Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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This Week: Israel and Hamas Fight while Baghdad and Kurdistan Argue

by Robert M. Danin
July 10, 2014

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod July 8, 2014 (Ratner/Courtesy Reuters). An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod July 8, 2014 (Ratner/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Israel-Palestine. Israel entered its third day of Operation Protective Edge today as rockets rained down on many parts of Israel. More than fifteen rockets were fired into Tel Aviv today in what is believed to be the largest bombardment there since the 1948 Israeli war of independence. However, the Iron Dome system has successfully intercepted most rockets fired at population centers to date. Meanwhile, Israel has launched its most aggressive air campaign into Gaza since the last round of Israel-Hamas fighting ended in a U.S. brokered—cease-fire in November 2012. So far, Israel has attacked over five hundred targets in Gaza, with at least eighty Palestinians killed. Israelis and Palestinians are bracing for widespread demonstrations across Israel and in the occupied territories on Friday. Speaking before an emergency meeting at the United Nation Security Council this afternoon, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appealed for an immediate cease-fire, saying “Gaza, and the region as a whole, cannot afford another full-blown war.”

Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the country’s Kurdish population of exploiting the country’s current crisis to push for statehood and for allowing Kurdish-controlled Irbil to become an operations base for ISIS militants. The Kurdish regional government responded today, calling on Maliki to apologize to the Iraqi people and to step down and announcing that its ministers would boycott future cabinet meetings. Kurdish president Masoud Barzani issued a statement in which he said that Maliki “has become hysterical and has lost his balance.” On Tuesday, the Iraqi parliament reversed its earlier decision to adjourn until August following last week’s failed first meeting. Parliament is now scheduled to meet Sunday to form a new government.

Meanwhile, Gill Tudor, spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced in a statement today that nuclear material seized by ISIS militants last month is likely low-grade uranium that “would not present a significant safety, security, or nuclear proliferation risk.” Yesterday, Iraqi officials discovered fifty-three blindfolded and handcuffed corpses in a Shia village south of Baghdad.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Bahrain. Bahrain’s government ordered Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor to leave the country on Monday after he met with officials from al-Wefaq, the country’s main Shiite opposition group. The following day, the interior ministry called the group’s secretary general, Sheikh Ali Salman, and his political assistant Khalil al-Marzooq, for interrogation. State department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a press statement Monday that the United States is “deeply concerned” over the Bahraini government’s decision to declare Malinowski, the State Department’s top human rights official, persona non grata.

Israel-Palestine.White House officials confirmed that its top Middle East official, Philip Gordon, met with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas today and is also meeting with Israeli leaders. Earlier in the week, Gordon gave the keynote address at the Haaretz newspaper’s Israel Conference on Peace in which he urged Israel to “not take for granted the opportunity to negotiate” peace with Abbas. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters today that both sides must de-escalate the conflict, while reiterating Israel’s right to self-defense. On Monday, President Barack Obama published an op-ed in Haaretz, reiterating strong U.S. support for Israel but noting the need for peace to bring stability and justice to the region.

Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan visited Washington this week for meetings with U.S. officials. Abdullah met with Vice President Joe Biden during his visit. It was the first visit since ISIS militants captured northern Iraq.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Syria. The Syrian National Coalition—the main opposition group working in exile to oust President Bashar al-Assad—elected Hadi al-Bahra, its chief negotiator from the Geneva II conference, as its new president yesterday. Many hope Bahra will be able to unite the opposition, whose work has been impeded by disputes between its two main sponsors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Meanwhile, diplomats announced yesterday that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has selected Italian-Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura to replace Lakhdar Brahimi—who resigned in May—as the UN envoy to Syria. Meanwhile, U.S. container ship Cape Ray began destroying Syrian chemical weapons Monday. The UK announced yesterday that it would destroy 50 more tons of the material.

Saudi Arabia. A spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry said that six Saudi men affiliated with al-Qaeda conducted an attack in Yemen on Friday, killing five soldiers as well as five of the militants. The sixth has been arrested. Meanwhile, a court sentenced prominent human rights lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair, founder of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, to fifteen years in prison on Sunday on six charges including “publicly slandering the judiciary, distorting the kingdom’s reputation, making international organizations hostile to the kingdom, and issuing unverified statements that harm the kingdom’s reputation and incite against it and alienate it.”

Egypt. Acknowledging the “negative consequences” that Egypt has faced following last month’s sentencing of three Al-Jazeera journalists, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said on Monday he would have preferred that the journalists have been deported rather than put on trial. Speculations have arisen as to whether Sisi will pardon them. Of the three,Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy are Egyptian citizens and live in Cairo, though Fahmy also has Canadian citizenship. Peter Greste is an Australian.

Iran. Amid continuing P5+1 nuclear talks in Vienna, officials announced yesterday that foreign ministers from the six countries will join the talks later this week as little progress has been made in advance of the July 20 deadline. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement published on his website Monday that Iran will continue to seek to increase its number of centrifuges, to 190,000. The P5+1 countries are calling for Tehran to accept a capacity of 10,000 centrifuges.

Yemen. After weeks of protracted fighting, Houthi rebels took control of the northern city of Omran yesterday. According to Mutahhar Yahya Abu Sheeha, head of a government refugee agency, over 35,000 people have been displaced as a result of the violence that killed over two hundred people this week. According to Al-Jazeera, Mohammed Abdul-Salam, a spokesperson for the Houthis said the rebels were only fighting what he called an “extremist group” and did not intend to replace the government in the city.

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