Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Britain bans Hezbollah

This article appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 27 May 2019

          Al Quds Day in 2019 falls on May 31. Al Quds, literally “The Holy One”, is the Arabic term for the city of Jerusalem. The occasion, despite its twenty-year history, is not one that commands much universal recognition. 

          In 1979 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini declared that the last Friday of Ramadan would henceforth be consecrated as Al Quds Day, an annual opportunity for all enemies of Israel to have a field day. To mark the occasion those so inclined around the world organize marches and rallies to denounce Israel and declare their support for the Palestinian cause.

          The UK has witnessed Al Quds Day rallies for many years. A dominant feature, as demonstrators chanting slogans and waving banners parade through central London, has been the preponderance of the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah, the organization dedicated to destroying Israel. That flag will be notable by its absence from the rally being planned for 3 pm on June 2, 2019.

          Britain has had a long relationship with Hezbollah. and has disengaged from it only slowly. The divorce was made final on 26 February 2019, when Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced in the House of Commons that he was banning the organization as a whole under the Terrorism Act 2000.

          “We are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party,” said Javid. “Because of this, I have taken the decision to proscribe the group in its entirety.” Anyone expressing support for any part of Hezbollah could in future face a prison sentence of 10 years.

          Although Labour’s front bench spokesman maintained that there was no new evidence justifying a change in the UK’s position, the Labour party did not oppose the measure.

          The UK first banned what was then described as Hezbollah's “terrorist wing” in 2001. This followed a long succession of terrorist attacks against Western targets, and culminated in the abduction by Hezbollah in 2000 of three Israeli soldiers from the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanese border, and their subsequent murder.

          In 2008 the UK added what it designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” to its ban, after the organization targeted British soldiers in Iraq. But it reserved judgment on the organization as a whole, citing as its reason Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the internal politics of Lebanon.

           As a consequence, since Hezbollah’s so-called “political wing” was not proscribed, the rally parading through the streets of London every year to mark Al-Quds Day was legally entitled to display the Hezbollah flag. Distasteful as this annual display of racism was to many Londoners, and as much as successive Home Secretaries disapproved, it was not an offence to do so.

          Any distinction between so-called “military” or “political” wings of Hezbollah – a distinction which the EU copied from the UK – is illusory. Presenting the new measure in the Commons, Javid said: "There have long been calls to ban the whole group, with the distinction between the two factions derided as smoke and mirrors. Hezbollah themselves have laughed off the suggestion there is a difference. I've carefully considered the evidence and I'm satisfied they are one and the same with the entire organization linked to terrorism."

          And indeed Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassen, declared in 2012: "We don't have a military wing and a political one...Every element of Hezbollah…is in the service of the resistance." He added unequivocally: “We have one leadership, with one administration." In short, Hezbollah is a unified organization, and its jihadist purpose is basic to its existence.

          A glance at Hezbollah's organization confirms this. It has a unified command structure consisting of five sub-councils, or assemblies. Above them sits the Shura Council, which controls the leadership of Hezbollah and all its operations, and comprises nine members, seven of whom are Lebanese and the other two Iranian.

          Iran’s involvement at the very top of today’s Hezbollah is no surprise. In the 1970s Lebanon, torn apart by civil conflict, was under the occupation of the Shia-aligned Syrian government. Around 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shi’ite Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shia Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”. Its forces were trained and organized by a contingent of 1,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

          Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Very shortly Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. A wave of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world. These include the detonation in 1983 of an explosive-filled van in front of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 58 Americans and Lebanese, and the bombing of the US Marine and French Drakkar barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers.

          In 1992 Hezbollah operatives boasted of their involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina killing 29 people, and two years later claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina and the subsequent death of 85 people. The atrocities continued: 21 people, including 12 Jews, killed in an airplane attack in Panama in 1994; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing inside Saudi Arabia killing 19 US servicemen; the 2005 assassination of one-time Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2012 Burgas bus bombing in Bulgaria killing 6. Over the eight years of the Syrian civil war Iran recruited thousands of Hezbollah fighters to help keep President Bashar al-Assad in power and restore his lost territories to him.

          It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by the Arab League, as well as by a batch of other nations including Canada, the Netherlands, the USA, all the Gulf states that form the Gulf Cooperation Council and, of course, Israel. Now the group is joined by the UK, but notably absent from the list is the United Nations. In praising Britain’s decision, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, said: “We will continue to lead the struggle for the Security Council to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and mobilize the international community against it, as it serves as an arm of Iran to spread Tehran’s aggression.”

          During its 38 bloodthirsty years of existence Hezbollah has nevertheless managed to achieve a certain acceptability in Shia Muslim sections of Lebanese society. In the election that followed Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone that it had established along the border, Hezbollah, in alliance with Amal, took all 23 South Lebanon seats out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process, and has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government. As a result it has achieved substantial power within Lebanon’s body politic, to a point where it has been dubbed “a state within a state”.

          In Lebanon’s 2018 general election Hezbollah again strengthened its parliamentary position. When the subsequent political deadlock was finally resolved on January 31, 2019 and a government was formed, the organization was allocated three ministries including, for the first time, the Ministry of Health which controls one of the country’s largest budgets. In addition the Finance Ministry is in the hands of a Hezbollah ally.

This situation causes a delicate diplomatic dilemma for all the states that have proscribed Hezbollah. In supporting the ban in the House of Commons, UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said; “We are staunch supporters of a stable and prosperous Lebanon. We cannot, however, be complacent when it comes to terrorism. It is clear the distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings does not exist, and by proscribing Hezbollah in all its forms the government is sending a clear signal that its destabilizing activities in the region are totally unacceptable and detrimental to the UK’s national security.”

But Hunt added: “This does not change our ongoing commitment to Lebanon, with whom we have a broad and strong relationship.”

Because Lebanon’s constitution is itself a precarious balancing act between its various religious factions, it has coped with this unsatisfactory position for two decades. But if Hezbollah’s power within the Lebanese administration ever became dominant, Britain might have to think again about its relationship with Lebanon itself.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Sudan ablaze

                                                                                Video version
          Back in June 1989 a Colonel Omar al-Bashir led a bloodless military coup in Sudan. Once he had ousted the previous regime, it was not long before he assumed full executive and legislative powers, declared himself President and established a dictatorship. He ruled Sudan for a full 30 years with an iron grip.

         He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Bashir’s 30-year rule came to an end on 4 April 2019, when widespread popular uprisings precipitated a coup by the military which ousted him. The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the umbrella group representing those agitating for complete change in Sudan, are determined that this uprising will not be hijacked by another military junta.

          Currently the military group that engineered the coup rules through a Transitional Military Council (TMC). Sensitive to the popular mood, the TMC have agreed to hand over power to civilian rule, but the two sides are by no means in one mind about the details. Still to be settled is the composition of the "presidential council" that will temporarily replace the head of state, and also how and when an interim parliament and government will be established.

          The African Union (AU) has been acting as honest broker. It is well-placed to do so. Founded in 1999, its membership consists of 55 nations located on the African continent. After a meeting on 6 May 2019 between UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Moussa Faki Mahamat, representing the AU, a joint UN-AU communique welcomed "AU-led efforts to facilitate a consensual and civilian-led transition, in close coordination with the UN".

          The AU initially gave the military coup leaders 15 days to hand over power, but extended the deadline to 60 days. It strongly supports the concept of a civilian-led transitional government as the next step for Sudan.

         Sudanese protesters rally outside the army complex in Khartoum on 18 April 2019

          When Bashir seized power in 1989, Sudan – then Africa’s largest country – was in the midst of a 21-year civil war between north and south. Eventually Bashir acknowledged that secession by the south was the only way forward. Following a referendum, South Sudan split from the north and became independent in July 2011. It was the culmination of more than a century of armed struggle by southern Sudanese activists.

          Demography lay behind the conflict. Most inhabitants in the north are Arab by descent, and Muslim by religion. The south is home to most of the 570-plus Sudanese tribes, very few of whom are either Arab or Muslim. A fair proportion were converted to Christianity by western missionaries.

          Towards the end of the nineteenth century Sudan became the focus of interest by Western European colonial powers. The Blue and White Niles converge just outside Khartoum, Sudan’s major city, and Britain, France and Belgium laid claims to it. Britain had plans for an irrigation dam at Aswan, in Egypt, and needed control of the Nile’s headwaters. In line with the gung-ho philosophy of the time, the British government authorized Brigadier Horatio Herbert Kitchener to conduct military campaigns against the unstable Sudanese regime, nominally in support of the Egyptian government which had previously held power. Kitchener’s campaigns culminated in a decisive victory in the battle of Omdurman in September 1898 – and as a result he was created an Earl, and took the title Lord Kitchener of Khartoum.

          Sudan was subsequently administered by Egypt, under Britain’s watchful eye, in an arrangement known as the Condominium Agreement. It lasted from 1899 to 1955, but tensions were present from the start between the northern part of the country and the south, which soon began demanding autonomy if not outright independence. Fifty years of continuous civil conflict ensued, only brought to an end with the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005. Subsequent negotiations led eventually to southern Sudan splitting from the rest of the country in 2011 and achieving independence.

          But as Bashir was signing the 2005 peace agreement with the south, another conflict was breaking out in the western region of Darfur. Claiming government discrimination against the region and its non-Arab population, rebels took up arms. The brutal measures employed by Bashir to suppress this led to his being accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

          Despite an international arrest warrant issued by the ICC, Bashir organized, and unsurprisingly won, consecutive elections in 2010 and 2015. And so far he has avoided arrest, even when he ventured outside Sudan. For example in 2017 he visited Jordan for an Arab League summit. On 6 May 2019 the ICC ruled that Jordan failed to meet its international legal obligations to arrest Bashir during that visit. The ICC appeals chamber said that a sitting head of state does not have immunity from arrest for alleged grave crimes, even when the leader is from a country that has not joined the ICC.

         Media reports claim that he is being held in Kober prison in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The transitional military council that assumed control in the country has said they would not hand Bashir over to face justice at the ICC, but could try him in Sudan or a forthcoming civilian government could do so. Meanwhile not only is Bashir wanted by the ICC, but Sudan’s public prosecutor has ruled that he is to be interrogated on charges of financing terrorism and money laundering.

          Bashir’s fate has become one element in the negotiations aimed at settling the civil conflict and returning the country to civilian rule.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 May 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 12 May 2019:

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Trump's deal of the century – straws in the wind

                                                                            Video version
          Following Israel’s general election and Benjamin Netanyahu's victory at the polls, Washington announced that the Trump peace plan – dubbed by the President as “the deal of the century” – would be unveiled after Ramadan, which in 2019 concludes on 4 June. In short, there is little more than a month to go before the big reveal.

          Meanwhile the Palestinian leadership is redoubling its efforts to build Arab opposition to the plan, none of whose details have yet been revealed. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has toured Arab capitals seeking a consensus to oppose it, whatever it contains and whenever it is revealed.

          While in Cairo in April 2019, Abbas attended a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers and urged them to support Palestinian opposition to the deal. Abbas’s new prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, appointed after a recent PA government reshuffle, met a visiting Democrat US Senator in April. Their reported exchange revealed the extent of the fears generated within the PA about what the secret plan might actually contain. Simply on the basis of speculation the Palestinian leadership is pretty certain that it is going to endorse Israel annexing parts of the West Bank, thus destroying the two-state solution and any chance of establishing an independent Palestinian state on pre-1967 lines.

          At about the same time a Hamas official in the Gaza Strip announced the formation of a new body called “The Higher National Commission for Resisting the Deal of the Century”. The official said that the body consisted of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as from Arab and Islamic states, who would discuss mechanisms for strangling the not-yet-born peace plan at birth. He urged all Palestinian factions to resort to “armed and popular resistance” to the Trump deal.

          Meanwhile, on 23 April Jared Kushner gave an interview at Time Magazine’s 100 Summit, an annual gathering of the world’s most influential people. For the first time, in discussing the peace plan that he has been heading for the Trump administration for the past two years, he gave some insight into its construction. His peace team had studied all the different past efforts, said Kushner, and analysed how and why they had failed.
          “We’ve taken, I think, an unconventional approach,” he said. “Normally they start with a process and then hope that the process leads to a resolution ... What we’ve done is the opposite. We’ve done very extensive research and a lot of talking to a lot of the people. We’re not trying to impose our will.”

          He called the Arab peace initiative of 2002 a very good attempt, but if it had been workable, “we would have made peace a long time ago.” His peace team had decided on a bottom-up focus. “How do you make the lives of the Palestinian people better? What can you resolve to allow these areas to become more investable? We deal with all the core status issues because you have to do it, but we’ve also built a robust business plan for the whole region.”

           Avoiding a question about the two-state solution he said: “I think that the document you’ll see, which is a very detailed proposal, is a … comprehensive vision for what can be if people are willing to make some hard decisions … There’ll be tough compromises for both [sides].”

          Kushner said he was hopeful that when Israel and the Palestinians examined the proposal they would recognize that “this is really a framework that can allow us to make our lives all materially better. And we’ll see if the leadership on both sides has the courage to take the lead to try to go forward.”

          Taking his lead from Kushner, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman was also prepared to indicate the direction of travel the peace team had taken. He told the media that the plan was an effort “to think out of the box and capture the imagination and hopes of both sides for a better life.”

          Asked about the rationale of unveiling the plan if the Palestinians had already rejected it, Friedman drew a distinction between the Palestinian people and its leadership.

          “The Palestinian people deserve the opportunity to consider a meaningful alternative to the status quo,” he said, “as does Israel. We see value in presenting that vision, even if the initial Palestinian leadership reaction is negative.”

          Finally in an interview with CNN in mid-April, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out the strategic objectives of the peace initiative. He described it as "a vision that has ideas that are new, that are different, that are unique, that tries to reframe and reshape what’s been an intractable problem ,,. We hope that we can get to a better place. Everyone wants this conflict resolved. We want a better life for the Israelis without this conflict, and we certainly want a better life for the Palestinian people."

          Both Trump and his peace team have indicated in the past that their initiative is indeed not so much a plan as a deal, a give-and-take proposal in which both sides would be expected to compromise. Until the details are revealed, it would be impossible for either Israel or the Palestinians to predict whether the benefits on offer would justify the sacrifices demanded.

The main obstacle to its favourable reception is that the PA leadership is scarcely in a compromising mood. They have rejected Trump as an honest broker following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his recent declaration in support of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. What can Trump put on the scales to outweigh that?

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 May 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 5 May 2019:

Friday, 26 April 2019

The virtual Islamic State

                       Video Version
          Just a few years ago the Islamic State (IS) was only too real. Spread across Syria and Iraq, It covered more than 34,000 square miles and controlled millions of people. Its revenues came from oil produced in the areas it had overrun, sold at bargain prices to dealers in Turkey and elsewhere, augmented by taxes levied on its population, the sale of stolen artifacts, ransoms from kidnappings, smuggling and extortion.

          At its height IS had set up a system of government that in many aspects paralleled that of a modern state. The ruler – the self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – headed a central structure of advisory councils and administrative departments that were replicated regionally, and then right down at local level. These departments oversaw a range of functions and services including health provision, education, a legal system, security, finance and media – services which came with a clear ideological orientation, particularly the religious and educational institutions it set up in newly acquired territory.

          Once an area fell under its sway, IS focused on getting the utilities and sanitation systems up and running, and distributing food supplies, often providing better services than many of the populations had previously enjoyed – and consequently sometimes winning their support.

          IS reached its apogee at the end of 2014. By February 2015 it had been driven out of the Syrian border town of Kobane by Kurdish Peshmerga forces; in April of that year it lost the Iraqi city of Tikrit. From then on, facing a military coalition bent on its destruction, it began to disintegrate. Gradually but inexorably, as its forces suffered defeat after defeat, its territory shrank Finally on Friday March 22, 2019, following a lengthy battle around the small Syrian town of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates, IS lost its final stronghold.

          Al-Baghdadi’s dream of establishing a Muslim caliphate spanning the Middle East was dead. His caliphate had lasted less than five years. But the period of IS’s territorial decline also witnessed an increase in Its global appeal to young Muslims, both male and female, who came in their thousands to join the organization. Some, no doubt, have since become disillusioned by IS’s military defeat, but many have not. They will be aware that although the real on-the-ground caliphate has been obliterated, the virtual Islamic State has remained as potent as ever.  And on 29 April 2019 IS published a video showing al-Baghdadi alive and well, the figurehead for a continuing, if virtual, Islamic State.

          Throughout the period 2014-2018 Islamic State conducted or inspired a continuing series of terrorist activities across the globe. The TV network CNN, which maintained a running tally, recorded more than 70 such operations conducted in some 20 countries, resulting in a death toll of nearly 12,000 people. In 2018 alone there were 25 IS-inspired terrorist attacks, and the massacre of 2463 people.
          Within a month of IS’s final defeat on the ground, and as if to proclaim that a virtual version of the organization was fully functional, IS claimed responsibility for the horrific killing campaign in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. In a coordinated operation by suicide bombers that simultaneously targeted three churches and three hotels in Colombo, no less than 359 people were slaughtered and more than 500 injured.

          What motivates this merciless determination to attack, bomb and massacre people?

          The progenitor of the modern Islamist movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. Before becoming the leaders of IS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of al-Qaeda), all belonged to the Brotherhood.

          In founding the organization Al-Banna declared quite simply: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

          The ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is boundless. Its goal, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, which can then unite and expand. Mustafa Mashhur, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from 1996 until 2003, set out its underlying philosophy in his 1995 book “Jihad is the Way”.

          “Jihad and preparation for Jihad are not only for the purpose of fending-off assaults and attacks against Muslims by Allah's enemies, but are also for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state, strengthening the religion and spreading it around the world."

          Islamic State strongly supports the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood. At its heart is a ruthless obsession with imposing its extremist version of Islam on the entire globe. If it cannot achieve its aim by territorial conquest, it will do so by sowing ideological dissension within societies that will not accept its concept of Islam. This purpose, in its view, is of such paramount importance that its achievement must not be deflected by normal human sentiments. The end justifies the use of any means, however extreme.

          During the period that al-Baghdadi held his territory, he used it to provide thousands of young recruits from around the world with a radicalizing education, combat training and experience.   To this, as far as the male recruits were concerned, he added a taste for rape, ultra-violence, and martyrdom.

          The danger these recruits pose does not end when they leave Iraq or Syria, or because the caliphate has been destroyed. The threat of terrorist violence by returnees, by local terrorist groups that affiliate with IS, or from individuals radicalized online by the group’s jihadist propaganda remains a toxic global threat.

          Meanwhile the virtual Islamic State lives on. On top of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, IS recently claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, an attempted attack in Saudi Arabia, and on 18 April the IS news agency claimed that its soldiers had assaulted a military barracks in the democratic Republic of Congo, killing eight people.

          As one US news site put it: “The Caliphate is defeated, but Islamic State is just getting started.”

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 April 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 April 2019:

Friday, 19 April 2019

The Golan Heights – more than one view

                                 Video version
Once upon a time states that emerged victorious from war were entitled to claim sovereignty over any conquered territory. Indeed it was on this basis that the colonial empires of the past, as well as most modern states, were created. 

          In the reordering of international relationships by the League of Nations after the First World War, the right of conquest was abolished – a determination very quickly flouted by the emerging dictatorships of Italy and Germany. Today, however, following the United Nations Charter signed in 1945, international law in principle no longer recognizes the acquisition of sovereignty by a state as a result of invasion and occupation.

          The Golan Heights, which rise steeply from the north-eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinneret), are a prime strategic control point dominating the huge region beneath. Ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948 the Golan had been a Syrian army encampment whose main purpose was to fire shells and other artillery down on Israeli farmers, fishermen and villagers. The communities surrounding the Kinneret suffered nearly twenty years of incessant attacks. During the Six Day War in 1967 Israel, under attack by the combined military forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, fought and overcame the Syrian army on the Golan Heights, and seized the region.

          Four years after Israel’s occupation of the Golan, Hafez al-Assad fomented a coup within Syria and seized supreme power. It was as president of Syria that Assad formed an alliance with Egypt and launched what became known as the Yom Kippur war on Israel in 1973, hoping to wrest the Golan Heights back.

          He failed in that, and eventually signed a disengagement agreement under which a demilitarized “buffer zone” was established between the two countries, to be patrolled by UN peacekeeping forces. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been actively monitoring the area from that day to this.

          In December 1981, however, Israel’s government, under the premiership of Menachem Begin, sponsored an act of parliament that effectively annexed the Golan Heights, a move instantly condemned by the UN Security Council.

          The most recent act in the drama came on 25 March 2019, when President Donald Trump, reversing more than a half-century of US policy, signed a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

          UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared the gesture meaningless, and it was instantly condemned not only by the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, but by the Arab League, which designated Trump’s move as "completely beyond international law", a sentiment echoed also by France, Germany and the European Union.

          But is it? Some distinguished exponents of international law think differently.

          In the opinion of the former President of the International Court of Justice, Judge Stephan Schwebel, the acknowledged principle in international law that "acquisition of territory by war is inadmissible" must be read together with other principles.

          For example, one over-riding Charter principle is that members of the United Nations shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.

          Another is that "no legal right shall spring from a wrong.”

          Yet it was Syria that attacked Israel from the Golan Heights for twenty years, then joined with others in 1967, and again in 1973, to launch military attacks on the country. Aggression against the territorial integrity and political independence of Israel, holds Judge Schwebel, should not be rewarded with legal rights.

          He also holds that a country may occupy foreign territory as long as such seizure and occupation are necessary to its self-defence. For as long as returning the territory would continue to pose a threat, the occupying country has better title to keep possession.

          These opinions of Judge Schwebel accord with the considered conclusions of the late Professor Julius Stone, recognized as one of the twentieth century's leading authorities on the Law of Nations. They are set out in his book “Israel and Palestine”, a detailed analysis of the central principles of international law raised by the Arab-Israel conflict.

          Lawyer Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016, maintains that international law concerning territorial loss during conflict is clear: An attacking nation may not retain permanently land acquired as a result of armed conflict. It is this principle that underlies the world’s condemnation of the Russian occupation of Crimea, for example, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It was, incidentally, why Britain attacked Argentina, following its invasion of the Falklands.

          But Bercovici draws a clear distinction between such examples and Israel’s declaration of sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

          Russia invaded Crimea, he points out, and occupies territory in that country. Crimea did not invade Russia.

          Iraq invaded Kuwait and occupied territory in that country. Kuwait did not invade Iraq.

          In respect of the Golan Heights, however, Israel did not attack Syria in 1967. It was Syria and Jordan that attacked Israel. Bercovici maintains that current international law addresses only the more common situation where the attacker, not the defender, conquers. “International law is silent on this point,” he writes, “and for good reason. Because it was, on a logical basis, incomprehensible.”

          Trump’s recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is quite possibly designed to remove this pawn from the chessboard ahead of the unveiling of his long awaited peace plan. Where and how this element fits into the overall “deal of the century” will, presumably, soon be revealed.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 April 2019:

Friday, 12 April 2019

Khalifa Haftar – Libya’s problem, or its saviour?

                                                                               Video version
          Ever since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has become a hotbed of disparate Islamist groups battling against each other in a never-ending series of local conflicts. The UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has been totally ineffective in its attempts to get a grip on the situation. On the contrary, it has allowed the chaos to spiral out of control.

          The one politico-military figure in today’s Libya possibly able to regain mastery of the situation and bring an end to the state of anarchy is Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA). That does not mean that he is a particularly admirable or attractive character, merely that he appears to have the power and leadership qualities that Libya seems to require at the present time.

          On April 4, 2019 Haftar announced in an on-line audio recording that he was launching a military campaign aimed at taking over the capital, Tripoli. In response, the UN-recognized GNA, which is based in Tripoli, mobilized various militias and launched air attacks against Haftar's forces.

          The next day the United Kingdom arranged for an emergency Security Council meeting, which called on Haftar to "halt all military advances" – a call he is likely to ignore. For Haftar is not an isolated figure. In the months – indeed years – of conflict that have led to what now seems a bid for supreme power, he has been receiving backing and military support from a variety of international sources. These include Russia and France, both of which urged the Security Council to exert minimal pressure on Haftar and his LNA. Other states underwriting Haftar include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

          In short, it is clear that a significant group of nations regard Haftar not as Libya’s problem, but as its solution.

          As a young army officer in 1969. Khalifa Haftar helped Muammar Gaddafi seize power from King Idris, but in the 1980s he had a major falling out with the Libyan dictator, following the failed campaign to annex part of Chad. Haftar fled to the US, from where he spent twenty years planning Gaddafi’s overthrow. The BBC finds it significant that Haftar took up residence in the state of Virginia.

          “His proximity to the CIA's headquarters in Langley,” remarks the BBC on-line, “hinted at a close relationship with US intelligence services, who gave their backing to several attempts to assassinate Gaddafi.”

          When the uprising against Gaddafi began in 2011, Haftar returned to a disintegrating Libya and re-established his control of the LNA. In the following years jihadists of various hues viewed Libya as a happy hunting ground. By February 2014 Islamist groups, notably the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, had taken over Libya’s second city, Benghazi, as well as other towns in the east, and the country was rocked by a succession of assassinations and bombings.

          In May 2014 Haftar launched what he termed “Operation Dignity”, a military effort directed against Islamist militants in Benghazi and the east. It took nearly two years of intensive effort, but by February 2016 the LNA had pushed the jihadists out of much of Benghazi, and by mid-April they had been dislodged from their strongholds surrounding the city.

          In three more years of military effort the LNA achieved significant progress against militant extremists who had embedded themselves in areas across the country. It was these successes, allied to the international backing he received, that may have encouraged Haftar to seek control of the whole country. Hence his recent assault on Tripoli.

          Haftar’s march on the capital happened to coincide with the arrival in the country of Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, who was hoping to arrange a peace conference, the result of months of UN diplomacy. Major players in Libya, including Haftar, were meant to meet in the border town of Ghadames on April 14 to 16 to hammer out a deal paving the way to nationwide elections later this year. The conference has been postponed until further notice.

          "We cannot ask people to take part in the conference during gunfire and air strikes," said Ghassan Salame, the UN envoy to Libya.

          Haftar is hoping to capitalize on the increasing discontent among the civilian population. The situation inside Tripoli, as in other Libyan cities, has been steadily deteriorating. The capital is divided between different militias, and the GNA is itself weak and corrupt.. Crime, insecurity and corruption have been on the rise, while living conditions have markedly worsened. Social and health services have nearly collapsed.

          Inevitably nostalgia for the Gaddafi era has crept in, and Haftar has been capitalizing on that, projecting himself as a military strongman capable of uniting the country and restoring stability and order. A massive promotional campaign, largely backed by the UAE, has been portraying Haftar as Libya's saviour.

          The LNA has taken up positions some 11km south of the centre of Tripoli, but the capital is protected by an array of militias and other groups loyal to the government, and they have recently been augmented by battle-hardened forces from the city of Misrata. The fighting looks like being long and bitter. Haftar’s bid for power is far from assured.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 April 2019: https://www.eurasiareview.com/13042019-khalifa-hafter-libyas-problem-or-its-saviour-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 April 2019:

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Israel's electoral system: There's room for improvement

This article appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated April 22, 2019
          When the Israeli electorate go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – usually 20 or more – with whose policies they most agree. This system has been described as “one of the purest forms of proportional rule,” since the number of seats that each party in the Knesset gains is almost exactly proportional to the number of votes the party obtains in the general election. 

          The downside is that inevitably the nation’s vote is fractured. With every shade of political opinion represented by Knesset seats, no one party can emerge as the outright winner. After each election, weeks are spent in backroom negotiations and deals as the party with the most votes attempts to gain sufficient support from others to command a majority in the Knesset.

          From the voter’s point of view, once the concessions demanded by the smaller parties in return for their support are taken into account, it follows that the policies agreed between the cobbled-together majority can be far from the policies he or she voted for. Slightly more acceptable, perhaps, is the other type of bargaining payoff for support – high office in the new government. Prime ministers, whatever electoral system their nation favours, need political support from ministerial colleagues.

          Vested interest is the great enemy of change in any electoral system. For those benefitting from the procedure as is, reform of any sort carries with it the danger of a loss of power. In Israel there is, and has been for many years, a general recognition that the electoral system is far from perfect and that change is desirable. Indeed, various changes have been introduced from time to time. But time and again the parties in power have declined to grasp the nettle of real reform.

          Israel has a population of around 8 million. In the 2019 general election no less than 47 political parties competed for votes. The USA, with a population of some 328 million seems to manage with just two main parties, and perhaps three others. Even the United Kingdom, combining four nations in one union of 66 million people, has only 8 political parties represented in the House of Commons.

          Israel’s electoral system, as the eminent constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out, is not a considered structure, but a procedure hastily adopted in 1948 when the infant state was at war with its Arab neighbors. With no time or inclination to construct a new electoral model, elections to the Constituent Assembly, which became the first Knesset, were held by the same method that had been used in the pre-state period for elections to the Zionist Congress and to the elected assemblies of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine. But, as Bogdanor points out, a system suitable for a voluntary organization is not necessarily equally suitable for a mature democracy.

          Attempts have been made from time to time to ameliorate the problem caused by too many small parties. Until 1992 a political party needed only one percent of the total votes cast to enter parliament. This was gradually raised – first to 1.5 percent, then to 2 percent, and more recently to 3.25 percent – which is still a low threshold of entry compared to similar electoral systems. The result is that no less than 10 political parties are represented in the current Knesset.

          A major reform introduced in 1996 was the direct election of the prime minister. Its weakness was immediately demonstrated when the man chosen by the nation in 1996 to be prime minister – Benjamin Netanyahu – was not the leader of the largest party in the Knesset. The Labor party led by Shimon Peres had 34 seats; Netanyahu’s Likud only 32. Although two further prime ministers were elected by this method – Ehud Barak in 1999 and Ariel Sharon in 2001 – the experiment, clearly flawed, was discarded.

          One major discrepancy between Israel’s electoral system and that of most other Western democracies is the absence of any constituency-based element. While many nations have adopted a combination of proportional representation (PR) and the direct election of representatives, the UK’s system is virtually the complete opposite of Israel’s.

          Great Britain and Northern Ireland are divided into 650 constituencies, each of which elects one member of parliament. Any political party, provided it fulfills the necessary criteria, may put up candidates and compete in the election. The candidate who wins the most votes in each constituency is elected, regardless of how many votes were cast for other candidates. PR does not feature. The idea of substituting PR for first-past-the-post was put to the electorate in 2011 in a national referendum, and overwhelmingly rejected.

          The UK system nearly always results in one or other of the two major parties – Conservative or Labour – obtaining a clear majority. Its leader becomes prime minister and appoints all government ministers. Party lists are an unknown phenomenon. Except in rare cases, which do arise from time to time, there is no need for the leader of the winning party to negotiate with anyone about anything.

          As for elected members of parliament, each is regarded by their constituents as “their” MP, whether or not they voted for him or her. All MPs hold regular “surgeries” in their constituency where members of the public with problems can speak personally to their MP and ask for advice or help. The personal connection between MPs and their local areas is very strong.

          This electoral system, like all electoral systems, is far from perfect. Its main disadvantage is its failure to match the national voting pattern with seats in parliament. The lack of any proportionality in the first-past-the-post system means that a candidate could win a seat having gained far less than 50 percent of the votes. Most of the votes cast could have gone to the three or more other candidates standing in the election. This would mean that the winning candidate attracted only a minority of support in the constituency, but nevertheless won the election – a situation which, replicated across the country, produces large majorities but a democratic deficit.

          Despite its disadvantages, this was the system favoured by David Ben Gurion in the 1950s, and was the basis of a bill, tabled by Igael Hurvitz and Zalman Shoval in June 1980, which proposed dividing Israel into 120 constituencies. It passed a preliminary reading, but got no further.

          Proposals for reform which combined the constituency concept with the proportionality of the present system have been put forward on three occasions – in 1958, 1972 and 1988. The last attempt, prepared by MK Mordechai Virshubski and signed by 43 others, offered two ideas. The more interesting proposed that 60 MKs would be elected in 60 constituencies, and 60 by the current system. In short, each elector would vote for both a candidate and a list. This bill also passed a first reading, but subsequently foundered.

          Back in 2005, President Moshe Katsav set up a Presidential Commission for the Examination of the Governmental Structure, a forum of the country's leading political scientists chaired by Hebrew University President Menahem Magidor. The commission met regularly for more than a year, and it too finally favoured a combined system. Highlighting the lack of “clear linkage between an elected person’s performance and their chances of being reelected,” its report recommended that half of the Knesset should be elected directly within the 17 districts that the country is divided into by the Interior Ministry, while the other half would be voted in by way of the current system.

          The commission’s recommendations, like the earlier parliamentary bills proposing electoral reform, were not followed up. Nor indeed were subsequent attempts, such as the determined effort by Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson in 2006. Then Chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Ben Sasson set to work with a will. Undeterred by all the previous unsuccessful attempts, he declared: “This generation might be ready. At least I have to try”. Try he did, but his proposals were blocked by those who feared a loss of influence in any revised system.

          In the general election in February 2009, held shortly after Israel’s first military intervention in Gaza, no less than 34 political parties competed. Among the 12 new parties was one called “The Israelis” (Ha-Yisraelim). Its founder was Professor Gideon Doron, a long-time campaigner for electoral reform in Israel who had played a central role in the Magidor Commission. A main plank in its platform was the urgent need for Israel to change its voting system, and it strongly supported implementing the Magidor Commission’s recommendations. The new party persuaded just 0.03 percent of the electorate to support it, gained 856 votes in total, and promptly disappeared.

          Despite a history replete with discouragement and failure, electoral reform in Israel is an unfinished saga. The inadequacies of the present system remain obvious. Another genuinely determined effort, supported by a consensus from within Israel’s body politic, must be made sooner or later to provide the nation with an electoral system truly worthy of it.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Turkey unsettled

          Turkey held nationwide local elections on 31 March. The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) won more that 50 percent of votes overall, but lost control in the capital, Ankara, and in the nation’s commercial centre, Istanbul. AKP is contesting both sets of results. 

          Two conclusions can be drawn from these events. First, democracy in Turkey – weakened and impaired though it has been over the past few years – is not yet dead. Even with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s allies controlling the vast majority of mainstream media outlets, opposition parties are still able to function, to challenge the government, and to win.

          Secondly the president, a past-master at winning votes and recently endowed with sweeping executive power, is still subject to the inexorable laws of economics. While Turkey’s economy flourished, as it did for years, Erdogan’s popularity soared; but with inflation currently running at around 20 percent and food prices at a 20-year high, public discontent has spread, even among the AKP's conservative voter base.

          The main opposition party is the CHP (the Republican People’s Party). In Istanbul the race for mayor descended into a neck and neck gallop to the winning post, and the final result gave CHP candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, a lead of 28,000 votes out of the more than 8 million votes cast. Bayram Senocak, the AKP's top official in Istanbul, immediately submitted an objection to the results, citing voting irregularities.

          In Ankara, CHP candidate Mansur Yavas received over 50 percent of the votes cast. Hakan Han Ozcan, AKP's chairman in the capital, told reporters they were also filing an appeal.

          Istanbul and Ankara were not alone in swinging to the opposition: The AKP and its allies also lost the cities of Adana, Antalya and Mersin, as well as a number of Anatolian provinces. Meanwhile the CHP successfully defended its strongholds on the Aegean coast, including Turkey's third-largest city of Izmir.

          These results are undoubtedly a setback for Erdogan, and they may induce him to extend even further the enormous range of powers he already possesses, but which have proved insufficient to guarantee electoral success. The fact is that he is not yet comfortably assured in the position of supreme power he has managed to acquire – it was only in June 2018 that the complex series of political manoeuvres that have led him to that position came into effect. In short, he is still consolidating his political victory, and it is unfortunate for him that the economy has turned against him.

          Local elections in March 2014 were the key to unlocking Erdogan’s ambitions. He had already served as prime minister for his statutory three terms but, with his AK Party supreme in the elections, he carried through a change in the constitution that allowed him to remain in office. From that position of power he was able to stand for president. He won that election, but at the time the presidency was a largely ceremonial position with no political power. In the June 2015 general elections, however, the AKP made the creation of an executive presidency central to its campaign promises.

          The plan was to enhance the presidential role to a nearly all-powerful position as head of government and head of state, as well as head of the ruling party. The office of the prime minister would disappear, while the supremo president would have the power to appoint cabinet ministers and more than half the members of the nation’s highest judicial body. The president would also have the power to dissolve the national assembly and impose states of emergency.

          The timetable for accomplishing all this envisaged its passage through parliament by the end of 2016, to be endorsed or rejected by a popular referendum a few months later. However the result of the referendum seemed far from certain. Erdogan had been bedevilled for years by the followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric living in the US, who had become his fiercest opponent. Popular support in Turkey was spread evenly between them.

          Then came the confusing sequence of events of 15 July 2016, amounting to what was apparently a failed coup against the government by political opponents able to mobilize the military. Whatever the truth behind it, Erdogan’s reaction was to institute retribution of unprecedented severity on people in all walks of life suspected of opposing the regime. More than 110,000 people were arrested including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists dismissed.

          Nine months later, in April 2017, the referendum on the constitutional changes took place. The result – a narrow 51 percent in favour and 49 percent against – confirmed the suspicions of those unconvinced about the nature of the coup the previous July. Erdogan might well have lost the referendum, and with it his bid for supreme power, had there not been a strong reason to remove opposition voices and to rally Turkish opinion against rebels in the military seeking to overthrow the government.

          It was only in June 2018 that Erdogan was re-elected and assumed the hard fought for role of Executive President. He has won supreme power, but has he lost the widespread popularity that once sustained his rise to that position?

          Defeat in Ankara is bad enough, since Erdogan's AKP had held power in the capital for a quarter century. But defeat in Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, has certainly hit Erdogan particularly hard, for it was as Istanbul’s mayor that he began his meteoric rise to power in the 1990s. He is on the record as saying: "whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.” Now – subject to appeal – his political opponents, the CHP have gained it.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 April 2019:

Sunday, 31 March 2019

A diplomatic first: the Arab League- EU summit

          It is not that the European Union and the Arab League have never had a diplomatic relationship. Quite the reverse. Sparked by the so-called “Arab Spring”, a political and strategic dialogue has been developing between the EU and the League ever since 2011. As recently as 4 February 2019 a ministerial meeting brought together 10 EU and 15 Arab League foreign ministers in Brussels. In between meetings of senior officials, joint working groups have often gathered to discuss political and security matters of shared concern. As a result the EU and the League have a common position on a range of issues, including the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestinian dispute and support for a political transition in Syria. They also cooperate in attempting to solve the war in Yemen and the conflict in Libya.

          No, what had never taken place was an Arab League-EU summit – and this was the diplomatic first that occurred on 22-24 February 2019, in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheik. Representatives from more than fifty countries, including the leaders of most of the European Union member states, met to discuss migration, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other issues of common concern. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, took time off from intensive Brexit negotiations to attend – doubtless seizing the opportunity for side discussions with other European leaders.

          The two-day gathering was seen in the region as an important first step towards further, and perhaps more intensive, Arab-European engagement in the future. The high-level representation, and the willingness to undertake serious interchanges on sensitive and pressing topics, suggest that both groups of countries acknowledge the need to work together in the face of increasingly complex problems.

                                       Arab League-EU summit, February 2019

          What emerged from the two-day event, co-chaired by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi?

          First a determination to deepen Arab-European ties in order to enhance the stability, prosperity, and well-being of the two regions. Stronger regional cooperation was seen to be essential if issues such as migration were to be effectively managed. At the press conference following the summit, Tusk said: "On border control and the fight against irregular migration: we will scale up our joint efforts to prevent people smuggling, eradicate trafficking in human beings and combat those who exploit vulnerable people."

          Terrorism was another major topic to engage their attention. Both sides committed to collaborating more closely to address the root causes of terrorism, while continuing current joint efforts to combat terrorist fighters. They agreed also to encourage investment and sustainable growth by strengthening economic cooperation between the two regions.

          When considering the endemic Israel-Palestine dispute, leaders reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a two-state solution. They also discussed possible ways of achieving political solutions in Syria, Libya and Yemen in line with relevant UN resolutions.

          Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the summit was the commitment by those participating to “uphold all aspects of international human rights law”. Members of the European Union would find little difficulty in honouring this obligation. Most of the 22 member states of the Arab League have some way to go in this regard.

          Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization dedicated to expanding freedom and democracy across the globe. Each year it produces a flagship report assessing the state of political rights and civil liberties country by country. The report, “Freedom in the World” has been described as “the best source available on the state of political and civil rights around the world.”

          Under the category “Free” in the report for 2018, only one of the Arab League’s 22 member states is listed – Tunisia. Five are assessed as “Partly Free”, while no less than 15 are described as “Not Free”. Palestine, a League member, is not a sovereign state and was not included in the Freedom House report.

          The League’s members are: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The 5 states listed as “Partly Free” are Comoros, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco.

          "As this meeting concludes,” said Tusk, “…we must all work together to turn our words into action...”

          Both parties considered this first high-level summit a success, and agreed to hold further Arab League-EU summits regularly, alternating the location between Arab and European states. The next is scheduled to take place in Brussels in 2022. What sort of progress will each party be able to report by then on the daunting list of problems they have identified?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 April 2019:

Friday, 22 March 2019

The Palestinian leadership – a house divided

                                                                             Video version 
          At last the penny has dropped. Gazans are finally coming to realize that the appalling conditions under which they, and most of the population of the Gaza Strip, have been living for years are the result of the distorted policies that have been favoured by Hamas.

          Literally billions of dollars have been poured into Hamas’s coffers since the group chased its Fatah rivals out of Gaza in 2007 – resources that could have been used to build a sound economy, provide first-class health and social services for the population, fund thriving industrial and commercial enterprises and create tens of thousands of jobs.

          Instead Hamas has neglected the welfare of the Gazan population in favour of expending vast sums on acquiring military hardware, constructing sophisticated tunnels into Israel and Egypt, launching rockets and missiles, and funding three avoidable conflicts with Israel.

          Now Gazans are at last demonstrating a willingness to stand up and be counted.

          Current unrest started on 24 February, when thousands of protesters gathered in the Gaza Strip to call for Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to resign after he had refused to pay the full salaries of public sector employees in Gaza. Over recent months Abbas has instituted a series of punitive measures in an attempt to force Hamas to allow the PA to resume administrative control in the Strip.

          The unrest soon took a different turn. A new movement (“We Want to Live”), launched by a group of media activists, emerged from the chaos, protesting against the dire living conditions in the Gaza Strip, with its limited access to water and electricity and an unemployment rate of 44 percent. Their first demonstration, which took place on 14 March, was repressed with ferocity by Hamas security forces, which proceeded with mass arrests in Gaza City, Jabaliya refugee camp in the north, Deir al-Balah in the middle district, and Khan Younis and Rafah in the south. These concerted operations, carried out with some brutality, were denounced by several human rights organizations and political factions.

          Nearly a dozen Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip have declared their support for the new movement. In a statement they said that the basic cause of the crisis currently affecting the Gaza Strip was the Israeli “occupation” (Israel withdrew from the Strip in 2005), and the Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, but they also pointed to a number of domestic issues, such as the Palestinian political division between Hamas and Fatah, and the punitive measures adopted by the PA, including not paying the Israeli power plant to supply the population of Gaza with electricity.

          They announced their determination to continue to protest against the high cost of living and bad economic situation in the Gaza Strip. As an earnest of their intentions, they declared a general strike in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday and Thursday, 20 and 21 March, and called for civil disobedience against Hamas. They urged Palestinians to gather at public squares throughout the Strip to continue the protest.

          Israa Buhaisi, a journalist with Al-Alam news channel, said: "This is a popular movement. People took to the street to ask for a solution for their miserable life in Gaza."

          The existence of a popular independent movement was, however, denied by Hamas spokesman Iyad al-Buzom. He said that those employees on the PA payroll arrested by Hamas had been "blackmailed by the PA to provoke chaos in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the return of their salaries". More generally, Hamas has accused Fatah of trying to hijack the protests in order to turn them into a coup against the Hamas regime. The group has arrested dozens of Fatah officials and activists on suspicion of involvement in the protests.

          Fatah did not take this lying down. Since 18 March three senior Fatah officials in Gaza have been kidnapped and badly beaten – Atef Abu Seif, Ahmed Hillis and Abdullah Subuh. The PA government in Ramallah strongly condemned the assaults, and accused Hamas of being directly responsible for them.

          On 19 March Fatah officials claimed that Hamas had banned anyone, including doctors, from entering Shifa Hospital in Gaza City with cell phones, so as to prevent hospital staff from photographing Palestinians wounded during clashes with Hamas security forces.

          Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah official, said that the Hamas crackdown on Fatah members in Gaza was to divert attention from the growing protests against Hamas.

          “This is an intifada of the oppressed and hungry,” he said. “Fatah supports this popular movement.”

          Tayseer Khaled, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, compared Hamas with the Gestapo in the way they had dealt with protesters. “This is not the way Palestinian security forces…should act with Palestinian citizens,” he said. “This is the way fascist organizations and security forces behave.”

          In short, the rift between Fatah and Hamas has widened considerably in the past few weeks. Hamas’s failure to address the social, health, welfare and economic interests of its citizens has finally proved too great a burden for them to bear. The worm has turned, and the PA has seized the chance of Gazan disaffection to gain political advantage over its deadly rivals. The Palestinian body politic is truly a house divided.

          Within days Hamas had embarked on the tried and tested diversionary tactic - provoking an Israeli attack in an attempt to deflect the public from internal protest towards combatting the classic enemy, Israel.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 March 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 March 2019: