Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Israeli Iron Dome

Israel’s Iron Dome, also known as the ‘Iron Cap’, is a mobile air defence system designed to protect populated areas across the country. After several years of development, the Iron Dome came online in early 2011 and has been criticised for its maintenance cost. The system was built by the Israeli company, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, and was largely funded by the United States. In total, the US has set aside more than $200 million dollars to help Israel pay for the system, but financial concerns remain. There was haste to get system in to service to defend against Palestinian missile threats, particularly from the Quassam rocket type. The Israeli military have continuously praised the Iron Dome for its effectiveness during the current predicament with Gaza.

Questions have arisen about the operational effectiveness of the Iron Dome. According to Israeli officials, some 84% of targets engaged during the 2012 conflict in Gaza were hit.  Nevertheless, it has been suggested by Professor Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), that the success rate of the defence system may have been “drastically lower". Mordechai Scheffer, who previously worked for the RAFAEL Armament Development Authority, emphasised that the IDF’s claim of an 84% success rate was optimistic, placing the true success rate as low as 5-10%. In addition to this, Dr Reuven Pedatzur, noted military analyst and a professor at Tel Aviv University, argued that an atomic bomb can be an immediate danger to Israel’s survival, and as there is no guarantee that the system will work, the system in itself is useless. While the Iron Dome has probably prevented a large ground operation against Israel, questions remain about the implications of the system for the Middle East Peace Process.

The biggest issue with the Iron Dome is the clear division between Israel and the Arab states which surround it (including the occupied Palestinian Territories). It is believed by some to be instrumental in the peace process, and in the view of the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, “It gave us space and time”. The differentiation however fuels further separation and could be seen as a catalyst for an arms race, as it could encourage neighbouring countries to acquire larger quantities of missiles and rockets to penetrate the defensive cover.

The possibility of fuelling a further conflict maybe one thing Israel is willing to do in order to protect itself. The Iron Dome is the first part of a multi-layered defence strategy. The second, David’s Sling or the Magic Wand, is designed to target medium - to long-range rockets and cruise missiles. The joint US-Israel missile interception systems, such as Arrow 2 (operational) and Arrow 3 (in development) suggest there could be even more aggravation within the region. The Iron Dome could create the impression that Israel is prepared to tolerate enemy attacks to a degree. Moreover, these systems, including the Iron Dome, have the potential to tie Israel’s hands and could undermine trust in the country’s traditionally offensive approach.

All things considered, the lack of casualties among Israeli civilians could make any large-scale domestic or external military retaliation almost invalid. However, the Iron Dome does have weaknesses, one of them being unable to defend communities located in close proximity to the border of the Gaza strip. This problem poses a huge issue for the authenticity of the Iron Dome, as if it cannot protect the nation of Israel, what is the point of it being in existence? In a nutshell, Israel’s Iron Dome has the potential to promote differentiation and further fragmentation of the Middle East Peace Process.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Israel and Palestine Update

6th of March - This year's Gaza marathon was cancelled by the UN agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA),  following the decision by the Gaza based group Hamas to ban women from competing alongside men, revoking their previous stance.  

7th of March - Mohammed Asfour, a 22-year-old student studying sports, died after being shot in head by a rubber-coated steel bullet fired by Israeli troops during a protest in the West Bank. The incident took place during demonstrations across the territories following news of Arafat Jaradat, a Palestinian who died in Israeli custody, whilst being interrogated by the Shin Bet internal security service. The death of Jaradat heightened the tension in Israel as well as Palestine, as militants from Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades fired a rocket at Israel as a "preliminary response” to his death.

8th of March - Palestinian Bedouins could be forced to leave their land in the West Bank after private Israeli plans for a new town in the Ma'ale Adumim region were revealed. According to the Bedouins and their lawyers, it is the first stage in clearing the area of Palestinian controlled land. 

11th of March - Majdi al-Rimawi, a Palestinian convicted of killing Israeli government minister Rehavam Zeevi, has been granted honourary citizenship in the Paris suburb of Bezons. The decision has been criticised and Yigal Palmor, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said that was “no political view” that can justify the giving of this honour.

12th of March – The World Bank has warned that the combined fiscal deterioration of the Palestinian Authority together with the Israeli closures and restrictions has caused “lasting damage” to the Palestinian economy. Economic activity declined considerably in 2012, in comparison to the healthy GDP growth in recent years. Key aspects have been the stagnation in the manufacturing sector; the productivity of the agricultural sector roughly halving; the decline in both manufacturing and agriculture sectors with the share of exports in the Palestinian economy dropping to 7% in 2011, from 10% in 1996; in addition to high levels in unemployment.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Notes from Gaza

The following notes are from Samuel Morris, who has been in Gaza on behalf of the NCF. Sam has been travelling in Israel and Palestine for much of the past month and these are his observations. As with all such comments from NCF sources, they and should be treated as a personal view, rather than an NCF perspective:

The last few weeks have seen protests spark across the West Bank and Gaza. The death of Arafat Jaradat while in Israeli custody, was the catalyst for this outpouring of anger. The treatment of prisoners has long been an issue, especially with the ongoing hunger strikes by a number of Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons without charge, most notably Samer Issawi whose hungerstrike has been running for well over 200 days. These protests united the Palestinian populous. In Gaza, marches and protests were held, factions united. For a few days the flags of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the DFLP flew over the broken tomb of the unknown solider, destroyed by Hamas in 2006, in the Rimal district of Gaza city. In the West Bank the protests turned more violent. Unlike in Gaza, in the West Bank there are IDF soldiers at whom protesters can focus their anger, resulting in clashes over a number of days in towns throughout the West Bank. Retaliation from Gaza was limited to a rocket, fired from southern gaza hitting a road in Ashkelon. Responsibility for the rocket was claimed by Fatah's armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Many news publications reported this as the first breach of the November ceasefire, however, Israeli forces have shot and killed three people and injured at least 50 for straying to close to the perimeter fence since the beginning of the ceasefire.

In Gaza, there is little will for the escalation of this so called "Prisoners Intifada" in the Gaza Strip. Recent memories of the short but brutal war in November are still fresh in the mind. Hamas are more concerned with internal security issues than a third intifada. Security measures have tightened since "Operation Pillar of Defence" and the fear of losing secrets to the Israelis through "collaborators" is rife. Gaza courts have handed out 30 death sentences since 2007, many of them to people convicted of helping Israeli security forces. Hamas are stepping up their attempts to catch such collaborators. Their main concern, like Israel, is security, which has lead to a number of new security measures. International visitors must now apply for entry permission to be able to visit Gaza. These are usually limited to 33 days, but can be extended. More recently, Hamas has made it mandatory for any Palestinian leaving Gaza via Erez, into Israel, to have exit permission. Making the all but impossible task to gaining entry to Israel, even harder.

The eight day war, was seen as a victory by Hamas. Their perspective is that it showed that Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip is still strong. The conflict, brief but brutal, was seen as a success due to the strong response by Hamas. Even with their support waning in the Gaza strip, the perspective of many on the ground in Gaza is that Hamas showed strength during the operation. The brevity of the conflict, and the decision by Israel not to send in land forces, meant that it was far less damaging than Operation Cast Lead in 2007, but once again the response by Israel was seen as disproportionate.

On the surface Gaza has been becoming more prosperous. Hundreds of new buildings are being built throughout the Gaza Strip. However this is just a facade. Gaza is still oppressed, the problems are still there. Poverty and unemployment are rife. Shops may be better stocked with Israeli goods but life is still hugely difficult for the majority of those living in the Gaza strip. UNRWA recently published a report entitled "Gaza 2020". The report states that the population of Gaza will increase from its current 1.6 million to 2.1 million people in 2020. They estimate that this will result in a population density of more than 5,800 people per square kilometre. The report expresses concern that Gazan infrastructure, especially electricity, water and sanitation, are not keeping pace with the needs of this growing population. I can vouch for the fact that the water quality has decreased over the past few years and power cuts are constant; these issues are only set to get worse and the life for the average Gazan is set to get more difficult if Gaza's issues are not resolved. More food stuff and a greater number of cars being shipped in through the Kerem Shalom border crossing from Israel does not help resolve the key issues that that continue to affect Gaza. Without a drastic change to the blockade these key problems will remain and will only get worse as the population grows.

The tunnel trade has been the driving force behind all of the building. Construction materials are all but impossible to get from Israel and are hugely expensive when compared to the price of resourses coming from Egypt via the tunnels. The Gazan economy is still dependant on Israel. Imports have increased in volume from Israel recently, including the number of automobiles, however, the majority of all building materials still come through the tunnels. Prices can fluctuate, doubling overnight because of crackdowns on the Egyptian side of the border. It has been estimated that up to 60 percent of the estimated 1,000 smuggling routes under the border have been closed. Egypt has stated that it was cutting arms smuggling that was destabilizing the Sinai peninsula. However, Egyptian forces recently seized 20,000 liters of fuel ready to be smuggled into Gaza. Hamas is working with Egypt to improve the situation but things remain difficult. Hamas are optimistic in the long run; however, they understand that Egypt has its own problems and it will take time for any real improvements to be made. Morsi is struggling to keep control and Gaza is low on the list of their priorities.

Politically, Hamas are focused on the now stalled unity talks. There is a belief that uniting the Palestinian factions will put them in a stronger position politically. The Arab spring sent a signal, and after participating in a democratic process in January 2006 Hamas want to keep some form of legitimacy. This is why they want the coalition talks to succeed. A unity government ensures Hamas still has the legitimacy to rule that it feels it gained through the 2006 elections. However, legitimate or illegitimate, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to snatch the Gaza Strip from their control. The Hamas enclave, even though filled with dissenting voices, has given the organisation a taste of power and they are unlikely to relinquish their control. Their popularity in the West Bank is of more importance. If presidential election were held now, Hamas would most likely win.

The reconciliation process is difficult, no date for the resumption of talks has been set and the talks that were held were only cosmetic. However, there is optimism that there will be a way forward in the Hamas ranks. This optimism is not translated to the general populous, many of whom believe the bad blood created in 2007 will be too great to overcome. Hamas has blamed the breakdown of the Cairo talks on two problems. The first, confidence. There is still understandable distrust between Fatah and Hamas. Brutal actions in the past are hard to forget. The second is there is a disagreement over the process. Hamas think that Abu Mazen is not fully concentrating on the reconciliation process, that he has one eye on the peace process, America and Israel. However, to Hamas, the peace process is dead, pointless. They expect a right wing government in Israel and for things to remain the same. To them it doesn't matter what happens with the elections in Israel, they have seen many faces come and go and do not expect for there to be any movement politically. They view a unity government as far more important.

Support for Hamas is thin in Gaza. If elections were held it would be likely that Hamas would lose out to Fatah in the Gaza strip but win in the West Bank. There is a lack of hope in the younger sections of society. An apathy towards politics. Many young Palestinians have resigned themselves to a life of repression, conflict and pain. They see no solution to the situation and certainly no solution that would be fair. Without any process leading to the almost dead concept of a two-state solution, all that can be seen is the continuation of the status quo. For Palestine this means continuation of the resistance movement and not a political solution. With continuation of settlement expansion in the West Bank and the establishment of the E-1 plan, the concept of a two-state solution is even more difficult to conceive.

The case of Prisoner X

Until recently, the identity and existence of ‘Prisoner X’ in Israel was considered a myth. After much pressure, the government partially lifted the ban on reporting details of the imprisonment of Prisoner X, a ban imposed by an Israeli court after his arrest. Prisoner X was widely reported to be 34-year-old Ben Zygier. Zygier, who held both Australian and Israeli citizenship, was depicted as an agent of Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, otherwise known as the Mossad; he was arrested in Israel in 2010 on unspecified acute charges. It has been said that the secrecy surrounding Zygier was so great that his prison guards were informed of neither his offence, nor his name.

In the 1990s, Zygier moved to Israel and was then recruited by the Mossad. The Mossad were eager to enlist individuals who held dual nationality, as it meant the individual could travel freely without needing to connect themselves to Israel. Zygier died in 2010, apparently hanging himself in the solitary confinement cell he occupied, which had originally been designed for Yigal Amir, assassin of the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Israeli government refuses to comment on Zygier, and only confirmed his identity well after his death. If the claims made by the Australian broadcaster ABC are correct, the Zygier case represents a serious breach for the Mossad as an agency. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has since acknowledged the issue but stresses that Israel’s security needs demanded that some information be kept secret.

The secrecy surrounding this case has led to speculations that Zygier was denied a fair trial or representation suggesting that Israel has breached international law. Under Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly, states that it is a fundamental right for an individual to have a fair trial. Nevertheless, Israel has ratified the declaration, by being a UN member state upon its creation in 1948. According to Avigdor Lieberman – Foreign Minister at the time - the prisoner’s rights were respected. 

The reports of Zygier’s treatment and his suicide in Ayalon Prison have caused problems for Australia. The country’s government has since been forced to admit that they were briefed over the case since his detention in February 2010. Previously, they had claimed to know nothing of Zygier's detention and death until his family asked for help to repatriate his body. Australia's Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, stated that Australia had been assured of Zygier's safety. It is also believed that Zygier was not the only agent who took advantage of the Australian law allowing individuals to change their name every 12 months and apply for a new passport each time. Zygier changed his name three times in total.

Michael Ross, a former Mossad agent, calls Zygier’s repatriation, induced identity changes and solitary confinement under its particular circumstances  ‘scandalous’. It does seem as though like Israel has crossed three key boundaries. Zygier, who worked for Mossad, was asked not to give up his Australian citizenship, creating a conflict of interest; he was sent to operate in Australia under his true identity. This jeopardised Israel’s relations with Australia, as well as all other nations for which it used foreign passports for, because any espionage committed will be recorded on the foreign passport.  Future Israeli action will inevitably draw greater external scrutiny.