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Middle East: The most dangerous May since 1967

Lauren Hutton is an independent consultant with more than 10 years experience working on peace and security in Africa. She has worked for think tanks such as the Institute for Security Studies and the Netherlands Institute for International Relations (Clingendael), as well as operational agencies such as the Danish Refugee Council and Danish Demining Group.

Watching thousands of brave Palestinians marching towards the fence in Gaza, our common humanity activates anger and fear in me. Blood has already been spilled. More will be spilled in the minutes and days to come.

On 5 June 1967, Israel launched pre-emptive strikes into Egypt amid escalating tensions with their neighbour about the Sinai Peninsula and Israeli access to the Strait of Tiran. In just 6 days, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) pulled off one of last centuries most impressive military campaigns, defeating not only the Egyptians on their western border, but also the Syrian and Jordan forces to their north and east. Some 20,000 Egyptian and Jordanian troops lost their lives, alongside nearly 2,000 citizen-soldiers from the young Jewish state. Israel administered a devastating blow to its neighbouring enemies and succeeded in uniting historic Palestine under the Blue Star of David.

Before the Six-Day War, Israel controlled about 78% of Palestine having lost territories in Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank during the 1956 Arab-Israeli war. After the 1967 war, Israel controlled 100% of Palestine as well as the Egyptian Sinai, Syrian parts of the Golan Heights and the entire area of the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. The swift victory was tactically impressive and created a generation of war heroes, whose fortitude became a center piece in Israel’s legendary military expertise and whose skills would be repeatedly tested in the years to come.

It was six years before the neighbouring states tried to take back their seized territories. On 6 October 1973, a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. When dawn broke on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish religious, people were fasting and praying and not preparing for war. The Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and took back the Sinai before the IDF managed to halt their advance. At the same time, the Syrian forces attacked through the Golan Heights, and pushed into Israeli territory. Although the coordinated attack on a religious holiday forced Israel to fight on two fronts, it took only three days for the IDF to gain the upper hand. The face-off in the Sinai quickly turned to a stalemate along the previous border line as Egypt lacked the force and will to push deeper into Israeli territory.

Along the Syrian border, the Arab forces, led by nearly 2,000 Syrian tanks, met small groups of Israeli soldiers, who won crucial ground battles with intense aerial support. At the time, Israel had less than 200 tanks and armoured vehicles in their arsenal. Current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s father, Hafez, came to power in Damascus in 1971 and quickly worked to create an Arab alliance with Soviet support to take back the occupied lands from Israel. The former Soviet Union, although never enamored with their Middle Eastern partners, played their role in the superpower rivalry and extended their sphere of influence up to the Israeli border. For Al-Assad senior, as with his son today, the Russian alliance was a matter of survival in the face of US-backed, Israeli aggression inside Syrian territory.

Al-Assad also believed in 1973 that the only way to get Israel to negotiate on the Palestine issue was through defeating them in a war. Israel has always maintained, as noted in a recent interview with former Israeli President Ehud Barack, that while their neighbours can afford to lose a war, the state of Israel’s existence depends on winning every war. It is interesting to note Syria’s more traditional use of conventional war in furtherance of a political agenda as opposed to the Israeli approach of domination as being essential to their very survival.

In October 1973, Israeli soldiers found themselves facing their worst case scenario: caught by surprise in simultaneous attacks and assuming that their enemies were fighting to take control of and end the existence of the state of Israel. In the Valley of Tears in the Golan Heights, Israeli war hero, Avignor Ben-Gal led the 7th Armored Brigade. In the 1967 war, he was operations commander in the Sinai and led the IDF through the Egyptian fortifications, losing his right foot to a landmine. Six years later, just two weeks before Yom Kippur, Ben-Gal intuited a threat and even though he could not convince his superiors of the upcoming attack on the Golan Heights, he had his brigade prepare battle plans, making them the only IDF brigade in a full state of readiness on 6 October. And they held their line. Outnumbered and outgunned, the IDF fought back littering the valley with more than 250 Syrian tanks, until the Syrian-led forces began to withdraw on 8 October. After a day of rest, the counter-attack began and within days the IDF were less than 30km outside of Damascus.

With numbers and weapons, the Syrian-led forces should have been able to sustain their assault and wear down the Israeli troops. However, fate did not favour them. What the Syrian forces had not known was that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in co-ordination with Henry Kissinger, had purposefully stalled their Sinai offensive, leaving the Syrian-led forces to face the IDF without having adequately split their forces. Further, while military historians offer different reasons for the Syrian withdrawal, one main proposition involves the threat of nuclear war. Some historians believe that Tel Aviv put in a call to Damascus notifying them of their willingness to use limited nuclear strikes in Syria. Others contest that the call happened, but it is well-documented that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir overruled her Defence Minister, who wanted to ready the weapons for a nuclear strike. At the time, Israel possessed some 10 to 20 first-generation nuclear weapons, configured for aerial bombing. The potential for nuclear war in Syria in 1973 was probably greater even than at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Fast forwarding through the tumultuous history of the region, we reach May 2018. By this time, Syria had been trapped in a global and regional cold war for decades with a state of emergency existing from 1963-2011 and even mild attempts at reform stymied by the particularities of managing diverse religious and ethnic groups in an economically and environmentally fragile environment. Domestically, the al-Assad regimes showed bias to their Alawite tribe, reinforced inequalities and maintained that any opposition to the existing rule in Damascus is founded on foreign interference aiming to fundamental alter the nature of the state. Given their history and that of their allies in Iran and Russia, this perspective – similar to the construct of Israel’s security posture – is valid. And as with Israel, the response of Damascus to citizen’s need for change was bullets and blood. Syria turned to her allies in an attempt to quell domestic aggression and fend off extreme levels of international interference from Saudi Arabia (in the form of Wahhabist extremist groups), the US (operating in alliance with Saudi Arabia, but able to use extremists as justification for military engagement) and Israel (through active cross-border bombing raids).

The recent escalations present an amazing confluence of events. On Sunday 13 May 2018, Israel celebrated the reunification of Jerusalem, one of the key outcomes of the Six-Day War that signalled the end of Palestinian claims to joint administration of the shared capital. It is a holiday long associated with violence as Palestinians are confronted with their diminished political status and the Israeli victors revel in the glory of control. On Monday 14 May 2018, Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the state. In a move that belies any sense of stability, the US government decided to open the new US Embassy in Jerusalem on this day.

On 15 May, the Palestinians mark Nakba (the Catastrophe) that saw more than 1-million Palestinian people displaced and denied statehood, citizenship and basic human rights. The plight of the Palestinian nation is a blight on modern humanity – for the Arab world, whose divisions have disabled the possibility of a unified position; for colonial powers, whose haphazard reading of the political dynamics created an unsustainable future; for the superpowers and their Cold War ambitions that armed and fuelled the wars; for the Israelis, whose oppression has surpassed any sense of reason; and for the billions of global citizens for whom the rights of citizenship are not a common good. And there are many that will blame the Palestinian leadership, who have also proven unable to retain unity of cause. The institutionalised eviction of the Palestinian people from their ancestral lands, made only more offensive by the decades of denial of rights and the continued invasion of their personal and communal spaces, has created a grievance whose redress demands response. But instead of redress, the international response seems to be one of continued ignorance and apathy.

On Tuesday evening, Ramadan begins. The annual celebration of the formation of the nation of Islam coincides with the start of a traditional fighting season as jihad is based on the defence of the nation. Jihad creates a collective responsibility for Muslims to fight in defence of any Muslim nation that has fallen to infidels. The Yom Kippur War is also known as the Ramadan War due to the alignment of the religious calendars that year and the Arab coalition’s use of jihad to motivate for the liberation of Palestine and the Israeli occupied territories. The confluence of significant events in this early part of May 2018 has led an Israeli intelligence official to call this “the most dangerous May since 1967”.

The Israeli security apparatus today is a far cry from that of the 1960s. The citizen-soldiers, who fought brave battles as outnumbered and outgunned Zionists, settlers and survivors are the heroes on whose shoulders the modern military-intelligence industrial complex has been built. Israel is a dominant global force in technological development for defence and security and each border clash or Palestinian Intifada (uprising) sees Israel respond with newer and smarter weapons.

Today, Israel claims to have 80 readied nuclear weapons, with fissile material prepared for another 200. Iran claims that Israel’s nuclear stockpile currently exceeds 400 weapons. Iran has tried to develop nuclear capacity as a regional deterrent to Israel, a shifting balance that would disable the ultimate military advantage that the small Jewish state holds over her neighbours. Unsurprisingly, Israel never supported compromise with Iran on nuclear development and has insisted that Iran has continued to develop their nuclear capacity despite the 2015 nuclear deal.

As I type this on Monday afternoon, Israel has just used drones for the first time to drop tear gas on people protesting in Gaza. These people are not rushing the fence, but gathering inside Gaza in peaceful protest against the purposefully inflammatory move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

Over the last six-weeks of protest in Gaza, thousands of Palestinian youths have been injured – estimates approaching 10,000 people are being reported. Hospitals that have been strangled by the occupation for decades are dealing with a new wave of casualties, many of whom require amputations. A Palestinian doctor posted pictures on Twitter of massive entry wounds caused by an allegedly new type of exploding bullet that the Israeli snipers have been using, targeting the limbs of unarmed civilians to inflict maximum long-term harm. The same doctor counts 48 killed and 9,520 shooting injuries as of 12 May.

The other strategic game changer is the Iron Dome missile defence shield. In its first three years of action (2011-2014), Iron Dome had intercepted and neutralized more than 1200 rockets. On 9 May 2018, the power of the Iron Dome was tested when Iranian backed forces fired some 20 rockets from the Golan Heights, all were intercepted and prompting a swift IDF response attacking 50 Iranian-backed sites in Syria and significantly damaging their operational presence. This was a significant escalation that had been building over the last weeks as Israel seemed to be goading Iran into active engagement.

On 8 May, following the announcement of the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, Israel launched pre-emptive strikes against the Iranian positions citing intelligence reports of a potential Iranian missile barrage. This action followed Israeli cross border bombings that had killed nearly 20 Iranian Revolutionary Guards on their bases in Syria in April 2018. Tehran showed restraint and has avoided retaliation while the nuclear deal was in play.

Watching thousands of brave Palestinians marching towards the fence in Gaza, our common humanity activates anger and fear in me. Blood has already been spilled. More will be spilled in the minutes and days to come. The numbers are climbing; when I started writing, two people were dead. An hour later, nine people had died and hundreds more have been injured. Some 30 minutes later, I return to this section to add that the death toll is now confirmed as 16 with 700 people injured. The number by sunset will give me chills.

There are no Israeli injuries as the Palestinians have not reached the border fence and unarmed civilians are being picked off by sniper fire. A tear gas canister lands meters from the Al-Jazeera journalist, the camera pans to show young men quickly covering the canister in sand to contain the smoke. Before the journalist can even talk about the tear gas, another injured person is stretched past as sniper fire continues to crack in the distance. There are no visible weapons among the Palestinians; reports indicate that not a single rocket or weapon has been fired from Gaza since the start of this now six-week protest.

The Palestinians are clear in their frustration with nothing left to lose. The last straw for them is the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a symbolic move that signals militarised Israel and her US ally’s lack of interest in securing their basic human rights.

Al-Jazeera’s split-screen coverage creates a stark image: on one side of the screen, thousands of Palestinians are demanding basic freedoms of movement and rights to life amid sniper fire, tear gas and burning tyres; on the other, the arrogance of Israeli and American elites is on full display in a self-congratulatory opening ceremony for the US Embassy in Jerusalem, smiling and shaking hands seemingly immune to the blood staining the soil of Palestine. A US Army Staff Sergeant sings the national anthem, while an injured Palestinian is rushed away on a stretcher. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump hold their hands over their hearts, while Palestinian youth hold their hands on the shredded and bleeding limbs of their friends and family.

And so without even writing about Donald Trump, we end up at the media dominating narcissist able to harness and act upon the worst tendencies of a complicated populace. While President Trump did not need much encouragement to pursue an offensive agenda against Iran, it was Israel who handed him the “smoking gun” to enable the withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

In what hopefully will become a movie one day, crack Israeli intelligence, Mossad, infiltrated Iran and stole the nuclear archives from Tehran. Although Trump was apparently briefed on the Israeli-obtained materials in January 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu went public with the materials on 1 May 2018. Mossad found the files in a dilapidated warehouse in February 2016 and worked for some time to translate the 55 000 files that Bibi proudly held up as evidence that Iran had continued its nuclear programme after the signing of the international agreement and had worked to hide its nuclear archives.

Iran, which has complied with intense international monitoring and has been deemed by international institutions to be acting in accordance with its denuclearisation commitments, immediately called the allegations a rehash of issues it has already addressed with the International Atomic Energy Association. As in other forums, Israel and the US have consistently moved against international consensus to undermine potential avenues for peace and the achievement of rights for Muslim people.

As happens on most days of the week, American citizens find themselves again with the blood of unarmed, Muslim civilians on their hands. And this comes as 57% of Americans claim to be happy with how their country is being run; a figure higher than during the Obama administration, and not seen since the Bush era in 2007.

A call to prayer rings out over Amman, where I sit and write today. On the TV before me, an American minister is praying, blessing the US Embassy and the sanctity of their superiority. The Dallas-based Baptist preacher, who has previously called Islam a religion that promotes paedophilia, includes in his prayers that Israel is a blessing to the entire world, Bibi is a man of courageous leadership, determined to do whatever it takes to defend his people at all costs, and extols the virtues of Trump as a president, who stands on the right side of history and the right side of God. The sanctimony is nauseating. If only the gods we serve, forced us all to place our common humanity above our narrow group interests.

As the stunning TV coverage continues, I’m forced to stop writing when Jared Kushner says that Israel is the only place on earth where people of all faiths participate and worship freely. Outside the venue, Israeli police are seen strong-arming head-scarved women, who have absolutely no idea what he is talking about. He reminds us of how conflicts come when nations deny rights, underscoring the right of Israel to claim its capital and letting the Palestinians know that America does not even consider them a nation of people deserving of rights. Kushner lays bare his dangerous ignorance when he says the protesters are invoking violence and are not part of the solution. The vulgarities of power are laid clear in the blood of martyrs. DM


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