unemployment and stalled peace process. Polls indicate a worrying growth in support for violent acts, especially among younger Palestinians who now make up the majority of the population.

President Abbas may have been applauded by some commentators for his condemnation of two recent terror attacks – albeit under pressure from Jordan and the U.S. – but his Fatah party hasn’t hesitated to celebrate the attacks and their perpetrators. The families of the ‘martyrs’ are even set to be honoured with financial support; one of the deplorable practices which may have led the UK to recently freeze its aid to the PA.

Despite this, Israel is working with the PA’s UK-trained security services to stamp out the shared threat posed by Hamas-driven violence but appear to be having mixed success.

Much of the focus has been on the northern Palestinian city of Jenin where the perpetrators of two recent attacks came from. Regarded as the “capital of resistance” by Palestinians during the Second Intifada due to the many suicide bombers who came from the town, it has again become a hotbed for Hamas and PIJ fighters after the PA appeared to lose control of the area in recent years – although it remains unclear how orchestrated they have been. Israeli security services have reportedly foiled further terror attacks originating in the area but its ongoing security operations in Jenin have led to a series of fatal clashes and firefights which are likely to escalate further.

It is a combustible situation, and will likely spread elsewhere in the West Bank and into Jerusalem. Religious fervour has already seen the desecration of Joseph’s Tomb – a holy Jewish and Muslim site – by Palestinian protestors.

Israel seems to have been less prepared for another dynamic – the possibility of attacks claimed by so-called Islamic State. The Jewish state hasn’t been a major focus of the group and yet two of the recent attacks were undertaken by Arabs living within Israel that had pledged allegiance to the group. It remains to be seen whether IS will seek further attacks in Israel, but Hamas and PIJ are certainly committed to doing so.

The uncertainty over what happens next is looming large. There is a great deal at stake for regional stability in the tense days ahead. While Israelis contend with that inescapable and fraught question over a possible Third Intifada, the world is rightly focused on the Russian onslaught in Ukraine. If events continue to escalate though it may not be long be another international crisis erupts. As ever in the Middle East, unpredictability is the only predictable thing.

Robert Halfon: There is no moral equivalance between the Hamas terror group and the democratic state of Israel

19 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

A cursory glance at mainstream social media platforms in recent days shows the prevalence of an alarming tendency by online campaigners to whitewash the actions of Hamas – an internationally proscribed terror group.

No amount of glossy, emotive viral memes about ‘freedom fighters’ should mislead the general public from the incontrovertible reality that Hamas is a genocidal extreme Islamist terror group with advanced military capabilities.

Israel finds itself in an unenviable position – locked in a sad cycle of inevitable, periodic violence with a  terror group embedded within a civilian population which actively seeks civilian deaths to harm Israel’s international standing. Burdened with these challenging circumstances, Israel has a right to self-defence, as reasserted by its Western allies, including the UK.

After all, Hamas rockets target Israelis of all ethnicities. Last weekend, one landed  in the Arab Israeli town of Tayibe, while another exploded in a Palestinian village in the West Bank. And yet, anytime violence escalates in the region the Jewish state is faced with a level of contempt unseen anywhere else in the world.

Just as no moral equivalence can be drawn between the Hamas terror group and the democratic state of Israel, nor must any equivalence be drawn between events in Israel and Gaza and the UK’s Jewish community.

As a British Jewish MP, it was very painful to have to secure an Urgent Question this week about a series of deplorable anti-semitic incidents last weekend which culminated in that vile car convoy which paraded through Jewish areas of London threatening sexual violence, and reportedly even telling Jewish residents to “Go back to Poland”.

The involvement of Iran – the world’s most prolific state sponsor or terrier – in the tragic scenes unfolding in Israel and Gaza cannot be overstated. Simply, they have provided the critical financial and material support necessary for Hamas to fight round after round of these bloody and devastating conflicts.

One need look no further than Hamas’s own leaders to substantiate the close links between Hamas and its Iranian paymasters. Hamas’ leader, Yahya Sinwar, boasted in 2019 that “If it wasn’t for Iran’s support we would not have had these capabilities”.

The former leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force ,Qasem Soleimani ,was a lynchpin of this support. In one particularly colourful incident, a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, vividly recalled being given nine suitcases filled with $22 million in 2006 during a trip to Tehran following a meeting with Soleimani. It is little surprise that ordinary Iranians have increasingly taken the brave decision to speak out against their morally and increasingly financially bankrupt fundamentalist regime.

With negotiations ongoing in Vienna over last-gasp efforts to resuscitate the failed JCPOA nuclear agreement, one might expect Iran would be minded to keep its head – and that of its terror proxies – down.

Under the nose of the international community, the armoury open to Hamas has advanced significantly in the intervening period. Collectively, Gaza-based terror groups are believed to be in possession of 30,000 rockets. What started as crude directionless mortar and homemade rockets – still deadly but with limited explosive potential and limited range – has morphed into advanced rockets with large warheads capable of travelling 100+ miles with a worrying degree of accuracy. None of this would have been possible without the extensive input of Iran.

For years, Hamas’s ever improving inventory (from rockets to armed drones and Russian made guided anti-tank missiles) would arrive in Gaza via a weapons smuggling route that led directly from Iran through to Yemen and then across the Red Sea to Sudan where they would then begin their journey northwards via Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula with the aid of Bedouin smugglers.

Once at the Gaza border, they would be spirited into Gaza by one of the thousands of smuggling tunnels that used to be so prolific before Egypt’s military launched a major clampdown in recent years. The destabilising consequences of these weapons are, of course, one of the many reasons why Egypt retains its own blockade of Gaza to this day.

To boost its chances of safely receiving its deadly payload, Iran also helps Hamas to operate an additional smuggling route via the water. The IRGC are known to send weapons via the Suez Canal and then into the Mediterranean Sea where Hamas naval ‘frogmen’ will transport the weapons into Gaza off the Egyptian coast under the cover of darkness. Several major interceptions have been made by Israel over the years, uncovering tonnes of weaponry destined for the Strip, but it is clear that a whole lot more is going undetected.

As a result of growing disruption to these smuggling routes as well as punishing U.S. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear activities, Israel’s security officials believe that Tehran has adapted its strategy. An emphasis is now placed upon domestic production of rockets based upon Iranian missile designs. Hamas commanders are even understood to have visited Iran for fact finding missions alongside their IRGC overseers.

An Al Jazeera documentary about Hamas broadcast last year even showed its terrorists digging up old water pipes from Israeli settlements abandoned in 2005 for repurposing as rockets, and claiming to have sufficient material for another ten years of rocket production.

Hamas has shown itself capable in recent days of firing considerably greater numbers of rockets at any one time than it ever has before, and over a much greater distance. Its barrages have been intense, with 470 rockets fired in the first 24 hours, compared to a peak of 192 rockets fired in a single day in the last conflict in 2014. The tactic of firing 100 plus rockets from multiple directions in a single barrage in an attempt to overwhelm Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome missile defence system has proven surprisingly effective.

I have had the grim experience of holding the remains of some of these rockets in a visit to Israel’s southern town of Sderot: a town where the norm is to have as little as 10 seconds to find shelter in the event of a rocket or mortar attack. Little wonder that the town – which has a rocketproof train station and schools – is known as the bomb shelter capital of the world.

Ultimately, unless the international community belatedly wakes up to Iran and its involvement in Gaza then it will sadly doom yet more generations of Palestinians to ongoing conflict.

Israel wants peace. It has made past treaties with Jordan, Egypt and most recently, the United Arab Emirates. It’s worth remembering the Jewish state withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in August 2005. No peace will ever be achieved if the Iranian financed Hamas and Hezbollah continue with their all out war to try and throw Israel into the sea.

James Gurd: So often, views of the Middle East are out of date. As this historic deal between Israel and the UEA shows.

19 Aug

James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

The Covid-19 news cycle was interrupted briefly last week with a historic development from the Middle East: the announcement of intentions for full diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The agreement includes the key tenets of an unremarkable bilateral relationship – from the opening of embassies to passenger flights – but this was no ordinary announcement.

It represents the most significant development between Israel and its Arab neighbours since Jordan’s peace agreement with Israel in 1994 and, if fulfilled, it will become only the third Arab nation to establish full diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. While the agreements with Egypt and Jordan have largely brought a practical but crucial peace, this new relationship will be founded upon friendship and expanding mutual interests.

Unthinkable to many, the momentous announcement has in fact been in the offing for some time.

The rules of the ‘old Middle East’ have been changing for over a decade. The great Arab nations have seen an increasing number of high-profile Israeli delegations travelling through. Discreet at first, these visits have become increasingly regular and overt, with Benjamin Netanyahu officially visiting Oman in 2018, and Saudi news publishing an unprecedented 2017 interview with Israel’s IDF Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, in which he publicly offered to share intelligence on Iran.

In a sign of the changing times, extraordinary reports emerged a couple of years ago of tensions between two Gulf states (reportedly Bahrain and Oman) over who would first host a visit from Netanyahu.

Rightly, much of the focus behind last week’s announcements has centred upon the strategic alignment between Israel and the UAE (as well as its Gulf neighbours) over the threat posed by Iran. Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions have long cast a shadow over the region, and Sunni Arab leaders now recognise that Iran’s nuclear programme and destabilisation of multiple countries via its terrorist proxies represent an existential threat to more than just Jerusalem.

Its reported firing of ballistic missiles (inexplicably omitted from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal) at a critical Saudi Arabian oil facility last year showed beyond doubt how far Tehran is prepared to go. Israel represents a crucial and dependable ally against Iran, especially at a time of shifting U.S. policy interests.

The resource-rich economies of the Middle East will also have their eyes on their economic futures. With finite supplies of fossil fuels, changing consumer habits likely accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and increased environmentalism, the leaders of these countries will be acutely aware of the need to diversify away from natural resource revenues. Israel’s remarkable success as a tech powerhouse offers a valuable blueprint.

The move towards peace can also be understood against the tumult of the ‘Arab Spring’. Throughout, many regional leaders desperately resorted to that old clarion call: ‘Your hardship is a consequence of the evil Zionist entity’.

But if that period taught us anything it was that the Arab people sought basic freedoms and personal securities, thereby conclusively putting to bed the misguided notion that regional stability hinged solely upon resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. While this outdated world view continues to shape the thinking of some Western capitals, in reality the Israeli/Palestinian issue has been low on the agenda for Arab leaders and officials meeting with their Israeli counterparts in recent years.

The Israeli media is now awash with speculation over the possibility of further regional states moving towards formal ties with Israel. While Bahrain and Oman are presented as the prime candidates, Sudan is a possibility, and formal ties with Saudi Arabia are no longer unimaginable.

Crucially, a decisive movement away from historic Arab-Israeli enmity offers an opportunity to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While the Palestinian Authority was predictably quick to denounce last week’s announcement as a betrayal, many Arab capitals are understood to be growing weary of the intransigence that has seen off multiple viable peace deals. This perhaps explains their cautious welcoming of Donald Trump’s attempt to rethink the Oslo paradigm – held increasingly as a failed formula by politicians and commentators of all stripes.

While Arab leaders may not agree with every aspect of Trump’s proposal, by seriously engaging with the peace process and by actively encouraging the Palestinians to return to talks, the UAE and other Arab countries may finally help unlock that most elusive peace agreement.

The ramifications of these shifting sands extend far beyond the region. Under consecutive Conservative Governments, the UK has been deepening its own ties with Israel – with record trade, deep security links, and even historic first official visits to the Jewish State by the Duke of Cambridge and Prince of Wales. As Arab states move towards publicly recognising Israel as a valuable regional ally, and given our shared concerns over Iran and Islamist terrorism, the UK should use its historical links to encourage the change and maximise the ample opportunities for new regional trade and security initiatives.

The UAE’s Foreign Minister reflected Saturday that “clearly, 70 years of not communicating with Israel has led us nowhere”. It is a conclusion that will lead others to follow the UAE’s historic decision to move to a future of friendship, not one of hostility.