Hamas, Morsi, Israel – shoulder-to-shoulder against anarchy
The new status quo in the Middle East is one of porous borders, growing radicalization and the fragmentation of once stable nation-states
By Tony Karon, Time magazine
August 09, 2012
The overnight air strikes by the Egyptian military against rebels based on Egyptian territory in Sinai on Wednesday would have alarmed Israeli security chieftains, confirming that Cairo has lost control of the desert territory over which the two countries fought three wars and is now mounting a full-blown military campaign to reassert its authority. Egypt’s military — which operates independently of its elected civilian government — was spurred to action after border posts were targeted in a series of attacks on Sunday and Tuesday by what are believed to be jihadist groups looking to stage attacks on Israel. The same organizations are also attempting to undermine the authority of the Egyptian military, the fledgling government of President Mohamed Morsy — a longtime Muslim Brotherhood leader — and the Hamas administration that runs the adjacent Palestinian enclave of Gaza.
But this is hardly the only flash point in a region in flux. The spectacle of non-state actors exploiting the fraying of state authority to assert their own agendas would have given the guardians of Israel’s security even more cause for alarm over events unfolding on their northern frontier, where the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad is losing control over vast swaths of territory, creating operating space for all manner of independent actors, including jihadists of various stripes.
The latest Sinai confrontation began on Sunday with a dramatic raid on an Egyptian-army border post that left 16 soldiers dead. The attackers stole an armored personnel carrier and crashed through the border into Israel before being killed in an Israeli air strike. They were later found to have been wearing suicide bombers’ explosive vests, signaling an intent to spread mayhem on the Israeli side of the border. Walking back on an initial claim by its U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren, that Iran had been behind the attack, the Israeli military blamed al-Qaeda. Egypt’s military appeared to reach a similar conclusion, but said the attackers were based both in Sinai and the Palestinian territory of Gaza, where the control of Hamas is being challenged by al-Qaeda-inspired militants, among others. Hamas and its allies in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood furiously condemned the attack, but in a throwback to the paranoid style of the Mubarak era, blamed it on the Israelis themselves, claiming a dark plot to sow discord between Cairo and Gaza.
The discrepancy between those statements obviously reflects competing political agendas. But it’s certainly clear that the attacks were intended to further strain the already fragile relationship between Israel and the Egyptian military, disrupt the nascent post-Mubarak domestic political order in Egypt, provoke confrontation with Israel and challenge the authority of Hamas in Gaza, where there have been recent moves to ease Israel’s six-year siege and blockade of the territory. After Sunday’s raid, the Egyptian military began closing the smuggling tunnels that have been Gaza’s economic lifeline.
Sinai’s Bedouin population has complained of decades of neglect by the Egyptian state, making it an economically depressed zone in which smuggling and criminality has thrived — as well as a more permissive environment for small jihadist groups. But the February 2011 uprising that dispatched Mubarak also saw a dramatic weakening of state authority in Sinai, and local militants have for months conducted a low-key insurgency that has included targeting gas pipelines and other facilities, and occasional cross-border attacks on Israel.
Although the latest attacks have sparked widespread outrage in Egypt and a groundswell of support for the military, it remains to be seen whether a military show of force, including air strikes on villages said to be bases of rebels, will eliminate or exacerbate the problem. Nor will tightening the blockade on Gaza strengthen Hamas’ ability to enforce its security edicts on rival organizations.
Despite the political discord in Cairo and the poor security situation in Sinai, Israel is aware of the tacit consensus between Egypt’s military and its elected government on the need to keep and enforce the peace with Israel. However effective or otherwise efforts may be, the Israelis are confident that Cairo is committed to restoring its authority in Sinai. But the security challenge Israel will soon face on its northern frontier, however, is altogether more daunting.
In Syria, the authority of the state itself has collapsed over vast swaths of territory, particularly along the borders as the regime concentrates its forces to battle rebels in the main cities. And the circumstances in the Kurdish region of northeastern Syria demonstrates how effectively nonstate actors with independent agendas have been able to exploit that situation. Syrian Kurdish groups, acting entirely independently of both the regime and the rebellion but assisted by their kin in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish province, have created militias that have taken direct control over their own turf, staking out a future autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria — much to the alarm of Turkey. Of course, Israel has nothing to fear from Kurdish self-determination in Syria, but developments in Kurdish Syria underscore the fundamental rupture in the architecture of state power that has kept a hostile but stable peace with Israel for four decades. And the Kurds are not the only nonstate actor with an agenda independent of the mainstream Syrian opposition, given the growing reports of the emergence on the battlefield of various al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups.
Syria’s borders with Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq have become increasingly porous — Sunni insurgents and jihadists once encouraged by the Assad regime to cross into Iraq from Syria are now crossing the other way, as are jihadists from Lebanon; Free Syrian Army fighters are crossing from Turkey into Syria; and PKK Kurdish separatists may be crossing the other way. Israel has good reason to be nervous about what to expect on the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory it has occupied since 1967. Israeli military-intelligence chief Major General Aviv Kochavi last month told the Knesset that unnamed “global jihad” groups (Israeli code for al-Qaeda) had begun operating on the Syrian side of the Golan, from which the Assad regime had pulled thousands of troops for deployment against the rebellion. “The Golan area is liable to become an arena of operations against Israel in much the same way the Sinai is today, and that’s a result of the increasing entrenchment of global jihad in Syria,” Kochavi told a Knesset committee, according to the Associated Press.
Unlike the Sinai, which was returned to Egypt in 1980 under the Camp David peace agreement, the Golan Heights remain under occupation, and a more representative government that replaced Assad would, if anything, be even more insistent on securing their return to Syrian control. The Syrian National Council, the mainstream exile opposition group backed by the West, has made clear its commitment to seek the return of the Golan through negotiations with Israel. But the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly indicated that it has no intention of returning the Golan to Syria. The combination of the fraying of state authority as a result of the rebellion, and the broad legitimacy in Syrian society enjoyed by any effort to reclaim this contested territory, will likely create a more permissive environment for more radical elements to take root once the battles to dislodge Assad’s regime are over.
Indeed, as Assad’s power crumbles, the Israeli leadership may well find itself quietly experiencing an improbable nostalgia for its intractable — yet entirely predictable and effectively tame — foe in Damascus.
Gaza prayer for Egypt’s 16 victims
By Adie Mormech, Palestine Chronicle
August 08, 2012
Gaza City–Thousands of Palestinians gathered for evening prayer in front of the Egyptian embassy in Gaza City Monday evening, in memory of the 16 Egyptian soldiers killed the previous night. The gunmen remain unidentified, although Western media have been quick to point fingers at Salafi groups linked to Gaza.
Banners read, “Condolences to the martyred Egyptian soldiers” and “warmest greetings to the Egyptian army.”
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh led the prayer and “Taraweeh”, asserting, “The national security of Egypt and the national security of Palestine are one and the same. Our government is fully prepared to cooperate with the Egyptian security forces to uncover the circumstances behind this incident”.
Whatever “the circumstances”, the attacks have already ensured the Egyptian government’s closure of the Rafah border, sealing 1.6 million Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip despite recent overtures from the newly elected Mursi government.
However, while new approaches to security in the Sinai and through the Gaza tunnels will doubtless occur, the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood left a statement on their website that for once spared Gazans the blame: “This crime can be attributed to the Mossad, which has been seeking to abort the revolution since its inception and the proof of this is that it gave instructions to its zionist citizens in Sinai to depart immediately a few days ago.”
While by no means untypical of the Arab street to assume that all attacks lead to Mossad, the mere possibility is almost never suggested in Western mainstream media. For Gaza filmmaker and youth activist Mohammed Fares Majdalawi, the West’s swallowing of the Israeli mantra, “blame Gaza”, is just as frustrating as the assumption that the much vaunted Israeli secret services never carry out black ops. “Evidently there is no gain whatsoever for Palestinians to kill 16 Egyptians just when relations seemed to be warming with Egypt. People should be aware of Israel’s history of undercover operations in Egypt and the fact that they need to keep Egypt and Palestinians divided, the same way they have divided our own political factions. These should be seen as normal tactics for such a militarised and paranoid state with so much investment in its intelligence networks.”
Certainly Palestinians have a right to be cynical about attacks in the Sinai. In August of 2011 an attack on a bus that killed 7 Israelis was immediately pinned on a Gaza group the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), who denied any involvement.
“This is not speculation, not conjecture, not joining the dots. They are sure these terrorists left Gaza”, said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev at the time.
Israel immediately sent in devastating raid after raid throughout Gaza, causing huge destruction to government and NGO offices, water and sewage pumps and a psychotherapy clinic. In total 27 Palestinians were killed including PRC official KhaledShath and his two year old son Malek.
Following the bombardment, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “We have killed the heads of the organization that sent the terrorists.”
As the attacks unfolded Colonel AvitalLeibovitz then denied that Israel blamed the PRC for the Eilat attack and suggested the Gaza evidence was based on “some of the findings that were from the bodies of the terrorists, and they are using, for example, Kalashnikov bullets and Kalashnikov rifles which are very common in Gaza.” (Kalashnikovs are the most popular guns in the world, with more than 75 million produced since the Second World War.)
Two months later Yediot’s Alex Fishman published the leaked main findings of an IDF investigation into the incident. They explicitly state under the headline of “mistaken enemy”, that all of the attackers lived in Sinai and members of a group the Israeli security apparatus referred to as “Sinawis”, not from Gaza.
So just like the false claim that weapons were found among activists on the Mavi Marmara during the deadly Freedom Flotilla raid – Israeli intelligence was just speculation, it was just conjecture, it was just joining the dots.
Egyptians too may also have cause for scepticism, for Israel hasn’t been shy in the past from meddling in Egypt’s affairs for political gain over the Palestinians.
Operation Susannah was an Israeli covert operation in 1954 uncovered by Egyptian intelligence in what went on to be known as “the Lavon Affair”, named after the Israeli Defence Minister deemed responsible Pinhas Lavon. According to historian ShabtaiTeveth, the assignment was “To undermine Western confidence in the existing [Egyptian] regime by generating public insecurity and actions to bring about arrests, demonstrations, and acts of revenge, while totally concealing the Israeli factor. The team was accordingly urged to avoid detection, so that suspicion would fall on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, ‘unspecified malcontents’ or ‘local nationalists.’” (1)
In July 1954 the terrorist cell that was formed firebombed a post office in Alexandria, bombed the libraries of the U.S. Information Agency in Alexandria and Cairo and a British-owned theatre. Although the plan was exposed when the eleven agents were arrested, the attempt helped to provoke mistrust of the previously settled Jewish community in Egypt which encouraged more emigration to Israel.
Egyptian journalist and analyst with Egyptian daily Ahram Online Salma Shukrallah said that the attacks certainly played into Israel and its allies’ hands. “If it is true that Mursi was attempting to have better relations with Gaza, his attempt would probably be fought by the SCAF as well as Israel of course and the attack’s timing would then have been “perfect” for them as well… I think that even if Mossad is not behind these acts directly, I share the view that Israel is the only beneficiary and thus had at least let it happen.”
Salma expects Egypt to follow media pressure in Egypt and revise the Camp David treaty to bring more security to the Sinai, but never held out much hope in suggestions thatMursi would open up the Rafah border or normalise relations with Gaza. “Even though the brotherhood claim Mursi was actually going to take steps to better relations with Gaza before the attack changed his plans, I do not believe that. At the moment I just fear that relations with Gaza may worsen unless political movements shift the discourse.”
Mohammed is like most Gazans, facing yet again the prospect of more restrictions and more Egyptian involvement in the five-year blockade.
“When I first heard, my feeling was that I was very sad, like many here. Then you get a resigned feeling that we Palestinians would suffer the consequences, that the finger of blame would as usual be pointed at us, our entire population”, said Mohammed.
“I hope to travel out of Gaza soon for only the second time in my life. After the news I went immediately to register because I now expect lots of the usual delays. I was told they were not even accepting registrations today. Now like so many here I may have my dreams of travelling dashed by the siege, frequently made worse by events totally beyond my control.”
This dismal prophecy was re-affirmed by Salma Shukrallah’s understanding of Egyptian sentiment:
“People are in shock. Anti-Palestinian sentiments are rapidly on the increase unfortunately and now the state is better able to justify the border closure and the state’s failure to end the siege as many have been demanding here.
“Others in Egypt are trying to shift the discourse from anti-Palestinian to anti-Israeli, but somehow the two in Egypt can go hand in hand (people can hate Israel but also fear the Palestinians).”
Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman, YigalPalmor, denied the involvement of any Israeli agency, saying, “Even the person who says this when he looks at himself in the mirror does not believe the nonsense he is uttering.”
But can Israel have it both ways? The Mossad is famous for its secret operations, but when the benefits of some strange incidents are so great, for how long can it expect the world to assume that it isn’t carrying any out?
For Gazans a lot of the whodunnits are meaningless. Soon murders will be announced by the Israeli perpetrators. F16s or Drones will be in the sky, bombs will fall again, the screams, the dust, the sirens, the missile fragment with “Made in America” on it. Expectations of justice are not high in these parts.
[1) Ben-Gurion’s Spy, Columbia University Press, 1996, p. 81.
Adie Mormech is a human rights advocate based in the Gaza Strip who was previously abducted by the Israeli navy from the eighth Free Gaza Movement boat, the Spirit of Humanity. He has recently returned to Gaza after spending over a year there in 2010 to work on BDS and volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement.