Tuesday, June 9, 2015

ISIS In Gaza, Hezbollah Gains Key Victory On Border, Top U.S. Official Says Iran Has Met Interim Obligations

Worse Than Hamas? ISIS in Gaza - Israel Today | Israel News

Earlier this month Hamas “police” stormed the Gaza home of Yunis Hunnar, believed to be a member of a Salafi group linked to ISIS. A Hamas spokesman later said Hunnar had carried out attacks against the ruling group in May. Nor was it the first time Hamas’ rule had been challenged by Islamists more radical than itself.

In 2006 – in tight cooperation with Hamas’ military wing – a Salafi cell called “Soldiers of Allah” kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. A year later, they repeated the move by abducting BBC correspondent Alan Johnston. In 2009, it was reported that a group of Salafists had managed to establish a caliphate in southern Gaza, sparking a bloody confrontation with Hamas that left 39 members of the Salafi group dead.
With the rise of ISIS and the establishment of a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq, the voice of Gaza-based Salafi groups has become more prominent. In January of this year, following the bloody attacks in Paris, members of various Salafi groups took to the streets of Gaza to protest against Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the prophet Muhammed. Some of them went as far as to plant bombs near the French cultural center. Although no injuries were reported, Hamas got the hint and arrested hundreds of suspected radicals.

On the surface, most of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents claim to support Hamas. But they are constantly exposed to the views of Salafi groups that embrace a more radical version of Islam, and offer an alternative to the corruption of Hamas. 
A Gaza-based political analyst and professor at Al-Azhar University, whose name cannot be revealed for security reasons, told Israel Today that these groups have growing appeal among downtrodden Gazans.
“Rampant unemployment and extreme poverty - most Gazans live on $1.5 a day - have radicalized our society. The Salafi groups have learned to play on the religious feelings of the masses, saying that Allah is punishing the population for its sins and the only way to end the Israeli occupation [sic] is through purification and Jihad in the name of Allah,” he explained to us over the phone.

While many fall into this trap, the expert believes Hamas’ grip in Gaza remains strong. “Hamas’ position in the Strip is still unshakeable. We are talking about some 35,000 trained fighters. Still, it would only take one suicide bomber to turn Gaza into a bloodbath,” he warned.

Perhaps wary of confronting Hamas directly, some Salafi groups have taken to lobbing rockets at Israel, hoping to trigger harsh enough a reaction by the IDF to dislodge Hamas.
Still licking its wounds from last year’s costly Gaza war, Hamas vowed to punish the perpetrators, rather than praise the latest attacks on Israel.
Surprising as it sounds, the rising threat of ISIS and its affiliates might be bringing Hamas and Israel closer together. 
“Indirect cooperation is definitely possible,” said our Gaza source. “While Hamas and Israel can defend themselves, they also understand the threat of groups like ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and Al Qaeda. For now, Israel views Hamas as its enemy, but if ISIS decides to strike, Israel might want to change its stance, opting for cooperation with the rulers of Gaza.”

Hezbollah has claimed victory in a battle with its rival Jabhat Al-Nusra, over the significant Qalamoun area on the Lebanese-Syrian border. If true, the fighting would represent a change to the otherwise consistent losing streak that allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have sustained in recent months. 
“A strong defeat was dealt to the armed militants and they left the areas of the battlefield," Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised address to supporters in Beirut. But the attack on Al-Nusra, the Al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, is also an attempt to win the media battle.
Following months of sporadic skirmishes triggered by Al-Nusra in Lebanon’s border regions, Hezbollah launched its own counter-offensive. The aim was to clear the mountainous area that separates Lebanon and Syria of rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime in the country’s long running civil war. 
As well as a military operation, the move is representative of a broader attempt by Hezbollah to reassure the Lebanese population that the Shi’ite group still has the initiative. 
Paramount for Hezbollah is the reversal of the image that has been portrayed recently in the media that the group and its allies are losing the war in Syria. A number of strategic setbacks to the Syrian regime has sparked speculation that rebels may soon defeat what is left of Assad’s forces. This would represent a huge blow to Hezbollah's image and to its logistical supply lines from Iran.

In mid-March, Hezbollah launched the Qalamoun operation to secure the Lebanese border from encroaching Sunni rebel fighters. The group has always maintained that its intervention in Syria was in order to protect Lebanon, its Shi’ite communities and sites within Syria. Lebanon has at times experienced spillover violence from the neighboring civil war, including a series of explosions in civilian areas in 2013 and 2014 and sectarian clashes in Tripoli throughout 2014. Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance was jeopardized by the Shi’ite Hezbollah's battles against predominantly Sunni organizations in neighboring Syria.
Nasrallah has claimed that groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Nusra Front represent an existential threat to Shi’ites living in Syria, and by extension to those living in Lebanon. 
Just weeks after the start of the operation, Nasrallah announced in a televised address that the first phase of the assault was complete and that Al-Nusra had been pushed away from the border. The second phase of the operation, against ISIS fighters in the region, could now begin, he said. It remains unclear how much of Nasrallah’s comments are merely propaganda and how much represent actual facts on the ground.
ISIS’s skill stands in stark contrast to the less social media-savvy Hezbollah, which is now seeking to use similar methods in an attempt to dispel the rebels’ image. A quick, decisive and concrete gain, made in front of the media’s lenses, is one way to do this.

Since the beginning of Hezbollah's intervention in Syria, it has pushed the narrative that it is protecting Shi’ite communities and locations in Syria. This message had a lot of traction with Lebanon’s large Shi’ite population, but has not played strongly with other major sects among Lebanon’s religiously diverse population. 

Smyth points out that Nasrallah needs a better message, in particular for Lebanon’s Christian and Druze populations. The group asserts that it is the ‘true defender of Lebanon and the only ones capable of keeping the country safe.’ But for this message to be effective, Hezbollah needs to keep wining in Syria and to do so in a way that can be related to by the Lebanese people. For this, operations like Qalamoun are key. 

The recent offensive, although smaller in scale than many of Hezbollah's other Syrian campaigns, had far reaching implications for the group - both domestically and internationally. It arguably was seen protecting Lebanon, completing a job that the Lebanese army had been unable to achieve due to a lack of manpower, arms and restrictive rules of engagement.
This may have garnered some support domestically for Hezbollah but is unlikely to change the long-term belief by many in Lebanon who see the intervention in Syria as an extension of Iran’s foreign policy. 

Israel last week wrapped up nation-wide preparations for a future multi-front war that on the surface appeared to focus on how to protect the local population from the increasing capabilities of Israel’s foes.
But senior military officials said offensive exercises were also held in order to hash out the complex situation wherein Israel’s most dangerous enemies make widespread use of human shields.
This is particularly true in Gaza and southern Lebanon, where Hamas and Hezbollah, respectively, dig tunnels and bunkers under civilian population centers, and even store missiles in family homes.
Recent reports suggested that Israel’s retaliatory actions in the event of a future war with Hezbollah would result in thousands of civilian casualties. But military officials who spoke to The Jerusalem Postsaid Israel would do everything possible to avoid such a scenario, including the mass evacuation of southern Lebanon’s civilian population.
“If we have no choice, we have to evacuate 1 million, 1.5 million residents in Lebanon, and act,” one official told the newspaper. Doing so would free up the IDF to hit thousands of Hezbollah targets and cripple the military capabilities of the Lebanese terrorist militia.
Many in Israel don’t expect Hezbollah to start trouble any time soon given its entanglement in the ongoing Syrian civil war. But IDF officials note that Hezbollah is suffering some serious blows in Syria, and is in something of a panic mode. If that is true, the Hezbollah leadership, which cares little for the collateral damage its actions bring upon Lebanon, might very well provoke a war with Israel in order to again bolster its own image in the Muslim world.

 Iran has upheld all of its obligations under an interim nuclear agreement with a group of six world powers, a senior US State Department official asserted Monday.

Speaking to the administration’s resolve to reach an effective long-term agreement with Iran, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told the audience at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Global Forum that Israel’s security had already been improved under the provisions of the temporary agreement that went into effect in January 2014, known as the Joint Plan of Action.

Acknowledging that Israel and the United States have disagreed as to the steps necessary to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, Blinken said that “we may have our differences, but our bedrock security relationship is sacrosanct and it is stronger than ever. It is at the center of our minds when we sit at the negotiating table with Iran.”

UN report has found that some countries were suspected of failing to report Iran violations of Security Council-imposed sanctions against its nuclear program, even when some had clearly taken place.

According to a Bloomberg report Tuesday, a panel of experts for the UN committee on Iran sanctions filed a report on June 1 saying: “The current situation with reporting could reflect a general reduction of procurement activities by the Iranian side or a political decision by some member states to refrain from reporting to avoid a possible negative impact on ongoing [nuclear] negotiations.”

Iran and the P5+1 powers were negotiating a comprehensive agreement to curb Iran’s contested nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief ahead of a self-imposed June 30 deadline.

The emerging deal has many opponents, including Israel which has argued that the agreement didn’t go far enough to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program and bring it under sufficient international supervision. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the deal paves the way for a nuclear-armed Iran and threatens Israel’s very existence.

The UN report was made public on Tuesday and while it said that Iran had “implemented its commitments” under an interim deal struck in late 2013, it asked whether the US, European countries and others had looked the other way while violations occurred.

One unnamed country said Iran tried to illegally import a nuclear compressor, according to the report.
Two other unnamed countries told the panel that Iran was making financial transactions related to its nuclear program through banks outside Iran that aren’t under sanctions, one of which came under the controlling shares of Iranian businessmen in 2011, according to the report.

The report also cited the violation of a UN-mandated travel ban on General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who visited Iraq, Syria and Lebanon recently “reportedly organizing and training militia and regular forces in those countries,” — a visit ignored by world countries despite “a number of media reports with photographs and videos.”

In late April, Reuters reported that the UK had informed the panel of an “active Iranian nuclear procurement network linked to two blacklisted firms.”

"The UK government informed the Panel on 20 April 2015 that it ‘is aware of an active Iranian nuclear procurement network which has been associated with Iran’s Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA) and Kalay Electric Company (KEC),” according to the panel of experts which filed a report at the time.

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