West Asia Roundup: November 2023
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The Israel-Hamas war, started with October 7 terror attacks, continued to witness the excessive and indiscriminate Israeli bombings over Gaza and the ground offensive leading to over 17000 casualties including nearly 600 children. UNGA and UNSC resolutions had no bearing on the outcome as the United States continued to support the Israeli offensive to destroy or decimate Hamas which is designated as a terrorist group by them. Although some 108 female hostages and children were released in exchange for nearly three times of Palestinians from the Israeli jails with the negotiations facilitated by Qatar, the temporary truce broke down after six days leading to more violence. But the global community and calls for immediate ceasefire and permission for humanitarian aid for civilians grew louder. The UNSG was criticized by Netanyahu and others for stating that October 7 did not happen in a ‘Vacuum’. Several countries recalled their ambassadors as shuttle diplomacy continued apace by US and regional leaders with limited success. Secretary Blinken came down to the region four times but Tel Aviv continued with its mission to destroy Hamas as the domestic discontent in Israel and protests by Arabs in western capitals became more intense and frequent.

Although all major powers regional and global were trying to contain the expansion of the conflict into other theatres some confrontations and aggressive actions from Hezbollah and Houthis were witnessed against various targets even as the conflagration was limited.

Saudi Arabia convened meeting of the Arab and Islamic leaders in which the Iranian President Raisi also participated. Although the violence against Palestinian civilians as well as against Israeli women and children were condemned they seemed to be divided whether to put sanctions on Israelis or break diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Moreover, a group of Foreign Ministers led by their Saudi counterpart travelled to P5 countries to persuade for a ceasefire.

During the ongoing Israel-Palestine crisis, PM Modi and EAM Dr Jaishankar continued to confer with their counterparts in the region and beyond expressing their concerns on the non-adherence to the international humanitarian law and civilian strife in this war which had the potential to escalate and expand.

COP 28 was inaugurated in Dubai where PM Modi participated and suggested the new Green Credit initiative as he underscored the Mission Life (Life style for Environment) which was already adopted in the G20 New Delhi Declaration in September. He also offered to host COP 33 in India. He also underscored the need for urgent provision of green finance for the developing and vulnerable countries.

The 18th India-Iran Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) were held in Tehran on 26 November 2023. Amb Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary and Dr. Ali Bagheri Kani, Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran co-chaired the meeting.

The two sides reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral relationship, including connectivity projects such as Chabahar port, political engagements, trade & economic matters, cultural exchanges, people-to-people ties, agriculture cooperation, and capacity building initiatives.
They also exchanged views on current regional and global issues, including developments in Afghanistan and Gaza. The Indian side appreciated Iran’s participation in the Voice of Global South Summits held this year. Amb Kwatra also called on the Iranian Foreign Minister. Earlier on November 6. PM Modi had spoken with President Raisi and the latter shared his assessment of the situation. Both the leaders emphasized on the need for preventing escalation, ensuring continued humanitarian aid and early restoration of peace and stability.

India has supplied more than 70 tons of humanitarian assistance for Gaza.

More details:

Israel-Palestine Conflict

Israel Defence Forces (IDF) throughout November continued with the ground operation in Gaza Strip with goal to uproot Hamas. IDF after calling for forced displacement of Palestinians in the northern Gaza, it was involved in urban warfare and dismantling the tunnel networks. Israel with backing from the US refused to accept the global calls for ceasefire. Israel forces’ military approach failed to rescue hostages. It agreed to a humanitarian truce on 22 November that led to securing 105 Israeli and foreign hostages in exchange of releasing 150 Palestinian women and under age prisoners. The fighting continued after 27 November.

In West Bank, Israeli forces during raids in Jenin and Arraba killed three Palestinians on 12 November. IDF destroyed infrastructure including roads and power transformers. On 16 November, three Palestinians were killed following a shootout at an Israeli checkpoint near Bethlehem. Reportedly, six members of IDF were injured in the attack. On 26 November, the IDF killed eight Palestinians including one child. On 29 November, two Palestinian boys aged, 15 and 18 were killed by Israeli security forces in Jenin. Israeli forces killed around 239 Palestinians since 7 October. The settlers have killed at least eight Palestinians in October and early November and damaged houses, properties and agricultural resources. Hamas fighters on 30 November opened fire at a bus stop near Jerusalem and killed three Israeli citizens and wounded several others.

Israel-Hezbollah Confrontation

Hezbollah launched multiple anti-tank guided missile attacks on 1 November and on 2 November, 19 IDF military sites were targeted with missiles and artillery shells. Al-Qassem Brigades launched rockets towards Kiriyat Shmona. Hezbollah destroyed number of Israeli drones. Israeli air strikes on 5 November killed one woman and her three granddaughters. Hezbollah in response fired rockets killing one Israeli civilian in Kiryat Shmona. Hezbollah’s anti-guided missile injured two IDF soldiers near Dovev on 8 November. Israeli forces responded to missile attacks on 9 November. On 10 November, seven Hezbollah members were killed and three IDF soldiers were injured. On 11 November, one fighter from Shiite Amal Movement was killed and two others were injured. Hezbollah’s anti-tank and mortar attacks killed an employee of the Israel Electric Corporation and 21 others were injured on 12 November. In separate clashes, eight IDF soldiers were killed on the same day. IDF on 13 November killed two civilians.

Israeli strikes on 21 November have killed three journalists in the Tayr Harfa area in southern Lebanon. Two of the journalists belonged to Al-Mayadeen TV and the third person was a local journalist and a contributor to the channel. Al Mayadeen director Ghassan bin Jiddo called it a direct attack. Earlier in the month, Israeli authorities blocked programming and websites of Lebanon Al-Mayadeen channel. Israel also wanted to prohibit Al Jazeera for ‘pro-Hamas content’, but later backtracked to continue the secret talks with Qatar.

Activities by Houthis

Houthis on 13 and 14 November launched ballistic missiles on several Israeli targets including Eilat. IDF intercepted a missile in the Red Sea and used its Arrow aerial defence system to shoot down. Houthi fighters have carried out several missile and drone attacks against Israel since 7 October. Houthi fighters on 19 November hijacked a cargo ship in the southern Red Sea. Houthis have claimed that the ship was Israeli origin and linked. Israel has denied any link and claimed that the cargo vessel is British owned and Japanese operated with no Israeli nationals on board. Reports have indicated the ship is associated with Ray Car Carriers owned by Israeli billionaire Abraham Rami Ungar. Japan has informed that it is directly approaching the Houthi regime to release the cargo ship. Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said Tokyo was “communicating with Israel and requested Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and other states to help secure the ship’s release. On 25 November, a container ship owned by an Israeli businessman faced drone attack in the Indian Ocean. The attack was carried out using an Iranian made Shahed-136 drone. On 27 November, the US captured five attackers attempting to hijack an Israel-linked cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden. USS Mason destroyer responded to an SOS call and took action to thwart the attack.

Knesset Amend Counter-terrorism Law

Knesset on 8 November passed an amendment to Israel’s counterterrorism law to consider the “consumption of terrorist materials” as a criminal offence. The bill approved by 13-4 majority is a temporary two-year measure that amends Article 24 of the counterterrorism law to ban the “systematic and continuous consumption of publications of a terrorist organization under circumstances that indicate identification with the terrorist organization”. Hamas and IS have been classified together as ‘terrorist organizations’ and Justice Ministry has authority to add more groups in coordination with Defence Ministry and Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. The “consumption of terrorist materials” offence carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison aimed at stopping lone-wolf terrorism or radicalization of individuals through media consumption. The bill has been criticized for thought policing and Israeli human rights groups have sent petition to challenge it in the Supreme Court. Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel claimed that the “legislation encroaches upon the sacred realm of an individual’s personal thoughts and beliefs and significantly amplifies state surveillance of social media use”. The vague definitions of consumption of terrorist materials could be misused to persecute Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians.

Elon Musk Visits Israel

Tech billionaire, Elon Musk visited Israel and toured the sites attacked by Palestinian fighters on 7 October. He met with the Israeli leadership and expressed solidarity with Israel’s war efforts. Musk after taking over Twitter, now called ‘X’ has been criticized for lack of action to contain anti-Semitic social media posts. He said that Israel has no choice but to eliminate Hamas. Israel signed an agreement “in principle” to use Space X’s Starlink communications channel in Gaza.

US Strikes in Syria and Iraq

The US on 9 November attacked a weapons storage facility reportedly used by IRGC and Iran backed groups. The Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called it a “self-defence strike” in response to recent attacks of US targets in the region. The United States has 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq, to advise and assist local forces trying to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State.

Iran backed militias on 20 November fired close range missile at US and coalition forces at Al-Asad airbase injuring eight people. The US retaliated by conducting air raids killing eight members of Kataib Hezbollah. Iraqi government on 22 November condemned the US for a series of air raids killing. The strikes were conducted without coordination with the US calling it an “unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty”. The US was blamed for engaging in “unlawful” activity and “jeopardizing the national interest”.

In Syria, the US carried out two air strikes against Iran aligned groups on 13 November. Russian air strikes targeted Syrian rebels in Idlib province killing 34 rebel fighters and injured 60 others. Russian strikes were carried out in response to the artillery attack on Syrian government positions. On 12 November, Syrian military positions were attacked seven times. The US carried out two strikes against Iran aligned groups in Syria.

Spain Calls for International Peace Conference to Establish Palestinian State

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez during meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Sanchez proposed an international peace conference on the Israel-Palestinian conflict during talks with Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog. He said that the European Union (EU), Arab League and OIC had endorsed the idea. The Spanish Prime Minister also met with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Sanchez clarified that while he supported Israel’s right to defend itself, but called the number of Palestinian deaths as truly unbearable.

South African Parliament Votes to Cut Ties with Israel

South African parliament on 21 November voted in favour to close the Israeli embassy in Pretoria and suspend diplomatic relations with Israel following IDF’s brutal assault on Gaza. The action is largely symbolic and would dependent on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government to implement it. The motion passed with 248 votes in favour and 91 votes against. It was introduced by the left wing opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters and supported by the ruling African National Congress. The motion was opposition of the centrist white-majority Democratic Alliance. President Ramaphosa accused Israel of committing war crimes and genocide in the Gaza Strip. Israel recalled its ambassador, Eli Belotserkovsky for consultations.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa chaired a virtual summit of BRICS group on 21 November. The group called the forced displacement within Gaza or outside the territory as “war crimes”.

Jordan Refuses to Sign Energy and Water Deal with Israel

Jordan on 16 November announced that it would not sign a deal to provide energy to Israel in exchange for water. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi noted that, “We had a regional dialogue about regional projects. I think that all of this …, the war [has] proven [it] will not proceed. We will not sign this agreement any longer. Can you imagine a Jordanian minister sitting next to an Israeli minister to sign a water and electricity agreement, all while Israel continues to kill children in Gaza?” Jordan has maintained that Israel’s crimes cannot be justified as self-defence.

Saudi Hosts Arab-Islamic Summit

Saudi Arabia on 11 November hosted an Arab-Islamic summit. The Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states participated in the summit. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the joint Arab League and OIC meeting was being held “in response to the exceptional circumstances taking place in the Palestinian Gaza Strip as countries feel the need to unify efforts and come out with a unified collective position”. The summit condemned Israeli aggression calling it war crime and barbaric and inhumane massacre by the occupation government. The member states called for an end to the siege; allowing humanitarian aid and halting arms exports to Israel. Experts noted that Arab and Muslim leaders do not have any mechanism to push for ceasefire and humanitarian corridor. The summit is only a gesture to showcase a semblance of unity.

A delegation of Islamic and Arab states visited the five permanent UNSC member states with the goal to bring a ceasefire; allow more humanitarian aid to Gaza and gain support for achieving an independent Palestinian state. The delegation, formed at a summit of the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Riyadh, includes representatives from Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the secretary-general of the OIC.

China hosted a delegation of foreign ministers from the Palestinian Authority (PA), Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to discuss on efforts to end the war in the Gaza Strip. China during the summit pledged to work to restore peace in the region as part of efforts to increase Beijing’s international role. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki accused Israel of trying to “bring to an end the Palestinian people’s presence on what remains of its historical land.” Egypt highlighted that displacement of Palestinians from Gaza will threaten peace, stability and security in the region and the world. China has called for a two state solution to end the war. Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that China stands with justice and fairness in the conflict.

Saudi Arabia to Host Expo 2030 World Fair

Riyadh has been selected to host the Expo 2030 world fair. Riyadh won the poll by 119 votes while Busan and Rome received 29 and 17 votes respectively from the 182 members Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) based in Paris. The fair is organized once every five years attracting millions of visitors and billions of dollars in investment. The Italian delegation criticized the result mentioning, “It is no longer about the merits but about transactions.”

COP 28 Summit

The UN’s annual climate summit began in Dubai on 30 November. The leaders approved a climate disaster fund to help vulnerable states cope with the impact of drought, floods and rising seawater. The UAE’s Ministry of Industry Sultan al-Jaber called for proactively engaging with fossil fuel companies in phasing out emissions and talked about the progress by some national oil firms in adopting net zero targets by 2050. Al-Jaber who also heads the national oil company faced criticism that argued that his involvement with fossil fuel should disqualify him from the position of hosting the global climate event.

The heads of state of France, Japan, the UK, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Brazil as well as activists, lobbyists, and business leaders participated in the summit. Notably, the presidents of the two largest emitters i.e. the US and China did not participate.

Iran Executes Sunni Armed Group Members

Iran executed three members of a Sunni armed group, Jaish al-Adl or Army of Justice guilty of carrying out a bomb attack targeting the IRGC. The three men were found guilty of bombing in Sistan Baluchistan province in 2019. The Sunni group formed in 2012 was blacklisted by the Iranian government.

Iranian authorities have continued arrests of figures associated with the anti-government protests. Rapper Toomaj Salehi was re-arrested on 30 November after his release on bail on 18 November. He is currently arrested for publishing false information and disturbing public opinion. Salehi was earlier arrested in October 2022 after supporting the nation-wide protests demanding greater freedom for women and liberalizing the societal norms, triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini. He was initially sentenced to six years in prison on number of charges including “corruption on earth”; “lies on the internet”; “propaganda against the state”; “inciting people to violence” and formed and managed illegal groups with the aim of disrupting security in cooperation with a government hostile” to Iran. So far, eight men have been executed in protest related cases.

France Issues Arrest Warrants for Syria’s Leaders

France on 15 November issued international arrest warrants for Syrian President Bashar Assad; his brother, Maher Al-Assad and military generals Ghassan Abbas and Bassam Al-Hassan in charges of complicity in crimes against humanity and complicity in war crimes. Maher al-Assad is in charge of the 4th Armoured Division. The two military generals serve in Syrian research agency accused of developing chemical weapons. The warrants were issued after criminal investigation into chemical attacks in Douma and Eastern Ghouta in August 2013 killing more than 1000 people.

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