West Asia Roundup: February 2024
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

With the ongoing Israel -Hamas war and increasing violence and death and destruction of large number of civilian Palestinians in this over five weeks war, the patience of President Biden – the biggest backer of Israel, is running thin as USA stood alone in the international community. Uninterrupted supply of humanitarian aid and medical assistance to the besieged Gazans became a priority as the likely attack of Rafah by the Israeli Defence Forces became a ‘Red line’ for the Americans. Despite that the latest UNSC resolution was vetoed yet again by the US which continues to support the security of the Jewish state as differences with Netanyahu’s approach get further accentuated. Netanyahu feels that the support of Israelis against the Hamas has remained steady which emboldens him to continue with the tirade as he feels isolated internationally through ICJ and elsewhere. Netanyahu and the Israeli Knesset do not approve of the establishment of a Palestinian state even as UK and others called for this and a support for a Two State solution.

As the negotiations and future course have been going on the Palestinian Prime Minister resigned to allow a more acceptable government to take over in the post war scenario especially as administration of Gaza is envisaged. One of the biggest problems has been the division between Hamas in Gaza and Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Fears of regional escalation continued with Houthis and Hezbollah raking up more attacks on western and Israeli assets.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his sixth visit to UAE when he inaugurated the biggest Hindu temple (BAPS) in Abu Dhabi for which the land was provided by the President of UAE Sheikh Zayed in accordance with their policies of tolerance and respect for all religions while acknowledging the excellent bilateral and historical relationship with India. PM Modi also addressed the World Governments Summit and interacted with the Indian community at an impressive ‘Ahlan Modi’ event. Bharat Mart was also inaugurated.

On February 15, PM Modi visited Doha and also thanked Amir of Qatar and Sheikh Tamim for looking after over 800000 Indians as well as for the release of the 8 ex-navy personnel, who were apprehended and allegedly accused of espionage for a third country. Earlier India and Qatar had also signed up a major gas deal for 25 years. The discussions covered a wide array of topics including economic cooperation, investments, energy partnership, space collaboration, urban infrastructure, cultural bonds and people-to-people ties. The two leaders also exchanged views on regional and global issues.

India also expressed deep shock at the loss of lives in Northern Gaza during delivery of humanitarian aid. Such loss of civilian lives and the larger humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to be a cause for extreme concern stating “We reiterate our call for safe and timely delivery of humanitarian aid and assistance.”

Israel-Palestine Conflict

Israeli forces on 29 February opened fire towards Palestinian aid seekers killing more than 100 and injuring 750 others. Aid seekers reportedly gathered at Al-Rashid Street to collect food items. Israeli troops soon opened fire and tanks ran over many of the dead and injured bodies. Israel initially placed blame on the crowd for causing the stampede. Subsequently, Israel justified the action arguing that the troops felt threatened following which they responded by opening fire. The US asked Israel to provide answers and ensure safe delivery of aid. The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the attack as part of Israel’s ongoing genocidal war and appealed the international community to immediately intervene and emphasized that ceasefire as the only way to protect civilians. Israel has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza until the end of February.

The United States (US) again vetoed a draft UNSC resolution sponsored by Algeria calling for immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. 13 members voted in favour of ceasefire and the United Kingdom (UK) abstained from voting. The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield argued that the resolution could jeopardise talks among the US, Egypt, Qatar and Israel to broker a pause and secure hostage release.

The municipal elections in Israel held in the last week of February saw the consolidation by far right and ultra-orthodox Zionist parties. In Jerusalem, the incumbent centrist Mayor Moshe Leon won a landslide victory. The election results indicate a right-wing wave in Israeli politics. Palestinians in East Jerusalem boycotted the municipal elections to protest against the occupation. In Tel Aviv, liberal Mayor Ron Huldai won another term in office. Huldai served as the city’s chief executive for more than two decades. The Tel Aviv mayor in December 2022 opposed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to hand over far right politician, Avi Maoz control over Israeli school curriculums. He warned against turning the state into a fascist theocracy and resisted plans to allow homophobia into the school curriculum. Notably, a large number of secular and left-wing Israelis did not vote since they were distracted by the ongoing Gaza war. Interestingly the two major Latin American states Brazil and Argentina took diametrically opposite views with the former, currently G20 president called Israeli actions as genocidal while Argentina came out in support of Israeli action. It appears that their intra-regional rivalry is getting played out in the region as well.

Knesset Votes to Reject any Unilateral Recognition of Palestinian State

The 120 seat Knesset with a majority of 99 votes voted in favour of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of any unilateral recognition of Palestinian state in midst of global calls to restart the peace negotiations. Israel has maintained that any permanent accord with Palestinians should be reached through direct negotiations rather than international diktats. The Israeli Prime Minister backed by his right-wing voter base has expressed opposition to any possibility of two state solution and peace talks over the years has stalled.

Israel-Brazil Diplomatic Spat

Israel’s diplomatic ties with Brazil have soured after Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on 18 February accused Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza and compared the mass assault with Holocaust. He added that, “It’s not a war of soldiers against soldiers. It’s a war between a highly prepared army and women and children.” Israel in response summoned Brazilian ambassador. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu countered stating, “This is a trivialisation of the Holocaust and an attempt to attack the Jewish people and the right of Israel to self-defence. Drawing comparisons between Israel and the Nazis and Hitler is to cross a red line.” Brazil subsequently recalled its ambassador to Israel and Israel stated that the Brazilian President is not welcome to the Jewish state.

Argentinian President Javier Milei visited Israel on 6 February to express support for Israel’s war efforts and announced his plan to shift the state’s embassy to Jerusalem. Milei visited a Kibbutz and met with families of hostages taken by Hamas. Hamas criticized Milei’s decision to change the embassy location calling it an infringement of the rights of the Palestinian people to their land.

Areas of Regional Escalation

IDF air strikes on 21 February in Damascus’ Kafr Sousa area killed two people. Israel since January 2024 carried out at least 13 attacks i.e. eight air strikes and five rocket attacks on Syrian territory destroying nearly 31 targets and killing 31 fighters and eight civilians. Earlier in January 2024, five IRGC officers were killed by Israeli strike in Al-Mezzeh area in Damascus. Iranian backed militias carried out drone strike on US military base in eastern Syria on 5 February killing seven fighters and injuring 18 others. Reportedly, US led Combined Joint Task Force bases were attacked at least 108 times in Syria between 19 October 2023 and 5 February 2024.

Israel’s skirmishes with Hezbollah escalated in February. IDF carried out number of air raids and drone attacks on Hezbollah assets killing fighters and few top leaders. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah emphasized that attacks on IDF posts and border communities would continue until Israel stops its ground operation in Gaza. Israel has indicated that any temporary truce will not apply in Lebanon until they succeed to push Hezbollah away either by military force or diplomatic process. The US along with few European states is engaging with both sides to arrive at a security arrangement. The skirmishes have killed around 300 people in Lebanon and 16 people in Israel until the end of February.

Houthis on 6 February attacked one British owned and Barbados flagged vessel and one US owned and Marshall Islands flagged ship. The Yemeni group on 10 February reported that 17 fighters were killed by US and British attacks. On 17 February, Houthis conducted a missile attack on a British owned and Panamanian flagged oil tanker carrying crude oil bound for India. The US on 18 February carried out five strikes in Yemen destroying three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, one unmanned surface vessel and one unmanned underwater vessel. The European Union (EU) on 19 February launched a Naval Force Operation Aspides to protect ships from Houthis in the Red Sea and ensure freedom of navigation.

Houthis on 19 February claimed that it struck a British cargo ship and shot down a US drone over its territory. Houthi forces on 20 February reportedly targeted an Israeli cargo ship, MSC Silver with a number of missiles in the Gulf of Aden. The US carried out four strikes against Houthi targets destroying seven anti-ship cruise missiles, a mobile ballistic missile launcher and a drone. The US and British forces on 25 February conducted air raids on 18 Houthi sites in Yemen including underground weapons and missile storage facilities, air defence systems, radars and a helicopter. The US on 26 February carried out pre-emptive strikes against Houthi targets destroying two anti-ship cruise missiles, three unmanned surface vessels and one drone. According to the CENTCOM, the attacks were launched in self defence to protect freedom of navigation and ensure safety of international waters for US Navy and merchant vessels. The raids have so far failed to stop attacks by Houthis that has disrupted global trade and surged shipping rates.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Resigns

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on 26 February announced his resignation in light of Israeli atrocities in West Bank and Jerusalem and grave humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Shtayyeh mentioned that, “I see that the next stage and its challenges require new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the new reality in Gaza and the need for a Palestinian-Palestinian consensus based on Palestinian unity and the extension of unity of authority over the land of Palestine.” Abbas accepted the resignation and urged him to continue in caretaker capacity.

The representatives from Fatah and Hamas met in Moscow on 29 February to discuss the possibility of forming a unified Palestinian government. Both parties talked about future national consensus government to alleviate the suffering in Gaza and prevent Israel’s ethnic cleansing. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressing the delegations noted that Moscow wants the Palestinians to unite that is capable of negotiating with Israel.

Indian Prime Minister’s Visit to the UAE

Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached the UAE on 13 February and held discussion with Emirati President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It was the Prime Minister’s seventh visit to the oil rich Arab state. Both leaders discussed the possibility of long-term contracts for LNG and signed a bilateral investment treaty. PM Modi on 14 February inaugurated BAPS Hindu Mandir in Abu Dhabi. It is the first Hindu stone temple that has been described as symbol of shared heritage and humanity. Prime Minister thanked the President of UAE, Sheikh Mohammad Zayed Al Nahyan, for making the grand temple in Abu Dhabi a reality and said he had not only won the hearts of Indians living in the Gulf nation but also of 140 crore Indians.

Iran Launches Satellite with Russia’s Help

An Iranian made research satellite called Pars 1 remote sensing and imaging satellite was launched on 29 February by a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. The satellite will scan Iran’s topography from an orbit of 310 miles or 500 km. Iran in January launched three satellites simultaneously into orbit using its own rocket. Russia earlier in August 2022 helped Iran by launching Khayyam remote sensing satellite into orbit from Kazakhstan. The US and other western states have repeatedly opposed Iran’s satellite launch programme arguing that the same technology could be used for ballistic missiles.

In mid-February, two gas pipelines were bombed in Iran. The first explosion occurred on the mainline gas route running from Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province to major gas fields in Caspian Sea. The second explosion occurred in Fars province. The blasts were initially blamed on terrorist groups. In the subsequent week, blame was placed on Israel that disrupted supplies in several provinces. Israel has not responded to these allegations.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Visit to Egypt

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi on 14 February in Cairo to discuss about regional developments and issues of common concern. Both leaders called for immediate ceasefire, restoring calm in West Bank, restart the peace talks and expressed worry about Israel’s planned ground operation in Gaza. Turkey’s relations with Sisi regime soured due to the former’s support for Muslim Brotherhood and bitter criticism of 2013 military coup. It was the first visit by Erdogan to Cairo in over a decade after his visit to the UAE.

Ukrainian President’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Saudi Arabia on 27 February and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss about Ukrainian plan to end the conflict and return of prisoners of war from Russia. Zelenskyy thanked the Crown Prince for his mediation role. Saudi Arabia called for restoring just peace in Ukraine and assured support for all international endeavours and efforts to resolve the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Presently, Ukrainian forces have been pushed back in eastern Ukraine from two villages Sieverne and Stepove near Avdiivka in eastern Donetsk. Saudi Arabia continues to maintain close ties with Russia on energy policies through the OPEC+.

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