January 19, 2015 - New fronts of warfare: the Golan, the ICC and more

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This week, Alpher discusses the Israeli Air Force helicopter strike in the Golan; the broader strategic implications; the announcement last week in the Hague that the International Criminal Court was launching a preliminary inquiry to determine whether to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by Israel in last summer’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza; and why “Charlie Hebdo” drew so much more international attention than far more extensive Islamist atrocities perpetrated almost simultaneously by Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaeda and the Shiite-affiliated Houthis in Yemen

New fronts of warfare

Q. On Sunday, an Israel Air Force helicopter reportedly killed six Hezbollah and six Iranian operatives, including a prominent Lebanese Shiite militant, Jihad Mughniyeh, and an Iranian general, just across the Golan border in Syria. Was this an Israeli election stunt, a strategic target of opportunity, or an urgent security imperative?

A. I choose to believe the latter two explanations, for the following reasons.

Interviewed last Thursday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (once again) threatened to attack Israel, not only with tens of thousands of rockets but even to the extent of invading its territory with large ground forces. In the past, he has denied the presence of Hezbollah forces in the Syrian Golan, even though they had carried out minor attacks from there in retaliation for alleged Israeli bombings of Syrian arms transfers to Hezbollah.

The Syrian side of the Golan border is now held primarily by Sunni Salafist forces, leaving the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies few areas of control. When, in broad daylight, a prominent Hezbollah militant is detected near the border--Mughniyeh was the son of Imad Mughnieh, head of Hezbollah’s military who was assassinated in Damascus a few years ago--apparently in the company of senior Iran Quds Forces advisers, it is reasonable to understand this as both an indication of hostile intentions against Israel and a unique opportunity to embarrass and weaken Hezbollah, an enemy that has sworn to destroy Israel.

Precisely because Hezbollah--its presence on the Golan front now common knowledge following the attack--might now retaliate against Israel more aggressively than in the past, it is unlikely the timing of Sunday’s helicopter strike was dictated by electoral considerations. Any heavy Arab aggression against Israel in the coming weeks, whether from Syria, Lebanon or Gaza, and certainly any Iranian aggression, could severely embarrass the Netanyahu government by driving the Israeli public into shelters and reminding it of both the problematic way last summer’s two-month war against Hamas was managed and of its murky conclusion.

Is near-term Hezbollah retaliation likely? It might be reasonable to assess that we will now witness a repeat of the standoff of the past two years, when night-time air attacks on arms convoys and depots in Syria that were intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon were blamed by Hezbollah on Israel yet, despite threats of retaliation, did not produce significant attacks against Israel proper (they did produce attempted terrorist attacks against Israeli targets abroad, but these take more time to prepare). After all, Hezbollah forces are tied down by combat, alongside Assad’s Alawites and Iran’s Quds Forces, against the Syrian opposition. In that same interview last Thursday, Hezbollah’s leader seemingly acknowledged the existence of a stable deterrent relationship with Israel: “There is deterrence on both sides of the border. If the resistance decides to force a confrontation, it should be aware that Israel is a strong enemy and the Israelis also know the resistance is strong and capable.”

Note, in this connection, that like all its predecessors since the Syrian civil war began, this attack took place outside the territory of Lebanon that Hezbollah is ostensibly pledged to defend against Israel. Note also that Israel does not acknowledge involvement, thereby seemingly enabling both Syria and Hezbollah to “save face” without retaliating and risking escalation. Still, the attack took place in broad daylight and targeted a major Hezbollah figure and Iranian advisers. Hence it could also be understood as such a strong provocation that Hezbollah and Iran feel obliged to risk starting a conflagration at least on the Golan front.

 

Q. And the broader strategic implications?

A. First, in case it wasn’t already obvious, Iranian forces are on Israel’s northern borders. This statement of fact cannot be repeated enough. Any international action that strengthens Iran in the Levant region, including by means of cooperation against the Islamic State, strengthens the direct Iranian military (not nuclear!) threat against Israel.

Second, Hezbollah confronts Israel not only along the Lebanon border and by attacking abroad, but in the Golan as well. To the extent Israel has any influence over Sunni Salafist forces fighting Syria and Hezbollah on the Syrian Golan, it has every reason to witness the two hostile groups confront one another rather than confronting Israel, even if this is little more than a short-term expedient.

Third, assuming, as does Hezbollah, that Israel is behind this attack, Israeli intelligence on this front appears to be capable of pinpointing and targeting a highly secret high-level visit to the front.

Finally, taking a broader look at Israel’s northern front, it confronts a multiplicity of enemies and few if any friends. Iran is one enemy. Hezbollah is another. The Islamic State, Iran’s enemy, is obviously also a threat to Israel, even if for the moment its list of targets is topped by Arab regimes. And lest we forget, the brutal Assad regime in Syria that is propped up by Iran, Hezbollah and, politically, by Russia, can hardly be considered friendly, even if it is far too busy at present surviving and slaughtering its own citizens to target Israel.

 

Q. The International Criminal Court in The Hague announced last week that it was launching a preliminary inquiry to determine whether to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by Israel in last summer’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Another new front of Israel-Arab conflict?

A. Yes, this is an indication that the Palestinian leadership has succeeded in “internationalizing” the conflict--an objective that can be traced all the way back to Yasser Arafat’s provocative “olive branch” speech to the UN General Assembly in 1974 and the UN “Zionism is racism” resolution that followed in 1975.

True, the ICC still has a long way to go before it condemns Israelis for war crimes. Before launching a full inquiry this preliminary investigation, which is a mandatory technical stage mandated by the PLO’s appeal to the ICC as a “state”, would have to satisfy a long list of criteria, e.g., that Israel itself is not credibly investigating possible war crimes by its forces and that last summer’s death and destruction in Gaza are on a scale commensurate with war crimes. In fact, the IDF is indeed investigating possible instances of war crimes in Gaza, to the extent that field commanders are protesting. Moreover, Israel can accuse the PLO and Palestinian Authority (which claims to be responsible for Gaza within the framework of a unity government with Hamas) of ample war crimes against Israeli civilians who, unlike in Gaza, were deliberately targeted.

In any case, the Palestinian complaint to the ICC will take years to go through the system. In this sense, it reflects more than anything else the need of PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to show his constituents that he is “doing something”, albeit with little likelihood of a positive or short-term outcome.

Israel is not alone in expressing outrage at the ICC action; it is backed by the United States, which continues to reject Palestinian internationalization of the conflict. Yet it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Israel has brought this degree of international isolation upon itself, by continuing to swallow up Palestinian territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem while raising unacceptable obstacles to two-state negotiations.

On Sunday, PM Netanyahu took the occasion of a visit by Japanese PM Abe to indicate that Israel seeks to expand its commercial relations in the Far East specifically as a means of neutralizing European threats of economic sanctions. This, in effect, is Israel’s own “internationalization” reply to the ICC move and to growing European support for Palestinian tactics at the UN and elsewhere. In actual fact, however, Israeli commerce with the European Union continues to rise from year to year, and Israeli strategic cooperation with Europe will only benefit from Europe’s need for reliable intelligence to combat the current Islamist scare.

 

Q. Apropos the Islamist threat to Europe, why did “Charlie Hebdo” draw so much more international attention than far more extensive Islamist atrocities perpetrated almost simultaneously by Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaeda and the Shiite-affiliated Houthis in Yemen?

A. One obvious factor is media access in Paris compared to relatively isolated venues like northern Nigeria (where hundreds and possibly thousands were slaughtered) and Sanaa (where a suicide bomb killed dozens). Indeed, the very fact that the prime target, Charlie Hebdo, is itself part of the media, attracted media solidarity.

A second factor is that in Nigeria and Yemen, the prime elements in enabling the terrorism are armed forces corruption and the absence of effective governance. In effect, these countries are in the throes of virtual civil war. These are negative domestic circumstances quite different from Europe. They merit media attention, but of a more nuanced and sophisticated variety that requires considerable understanding of social, economic and even tribal factors that are generally lost on international media audiences. Note that the US has largely terminated a military aid effort to Nigeria due to frustration with the authorities’ failure to address the Boko Haram threat there seriously, while an Israeli military aid effort has thus far produced few positive results.

Finally, unavoidably, some would argue that in Nigeria and Yemen the victims simply are not “white”, while the media is controlled by the “white” or western world. This might explain why media interest in the Islamic State spiked only after westerners were targeted and the United States led an international intervention (an effort that, by the way, severely and deliberately limits media access to the many unintended civilian deaths it has already caused in Iraq and Syria.)

This sort of allegation of western double standards would seemingly include Prime Minister Netanyahu’s argument that the atrocities in Paris--particularly those against French Jews--are on a par with Palestinian terrorism, and that this equivalence is ignored or rejected unfairly by the West. Netanyahu would presumably have us believe that this is the reason why French President Hollande asked Netanyahu not to come to Paris on Sunday a week ago, even though French Jews were prominent among the victims of both terrorist attacks.

Whether or not the media has a double standard and whether or not Hollande’s approach to Netanyahu’s presence in Paris was fair and reasonable, in the Israeli-Palestinian case the blame can fall only on Netanyahu himself and his failed strategies for dealing with Gaza, the West Bank and the two-state issue in general. Put simply, this is not a media issue or one of double standards. Rather, Netanyahu has lost all credibility with Hollande, Obama and most other western leaders.

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