Tuesday 16 April 2024

Antisemitism in Britain: A voice for Israel

          Published in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 29 April 2024

          Antisemitism in the UK has reached a level only surpassed in the 1930s, when Oswald Moseley and his blackshirt thugs, mimicking Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party, dominated Britain’s political scene. 

There is one major difference between then and now. Today the state of Israel exists.

Moseley, like Hitler, based his political philosophy on identifying the Jewish people as the source of all the world’s economic and social ills.  In a telegram to Hitler sent in May 1935 Moseley wrote ”The forces of Jewish corruption must be overcome in all great countries before the future of Europe can be made secure…” 

In the UK today racist sentiments are considered unacceptable, and openly expressed anti-Jewish remarks risk being condemned, so the state of Israel stands proxy for them.  Since it is universally accepted that any government is a legitimate target for adverse criticism, anything that is done, or not done, by Israel is used as the excuse for protests, demonstrations and antisemitic incidents. 

The Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors anti-Jewish abuse in the UK, recorded 4,103 antisemitic incidents in 2023 – the highest total ever. Two-thirds occurred after October 7 – 2,699, compared with 392 over the same period in 2022.  The involvement of Israel, even as victim, was enough to unleash an unprecedented flood of antisemitic bile.

Every Saturday since October 7 huge pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been organized in London and in other major cities across the UK, with protesters carrying banners and shouting slogans which morph into calls for the elimination of Israel. 

Whether well-meaning pro-Palestinian supporters realize it or not, the most popular slogan (“from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”) is a call for the state of Israel and its 7 million Jewish citizens to be removed, and its territory, which extends from the river Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, to be handed over to Palestinians – a demand from the realms of fantasy.

Anti-Israel demonstrations began not only in the UK, but worldwide,  immediately after the massacre of October 7, even before the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had taken any retaliatory action.  Since then the Hamas-provided narrative, statistics and data – believed to be carefully manipulated to achieve maximum propaganda effect – have been universally accepted as a true picture of events in the Gaza Strip.

Even so it is clear that the civilians of Gaza have been the main victims of Hamas’s 17-year-long regime, which diverted literally billions of dollars donated over the years for their welfare into constructing a sophisticated subterranean military system beneath the Gaza Strip. Israel’s battle to defeat its declared enemy is conducted by its forces against armed opponents who do not wear uniform, who merge into the civilian population and often cannot immediately be identified.  This must account for a fair percentage of the civilian casualties.

Now a large segment of public opinion, in Britain and the wider world, is demanding a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict on humanitarian grounds, while those in Israel and elsewhere who have in mind the welfare of the hostages still held by Hamas, are pressing for a negotiated deal involving a ceasefire and a hostage release.  In effect the demand to lay down arms is being made only of Israel, for public opinion can have no binding effect on Hamas, which has declared that it intends to repeat October 7 again and again.

It was against this background that on 14 March 2024 the BBC aired its iconic TV show Question Time for its domestic audience.  Question Time, regarded as the BBC’s flagship political program, has been a regular feature in its schedules for 45 years.  Moving round the UK week by week, politicians, media figures and celebrities face questions from an audience carefully selected to be politically balanced.  On the panel on 14 March was Melanie Phillips.

Melanie Phillips is among Britain’s leading political journalists and media commentators, notable for her trenchant opinions well to the right of what is now universally acknowledged as the political centre ground.  She writes weekly in The Times and also for the Jewish Chronicle and other journals, broadcasts regularly and speaks on public platforms throughout the English-speaking world.

Born in London to working class Anglo-Jewish parents, Phillips believes profoundly that, over half a century or more, the political left in both Britain and the US has been successfully hijacking the center ground of politics. What was once generally accepted as moderate political opinion is now vilified as “right-wing”, a term of abuse flung at anyone deviating from what is currently regarded as politically correct or woke.

Phillips has won a well-earned reputation as a stalwart opponent of the misrepresentations and downright lies about Israel that constantly fill the world’s media, and are peddled by people either opposed to the very existence of the state, or who use what they term anti-Zionism as a cover for genuine antisemitism.  Yet until the year 2000 she had never visited Israel or, indeed, felt the least desire to do so.

The events of 9/11 were a catalyst for her.  After 9/11 she foresaw a rampant Muslim extremism, now often termed Islamism, intent on conquering the Western democracies, and a debilitated, disillusioned West unwilling to defend itself and opting for appeasement.  In that battle she saw Israel as the front line defender of Western civilization, and was appalled time and again by the anti-Israel and antisemitic prejudice she found increasingly in Britain. 

She encountered the public’s irrational hatred of Israel personally in December 2001, and it occurred, coincidentally, during a recording of Question Time.  This was the period of the second intifada when Palestinian suicide bombings and attacks on civilian targets were being countered by Israel’s security forces.  To a question about Israel defending itself against terrorism, Phillips’s fellow panellists accused Israel of war crimes, while members of the audience asserted that Israel was the source of terror in the Middle East, and was responsible for ethnic cleansing.  Not a word was raised by the panel in Israel’s defense.  Phillips found herself the only voice condemning the murder of innocent civilians by Palestinian extremists.  As she tried to make the case, she was hissed by the audience. 

The broadcast on 14 March did not descend to that level.  Indeed Phillips was strongly supported on the panel by Housing Minister Lee Rowley, and also by several members of the audience which, nevertheless, was largely opposed to Phillips.  The major clash occurred between Phillips and fellow-panellist Stephen Flynn, the leader in Westminster of the 43 Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) members of Parliament.

A member of the audience asked: “With 12,300 children dead in Gaza, will the government or the opposition put any meaningful pressure on Israel to end the slaughter?”

Flynn began by condemning the massacre perpetrated by Hamas on October 7, but quickly moved on to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.  He condemned Israel for what he called the “collective punishment” of the civilian population, quoting the Hamas-provided and unverifiable figures of 30,000 dead which, in any case, make no distinction between civilians and Hamas fighters.  He called for Britain to use its influence in the UN Security Council to press for an immediate ceasefire, “no ifs, no buts” as he put it.  He maintained that there was no justification for bombing civilians in support of demanding the release of the hostages held by Hamas.

Phillips responded passionately.  Accusing Flynn of shedding “crocodile tears” over the October 7 massacre, she demanded how he could categorize Israel’s determination to destroy Hamas’s grip over Gaza as collective punishment of the Palestinian population.  “Hamas has turned Gazans not only into human shields,” she said, “but into cannon fodder.  Hamas shoot Gazans trying to escape to safe areas.

“Hamas are in tunnels for their own safety,” she continued.  “Not one shelter has been built by Hamas in all the time they have ruled Gaza.  The only reason Israel has had to bomb Gaza is because they cannot get at the infrastructure of mass terror.”

Turning again to Flynn’s earlier remarks, Phillips poured scorn on his accusation that Israel was perpetrating “collective punishment” on the Gazans.  “Collective punishment?” she said.  “This is how he describes the defense against genocide, the desperate attempt by Israel to prevent another genocide and a second Holocaust from happening.”

As some of  the audience began objecting, she rounded on them. 

“What do you think Hamas mean when they say they want to kill every Jew?” she demanded.  “Why do you sneer at this?  A second Holocaust is what is threatened.  Israel is trying to prevent it.  That is not an exaggeration.”

It is doubtful whether Phillips succeeded in shifting the opinion of any in that audience who supported a ceasefire.  But they, and the million or so viewers of Question Time, at least got to hear a passionately expressed pro-Israel point of view rarely available from the BBC or indeed from most of the rest of Britain’s media. 

Melanie Phillips has chosen to travel a lonely road.  Whether or not people always agree with what she says, a great many admire her doughty spirit and her determination to stand up for what she believes, regardless of what others think.  She is a valued voice in support of Israel’s determination to defeat its mortal enemy.

Monday 15 April 2024

Unrest in Jordan

 Published in the Jerusalem Post, 15 April 2024:

Like his fellow national leaders, King Abdullah of Jordan is well aware of the danger that Iran – a non-Arab entity – poses to his nation and the Arab world generally.  Its aim to dominate the region, both politically and religiously, and its actions in support of these objectives, unites much of the Arab world, and gives it common cause with Israel.

 Ever since Hamas’s murderous assault into Israel on October 7, Jordan has been attempting to manage and curb widespread opposition to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.  Perhaps that is not surprising given that around 60% of Jordan’s population, including the popular Queen Rania, is of Palestinian origin.  As in most other Arab countries, pro-Palestinian support has gone further.  A recent University of Jordan poll found that 66% of Jordanians actually defend the slaughter and hostage-taking perpetrated by Hamas. 

Simmering unrest at popular level makes the Jordanian authorities uneasy, while the popularity of Hamas – a proxy of the Iranian regime – is perceived as a threat to the stability of the kingdom.  About a thousand people were arrested in Amman during pro-Palestinian demonstrations in October and November 2023, nominally for criminal behavior.  Activists claimed the arrests were an attempt to stifle popular demands for the state to adopt an unequivocal anti-Israel position on the Gaza conflict.

King Abdullah has defied the more extreme popular demands, ignoring calls for Jordan to cut all ties with Israel and cancel the 1994 peace treaty.  On the contrary, on the night of April 13-14 he acted decisively in the common interests of Jordan and Israel.  The administration had earlier closed its airspace as a precaution against an Iranian strike across its border.  That is exactly what happened when the massive Iranian drone and missile attack attempted to reach Israel by flying over Jordan.. 

Abdullah proved as good as his word.  Authoritative sources confirm that Jordan's air force intercepted and shot down dozens of Iranian drones that violated its airspace.  In neighborhoods south of the capital Amman, some 60 km (37 miles) from Jerusalem, several downed drones have been seen.

Jordan has been struggling for six months to restrain protests in support of Hamas.  One massive pro-Hamas demonstration was sparked at the end of March.

On Sunday morning, March 24, the principal news presenter on Qatari-owned al-Jazeera, Elsy Abi Assi, interviewed on live TV a Gazan woman named Jamila Al-Hessi.

She said she had been trapped in Shifa hospital for six days as the IDF carried out an intensive search of the building and its occupants.  Al-Hissi claimed that when inside the hospital Israeli soldiers had “raped women, kidnapped women, executed women, and pulled dead bodies from under the rubble to unleash their dogs on them.”

“Is there anything worse than this?” said al-Hissi. “Is there anything more horrifying than hearing women call for help, and when we try to reach them to provide assistance, they shoot at us?”

Her allegations spread like wildfire on social media.

The IDF’s Arabic spokesperson, Lt. Col. Avichai Adraee, immediately took to social media to deny al-Hissi’s story.  In a video posted on X, formerly Twitter, he said that there was “no evidence for these allegations.”  An unknown woman had called in with a series of claims. “No one knows who she is,” said Adraee. “She just claimed and claimed and lied.”

His denial was ignored and, said Aaron Magid, a journalist specializing in Jordanian affairs, “thousands of Jordanians hit the streets to protest.”

A few hours later Yasser Abuhilalah, a former director-general of al-Jazeerah, posted on X a full disclaimer. A Hamas investigation into these allegations, he announced, had concluded that they were not true, al-Hissi had retracted her story, and he apologized for promulgating the false report.  He dissociated al-Jazeera from al-Hissi and the unsustainable motives she had given for making her false claims. 

According to some analysts, Hamas issued a rare public denial of these claims because their dissemination in northern Gaza was having the opposite effect than intended.  Instead of stoking enmity against Israel, they had caused Palestinians to flee the area in fear for their safety.  Hamas wants as many civilians exposed to possible IDF action as possible.

The next day al-Jazeera pulled all references to al-Hessi’s claims from its online platforms, but the damage had been done. The false report had been viewed over 2 million times within the first 24 hours.

The slogan “All of Jordan is Hamas” has been a popular chant at the protests.  In official circles it is regarded as both untrue and destabilizing.  The ruling establishment is perfectly well aware that since the early days of the war Hamas leaders have sought to stir up tensions in Jordan.  In a speech in November, Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida called on Jordanians to escalate all forms of protest.

 “You, our people in Jordan,” he declared controversially, “are the nightmare of the occupation (ie Israel).   It fears your mobilization, and strives tirelessly to neutralize and isolate you from your cause.”

Placards with Abu Obeida’s picture have been a common sight at the latest protests.

All the same, in an attempt to placate popular anti-Israel opinion, he and Queen Rania have stepped up their anti-Israel rhetoric.  Rania has been constantly urging Western leaders to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, and must be delighted that finally she appears to have turned opinion in her direction.   Abdullah took the lead in opposing those Western nations who decided to suspend funding UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency), when it was discovered that a number of its officials had actually participated in Hamas’s bloodthirsty attack on Israel on October 7. 

         In short, the current situation in Jordan could be described as the royal family and the administration struggling to keep the lid on a bubbling cauldron of anti-government sentiment that is fanatically determined to identify with Hamas and to sever all formal ties with Israel.  At the same time Abdullah, well aware that popular opinion and the nation’s self-interest rarely coincide, pragmatically refuses to allow Iran free passage over his airspace in order to attack Israel.  The Israel-Jordan peace treaty, often subject to pressure, stress and difficulty, stands firm.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on 15 April 2024, and the Jerusalem Post online titled "Does the Israel-Jordan peace treaty stand firm amid the tensions with Iran?"

Monday 8 April 2024

Iran targets the UK

 Published in the Jerusalem Post, 8 April 2024

   On the afternoon of Friday, 29 March, Pouria Zeraati was attacked by two men outside his home in south London.  Slashed again and again with a knife, he suffered multiple stab wounds and was rushed to hospital.  Fortunately he survived, and has since been discharged.

            Zeraati is a journalist working for Iran International, a dissident TV news website broadcasting from London.  Established in 2017 it has, according to independent surveys, become the most widely watched news channel in Iran, attracting twice as many viewers as BBC Persian.  It is, of course, banned by the regime, and its audience has to access it via VPN, the virtual private network system familiar to many viewers in Israel. 

            The programs and interviews transmitted by Iran International are frank, and outspokenly opposed to the Islamist regime and its excesses. Which is why Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) has declared the station, along with BBC Persian, a “terrorist channel”. 

It was on March 8, 2023, that Zaraati scored a media coup by persuading Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to be interviewed on air.  Faced with the opportunity of addressing the Iranian public directly, Netanyahu pulled no punches in his condemnation of the Iranian regime, its leaders and its policies.

   As he spoke Iran was in the throes of nationwide political turmoil following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini the previous September.  Amini had been arrested by the so-called morality police.  Her crime was allegedly violating Iran's mandatory Islamic dress code through inappropriate use of her hijab, or head covering.

News of her death circulated rapidly on social media, and protests erupted at her funeral and then spread across the country.  The government’s attempts to quell them had little effect.  Many young women began appearing in public without head coverings, and demonstrators, often led by women and young people, targeted symbols of the Islamic Republic, burned pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and chanted "Death to the Dictator".

During his TV interview Netanyahu commended the stand taken by the women of Iran, asserting that by claiming their right to freedom they were speaking for women the world over.  The Iranian regime, he said, was the enemy of freedom, while the brutal treatment of the women protesting for their freedom had unmasked Iran’s leaders as the radical Islamist thugs they were. 

He extended his condemnation specifically to the IRGC who, he said, were actively engaged in exporting terror across the world, and were even then heavily involved in plots to assassinate elected officials, journalists, and any public figure openly critical of the Iranian regime.

Netanyahu was almost certainly aware that, as he spoke, London’s Metropolitan Police (the Met) were engaged in countering threats to public security from Iranian agents operating in the UK.  This has since been confirmed in an official announcement made on March 30, 2024.   “Counter-Terrorism Policing,” it ran, “continues to deal with threats projected into the UK from Iran. Since 2022, a number of plots to either kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the Iranian regime have been disrupted.”

One such occurred back in December 2023 when two Iranians, members of the IRGC, were found to be involved in a plot to assassinate two TV presenters from Iran International, and were sanctioned by both the British and US governments, acting together.  The journalists involved were not identified at the time on security grounds.

UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, said: “The Iranian regime and the criminal gangs who operate on its behalf pose an unacceptable threat to the UK’s security. Today’s package exposes the roles of the Iranian officials and gangs involved in activity aimed to undermine, silence and disrupt the democratic freedoms we value in the UK. The UK and US have sent a clear message – we will not tolerate this threat.”

Sanctions and warnings, however, did nothing to deflect Tehran from its terrorist intent. Its IRGC agents proceeded with its assassination attempt on Pouria Zeraati  regardless, and the next day a news website run by the IRGC said that Zeraati had incurred the state’s “wrath” for conducting an interview with Israel’s prime minister.  Under Zeraati’s questioning, Netanyahu’s outright condemnation of the IRGC as the world’s foremost fomenter of terrorism and tyranny could only have exacerbated the “wrath”.  Media reports suggest that the knife plot was a back-up scheme, after the initial idea of a car bomb outside the TV studio was foiled by the presence of heavy security.

This was not the end of the affair.  On March 30, Iranian journalist Sima Sabet revealed that she had been told by police to leave her home “until further notice”, because she was also an IRGC assassination target. Sabet hosted a talk show on Iran International, and previously worked for the BBC World Service. In a post on social media Sabet criticized the UK government for not standing up to terrorism perpetrated by the Iranian government.

“I must emphatically mention,” she wrote, “that the British Government has not taken sufficient, meaningful, decisive, and effective political action against the terrorism of the Iranian government.  As a journalist and a British citizen, I cannot hide my criticism and concern over this political and diplomatic negligence. Many of my journalist friends agree with this assessment.”

She went on: “London is our home. Britain must be a safe place for journalists across all media, and unsafe for extremists and terrorists receiving orders from Tehran. Our voice will not be silenced by threat and terrorism.  Journalism is not a crime; state terrorism is. Stop it.”

It is certainly true that the UK’s Home Office has been humming and hawing for more than a year over whether to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization – a BBC webpage, posted on January 3, 2023 and still live, asserts that “the UK is preparing to formally declare the Iran’s IRGC is a terrorist organization.“  Yet still no conclusion has been reached, despite intense lobbying by members of parliament supportive of the government.

Some commentators held that Britain’s Foreign Office believed that designating the IRGC would probably lead to the expulsion of the British ambassador and jeopardize Britain’s capacity to negotiate with Iran.  However the current sustained attacks on the world’s shipping by the Houthis, Iran’s agents, may have put a different complexion on the issue, while the blatant attempt to assassinate the journalist Zeraati on a London street could prove the clincher.  Time will tell.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post, and the Jerusalem Post online titled "Iran targets the UK, time to designate IRGC as terrorist organization?" 8 April 2024:

Monday 1 April 2024

The Abraham Accords will probably survive

 Published in the Jerusalem Post, 1 April 2024

Six months into the Gaza war, and world opinion – widely in support of Israel’s initial onslaught on Hamas following the horrendous events of October 7 – has steadily hardened and turned.  Appeals for a pause in the fighting have grown ever more strident, culminating in the Resolution passed on March 25 by the UN Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire.  The Resolution, while also demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all the hostages held by Hamas, did not link the ceasefire call to the hostage release.  In short, the UN is instructing Israel to stop fighting Hamas, giving it time to revive and regroup and leaving it free to continue bombarding Israel with rockets and drones.  Security Council members knew, of course, that demanding Hamas release all its hostages was simply virtue signalling, since it is quite unenforceable. Hamas is a terrorist organization, unbeholden to the UN or anyone else. 

Arab street opinion and the self-interest of Arab sovereign states rarely coincide.  The Abraham Accords were initially sold to a skeptical Arab public on the grounds that they would give rich Arab countries unprecedented financial leverage on Israel, and would eventually improve conditions for the Palestinians.  Months into a conflict that has cost thousands of lives, polls of Arab opinion indicate overwhelming support for Hamas.  Regardless, Abraham Accord regimes, convinced that the benefits from the Accords override other considerations, are sidelining public opinion.

It was back in 2020-2021 that the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan signed the deals, collectively known as the Abraham Accords. Sudan is a special case. For nearly a year the country has been torn asunder by a ferocious civil war, and is suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history.

Fighting between the army, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burham. and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagtalo, has resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people. Food is in short supply, and the threat of famine for much of the population looms.  The world has regarded the rapidly developing tragedy with indifference.

Addressing the UN Security Council on March 20,

Edem Wosornu, director of operations at the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said: “By all measures – the sheer scale of humanitarian needs, the numbers of people displaced and facing hunger – Sudan is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory…Simply put,” she said, “we are failing the people of Sudan.”

According to the UN more than 18 million Sudanese are facing acute food insecurity – 10 million more than at this time last year – while 730,000 Sudanese children are believed to be suffering from severe malnutrition.  Eventually, no doubt, the conflict will end and Sudan will struggle back to a more normal existence.  Then will be the time for its government ­to consider where the country’s best interests lie, and whether to endorse its membership of the Accords or to reject it.

In the case of the UAE, according to a March 10 report in the New York Times (NYT), Emirati officials say they have no intention of cutting ties with Israel.  On the contrary, in a document addressed to the NYT, the Emirati government highlighted how its officials had used their relationship with Israel to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid for Gazans, as well as the medical treatment of injured Gazans taken to the Emirates.

“The UAE believes that diplomatic and political communications are important in difficult times such as those we are witnessing,” said the government.

In late February economy minister Nir Barkat became the first Israeli minister to visit the Emirates since October 7.  He attended the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in Abu Dhabi, and was seen shaking hands and chatting with Saudi Arabia’s commerce minister, Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi.  In an interview, he said he was “very optimistic” after meeting with Emirati officials.

“There’s a bit of sensitivity while the war is still happening,” he said, but the two countries “have aligned interests, and the Abraham Accords are extremely strategic for all of us.”

An article by Middle East specialist Joshua Krasna, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, records the gesture pronouncement by the lower house of Bahrain’s Parliament on November 2 declaring; “the halting of economic ties with Israel and the return of ambassadors on both sides… in support of the Palestinian cause and the legitimate rights of the brotherly Palestinian people.” 

It was no more than a gesture because the Bahraini parliament has no locus at all in the state’s foreign policy.  Krasna maintains that the parliamentary initiative had no impact on formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain.

He is uncertain, though, about the scope and content of those relations post-war. The re-emergence of the Palestinian issue as central to the regional and international agenda, he believes, must have an impact – although as yet highly uncertain – on future economic and political relations.

As regards Morocco, the Qatar-based news medium, Al Jazeera, reports that despite rising public anger in the country over the Israel–Hamas conflict, the normalization deal between Morocco and Israel will likely hold.

Since early October, thousands of Moroccans have marched in the capital, Rabat, with Palestinian flags and slogans calling, among other things, for an end to Moroccan government normalization with Israel.  However high political considerations, spearheaded by the king himself, outweigh popular murmurings.  The juicy carrot offered to Morocco by the Trump administration as an inducement to sign up to the Accords was US recognition of the nation’s claim to the disputed territory of Western Sahara.  This prize Morocco acquired, and it represents a major boost in its long dispute with Algeria over claims to the territory.

Moreover, says Intissar Fakir, a senior analyst at the Middle East Institute, the military advantage Morocco has been able to acquire through deals with Israel, “is substantial… [it] would be difficult for Morocco to walk away from this partnership with Israel.”

In general, analysts assess that the effect of the Gaza conflict will be to slow, rather than halt, Israel’s continuing normalization with Abraham Accord states UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

 Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, its relations with Israel still very warm, remains in the wings, perhaps awaiting the moment juste to sign up.

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post online, 1 April 2024:

Published in Eurasia Review, 14 April 2024:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 April 2024:

Tuesday 26 March 2024

The EU pays to stem migration

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 26 March 2024

            On March 17 a delegation of EU leaders visited Cairo and announced that the EU Commission had decided to provide Egypt with finance totaling $8.1 billion (some 32 billion shekels) over the three years 2024 – 2027.  Amidst the flurry of self-congratulatory statements, neither side specified what one particular tranche of the package was for.

That Egypt needs the money, it goes without saying. The country has been in economic difficulties for years. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine made matters worse.  The country relied heavily on wheat imports from both Russia and Ukraine, and food prices increased by more than 70%.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has supported the Egyptian government over the past 8 years with loans, has demanded strict financial controls.  Government action taken to meet IMF conditions, such as the removal of bread and fuel subsidies, new value-added taxes, and an increase in metro fares, aroused public opposition. 

In August 2023 inflation in Egypt hit a record year-on-year high of just under 40%, while the Egyptian pound was losing value hand over fist.  Over 2023 the cost of a US dollar hovered around 30 Egyptian pounds. At the beginning of March 2024 it was 70 pounds. 

Then Egypt’s fortunes suddenly took a turn for the better.  Three recent announcements in quick succession have dissipated the financial gloom. 

Impressed with the steps Egypt has taken to tighten the economy, and after Cairo agreed to further financial reforms including a flexible exchange rate and raised interest rates, on March 6 the IMF agreed to a $5 billion increase in the current $3 billion loan agreement.

Then, on March 17 came the announcement from the EU of its $8.1 billion package, spread over three years. Finally, and apparently out of the blue, on March 17 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced it would inject $35 billion into Egypt over two months.

There is no doubt that this $48 billion windfall will go a long way toward clearing the economy’s dollar shortage and eliminating any near-term risk of default.  

The financial bonus from the UAE is by way of investment in the development of Ras El-Hikma, a 170 million-square-meter peninsula, stretching over some 50 kilometers of white-sand beaches along Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline.  The project, managed by an Emirati organization, aims to transform Ras El-Hikma into a luxury tourist destination coupled with a financial center and a free zone.  

The EU financial package is less explicit in its objective.

European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen was joined by the leaders of Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and Italy to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the signing ceremony.  The deal, both sides agree, lifts the EU's relationship with Egypt to a "strategic partnership" aimed at boosting cooperation in renewable energy, trade, and security.  The financial package specifies five billion euros in loans, 1.8 billion euros in investment, and hundreds of millions for “bilateral projects”.  

In their official statements following the announcement, neither side mentioned the word “migrants”.  However one official attached to the EU Commission told Radio France Internationale that part of the tranche allocated to “bilateral projects” is specifically earmarked to stem irregular migrant flows to the EU bloc. In 2023 the EU's border agency Frontex recorded nearly 158,000 migrant arrivals in Europe via the dangerous Mediterranean sea route, an increase of 50% on the previous year.  Migration was referred to briefly by Italian prime minister Georgia Meloni, who hailed the EU-Egypt accord as a chance to give “residents of Africa” a chance "not to emigrate" to Europe, while the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said: "We must prevent the opening of new migration routes and we will work very closely with Egypt to ensure that this will be achieved." 

In negotiating this agreement, the EU Commission doubtless had in mind the rising popularity of right-wing parties in several EU nations, and the growth across Europe of anti-immigrant rhetoric.  It must also be aware of its own failure to cope effectively with the flow of uncontrolled migration into Europe from Africa.

Statistics for 2023 from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show migrants setting out into the Mediterranean from Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt – that is, the entire stretch of the north African coastline, with the sole exception of Morocco.  By far the most favoured destination was Italy, but many thousands landed also in Spain, Greece, Cyprus and even Malta – all EU countries.  The EU Commission’s concern is understandable.  

Egypt insists that migrant boats have not sailed from its coast in recent years, yet Egyptians still arrive by sea in Europe, mostly in Italy, via Libya or Tunisia.  Recently these numbers have increased.  There are thousands of Egyptians currently in Libya, waiting for transport to Italy, and Libya has taken to shipping them back to Egypt in their hundreds.   This Libya-Italy route remains open despite deals already concluded by the EU in northern Africa, notably with Libya, Tunisia and Mauritania, aimed at reducing the uncontrolled flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.  The new agreement with Egypt is intended to augment those deals and make them more effective.

 There is always another point of view. Some interests do not see the current situation as an emergency.  Human Rights groups strongly condemned the EU’s deals with authoritarian governments, among which they include Egypt.  Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized what it labels "the EU's cash-for-migration-control approach" which, it said, "strengthens authoritarian rulers while betraying human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and activists whose work involves great personal risk."

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the IOM, makes a different point.  He has said the  2023 migrant numbers were a far cry from those recorded in 2015 when more than a million people reached European shores via the Mediterranean.

“There is no real emergency,” Di Giacomo is reported as saying. “They are very manageable figures, and more should be done to give people who arrive by sea access to a system of protection.”

Egypt however, its immediate financial crisis averted, is no doubt grateful that the EU sees things rather differently.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, and the Jerusalem Post online titled: "EU deal with Egypt to stem migration is morally ambiguous", 25 March 2024:

Published in Eurasia Review, 5 April 2024:

Published in the MPC Journal, 7 April 2024:@

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Egypt prepares for Gazan influx

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 19 March 2024

            On March 1 Sky News published the results of an in-depth investigation it had undertaken.  It asserted, quoting chapter and verse and with many supporting pictures, that an Egyptian company is charging Gazans $5,000 per person to escape to Egypt, and that it has no shortage of customers.

            This method of fleeing from Gaza through a specialist company is known as “coordination”.  It is a long established system by which Palestinians can pay for permission to leave the Gaza Strip and undertake the journey.  Before the war, a number of companies were charging just a few hundred dollars for the service – pay the fee, and a few days later your journey across the border into Egypt is laid on.

   Since the start of the war all official cross-border travel, with just a handful of carefully vetted exceptions such as foreign nationals and people with severe injuries, has ceased, but “coordination” is still being operated by just one company – the Egyptian firm Hala.  Sky News asserts that currently the majority of those receiving permission to leave Gaza do so through Hala.  Before the war Hala charged $350 per adult for their service.  The company is currently charging $5,000 per adult.  Sky News states it has verified this price by corroborating accounts from dozens of sources, including a Hala employee, as well as price lists posted online.

As an example, it took February 27.  On that day 246 Palestinians were registered to travel with Hala. That means the company could have made $1,083,900 in just one day. Sky News says that the volume of daily passengers has been consistent for weeks.

A Hala employee told Sky News that the best way to register and pay for travel with the company was to send a relative to their head office in Cairo.  It is situated at the headquarters of its parent company, the Organi Group, in Cairo's Nasr City district.

"The whole building is guarded with massive security," said one source who had visited the office. Multiple sources affirmed that there were often hundreds or even thousands of people queuing outside. Videos showing the queues have been verified by Sky News.

"People are quite desperate," one source said.  "They are fundraising, they're asking for money from their family members, doing whatever they can to raise very high sums of money in order to pay for their own freedom."

If indeed hundreds of Palestinians are making the crossing into Egypt every day, as the Sky News report maintains, where on earth are they to be accommodated?

The answer may lie in a report that appeared in the world’s media back in February, and has since dropped out of public view.  On February 16 many global news sites reported that Egypt was constructing a walled camp in the Sinai Peninsula to receive displaced Palestinian civilians from the Gaza Strip.  The story was carried in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and supported by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an Egyptian NGO, which released a report detailing and illustrating construction of the compound which it said was to receive Palestinian refugees "in the case of a mass exodus."

The WSJ said an eight square mile (21 square kilometer) "walled enclosure" that could accommodate more than 100,000 people was under construction on the Egyptian side of the border, part of "contingency plans" if ceasefire talks failed.

The Sinai Foundation said that two contractors had told it that construction firms had been tasked with building the gated area, "surrounded by seven-meter high walls". And indeed the international news agency AFP reviewed satellite pictures taken on February 15 of the area in northern Sinai, showing machinery building a wall along the Egypt-Gaza border.

One source is reported as saying: "The area will be readied with tents," while humanitarian assistance would be delivered inside.

The story, replete though it was with testimony and satellite videos, was flatly denied by North Sinai governor Mohamed Shousha.  The construction work, he asserted, was to assess the value of houses destroyed during the running battles of recent years between Egyptian forces and Muslim Brotherhood insurgents operating against the regime in the region.  The aim, he said, was to determine appropriate compensation for the owners.

In the early days of the war Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned Israel against any "forced displacement" of Palestinians from Gaza into the Sinai desert. If that happened, he said, it could jeopardize the peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979.  He told a press conference back in October that Palestinians fleeing from Gaza could be moved to Israel's Negev desert "till the militants are dealt with.”

In response Israel’s Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant,

has said that Israel had "no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt…We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region.”

Sky News asked Egypt's foreign minister Sameh Shoukry whether the government condoned Hala charging $5,000 per adult for Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip.

"Absolutely not," said Shoukry. "We will take whatever measures we need to restrict it and eliminate it totally. There should be no advantage taken out of this situation for monetary gain."

But Amr Magdi, an Egypt expert at Human Rights Watch, reportedly described Shoukry's response as ringing hollow.  "It doesn't make any sense," he said. "No one can pass through the border without the knowledge of the Egyptian authorities."  In other words Hala, with its headquarters in Cairo, may be operating in Gaza with explicit or implicit official approval.

Egypt has categorically rejected any suggestion that Palestinians should be allowed to flee en masse into Sinai.  But the problem Egypt may face, and is reportedly preparing for, is not any forced evacuation of Gazans by Israel, but the voluntary flight of desperate people able to find, beg, borrow or steal, the exorbitant charges imposed by Hala to organize a “coordination” evacuation.. At the current rate of exodus, Egypt’s 100,000 capacity refugee facility would be filled in about 18 months.

            On the other hand should there be, for whatever reason, a more general breakout of Palestinian refugees from Gaza, Egypt is making sure that it is prepared.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post online titled "Egypt preparing for Gazan influx and the rising price of leaving the Strip", 19 March 2024:

Monday 11 March 2024

Iran’s take on democracy

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 11 March 2024  

National elections were held in Iran on March 1.  The results were underwhelming. It took three days for the electoral authorities to count the votes and consider the results.  On March 4 Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi told a news conference in Tehran that of Iran’s 61 million eligible voters, only some 25 million had deigned to participate.  The resultant turnout of 41% would be the lowest ever recorded in post-revolution Iran.

Even so, the BBC published comments from voters skeptical  of the official announcement.  One said: "It's not the real result."  Another woman declared  “People believe it's actually less than 41%."  When asked what she thought the true turnout had been, she said comments on Instagram suggested as low as 20%. "Some even say 15%," she added. 

          Some experts agreed.  “The real turnout is likely lower,” wrote Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, “although it is impossible to know at this stage.” The Stimson Center, while unconvinced, was even more circumspect. “Due to press and media censorship,” it commented, “as well as the absence of independent observers, it is challenging to verify the authenticity of these statistics.”

The poll was held to elect the 290 members of the national parliament, the Majles, and the 88 clerics who make up the Assembly of Experts, composed exclusively of male Islamic scholars.  Each member of the Assembly will sit for a term of eight years and, should the occasion arise, be tasked with selecting the country’s supreme leader. The occasion may indeed arise.  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 85 years old, and rumors about his health have been circulating since 2022.

            The election results indicate that conservative politicians will dominate the next parliament, which is scarcely surprising given the tightly controlled procedures under which candidates are vetted as suitable to run in the elections.  This pre-election task is undertaken by the country’s constitutional watchdog, the powerful Guardian Council, half of whose members are directly selected by Khamenei.

   In fact, of the 15,200 people who registered to stand in the election, no fewer than 7,296 were disqualified, some of them well-known critics of the regime, many of them moderates and reformers.  Iranian women have demonstrated more than once to the regime that they are a force to be reckoned with, and the Guardian Council acknowledged reality by allowing 666 women to stand.

   The popular mood during the pre-election campaign was somber.  Powerful voices called on the nation to boycott the forthcoming poll.  One with particular appeal was that of the imprisoned Narges Mohammadi, who won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for her work fighting the oppression of women in Iran.

 She denounced the elections as sham, following what she called the "ruthless and brutal suppression" of the 2022 protests triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, arrested for wearing her hijab “improperly”.

.Mohammadi, a human rights activist, has been arrested 13 times and sentenced to a total of 31 years in prison.  Having already spent some 12 years in jail serving multiple sentences, in January Iran's Revolutionary Court sentenced her to an additional 15 months in prison, doubtless in retaliation for what occurred at the Nobel Peace Award ceremony in December.

          Her children traveled to Stockholm to accept the Nobel award on her behalf. In her speech, smuggled from prison and read out on her behalf, she denounced Iran's "tyrannical" government. Referring to the 2022 protests, Mohammadi said young Iranians had "transformed the streets and public spaces into a place of widespread civil resistance."

          Freedom of expression was a major issue during pre-election campaigning.  Iranians are  well aware of the growing numbers of journalists, artists and other activists being arrested.  The suppression of political dissent is also resented.  The most prominent figure in the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was a presidential candidate in 2009, remains under permanent house arrest. 

For a variety of reasons in 2021 it suited Supreme Leader Khamenei to approve the election of Hassan Rouhani as president, despite the fact that many in Iran regard him as a moderate.  He has since fallen out of favor. Disqualified from running for the Assembly of Experts after 24 years of membership, Rouhani nonetheless cast his vote on election day.  Another former president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami was, according to the Reform Front coalition, among those who abstained from voting.

On his official website Khatami posted that Iran is “very far from free and competitive elections."

The head of Reform Front, Azar Mansouri, said she hoped the state would learn its lesson from the low turnout, and change the way it governed the nation.

The respected London-based think tank, Chatham House, maintains that these Iranian elections “should not be seen as a democratic exercise where people express their will at the ballot box.  As in many authoritarian countries, elections in Iran have long been used to legitimize the power and influence of the ruling elite.”  

The regime, it says, has failed to learn any lessons from the nationwide protests in 2022 following the Mahsa Amini affair, and the subsequent brutal government crackdown. Rather than attempting to build back popular legitimacy through inclusive elections, it concludes, the political establishment has prioritized a further consolidation of conservative power across both elected and unelected institutions.

 Confirming his reputation for turning the truth on its head, Supreme Leader Khamenei on March 5 hailed Iran’s elections as "great and epic", despite the boycott by a large majority of voters. “The Iranian nation did a jihad and fulfilled their social and civil duties,” he declared.

In response, reformist lawyer and former member of parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi tweeted: “Don’t the sixty percent who did not vote count as Iranians?”

          Writing from Tehran’s Evin prison, where he has spent more than eight years behind bars, dissident reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, an outspoken critic of Khamenei, called the elections “engineered” and a “historic failure” of the system and of the Supreme Leader.

           Yet this perverse manipulation of the founding principle of Western democracy – free and fair elections – is how Iran’s regime maintains its unyielding grip on power.

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post online titled: "Iran's take on democracy and the Irfanians that refused to play along", 11 May 2024: