‘The Fear Has Gone’: Conversations with Iranian protestors

A version of this article appeared in The Australian, weekend edition, 26-27/11/22

‘At about 10.30, we got a warning that an attack was coming.  So we had to disperse.  I ran home to Reyhana.  I was about five meters from where the rocket landed. I was thrown back. After a couple of minutes, I woke up.’ 

We are sitting in the front room of Zanyar Rahmani’s house, at the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) base in Konya, northern Iraq.  The base was struck by the drones and rockets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on September 28th.  13 people were killed. 

Zanyar Rahmani is speaking in a calm and matter of fact tone about the events of that day.  The base has re-acquired a peaceful, industrious atmosphere.  The morning is quiet. There are pictures on the wall of Rahmani’s front room, of him with Reyhana, his wife, and of a newborn baby, their son, Waniar. 

‘There was two weeks left til she was due to give birth,’ Zanyar says, taking up the story again.  ‘When I came to, I saw my wife, and I told her to go to the car.  But then I saw that she was looking strange, and she fell.  I carried her to the car and I saw that I was covered in blood.  We drove to the hospital.  In the car her waters broke and she began bleeding.  They gave her an x ray in the hospital, and they said probably we have to choose between saving her and saving the baby, and that she’s almost certainly not going to make it.’ 

‘They gave her surgery for an hour and a half.  She died but the baby survived.  Then after one day, the baby followed her. ‘

‘Afterwards, we learned that she had shrapnel wounds in her back, and that her lungs were destroyed. She had no chance to survive.’

A day after our visit to the PDKI base in Koya, it was targeted again by regime rockets.  Three more people died.  Then on November 20, another attack took place.  No one believes it will be the last. 

The ongoing rocket and drone strikes by Iran on the bases of a number of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq constitute one of the more mysterious aspects of the current instability in Iran.  The demonstrations which began to protest the killing by the regime of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, have now entered their third month.  They show no sign of dissipating. Rather, both the protests themselves, and the regime’s response to them, appear to be growing increasingly violent.  Over 450 people have now died.  The use by the authorities of live ammunition against the protestors has become routine.  In recent days, meanwhile, a colonel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hasan Yousefi, was beaten to death by protestors in Sanandaj.  Demonstrators in Teheran burned down the childhood home of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic. 

The Kurdish Iranian opposition groups in northern Iraq combine political and military capacities. But none of them are engaged in active insurgency against Teheran. No one, themselves included, believes that they are in control of the angry crowds of mainly very young people that return to the streets of Iran’s cities night after night to challenge the regime’s security forces.  Why, then, are they being systematically, and brutally, targeted?

PDKI officials I interviewed contended that the attacks are part of an effort by the Iranian regime to depict the struggle against it as led by external, ‘separatist’ forces.  This would be a prelude to a declaration of defensive war against these forces.  This, in turn, ,would be a perfect framing for the wholesale slaughter of protestors, to be depicted as part of a national war against an external enemy. 

‘The regime want to make it into a military battle with us.  But we see that this would be in the interests of the regime, so we try to prevent that,’ says Mustafa Maroudi, a senior PDKI official, speaking to us from his office in Koya. 

‘They attack us because they feel weak.  The regime is trying to look strong, when actually they are very weak…What’s happening now is unprecedented.  In terms of the time that it has continued.  People are no longer willing to accept the regime. The protests are getting stronger day by day.’ 

The organizations targeted – the PDKI,  Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK) and Komala, are playing, in their own depiction, an auxiliary role in the protests.  They maintain ‘field hospitals’ for wounded protestors in private homes, because the regime is known to target medical facilities in its search for those engaged in the uprising against it.  They provide finance to doctors treating the wounded, and to the families of wounded demonstrators. But the real energy and impetus driving on the demonstrations is clearly not emerging from these small, exiled groups. 

Assessing the true impetus behind the protests is a task made deliberately difficult by the Teheran regime.  Reporting on the ground in the areas most affected by the protests, such as Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces, is impossible.  The regime also tries to restrict internet access to affected areas.  It wishes to do its work in darkness. 

The Iraq-Iran border area, however, is a place where some light gets in.  There is a steady stream of people making their way by clandestine means over the Zagros mountains that bisect the border.  Many of these are young women and men who took part in the demonstrations, were identified by the authorities, and then had to cross the mountains to avoid arrest.  From conversations with them, one may begin to build a clearer picture of the motivations for the revolt currently under way, of the form that it is taking, and of the efforts by the regime to destroy it. Many of our interviews were conducted in the field, on the day of Iran’s renewed missile attacks, as the Iranian Kurdish fighters and refugees sought shelter from the attacks in the countryside surrounding their bases.

‘When we heard that Jina had been killed, and that the regime was preparing to bury her at 4am, in darkness, the Saqqez people went to the streets, to all the roads leading to the cemetery.’  Rojda (not her real name), 22, tells me, describing her participation in the protests that launched the uprising.  She is a native of Saqqez, the hometown of Mahsa Jina Amini. (the Iranian Kurds all refer to Amini using her Kurdish given name, Jina, rather than the Persian ‘Mahsa.’

‘The killing of Jina was so brutal,’ Rojda continues, ‘and Saqqez people knew that she was a good person, who did nothing to deserve this.  And it was not acceptable.  The police and intelligence tried to threaten us. But the next day, the women came to the streets again, to block the road, with the men behind them.  And then the authorities began to open fire, using shotguns.’ 

‘After four days in the demonstrations, I was doing first aid, and I got a message that I had to come to the ‘Etelaat’ station (the Ministry of Intelligence and Security).  So then I decided to leave, and I came here across the mountains.  I contacted a humanitarian organization who helped me get to Sardasht.  Then I stayed there for 6 days. The border was closed.  Then it took me 5 hours walking to cross the border, with the ‘kolbars’ (border smugglers).’ 

Rojda’s account is in its essential details similar to the stories of many of the young women and men who we interviewed in the border area.  The heady exhilaration of involvement in the protests, subsequent location and targeting by the authorities, and then the flight across the mountains.  The Iranian-Kurdish organizations provide both a place of refuge, and a framework for continued activity. 

‘I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon, because of the anger of the people that I saw on the demonstrations,’ she tells us.  ‘Young women, 19-20 years old. The fear has gone.  That’s why I’m optimistic.’ 

‘In Iran, a woman is nothing,’ 28 year old Mafriz tells us, ‘She is seen, excuse me, as a kind of sh**y animal, without respect.  I took part in the demonstrations in Sina. We were asking for freedom and democracy.  The issue in Iran is not only about hijab.  It’s more than this. 

The Basij (regime paramilitary forces) came into the university and beat us.  Three of my friends were captured and they beat them.  Their parents paid for them to be released.  One of my friends, after she was caught, they physically and sexually abused her.’ 

‘The Etelaat came to my parents’ house.  They promised me an amnesty if I returned…My family want me to return.  The regime makes these claims that people who go to the Kurdish organizations are being held there by force.’ 

Rezan, 25, from Sine, keeps her face covered throughout our conversation.  ‘Because of my family,’ who are still in Iran, she tells us.  She left Iran at the end of September, after taking part in the protests.  ‘Most of the participants are 15-20 years old.’ She tells us. ‘They come from families that have been oppressed. There are poor economic conditions, political instability, and no one feels safe. So people come out.  The regime has become more aggressive now, entering peoples’ homes and so on.  But I believe the protests will continue to intensify.’ 

So where is all this heading?  The latest news from Iran suggests a sharp intensification of regime tactics.  Three months in, the regime has evidently decided that ongoing containment is no longer an option.  Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, was in Iraq last week for a  two day visit.  While there, Ghaani threatened Iraqi and Kurdish officials with an Iranian ground military operation, unless the Iranian Kurdish organizations along the border were disarmed.  Ghaani’s visit came a day after the November 14th attacks on Koya. 

Within Iran, meanwhile, the latest reports are of regime targeting of protestors in the Iranian Kurdish city of Mahabad, which briefly fell out of government control.  Video evidence of machine gun fire on protestors has emerged. All the indications suggest that the regime’s face is set toward escalation, in a desire to provoke a showdown with the demonstrators, and then adopt the tactics of brutal counter-insurgency against them.  It is a familiar playbook, last employed in the Middle East by the Assad regime in Syria, a close ally of Teheran. 

The difficult task facing the uprising will be to maintain momentum and build world attention, without falling into the traps set by Teheran.  Strike action in support of the protests, meanwhile, remains somewhat sporadic and, crucially, no real leadership has yet emerged to guide the revolt.

The goal, nevertheless, remains clear.  As Koser Fatahi, a 33 year old organizer for the Komala movement, expressed it to us, speaking from an office damaged in the September 28th attack: ‘The world should act more.  They are still negotiating with Iran. Its disgusting.  If this regime gets a nuclear capacity, it’s the end of everything.  Because the regime believes it should spread.  They call it an octopus, with lots of hands.  Well these hands should be cut – in Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Syria. 

Its important to hear the voice of the people. Iran is still on the committee for womens’ rights in the UN. Its disgusting.  The world would be a better place if the Iranian regime didn’t exist.  If you want democracy, womens’ rights, human rights, this path leads through the destruction of the Iranian regime.’ 

Reyhana Rahmani and her son Waniar, who lived a single day, are buried beside one another, in the cemetery maintained by the PDKI at Koysinjaq.  More than 450 people have now been killed by the Iranian regime since the uprising against it began in September.  The protests are continuing.     

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Best Books about the Human Impact of War

The Shepherd website recently invited me to compile a list of the best books on the human impact of war, in my judgement. This is a subject of considerable interest to me. I have lived around active conflict, first as a participant, then as a journalist and researcher, and then sometimes as a type of participant again, for the last 22 years. This subject has become a central focus of my writing. I have a kind of feeling that this subject chose me, rather than the other way around. I dont mean that in some portentous sense, but rather simply that conflict and war have imposed themselves on the physical area in which I chose to make my life (a choice made for reasons unrelated to conflict), and my personal biography and the biographies of those closest to me, both family and close friends, have been shaped by the experience of war and its legacy. Anyway, I hope readers will find my choices and the explanations of them to be of interest.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Iranian Kurds fear massacre as regime threatens incursion

Jerusalem Post, 14/10

The crisis in western Iran is intensifying. As Sanandaj and other cities burn, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Saturday issued a curious statement threatening a military incursion into Kurdish northern Iraq.

The statement read: “In case of inability of some neighbors in expelling elements of separatist terrorists and hypocrites stationed in the border areas… the armored and special forces units of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s armed forces are ready to be deployed to free this region of these evils forever.”

A report at Voice of America on October 4, meanwhile, quoted a senior Kurdish Region of Iraq official who noted a buildup of Iranian forces on the border, and said that the Iranian regime had sent a message to the KRI confirming that Iran may launch a ground operation into northern Iraq, if Iranian Kurdish forces do not withdraw from the border area. In response, according to the official, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have demanded that Iranian Kurdish fighters withdraw from their positions along the border.

These threats follow a number of attacks carried out by Iranian regime forces on facilities belonging to Iranian Kurdish opposition parties on Iraqi soil, beginning on September 28. Sixteen people lost their lives in these attacks, including one American citizen. All this comes amid the rising death toll in the majority Kurdish provinces of western Iran, as Tehran seeks to crush the protests against the regime.
Why is Iran choosing to target small, exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition organizations in northern Iraq, at a time when unrest within Iran itself is ongoing?

IRANIAN KURDS suspect the regime intends a repeat of events that took place shortly after the revolution of 1979, when majority Kurdish areas were isolated and then subjected to massacres. The targeting of Kurdish organizations would form part of an effort to “brand” the protests as a separatist Kurdish uprising, which would then be crushed using maximum force.

The Kurdish organizations in question – the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Kurdistan Freedom Party, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan, and Komala – are not engaged in active insurgency against the Iranian regime. These parties maintain armed wings, but their small and lightly armed forces engage only in training and some patrolling along the borderline. They are forbidden by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities from launching armed actions across the border. The Iraqi Kurds are aware of the dangers of provoking Iran.

Arash Saleh, a senior activist with the KDPI, told The Jerusalem Post that “the regime wants to distract international attention from what is currently going on in Iran by spilling its crisis over to the neighboring countries. For years, this regime’s remedy for the crisis it was facing has been creating new crises and specifically the ones with an international dimension.”

A source from the Iranian Kurdish city of Sanandaj, epicenter of the current protests, meanwhile, suggested that “the regime claims that Iranian Kurdish opposition in Iraqi Kurdistan are fueling the protests in Iran and specifically in Iranian Kurdistan and they plot for separation. In this way, they want to provoke the demonstrators in other provinces to stop protesting and stop the risk of Kurdistan province separating from Iran.”

The current unrest in Iran has spread to all 31 provinces of the country, but its origins are in the province of Kurdistan, home to the majority of Iran’s Kurds. Twenty-two-year-old Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, whose killing at the hands of the regime sparked the current unrest, was Kurdish, and hailed from the town of Saqqez, in Kurdistan province. The slogan that has become the symbol of the current protests, “Jin, jiyan, azadi” – Kurdish for “Women, life, freedom” – was coined by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdish PKK.

Kurdistan province is among the most impoverished and underdeveloped of Iranian governorates. The Kurdish population of Iran, numbering nine to 10 million in a country of 84 million and concentrated in the western part of the country, is doubly oppressed. In addition to facing the travails known to all Iranians, living under the stifling and repressive rule of the Islamic regime, Iran’s Kurds are the object of the regime’s particular attention as an ethnic minority suspected of separatist tendencies.

In the period immediately following the revolution of 1979, the then-fledgling IRGC fought a bloody campaign in Kurdistan province against Kurdish rebels seeking greater autonomy.

The fighting reached its peak in mid-1980, with a massive offensive by the regime’s armed forces, accompanied by the summary executions of thousands of Iranian Kurds. The main Kurdish movements engaged at that time against the regime were the KDPI and the leftist Komala Party. Following the repression, these movements reestablished themselves across the border in northern Iraq.

Both these movements still exist, and their facilities were among the targets of the Iranian attacks in recent days.

The Iranian regime has, since the 1980s, maintained a tight and repressive hold on the province. Imprisonment or worse remains the common fate of those who seek to organize against the regime. Tehran has in recent years also frequently turned to the use of execution by hanging as a means of enforcing its authority. From January 1 to June 30 this year, 251 people have been hanged in Iran, compared to 117 in the first half of last year, according to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based NGO. Iranian Kurds and Balochis are disproportionately represented among those executed. The roster includes Kurdish political activists convicted of membership in one or another of the Kurdish political organizations listed above, which the Iranian regime considers “terrorist” organizations.

AS OF now, Kurdistan province and particularly the focal city of Sanandaj, along with parts of Tehran and Mahabad, remain the epicenter of the protests. Intensified demonstrations over the weekend led to the use of live ammunition against protesters for the first time in Sanandaj. An unknown number of people have been killed and wounded in the city, where the protests are continuing.

In Sanandaj, some evidence is emerging of reluctance on the part of Kurdish members of the security forces to take part in the worst of the repression.

A source from Sanandaj, who is in constant touch with protesters in the city, told the Post that “witnesses say they [the regime] deployed Kurdish repressive forces from Kermanshah province but they refused to attack people. The people from Kermanshah are mainly Shia Kurds. So they tend to be closer to the regime, and the regime trusts them more. So the regime had tried to deploy them to repress demonstrations.

“Then, in the last few nights, they deployed 15 buses of special guards from Yazd. Yazd is far from Sanandaj, in central Iran. The people there are Persian, religious, and affiliated with the regime.”

Video evidence has since emerged suggesting that the Iranian authorities have begun, in the last days, to use live fire against protesters in Sanandaj. The video clips included what appeared to be evidence of the firing of armor piercing 50-caliber bullets on private homes.

The Iranian Kurds fear a repeat of the slaughter of 40 years ago, with the world similarly looking aside. The possibility of an Iranian cross-border operation to accompany this should not be ruled out. The protests are, according to our Sanandaj source, “the most intense since 1980.” The Iranian regime appears to be preparing the ground for them to end in a similar way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Iran mobilizes proxies to fight growing protests

Protesters in Iran accuse regime of using Arab militiamen to suppress demonstrations • IRGC fires at Iranian Kurdish bases

Jerusalem Post, 1/10.
Claims have surfaced in recent days that pro-Iranian regime Arab militiamen are to be found among the forces currently being used by the Iranian regime to crush protests.

Demonstrations protesting the alleged murder of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, by the Iranian authorities have now entered their second week. Amini died after being arrested for wearing her hijab in an “immodest” way.

Around 80 people have been killed in the protests, which have spread from Kurdistan province across Iran’s 31 governorates. The protests have expanded in scope and are now focused not only on Amini’s killing, but on the broader issues of repressive dress codes for women in Iran and the dire state of the economy.

As the protests continue and intensify, a growing number of participants are claiming that among the forces seeking to crush the demonstrations are members of pro-Iranian regime Arab militias.

These allegations have surfaced on a number of widely followed online accounts associated with the protests and have been repeated by Iranians in conversation with this author. Similar claims, it is worth noting, surfaced during the last major wave of protests in Iran, in 2019.

According to an Iranian source hailing from Sanandaj, capital city of Iran’s Kurdistan Province, “Witnesses in Rasht, Lahijan, Qazvin, and Sanandaj claim the presence of Arab forces among the riot police and among the forces mounted on motorbikes. There is speculation that they may have been brought to Iran from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Some say there were also Palestinians.

“Sources suggest that these forces were brought into the country by the government from the borders of Iran and Iraq during Arbaeen. They have entered Iran with Iranian pilgrimage convoys.”

 Arbaeen is a yearly pilgrimage undertaken by Shia Muslims to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala, in Iraq. Each year, large convoys of Iranian pilgrims make their way to Karbala in southern Iraq, as part of this observance.

Some Iranian oppositionists suspect that pro-regime Arab militiamen may have made their way into the country accompanying these convoys. One online account claims to have identified flights to Najaf in Iraq from Syria and Lebanon bringing militia personnel.

The allegations regarding the Arab presence among the security forces are more concrete and specific. According to one Sanandaj based Farsi-language Twitter account: “Tonight, the agents I saw were not Iranian at all, I swear, they were not Iranian, they spoke Arabic in Qazvin, on Sabze-meydan Street, they were standing and they had guns in their hands. May God curse them.”

Ali Zahedi, another Iran-based Farsi Twitter account, wrote, “The repression force spoke in Arabic. They came from Iraq and Lebanon. One of them stayed behind from the others… People went towards him… He shouted in Arabic to the rest of the forces to ask for help. Those who ride the motorbikes, all those who are silent and don’t speak, they are the Lebanese ones.”

“Tired Phantom,” a popular and anonymous Iranian pro-opposition account, meanwhile, advised Iranians not to worry too much about the pro-Iran Arab militiamen, who the account suggested had troubles of their own: “Don’t worry about Hashd al-Wahshi [the ‘mobilization of wild beasts’ – a play on the name of the Iraqi Shia militias – the Popular Mobilization] and Lebanon’s Hezbollah,” Tired Phantom suggested. “They’re under Israeli shelling in Syria and Lebanon. Their situation in Iraq is precarious too.”

Additional sources hailing from Iranian Kurdistan told this author that conversations with relatives confirmed the presence of Arabic speakers among the forces suppressing the protests.

The use by the Iranian authorities of their loyal Arab allies to put down protests is in line with the broader pattern of behavior of the Iranian regime. Tehran routinely moves its various regional assets across its area of domain, based on where they can be useful. Thus, Lebanese Hezbollah operatives are long confirmed to be active in Yemen and Iraq. Afghani Shia fighters form an important part of Tehran’s war effort in Syria, and so on. It now appears that the regime is making use of its most loyal cohorts to crush the latest challenge to its authority, in Iran itself.

Alongside this, Tehran is also seeking to depict the protesters as representing foreign or ethnic separatist interests. Mahsa Amini was from Iran’s Kurdistan province, and the protests have been at their strongest in this area. Tehran is trying to attribute Kurdish nationalist motivations to the protests, in an apparent effort at divide and rule.

On September 24, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps launched artillery attacks on Iranian Kurdish guerrilla bases across the border in northern Iraq. In a statement published at the Quds Force Telegram channel, the IRGC said, “IRGC Ground Forces, using the operational units of Hamza Seyyed al-Shohada (AS), today destroyed the headquarters and establishment centers of the terrorist and anti-revolutionary aggressor groups on the other side of the country’s borders in the northern region of Iraq with fire operations and attacks.

“The operation of Islamic warriors will continue in the direction of ensuring stable border security and punishing the aggressor criminal terrorists and making regional authorities responsible for their international regulations and legal duties.”

These attacks have continued in subsequent days, with missile launches on bases of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), the PKK-associated Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) and the Komala party in both Sulaymaniyah and Erbil provinces. The Iranian regime has employed “Fateh-360 missiles and suicide drones” in the attacks, according to IRGC media. A number of fatalities have resulted.

No actions by the Kurdish groups targeted preceded these attacks. The Iranian Kurdish guerrilla groups, while determined and passionately committed to their cause, are severely limited in their resources and military capacities. This targeting, given its timing, seems to be a clear attempt to divert the focus of the current protests, and to change their dynamic.

The tactics undertaken by the Iranian regime might give the impression of an authority caught unawares by the sudden outburst of wide-reaching protest, and improvising its response. Undoubtedly the protests spread fast and remain currently undiminished. Still, it remains highly questionable as to whether the regime at present faces anything close to a real threat to its continued rule.

This is not because of any inherent efficacy to its divide and rule tactics and its use of proxies. Rather, it is because while the protesters despise the regime, for many of them the preferred solution is to seek a way out of Iran, rather than to challenge the present authorities for the rule of it.

Perhaps for this reason, while periodic large scale protests have been a feature of Iranian life for more than a decade now, nothing resembling a coherent revolutionary political leadership with widespread popular support has yet emerged in the country, or in exile.

For as long as this absence remains, the Iranian regime is likely to continue to succeed in its strategy of divide and rule, and brutal but targeted repression. The presence of hired proxies among the forces of repression is testimony to the unrepresentative nature of the regime in Tehran.

But an effective challenge to its future now depends on the emergence of a coherent alternative leadership and structure from among the growing ranks of the protesters.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Increased Israeli air activity over Syria: Why Now?

Jerusalem Post, 17/9

The rising tempo of attacks reflects a more general readiness for confrontation as region enters new phase

A notable uptick in Israeli air operations against Iran-linked targets on Syrian soil has taken place over the last month, according to regional media.   

Israeli aircraft struck at Aleppo airport in northern Syria on September 6th.  This operation followed close on the heels of an earlier strike at the same target, on August 31st.  According to SANA, the official Syrian regime media agency, the raid on the 6th damaged the runway, putting it temporarily out of service.  SANA reported that missiles were launched from over the Mediterranean, west of Syria’s Latakia coastline.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), meanwhile, associated with the Syrian opposition, reported that the raid targeted a warehouse used by an Iran-linked militia. 

North Press, a media agency associated with the Kurdish de facto authority in northern Syria, had a slightly different account.  The September 6th raid, the agency contended, targeted a plane bound for Najaf, in southern Iraq, which had two members of Lebanese Hizballah aboard.  North Press cited a source at Aleppo airport as the basis for this account. 

The Reuters agency, meanwhile, cited a ‘commander in an Iran-backed regional alliance’ as claiming that the raid took place just prior to the arrival of a plane from Iran.  This latter account would seem to dovetail with a statement from Ram Ben-Barak, Chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a former senior intelligence officer, according to which ‘”The attack meant that certain planes would not be able to land, and that a message was relayed to Assad: If planes whose purpose is to encourage terrorism land, Syria’s transport capacity will be harmed.” 

Regardless of the precise nature of the operation, it followed a series of attacks attributed to Israel to have hit Syrian targets in recent weeks.  On August 25th, several military sites in the western Hama countryside were hit by missiles.  On August 27th,  a statement from the Russian airbase at Khmeimim claimed success for the Russian  Pantsir-S1 and S-75 systems operated by Syrian armed forces in downing some missiles aimed at the Scientific Studies and Research Center in Masyaf, a frequent target for the attention of Israeli air power.  On August 15th, airstrikes targeted Syrian military posts in Tartus and Damascus Governorates, with three reported fatalities.  On August 12th, two people were wounded in shelling of a village north of Quneitra, close to the Israel-Syrian border. 

These are the statistics for the last month.  North Press estimates that 24 Israeli air operations have taken place against targets in Syria since the beginning of the year. The clear majority of these were conducted against Iranian targets.  If this figure is accurate, then 6 such operations in the last month represents a clear increase in tempo.   

So the question is: why is this happening now?  A number of factors are worthy of attention.

The specific targeting of Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its ‘air bridge’ to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land. 

In this regard, it is noteworthy that Cham Wings, Syria’s largest private airline, announced that all flights would be diverted to Damascus International Airport following the strikes.  Cham Wings has been sanctioned by the US Treasury since 2016 for ‘providing material support to entities sanctioned for proliferation and terrorism activities.’  The company is widely believed to play an active part in the funnelling of weapons and militia fighters between Iran and Syria.

But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran.  Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension.   There are a number of contributory factors to this emergent picture. 

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria.  This requires an immediate caveat. There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal.  The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained.  The maintaining of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow.  But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine.  Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.  The Israeli company ImageSat International revealed evidence in late August that the S-300 air defense system deployed in the Masyaf area has been dismantled and returned to Russia. 

Evidence, indeed, is currently emerging that the Russian government-linked defense company Wagner has in recent months been actively recruiting among pro-regime Syrians.  Syrian volunteers are then sent to help the Russian effort in Ukraine.  It is a curious, and significant, reversal of roles. 

Russian absence means greater importance and greater freedom for the Iranian role in Syria.  The two countries have pursued notably separate and occasionally opposed projects in Syria in recent years.  But the Russian drawback also reduces a complicating factor for Israel.  Iran may increase activities as the Russians draw down, but Teheran’s vulnerability and Israeli freedom of action will also increase. 

Secondly, assuming that some last minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the JCPOA is not imminent.  In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely. 

In this regard, the recent bellicose statements made by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the IRGC’s Lebanese Hizballah franchise, are worthy of particular note.

The common interpretation emerging from the security echelon in Israel has been that these statements were related to an attempt by the Hizballah leader to claw back some of his movement’s lost public legitimacy, as he poses as the defender of Lebanon’s natural resources.  It is just as likely, however, that the Hizballah leader’s sudden increased defiance reflects the opening of a more general mood among Iranian proxies and franchise organizations – proclaiming a greater readiness for risk of clashes with Israel in the period now opening up.    

It is worth noting that Iran is set this week to achieve full membership of the China led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, at a summit of that organization in the Uzbek city of Samarkand.  Chinese oil purchases enabled the Iranians to ride out the Trump Administration’s strategy of ‘maximum pressure.’ 

A failure by the current US Administration to succeed in nuclear diplomacy where Trump’s policy of coercion also failed will deepen Teheran in its conviction that the US is a departing power in the Middle East.  Iran is moving toward closer relations with the alliance that perceives itself as the rival to the fading US hegemon.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone.  Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture re the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. 

This new, more comprehensive approach was reflected in the speech this week by Mossad Head David Barnea in his speech to International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference in Herzliya.  Barnea told his audience that “The Iranian leadership must understand that attacks against Israel or Israelis, directly or indirectly by proxies, will be met with a painful response against those responsible, on Iranian soil. We will not pursue the proxies, but the ones who armed them and gave the orders, and this will happen in Iran.”

As nuclear diplomacy reaches its final round, the mood on the rival camps in the Middle East appears to be toward a greater willingness for confrontation.  The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing season. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Six months of War in Ukraine

Jerusalem Post, 3/9

Launch of Kherson offensive marks opening of new phase in the conflict

The Ukrainian armed forces this week launched an offensive in the Kherson region, located in the south east of Ukraine.  Ukrainian media is reporting that Kyiv’s forces have broken through the first line of Russian defenses outside of the city of Kherson.  The Russian state owned RIA news agency is also reporting the Ukrainian push, which it claims has already ‘failed miserably.’ 

Amid the fog of war, and the claims and counter claims, it is too soon for any clear assessment.  But the events in Kherson appear to constitute the beginning of a major Ukrainian effort to retake territory  in the south, earlier than had been predicted by much analysis. This operation in turn marks the opening of a new phase in this gruelling war, which has already passed through two distinctive stages. 

The war in Ukraine is the largest scale and most consequential conflict to take place on European soil since 1945.  Six months since the dramatic opening of hostilities by the Russians in the early hours of February 24, and with a new chapter perhaps in its opening stages, it is an opportune moment to take stock of the war’s progress, and to assess where events may be heading.  

In the first, mobile phase of the war, Moscow sought to make rapid territorial gains along four identifiable fronts. In the northern front/Kyiv area, Moscow launched an attack from Belarus towards the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after its initial attempt to swiftly seize the city using airborne assault forces failed.  In the north east, the Russians began an attack in the direction of the city of Kharkiv.  In the south, attacks were launched from Crimea, with the intention of rolling up Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline in the direction of Mariupol, Mykholaiv, and ultimately Odessa and the border with Moldova. Kherson, the only regional capital to fall to the Russians, was taken on March 2 as part of this offensive.  In the south east, attacks were launched from Luhansk and Donetsk, with the goal of completing the conquest of the Donbas which had commenced in 2014.

In this dramatic opening phase, many observers feared that independent Ukraine would rapidly be over-run.  Some analyses recalled the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow’s forces took over its neighbor in 48 hours, having first seized control of Prague’s international airport.  Others pointed to the crushing intervention by Moscow in 1956 against armed anti-communist revolt in Hungary, an invasion which secured control of that country within a month.   

Many journalists, this author included, made for beleaguered Kyiv at that moment.  I had witnessed the city in revolution in 2013, in the events at the Maidan which began the process that eventually led to the Russian invasion.  Like many others, I assumed that the Russian attempt at encirclement of the Ukrainian capital must surely succeed.  I wanted to witness the city in what I assumed would be the last days of its existence as Ukraine’s sovereign capital. 

The atmosphere in Kyiv in the first days of March was one of grim determination.   The streets were empty. Air raid sirens sounded at regular intervals.  There was still food in the shops, but shortages were beginning.  Across the city, in schools and office blocks and hospitals, soldiers and volunteers were frenetically preparing for the defense of the city. 

But as it turned out, of course, the Russians never entered Kyiv.  Extended and chaotic supply lines, poor leadership, shortages of manpower, and determined Ukrainian resistance all ensured that the push for the city would falter.  The assault on Kyiv was abandoned by mid March.

 A Ukrainian counter attack from  March 16 pushed the Russian forces back from the city,  recapturing the entire area north and east of Kyiv, including Hostomel, site of the Antonov Airport – where Russian airborne forces in the early hours of February 24th had sought to repeat their forefathers’ success in Prague in 1968, in seizing an airport to ferry in the invasion forces – and had failed.

The first, mobile phase of the war was over by early April.  The Russians had enjoyed some success on the southern front. The port city of Mariupol was taken on April 3, following a bitter and bloody siege. Russian shelling of Odessa and Mykholaiv continued. But the anticipated push up Ukraine’s coastline failed to materialize.    

On the north eastern front, the Russians made little progress, trying and failing to capture the city of Kharkiv. 

In the east, Russian forces tried to advance from their existing pre-2022 areas of control in Luhansk and Donetsk.  A Russian attempt to push westwards from Severiodonetsk at this time was repulsed, however.

The result was that by early April, when the main mobile phase of the war ended,  a Ukrainian salient extending roughly 40 km into the main body of Russian held territory had been created in this area. This salient was also roughly 40km wide. 

This salient formed the central focus of the fighting in the period April-July.  With its efforts at a rapid conquest of Ukraine thwarted, Russia now sought to grind forward slowly, using a relentless artillery barrage to reduce areas to rubble, before occupying them.  Yet this Donbas-centered second phase of the war, in which the other frontlines were static, also garnered Moscow only the most modest achievements.

I entered the eastern salient in June, reporting from the towns of Lisychansk, Slovyansk, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk.  In Lisychansk, the shelling was relentless, the remaining civilians reduced to life on the most primitive level by the destruction of infrastructure.  People in Lysychansk, in the eye of the Russian storm, prepared food on improvised wood burners and buried their dead in graves hurriedly dug in waste ground between rounds of shelling.  The town fell to the Russians on July 2nd.  The Russians inherited rubble.  

But the conquests of Severiodonetsk and Lysychansk were the sole meager fruits of the grinding, artillery led Russian effort in the Donbas over summer.  And as Ukraine began to integrate western military systems such as the M142 Himars, the balance of destruction was rendered more even, and a long, static, artillery-led semi-frozen conflict seemed to be in the offing. 

This second, holding phase of the war now appears to be over.  Many thought that the Ukrainians would not manage to stand up a counter offensive before the onset of winter.  Kyiv is evidently mindful of the possibility that Russia may engineer a gas crisis in Europe over the winter months, creating chaos and seeking to undermine western support for Ukraine.  This, in turn, may lead to pressure on Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire in place, leaving Russia with around 20% of Ukraine in its hands.  The counter-offensive toward Kherson currently under way is evidently an attempt to pre-empt any such moves, and to change the dynamic of the war.

Ukraine has in the last six months prevented an attempt to destroy it as an independent state, and has successfully held in place a Russian effort at a slow and grinding advance through attrition.  An attempt is now under way to break the resulting deadlock.  It remains to be seen if Kyiv’s forces can sustain the momentum and move toward real territorial gains in the period ahead.   The third phase of the Ukraine war has begun. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Now and in Other Days

The war came in high summer. Paul Randawa was living in Florentin.  War was the last thing on his or his friends’ minds.  The beach and the bars, and late night parties and clubs were what everything was revolving around. On the day of the mobilisation, he had spent the afternoon by the sea. Afterwards, he had called into a small bar on Yair Stern Street where a friend of his was waitressing.  He and fair-haired Ya’ara had exchanged arch and flirtatious remarks as he sat at a table drinking Corona.  Then he had walked home as the evening was coming on.  It was still light. He had collapsed on his bed in his small room. They had no air conditioning but a light breeze was coming though the window and this, combined with the effects of the sea and the beer enabled him to sleep. 

He was awoken by his phone buzzing next to the bed. He had placed it on the wooden chair that served him as a makeshift bedside table. Ya’ara had mentioned the possibility of meeting later on after she finished working. He assumed it was her.  It was not.  It was another young woman’s voice speaking in cool and matter of fact Hebrew.  A recorded message.  Telling him that he had been mobilized, and that he should make his way to a neighboring school. From there, buses would be coming to take them north. 

For a minute or so, he had lain still, staring up at the ceiling, becoming awake.  Nothing but the sound of his own breathing and the cars outside on Yair Stern Street.  Then, cursing in Arabic he had raised himself up.  His head was still swimming with the alcohol, but there was a green holdall in the corner of the room quiet and waiting and ready to go. He had packed it some days earlier as the news from the north worsened.   He took a shower in the tiny bathroom of the apartment.  There was no need for a mad rush.  As long as he was at the mobilizing point within the next few hours.  He dressed in his olive green army trousers and shirt, and black sneakers (his boots were in the holdall). The apartment was empty. One of his room mates, a combat engineer in the reserves, was already in the north.  The other two had gone to their respective families in Jerusalem and in Yeruham for the weekend.  He left the apartment, locked the door and swiftly trotted down the two flights of stairs and into the street below. The heat was still stifling.  He arrived at the border three hours later. 

All was chaos and confusion.  They had a training exercise at a base near the Golan Heights over the next two days. Then they were deployed on the border.  The following night they crossed into Lebanon. 

In the next days, they conducted patrols across the countryside.  They had little idea of the bigger picture in the war.  The war was a place of constant noise, shells or Katyusha missiles falling near and far. The sound of small arms and light machine gun fire.  But in the midst of all that, oddly, one could move across the desolate landscape close to the border, and not run into any active opposition for a while. That was how it seemed, anyway. Their main concern was to ensure they had sufficient food and water.  The villages they moved through were mostly deserted. The shops were  locked up, but on occasion they would break in to take water and juice.  The summer sun had left the landscape yellow and toasted. 

Randawa’s section had taken up a position in a house on the edge of a village east of Ait a Shaab when the firefight began.  There were seven men in the section.  Randawa knew three of them well, having served with them during his regular service. These were Yaron Cohen, the kibbutznik Eitan Ben-Artzi and the section commander, Avi Azoulay.  These men were an exercise in contrasts. Azoulay was from Beersheva, a building contractor in civilian life.  He was a big, handsome, confident man then in his late twenties with slicked back black hair.  Solid, calm Eitan was studying agricultural engineeering at the Technion. Yaron Cohen was a student of design.  He lived with his wife in Tel Aviv.  They had a new young son.  Yaron had an arch and dry sense of humor that Randawa liked. Since his demobilization, he had grown a long mane of brown hair, and to go with it, a rakish little pointed beard. 

Like many in the unit, Yaron had little enthusiasm for the war.  ‘It makes less and less sense to me,’ he had said, talking to Randawa the morning after their mobilization.  He meant that as a parent, the business no longer held any attraction for him. But there were other aspects. The static security operations of the Second Intifada had been their education as soldiers. They had not expected to find themselves operating against Hizballah. The chaos and confusion of the war on every level from the purpose of their mission to the sketchy provision of food, water and equipment had not improved the mood.

Hizballah had been closer than they thought.  As they were brewing coffee on the floor of the main room, an RPG 7 charge ripped into the lower section of the house. It was followed by rifle fire, very close by. They scrambled to take up positions in the lower and upper rooms of the house. The RPG-7 on the house closed any hopes that they might avoid the worst of the action.  The section was cut off from the rest of the platoon. Azoulay immediately radio’ed to the platoon commander that they were taking fire.  The section took positions at either side of the house to prevent the possibility of a surprise assault.  The small arms fire was coming from one direction only. But there was a possibility that this was a diversion, intended to attract their attention while an attack was mounted from the side.  So Randawa, with Yaron Cohen, deployed at the back entrance.  They waited, tense. The rifle fire continued. Then there was a crash and a rifle firing on automatic, in the house, very loud. Did it mean that the assault had begun.  ‘Stay here,’ Randawa said to Yaron., and he ran to the entrance room. The door was open. The body of a Hizballah man, wearing the camouflage uniform of the movement, was stretched out, freshly killed, by the entrance. There was a smell of cordite. 

The door was still open.  Dror Yemini, another member of the section, was standing by the corpse, shaking slightly and with eyes blazing.  ‘He just came in the door,’ he was saying. ‘So I let him have it.’  ‘Are there more of them?’ asked Randawa.  ‘He came in alone, there are others further back. The problem is that there’s a straight stretch of ground between us and the platoon.  So we’re going to have to hold on here til they can maybe get round the back of where the Hizb are.’ 

‘Paul, get back and watch the other side,’ shouted Azoulay the section commander, and Randawa quickly made his way back to Yaron, explaining to him what had happened after he had done so.  ‘Fuck,’ said Yaron, ‘so are we trapped here?’  ‘Looks like, it. for the moment.’

The two Hizballah men killed had clearly been part of an attempt to take the house. The man in the front room had been meant to be the first of the party to enter.   Or at least, that had been the plan.  The returning fire from the Israelis had evidently panicked the Hizballah men, causing them to break formation, with some holding back and the two who had died continuing to move forward til they were neutralised. 

Outside of Randawa and Yaron’s field of vision, a drama was taking place.  Azoulay the commander had noticed that the second Hizballah man to be killed, whose body was around twenty meters from the house on the open ground, had been carrying a mobile communications device.  The device was continuing to broadcast the comms of the Hizballah unit.  If the Israeli force could get hold of the device, it might solve the tactical issue, enabling them to get a sense of how many and where the enemy force was located and of its plans.  The problem was that the corpse was located in the field of fire of the Hizballah force.  Azoulay chose to risk it.  Directing Yemini to lay down automatic fire on the structure to their right, he sprinted forward, reached the corpse of the Hizballah man and managed to detach the comms device from it. Then, zig-zagging, he made it back to the house. 

The last member of the section, Qassem Nasr-al Din, was a Druze from Dalyat al-Carmel, and a fluent Arabic speaker.  Back in the house, he immediately got to work on the comms device. He was able to ascertain that the Hizballah force was not part of a general attack. Rather, it was, like themselves, a section size force which had become separated from the main part of its unit. Its attack on them was part of an attempt at a break out, and it was in  communication with Hizballah in Ait a Shaab to send a force to extricate it. 

Azoulay relayed this to the platoon command.  Then, heading for the back entrance where Randawa and Yaron were deployed, he said ‘The platoon’s located them.  They are only an isolated force. They are going to mortar them and then take the house.  This’ll be in the next few minutes. There’s an APC heading here to extract us in the meantime. It should be here soon.’

‘Good, then we can get the fuck out of here,’ said Yaron, and Azoulay laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, ‘Well done, guys,’ he said.  Azoulay’s quick thinking and the lucky coincidence of Qassem’s presence in the section had clarified the situation and enabled them to come through it so far with no losses.  The APC would be able to get them back to the main body of the platoon. 

‘I hope we can get back across the border soon, anyway,’ said Yaron as they waited.  ‘Enough of this bullshit.’  ‘Hopefully soon,’ Randawa replied. 

About five minutes later, there was a series of explosions close by. These were mortar shells hitting the structure in which the Hizballah men were located. Then a machine gun opened up and there was rapid rifle fire.  Evidently, the other two sections of the platoon were storming the building. 

Then an APC rolled up to the area by the back entrance of the house. Randawa and Cohen were the first to see it.  ‘APC arrived,’ Cohen shouted and Azoulay called back, ‘OK guys, get on board. We’re getting out of here.  The rest of us will be along in a second.’  

They exited the house and headed toward the APC. The engine was running and Yaron knocked twice on the frame of the thing before climbing up and easily lowering himself in. 

Randawa climbed after him.  He looked down into the hold of the vehicle.  Yaron had seated himself easily in the corner.  For no particular reason, Randawa decided to jump straight down onto the floor of the APC, rather than lowering himself in carefully.  As he hit the surface of the vehicle, there was a loud bang as the round he had chambered into his short barrelled M16 went off. 

Yaron Cohen’s first response was a sort of sharp, shocked exhalation.  The blood immediately began to spread on the back of his shirt. Then he began to let out a series of rapid, shocked, sob-like sounds.  Randawa heard the clang as Azoulay and Eitan the medic leapt onto the APC and then Azoulay’s furious shout ‘Paul!  Fuck!  He’s let out a bullet.’

It was so.  Randawa had failed to clear his rifle of the round he had chambered while waiting at the house.  The safety catch of the weapon had been on, which ought to have prevented any unexpected discharge of a round.  But somehow the catch had switched itself to the single shot mode, and then the impact of his landing on the floor of the APC had caused the rifle to fire.  The bullet had ricocheted off the side of the APC and had then embedded itself in Yaron Cohen’s spine.  In a way, he had been lucky.  Had he received it directly, it would  have caused catastrophic damage, leading to near certain and swift death. As it was, he was very badly injured, but there was a chance of saving him.  The initial shock had worn off, and now Yaron began to scream.  Very loudly. And continuously. 

For an insane moment, Randawa considered shooting himself in the head.  He realised in an instant that everything had utterly changed.  And he had an urge to escape what he knew would be coming, which would be the anger and furious contempt of his comrades.  He had committed a beginner’s error, more suited to a man in basic training than to the seasoned infantry soldier which he allegedly was.  Yes, so the temptation to simply turn the rifle on himself was very great. And he might have done it had Azoulay not given him a kick and shouted at him to get out of the APC.  Then it was too late.  The next phase had already begun.  Azoulay wanted him out of the APC so he could run it with Yaron to the platoon as quickly as possible, where the stricken man could receive the medical attention he needed.  His screams could be heard still as the little tracked vehicle began to make its way across the ground to the road and then to the place where the platoon commander and the medics and doctor were located. 

The news spread rapidly.  By the time the APC returned to bring them to where the rest of the platoon was located, everyone already seemed to know what had happened.  To his face, no one said anything. Everything changed, nevertheless. People who he had known for four or five years were henceforth not willing to exchange anything other than a sort of strained irony. 

They held the village and there were no further contacts with Hizballah over the next 48 hours.  Yaron was taken immediately south and across the border, then helicoptered to one of the hospitals in Israel’s north.  They heard the next day that he had been operated on and would survive. But that he would most probably be paralysed for life.  The bullet had ripped into his spinal cord.  He would probably lose use of all four of his limbs.

They were still in Lebanon and there was little time for conversation.  But the atmosphere in the platoon was sullen and angry.  The attitude towards operational errors of  this disastrous kind was not forgiving.  Randawa had generally been regarded as a trustworthy and effective soldier. What could possibly have led to such carelessness, and such catastrophic results? He, of course, thought of nothing else.  How and why had he not cleared the rifle before entering the APC, as was the drill.  In Lebanon they would remain with the magazine in, but no round chambered. But he had chambered the round, in accordance with procedure, when a Hizballah attack on the house had seemed imminent. How could he have forgotten to have cleared it? Excitement and emotion because of the events of the previous minutes. But that wasn’t an excuse. 

They were pulled back from Lebanon the next day.  The battalion had suffered two dead and a number of others wounded.  When they were demobilized a week later, Eitan the kibbutznik came to Randawa and said, ‘listen, someone has to see to Yaron’s car.  To drive it back down to Tel Aviv.  They’ve asked me to do it. But I was wondering if youd like to come with me.’  He hesitated for a moment.  ‘Look, the fact is that I was speaking with Yaron’s parents yesterday and theyve said theyd like to speak with you.  So I thought maybe you could come with me now. I cleared it with the company commander.’  Randawa shrugged and murmured his agreement. 

Yaron Cohen’s car was very obviously that of two rather sentimental young parents.  There were pictures of smiling elves and cartoon characters and animals along the doors, and there was a child’s seat at the back.  They said nothing as they saw it, but Eitan glanced at Paul. Once they were on their way, there was silence for a couple of minutes. Then Eitan said ‘God has mercy on kindergarten children.’ It was a line from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, whose poetry they both loved.  Randawa responded, ‘on schoolchildren he has less mercy, and on grownups he has no mercy at all.’ 

‘He leaves them alone,’ continued Eitan.  ‘and sometimes they must crawl on all fours in the burning sand, to reach the first aid station, covered in blood.’ 

They reached the home of Yaron Cohen’s parents in Ramat Aviv in silence.  Randawa remembered the bland sunlight on the pavement and the thunk of the car door closing as they exited the car and walked toward the entrance of the house.  Yaron’s parents were both professors at Tel Aviv University.  His father opened the door, tall and thin and grey, wearing an open necked blue shirt.  His eyes were very red.  He shook hands with them both, a little grave smile on his face.  He motioned them into a neat front room. The house was one of the old, red topped bungalows of the first settlers in Ramat Aviv. It was exactly as he would have imagined the home in which Yaron had grown up.  The old, secular, Ashkenazi Israel.  The university, the Habima theater, the center left.  A remembered past of tragedy in Europe.  Pictures of various relatives on the walls, one or two in black and white, Central European. And one of Yaron’s father in the Sinai during the war of 1973, looking tired and determined in a black and white snapshot with General Avraham ‘Bren’ Adan, in whose division he had served, and another, un-named officer. 

‘Will you drink something?’ he asked in a firm, matter-of-fact voice as they seated themselves, but Yaron’s mother had already entered carrying a tray with a full cafetier and four cups.  She was darker than the father, with remnants of black in her gray curly hair, fuller of figure and smaller.

Looking at Randawa with clear blue eyes as they sat and drank the coffee, the father said ‘I’m David, by the way.  This is my wife Alona.  Yaron is in the hospital and is still being kept sedated. It looks like it’s going to be a long road for all of us.’  The father spoke quietly and without emotion. Then Alona began, speaking directly to Randawa, ‘We heard what happened. And we heard that you are absolutely torn apart by it, as we are.  We want you to know that we don’t think it was your fault and that youre not to go destroying yourself over it.’ 

‘This can happen in combat.  No question of that,’ said the father.

‘All of you have suffered,’ continued Alona.  ‘I can’t believe the nonsense of this whole business.  The mess of it. Its a disgrace.  This filthy corruption at the top, and sending you in as they did.  That’s what makes us angry.  Thats who is responsible for this.  We wanted to look you in the eyes and tell you this. Because Eitan told us how you have been shattered by this, just as we have been.’ 

This outpouring was, Randawa realized, something for which he should be thankful.  He felt nothing, all the same.  It was as though he were separated from these people by a thick pane of glass, through which sound hardly penetrated.  He realised that he had hardly spoken in the last days. All had seemed numb.  A sort of collapse from the inside.  He had thought it invisible to the outside observer.  A disembodied consciousness, in some other place, operating a puppet that was his body and his physical self.  This was how he had felt when entering Lebanon, also.  His body expressing a mute protest, a desire not to go forward.  A sort of species-level warning that to do so was risking their mutual and conclusive destruction.. ‘Thank you,’ he said.  ‘Is there any news about what will be with Yaron?’ 

‘We have heard that the bullet went into his spinal cord, and the prospects are to our regret not good.  He was out of danger to his life once they got him to the hospital and stemmed the flow of blood. But he will need to have a lot more surgery, it seems.  At the moment, they are keeping him in a coma.  But thank God, anyway, we know that his mind wont be affected. And the main thing is that he is alive.’ 

‘And is there any indication as to the future?’ Randawa asked. 

The father replied; ‘They say that he will almost certainly have lost the use of his legs, and permanently.  But as to the rest, it’s not possible to say.  That is, he may be quadruplegic, without use of his hands also. Or he may have some use, or else its possible that he will have no use of the upper body at all.  That’s what they’ve told us. We are hoping, you know. We know that we are at the beginning of a long journey.’ 

The mother sighed.  ‘Anyway, it looks like he will be in the hospital for quite a time yet.’

‘And what’s happening with your grandson?’ asked Eitan. 

‘Roni, thats Yaron’s wife, and Tom their son are staying with her parents now.  As for what happens next, well again, we’ll see.  A long journey ahead. We know that you had two others killed in there.  So we’re also lucky, in a way.’ 

They sat there for another half hour.  Alona and David asked Randawa about himself, what he would do.  Was he studying? His hopes for the future. They mentioned that they had cousins in London, whom they often visited. 

As they were leaving, Alona said again, ‘Dont take this on yourself and let it eat you alive.  We know that can happen. What was here was an accident.  The ones to blame are the fools who sent you and our son and all your friends to there.’ 

‘And Adon (Mr). Hassan Nasrallah, also.’ said the father drily, as he and Eitan shook hands. 

‘You should go and see Yaron, also, once he’s conscious,’ Eitan remarked as they headed back to the north. 

‘If he wants to see me, of course I will.  If I was them, I’d be angrier, tho.  How can they not be?’

‘They’re trying to keep themselves sane, I guess,’ Eitan replied. 

That night, in the tent and late at night, Randawa wept, for the first and last time since the incident.  It was around two in the morning and he did not make a sound.  He was using his military anorak as a pillow and he buried his face in it and managed to avoid sobbing. Indeed, his facial expression remained blank and inscrutable. Only the tears poured from his eyes and made his cheeks wet.  He thought about the pictures for the child on the inside of Yaron Cohen’s car. 

They were demobilized a few days later. The ceasefire came and after a couple of days holding a village before the UN forces arrived, they were pulled back to the border. The divisional commander turned up and made a speech about the vital role they had played in ensuring the security of the inhabitants of the north.   Then they sang ‘Hatikvah.’   

Once the Katyusha bombardments had ceased on the border, a variety of visitors began to arrive.  Elderly religious American Jews appeared at the tent once and gave out t shirts and clean underwear.  For the most part, they knew no Hebrew and appeared mainly to be conducting a conversation among themselves.  Randawa did not attempt to speak to them in English.  ‘There are no atheists in foxholes,’ he heard one of them say to another as they handed out the t-shirts. 

The foreign media  came by.  The soldiers tried to flirt with the young female Italian and Scandinavian and German correspondents.  An Italian correspondent, a man of about 40,  handed out cigarettes and talked in a dramatic and tragic style about football and war, and his experiences of both.

The Ultra-Orthodox Habad Lubavitch sect also sent representatives. One of them tried to hold a seminar on the concept of ‘Kiddush HaShem’ (martyrdom) in Judaism.  There was some mild interest among the soldiers, and the lone Lubavitch Hassid who had come to deliver the lesson was treated with respect and politeness.  Only Eitan from Kibbutz Gonen remarked that if the young man was that keen on Jews and martyrdom he should have come into Lebanon with them, as he would have had a chance to witness quite a lot of the combination of both close up and for real in recent days.  The young Hassid blinked behind his glasses and looked at Eitan and did not answer. But some others turned round to glance at Eitan with pained expressions and then motioned to the young man to continue. 

On the last night, a famous chef came up from Tel Aviv to cook barbecued meats with pitta and salad for the whole battalion.  Afterwards, someone had set up a sound system and the music continued until late in the night. Randawa lay in his sleeping bag in the tent and in the darkness reflected that one of the great compensations or consolations of military life was often held to be the deep comradeship and brotherhood that is to be found among soldiers.  This thought, and the fact of his utter solitude struck him as amusing. He had never felt more alone. 

When he arrived home, Tel Aviv seemed indifferent. In the pubs and bars he frequented it was not the done thing to make too much of one’s military service, though overt hostility to the army or the state was also not praised.  He changed out of his dusty uniform and left his holdall again on his bedroom floor and he walked down to the sea.  At the beach just by the entrance to Jaffa he floated in the warm Mediterranean water, staring at the emptiness of the blue sky.  Then he returned to the apartment. It was a Thursday and only one of his room- mates was there. This was Tsahi, who was a student of cinema.  ‘Jesus, man, you look shellshocked,’ Tsahi said. ‘and thin too. Didnt they feed you in the army?’ 

Randawa didnt answer.  And Tsahi didnt labor the point. Instead, he rolled a fat joint, lighting it and passing it to him as they sat in the small kitchen.  That was how the Second Lebanon War ended for Paul Randawa. 

Months passed before he saw Yaron Cohen again.  Randawa arranged a transfer to another company for future reserve service.   He did not stay in contact with David and Alona Cohen, regarding it as beyond his strength.  But six months after the war, he wrote to Yaron on Facebook, and asked how he was doing, adding that if Yaron preferred not to be in contact, he would understand.  Yaron replied immediately that he would be happy to meet. 

They met in a cafe in the mall at Ramat Aviv.  He remembered the moment that Yaron came in, his sister pushing the wheelchair.  Yaron’s head was supported by a plastic structure attached to the arm of the wheelchair.  His head seemed slightly tilted back at an un-natural angle.  His hands were resting on the arms of the wheelchair.  Randawa saw that on the left arm, there was a raised semi-sphere on which his hand rested, which he assumed was a means to steer the wheelchair.  Yaron had evidently divined his thoughts,

‘Hello, brother.  Yes, I have some movement in my arms, tho its not total.  But I can operate the chair over shorter distances.  Its also a little better than it was when I first left the hospital.’ 

Yaron did not, however, appear able to lift the orange juice which he ordered to his lips.  His sister Na’ama performed this, while speaking little.  Still, the fact that he was able to eat and drink in the normal way in terms of swallowing was also something.  Randawa remembered a young man he had known wounded in Jerusalem in the years of the Second Intifada who lost also this ability and who took his own life a few years after the incident.    Yaron, by contrast, appeared stable, and serene.  ‘I’m managing to finish my degree.  The university have been ok about it.  And we had some issues with the Ministry of Defense about my disability payments but it all has worked out. Touch wood.’

‘And what about the family?’

‘Its tough but we’re managing.  Mine and Roni’s parents help a lot, so its fucked up, but it is what it is, you know.’  And he managed to smile.  ‘And what about you?  how have you been? What are you doing with yourself?’ 

‘Just keeping on like before, bro.  Pictures, trying to get some stuff done. nothing too dramatic.’ 

‘I know you went to see my parents after the ceasefire.  I appreciate it, Paul.  This has been hard for them too.’ 

There was a silence.  Then Randawa tried to speak again. ‘Listen, Cohen, I’m..I dont really know what to say.  I’m more sorry than I can begin to express.  I dont..’

Yaron made a murmur to indicate that he should not continue.  ‘We arent going to kill ourselves with regrets, are we?  I dont have any time nor desire to be angry with you or with anyone else.  Tom needs his dad.  And you  need to get on ahead too. And we’re the lucky ones, in a way.  Harel and Alon had families too. But they’ve nothing to carry on with. Right?’  

Randawa bowed his head.  After a while, Na’ama said ‘We’re all helping. And we all live quite nearby. So,I can’t even imagine what it must have been like, after you were stuck in that house. Its impossible even to imagine.’ Randawa thought he detected a momentary venom in her eyes, that incongruously accompanied these words.  A little communication just between him and her, and not for her brother to see. 

‘It wasnt so bad,’ said Yaron.  ‘Actually we’ve been in worse shit than that.  But the idiocy of it still offends my intelligence.  Maybe you can explain what exactly we were trying to achieve with those pointless raids across the border? Conquering an area and then leaving it and then going back in the next day?’ 

‘Its a mystery to me, brother,’ said Randawa.  ‘I think about it a lot and I can’t make any sense of it at all.’   They talked more about the war, various mutual friends, Yaron’s problems with the Defense Ministry which had now been largely sorted out.  ‘You know you can get free psychological counselling, bro?’ Yaron said to him.  ‘You should use it.  I mean it. I went to it. It can help. and it doesnt cost anything.’ 

‘Maybe I’ll look into it,’ said Randawa, who had a peasant suspicion and dislike of all such things. 

They parted shortly afterwards. He remembered seeing them exiting the cafe, the other patrons making room for them to leave. Yaron’s long brown hair.  The gentleness of the man. He hadn’t much stayed in touch after that. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Iranian Hand Behind Hadi Matar’s Knife

Jerusalem Post, 20/8

Iranian regime and pro-Iranian media outlets reacted with enthusiasm to the attempted murder of British-Indian author Salman Rushdie last week.  Officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained a studious silence. But the main mouthpieces of both the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the various Shia militia franchises which the IRGC maintains throughout the Arabic speaking world have been open in their support for the would be assassin, 24 year old Hadi Matar, and for the attempt on Rushdie’s life.

The emerging facts regarding the process by which Hadi Matar was radicalised, meanwhile, showcase the extent to which the Shia Islamist archipelago which surrounds Iran resembles in significant ways the Sunni Islamist world.   It is customary among analysts of political Islam to draw a sharp distinction between the centralized, organized and hierarchical world of the IRGC and its various franchises, and the more chaotic and self-starting landscape of Sunni radicalism.  Matar’s case shows that this distinction is not entirely tenable.  

The central difference between the two is the presence of a state, with the full capacities deriving from that, in the Shia case. But many of the features which characterise those young western-born Sunnis who were drawn to support and action on behalf of ISIS or other similar groups over the last decade appear to be present also in the case of Rushdie’s would be assassin. 

Regarding the support for Matar’s act in pro-Iran outlets, the Telegram channel of al-Sabereen, a media organization associated with Iraq’s Shia militias, wrote that ‘It is noteworthy that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sayyid Khomeini,  issued a fatwa on the spilling of Rushdie’s blood because of his famous novel “The Satanic Verses” and his insult to the verses of God,’ before going on to refer to Hadi Matar as ‘the implementer of the fatwa of Sayyid Khomeini.’  Al-Sabereen responded to the announcement of the identity of the would be murderer and the emergent evidence of his pro-Iranian affiliations with a Shia blessing expressing thanks to God.  Elsewhere, the channel headlined its coverage of the attempted murder under the title ‘The Revenge of God.’ 

In Farsi-language outlets directly associated with the IRGC and the Iranian regime, the Kayhan newspaper wrote in its Sunday editorial that ‘God has taken his revenge on Rushdie.’  The Tasnim website, which reflects IRGC positions, meanwhile, described Rushdie as ‘the apostate author of the book Satanic Verses, who had insulted Islam’s sacred realm, the Quran and the beloved Prophet of Islam.’   Tasnim on August 14th in its Farsi section carried an interview with one Saadullah Zarei, who it described as an ‘senior expert and political analyst.’ In the interview, Zarei asserted that ‘Naturally, as a Muslim person or as a Muslim country, we welcome and rejoice in the destruction of Salman Rushdie, in whatever form it takes…this person should be annihilated due to the serious and very major crime he committed.’ 

These sentiments reflect the uncontroversial and accepted opinion in the pro-Iran, Shia Islamist milieu, according to which the February 1989 fatwa of Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini advocating Rushdie’s killing remains in effect, and hence its attempted implementation is to be welcomed. 

Hadi Matar’s path toward becoming the would be ‘implementer’ of Khomeini’s fatwa is less immediately clear.  Born in the US to parents who emigrated from the Shia, south Lebanese town of Yaroun, Matar was raised in California and New Jersey.  His Facebook account, as published in US media (and republished with added celebration by al-Sabereen), shows support for the IRGC and the Iranian regime. When arrested, Matar was carrying a fake driving license in the name of ‘Hassan Mughniyeh.’  While constituting a regular Arabic name, this is also an amalgam of the names of two of the heroes in the pantheon of the IRGC and its Arab franchises – Lebanese Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and Imad Mughniyeh, military mastermind of the same organization. 

Matar, according to an interview with his mother, Silvana Fardos, by the British Daily Mail newspaper, became radicalized following a visit to south Lebanon in 2018.   His father, Hassan Matar, is resident in the town of Yaroun, and Hadi Matar stayed in the area for 28 days.  Yaroun is in an area controlled by Hizballah.  On his return, Matar remained focused on his new interest in Islam, according to the interview.  

At some point between this visit and the attack on Rushdie, it is likely that Matar was in contact via social media with elements ‘ either directly involved with or adjacent to’  the IRGC and the Qods Force, its external wing, according to un-named ‘Mid Eastern intelligence officials’ quoted in a report at Vice News. 

The veracity of such claims remains to be established.  And it should be noted in this regard that the un-named officials cited by Vice do not assert clearly that the attack was initiated and directed by Iran and the IRGC.  Rather, they suggest a range of possibilities.  These would include that Matar was indeed controlled and directed by IRGC/QF officials, or that he was in contact with such figures who might have   helped in his radicalization , and across to the possibility that Matar was simply inspired by the messages emanating from the Iranian regime’s extensive online activity, and then decided independently to act upon them.   

But even if one takes the most minimalist interpretation of the currently available evidence, according to which Matar was ‘self-radicalized’ online following his visit to Lebanon, the picture that emerges is a striking one, at once familiar and new. 

Familiar – because the trajectory by which a western born or raised young man or woman comes across political Islam through online activity or chance acquaintance, and is then drawn into deeper engagement with it, and finally becomes a soldier in its cause is one by now well known in the west.  Figures of this kind have been behind many of the most notorious acts of Islamist terror in recent years.  The Hyper Cacher attack in 2015, the torture and execution of western journalists and aid workers by ISIS in the 2014-19 period, and the 2013 bombings at the Boston marathon were all carried out by individuals of this type.  They are part of a much longer list. 

But striking, because unlike in the aforementioned cases, in the case of Hadi Matar’s attempt on the life of Salman Rushdie, the outlets and messages and indoctrinators were all operating in the service of a state.  Not an improvised arrangement like the short-lived  ‘Islamic State,’ but a recognized, legal entity with a seat at the United Nations General Assembly. 

This ability to navigate between the realms of conventional statehood and paramilitary and terrorist organization is the largest force multiplier possessed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Across the Arabic speaking world, it is this capacity above all others which has brought Teheran to its achievements of the last decade.  As should now be apparent, this combination extends to activity on the soil of western states too.  This, with all its implications, needs now to be internalized by western governments.  The knife that struck Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York may have been Hadi Matar’s – but the operating hand behind it was that of Iran. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Erdogan’s Secret Prisons in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 15/4

Nadia Hassan Suleiman remembers well the day she was arrested.  It was in Afrin City, north west Syria, in June 2018.  Her husband, Ahmed Rashid, had disappeared two months earlier.  She had received a voice message from him.  The men who pulled up in a car beside her said they were detailed to bring  her to visit her husband.  Instead, Nadia was taken into custody. A two year nightmare had begun. 

With no charges placed against her, and no legal process, Nadia Suleiman was imprisoned in a series of unofficial jails across north west Syria.  For four months she was held in a facility she believes is maintained by Turkish Military Intelligence, and interrogated by Turkish speaking officers. Then, as part of a group of 11 other women, similarly held without charge, she was transferred to a jail of the Sunni Islamist, Turkish supported Hamzat Division.  In the frequent interrogation sessions to which she was subjected, Nadia was accused of association with the Assad regime and the Kurdish PKK. 

Throughout her period of captivity, Nadia Hassan Suleiman was repeatedly tortured, and on several occasions raped.  As she describes it in her recorded testimony, ‘Each of the female detainees underwent various forms of torture and rape. The torture was daily, individually or collectively, and we were repeatedly raped. They gave us narcotic pills, and sometimes they poured cold water on all of us in the harsh winter cold. Even young children were not exempt from the torture.’

Released after two years, Nadia succeeded with the help of smugglers in escaping from the Turkish controlled area of Syria.  She has never heard from her husband again and now believes him to be dead. 

Nadia Hassan Suleiman’s story is only one of many.  Evidence is emerging of systematic and grave violations of human rights carried out by Turkish-supported Islamist militias in north west Syria.  Testimony of survivors reveals a pattern of illegal incarcerations with no judicial process or oversight, grave abuses of detainees, including sexual abuse, rape, torture and instances of murder. 

A dossier received by this author and currently also in the hands of the US State Department contains extensive testimony and detailed evidence.  The dossier was compiled by Syrian activists unaffiliated with any political body.  Independent Syrian experts who have examined the evidence find it to be credible.    According to two  human rights bodies, the Violations Documentation Center and the Zaytouna Project, 8590 people have been held in this system of off the grid prisons since 2018.  Of these, 1500 have disappeared entirely, leaving no record. 

To understand what’s going on, a little background is necessary.  In January 2018, in the ironically named Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish armed forces destroyed the Kurdish controlled Afrin canton, in north west Syria.  In close cooperation with Sunni Islamist militias allied with Ankara, Turkey took control of the area. Around 300,000 residents, mainly Kurdish and Yezidi, fled to other parts of Syria. 

Since then, the self styled ‘Syrian Interim Government,’  which is based in Turkey and supported by Ankara, has been the ostensible governing authority in this area.  Day to day control is in the hands of the Islamist militias who make up the so-called ‘Syrian National Army’.  The real power supporting and training these militias and maintaining ultimate control in the area is Turkey. The unofficial prison system in which Nadia Suleiman was incarcerated is the product of this arrangement.  

The names and locations of the places of incarceration making up this network of un-declared houses of confinement are known, and can be verified. The network extends from Idlib and Afrin in the west, through Azaz, Marea and al-Rai, to Jarabulus and al-Bab in the east. 

Among the facilities forming part of this archipelago: the prison of the security office of the SNA’s Hamzah Division, in Afrin City, the Mazraa Prison, in Afrin’s Maarata District, in the hands of the Hamza Division’s Al-Ghab Brigade, the prison camp at Kafr Jannah, controlled by the Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front), the prison of the Levant Front’s security office, at the Souq al-Hal area in Afrin city, al-Barad prison, under the control of the ‘Tanzim al-Ustaz’ (more on this organization below), al-Masara Prison in the al-Ra’I area, controlled by the Turkmen Sultan Murad Division (from which no detainee has ever been released), and the prison of the security office of al-Mutasim Division in the Marea area. 

In these places, Syrian citizens like Nadia Suleiman are incarcerated for long periods without any legal oversight.  Conditions as described to the author by former detainees are primitive in the extreme.  Prisoners are kept in filth encrusted cells, with no access to natural light.  Torture using electric shocks, systematic starvation and beatings are meted out to all. Sexual abuse of both male and female detainees are routine.  Photographic evidence of these conditions, taken at great risk by detainees, has been seen by the author. 

So who is responsible for this system?  What is the overall structure of command? According to the testimony of ‘Yusuf’, a recent defector from the militias, a central coordinating body for the various security structures which maintain these facilities does exist.  It is known as the ‘Tanzim al-Ustaz,’ (Organization of the teacher/professor), or more formally as the ‘Mukhabarat al-Sari’ (Secret Intelligence).  This structure is responsible for the overall coordination, supervision and management of the network of secret prisons described above.  It is the supreme authority for the various security and intelligence teams maintained by the factions.

The individual who stands at the pinnacle of this structure, the ‘professor’ of the title, is  one Kamal Ghazwan Kamal, also known as Abu al-Hassan, an Iraqi by birth, with a Turkish wife.  A former senior security official of ISIS in Mosul, Kamal was arrested by the Turkish authorities in 2017. He then assisted in the apprehending and arrest of ISIS members and formed relationships with senior figures in the Turkish-linked Syrian opposition. As a result of this collaboration, he emerged as a trusted figure with apparently relevant skills. 

No official investigation into any of these allegations is currently under way. The Islamist militias in control on the ground in this area make the normal conduct of journalistic or other inquiry impossible.  But north west Syria is not an abandoned territory.  Rather, it is under the de facto control of Turkey, a NATO member state in good standing.  There is a solid body of evidence to suggest that terrible crimes, like the ones inflicted on Nadia Hassan Suleiman,  are being committed on a systematic and ongoing basis in Turkish controlled north west Syria.  Pressure needs to be applied, and soon, to enable the investigation of these multiple allegations. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Understanding the Latest Wave of Terror in Israel

The Australian, 16/4

Four terror attacks in the space of just over two weeks, with a total of 13 deaths  have brought the fraught atmosphere of the Second Intifada days back to the streets of Israel’s cities.  The tension is palpable.  There is an increased presence of armed police and Border Guards in the main thoroughfares of the cities.  One notices also, in Jerusalem at least, a significantly higher number of armed civilians. 

Israel does not have a 2nd Amendment style ‘right to bear arms.’  The cultural assumption here is that the possession of arms is properly limited to those engaged in tasks related to national defence.  The number of people seeking to belong to this group, however, has skyrocketed since the outbreak of the latest round of violence.  It is a reflection of the public mood. At the end of March, the Public Security Ministry, which handles applications for private firearms licences, received 1500 applications in a single day.  The average number of daily applications prior to the current round of violence was 60. 

Déjà vu?

No one thinks that the fourth attack, in Tel Aviv, will be the last.  The waiting, the familiar maintenance of routine and normality in the face of the situation, the management of daily life in a changed public space, all are familiar.  Israeli society has its own practices and responses, honed during the years 2000-4, when urban areas were the target of a sustained, though eventually defeated terror campaign. 

The authorities tend to remove all physical signs of an attack very quickly.  There is usually a short period in which the streets and public spaces close to where the incident took place are deserted, or at least fewer people venture there.  Then, within a day or two, routine and normality reassert themselves.  The Israeli public has a practiced resilience, born of long experience. 

So it is all wearily familiar.  And yet this familiarity is partially deceptive.  In a number of significant ways, the current wave differs sharply from the experience of the past.  The Second Intifada of 2000-4  was an armed insurgency, prosecuted by recognized political/military organizations. 

There are no indications now that anything of this size or type is brewing.  Something clearly very different is happening.  So what do we know?

DIY Terror

The four attacks that have taken place so far differed in the origins of the perpetrators.  The first two, in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba and the northern town of Hadera, were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel.  In both cases, the perpetrators were known supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS) group and its ideology.  Interestingly, ISIS itself claimed responsibility for the Hadera attack, but not for the one in Beersheba.  It appears likely that Ibrahim and Ayman Ighbariah, who carried out the Hadera attack, were in contact with ISIS, while Mohammed Abu al-Qiyan, the Beersheba terrorist, was not. 

The next two attacks, in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, were carried out by individuals from the northern part of the West Bank.  The Jenin area, from which both terrorists hailed, is a known hotbed of activity of the Islamic Jihad organization.  Islamic Jihad is a small Islamist group, strongly supported by and directed by Iran. The Israeli security forces carried out a raid into Jenin following the Tel Aviv attack, and made a number of arrests.   

But there are no indications that the perpetrators of any of these attacks were operating at the direct orders of either ISIS or Islamic Jihad.  The Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv attackers emerged from a milieu in the northern West Bank in which individuals loosely associated with one or another organization, or with none, cooperate on the basis of joint support for violent action. The Palestinian Authority has little presence or purchase here.  But the organizations opposed to it, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are not controlling events either. 

So in contrast to the situation twenty years ago, the current terror wave is not an organized insurgency.  It appears rather to be the work of self-directed, and self-motivated individuals.  These men may act entirely alone, as in the case of the Beersheba attack.  Or they may benefit from ad hoc logistical assistance from personal friends or associates, as in the other incidents. 

This improvised, diffuse element of course reduces the potential political impact of the attacks.  Insurgencies have clear goals, demands, objectives.  The current wave reflects a reality of confusion, disarray and widespread Palestinian disillusionment toward official political structures.    

No political goal can be achieved via such means.  Israel will not make territorial withdrawals, or be significantly weakened by such individual acts of terror. 

But on the other hand, the loose and unorganized nature of the attacks presents a particular challenge to the Israeli security forces.  How do you gather intelligence and predict and then prevent the actions of individuals not connected to any organizational structure? This task is made still harder by the fact that individuals planning action of this kind are likely to maintain a very low online profile. They will be aware that monitoring of online activity played an important role in Israel’s successful countering of the wave of stabbing attacks that took place in late 2015 and early 2016.

The weapons for the attacks, meanwhile, are taken from the abundance of unregistered firearms which exist both in Arab Israeli communities, and in the West Bank. The illegal maintenance of arms was long a neglected issue.  In May of last year, this issue came to public awareness when such weapons were used in widespread inter-communal violence within Israel.  But the problem of illegally held weaponry remains acute and unresolved.

The Religious Context

There is a vital larger context to understand.  We are now in the month of Ramadan.  Over the last few years, this period of Islamic religious devotion has seen a sharp rise in tensions and acts of aggression.   While much of the Islamic world approaches this month as a time for reflection, fasting and prayer, it should also be noted that Ramadan is remembered and marked as a period in which a number of famous Islamic military victories took place.  These include the conquest of Mecca by Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, the battle of Badr, in which the prophet and his companions faced and defeated non-Muslims in battle for the first time, and the conquest by Islamic armies of ‘al-Andalus,’ ie southern Spain. 

This aspect of the Ramadan month, and the contrast between past Islamic triumphs and present perceived humiliations, create a potent atmosphere for incitement.  And since Ramadan involves a heightened focus on religious messages, those wishing to incite, via social media or in live lectures at houses of prayer find a ready audience. 

So the campaign now targeting Israelis is of a new type. It is a very 21st century combination of incitement and messaging via social media, fluid, improvised, non-hierarchical modes of organization, and weaponry obtained through unofficial networks and contacts.  All taking place in the context of a grinding, ongoing conflict which remains nowhere close to resolution. 

The challenge now facing the Israeli security forces will be to develop equally deft and light-footed responses to these methods. The goal will be to isolate and neutralise the perpetrators and those who incite them, while avoiding harm to the large populations on both sides seeking to maintain and preserve normal life west of the Jordan River.   The hope is that after the Ramadan month, the mood will change and the attacks subside.  There is still two weeks to go.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment