Guest Post: Seeing the Middle East glass half-full

This is a guest post by frequent contributor Brian Goldfarb, who puts a more optimistic light on the news from our region.

At the time of writing, things aren’t that great here in the UK: Corbyn is still Leader of the labour party (that voodoo doll and all those pins just aren’t working), the Chakrabhati Inquiry has, as Douglas Murray of the Henry Jackson Society put it, shown that the Labour Party investigated itself and found itself…innocent of antisemitism (a quote worthy of the late, great Abba Eban) and Engage Online has some trenchant submissions to the enquiry from the usual, sane, left-wing suspects, and the future, whatever the Brexiters think, looks increasingly bleak.

So, I’ll console myself by writing some good news about the Middle East that Anne might not have had space for.

Firstly, a return to a matter I’ve touched on before: the reduction of threat to Israel from Hezbollah. I’ve been here before. Since the beginning of Hezbollah’s involvement in the defence of the Assad regime, at the behest of its paymaster and ideological patron (Iran, just in case you’ve been away from the media for 5 years), Hezbollah has been unable to spare any of its attention on Israel, despite restocking its rocket weaponry on a massive scale. This is highlighted in the following article from Middle East  Forum,  Hezbollah sinking in the Middle East quagmire, which notes that:

…for as long as the movement remains committed in Syria, aggression against Israel is unlikely.

Hezbollah has rearmed and expanded since the war of 2006, and Israeli planners consider that it now possesses as many as 150,000 rockets and missiles. But with so many fighters committed to essential tasks in Syria, opening a second front against a vastly more powerful enemy than the Syrian rebels is likely to be a luxury neither Hezbollah nor its Iranian patron can afford.

Hezbollah fighters on the Syrian-Lebanese border

This article, by Jonathan Spyer (a noted commentator on the “Arab Spring” and its ramifications whom I have heard speak to great effect), suggests that Hezbollah has as many as 6,000 fighters in place in Syria at any one time. When this is added to the 1,500+ fighters who are supposed to have died for the cause there (plus seriously injured – and thus just as incapable of fighting as the dead, an unknown number), it becomes clear that the terrorist organisation will be in no mood or condition to take on Israel, not least because, unlike the IDF, Hezbollah’s troops will be less well trained, fewer in number and have less in the way of firepower to confront Israel than vice-versa. Would you like the IAF bombing you and your positions hour after hour? Especially when you don’t have an air force of your own to protect you.

This is as good as admitted by Hezbollah, in a recent speech (reported by Spyer), when:

Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem reiterated the movement’s readiness for war with Israel. At the same time, the sheikh made clear that war this summer would not take place unless Israel initiates it.

Why so? Although he attempts to gloss it, in practice, Sheikh Qassem gives the game away, when, as Spyer notes,

the rhetoric was being used to frame a rather pacifist message – the supposedly weakened and doomed enemy would not be attacked unless Hezbollah was provoked.

As Qassem went on to develop his theme, the reason for this contradiction became clear. In a rather strained rhetorical jump, he exposed the current strategic dilemma Hezbollah faces.

This dilemma is the very one briefly noted above, which Spyer explores in depth: Hezbollah is stretched, perhaps over-stretched, because of its efforts to shore up the Assad regime and the last thing it can seriously consider is an attack on an enemy which is immeasurably stronger than it.

Quite rightly, Israel is not prepared to risk its children attacking weakened enemies. But its intelligence will be, almost certainly, far ahead of Spyer’s in its assessment of the threat offered on its northern border at present.

Related to this is the following: the threat by Hamas on Israel’s south-west border. There is an intriguing (in the academic/intellectual sense) argument in the following article Gaza terror groups vow to circumvent underground border wall by Dov Lieber in The Times of Israel. It appears that that the IDF has developed a method of building a wall above and below ground as a defence against Hamas tunnels.

Hamas operative in a terror tunnel

So let’s get this right: Israel claims that it has (or is on the verge of having) a system of protecting itself against Hamas tunnels which would otherwise enter Israel and disgorge Hamas terrorists in or near kibbutzim and Israeli towns and villages. And what is the Hamas response?

Senior Hamas official Ismail Radwan told the Hamas-affiliated news site al-Resalah, “The resistance is able to adapt to all circumstances for the sake of continuing its project to liberate [Palestine].”

He also claimed the reported plans were a sign of Israel’s “failure to face the tunnels,” and stressed that the procedures would “not limit the resistance’s ability to defend our people.”

Along with the Hamas official, leaders of other Palestinian factions in Gaza vowed to strike Israel should the underground wall be built.

Khader Habib, leader of the Islamic Jihad terror organization in Gaza, told al-Resalah that his group would not allow Israel to change facts on the ground in the Strip.

“If we are forced to, we will respond forcefully,” Habib warned.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Central Committee member Zulfikar Suergo said the building of the underground wall “would lead to the opening of a new front as it constitutes an aggression against Gaza.”

Talal Abu Zarifa, a senior member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), said Israel must recognize that the cement wall would “not provide Israel with security,” and the tunnels were “only part of the equation.”

I have to admit that I am having difficulty getting my head round this: Israel, a member in good standing of the UN, recognised by them as a sovereign state, is threatened by organisations on its borders which are recognised by many states as terrorist organisations, finds the means to protect itself against certain of those threats, WITHOUT USING FORCE AGAINST MEMBERS OF THOSE TERRORIST ORGANISATIONS (sorry for shouting, but…) and this is a threat of aggression against those terrorists?

This is truly double-speak – and if you haven’t read that George Orwell classic “1984” on this, you need to exercise your mind by running to your local library and getting out a copy.

Still on the topic of terrorist organisations, this Report: Hamas leadership panicked over defections to Israel, from The Algemeiner, popped into my in-box almost as soon as I’d finished writing the above.  As Ruthie Blum notes, the information was first highlighted by the redoubtable pro-Israel blogger Elder of Ziyon:

… and quoted by the Palestine Press Agency — because there is no apparent link among the defectors – all of whom have absconded from Gaza to Israel and are sharing key information with Israeli security forces – it is proving difficult for the terrorist organization’s leadership to decipher a pattern and put a stop to the phenomenon.

It appears that a number of top-level Hamas operatives have been defecting to Israel and telling all (we assume) to Shin Bet, Mossad, the IDF, etc. The only one named is:

Bassam Mahmoud Baraka, from Khan Yunis [who] told his family he was going on an errand, and then turned up at the Gaza-Israel border, with his laptop in tow, and surrendered himself to the IDF. The Red Cross subsequently informed his family that he was in Israel.

Baraka, it was reported, is privy to significant details about how Hamas builds its terror tunnels, whose purpose is to conduct cross-border raids to kidnap and kill Israelis. So, too, are the three or four other high-ranking members of the terrorist organization who escaped to the Jewish state.

As a result, according to Al Asharq al Awsat, the Hamas leadership has instituted new rules to keep critical personnel away from the Israeli border.

I should think so too, dangerous places, borders, especially if you are a Hamas operative trying to escape.

Speaking of dangerous places, we were in Israel in May and during the few days we spent in Tel Aviv, we went to the Sarona complex and even walked through the Market Hall in which the attack took place. The whole area is a marvel of modern urban development, as this Times of Israel article describes, which, of course, is exactly why the terrorists attacked it: they can’t bear  anything which smacks of ordinary, secular, relaxation (no attack on any Israeli’s preference for a more spiritual existence intended, but Tel Aviv is a remarkably secular city).

Sarona Complex at night with the Azrieli Towers in the background

Despite all the violence visited (and threatened to be visited) on it, Israel is an astoundingly safe (and sane) society. If you don’t believe this, consider the following: just a month later, we were in the USA, visiting our family there, and were there when the Orlando massacre took place. As a direct result of that, the following article in The Times of Israel, How Israel stays such a well-regulated militia with so many guns around was published. It contains the following passage:

One of the first things visitors to Israel notice is the ubiquity of young people with automatic weapons. Yet Israel suffers the tiniest fraction of the mass killings the United States does. Daniel Gordis, writing last year in a Bloomberg column, reported that Americans are 33 times more likely to kill each other with guns than Israelis.

Calev Ben-David (an old friend) wrote this week in The Jerusalem Post about the differences between gun use in the U.S. and Israel. He noted that just 4 percent of guns in Israel are not military issue.

This means that the use of 96 percent of guns is governed by army rules of conduct. As a soldier, you’re answerable to a military tribunal if you break army rules and use a gun without orders — or if you fail to use a gun when you’re under standing order to do so. For example, if a terrorist boards the bus you’re being forced to stay awake on.

The careful use of guns in Israel is about being answerable to a hierarchy, beyond being answerable to the law. This is the opposite of the “right to bear arms” in the American ethos. There is no “right” to bear arms in Israel — there is a duty to bear arms, according to strict regulations.

So, despite the presence of real enemies, just next door, wanting to kill you, which is the safer society? While in the US, we saw (and failed to keep) a graphic in the NYT.  It was a square which took up 3/4 of a “broadsheet” newspaper page, and was a graphic stating that if all the other highly industrialised and democratic countries had the same population as the USA, this is what the deaths by gun would look like. The USA was at the top of the box. The next highest was Canada…below the line denoting the bottom 10% of the death rate by guns. There was no country in between.

And everyone else thinks Israel is a dangerous place to be!

Anne adds: Brian, thank you once again for casting your optimistic eye over the situation in our hot and sweaty corner of the Middle East. When we struggle under a daily onslaught of bad news from the UN (more of that in a future post), or antisemitism, and daily terror attacks, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – or at least the “half-full” part of the picture. Your post helps us to regain some badly needed equilibrium.

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7 Responses to Guest Post: Seeing the Middle East glass half-full

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Seeing the Middle East glass half-full – 24/6 Magazine

  2. Reality says:

    Brian you sound so optimistic,that you’ve given me hope again! I sincerely hope you’re right regarding our southern borders and tunnel/wall building,as many people still state that they hear noises beneath their houses.In fact during the last war, people in the north too said that they had heard weird sounds beneath their houses.All I can say is that whilst I hope we are building a 100 meter deep wall ,I presume tbe U.N.will demand we remove it as a point of incitement or not playing along with the rules of war,or some such nonesense.

    • anneinpt says:

      That underground wall has really unnerved Hamas. “The chutzpah! The Israelis are using OUR methods!” You can almost hear them thinking. Also the defections have definitely rattled them. Whether it’s all enough to dissuade them from launching more rockets, especially if they’re pushed into a corner and/or feel they’ve nothing to lose is another question.

      Same goes for Hezbollah though they are a much more dangerous enemy.

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        Reality, I actually am quite optimistic! Israel has the best small army in the world: it first proved this in 1967 and keeps proving it again and again. It’s just that the closest enemies really don’t believe it. In a sense, they can’t afford to believe it.

        I recall posting an article here (Anne kindly posts so many of my submissions that I can’t recall which one it was) in which I quoted from an article which noted how tenacious democracies and their citizens are in defending their way of life. Thus, the author of that piece noted, Napoleon derided Britain as a “nation of shopkeepers”. What he didn’t realise was that those shopkeepers were quite prepared to shut up shop, take up arms, defeat the enemy, then go back and re-open the shop! Britain was only, really, at best half-way to being a democracy. But Napoleon lost.

        Hitler derided the USA (from the same article) as a nation of (I probably misremember) beauty queens, bad music and Hollywood films. But the USA mobilised its beauty queens, etc, and destroyed Nazism. Dictatorships have trouble, usually, mobilising their populations,because they often have to use fear and force. Democracies invoke the protection of their way of life: this really is worth the risk of dying for, and we’re not going to let anyone take this away from us.

        Freedom of speech, the right to dissent, the right to tell our rulers that they are idiots (and not risk imprisonment or worse for saying it) are all freedoms worth fighting for. As the Druze and many of the Arab-Israeli population know full well.

        I cite in the article some of the difficulties Israel’s physically closest enemies are having. I note that a significant number of top Hamas officials have defected to Israel. How many Israeli equivalents have gone the other way?

        And Israel is a democracy, par excellent. Just eavesdrop on the conversations on the street at times of stress. Does that stop the country mobilising in its own defence?

        • anneinpt says:

          I really should recommend you Brian for Minister of Hasbara! Or at least Minister for Morale.

          Even though I’m an optimist by nature, when we’re bogged down with petty internal politics and read all the negative headlines (and boy! do those papers LOVE negative headlines) we can’t see the forest for the trees.

          It’s so good to see your take on the situation, and the way you put it all into the proper perspective.

  3. A new administration in Washington, D.C. in January might bring us back from America fawning to terrorists and recognize that Israel is a valued member of the world community.

    • anneinpt says:

      Indeed, it can’t come soon enough. Although I’m not exactly enamoured of either Trump or Clinton, neither can possibly be as bad as Obama. Can they…?

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