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Potential Israeli ‘annexation’ to destabilize security environment, affect relations with Gulf states – Israel & Palestinian Territories analysis

This report was written by:

Darren Cohen – Senior Intelligence Manager, Middle East and North Africa

 And reviewed by:

Oded Berkowitz – Deputy Chief Intelligence Officer

Executive Summary

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and current Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz reached a coalition agreement in April, which stipulates that Israel can apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, in coordination with the US administration, from July 1.

The different and currently unknown versions and timing of the potential application of sovereignty, also known as annexation, will have an impact on both the local backlash vis-a-vis the Palestinians, as well as Israel’s relations with prominent regional actors.

Overall, Israel’s potential annexation of parts of the West Bank will destabilize the local security environment and scale back Jerusalem’s rapprochement vis-a-vis Saudi-aligned Gulf states. However, the potential for significant violence in the West Bank or large-scale armed conflict with Gaza-based militant groups remains relatively low.

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

Netanyahu-Gantz Coalition Agreement

On April 20, Israeli Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu and “Blue and White” leader Benny Gantz reached a coalition agreement. The deal facilitated the formation of a unity government following a prolonged political deadlock, wherein Netanyahu and Gantz will alternate as PM.

As part of the deal, a clause stipulated that PM Netanyahu is authorized to bring “the agreement that will be reached with the US” on “applying [Israeli] sovereignty” [to unspecified parts of the West Bank] from July 1 “for approval by the government and/or the Knesset (Israeli Parliament).”

The agreement also states that the unity government will work with the US “while pursuing the security and strategic interests of the State of Israel, which include, maintaining regional stability, [maintaining existing] peace agreements, and striving for future ones”.

The application of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank has also been referred to as “annexation.”

Statements by Netanyahu, Gantz

In an interview on May 28, Netanyahu stated that Israel will apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and extensive territory in the West Bank, while keeping Jerusalem under undivided Israeli control and not uprooting a single Israeli West Bank community.

In January, prior to a March 2 election, Gantz stated he would annex the Jordan Valley, referring to it as “Israel’s eastern protective wall”, “in coordination with the international community”.

The Jordan Valley encompasses a strip of territory that spans the length of the border between the West Bank and Jordan.

Gantz has persistently emphasized the need for coordination with both the US and prominent Arab states in the region for any unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

Reaction of Prominent Regional Actors

Overall, all implications regarding potential annexation elicit overwhelmingly negative reactions from prominent regional actors. Below are some notable examples:

On May 19, Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that in light of the coalition agreement, “the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)…are absolved, as of today, of all agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments and of all the commitments based on these understandings and agreements, including security”.

On June 15, a Hamas senior official and spokesperson stated that the group calls for “the annexation project to be confronted with resistance in all forms”.

In an interview on May 15, Jordanian King Abdullah II stated that Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank would lead to a “massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”.

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, stated on June 4 in a joint declaration with the Russian Foreign Minister, that Cairo “rejected the annexation of any parts of the West Bank to Israel” and “any [Israeli] unilateral declarations”.

In an unprecedented article published in an Israeli newspaper on June 12, UAE Ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, stated that while Israel has promoted normalization of relations with Arab states, “Israeli plans for annexation and…normalization are a contradiction.”

Background

Since 2017, President Trump’s US administration has made a series of policy announcements pertaining to Israel and the Palestinians that the latter perceive to be biased towards the former.

These include: the December 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; the May 2018 transfer of Washington’s Embassy to Jerusalem; the March 2019 recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights; and the November 2019 statement that the administration does not consider “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank” as “inconsistent with international law.”

On January 28, the US administration launched its peace plan, known as “Deal of the Century”, which included recognition of Israeli sovereignty in approximately 30 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, all of Israel’s major settlement blocs to the east of the 1949 Armistice Line (“Green Line”), and all other Israeli West Bank communities in the West Bank.

The plan also stipulated the formation of a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Negev, with territory east of Jerusalem as its capital at the culmination of a four-year process.

The US’s recognition of the Palestinian state would be conditioned on numerous commitments by the Palestinians, including the disarming of all Palestinian militant factions, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and the termination of all payments to militants.

According to numerous reports during the month of June, the US administration seeks Gantz and his political partner, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, to be in agreement with any move advanced by the Israeli government in order for Washington to endorse the announcement.

The US presidential election is slated for November 2020. Democratic Party presidential candidate, Joe Biden, reportedly stated in May that he does “not support annexation”, adding that he will “reverse Trump’s undercutting of peace”.

Map of Trump’s “Deal of the Century” plan

Assessments & Forecast

Factors affecting version, timing of Israeli annexation in West Bank

There are several factors affecting both the version of annexation that the Israeli government may implement in the West Bank and the timing of any application of its sovereignty. All of these factors are pertinent in assessing the potential impact on the security environment.

Version

There are multiple scenarios for the version of potential annexation. This ranges from a “hard” annexation, which would take the form of the application of sovereignty to the entire Jordan Valley, the major Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, as well as more isolated Israeli West Bank communities and their surrounding territory for security and expansion purposes. Overall, this would amount to approximately 30 percent of the territory of the West Bank.

A more “moderate” version would be limited to Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, with the exception of Palestinian territorial enclaves, as per Netanyahu’s recent statement. The Israeli control of or at least Israeli military presence in this territory has historically been part of the Israeli political consensus as a requisite for ensuring Israel’s national security. The “medium” annexation plan may also include all or some of the aforementioned major Israeli settlement blocs. These areas are relatively closer to the Green Line within the West Bank and are areas where the majority of the Israeli West Bank populace is located.

A “soft” version of annexation would be even more limited. This may include either just the Jordan Valley or be restricted to some or all of the major settlement blocs. The former would likely be presented by the Israeli government as de-jure recognition of Israeli security needs, while the latter would more likely be an attempt to represent the “facts on the ground”, namely, the large Israeli population living beyond the Green Line in major settlement areas.

FORECAST: In light of current reports indicating that the US seeks an Israeli consensus among the government partners in order to endorse annexation, and given that Gantz and Ashkenazi are known to be opposed to major unilateral moves, PM Netanyahu may be compelled to advance a more “moderate” or “soft” version of annexation. The statements condemning the move by both Joe Biden and prominent Arab states may also lead Jerusalem to pursue a softer version of annexation in order to avert a major crisis with either a potential future US administration or Israel’s regional partners.

Timing

Although the government can, in accordance with the coalition agreement, bring the annexation plan to the Knesset from July 1, if it happens, the process itself is likely to take several more weeks and possibly months to potentially even start. This will depend on multiple factors: In the event that Netanyahu and Gantz reach an agreement pertaining to the type of annexation, and thus satisfy this reported US requirement, the government will likely seek to act swiftly in order to implement the plan. This is due to the forthcoming US presidential election in November, which Israel will be reluctant to encroach upon and thus potentially limit the Trump administration’s willingness to make such a major foreign policy decision so close to a national vote.

However, in the event that the Israeli government assesses that Biden is likely to win the forthcoming election, it may seek to adopt a more cautious approach in order to avert a crisis with the potential incoming administration. Jerusalem may, therefore, apply its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank in stages. A more symbolic or security-minded initial annexation of the Jordan Valley and/or major settlement blocs may first be implemented in July. Thereafter, Israel may apply sovereignty to the more contentious Israeli communities situated deeper in the West Bank in the months following the US presidential election, in the event of a Trump victory.

The decision to apply sovereignty may be delayed due to other domestic considerations. Israel is currently experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases following an easing of restrictions amid a major reduction in the infection rate. In addition, the COVID-19-induced economic downturn, characterized by a sharp increase in unemployment, remains at the forefront of the Israeli political agenda. Thus, Netanyahu may consider delaying annexation until after both the US presidential election and the significant halting of the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel and the US, and attribute this decision to the prioritization of dealing with the health and economic crises that both countries are currently dealing with.

FORECAST: It cannot be entirely ruled out that the government will completely postpone plans to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank due to multiple reasons. These include: a possible failure to secure US backing for Jerusalem’s preferred version of annexation, external pressure from major regional and international stakeholders, domestic opposition from Israeli political parties, and, lastly, the ongoing instability of the current Israeli unity government. Since its inauguration in May, the new government has publicly clashed on a range of issues and it is known that the major components of the government, the Likud and Blue and White parties, have different visions of Israel’s future vis-a-vis the Palestinians. By the end of August, the Knesset must pass the government’s state budget. In the event that the coalition members fail to do so, this would lead to a premature collapse of the government and the postponement of annexation until after another Israeli election, which may yield a more favorable result for Netanyahu.

Israeli annexation in West Bank to destabilize security environment, unlikely to trigger widespread violence

Potential for major uprising in West Bank remains relatively low

The precedent of recent years shows growing apathy and a decline in nationalist motivation among local Palestinians in the West Bank and, as a result, an apparent decline in willingness to engage in militant activity and large acts of civil unrest. This is evidenced by the significantly reduced number of large-scale attacks over recent years and drop in the frequency and scale of unrest. In recent years, attacks have been largely limited to periodic stabbings, vehicle-rammings, small-scale shootings, and rock-hurling attacks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This has persisted despite the aforementioned period from 2017 onwards during which the US administration has announced a series of foreign policy measures pertaining to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, all of which the Palestinian leadership have deemed to be biased towards Israel. Calls by either the West Bank-based PA or Gaza-based Hamas militant faction for civil disobedience or “days of rage” in condemnation of these decisions have been met with a very limited response by local Palestinians, which underscores the aforementioned general apathy.

This trend has even continued since PA leader Abbas’ May 19 declaration that all agreements with Israel, including security coordination, were annulled. While there have been some limited indications that the PA has down-scaled its coordination with Israel, for instance, reports from May 22 that the PA security forces retreated from territory to the east of East Jerusalem, this was mostly symbolic. This was further demonstrated by a June 7 report indicating that PA security forces foiled an attack against the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in the Jenin area. Thus, it is likely that the declaration was rhetorical only and an attempt to pressure Israel into reversing its declared intention to annex West Bank territory. However, even in the event that security coordination is completely suspended between the parties, the limited evidence of the past month indicates that there is no major increase in motivation among Palestinians, either organized factions or local elements, to conduct large-scale attacks against Israeli security forces or civilians.

The PA has other options at its disposal. The Ramallah-based leadership may opt to completely dismantle the PA and all its institutions, which would transfer civil and security control of the entire West Bank to Israel. This is less likely, as the PA leadership remains interested in maintaining its power in the area, rather than relinquishing control, which would allow Hamas to gain a foothold. The PA may also seek to inflict an economic toll on Israel by blocking crossings between PA-administered territory and Israel, while also prohibiting Palestinian laborers and goods from entering the latter territory. This would cause economic damage to Israel, which is dependent on these workers and items in some sectors. However, this scenario is unlikely given the substantial socio-economic damage it would cause to the PA and the local populace.

The PA may wage a diplomatic campaign against Israel, rather than risk widespread security instability. Such diplomatic initiatives may include working with the PA’s supporters, both state and non-state actors, primarily in Europe, to build a coalition against Israel. This would be aimed at diplomatically and economically isolating Israel in the international area, and empowering the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to expand its activities. This is a likely scenario given the PA’s previous action and repeated warnings made by numerous European states and prominent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) against annexation of the West Bank. The PA can also act against Israel in the diplomatic arena by unilaterally declaring statehood in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip in coordination with its allies, while simultaneously initiating anti-Israel campaigns and resolutions at prominent international forums where it is represented, or alternatively, through its regional partners. Given precedent, a unilateral declaration of statehood by the PA, or international anti-Israel campaign, is likely, as the PA/PLO leadership has embarked on similar actions in the past. However, this would be mostly symbolic, and given Israel’s strong relationships with prominent international actors, primarily the US, any PA initiative will be limited in its ability to effectively isolate Israel.

Overall, the PA, and particularly its leader Abbas, who responded to the US peace plan with “1,000 nos”, have lost significant legitimacy and popularity among West Bank Palestinians. This is even more acute among the young demographic, many of whom disagree with the PA’s strategic direction and security cooperation with Israeli authorities over recent years. Many of these individuals also consider the PA to be a corrupt institution. Thus, they are likely to remain indifferent to the potential for Israeli annexation in the territory, and subsequent undermining of the PA’s vision of a two-state solution, because they have already ceased to support such a resolution to the conflict.

That being said, a potential annexation of territory in the West Bank is likely to be perceived as a crossing of a red line that perpetuates the ongoing conflict and potential for a long-lasting solution. This is in contrast with the aforementioned US policy declarations and peace proposal that have likely been considered as either symbolic or hypothetical, while annexation would constitute a practical move that has a tangible impact on the lives of some Palestinians. In addition to this, the PA-administered areas of the West Bank, in addition to Israel and the wider region, are currently experiencing a COVID-19-triggered economic crisis. This has been exacerbated by the PA’s refusal to accept clearance funds that Israel accepts on its behalf, which constitute a significant amount of the Ramallah-based authority’s budget. The PA attributes any economic crisis to Israel’s policies in the region, which tends to resonate with most segments of Palestinian society. The combination of the perceived intolerable annexation action by Israel and the economic crisis in the West Bank are likely to elevate nationalistic sentiments and increase the motivation to convey to Israel that its perceived belligerent actions will not go “unpunished”.

FORECAST: Therefore, it is likely that an increase in violence will be witnessed in the West Bank, though the PA will seek to limit its scope and scale, with the understanding that widespread unrest would ultimately pose a risk to its own governance. In this context, violence will likely be restricted to localized outbreaks of civil unrest and low-level militancy, such as stabbings and vehicle-ramming attacks, than large-scale IED attacks, mass shootings, or suicide bombings. Moreover, these incidents are more likely to remain contained to the West Bank, rather than occurring in Israeli territory west of the Green Line. Even within the West Bank, it is likely that the violence will not be widespread throughout Palestinian cities, but will be contained to Palestinian refugee camps that are known to be more hostile to Israe. While not in the West Bank, an increase in civil unrest is also likely in Arab-populated neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, primarily Issawiya, Silwan, and the Shuafat Refugee Camp, where violence is often recorded.

FORECAST: Palestinian militant groups in the West Bank will be more motivated to conduct a large-scale attack in order to present themselves as the “protectors of the Palestinian people”. The Hamas militant group maintains networks within the West Bank and will be determined to undermine its rival Fatah faction that leads the PA by claiming responsibility for action that portrays the latter in a negative light and as “out of touch” with the Palestinian people. Hamas will likely seek to capitalize on the PA’s perceived weakness and failure to prevent Israeli unilateralism and thus garner more support and expand its influence in the West Bank, which may include direct attacks by Hamas against PA targets in order to expedite this potential process.It is furthermore possible that the Palestinian militant factions operating in the West Bank, particularly Hamas, will order a large-scale symbolic attack against a prominent Israeli target in condemnation of the perceived seizure of Palestinian territory. However, given precedent of recent years, this will likely be foiled by Israeli authorities, although this will pose more of a challenge in the event of a complete suspension of coordination with the PA. A large-scale successful attack would significantly increase regional tensions and trigger a more extensive IDF operation in the West Bank.

Annexation to increase risk of escalation in violence between Israel, Gaza-based militant groups

The Gaza-based militant factions, led by Hamas, as well as more hardline Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and other smaller Salafist groups, have repeatedly rejected any Israeli presence in the region. These groups maintain maximalist ideologies that consider all territory in the region to be “annexed” by Israel and have therefore persistently and violently responded to peace talks between Israel and the PLO/PA over the past 25 years. The potential annexation of parts of the West Bank will therefore be viewed differently by these factions to the way it is perceived by the PA, whose long-term stated strategy has been to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank on territory which includes the land Israel seeks to apply its sovereignty to.

Moreover, over the more recent period, despite employing more threatening rhetoric, the militant factions have largely refrained from significantly increasing rocket attacks into Israel from the Gaza Strip in response to US policy announcements. While major unrest was witnessed along the Israel-Gaza border when the US Embassy was moved to Jerusalem, this came in the context of a protest movement that had already begun several months earlier. This highlights the point that US or Israeli policy declarations are not necessarily triggers for action for these groups.

Regardless, the Gaza-based groups, particularly Hamas, will likely feel compelled to show some form of symbolic opposition or resistance to Israel’s annexation of territory in the West Bank. As is the case in the West Bank, the militant groups will seek to portray the PA as weak and “out of touch” and highlight their ability to violently confront Israel. FORECAST: Thus, if/when Israel formally announces its intention to annex parts of the West Bank, passes the legislation in the Knesset, and implements the policy on the ground, an increase in violence in the Gaza area is likely. This may manifest in the form of rocket fire, unruly border protests, the placing of IEDs along the border, and the hurling of grenades, crude explosives, and rocks against IDF troops. Similar escalations have been recorded periodically over the past years and generally conclude after several days of violence, at most. However, the increased motivation to avenge Israel’s perceived seizure of Palestinian territory and violation of Palestinians’ rights may trigger these hostilities to spiral out of control and lead to a broader outbreak of violence. This remains a less likely option as it is not in Hamas’ interest to risk a large-scale armed conflict with Israel that significantly weakens the organization and diminishes its hold on the Gaza Strip. It will therefore likely demonstrate relative caution when initiating any hostilities.

Another factor in this respect is the role of the Iran-backed PIJ. Iran funds and supports the Gaza-based militant group and Tehran will have a distinct interest in presenting itself as the “defender of Palestine” in the Muslim world. FORECAST: It may therefore act via its regional proxy to launch a sustained rocket assault against Israel, which the militant group has proven it is capable of doing over the past year. While during previous rounds of violence, Hamas has opted not to engage in armed conflict vis-a-vis Israel and the IDF has responded by also specifically targeting the PIJ, due to the perceived severity of the annexation issue, it will be extremely difficult for Hamas to refrain from joining the PIJ or other groups in violently opposing Israel.

FORECAST: Overall, Israeli application of sovereignty to parts of the West Bank will raise tensions vis-a-vis the Gaza-based militant groups. It threatens to undermine any potential understandings that Hamas and Israel have reportedly reached and trigger a renewal of violence. However, due to Hamas’ interest in containing hostilities, this is unlikely to prompt a major round of fighting unless one of the parties makes a significant miscalculation, which cannot be ruled out.

Israeli annexation in West Bank to undermine relations with Jordan, may lead to downgrading of ties

Israel and Jordan have shared a peace agreement since 1994. During the majority of this period, the two countries have maintained full diplomatic relations and succeeded in overcoming several temporary crises. However, a potential Israeli annexation of any of the West Bank is likely to undermine relations between the countries. This can be attributed in part to the fact that a majority of the populace of Jordan is of Palestinian descent and many Jordanians harbor anti-Israel sentiments. This is evidenced by the continued controversy surrounding any cooperation between Israel and Jordan, as illustrated by periodic protests in Amman against an Israeli-Jordanian gas agreement, which were witnessed during 2019-2020.

The Jordanian authorities will seek to prevent a major outbreak of violence in the West Bank that has the potential to spill into Jordan. Despite it not being in Jordan’s interests to sever or downgrade relations with Israel, the Kingdom’s leaders will risk substantial condemnation and anti-government demonstrations if they fail to “punish” Israel’s annexation in a meaningful manner in the eyes of their population. This is especially given that socio-economic grievances are likely to be aggravated over the coming months amid the COVID-19-triggered global economic crisis. King Abdullah II and government officials will therefore seek to avoid taking actions that bolster the potential for anti-government unrest.

However, Jordan’s stability also depends on the significant economic assistance that the US provides to the Kingdom. In 2018, USAID donated more financial aid to Jordan than any other country in the region after Israel, with an accumulative transfer of almost 1.7 billion USD. Therefore, Amman faces a trade-off between preventing destabilization by inadequately responding to Israeli actions on one hand, and on the other, facing punitive US measures if it issues what Washington perceives to be too harsh a response, by, for example, cutting diplomatic relations with Israel and thus suspending or terminating the peace agreement.

FORECAST: With this in mind, the most likely scenario in the event of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank is that Jordan will downgrade relations with Israel, rather than outright severing all ties with the latter. This may take the form of the recalling of its ambassador to Jordan and expulsion of Israel’s ambassador from the Kingdom, the suspension of all security and economic cooperation, and diplomatic international resolutions against Jerusalem. Meanwhile, there remains the potential for acts of unrest or low-scale militancy against perceived US-linked or Israeli-linked interests in Jordan, including government infrastructure and companies. There will likely be an overall elevation in anti-Israel and US sentiment in the country. However, given precedent and the rarity of militant activity in the country, militant infiltration attempts from Jordan into Israel are highly unlikely.

Egypt likely to condemn Israeli unilateral declaration, maintain current covert ties 

Israel reached a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979.  In recent years, particularly in the security realm, collaboration between Egypt and Israel has further intensified as both states have conducted counter-militancy campaigns and shared intelligence. However, the peace agreement between Jerusalem and Cairo has limited popular support among Egyptian citizens, especially those supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, who will increase pressure on the President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi-led government to condemn Israel. Regardless, opposition elements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have been significantly weakened over recent years by a prolonged government crackdown. The Egyptian government is less attentive to the popular will and has been very effective at clamping down on any civil unrest over recent years. President al-Sisi will therefore be more likely to act in accordance with Egypt’s strategic interests, than attempting to placate opposition figures and critics. This is in contrast to Jordan, even though both countries are US allies and rely on Washington for financial assistance.

FORECAST: Egypt will denounce any potential Israeli annexation of the West Bank, although this will likely be limited to a diplomatic condemnation. The government will be compelled to publicly demonstrate its opposition to Israel’s actions and thus cooperation between the two states will become even more discreet and covert over the coming months in any scenario in which Israel acts unilaterally.

Israeli application of sovereignty in West Bank to lead to scaling back of rapprochement with Saudi-aligned Gulf states

Over recent years, Israel and the Saudi-aligned Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Oman, have demonstrated an increasing willingness to move towards a full normalization of relations. The most recent and pertinent example of this was the June 12 article written by the UAE Ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, in an Israeli newspaper. While the article was specifically warning the Israeli people against the ramifications of annexation, the very fact that a senior Emirati official wrote in an Israeli newspaper following decades of antipathy is historic and noteworthy. An additional and highly relevant example in this context was the decision by Bahrain to host the launch of the economic component of the US peace plan in June 2019, and thus provide legitimization of the program by a prominent Gulf state.

The period of rapprochement can largely be attributed to two parallel phenomena. On one hand, many Saudi-aligned Gulf states have demonstrated less interest in supporting the PA or other Palestinian factions. On the other hand, Israel and the Gulf states share multiple common interests. These include a shared perception of the regional security threat posed by Iran and its proxies, as well as an understanding in the mutual benefit of cooperating in the intelligence, security, technological, and economic remits. This period of “detente” has been accelerated over recent years by the US administration’s close ties with the Saudi-led bloc, which has created a covert alliance of interests.

FORECAST: Annexation of parts of the West Bank is likely to scale this normalization process back. The Saudi-aligned states, including the UAE that has been most vocal in its willingness to engage with Israel, will be reluctant to be considered as “succumbing” to perceived Israeli aggression in the form of the seizure of Palestinian territory. The Gulf states will therefore be forced to publicly condemn this Israeli action.

FORECAST: The form that this condemnation takes and the impact on the current normalization process is likely to correlate with the version of annexation. As the Gulf states and Israel do not maintain official ties, there are few diplomatic tools at their disposal because all relations have largely been covert since their commencement over the past years. A “hard” annexation that is perceived as undermining any possibility for the solution envisioned by the PA and most of the Arab world will likely significantly impact covert economic and security ties between Israel and the Gulf states. In the event of a milder application of sovereignty to parts of the West Bank by Israel, it is possible that the Gulf states will publicly condemn Israel while covertly continuing to cooperate with Jerusalem.

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.

During escalations in violence:

Those operating or residing in Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, should adhere to all Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Home Front Command guidelines 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. As a general security precaution, those operating or residing in Israel should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. We advise to contact us to be briefed on the situation, while consulting us for operational support.

We advise against all travel within 40 km of the Gaza Strip. Those remaining within this vicinity should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to the deterioration in the security situation. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Those operating or residing in Jerusalem are advised to avoid nonessential travel to the areas of Shuafat, Beit Hanina, Silwan, and Wadi al-Joz, as well as the vicinity of the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque Compound and the Damascus Gate given the potential for further unrest. Maintain heightened vigilance throughout East Jerusalem and the Old City for the same reason. Avoid nonessential travel to Arab-Israeli towns, particularly Nazareth, I’billin, Qalansawe, Tayibe, and Tira.

Palestinian Territories

Business-essential travel to Ramallah and Bethlehem can continue at this time. Adhere to basic security precautions regarding the threat 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 due to frequent border crossing closures and the threat of militant activity and armed conflict.

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.

During escalations in violence:

As a general precaution, avoid all travel to the West Bank during an escalation in violence due to counter-militancy operations, and relating unrest in Palestinian urban centers. The risk for altercations remains most pronounced in the Hebron, Jenin, and Nablus areas, and to a lesser extent within Ramallah and Bethlehem.

Be advised that crossing points between Israeli and Palestinian controlled territories, including the Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, have frequently witnessed unrest leading to violence. As a result, crossing points may be closed, or experiencing disruptions. Additionally, avoid nonessential travel to the vicinity of the Ofer prison, due to the threat of unrest.

For those remaining in Gaza, in the event that orders to evacuate are issued by the IDF, including via flyers, it is advised to immediately comply with instructions and leave the mentioned areas. If airstrikes are reported in your vicinity, it is advised to seek shelter and remain away from windows. If no shelter is available, lie on the ground and shield your head.

Bolstered international support for LNA Field Marshal Haftar amid ongoing hostilities in Tripoli likely to prolong conflict – Libya Analysis

Executive summary

Over the past three years, the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has gained increased domestic and international legitimacy amid his forces’ territorial advances in the Oil Crescent, Benghazi, Derna and the Fezzan Region.

On April 4, Haftar announced the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” aimed at taking control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked militias.

Despite this development, recent actions by prominent Western leaders, particularly of the US, the UK, and France, have increased the international legitimacy of the LNA vis-a-vis the UN-backed GNA in Libya.

This increased Western support for Haftar may be interpreted as a “green light” for his regional supporters, namely the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to further extend financial and military assistance to the LNA.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar have, and will continue to bolster their own measures to assist GNA-linked forces in Tripoli in order to further their own interests in the oil-rich country.

Overall, the bolstered international and regional involvement in the Libyan conflict will fuel further hostilities and the prolongation of fighting throughout the country, and specifically around Tripoli, in the coming months.

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Focal Points in Libya

Current Situation

On April 4, Haftar announced the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” aimed at taking control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked militias.

On April 10, France blocked an attempt by the European Union (EU) to publish an official statement condemning the LNA offensive on Tripoli.

On April 19, an official statement by the US State Department indicated that on April 15 the US President Donald Trump conversed with LNA Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, recognizing his “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.

On April 23, the UN-backed Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, gave interviews for French news agencies, denouncing the French government’s support for Haftar.

On April 25, the LNA arrested two Turkish nationals in Tripoli. Reports quoting the LNA Spokesperson have indicated that they were arrested for alleged involvement in espionage activity. According to reports citing Turkish officials, the two were restaurant workers in Tripoli and were not involved with Turkish security forces.

On April 29, the GNA’s Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, visited Turkey to strengthen security and defense cooperation agreements. Bashagha was reportedly accompanied by the Chief of the Western Military Command, Usama al-Juwaili, and another top GNA-linked military official.

On April 29, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, conversed with the GNA Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and expressed Turkey’s support for the GNA.

On May 18, the GNA-linked “Volcano of Wrath” Operations Room announced that they had received a ship containing military reinforcements. Picture material and additional reports indicate that the ship arrived from Turkey’s Samsun Port and contained multiple Turkish-made armored vehicles as well as other military hardware.

Background

The LNA’s Supreme Commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s local and international legitimacy has significantly increased over the past three years. This can largely be attributed to the fact that since 2016, the LNA has made gradual territorial advances in Libya, which has resulted in an expansion of Haftar’s influence over almost two-thirds of the country. In September 2016, the LNA took control of the Oil Crescent from the former GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). This was followed by the LNA’s announcement of the conclusion of its three-year long Operation “Dignity” on July 5, 2017, which resulted in the eviction of the Revolutionary Shura Council of Benghazi (RSCB) and the Islamic State (IS) from the city. On June 28, 2018, Haftar announced that its forces had taken full control of the eastern city of Derna from the Derna Protection Force (DPF), formerly known as the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD). Finally, the LNA took full control of southern Libya as part of its Operation “Murzuq Basin” in March 2019.

Although, Haftar received initial support from the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France, over the years, countries that were initially opposed to the LNA’s Operation “Dignity”, such as the US, the UK, and Italy have shown an increasing interest in negotiating with Haftar. This is underscored by a meeting between the former UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and the British Ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, and Haftar in August 2017. More recently, Italy invited both the UN-backed GNA Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj and Haftar to a conference on Libya in Palermo, Italy in November 2018 to discuss a potential date for a nationwide election process in the country.

Assessments & Forecast

Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia to extend further support to LNA amid ongoing clashes with GNA-linked forces in Tripoli

Initially, a significant support, mainly by Egypt and the UAE, had been extended to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, in light of the latter’s efforts to dislodge Islamist militants and militias from Benghazi. This most significantly came in the form of military hardware and logistical assistance by the two aforementioned countries, and the UAE’s manning of a al-Khadim airbase in 2016, to support the LNA’s military efforts. This extensive support was based since its initial phase upon Haftar’s self-positioning as the figure with the desire and ability to defeat Libya’s belligerent Islamist factions and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups, which have gained significant foothold in the country amid the civil war. This is due to the fact that both Egypt and the UAE view these groups as a region-wide threat. Thus, the success of Haftar’s Operation “Dignity”, and his more recent success in taking control over the Fezzan Region, while emphasizing his determination to continue fighting such elements, has bolstered his position as a reliable ally for Egypt and the UAE. As for Egypt, another significant interest in strengthening the LNA was its determination to bolster an ally that would be able to secure the vast swaths of the desert-dense border areas between the two countries. These porous border areas serve as a major pipeline for both the smuggling of weapons and the movement of fighters from Libya into Egypt, and subsequently, to militant groups operating inside Egypt.

This emergence of the anti-Muslim Brotherhood alliance, characterizing the LNA’s relations with Egypt and the UAE, was paralelled by the increasing of relations between the Tripoli-based GNA and Turkey and Qatar, who are perceived by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to be supporting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups across Libya, including in Tripoli. This has reportedly involved Turkish shipments of weapons to such elements in western Libya, as was highlighted by the seizure of a Turkish arms-carrying naval vessel, detained in Libya in December 2018. The increase of relations between Turkey and the GNA was likely further prompted by the current ongoing clashes in the designated capital, and was most significantly highlighted by both the April 29 security-related visit by the GNA Interior Minister to Turkey and the phone conversation between GNA Prime Minister, al-Serraj, and President Erdogan, during which the latter emphasised his support for the former. This, in turn, may have been the preceding arrangement for the May 18 reinforcement shipment, reportedly arriving from Turkey, which contained multiple Turkish-made armored vehicles as well as military hardware.

This more overt Turkish involvement has, in turn, drawn further accusation from the LNA of Turkish sponsorship of Islamist factions in and around the capital. In this framework, the LNA’s April 25 detention of two Turkish nationals on espionage charges indicates a further deterioration of relations between the LNA and Turkey. Regardless of whether or not the arrestees were indeed involved in espionage activities, the event is likely perceived by the LNA as an opportunity to further paint Turkey as intervening in Libya’s internal affairs in support of “extreme elements”. This, in turn, is likely perceived by the LNA as an opportunity to prompt its traditional aforementioned backers to supply it with additional assistance and potentially even draw the attention of other international stakeholders towards Turkey’s policies. Such efforts may have been the reason behind what appears to be greater support for Field Marshal Haftar by Saudi Arabia’s King Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who has expressed the Kingdom’s support for the former and has also reportedly offered to financially support the LNA’s Tripoli campaign during an official meeting between the two on March 27.

FORECAST: Significant support and material assistance will continue to be extended towards the LNA by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This will highly likely manifest in the form of direct aerial support, as well as military and financial aid aimed at bolstering the LNA’s capabilities and enabling it to continue its offensive on the designated capital. In terms of physical military assistance to the LNA, it remains likely that the UAE will assist the LNA with additional employment of attack and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as it has done in the past, and given that it still possesses an active UAV base in eastern Libya. Such support is likely to be already taking place given multiple reports indicating the discovery of remnants of missiles believed to be a type used by the UAE UAVs, and is in any case not in use by any Libyan faction. However, such assistance is likely to remain relatively limited and covert, as the UAE will likely attempt to refrain from being painted as overtly challenging a UN-backed government.

FORECAST: Given the heightened tensions between the LNA on the one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other side, specifically surrounding the ongoing fighting in Tripoli, we assess that over the coming weeks, Turkish and Qatari nationals or corporations will face a growing threat of being subjected to arbitrary measures in LNA-controlled territories in Libya. This will most likely entail extrajudicial measures, such as arbitrary arrests and military prosecution over alleged charges of espionage and militant activity.

Increased political support for LNA by major Western stakeholders bolster LNA’s legitimacy, incentivise regional backers to extend further support to LNA

Most of the Western governments involved in Libya, such as the UK, Italy, France, and the US, initially primarily backed the UN-led initiative to reinvigorate a viable political process for Libya’s unification under one functioning government. This initiative partially came in the form of the establishment of the GNA in December 2015, which has since been the officially recognized government in Libya by the UN. That being said, the aforementioned ability of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to take control of the Oil Crescent has consolidated his international standing among these countries. This was most significantly highlighted by the actions of Italy, a prominent supporter of the GNA, which has, after Haftar’s aforementioned successes, dedicated significant effort to convince him to participate in the political effort to unite the country under the Italian-initiated Palermo Conference in November 2018. Despite Italy’s backing of the GNA, Italian symbolic acceptance of Field Marshal Haftar was more recently highlighted even amid the ongoing offensive on the capital, when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced on May 7 that he is seeking to meet Field Marshal Haftar in the near future. In a similar vein, a process of gradual political acceptance towards the Field Marshal was also recorded in the UK. This mainly materialized after Haftar’s territorial gains in the Oil Crescent and Benghazi, resulting in a more accepting discourse by the UK Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, in an official meeting between the two in August 2017.

France, contrary to the aforementioned European powers, extended its support in terms of military advisory assistance to Field Marshal Haftar during his initial Operation “Dignity”, aimed at dislodging Islamist militants from Benghazi. A more robust support by France followed Haftar’s takeover of the Oil Crescent, when President Emmanuel Macron invited the Field Marshal to the Paris Conference in 2017. That being said, despite having given such support to the Field Marshal, the French government has never explicitly acted in defense of the LNA and against the UN-backed international effort to establish unified political establishments in the country. Thus, the April 10 measure by the French government, namely the blocking of an official EU condemnation, is highly notable as it constitutes France’s first overt political support for the LNA at the expense of the UN and EU efforts to condemn and exert political pressure upon Field Marshal Haftar. This, in turn, has prompted significant protests in GNA-controlled territories, such as the April 19 “yellow vests” demonstrations in Tripoli and Misrata, with protesters dispensing anti-Macron discourse to denounce the French government’s backing of Haftar. In addition, the development has prompted GNA Prime Minister, al-Serraj, to give interviews to two primary French news agencies, where he publicly denounced the French government’s support for the “Dictator” Hafter. Lastly, this has also prompted political action by the GNA, with most significantly the Interior Ministry’s decision on April 18 to suspend bilateral cooperation with France, and the GNA Ministry of Economy and Industry’s decision to suspend operation licences of 40 companies, including a major French oil and gas company, on May 8.

The April 19 incident involving the US President highlights another culmination of international support by Western leaders for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, despite the official UN support for the Tripoli-based GNA. Furthermore, on April 4, a press statement by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, expressed the US’ opposition to Haftar’s move towards Tripoli, urging a cessation of the offensive. The aforementioned phone call, however, took place approximately two weeks after the LNA has commenced its offensive, which could be interpreted as a shift in the US administration’s approach to Libya and its greater acceptance of Haftar, at least by the president himself. This apparent change in the US president’s approach and the robust support extended to the Field Marshal by France, could be interpreted as predicated upon a few factors.

First, the extensive territorial gains made by Haftar in the Fezzan Region have highly likely bolstered his standing vis-a-vis the GNA, regardless of whether or not the current assault on Tripoli will succeed. The Fezzan Region has been regarded as one of the major regional focal points for contraband, illegal immigration, and militancy-related activities for international stakeholders, such as the EU, and some of Libya’s neighboring Arab countries, primarily Egypt. This is due to the fact that since Muammar Ghaddhafi’s fall in 2011, the Fezzan Region has hosted the major transit routes through which immigrants from West Africa have been travelling, via Libya’s border-crossings with Niger and Chad, towards Europe. This, in turn, has also attracted criminal, militia, and militant networks wishing to capitalize upon the ungoverned territories of the Fezzan to further strengthen their operations, while local authorities were either absent or incapacitated to act upon these threats. For this reason, the LNA has dedicated extensive discursive and physical effort towards emphasizing its determination to mitigate threats emanating from the country’s border areas. Through this, Haftar is able to capitalize upon European interests related to counter-militancy and counter-immigration efforts to gain the aforementioned political support, primarily from France.

In addition, the Fezzan campaign has resulted in Haftar’s possession of the al-Feel and Sharara oil fields, which account for approximately a quarter of the country’s oil production potential. As was recorded after his takeover of the Oil Crescent, this development increased Haftar’s international standing as an arbiter in the competition between foreign companies over stakes in Libya’s oil industry. Such competition has reportedly taken place between major Italian and French companies seeking opportunities in the country’s oil market and wishing to see the stabilization of the region. Furthermore, Haftar’s control over the majority of Libya’s oil fields, with Libya potentially being one of the top world producers of oil, stations Haftar as a potential influencer in global oil prices. This, in turn, can make Haftar a lucrative partner for major international powers seeking to influence trends in global oil prices for their interests. In the case of the US, the stabilization of Libya’s oil industry in the hands of a potential ally could serve important American national security interests that are currently being pursued, such as stabilizing a low oil price amid the ongoing sanctions against Iran.

FORECAST: Given the aforementioned developments involving the US and France, it is likely that despite the overall condemnation of the LNA by major international institutions such as the UN, these countries will continue to extend their support to the LNA. Though such support is overall likely to remain symbolic, it may be interpreted by the actors more vigorously and physically supporting the LNA, such as the UAE and Egypt, as a “green light” to employ greater measures to facilitate the LNA’s takeover of the designated capital. Meanwhile, given the heightened tensions between the GNA and the French government, and given the increased anti-French sentiment expressed in Libya’s GNA-strongholds, such as Tripoli and Misrata, over the coming months French nationals and corporations will face a growing threat from local citizens and potentially armed militias which operate in western Libya and are opposing current French policies towards Libya.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Travel to Misrata and Tobruk should be for essential purposes only, while adhering to all security precautions regarding civil unrest and militancy. We advise against all travel to outlying areas of the country, due to the threat of militancy, kidnapping, and general lawlessness in such areas.

French nationals operating or residing in Libya are advised to keep a low profile and to overall refrain from externalizing their nationality in western Libya’s major GNA strongholds, such as Tripoli and Misrata, due to increased public expression of anti-French sentiment in these locales.

Turkish and Qatari nationals operating or residing in Libya are advised to keep a low profile and to overall refrain from externalizing their nationality in LNA-controlled territories. This is due to a growing risk of arbitrary measures and detentions by the LNA, following the aforementioned countries’ support for GNA-linked forces.

Avoid entering Libyan territorial waters in the area between Benghazi and al-Tamimi without prior authorization, as a no-sail zone is currently in effect in this area and several naval vessels had been intercepted or attacked due to not following proper procedures.

In addition, avoid entering Libyan territorial waters off the coast of Tripoli due to the heavy deployment of LNA naval vessels in the area. If travel is unavoidable, seek prior permission from the relevant authorities in order to mitigate the risk of interception on account of misidentification.

Those planning to conduct air travel to, from and inside Libya should avoid entering the area between Marsa al-Brega, Sirte and Sebha, as it was declared a no-fly zone by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Those planning to conduct air travel to and from Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport are advised to follow all relevant security protocols due to the increased threat to aviation in the capital as a result of the ongoing hostilities.

We further advise against all travel to Libya’s border areas at this time due to persistent violence and lawlessness in these regions.

For those operating in or conducting business with oil facilities, it is advised to consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations and ground support options.

Intelligence Analysis: Jordan’s Covert War Against an Islamist Spillover

A protester holds a sword during a demonstration against arrests of Salafists in the town of Zarqa, east of Amman (AP)

The Jordanian regime has been growing increasingly concerned about the possible spillover effects of violence in Syria, especially since Jordan’s Jihadist-Salafist Sheikh Abu Muhammad Tahawi recently released a fatwa calling for jihad in Syria. In his fatwa, Tahawi stressed that Alawites and Shiites are currently the biggest threat to Sunnis, even more than the Israelis.

Fatwas of this sort, usually play on the sentiments harbored deep within historical sectarian feuds between the Sunni and the Shiite faiths. They also serve the purpose of mobilizing Sunni extremists in a bloody ‘Jihad’ against the other factions of Islam, which radical Salafists classify as “outsiders”.

According to media reports, Jordanian Jihadist-Salafists seem to have responded to Sheikh Tahawi’s call as a group of over 30 Jihadists tried to enter Syria a few weeks ago. All but seven, including Abu Anas Sahabi, an explosives specialist, were caught by Jordanian intelligence services. On April 15 a Jihadi-Salafi demonstration resulted in violent clashes with police, leaving dozens of wounded officers and numerous civilian casualties. In response, authorities cracked down on Salafists during a raid in al-Zarqa and other towns located near the Syrian border. Approximately 147 individuals were arrested by Jordanian authorities and charged with terrorist activities.

Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Jordan’s Covert War Against an Islamist Spillover