West Asia Roundup -May 2021
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Holy Month of Ramadan especially the last weeks witnessed escalation of violence on the Yemen front as well as yest another war ensued between Israel and Hamas. 11 days war started with the court authorising evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, skirmishes between Israeli police and worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque and celebration of Jerusalem Day as well as riots between Arab Israelis and Jews on the streets of Jerusalem and elsewhere. Hamas, ruling Gaza since 2006, got an opportunity to project itself as the custodian of Palestinian cause warned the Israel to vacate the Al Aqsa premises and release the prisoners by the deadline of 6pm on May 10 failing which it shot nearly 200 rockets on southern Israel. Caretaker PM Netanyahu, also in a political morass, retaliated with decisive fire power as he was also trying to prove to the Jews that he alone could keep the country secure. He refused to listen to pleas of his US benefactors and international community to deescalate until his objectives were met. Hamas fired nearly 400 rockets and drones were used too. Israeli swift and powerful response was justified as its right to defend. President Biden spoke to Netanyahu six times asking him to ceasefire that eventually happened on May 21 with the support of Egypt and Qatar. But more than 250 Palestinians including children and 12 Israelis were killed and several hundreds injured apart from the destruction of property and infrastructure. It was also said to be the first AI driven Israeli war, anywhere in the world, as per several reports. ICC had as such been charging both Israel and Hamas of war crimes. Likewise, the Hamas and Palestinians are said to have generated huge contributions through bit coins and cyber currency.

After the 4th elections in two years and Netanyahu and Likud’s (30 seats in 120 member Knesset) failure to stitch an alliance yet again enabled a chance for Yair Lapid whose Yesh Atid won 17 seats to form the next government. Having the fifth elections would have perhaps helped Netanyahu after the Gaza war but several of his rivals and friends like Naftali Bennet and Benny Gantz agreed to support “Coalition of Change” by Lapid. Eight parties in the fragile coalition range from the ultra-nationalists to centrists to liberals and are driven by the sole objective of removing Netanyahu who called it as the fraud of the century. No wonder the United Arab Party decided to support the coalition first time ever. The whole political jugglery and spectrum is surfeit with contradictions but hopefully the change might cool down tempers between Palestinians and Israelis.

USA and the Biden Administration are not keen to get embroiled in the Middle East except return to the JCPOA ( Iran Nuclear Deal) for which talks in Vienna have been proceeding slowly but smoothly . This obviously is not to the liking of Netanyahu who maintains that any concessions to Tehran will enable them to acquire the nuclear weapon faster and that he would do any thing to stop Iran going nuclear. Several incidents and sabotage on Iran nuclear and other facilities were pointing in the direction of Mossad. With the Gaza crisis, President Biden was forced to take action and to seek ceasefire while justifying Tel Aviv’s right to defend. Secretary Blinken travelled to the region as did Foreign Ministers from Germany, Czech and Slovak republics apart from the regional interlocutors. One of the major concessions to Palestinians was reopening of US Consulate in East Jerusalem. It will be recalled that president Trump had decided to shift their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. International assistance has been committed for reconstruction of Gaza while Isreali Defence Minister Benny Gantz visited Washington DC to secure $ 1bn and military equipment for replenishment of their Iron dome that successfully defended them against Hamas rockets.

As expected the Israel-Gaza conflict and the visuals attracted global attention and forced the Arab countries to condemn Israeli aggression and disproportionate use of force, especially the ones that only recently normalised relations with Israel under Abraham Accords and could slow down further normalisation. But the hope for starting the Peace Process do not seem very bright as Us remains engaged in its domestic and other priorities. Besides, the Palestinians still remain divided. UNSC remained ineffective due to US opposition to issue a statement until the very end while UNGA did convene to condemn.

India which also lost one of its nationals in the Gaza rocket fire was working behind the scenes at the UNSC for encouraging de-escalation and ceasefire. Indian PR to UN issued statements supporting the resumption of direct dialogue for two-state solution and just Palestinian cause while urging maintenance of status quo with regard to Jerusalem and evictions while condemning violence from both sides. Statement did not please either of the two sides and India’s abstention at the Human Rights Council provoked a protest letter from the Palestinian Foreign Minister to EAM.

Syria witnessed the re-election of President Bashar al Assad for 7 more years which he won by over 95% votes. As expected western countries and the opposition called it neither free nor fair even as Russia and Iran congratulated him. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also opened up dialogue with Syria and favours its return to the Arab League. Only remaining country is Qatar in the GCC that is still shying from normalisation of ties with Damascus.

One also witnessed significant moves that, if successful, could convert threats into regional security. Saudi Arabia and Iran held at least two meetings which will be further escalated as Iran goes through its Presidential elections. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Turkey and Egypt witnessed rapprochement and high level visits and interactions to find a modus -vivendi.

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Gaza Ceasefire

Israel and Hamas agreed to ceasefire on 20 May after 11 days of fighting that led to death of 243 Palestinians and 12 deaths in Israel including one Indian. The latest round of fighting culminated inconclusively. While Israel claimed that it has inflicted heavy damage on Hamas assets, it failed to contain the group that managed to launch a barrage of rockets within Israel destroying buildings, housing and killing Israeli lives. Israel during the conflict destroyed the Gaza offices of Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

The latest round of escalation began after Hamas launched rockets on 10 May in response to Israeli forces storming inside the Al Aqsa mosque injuring worshippers and forcing eviction of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Hamas through military action was attempting to assert itself as a formidable military and political force and pose itself as a credible alternative to Fatah.

The hardliners within Israel criticised the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of accepting the ceasefire too early. Netanyahu facing the prospect fifth election used the conflict to appeal to his political partners and voter base for another term.

UNHRC calls for war crimes investigation against Israel

UN Human Rights Council on 27 May passed a resolution to investigate Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and scrutinise whether Israeli forces have committed war crimes during its 11 days assault in Gaza. Hamas, the militant group in charge of politically ruling Gaza was called out for violating international law by placing military assets in densely populated civilian areas and firing rockets from them.

The resolution was passed by 24 for and 9 against votes. India was one of the 14 states that abstained from voting. The resolution calls for the creation of a permanent Commission of Inquiry (COI) to monitor and report on rights violation in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. The COI would identify all the root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, discrimination, repression etc. The resolution appealed to arms exporting states to stop transferring weapons which may be used to commit human rights violations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the resolution as an example of UNHRC’s anti-Israel obsession and mockery of international law that encourages terrorists worldwide. Among the major powers, Russia and China supported the resolution. The Russian delegate noted that resolution would help in establishing all the facts behind violations in the latest conflict. The US criticised the UNHRC resolution calling it a distraction that does not contribute in diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in the region.

India abstained from voting in the resolution inviting ire from the Palestinian Authority (PA). PA Foreign Minister Riad Maliki stated that India’s decision to abstain stifles the important work of the UNHRC towards the human rights for all peoples including the Palestinian people. India’s decision to abstain is likely based on striking balance between support for the Palestinian cause and growing relations with Israel. India is also keen to maintain smooth relations with the US especially in light of common threat perception from China and vaccine imports.

The UN launched an appeal on US$ 95 million to raise US$ 95 million to meet humanitarian needs and repairs in medical care facilities, schools, water and sewage facilities. The UN Humanitarian coordinator in Gaza, Lynn Hastings mentioned that Israel’s assault in Gaza has left 800,000 Palestinians without regular access to water. Israeli airstrikes destroyed 285 buildings including 1000 housing and commercial units. Moreover, six hospitals and 11 health care centres. Hastings assured that the UN has an effective monitoring process and it would work with Israel and Palestinian Authority in order to provide direct aid in Gaza without involving Hamas.

Anthony Blinken’s visit to Jerusalem

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting Jerusalem on 25 May announced plans to re-open diplomatic outreach office for Palestinians and committed to provide US$ 40 million. He assured the Israelis that the financial outreach would be done without involving the Hamas. Blinken met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in order to advance reconciliation. He expressed empathy for both states but fell short of pushing for negotiations aimed at lasting peace.

Blinken emphasised that the Joe Biden administration is interested in rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people built on mutual respect, shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis deserve security, freedom and dignity. Notably, the US airlines resumed their flight service to Israel after the ceasefire was announced.

Bashar Al Assad wins re-election

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad won a landslide election on 27 May with 95.1 percent. The voter turnout reportedly was at 78.6 percent. Syrian government officials have claimed around 18 million people were eligible to vote. Critics have called the election as illegitimate. The US and European officials questioned the legitimacy of the election calling it a violation of UN resolutions and lacked international monitoring. Assad during his victory speech challenged enemies of Syria and those questioning the election’s legitimacy. The election could not be held in areas controlled by rebels or Kurdish led troops. There are around 8 million internally displaced people living in northwest and northeast Syria who could not vote. Moreover, 5 million refugees living in neighbouring states also refrained for voting. The election was therefore unrepresentative.

Assad while managing to retain his political position due to Russia’s help has been widely condemned for suppressing Syrians, using chemical weapons against the armed opposition groups and failing to discuss with opposition groups that could lead to reconciliation. He is currently facing challenge of recovering the economy as over 80 percent of the population are below the poverty line.

Iran-Saudi Arabia talks

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh on 10 May announced for the first times that it is conducting talks with Saudi Arabia. The spokesperson noted that de-escalation between the two Muslim states is in the interest of both nations and the Persian Gulf region, Iran has indicated its interest in resolving all the issues.

Saudi Foreign Ministry’s head of policy planning, Ambassador Rayed Khalid Krimly without divulging details mentioned that he wanted to see verifiable deeds. Both states reportedly held two rounds of discussion in April. Iran has reportedly agreed to use its influence to stop Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and sought Saudi Arabia’s support in the nuclear talks.

Cyprus, Greece and Egypt held defence talks

Cypriot Defence Minister Charalambos Petrides hosted Egyptian Defence Minister Gen. Mohammed Zaki and Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos in Nicosia on 19 May to discuss about the emerging security threats and challenges. It called for close cooperation and invited other states to participate in the military drills to improve preparedness levels. The Greek Defence Minister stated that the three states agreed to develop cooperation and expand to include other states that same values and objectives. The Egyptian Defence Minister emphasised on the need to counter threats such as terrorism, illegal migration and illegal trafficking. He also called for urgent political solutions between Israel and Palestine, Libya, Ira, Lebanon and Syria. The three states are cautious about Turkey’s naval actions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

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