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US Air Strike Kills IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani – Situation Analysis

US Confirms Killing IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani in Air Strikes Near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport on January 3

Please be Advised:

The US Department of Defense (DoD) released a statement announcing that the US military, on the orders of the US President, Donald Trump, had taken “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad” by killing Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)- Quds Force (QF) commander during airstrikes near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport during the early morning hours of January 3.

The statement announces that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more”. The airstrikes aimed to deter future Iranian attacks against US assets in the region.

Iran’s national news agency have confirmed that the US airstrikes resulted in the death of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soliemani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU).

Iraq’s national news agency reported that the US airstrikes targeted the convoy of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis traveling near the Baghdad International Airport.

Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei released a eulogy on January 3 for Qassem Soleimani and declared a three-days of mourning in Iran. The statement announces that the killing of Soleimani is a “criminal act” and “will reinforce the motives of the resistance against the US and Israel”.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the US airstrikes “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation” and held the US responsible for “all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”

Prominent Iraq Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, released a statement during the morning hours of January 3 giving orders for “readiness” to the Shiite militias in Iraq, particularly the Mahdi Army, “to protect Iraq”.

Reports indicate that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has convened during the morning hours of January 3 to discuss the development.

US Embassy in Baghdad on January 3 issued an advisory urging US citizens to depart Iraq immediately due to “heightened tensions in Iraq and the region”. Consular services in the US Embassy in Baghdad have been suspended until further notice. However, the US Consulate in Erbil remains operational at the time of writing.

Iraqi President has reportedly condemned the US airstrikes and called US action as a “blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Developments Near the Baghdad International Airport and Green Zone:

Reports indicate that three rockets fired by unidentified perpetrators landed in the Baghdad International Airport cargo area during the overnight hours of January 2-3 that resulted in several civilian casualties and the destruction of two vehicles.

Reports indicate that US military personnel arrested Hadi al-Amiri the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as well as Qais Khazali, the founder and leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite paramilitary group that is a part of the Iran-backed PMU in Baghdad during the morning hours of January 3. Iraq’s national news agency reported that a senior member of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq has denied the arrest of Qais Khazali.

Picture material on social media indicate that Iraqis gathered at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during the early morning hours of January 3 to celebrate the death of Soleimani.

At the time of writing, operations have resumed at the Baghdad International Airport following a temporary ceasure of operations during the morning of January 3 after the US airstrikes.

Reports indicate that US military personnel have bolstered security protocols in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and the Iraqi security officials have completely locked down the Green Zone following the US airstrikes.

Other Related Developments:

Iran’s state-sponsored news agency reported that the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, who is considered as a “guardian of US interests in Iran” has been summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on January 3 to strongly protest the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

Reports indicate that Israel has closed access to Hermon ski resort, located in the Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, due to the risk of attack by Iran and its proxies. Additional reports indicate that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are on alert following the US airstrikes.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) official in the Gaza Strip reportedly released a statement calling the development a “great tragedy” and extended PIJ’s support to Iran.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon reportedly released a statement condemning the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and stated that “punishment of Soleimani’s killers is responsibility of all fighters”.

Reports indicate that foreign oil companies have commenced the evacuation of its employees holding a US citizenship via the Basra Airport following the advisory issued by the US Embassy in Baghdad that urges US nationals to depart the country immediately.

Iran has reportedly appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the next IRGC Quds force chief on January 3.

UK has reportedly increased security protocols at its military bases across the Middle East following the US airstrikes.

Reports quoting the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the US airstrikes in Iraq are a “reckless move” that will escalate tensions in the region.

Assessments & Forecast:

The development comes amid a marked increase in tensions in Iraq over the past two months following an uptick in attacks against US assets by Iran-backed forces in the country. Most recently, on December 31, hundreds of Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) members and supporters besieged and attempted to breach the US Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone to condemn US’s December 29 airstrikes that targeted five Kataib Hezbollah assets in Iraq. The continued risk posed to US-linked interests in Iraq is further evidenced by the statement issued by the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on January 2, that holds Iran and its backed proxies in Iraq responsible for perpetuating the attacks and warned that “attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing.” Given this context, the recent US airstrikes constitute a decisive action against Iran and its proxies to deter further such attacks against US interests in the region.

Furthermore, the US airstrikes constitutes a highly symbolic and notable development given the high-profile nature of the target, namely, IRGC-QF commander, Qassem Soleimani. This is given that Soleimani is considered to be highly influential within the Iraqi political and security dynamics, and is perceived to be responsible for the destabilizing activities carried out by Iran-linked elements in Iraq. Moreover, on April 18, 2019 the US designated the IRGC, including its extraterritorial wing, the QF as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Therefore, the killing of Soleimani in the US airstrikes is likely aimed to adversely impact the IRGC’s leadership structure and mitigate the threat that the group is perceived to pose to the region’s security and stability. Regardless, the killing of Soleimani is liable to have a significant impact on the morale of the IRGC and Iran-backed fighters operating regionwide.

However, the development is unlikely to significantly alter Iran’s policy within the regional setting, such as its support for proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Rather, as evidenced by the statement released by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the incident will likely prompt Iran and its proxies to increasingly target the interests of the US and its allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region. Furthermore, the statement issued by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr calls for “readiness” from Shiite militias in Iraq to “protect Iraq” indicating the fact that Iran and its proxies will seek to take revenge against the US, and its allies, over the coming days.

FORECAST: Over the short term, there remains a heightened potential for attacks perpetrated by Iran-backed elements based out of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Such attacks may also be directed at critical infrastructures, such as oil facilities, and other strategic infrastructures affiliated with the US or its allies in the region, where relevant. Given precedent, attacks targeting Israel may likely manifest in the form of rocket attacks or localized ground attacks, such as placing of IEDs, from Syria, or less likely from Lebanon. Such instances are likely to be limited in scale, and are unlikely to trigger a large-scale escalation and a broad deterioration of the security situation in Israel in the short term. Cross-border hostilities along the Gaza Strip-Israel border may also increase over the coming days. This is bolstered by the statement released by the PIJ official calling the death of Soleimani in the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and affirming the militant group’s support for Iran.

FORECAST: Given precedent, there also remains a significant potential for Iran-perpetrated security incidents in the strategic waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, especially near the Strait of Hormuz, which indicates a general risk of navigation through these waters over the coming days and weeks. A similar risk exists in the Red Sea, given that the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have been known to conduct attacks against foreign vessels in this area. Additionally, an uptick in cross-border hostilities into Saudi Arabia perpetrated by the Shiite group may be witnessed over the coming days, despite a significant downtick in such activity over the recent months. This may manifest in the form of missile, rocket or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launches towards military and civilian assets in Saudi Arabia.

FORECAST: In the longer term, over the coming weeks and months, the development is liable to further heighten tensions between the US and its allies, on the one side, and Iran and its proxies on the other, which will likely result in increasing hostile rhetoric towards the other party and potentially a more significant retaliation by Iran against US interests. Given that Iran-backed proxies, such as Hezbollah, are known to operate in Latin America, as well as other African, Asian and European countries, the risk for attacks by such elements against the interests of the US and its allies in the aforementioned regions cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations:

Travelers are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the current tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other will likely lead to additional hostilities. For on-ground or intelligence assistance contact us at: [email protected] or +44 20-3540-043.

Foreigners, particularly US nationals, conducting travel in Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon are advised to maintain a low profile due to the increased potential for militant attacks while practicing extra vigilance near US and Western diplomatic missions and interests across the region.

Ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals.

For those conducting essential operations in Baghdad, it is advised to restrict travel to the Green Zone and ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Those managing or operating vessels in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz are advised to take necessary precautions, including reviewing security protocols and adhering to international instructions, in light of the potential for security incidents in the area.

Surface-to-air missile lands in Cyprus after reported Israeli airstrikes in Syria – Israel & Syria analysis

Executive Summary:

On June 30-July 1, the official Syrian news agency reported that Israel Air Force (IAF) attacked targets in areas surrounding Damascus and unspecific locations in Homs Province. The airstrikes reportedly targeted a scientific research center in Rif Dimashq’s Jamraya, and other military research facilities linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah.

Given precedent of previous IAF operations in Syrian territory, reports of the military action are likely credible. The development thus reaffirms Israel’s known policy of targeting Iranian-affiliated installations across Syria in an attempt to prevent Tehran’s entrenchment in the country. The current attack is particularly notable due to the broad scope of the airstrikes.

At least one S-200/SA-5 surface-to-air missiles fired by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to intercept the IAF aircraft reportedly landed in Turkish-controlled Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). This underscores the underlying threat of collateral damage, including to air traffic, due to spillover from the firing of surface-to-air missile against IAF aircraft operating against targets in Syria. The development is also liable to heighten tensions between Israel and Turkey.

Overall, the incident comes amid heightened regional tensions over recent months between Iran and its proxies on one side, and the US and its allies in the Middle East, on the other. As the current development will increase tensions between Israel and Syria over the coming hours and days, a retaliatory attack against Israely may occur by either Syrian, or more likely, Iranian-linked forces in Syria.

Please be advised:

According to the official Syrian news agency, several projectiles fired by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) towards military sites in areas surrounding Damascus and unspecified locations in Homs Province were intercepted by the Syrian air defense system during the overnight hours of June 30-July 1. It further reported on extensive material damage and civilian casualties, particularly in Sahnaya, located approximately ten kilometers south of Damascus.

Additional reports indicate that at least 15 individuals were killed as a result of the airstrikes.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the targets of the airstrikes include a scientific research center in Rif Dimashq’s Jamraya, and other military and strategic research facilities linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, including along the Qalamoun mountains near the Syria-Lebanon border, and in unspecified locations in Homs Province.

At least one S-200/SA-5 surface-to-air missile fired by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to intercept Israeli aircraft reportedly landed in the Tashkent area in Turkish-controlled Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). The missile reportedly caused a fire, but no casualties have been recorded as of the time of writing.

Location of Reported IAF Airstrikes Around Damascus

Assessments & Forecasts:

The latest incident follows a recent escalation in hostilities between Israel on one side, and Syria and Iranian-backed groups, on the other. On June 2-3, the IAF reportedly conducted airstrikes against Syria’s T-4 military base in retaliation to the launch of two rockets from Syrian territory towards northern Israel’s Mount Hermon on June 1. Moreover, on June 12, Syria’s official news agency reported that the SAA intercepted Israeli projectiles over Daraa Province’s Tal al-Hara. Thus, given past precedent, as well as the fact that the nature of the latest airstrikes is consistent with Israel’s known policy of targeting Iranian-affiliated installations across Syria, the reports attributing Israel with the latest strikes are likely credible.

The development is notable given the broad scope of the airstrikes. The IAF-attributed airstrikes targeted at least ten Iranian-linked sites, which is higher than most similar incidents recorded within Syrian territory over the recent months. Moreover, the last such airstrikes targeting areas surrounding Damascus was witnessed on January 11-12, which adds to the significance of the latest incident. This highlights Israel’s determination to curb the entrenchment of Iranian-linked elements and its evolving presence in Syria, which Israel perceives as posing a substantial threat to its national security.

The impact of the Syrian surface-to-air missile in Turkish-controlled TRNC is highly notable, as this is the first time such an incident has occurred. The S-200/SA-5 missile is technologically inferior to IAF aircraft, and is therefore usually employed by the SAA in volley fire without achieving a lock on target, with the intention to deter the aircraft and increase the potential for one of the missiles to hit. This was the case when Syrian air defense systems shot down a Russian plane off the coast of Syria on September 17.

In this context, as IAF aircraft likely conducted the recent airstrikes from over Lebanese airspace or from offshore Lebanon, the SAA likely responded with a volley fire, and the missiles that missed continued to fly in their trajectory until they ran out of fuel and fell to the ground in northern Cyprus. This also corresponds with the fact that Nicosia is approximately 325km from Damascus and the operational range of the S-200/SA-5 is approximately 300km. This nonetheless underscores the underlying threat of collateral damage, including to air traffic over Cyprus, posed by the firing of surface-to-air missiles against IAF aircraft operating against targets in Syria.
FORECAST: The incident has the potential to raise tensions between Israel and Turkey over the coming days and weeks, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may perceive such actions as provocative and use them as leverage against Israeli operations against targets in Syria.

Location of Missile Landing in Northern Cyprus

The airstrikes were reportedly conducted hours following indications that Syria’s entire Russia-supplied S-300 air defense system was in an operational conditional. Until now only three of Syria’s four surface-to-air-missile launchers had reportedly appeared in a raised position in Hama’s Masyaf. Thus, by conducting airstrikes at this time, Israel likely attempts to convey to all actors operating in Syria, including Russia, that it will not be deterred from its objectives of acting against the perceived Iranian threat.

In this context, the latest strikes occurred days after a tripartite meeting between Israel, the US and Russia from June 24-26 in Jerusalem. During the meeting, Russia’s national security adviser, Nikoali Patruschev, reportedly stated that Iran was his “ally and partner” and it was “contributing a lot to fighting terrorists on Syrian soil and stabilizing the situation there”. The official also reportedly stated that Russia “pays special attention to ensuring Israel’s security.” Despite characterizing Israeli airstrikes against Iranian assets in Syria as “undesirable”, the short span of time between the meeting and the latest incident points towards the possibility that Moscow may have given Israel its tacit consent to act against the expansion of Iran’s influence. Patruschev’s prior comments regarding Iran’s status as a Russian ally are thus likely indicative of Moscow’s attempts to balance its geopolitical interests amid the various regional actors.

Overall, the incident comes amid heightened regional tensions over recent months between Iran and its proxies on one side, and the US and its allies in the Middle East on the other. Against this backdrop, several attacks against US interests and its allies over the recent weeks have been attributed to Iranian-linked elements and proxies.
FORECAST: The incident is liable to increase tensions between Israel and Syria over the coming hours and days. While there remains a potential for retaliatory action by the Syrian government, the likelihood for such attacks by Iranian-backed elements against Israel is relatively higher particularly given that the latest IAF airstrikes primarily targeted Iranian-linked facilities.

Recommendations:

Syria:

We advise avoiding all nonessential travel to Damascus due to the remaining threat of militancy in the city. In addition, it is advised to avoid all travel to the vicinity of military installations due to the potential for Israeli strikes.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel-held areas.

Israel:

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

US measures against PA likely attempt to force concessions in negotiations with Israel – Israel & Palestinian Territories Analysis

Executive Summary

In recent months, the Trump administration took several economic and diplomatic measures against the Palestinian Authority (PA), including cutting funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), as well as closing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, D.C.

These are likely driven by the Trump administration’s desire to act in accordance with perceived US national interests only, as well as to challenge the status quo, thus forcing the PA to return to negotiations and adopt more flexible positions vis-a-vis Israel.

While the measures have exacerbated heightened tensions between the US and the PA, as well as domestic tensions, in the near-term, they are unlikely to lead to broad hostilities between Israel and Gaza, or large scale unrest in the West Bank.

Nonetheless, the measures will likely contribute to an uptick in “lone-wolf” attacks by Palestinians targeting Israeli civilians and security personnel in the West Bank and Jerusalem, as well as fuel the ongoing civil unrest along the Israel-Gaza border.

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Current Situation

On August 31, the US State Department announced that the US Government will end all financial contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which officially provides Palestinians with healthcare, education, and social services. The statement described the agency as an “irredeemably flawed operation”, further citing its unwillingness “to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs”.

The US regards UNRWA’s business model as “simply unsustainable” due to its “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries”, namely the bestowing of refugee status to descendants of Palestinian refugees following the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948-49.

The measure was denounced by the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas whose spokesperson referred to the Trump administration’s move as “promoting terrorism” and a “flagrant assault against the Palestinian people and defiance of UN resolutions.”

Meanwhile, on September 10, the US State Department announced that it will close the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, citing the PLO’s “refusal to engage with the US government with respect to peace efforts”.

Background

The Trump administration’s decision to halt all funding to UNRWA comes amidst a series of policy changes vis-a-vis the Palestinians over the last year. On December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, followed by the relocating of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14. In January, the Trump administration withheld 65 million USD of a planned 120 million USD contribution to UNRWA.

More recently, on August 24, the US State Department announced that it will cut a further 200 million USD in aid to the Palestinians, followed by the September 8 announcement of cuts amounting to 25 million USD earmarked for Palestinians in East Jerusalem hospitals.

The UN agency is funded almost exclusively by voluntary contributions from UN Member States. The cuts in the US’s contribution amount to approximately 300 million USD in planned funding for UNRWA. The US had previously contributed almost 30 percent of UNRWA’s 1.1 billion USD 2017 budget.

The PA has not engaged with a US-brokered diplomatic process since the latter’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017.

Assessments & Forecast: US measures in accordance with national interests, constitute effort to force Palestinian engagement

The Trump administration’s series of diplomatic and economic measures are likely motivated by two reasons. First, the decision is consistent with President Trump’s broader “America First” doctrine, which emphasizes a foreign policy that prioritizes perceived US national interests. This has manifested in the desire to demand that other governments increase their share of the budgetary burden for numerous international organizations. Thus, President Trump seeks to reduce UNRWA’s reliance on the US, as the latter had been paying almost 30 percent of UNRWA’s budget prior to the cuts and the Trump administration does not believe that UNRWA serves its national priorities.

Given the administration’s attempts to challenge previously held international consensus on issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, the UNRWA cuts are likely driven by the US’s goal of encouraging the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and make concessions. By challenging the status quo, the US likely seeks to exert pressure on the PA to adopt more flexible positions on areas of policy that have long been considered non-negotiable by the Palestinian leadership. President Trump’s reported remarks on September 6 that the US “is not paying” (with reference to US aid to the Palestinians) if the Palestinians “don’t make a deal”, strengthens this assessment.

Furthermore, the US measures should be understood within the broader geopolitical context pertaining to the widely anticipated US-sponsored peace plan. Alongside the US’s attempts to force the Palestinians to make concessions, Egyptian authorities have sought to encourage both a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process and, simultaneously, an Israel-Hamas long-term ceasefire, much to the chagrin of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party was reportedly excluded from the ceasefire talks. As the PA strives to return to control the Gaza Strip, such an exclusion may have been interrupted by Abbas as sign that he is considered irrelevant to the Gaza negotiations. Meanwhile, the US reportedly seeks to leverage a reported warming of ties between Israel and the Gulf countries, in addition to Egypt and Jordan, to promote its diplomatic plan and help to harness this growing relationship to exert pressure on the Palestinian leadership to yield to the US’s demands. Overall, the developments represent a weakening of the Abbas-led PA, which the US is likely seeking to take advantage of to promote their own interests.

However, the US measures are unlikely to succeed. Rather, they will likely exacerbate already heightened US-PA tensions. Given that the right of return of Palestinian refugees is considered by all Palestinian factions to be a prerequisite for the conclusion of the conflict, any international decisions pertaining to the refugee question are highly sensitive. In this context, the US’s decision to cease its funding of UNRWA, represents a perceived “flagrant assault against the Palestinian people” for the Palestinian leadership because it likely views such a decision as undermining the “right of return”. Therefore, the US’s efforts are prone to reduce the PA’s willingness to engage in a US-brokered diplomatic process.

If PA President Abbas was perceived as agreeing to US demands on the right of return and the status of Jerusalem, this would significantly undermine him in Palestinian public opinion due to the sensitivities surrounding these issues. Furthermore, it would present an opportunity for more extreme Palestinian factions, such as Hamas, to undermine the PA and sabotage any diplomatic process.
FORECAST: Given precedent, and the failure of previous measures to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, the strategy is more likely to strengthen the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to engage and will therefore undermine the US-sponsored peace initiative due to this refusal.

Assessments & Forecast: Potential ramification on security environment due to economic initiatives

Overall, we do not assess that the US measures will lead to a broader violent uprising in the Palestinian Territories. On the contrary, the Israeli security apparatus continues to deter sophisticated acts of militancy exceptionally well, despite constant attempts to destabilize the security environment. For instance, in June, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) Director Nadav Argaman revealed that 250 acts of militancy, including suicide bombings, kidnappings and shootings, had been foiled by security forces in the first half of 2018. Furthermore, despite the lack of diplomatic engagement, the security collaboration between Israel and the PA remains stable and adds to the overall excellent security environment. Indeed, this cooperation is the only remaining Palestinian institution that the US continues to fund, in the form of the office of the United States Security Coordinator (USSC), which provides direct financial assistance and support to the PA Security Forces (PASF).
FORECAST: Taken as a whole, over the short-term, we do not anticipate that there will be an uptick in sophisticated, large-scale acts of militancy in the West Bank.

However, alongside the tangible, adverse economic effects of the cuts to UNRWA and additional aid, the broader series of economic and diplomatic measures is liable to exacerbate existing frustration and the Palestinians’ sense of marginalization. As a result, this perception may lead to an uptick in small-scale acts of militancy, motivated by these grievances. For instance, in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem, a slight temporary uptick in “lone-wolf” attacks was recorded, representing the increased sense of marginalization amongst the Palestinian populace. The question of the right of return of refugees is a similarly emotive and sensitive issue for Palestinians and any attempt to undermine this perceived right is liable to ignite Palestinian violence.
FORECAST: As a consequence, over the coming weeks and months, this anger could manifest in an increase in the volume of “lone-wolf” attacks such as throwing of Molotov cocktails, stabbings, shootings, and vehicle-ramming attacks on security forces and civilians, primarily in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

With respect to the Gaza Strip, UNRWA services, in part, play an important role in stabilizing the Palestinian security environment. UNRWA officially provides vital employment opportunities, medical services, and educational institutions. For instance, in Gaza, 240,000 students study at 252 UNRWA-run schools, illustrating the importance of such aid in helping to alleviate economic challenges.
FORECAST: With this in mind, the cuts to UNRWA are liable to exacerbate the precarious economic crisis. Given precedent, as Hamas tends to divert Gazans’ attention away from such economic crises and rather than permit criticism of its governance, this will likely redirect Gazans’ grievances towards Israel. Hamas’ resistance to Israeli policy, at present, typically manifests through the enabling, or instigating, of unruly riots on the Israel-Gaza border, encouraging the hurling of Molotov cocktails and incendiary balloons and kites into Israel, as well as infiltration attempts. In the short-term, these acts of unrest are likely to continue but are unlikely to cause a significant escalation. However, over the medium- and long-term, as the impact of the UNRWA cuts aggravates the economic crisis, there will be an elevated risk that Hamas will be forced to resort to armed conflict out of desperation, manifesting in rocket attacks, sophisticated infiltration attempts utilizing Hamas’ tunnel network, and mass riots on Israel’s borders. Nevertheless, overall, over the coming months, a significant change to the travel security environment that would have an impact on business continuity in Israel is unlikely.

Recommendations

Israel:

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross border violence.

Those traveling in the 40 km area surrounding the Gaza Strip should continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Palestinian Territories:

Business-essential travel to Ramallah can continue at this time, while maintaining heightened vigilance in Bethlehem. Adhere to basic security precautions regarding the threats of civil unrest and militancy. Consult with us for itinerary-based recommendations and ground support options.

Avoid nonessential travel to other Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, including refugee camps, at this time given the persistent threat of civil unrest.

We advise against all travel to the Gaza Strip at this time due to continuous border crossing closures and the threat of militant activity.

If travel is essential, prior to entering Palestinian-controlled areas from Jerusalem-area checkpoints, confirm that crossings remain open and no unrest is taking place. Crossings near the cities of Jenin, Qalqilya, and Tul Karem remain less prone to violence.

Minimize night travel in major cities, as the majority of IDF and PA security operations occur at this time, particularly in the vicinities of Palestinian refugee camps.

Official Syrian news agency reports missile attack targeting military sites in Hama, Aleppo provinces during overnight hours of April 29-30 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

The official Syrian news agency reported that missiles targeted military sites in Aleppo and Hama provinces, during the overnight hours of April 29-30.

According to a pro-government media outlet, an arms depot belonging to the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) 47th Brigade in Hama Governorate was targeted. As for Aleppo Province, the exact target of the attack has yet to be specified. No official confirmation regarding the perpetrator of the strikes has been released at the time of writing.

Reports additionally indicate that the target was an underground bunker containing more than 100 long-range accurate missiles.

Moreover, reports indicate that missile attacks killed 26 pro-Syrian government fighters at Hama’s arms depot, many of whom Iranians. However, according to an IRGC-linked media, the reports regarding Iranian deaths as a result of the strikes are “baseless”.

According to reports quoting a US military source, the US-led coalition is not beyond the attack.

Assessments & Forecast

The incident comes amidst an uptick in Israeli strikes against Iranian-linked facilities across Syria over the past months. On April 9, Israel reportedly targeted Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Airbase with missiles, which resulted in the killing of seven Iranian troops. In addition, on February 10, Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft targeted 12 facilities, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military bases. Therefore, we assess that the overnight strikes were similarly carried out by Israel. Nonetheless, the incident is notable given its scale-and-scope, as the number of reported casualties is significantly higher than Israel’s usual attacks in Syria.

Such attacks, especially in light of the reported Iranian casualties as a result of the recent incident, highlight Israel’s persistent efforts to contain the growing Iranian influence across Syria, as well as its increased willingness to conduct large-scale assaults deep in Syria in order to achieve this goal. Moreover, the development follows multiple Iranian threats of attacks against Israel in the wake of the above mentioned Israeli strikes in Homs Province, which resulted in the killing of Iranian troops. The strikes are potentially an attempt by Israel to send a deterring message to Tehran, as well as that it will continue to operate in Syria, in spite of Iran’s threats. Furthermore, as underscored by the reports regarding the base containing more than 100 accurate missiles, the incident demonstrates Israel’s determination to target military installations containing weapons or systems considered to be jeopardizing Israel’s technological edge and national security.

FORECAST: Given the reports regarding a high number of Iranian casualties, Tehran will likely seek to carry out a significant act of retaliation against Israel. This may include the launching of armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) into Israeli territory and target a military base, in a similar fashion to the February 10  incident, during which an IAF helicopter intercepted an Iranian UAV in Israeli airspace. Additional response may include attempted attacks against Israeli and Jewish interests across the globe, potentially official or diplomatic facilities.  Additionally, albeit slightly less likely, attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) border patrols on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights may also be recorded. Should these materialize, they will likely involve shootings, IEDs, or the use of anti-tank missiles.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy. Restrict essential travel to areas west of the Old City while avoiding travel to the Old City itself due to the risk of mortar fire and threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base targeted with guided missile strikes during early morning hours of April 9 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

Reports indicate that Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base was targeted with missile strikes during the early morning hours of April 9. According to Syrian pro-government sources, its Air Defense System intercepted five of the total eight guided missiles that were used.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), at least 14 pro-government soldiers were killed, including an unspecified number of Iranian forces.

While Syrian state media initially described the incident as “American aggression”, Pentagon officials have reportedly denied any US involvement.

According to a Russian state news agency, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out the strikes from Lebanese airspace with two F-15 fighter jets.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not issued any comment regarding the development.

Assessments & Forecast

The development comes amidst a marked increase of tensions between Syrian pro-government forces and Israel over the past months. This is highlighted by the February 10 launch of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israel from Tiyas Military Air Base. While the IAF retaliated by conducting strikes against four pro-government bases in Syria, the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet with Syrian anti-aircraft fire during this action marked an achievement for the Syrian pro-government forces unprecedented in recent years. As these developments highlight the growing willingness of Iran and Syrian pro-government forces to challenge Israel, we assess that the aforementioned reports ascribing the current missile strike to the IDF are highly credible.

The operation follows the February statement by Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah, who praised the aforementioned downing of the F-16 fighter jet as “beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory”. Thus, the targeting of Tiyas Military Air Base, which lies deep within Syrian territory, serves to reassert Israel’s deterrence and the countries’ adherence to its well-established policy of targeting any pro-government facilities which are liable to threaten Israel’s military and technological edge. More significantly, in light of Israeli concerns about the growing fortification of Iranian operational bases in Syria, the current missiles strikes demonstrate Israel’s increased resolve to target military installations used by Iranian forces.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry statement holding Israel responsible is unprecedented, and thus highly notable. While Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria over the past years, since September 2015, Israel and Russia have coordinated such strikes through a bilateral deconfliction mechanism in order to mitigate the risk of conflicts between their armed forces. While the maintenance of this channel was hitherto regarded as tacit Russian approval of IDF action in Syria, the current statement indicates Moscow renunciation of this policy. FORECAST: Such a development would reduce Russia’s ability to function as a diplomatic backchannel to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Iran. Furthermore, it decreases the likelihood that Russia will pressure Iran to desist from expanding its presence near the Syrian-Israeli border. As a result, Israel will likely consider more robust military measures in order to contain this threat. Thus, over the coming months, the IDF is liable to increase airstrikes against Syrian pro-government targets across Syria, including Iranian bases.

FORECAST: Moreover, while Iran and its proxy forces are likely not interested in a broad escalation of hostilities with Israel at this point, the fact that Russia openly named Israel as the perpetrator of the current missiles strikes may pressure them to conduct retaliatory measures. While we assess that any such action will likely remain localized, more sophisticated attacks, such as IED detonations or RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border cannot be entirely excluded. Should such a scenario materialize, both parties may be forced to react with increasing force to perceived transgressions of the other party in order to reassert their deterrence. Thus, while broad conflict between the parties remains unlikely to erupt over the coming months, a gradual increase of hostilities alongside the Syrian-Israeli border cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

New military campaign in North Sinai likely linked to upcoming March 2018 presidential elections – Egypt Analysis

Current Situation

On February 9, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAAF) Spokesperson announced the commencement of a large-scale “comprehensive” military operation to “eliminate all terrorist elements” across the country, called “Operation Sinai 2018”, with special emphasis placed on the Sinai Peninsula, Nile Delta, and Western Desert. The Spokesperson also announced an increase of the country’s alert level due to the operations.

As part of the of the campaign, the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) intensified the frequency of its airstrikes targeting militant hideouts throughout North Sinai Governorate, especially in the Rafah-al-Arish-Sheikh Zuweid triangle and Central Sinai District. The Egyptian Navy increased its activity along Sinai’s coastal region, while heightened security protocols were recorded at ports and border crossings. Security forces also increased presence in the vicinity of vital infrastructure and installations. Reports from February 9 indicate that civilian Suez Canal crossings from mainland Egypt to the Sinai, including by vessel and through tunnels, have been closed to civilian traffic due to the military campaign.

On March 8, the EAAF Spokesperson stated that Operation Sinai 2018 had yielded the deaths of 105 Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Wilayat Sinai fighters and the arrests of hundreds of the group’s militants, and that 16 soldiers had also been killed since the beginning of the campaign. The Spokesperson also announced that the EAAF destroyed 1,907 hideouts and weapon storehouses.

Assessments & Forecast

The Egyptian government has achieved partial success in containing militancy threats over the past year, with a reduction in the overall number of attacks. However, the persistence, albeit reduced frequency, of attacks in North Sinai Governorate and mainland Egypt likely motivated this recent operation, demonstrating efforts to mitigate threats from multiple groups, particularly the IS-affiliate Wilayat Sinai. The large-scale attack at a mosque in North Sinai’s Bir al-Abd on November 24, 2017, which killed over 300 people, also likely triggered the operation, and it took a period of months to prepare and mobilize for the current operation.

However, considering the timing of its commencement and execution, the primary motivation for the military campaign is likely political and connected to the upcoming March 2018 presidential elections, in which President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is the leading candidate. President al-Sisi likely initiated the operations in order to boost his status among the Egyptian populace and project an image of power, stability, and intensified efforts to tackle the threat of militancy. Al-Sisi also likely timed the operation to deflect domestic and international criticism away from the election’s perceived lack of legitimacy and toward the issue of counter-terrorism, following the withdrawal or arrest of most of his electoral opponents over the past several weeks. To a lesser but still significant degree, the operation was also likely launched to draw attention away from Egypt’s poor economic conditions and towards a different public issue, namely militancy, and measures taken by authorities to tackle it.

The operations also follow international media reports about Israeli airstrikes against Wilayat Sinai in North Sinai in recent years. The Egyptian government likely intends to use the operations to demonstrate their sovereignty over North Sinai Governorate and their ability to mitigate militant threats with their own forces. This is particularly likely in light of the heightened criticism regarding al-Sisi’s close cooperation with Israeli authorities vis-a-vis the threat of militancy stemming from Wilayat Sinai elements.

Strategically, the nationwide campaign aims largely at isolating Wilayat Sinai militants in North Sinai Governorate. The reported closure of Suez Canal crossings to the movement of civilians, as well as the intensified activity by the Egyptian Navy along the Sinai coastal region, are meant to prevent reinforcements and smugglers from aiding Wilayat Sinai militants, thus putting further pressure on the Sunni jihadist militant group in North Sinai Governorate. The heightened security measures in the vicinity of vital infrastructure and installations likely were put in place to prevent reprisal attacks by militants, which in turn, would embarrass the Egyptian authorities.

FORECAST: The EAAF will likely continue implementing a strategy aimed at further isolating Wilayat Sinai militants in their aforementioned strongholds of Central Sinai Distinct and the Rafah-al-Arish-Sheikh Zuweid triangle. By carrying out simultaneous assaults on these two areas, the EAAF likely seeks to fix militants in their positions, preventing them from reinforcing the two respective areas or conducting attacks to the rear of security forces. The intensified aerial bombardments are meant to hamper militant movements, which in turn, may impede their ability to regroup or conduct attacks in order to force the deployment of Egyptian troops away from the frontlines. Furthermore, tighter inspection is liable to be enforced between Egypt and Gaza at the Rafah border crossings.

Israel permitted Egypt to deploy a large amount of forces into Sinai, as according to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, Israeli permission is required for such a move. This highlights the increased coordination between the two countries, as they both perceived Wilayat Sinai as a strategic threat. In order to complicate and discourage the security coordination between the two countries, Wilayat Sinai may target southern Israel with rocket fire over the coming days and weeks. While in the short-term, the number of Wilayat Sinai attacks may decrease, given precedent of previous operations by the EAAF in North Sinai Governorate, over the coming months the Sunni jihadist militant group will likely renew its elevated activity in the region. The group will likely lower its profile in order to facilitate this, which would enable it to regroup and carry out multiple attacks against Egyptian security forces.

Recommendations

Travel to Cairo and Alexandria may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations.

Avoid all travel to the North Sinai Governorate and border areas with Libya, Sudan, and Israel due to the persistent risk for militant attacks, kidnappings, and general lawlessness.

We further advise to avoid nonessential travel to the Southern Sinai Peninsula, while maintaining heightened vigilance in the Suez Canal Zone, the Upper Nile area, and the Nile Delta region due to an increased risk of unrest and the heightened risk of militant attacks. Before traveling to Sharm al-Sheikh, confirm that flight operations are continuing and have not been impacted by recent militant threats.

As a general security precaution, remain vigilant in areas surrounding and avoid the immediate vicinity of government installations, police stations, and religious centers, particularly churches, as these locations remain under elevated threat of militant attacks. When traveling in central squares, or in areas with persistent police deployments, avoid the immediate vicinity of security forces, particularly fixed traffic booths, as such personnel and facilities have increasingly come under attack by militant elements.

Israeli Air Force targets Syrian air defense system, Iranian bases in Syria during morning hours of February 10 – Israel & Syria Alert

Current Situation

Israeli Air Force targets Syrian air defense system, Iranian bases in Syria during morning hours of February 10 - Israel & Syria Alert | MAX Security

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According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), IAF aircraft targeted the Syrian Air Defense System, as well as Iranian military bases in Syria during the morning hours of February 10. Twelve targets, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military targets, were attacked. The airstrikes reportedly targeted Iranian military bases in al-Kiswah, located south of Damasus.

The attack was launched in retaliation to the penetration of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from Syria into Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights, as well as Syria’s shooting down of an Israeli F-16 with anti-aircraft fire earlier in the day. The latter led to at least one missile landing in Israel, sounding multiple code red sirens in the Golan Heights.

Departures from Ben Gurion International Airport were temporarily halted and arrivals were delayed during the morning hours of February 10 due to increased IDF operations in Israeli airspace. However, further reports indicate that operations at the airport have resumed.

According to incoming reports, the IAF conducted further airstrikes against unspecified targets near al-Kiswah during the late morning hours of February 10.

Assessments & Forecast

The development is highly notable given that it marks the first Iranian launched UAV into Israeli airspace. The incident represents a significant escalation in hostilities between Israel on one side and Syria and Iran on the other. Although reports do not indicate whether the UAV was armed or not, the drone was likely being utilized for reconnaissance and attempting to gain intelligence on IDF troop positions in the Israeli Golan Heights. Such information would allow Iran’s proxy Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah to target IDF positions in Israeli Golan Heights in a future conflict.

The IDF achieves two objectives by targeting Iranian installations in Syria. First, the Israeli government displays a lack of tolerance against any breach to its sovereignty, regardless of its severity. Second, the IDF utilizes such events to neutralize Iranian military facilities in Syria. The IDF has taken increasing efforts against Iran’s actions in Syria in light of the risk that it may pose to Israeli defense. Syria, however, also increased its efforts to retaliate against Israel, as witnessed in today’s incident. Syria’s response is even further significant in regards to this latest development given that it succeeded in shooting down an Israeli aircraft, a feat that the Syrian army has not achieved in recent years. Major successes for the Syrian army in its conflict with both rebels and the Islamic State (IS) likely emboldened it and increased its confidence in terms of conflict with Israel. Israel now faces an increasing threat when conducting such actions given the Syrian army’s higher morale and Iran’s evolving presence in Syria.

Iran’s determination to build its own presence through proxies in Syria, mainly Hezbollah, and in sensitive locales along Israel’s northern borders highlights the risk that the IDF faces in the region. The Israeli government has made attempts both diplomatically and militarily to prevent a buildup of Iranian-backed forces at the border with the Golan Heights, yet this recent development shows Iran’s resilience in proceeding and Syria’s willingness to back Tehran, despite the consequences the Syrian government may face in its own civil war. The Iranian UAV may lead Israel to consider more serious measures in dealing with this threat presented by Hezbollah and other proxies. Israel has already conducted large-scale drills in recent months to simulate a Hezbollah infiltration into northern Israel.
FORECAST: Israel will likely utilize the coming hours to target additional installations in Syria, as recent reports suggest, while Syrian forces may continue to respond forcibly. Syria’s response may include further missiles landing in Israel’s Golan Heights, leading to further code red sirens in the near-term. IED detonations, as well as RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border also remain possible, though to a lesser extent.

No side at this time is likely seeking a major large-scale escalation in conflict, especially Syria given its preoccupation in its own war. The US and Russia are also likely determined to achieve de-escalation between all sides given that such conflict may counteract their own interests in the region. Regardless, the Israeli-Syrian border region is likely to remain tense in the coming days and weeks as the IDF remains persevering in eliminating the threat presented by Iranian-backed proxies and as Syria likely responds to any infiltrations of its own sovereignty. Additionally, increased IDF operations in Israeli airspace may lead to further disruptions to commercial air traffic in the coming hours.

Recommendations

Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Additionally, those remaining in Damascus are advised to avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

How will Fatah Hamas reconciliation agreement affect international status, foothold in Gaza Strip? – Palestinian Territories Special Analysis

Current Situation

On October 12, Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation deal in Cairo. According to the agreement, Hamas will hand over all Gaza government institutions to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) by December 1. PA security forces will take control of the border crossing with Egypt, with certain sources indicating that this handover will be completed by November 1. The parties reportedly agreed to prepare for national elections and are scheduled to meet again in Cairo on November 21 to negotiate further issues.

Previously, Hamas agreed on September 16 to dissolve its government in Gaza and reconcile with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA). The group also reportedly agreed at that time to hold general elections. Lastly, multiple Arab and Muslim countries welcomed the reconciliation agreement between the two parties, including Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry on October 13.

How will Fatah Hamas reconciliation agreement affect international status, foothold in Gaza Strip? - Palestinian Territories Special Analysis | MAX SecurityAssessments & Forecast

Reconciliation agreement liable to improve Hamas’ status vis-a-vis region’s Arab countries; PA likely to gain foothold in Gaza Strip, possibly increasing its image among Palestinians

While in light of the failure of past reconciliations between the two parties it cannot be ruled out that the agreement will not materialize, given that the agreement serves the interests of both parties, it will likely manifest and be kept by Hamas and Fatah in the short- to medium-term. The reconciliation agreement between the two parties is likely part of the Hamas’s efforts to bolster its regional and international legitimacy. While the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) is widely accepted within the international community, Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization among many Western countries. Furthermore, Hamas has traditionally been resented by the prominent Arab countries, chiefly due to its rivalry with the PA, which is broadly supported across the region.

Through reconciling with the PA, Hamas likely attempts to improve its relations with the Arab countries. This is highlighted by the Egyptian-mediated negotiations between the two entities, as well as the Hamas’ growing cooperation with the Egyptian security establishment regarding the threat of militancy in North Sinai in recent months.  By improving relations with Egypt, a prominent actor that maintains close ties with Saudi Arabia, Hamas will likely bolster its relations with the Kingdom and other Arab countries. This is further strengthened by Saudi Arabia’s recent welcoming of the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Additionally, Hamas also demonstrated this effort in its new charter, which distanced the Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned group in many countries.

In the Gaza Strip, the agreement is likely a part of Hamas’ efforts to reverse the PA-instated sanctions in recent months, including halting power supply to the Gaza Strip, as well as withholding the salaries of thousands of Gaza-based civil servants. Should relations between Hamas and some of the Arab countries eventually improve, investments and donations may recover the Gaza Strip’s economy. In addition, the frequent opening of the Rafah border crossing may relieve pressure on the group in the Gaza Strip, coupled with the rapprochement between Hamas and the al-Sisi administration in Egypt. Such economic improvements in the Gaza Strip may allow Hamas’ local reputation to improve. However, should the economic improvement be perceived by Gaza’s population as linked to the PA’s efforts, it is possible that support for the PA among the Gaza Strip’s residents will increase, thus shifting the political environment towards the PA.

In the West Bank, the agreement is likely part of Hamas’ attempts to increase its foothold. In this context, if elections eventually take place, Hamas will likely achieve significant gains, capitalizing on growing anti-PA sentiments across the West Bank. Multiple polls conducted among the Palestinians over the past several years have predicted Hamas’ victory in the event of elections. According to an opinion poll from September 20, if presidential elections take place, the chief of Hamas’ Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh would win the elections with 49.8 percent, while the current PA president Mahmoud Abbas would achieve only 41.7 percent.  With this in mind, the PA will likely seek to postpone such a scenario as much as possible to prevent the reduction of its power in the West Bank.

For the Fatah-led PA, the agreement may serve its interests by granting PA security forces a degree of control in the Gaza Strip, including of its border crossings and local administration. Given the PA’s declining status among Palestinians, the reconciliation may allow the body to portray itself as siding with the “resistance” and rebuild its reputation. In addition, the development may be aimed at putting pressure on Israel, given the current lack of negotiations and low likelihood of such talks at this time. By forming a unity government, the PA likely seeks to counter one of Israel’s main arguments against the commencement of negotiations, namely the lack of one government representing the Palestinians. This would allow the PA to portray Israel as unwilling to negotiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Reconciliation liable to enhance Egypt and Saudi-led Arab countries’ influence in Gaza, while countering Iran’s

Iran will likely oppose this newly achieved agreement, given that it compromises its interests in the region by reducing the threat of militancy to Israel, as well as strengthens elements allied with its regional rival Saudi Arabia. Tehran is liable to attempt to thwart the materialization of the agreement, mainly by bolstering its support for factions within Hamas who are known for their traditional links to Iran, such as the group’s military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. This party, in turn, is likely to oppose the agreement given the influence it would allow other Arab countries at Iran’s expense, and more hawkish factions within the military wing may seek to thwart the agreement over the coming weeks, including by attempting to overthrow the current Hamas leadership in Gaza, as well as to escalate tensions with Israel into a broad conflict.

For Egypt, the reconciliation agreement serves Cairo’s interest in mitigating the risk of militancy in the North Sinai Governorate. Over the past several months, Egypt has invested efforts to destroy militant infrastructure in Rafah city along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, mainly to prevent the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated group Wilayat Sinai from smuggling weapons and fighters from Gaza into northern Sinai. Having pro-Egyptian security personnel along the border on the Gazan side, particularly PA-linked security forces, will enable cooperation with their Egyptian counterparts, subsequently reduce the threat emanating from such jihadist elements. Even in the event of Hamas security forces’ positioning along the border, in light of the ongoing rapprochement between Cairo and the faction in recent months, the Egyptian government’s interests are liable to be preserved nonetheless.

The agreement also serves Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies’ interests. The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip had been under Iranian influence, exemplified by efforts to arm Hamas’ military wing Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. By securing the presence of friendly elements within the Gaza Strip, namely PA officials, Riyadh would be able to gain a certain foothold in Gaza and potentially counter Iran’s influence. This could also be achieved by future investments by Saudi Arabia, as well as other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), in the Gaza Strip. In addition, an agreement between the Saudi-backed Fatah-led PA and the Qatari-backed Hamas could possibly serve as a trigger for negotiations to solve the crisis between Qatar and the other GCC countries, as a cooperation may be required by Doha and Riyadh to oversight the agreement.

Likelihood for negotiations between Israel and Palestinians remains low, despite decreased potential for future broad conflict between Israel, Gaza-based militants

FORECAST: Given Hamas’ refusal to disarm its military wing, as well as Israel’s interest in avoiding acknowledging Hamas as representatives of the Palestinians, peace negotiations are unlikely to commence at this time. However, given precedent of previous such reconciliation agreements, the ongoing security cooperation between Israel’s security apparatus and PA security forces will likely continue over the coming weeks and months, including in the form of arrests of Hamas militants.

The agreement will likely reduce the potential for large-scale hostilities between Israel and Gaza-based militants. This is due to the expected improvement of economic conditions as a result of such an agreement. This includes salary payments to Gaza-based civil servants, particularly Hamas’ military wing’s operatives, which would diminish the group’s motivation to ignite hostilities. In the event of a localized escalation, in light of Egypt’s increasing rapprochement and growing influence on Hamas, Cairo would likely serve as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, thus reducing the potential for an exacerbation of hostilities. Nevertheless, Gaza-based Salafist and Islamic State (IS)-inspired militant groups will likely continue to target Israel with occasional rocket fire over the coming weeks and months in an attempt to drag Hamas and Israel into a broad conflict, with the long-term goal of weakening Hamas’ control over the Gaza Strip. Such elements may also carry out acts of militancy against PA elements and Hamas-affiliated interests, destabilizing the security conditions in the Gaza Strip, which in turn would serve as a fertile ground for the recruitment of new militants.

Recommendations

Business-essential travel to Ramallah can continue at this time while adhering to basic security precautions regarding the threats of civil unrest and militancy.  Consult with us for itinerary-based recommendations and ground support options. Avoid nonessential travel to other Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank at this time given the persistent threat of civil unrest.

We advise against all travel to the Gaza Strip at this time due to continuous border crossing closures and the threat of militant activity. If travel is essential, prior to entering Palestinian-controlled areas from Jerusalem-area checkpoints, confirm that crossings remain open and no unrest is taking place. Crossings near the cities of Jenin, Qalqilya, and Tul Karem remain less prone to violence. Minimize night travel in major cities, as the majority of IDF and PA security operations occur at this time, particularly in the vicinities of Palestinian refugee camps.

Are tensions regarding the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound likely to defuse or escalate in the coming weeks? – Israel/Palestinian Territories Analysis

Background & Current Situation

Background of Incident

On July 14, three Arab-Israelis conducted a shooting attack inside the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound in Jerusalem, in which they killed two Israeli Policemen and wounded a third. All three militants were subsequently shot and killed. In the aftermath of the attack, Israel closed the compound to all visitors in order to search it for additional weapons that may have been hidden on the premises. The compound was reopened by Israel on July 16 after metal detectors were placed at its entrances. Additionally, during the overnight hours of July 22-23, Israeli authorities placed closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras inside the compound as added security measures to prevent future attacks.

Response by Arab Leaders

The Arab and Muslim world widely condemned these added security measures, claiming that they were an Israeli attempt to alter the status quo at the religious site. As a result, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf closed all mosques in Jerusalem on July 21 and called all Muslims to instead hold mass prayers in the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound. In response, Israel allowed only women and men over the age of 50 to access the Old City on that day in order to mitigate the threat of unrest. Furthermore, on July 22, the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas announced that the PA “froze all relations with Israel in response to the measures in Jerusalem”. Meanwhile, Hamas, which praised the July 14 attack, criticized the PA’s announced measures as “ineffective”.

Unrest in Jerusalem and West BankAre tensions regarding the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound likely to defuse or escalate in the coming weeks? - Israel/Palestinian Territories Analysis | MAX Security

Nonetheless, since July 16, clashes at varying intensities between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces have taken place on a near-daily basis in the vicinity of the Lions’ Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. Additionally, there has been a significant uptick in incidents of unrest in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories. During the week of July 14-20, 32 instances of unrest were recorded in East Jerusalem, compared to an average of approximately six such incidents per week in the preceding four months.

 

Demonstrations in MENA Region

Moreover, demonstrations over this issue took place in several locations in the region. This was most prominent in Jordan’s Amman, where weekly Friday protests drew gatherings in the high-hundreds, and in Turkey, including in major cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, with crowds in the low hundreds in each event. Additional small scale demonstrations took place in Bahrain and Morocco.

Lone-wolf attacks following the event

Lastly, On July 21, three Israelis were killed when a militant entered their house in the West Bank Israeli town of Halamish. Additionally, on July 23 a Jordanian of Palestinian origin stabbed an Israeli security officer inside the Israeli Embassy compound in Amman, Jordan, and was subsequently shot and killed along with a bystander. Finally, on July 24 a Palestinian conducted a stabbing attack in Petah Tikva, Israel, and claimed to have done so “for al-Aqsa”.

Are tensions regarding the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound likely to defuse or escalate in the coming weeks? - Israel/Palestinian Territories Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

While the events in Jerusalem garnered significant attention in the Arab and Muslim world and led to major incidents of unrest, unless unexpected events unfold, it is likely that the situation will be resolved in the coming days or weeks, particularly as it is in the interest of the majority of the actors involved in the process.

In this context, Israel likely has no interest in causing an escalation in violence with the Palestinians, as well as with the Arab and Muslim world as a whole. That said, this is unlikely to deter Israel from ensuring that security is maintained in the compound, especially after the recent attacks and subsequent domestic criticism on lack of effective security at such a sensitive locale. Similarly, an escalation would be counter to the interests of the PA, as such a development will likely empower Hamas at the expense of the PA, and will threaten the latter’s hold in the West Bank. As a result, Abbas’ announcement of “freezing all relations with Israel” was likely meant to pertain to the hardliners in the West Bank and offset any potential influence by Hamas, and to a degree, serve as leverage against Israel, rather than being an effort to encourage additional hostilities.

A political solution regarding the situation in the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound will likely be reached in the coming days or weeks with mediation by the US and Jordan. Such a solution may include the complete removal of metal detectors at the compound, while the CCTV cameras, or an alternative means of monitoring the security situation at the site, remain in place. This is particularly likely as Israel demanded that such monitoring devices should be placed at the compound for months before the recent hostilities started, but was rejected by the Waqf due to claims that this will compromise the status quo at the site. Such a compromise may leave both sides content, as the PA will achieve the symbolic victory of having the metal detectors removed, which have become a symbol of the recent hostilities, while Israel will maintain the additional security measures that it had previously sought.

Meanwhile, the incident in Jordan may cause diplomatic complications between the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel, and therefore, may adversely affect negotiations as Jordan de-facto controls the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, which has authority over the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound. Nonetheless, it is in the interest of Jordan as well to prevent a further escalation in hostilities. Therefore, any effect that the situation may have will likely be limited to prolonging the negotiations and possibly forcing Israel into making further concessions.

Regionally, unrest revolving around the issue has likely reached its peak and such demonstrations are beginning to lose momentum. With this in mind, demonstrations will likely continue until the political issue is resolved, however, will gradually decline in their scope and scale, and will mostly affect Turkey and Jordan, the latter mainly on Fridays which are the preferred day of such gatherings. Additionally, in the period leading to the eventual likely agreement, the threat of low-level, “lone-wolf” attacks against Israeli or Israeli-affiliated targets, similar to that witnessed in Jordan on July 23, will be heightened, but will likely revert following the eventual settling of the issue. Furthermore, there is an increased threat of lone-wolf attacks in general, particularly in Western Europe, by individuals motivated by the perceived violation of the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound and claims of harm against the holy site.

Locally, in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, incidents of unrest are likely to experience a similar trend as the regional ones, with the coming Friday possibly experiencing a last peak in such activities before these gradually reduce until the conclusion of the political issue. The only likely exception to this is East Jerusalem, where protests and acts of unrest are likely to persist at a high rate in the coming weeks, as the population in this area is under greater influence from Islamist organizations, compared to mainstream political ones like the PA, and may not be satisfied with any potential compromise.

In terms of militancy, the coming weeks will likely continue to witness a relative heightened rate of “lone-wolf” attacks against Israelis, mostly consisting of stabbing, vehicular, Molotov cocktail, and low-level shooting attacks, focusing on Jerusalem, the West Bank, and to a lesser degree, Israel. While these are likely to eventually reduce in their scope and scale, given precedent, it remains possible that they will persist at a high rate, causing a lingering heightened threat of militancy over the coming months. Furthermore, while it is in the interest of Hamas to cause an escalation in the West Bank as mentioned above, a significant escalation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip will be against the organization’s interests as a potential Israeli response will pose a significant threat to it, and is therefore unlikely to take place. Nonetheless, limited attacks, mostly in the form of low-level and short range surface-to-surface rockets against Israel, will likely be initiated at a relatively higher rate by Salafist militant groups based in the Gaza Strip.

Recommendations

Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross border violence. Those traveling in the 40 km area surrounding the Gaza Strip should continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

In major Israeli cities, remain vigilant in crowded commercial areas or public transport hubs, as these locations have been targeted by militant groups in the past. Alert authorities to suspicious, unattended packages in these areas. As a general precaution, avoid nonessential travel to the vicinity of Jerusalem’s Old City, particularly in the vicinity of Lions’ Gate, due to the reported clashes and a recent heightening of tensions between East Jerusalem residents and Israeli security forces.

Palestinian Territories

Business-essential travel to Ramallah can continue at this time while adhering to basic security precautions regarding the threats of civil unrest and militancy. Consult with us for itinerary-based recommendations and ground support options. Avoid nonessential travel to other Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank at this time given the persistent threat of civil unrest. We advise against all travel to the Gaza Strip at this time due to continuous border crossing closures and the threat of militant activity. If travel is essential, prior to entering Palestinian-controlled areas from Jerusalem-area checkpoints, confirm that crossings remain open and no unrest is taking place. Crossings near the cities of Jenin, Qalqilya, and Tul Karem remain less prone to violence.

Regional

Maintain heightened vigilance given the potential for demonstrations and associated acts of unrest related to the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Compound tensions. Avoid the vicinity of any such gatherings. Additionally avoid the immediate vicinity of Israeli diplomatic missions, due to the increased risk for acts of militancy targeting these locales. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

New Hamas charter likely effort to improve public image, versus major policy shift by group toward Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Palestinian Territories Analysis

Current Situation

On May 1, Hamas’ Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashaal revealed during a press conference in Doha, Qatar a revised version of the group’s charter, accepting the idea of a Palestinian state according to the June 4, 1967 borders. However, according to the charter, the group still does not recognize the state of Israel. In addition, the new charter stresses that the “struggle is against the occupation and not against the Jews”. Meanwhile, according to Mashaal’s summary of the changes to the charter, Hamas will not abandon armed struggle nor “give up one parcel of Palestinian land,” and “strives to liberate all Palestinian lands from the river to the sea” (referring to the Jordan river and the Mediterranean, including the state of Israel).

Additionally, Hamas distances itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and pan-Islamic notions. This contradicts the previous charter which indicated the group’s role in the global Islamist militancy theater. Furthermore, the new document defines the group as follows: “The Islamic Resistance Movement ‘Hamas’ is a Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement. Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project. Its frame of reference is Islam, which determines its principles, objectives and means”. Lastly, the group dismissed all previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), including the 1993 Oslo Accord.

Assessments & Forecast

Newly published charter likely attempt to improve image among international community, regional powers, Palestinian residents of West Bank, not reflective of major policy shift

We assess that the newly published charter is an attempt by the Islamist Palestinian faction to rebrand itself, rather than forming a new strategic approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is despite the stated acceptance of the June 4, 1967 borders, which is largely viewed as the main component of the “two-state solution”, as opposed to the group’s previous charter version. This assessment is backed by the group’s emphasis on not “giving up one parcel of Palestinian land,” and that it “strives to liberate all Palestinian lands”.

As part of this effort at rebranding, the group seeks to project a more moderate stance to the international community, particularly to Western countries, as some of these countries designate it as a terror organization. This attempt to project a more moderate stance is reflected by the group’s statement concerning their “struggle against the occupation and not against the Jews”, as opposed to the previous charter, which called for a “campaign against the Jews in Palestine”. With this in mind, by issuing this revised charter, Hamas likely strives at bolstering its image and increasing its legitimacy as a political entity in the eyes of the international community. This potential shift in Hamas’ approach towards the West may partially be explained by the group’s likely perception that some of the current Western governments have altered their stances towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a more pro-Israeli attitude, particularly that of the Trump administration. This is further relevant regarding the charter’s distancing of Hamas from the global Islamist militancy theater, in a likely effort to alienate itself from jihadist elements globally, thus further enhancing its legitimacy in the international community.

This is also relevant with regard to the region’s leading Arab countries, most notably Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), with which Hamas has made persistent efforts at rapprochement over the past several months. By distancing itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian group likely seeks to improve its relations with such Arab states in light of the decreasing popularity and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood organization across the region, as it is has been banned and designated as a terror organization in these countries. This is further likely within the context of the ongoing economic and energy crisis in the Gaza Strip. In this respect, Hamas potentially desires financial support from some of the GCC countries to alleviate this crisis.

Meanwhile, domestically, we assess that the new revised charter is part of the group’s efforts to increase its support among the Palestinian people, particularly those living in the West Bank. By expressing its willingness to accept the idea of June 4, 1967 borders, Hamas positions itself closer to the general consensus of Palestinians in the West Bank surrounding the potential resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Over the past several years, multiple opinion polls among Palestinians have indicated that a majority support the “two state solution” without the renouncement of the “Right of Return”, namely the return of all Palestinian refugees to Israel’s 1949 Armistice (Green Line) territory, including during a recent poll in February.

Furthermore, while in its previous charter the group emphasized the Palestinian national movement as a tool to promote the Islamist agenda, the current version emphasizes instead that Islam remains a guideline and a component within the Palestinian national identity, thus elevating the status of the “local” component of the movement at the expense of the “global”. Because religion constitutes a smaller component of the identities of large segments of Palestinians living in the West Bank, in comparison to those in the Gaza Strip, Hamas likely attempts through this new rhetoric to appeal more to these Palestinians, as a part of such efforts to gain support in the West Bank.

Current status quo of Israeli-Palestinian conflict unlikely to change, due to lack of negotiations, tensions between Hamas-Fatah, future hostilities between Israel and Hamas

Given that we assess that Hamas has not changed its stance regarding Israel or the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the charter is unlikely to affect or improve the prospect for future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is underlined by Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel, its rejection of previous agreements between Israel and the PLO, as well as issues mentioned in the new charter, including the “liberation” of all of Palestine as defined by the group, as well as the insistence on the “Right of Return”, which Israel traditionally rejects. As a result, even if negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) eventually materialize, potentially although not likely including Hamas backing the Fatah-led PA, we assess that they are unlikely to bear fruit in the coming month and years.

Furthermore, despite such efforts to appear more moderate, this shifting public image does not indicate an improved relationship with the PA, which is currently strained. Efforts by Hamas to appeal to Palestinians in the West Bank are not likely to be perceived positively by the PA, given that the PA continues to view Hamas as undermining its rule in the West Bank. As a result, tensions between the two parties will likely continue over the coming months, including in the form of additional arrest operations targeting Hamas activists and militants throughout the West Bank and potential implementation of political sanctions by the PA on Hamas’ political activity in this area.

Finally, with respect to security, the charter is unlikely to change the potential for large-scale hostilities and a future broad conflict between Israel and Gaza-based Palestinian militant factions. This is highlighted by Hamas’ calls to not abandon armed struggle nor reduce its claims on Palestinian land, as well as its continued efforts to rebuild its militant capabilities, including by manufacturing rockets and explosives, ground maneuvers, test firing of rockets, and the construction of attack tunnels. As a result, in spite of this new document, we continue to assess that the likelihood for a broad conflict over the coming months remain low-medium at this time. Moreover, despite the abovementioned efforts to increase its foothold, in the short-term, the security environment in the West Bank is liable to remain at the same level. While Hamas will likely continue its attempts to conduct sophisticated acts of militancy against Israelis in the West Bank, given the Israeli security apparatus’ broad experience in mitigating this threat, the majority of such plans will likely be thwarted.

Recommendations

Business-essential travel to Ramallah can continue at this time while adhering to basic security precautions regarding the threats of civil unrest and militancy. Consult with us for itinerary-based recommendations and ground support options. Avoid nonessential travel to other Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank at this time given the persistent threat of civil unrest. We advise against all travel to the Gaza Strip at this time due to continuous border crossing closures and the threat of militant activity. If travel is essential, prior to entering Palestinian-controlled areas from Jerusalem-area checkpoints, confirm that crossings remain open and no unrest is taking place. Crossings near the cities of Jenin, Qalqilya, and Tul Karem remain less prone to violence. Minimize night travel in major cities, as the majority of IDF and PA security operations occur at this time, particularly in the vicinities of Palestinian refugee camps.