The Middle East Channel

Tensions flare with exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza

After four months of relative calm since a negotiated ceasefire in November 2012, tensions have flared with the exchange of fire between Palestinian militants in Gaza and Israeli Defense Forces. According to Israeli officials, three rockets launched from Gaza hit southern Israel near the town of Sderot on Tuesday, and two more on Wednesday. There were no casualties. The attacks Wednesday came after Israel launched air strikes into Gaza near the town of Beit Lahiya targeting "two extensive terror sites." These attacks did not cause damage or casualties. Magles Shoura al-Mujahadeen claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were responding to the death on Tuesday of a Palestinian prisoner, Maysara Abu Hamdeya, who was held in Israel. Abu Hamdeya died from cancer, but many Palestinians blame Israel for his death. Tuesday's strikes were the third incident of rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli territory since November's ceasefire, but Israel's air strikes were the first since the negotiated truce. More than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed over eight days of fighting in November.

Syria

A Syrian jet flew 12 miles into Lebanese airspace Wednesday and fired a missile into the outskirts of the Bekaa border town of Arsal, hitting a field. Additionally, a Syrian helicopter reportedly flew over the town and fired two missiles at a home, which was empty at the time. Lebanon has maintained a policy of "disassociation" with the Syrian conflict, but residents of Arsal have been outspoken critics of the Syrian regime and over 20,000 Syrian refugees have reportedly fled to the town. Early Wednesday, armed men ambushed a convoy of trucks traveling toward Syria in the Bab al-Tebbandeh district of Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli. Gunmen and protesters often attempt to prevent tankers from entering Syria so that they cannot deliver fuel to the Syrian government. Meanwhile, a King's College study has found that hundreds of Europeans have traveled to Syria and taken part in fighting since the conflict began in March 2011. According to the study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), European fighters comprise between 7 and eleven percent of the foreign element in the conflict, which the researchers estimated ranges between 2,000 and 5,500 people. The lead researcher, Professor Peter Neumann, spoke about the dramatic increase in international jihadists saying, "The mobilisation of this conflict is more significant than any of the recent conflict[s] we have know about."

Headlines

  • Hundreds of students at Egypt's Al-Azhar University stormed the offices of top cleric Ahmed al-Tayeb after food poisoning left 500 students hospitalized, for which the Muslim Brotherhood has denied responsibility.
  • A team of IMF officials has arrived in Egypt for meetings on a $4.8 billion loan aimed at alleviating the country's economic crisis as the Egyptian government struggles with reform measures. 

Arguments and Analysis

Tunisia and Egypt need the Arab revolutions to spread (Seumas Milne, The Guardian)

"From the first eruption of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, it was clear that powerful forces would do everything possible to make sure they were brought to heel, or failed. Those included domestic interests which had lost out from the overthrow of the old regimes, Gulf states that feared the contagion would spread to their shores and western powers that had lost strategic clients - and didn't like the idea of losing any more.

So after Tunisia and Egypt had fallen in quick succession, later uprisings were hijacked, as in Libya, or crushed, as in Bahrain, while sectarian toxins were pumped throughout the region, escalating the bloodshed in Syria in particular, and cash was poured into destabilising or co-opting the post-revolutionary states.

It seemed only Tunisia was small and homogenous enough to be spared a full-scale counter-revolutionary onslaught, its newly elected Islamist leaders pluralist enough to lead a successful democratisation and offer a progressive model for the rest of the region."

The inner syntax of Palestinian stone-throwing (Amira Hass, Haaretz)

"Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance. Persecution of stone-throwers, including 8-year-old children, is an inseparable part - though it's not always spelled out - of the job requirements of the foreign ruler, no less than shooting, torture, land theft, restrictions on movement, and the unequal distribution of water sources.

The violence of 19-year-old soldiers, their 45-year-old commanders, and the bureaucrats, jurists and lawyers is dictated by reality. Their job is to protect the fruits of violence instilled in foreign occupation - resources, profits, power and privileges.

.... It would make sense for Palestinian schools to introduce basic classes in resistance: how to build multiple "tower and stockade" villages in Area C; how to behave when army troops enter your homes; comparing different struggles against colonialism in different countries; how to use a video camera to document the violence of the regime's representatives; methods to exhaust the military system and its representatives; a weekly day of work in the lands beyond the separation barrier; how to remember identifying details of soldiers who flung you handcuffed to the floor of the jeep, in order to submit a complaint; the rights of detainees and how to insist on them in real time; how to overcome fear of interrogators; and mass efforts to realize the right of movement. Come to think of it, Palestinian adults could also make use of these lessons, perhaps in place of their drills, training in dispersing protests, and practice in spying on Facebook posts."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Syria suffers “deadliest month” in March

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 6,005 people were recorded killed in the Syrian conflict in March, which they cited as the deadliest month in the two-year conflict. The opposition activist group reported among the casualties at least 291 women, 298 children, 1,486 opposition fighters and Syrian army defectors, and 1,464 government troops. The SOHR said it has documented 62,554 deaths since the uprising began in March 2011, although it assumes a much higher death toll. Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the SOHR, said many deaths have been difficult to document and both sides underreport their dead, so its estimate is closer to 120,000 people. The United Nations estimated the number of people killed surpassed 70,000 in February, but the figure likely doesn't include government soldiers or pro-regime militiamen. The Syrian government has not released death tolls. The spike in deaths in March was probably due to increased government shelling and aerial attacks, rising suicide attacks, and the spread of clashes throughout the country. Fighting has continued in the northern city of Aleppo and the central city of Homs, and has intensified in Damascus, the capital. Additionally, opposition forces have overtaken towns and military bases in recent weeks along the Jordanian border in Daraa province.

Headlines

  • Despite previously indicating that he would to step down, Hamas has reelected its exiled leader, Khaled Meshal, as its political head. Meshal is seen by many as the pragmatic option.
  • The United Nations General Assembly is expected to adopt the first global conventional arms treaty Tuesday, despite opposition from Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
  • Hamas has issued a new education law to take effect in September which mandates separation of sexes in schools and prohibits relations with Israelis.
  • Turkey and Kurdish militants could face an impasse in last month's negotiated ceasefire due to a debate over legal protection for the PKK during their proposed withdrawal.
  • Saudi Arabian authorities have mounted a major crackdown on illegal foreign workers, of which there are an estimated two to three million, causing schools, offices, and businesses to close. 

Arguments and Analysis

The Kurdish Factor (Matthieu Aikins, Latitude Blog, The New York Times)

""We made the decision on Thursday night to help the rebels," said Sawoushka Ahmed, a local Kurdish fighter. She explained that there had been discussions about this within the group for several weeks, as its uneasy relation with the Assad regime had deteriorated to the point that the neighborhood would sometimes be shelled and raided at night. The Kurds' hand may also have been forced by the rebels: Earlier in the week, I had spoken to rebel commanders who said they were preparing to take Sheikh Maksoud by force.

Whatever the precise motivation, the crucial question now - which the Kurdish fighters I spoke to over the past few days  weren't prepared to answer - is whether the P.Y.D.'s shift in Sheikh Maksoud represents a countrywide change in the Kurds' alliances. If so, it could represent a major development in the course of the war in Syria.

The realignment in Aleppo comes only one week after the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan announced, from his jail cell in Istanbul, a cease-fire between Kurdish rebels in Turkey and the Turkish government. The unprecedented truce is widely seen as the first stage in a deal between Ocalan and Turkey's ambitious prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that would finally end the long-running Kurdish insurgency in Turkey."

New laws would cripple Egyptian democratic institutions (The Washington Post)

"THE OBAMA administration and other Western governments are increasingly concerned that Egypt's shaky Islamic government will exhaust the country's foreign reserves rather than adopt the painful austerity measures necessary to win fresh funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the danger of an economic collapse is real, it is not the only threat the West should be focused on. Cairo is also on the verge of adopting laws that would cripple the country's fragile new democratic order and drastically reduce the West's ability to influence Egypt's course.

Foremost among these is legislation that would regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) - the building blocks of democracy. As in many other countries, Egypt's independent human rights groups, legal aid societies, women's groups and other organizations helped lay the groundwork for the 2011 revolution; now they are essential to ensuring that a free society takes root. Many of Egypt's NGOs and nascent political parties have received funding or training from U.S. and European foundations, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/BULENT KILIC