The Middle East Channel

Israel Answers Rocket Fire with Air Strikes on Gaza

The Israeli Air Force struck 29 targets in the Gaza Strip Wednesday evening and seven sites Thursday in response to a barrage of rocket fire launched from Gaza since Wednesday morning. Over 60 rockets have been fired toward Israel by Islamic Jihad militants in an apparent act of retaliation for the death of three Islamic Jihad militants by Israeli fire on Tuesday. Rocket fire has sounded alerts in four Israeli towns. There have not been any reported causalities. This level of activity has not been witnessed since Israel carried out Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. Egypt is reportedly attempting to broker a truce to calm tensions, which threaten a 16-month-old cease-fire. The escalation of violence coincides with British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to Israel and the West Bank.

Syria

In a statement on the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has urged and Russia and the United States to revive stalled peace talks, calling Syria "the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world." British street artist Banksy has launched a global art campaign, #withsyria, to mark the anniversary. Meanwhile, on Wednesday Iran hosted its own version of a "Friends of Syria" conference attended by lawmakers from Russia, Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Cuba, Venezuela. Conference participants discussed potential diplomatic solutions to Syria's conflict and criticized alleged Western interference. Ali Larijani, Iran's parliament speaker, challenged Syria's rebels to put down weapons and to challenge Bashar al-Assad at the ballot box, calling elections "the best way to determine the destiny of a country."

Headlines

  • A young man died in Istanbul Wednesday amid a police crackdown on protests over the death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan. The death of a police officer in the eastern province of Tunceli has also been linked to the protests sparked by Elvan's death.
  • Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have arrested two members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood who are wanted on charges of inciting August 2013 violence in Port Said. This is the first case of international cooperation to detain Muslim Brotherhood members. Meanwhile, Egypt's army has blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for a fatal attack on an army bus in Cairo Thursday.
  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's first official visit to Muscat has resulted in a deal to export 10 billion cubic meters of gas to Oman. The agreement, valued at $60 billion, involves building a pipeline across the Gulf at an estimated cost of $1 billion.
  • The deadline for Egypt's presidential election has been pushed from mid-April to mid-July.
  • A North Korean official has said that the country had nothing to do with the oil tanker that evaded a Libyan naval blockade, adding that North Korea had the vessel's revoked the registration after learning of the incident. The official reported that an Egyptian company owned the tanker.

Arguments and Analysis

'Jordan's Energy Balancing Act' (David Schenker and Simon Henderson, Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

"With an estimated forty years of gas reserves in Tamar and the larger, as-yet-unexploited Leviathan field, Israel could provide Jordan with an inexpensive and reliable means of meeting all of its domestic gas requirements. Israel is heavily invested in the kingdom's stability and the survival of the moderate monarchy, and it would undoubtedly be glad to fill this need. Reflecting this interest, it has reportedly agreed to sell the gas to Arab Potash and Jordan Bromine at a price comparable to the Egyptian pipeline deal.

Yet King Abdullah has been hesitant to proceed with more Israeli gas deals for fear of domestic backlash. On February 24, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood's political party, the Islamic Action Front, described the agreement with the 'Zionist entity' as 'criminal,' 'contrary to the best interests of Jordan,' and 'an attack on the Palestinian cause.'"

'Would UN Sanctions Help Yemen's Transition?' (Nasser Arrabyee, Sada)

"Given the difficulty of identifying and holding accountable the spoilers, the UNSC has decided to form a committee from all the 15 members to help identify the spoilers independent of the efforts of Benomar, whom some parties in Yemen describe as 'not neutral and not wanted.' Yet even if a completely neutral and strong committee is put together, it might not be able to accomplish as much as Benomar in terms of meeting and working with a cross-section of actors -- including President Hadi and the majority of the parties and groups involved in the political process -- and identifying spoilers, let alone find enough evidence to implicate them.

Given these challenges, the committee would face three possible scenarios. In the best case, spoilers-even before being identified-would fear serious sanctions and the UN's authority under Chapter VII of its charter to take military and nonmilitary action to 'restore international peace and security.' In this case, the fear of repercussions might lead actors to cooperate and prevent obstructions. The second case would involve the committee gathering clear and convincing evidence that identifies these spoilers and that can be submitted to courts to determine their culpability. The spoilers could then be tried either in Yemeni courts or, more likely, outside the country because Yemeni judges might be unwilling or unable to oversee such process. However, this scenario is unlikely, because it requires hard evidence, which has been extremely difficult to obtain. Alternately, the last and worst case would involve the committee designating spoilers based on fabricated reports, politicized information, and media guesses or prejudices. In this case, conflict would abound, and there would be little fear of such consequences as international sanctions."

-- Cortni Kerr

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Libya's Prime Minister Dismissed After Tanker Escapes

Libya's parliament held a vote of confidence Tuesday to dismiss Prime Minister Ali Zeidan over the failure to prevent an oil tanker from exporting oil from the rebel-controlled Sidra port. Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thinni has been named as Libya's interim prime minister. Despite a travel ban against Zeidan, Malta's prime minister reported that Zeidan had arrived in Malta Tuesday en route to a European country. Libyan authorities seized a North Korea-flagged tanker Monday after it attempted to leave Sidra port, however the tanker escaped the naval blockade overnight. The tanker -- the first vessel to have loaded oil from a rebel-held port since the separatist revolt erupted in July 2013 -- is estimated to have taken on at least 234,000 barrels of crude oil from the rebels. On Monday the parliament ordered an operation to liberate all rebel-held oil terminals. Special forces are expected to deploy within one week. In related news, the U.N. Security Council's Libya sanctions committee reported this week that Libya had become "a primary source of illicit weapons," and that trafficking from Libya was fueling conflict and instability on several continents.

Syria

In a rare public appearance, President Bashar al-Assad visited internally displaced Syrians in the city of Adra Wednesday. Adra, located 12 miles north of Damascus, has been a battleground between rebels and government forces. Syrian state media reported that Assad was "listening to their needs" and that he told them the state would continue to provide for those needs. Meanwhile, Syrian authorities passed a law Wednesday requiring all foreign visitors to obtain a visa prior to travel. Citizens of most Arab states were not required to have a visa prior to this law, and Syria has repeatedly complained of "terrorists" entering the country illegally. Also on Wednesday, an E.U. court upheld sanctions against Assad's sister Bushra al-Assad. Separately, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has denied reports that a widely distributed photo of the Yarmouk refugee camp is a fake. The photo, published in newspapers around the world, shows overcrowded lines of Palestinians awaiting food aid in the Syrian camp. 

Headlines

  • The Israeli Knesset has passed a controversial law that will draft ultra-Orthodox men into the army, ending a 65-year exemption from national service. The vote passed despite opposition boycott and protest from the ultra-Orthodox community.
  • Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has arrived on his first official visit to the United Arab Emirates to attend joint military exercises. On Sunday Sisi signed a memoranda of understanding with the UAE-based construction firm Arabtec, which has committed to building one million homes across Egypt worth a combined $40 billion.
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron will arrive in Israel Wednesday for his first visit to the country. Cameron, accompanied by two-dozen trade delegates, is expected to make U.K.-Israel trade announcements, in addition to discussing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's peace initiative in meetings with the Knesset and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
  • Following her recent two-day visit to Tehran, E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is receiving criticism from political conservatives in Iran over her meetings with human rights defenders, including the mother of the blogger Sattar Behesthi who died in policy custody in 2012. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that Rouhani had failed to fulfill campaign promises to promote and protect freedoms of expression and opinion.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a statement expressing Israel's regret over the death of a Jordanian judge of Palestinian origin who was shot by Israeli border guards Monday. The shooting incident has stirred diplomatic tension and protests in Jordan calling for the removal of Israel's ambassador.

Arguments and Analysis

'Saudi action puts Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait on spot' (Elizabeth Dickinson, Al-Monitor)

"After three years of escalating animosity, Saudi Arabia made its own view clear over the weekend, adding the Muslim Brotherhood to its official list of terrorist organizations and laying out strict prohibitions against participation and support. The moves followed a decision, together with the UAE and Bahrain, to withdraw ambassadors from Qatar March 6 over anger at Doha's support for political Islam.

But Riyadh's new rules don't just mark the end of the organization's legal presence in the kingdom. They also raise questions about the future of the Brotherhood in smaller Gulf states such as Kuwait and Bahrain, where offshoots operate openly as registered political and social groups." 

''He Knew That Death Was Coming': Survivors Mourn After A Massacre By Syrian Rebels' (Joshua Hersh, Huffington Post)

"But reporting on the killing of Alawites and other pro-government civilians by rebel forces is nevertheless an uncommon experience. With so much of the conflict covered from TurkeyLebanon and Jordan -- places where the stories of victims predominantly reflect the brutality inflicted by government-affiliated forces -- a tour of Syria's internal strongholds offers a refresher course in the suffering that has befallen citizens on all sides.

A breakdown of deaths on each side is hard to come by, although most accounts indicate that regime forces have caused the majority of civilian deaths in the war. But large numbers have been harmed on all sides; last summer, one monitoring group estimated that as many as 40,000 of those killed have been Alawites, including civilians and members of the security forces.

Even if the raw numbers of dead don't balance out neatly, the feelings of fear, misery and anger among survivors and family members on the government side are just as deep -- as is their gratitude for the army that saved them. The emotions are all the same. The two sides could hardly be further apart."

-- Cortni Kerr

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images