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

7th October became the ‘Black day ‘ as the Hamas militants launched an unprecedented attack on the Israelis killing nearly 1400 civilians and military personnel and taking over 250 hostages of all ages after breaching the supposedly impregnable security perimeter at 22 points as they launched projectiles and missiles all of which could not be stopped by the Iron Dome. In response, Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched spate of air strikes across Gaza strip and later undertook the ground offensive as a livid PM Netanyahu marshalled the 300000 reservists. He vowed to destroy Hamas, which was at one time nurtured by him to counter the Fatah and Palestinian authority. Global condemnation of terror acts by Hamas was evident as the calls for ceasefire and need for humanitarian corridors and plight of ordinary Palestinians became the core concern of the majority of international community. More than 11000 Palestinians including 4000 children were killed and thousands injured and over a million were displaced. Attacks on hospitals and schools and places of worship etc., enraged the conscience of the international community putting more pressure. But Netanyahu with the US support stayed firm on his resolve while asking Palestinians to move to south from the North and agreeing to some pauses for relief supplies and exit of Palestinians. Secretary Blinken indulged in the shuttle diplomacy as President Biden dashed for the day long trip to Tel Aviv to assure Netanyahu of their full support but eventually could not ignore the plight of ordinary Palestinians who some of the Israeli ultra-right Ministers compared to animals and wanted even nuked. Two UNSC draft Resolutions one piloted by Russia and UAE and the other by Brazil were defeated by US veto while UNGA resolutions passed muster with significant majority for alleviating the plight of the civilians in Gaza. Eventually a Malta sponsored UNSC Resolution 2712 for longer pauses and humanitarian assistance and unconditional release of hostages (Nov 15) was passed in which US, UK and Russia abstained

There was no doubt that the IDF will prevail and that many Arab countries did not approve of Hamas ‘s methods and militancy as they decried the continued occupation of Palestine and desecration of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem which is the third holiest. Moreover increasing Jewish settlements in the West Bank have defied the two state solution. As in recent times through the Abraham Accords, I2U2 and IMEC (India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor) and various rapprochement initiatives, with the support of USA, the Arab countries were gradually coming closer to the Jewish state. Impending normalization of Riyadh and Tel Aviv would have sealed the fate of Palestine hence the daring act of Hamas was able to put a spanner in those efforts by recharging the Arab street against Israel and making it difficult for the Arab leaders to go ahead.

The condemnation by the Middle East was conveyed in the statement of the Joint OIC and Arab league extraordinary Summit. Even though the calls by some including Iran to severe diplomatic ties and put oil embargo on US and Israel were ignored the message for ceasefire and to achieve a Palestinian state in accordance with the Arab Peace Plan was loud and clear. Visuals of the suffering in Gaza dictated the response of the Middle East and most of the Global South including the UNSG Guterres and other agencies which lost the highest number of their personnel ever in any conflict zone due to aerial attacks by IDF. The most important tool in the hands of Hamas was the 250 or so hostages whose release became a priority and Qatar became the conduit as most of the political leadership of Hamas is located there.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the terror attacks by Hamas and expressed India’s solidarity with Israel which some misconstrued as a shift in Indian policy but later when Al Ahli hospital was bombed killing around 500 people he expressed his sympathies and condolences and sent relief supplies after speaking to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Indian foreign Ministry spokesman clearly articulated India’s consistent position for sovereign viable state of Palestine and the Two State solution. PM Modi and EAM Dr S Jaishankar conferred with several regional and global leaders on the ongoing crisis to assess the ground situation as it brought back thousands of Indians from Israel. There was a real danger of the conflict conflagrating in the region if the Iran backed Hezbollah and others jumped in to help brother entity Hamas, hence efforts have been made to keep the lid on. More Details….

Israel-Hamas War

Hamas operatives in the early morning of 7 October launched ‘Operation Al Aqsa Flood’ by carrying out an air, land and sea infiltration in southern Israel and attacked military bases, villages and settlements. The Palestinian fighters began the attack by launching more than 5000 rockets overwhelming the Iron Dome missile defence system and destroyed the remote controlled guns and the electric fencing. Israeli forces were slow to react and in fact it took them three days to recapture the villages. According to latest figures, around 1200 Israeli and foreign nationals were killed in the attack and more than 1500 Hamas operatives were shot dead. Hamas fighters captured around 240 Israeli and foreign nationals which they planned to exchange for Palestinian prisoners. According to Hamas, the operation was conducted to resist the far-right government’s policies including expanding of settlements and rise of settler violence in West Bank; forceful entry inside Al Aqsa Mosque by Jewish pilgrims and security forces and brutal treatment of Muslim worshippers; poor treatment of Palestinian prisoners and deterring Saudi Arabia’s normalization with the Jewish state.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel is in a state of war declaring “Operation Swords of Iron” with stated goal to destroy Hamas and its military capabilities. IDF after an initial barrage of air strikes for weeks landed their troops in northern Gaza to carry out land operation to dismantle Hamas bases including tunnels and rescuing the hostages. Israeli forces until the end of October have killed more around 8500 Palestinians including thousands of women and children. On Israel’s northern front, Hezbollah has launched rockets and missiles towards Israeli bases and townships. Israel has retaliated with air strikes in Lebanon as well as Syria.

Among high level dignitaries, US President Joe Biden; British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron visited Israel in October to expressed sympathy and back it’s “right to defend itself”. The US sent aircraft carriers to protect Israel in case of regional escalation. Israel has requested both interceptors and precision-guided munitions from the US. US$ 2 billion worth of US munitions have been pre-supplied in six different locations in Israel that can be used in case of emergencies.

Situation in West Bank

On 5 October, two Palestinians were killed near Shufa village in the Tulkarem area after a gunfight. On the same day in Huwara, one Palestinian was shot dead by IDF in Huwara and one more was killed by a settler. In the aftermath of 7 October Hamas attack on Israel, the number of arrests, mass shootings between IDF and Jewish settlers has increased. On 13 October, 16 Palestinians were shot fatally during protests in Ramallah, Tulkarem, Nablus and Hebron by Israeli forces. On 17 October, one Palestinian, Ahmad Moeen Al-Rimawi was killed during confrontation with IDF in Nabi Saleh village.On 19 October, seven Palestinians were shot dead during raids on the Nur Al Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem. Two other Palestinians were killed in separate incidents in the Dheisheh refugee camp and Budrus town. On 25 October, five Palestinians were killed during raids in Jenin, Qalqilya and Qalandia. On 27 October, IDF killed four PIJ fighters in Jenin city during raids. On the same day, Palestinian farmer, Bilal Muhammed Saleh was shot dead on 28 October by settlers in As Sawiya village near Nablus. One of the killers was an off duty IDF soldier that came from Rehelim settlement. On 30 October, IDF killed four Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp and one person in Hebron during raids.

Notably, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces have cracked down on public rallies to express their outcry on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. PA forces fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators. Palestinians protestors shouted slogans calling for the fall of the president and few chanted in support of Hamas. Protests were reported in West Bank cities such as Nablus, Tubas and Jenin. PA forces on 17 October killed a 12 year old girl. One Palestinian youth suffered injury from bullet by PA forces.

The Palestinian Health Ministry has confirmed that around 120 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since 7 October until the end of the month. Moreover, around 1550 people have been arrested. Palestinian cities and villages have been cut off through closures and the numbers of settler attacks have increased.

Jailed Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi receives Nobel Peace Prize

Jailed Iranian women’s rights advocate Narges Mohammadi won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against the oppression of women and fight for social reform. Her activism centered on women’s rights and campaigned against the death penalty and other harsh sentences. Ms. Mohammadi is currently serving a 16 year sentence since 2015 over charges of spreading propaganda against the state. Her family has been long involved in political protests since 1979 Islamic Revolution and several members have been arrested. She started working towards advocating equality and women’s rights as a student and became part of Tehran based Defenders of Human Rights Center. In 2022, Ms. Mohammadi was included in the BBC’s list of 100 inspirational and influential women in the world. She has been arrested 13 times and the regime convicted her to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes.

The spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani stated that, “the action of the Nobel Peace Committee is political move in line with the interventionist and anti-Iranian policies of some European governments.” He criticized the Nobel Peace committee for awarding the prize to someone convicted of repeated law violations and criminal acts calling it biased and politically motivated.

The late Mahsa Amini and the Women, Life and Freedom movement received the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for their defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Turkey’s low key 100th year anniversary

In the backdrop of Israel’s onslaught in Gaza, Turkey held its 100 year anniversary in a low profile manner. The anniversary raised debates about the divisions within Turkish society and weakening Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular legacy and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s role in Islamizing the state polity. Erdogan laid customary wreath at Ataturk’s mausoleum and mentioned that, “Our country is in safe hands, you may rest in peace”. Erdogan’s scheduled visit to Istanbul to watch procession of military ships followed by drone and fireworks show; official state reception and special TV coverage of planned concerts and festivities were cancelled in the once-in-a-century event. Some opponents of Erdogan criticized the government for intentionally scaling down the celebrations to undermine Ataturk’s secular legacy and push his own political vision. Many Turks held private celebrations and opposition run municipalities organized concerts and parades. President Erdogan also cancelled his planned visit to Israel over its war in Gaza in October.

IMF and World Bank meeting in Morocco

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank held their annual gathering of finance ministers and central bank governors outside their Washington DC headquarters every three years. It was the first meeting on African soil in 50 years. The meeting in Marrakesh due to be held in 2021 was postponed twice because of the COVID-19 pandemic. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva in speech in Abidjan stated that, “A prosperous world economy in the 21st century requires a prosperous Africa”. The IMF and World Bank is planning to give Africa a third seat on their executive boards. In the Marrakesh meeting, few thorny topics are round money as developing economies strive to deal with recent global shocks, such as the COVID pandemic, widespread disasters and rising energy and food costs post Russia-Ukraine war.

On 30 October, hundreds of people in Russia’s Dagestan region expressing anger at Israeli bombardment of Gaza stormed Makhachkala airport after a Russian Red Wings airline flight landed in Tel Aviv. Many of the protestors were raising anti-Jewish slogans, waving Palestinian flags and checking the passports of arriving passengers. The Israeli passengers were isolated secured. Russian authorities arrested 60 people. Moscow blamed the airport attack on external interference i.e. Ukraine and west in order to foment unrest in Dagestan. Russia said that it will not tolerate efforts to split the Russian society.

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