Which future for Gaza?

One month after the Turkish-Israeli agreement and the arrival of the first Turkish aid in Gaza, the issue of what future lies ahead for the Strip under a blockade regime that Israel is not intentioned to lift remains open and debated

 

After the agreement between Tel Aviv and Istanbul with which the two countries retrieved their bilateral relations, in early July a cargo ship delivering Turkish aid reached Gaza. Indeed, when the deal was reached, among the Turkish requests there was the end of the blockade imposed by the Israeli government on the Strip. However, among the Israeli positions there was the refusal of any significant change to the blockade regime. Therefore, a compromise was necessary and this was found in the consent given by Israel to Turkey to send aid towards Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod, where any cargo directed to the Strip needs to be inspected by Israel before it can reach its final destination.

Due to this agreement, thus, on the 3rd July the vessel Lady Layla reached Ashdod and from there Gaza City, where it transferred 11 tonnes of aid, among which food, clothes, toys, products for personal hygiene and other goods of first necessity. Once in Gaza, the aid was put in the hands of the Ministry of Social Affairs, in charge of distributing 75% of all aid to the 75,000 poorest families who depend on subsidies (the remaining 25% is administered by the Palestinian Red Crescent).

 

In the words of Etimad al-Tarshawi (Secretary General of Planning and Development in the above-mentioned Ministry), this aid –even if only a small part of what Gaza needs- is extremely important for the families that receive it, since it helps to cope with an economic situation which is desperate to say the least.

Since June 2007, indeed, when Hamas won administrative control over Gaza, Israel has imposed severe restrictions to the movement of people and goods from and to the Strip. The Israeli policy –justified by the government as a measure which is necessary to prevent weapons from being delivered to Hamas and to prevent extremists from entering the Israeli territory and endangering the country’s security- did not succeed in weakening the group, that continues in fact to administer the Strip and to enjoy a broad popular support thanks to the services it provides to the population. On the contrary, the Israeli policy had the only effect of obstructing any possibility of economic development for the Strip, thus paving the way to the emergence of a thriving black market that benefits those who manage the smuggling networks and condemns instead to poverty the civilian population. Following the Israeli policy, in fact, the almost 2 million civilians who live in Gaza are confined within the borders of the Strip, prevented from moving to other places in search of job, and left without means of subsistence and without hopes of a future improvement.

Moreover, because of the blockade that prevents construction materials from reaching Gaza, houses, schools, and hospitals that had been destroyed in 2014 during the last conflict have not been rebuilt yet.

 

According to the UN, if this situation does not change in the short run, Gaza will become “uninhabitable” by 2020. Similar warnings have also come from the World Bank which has defined Gaza’s economy as being “on the verge of collapse”.

 

 

In light of this grim economic situation, it is clear how the aid coming from Turkey is vital to Gaza and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the agreement between Turkey and Israel (and in particular the section related to Gaza) has given rise to discordant reactions on part of the Palestinians.

On one side, there are those who have stressed the positive impact that Turkish aid can have on the conditions of Gazans and have underlined the necessity and the hope that Turkey continues its policy of concrete support made possible by the recent agreement. In this group, there is also Hamas that presented the agreement as a turning-point that can make Turkey more active in pressing Israel to lift the blockade.

On the other side, instead, there are those who criticize the terms of the agreement because they regard it as being not only insufficient but even counter-productive as far as the lifting of the blockade is concerned. What many civilians and analysts settled in Gaza maintain, in fact, is that the agreement fails to reckon the difference between embargo and blockade and that its efficiency is limited exclusively to the former. As far as the latter is concerned, in fact, the agreement merely allows the transfer of aid to the Strip but does not guarantee the opening of Gaza to international economy, risking in this way to crystallizing the blockade rather than paving the way to its lifting.

 

This stance highlights an important element: despite the undeniable importance of humanitarian aid for an area of the Levant where the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world, what Gaza really needs are development projects capable of revitalizing its economy. It is necessary a long-term and broader approach, capable –through initiatives and in loco development projects- of giving to Gaza a real economic structure and to the population residing there possibilities of work and self-sufficiency.

Without this kind of approach, Gaza will continue to be dependent on aid and its population will continue to be excluded from development, with the consequent risk that the territory might become a hotbed for extremism. Without alternatives and in a socio-economic context made of alienation, poor education, unemployment, and lack of direct contacts with the outer world -in fact- radical religious and political groups and organizations voted to violence and terrorism might easily exploit the despair of young Gazans to win support and attract recruits.

 

A situation of this kind would serve no one’s interests: it would not benefit Gaza, its population, Hamas, nor would it benefit Israel and Egypt – the countries responsible for the maintenance of the blockade.

With the Strip radicalized and exposed to the risk of proliferation of terrorism, Israel would find itself having at its borders a serious threat to its security – much more serious than the one that, according to the government’s rhetoric, there would be if Gaza was enabled to have its own economy and to maintain economic, trade and financial relations with the outside world.

A similar discourse applies to the Egyptian case: if a Gaza forcibly kept isolated and underdeveloped became an operative ground for extremist and terrorist groups, the Sinai would see itself exposed to a direct threat to its security and stability, and from the Sinai (that already is for Egypt the most volatile region and the most difficult to be controlled from Cairo) the threat would rapidly extend to the rest of Egypt.

 

However, within the Israeli establishment this reality is reckoned only by few, among whom Maj. Gen. H. Halevy. In a recent speech, he underlined how “if there is no improvement [of Gaza’s situation], Israel will be the first one to pay the price” and warned the Knesset that the reconstruction of Gaza is actually the best (and perhaps the only) way to avoid the risk of a future war.

 

It is thus in the hands of the international community the responsibility of using all the possible economic, political and diplomatic leverages to convince Israel that keeping Gaza underdeveloped does not serve its; to push Israel to include in the distension of relations with Turkey the lifting of the blockade; and to induce Egypt to modify its policy of support to the blockade.

 

A Turkish Tale

How a failed military coup might lead to a revived national unity

 

Turkey is undoubtedly a country with a troubled history of military coups behind it: since 1960, the Turkish Republic founded by Ataturk has experienced four of them and the military has always been a major force in the Turkish structure of power and influence.

The attempted military coup of Friday finds thus its roots in a trend which has more than once characterized the country’s modern evolution and which has more than once tested its political stability.

 

Everything began on Friday at around 7.30 PM, when army units blocked the Bosphorus and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges in Istanbul; fighter jets and helicopters were reported flying in the skies over Ankara; and gunfire was reported in the streets of the capital. In a statement read on TRT (Turkey’s national broadcaster), it was said that the military had “completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order”, in response to Erdogan’s erosion of democracy.

At 10 PM, the news was reporting explosions at Parliament buildings. However, by 00.45 AM soldiers were surrendering their weapons in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and the picture of soldiers standing next to their tanks with their hands in the air has become the image of the coup’s failure.

On Saturday, the government’s reaction was in full sway throughout the day: a purge of soldiers and judicial officials led to the detention of 2839 military personnel, to the dismissal of 2745 judges from the HSYK (Turkey’s top judicial body), and to the detention of General Ozturk, accused of being one of masterminds behind the coup.

 

In just a few hours, the attempted coup took the life of 265 people (both among the military personnel and among civilians) and ended in a major failure that is probably explained by the absence of the necessary support on three essential fronts: the military, the political and the popular ones. As soon as the coup began, in fact, it became evident that the putsch did not enjoy a widespread military backing, since many among the army opposed it and voiced their condemnation. However, even more important in explaining why and how the coup failed, was the absence of political and public backing.

 

On the public’s side, in fact, people responded to Erdogan’s call and took to the streets to voice their support for the democratically-elected AKP government. This reaction on part of the Turkish public represented a deeply positive (and off-late sadly rare) sign of national unity, a sign of courage and respect for the state legitimate institutions that might turn into the beginning of a national reconciliation that Turkey desperately needs.

 

Equally important, is the unity showed at the political level: after seeing its buildings attacked, the MPs of the four political parties sitting in the Parliament convened in an emergency meeting that stood as clearest and brightest proof of how unity across party lines can be built and rediscovered when a country finds itself through its most difficult hours.

 

 

The unity within the Parliament’s groups and within the people of Turkey is at this point the only reaction that can save the country from itself.

 

Erdogan’s government is not a particularly liberal and illuminate one. Many of the internal policies that Erdogan has pursued over the past months have indeed led to an escalation of tensions, divisions and clashes between Turkey’s political and ethnic groups (with the clashes involving the PKK being the most dramatic expression of this trend). In terms of foreign policy -then- the war in Syria, the attacks against the Kurds, and the diplomatic tensions with neighbours and foreign powers (only recently partially healed thanks to a rapprochement to Russia and Israel) have isolated Turkey and exposed it and its people to unprecedented waves of terrorist attacks.

 

The internal and foreign policies pursued by Erdogan are thus responsible for many of the challenges and problems that Turkey is today called to address, and the President should be held accountable for them. Nevertheless, Erdogan was democratically elected by 52% of Turkey’s population and any opposition to his rule must rely on legitimate political means in order to be effective and beneficial for the country. Only political measures that are constitutionally legitimate can build a credible alternative and a safe path capable of leading to a stronger Turkish democracy.

 

 

 

From Sykes-Picot to the Chilcot Report

The lessons that the West must learn when intervening in the Middle East’s complexities

 

Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attacks led the West to a “war on terror” that ended up creating more damages than those it had aspired to heal and taking more lives than those it had aimed to protect, the Chilcot Report -commissioned by the British House of Commons to assess the government’s decisions with respect to the war in Iraq – brought to light new evidence. The Report is an open (and due) condemnation of Blair’s foreign policy, but –more importantly- is a crucial document containing lessons that need to be learnt to develop more aware and informed foreign policies (especially when it comes to delicate regions that rest on ever more fragile balances such as the Middle East).

 

The UK, under the leadership of then-PM Tony Blair, intervened in Iraq in 2003 following the United States and remained in the country until 2009. Of the Report published on July 6th by Sir John Chilcot, two things particularly stand out. The first is that – contrary to what had been claimed by the USA and the UK governments at that time – the attack against Saddam’s Iraq was not a last resort; the second is that no clear nor informed planning had been made by Blair’s cabinet in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.

 

As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, the Report highlights how PM Blair decided to attack Saddam regardless of the fact that the international community was still trying to deal with Iraq’s putative WMD without resorting to war, regardless of the fact that the UN was still conducting its enquiry, and that the UN Security Council (as well as the majority of the EU partners) was not supporting military intervention.

According to the Report, the reason for Blair’s decision was that in the previous year the British PM had pledged to President Bush his country’s unshakable support, and that maintaining such pledge had therefore become unescapable to preserve the Anglo-American special relationship.

 

As highlighted by the Report, though, the mistake was not only the decision to intervene in a war that was not necessary nor unavoidable. The other major mistake (and one that proved to have a dramatic long-run impact) was that no clear plan had been conceived in terms of how to deal with Iraq in the post-intervention phase.  Rather than elaborating an aware and coherent plan of reconstruction before going to war, the UK government missed this crucial step on the basis of the (wrong and unjustified) assumption that Washington would deal with the issue and that the UN would play a major role once the military intervention was over.

 

After the toppling of Saddam, though, none of this happened: the UN revealed little inclination to intervention and the USA had no reconstruction plan.

 

After winning against Saddam’s Baathist forces in a matter of weeks, in fact, the USA created and led a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) within which the UK had basically no relevant say and that failed to serve the interest of the Iraqi population (thus failing to win the people’s support). In a moment of delicate transition in which fair elections were needed to create a government that could give representation to all Iraqis and that could be accepted by Sunnis and Shias alike, nor the UN nor the USA succeeded in supporting the country through its delicate transition. A Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki took power in Baghdad; the tensions between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds were exasperated; Sunni jihadist groups (such as al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq) managed to exploit sectarian divisions to increase their action capabilities; and former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the army was disbanded became easy recruits for jihadist groups.

 

Thus, the result of the war that the Bush administration had pursued and that the UK had decided to support was not a mere regime change in Baghdad but the collapse of the Iraqi state as such.

What the Chilcot Report makes clear, in fact, is that, in the moment in which the UK and the USA intervened in the Iraqi theatre without a clear and informed strategy for the post-intervention/post-Saddam phase, they set into motion a chain of events that paved the way to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and that changed (perhaps forever) the geopolitical map of the Levant.

 

Forced to face the mistakes made by the West back in 2003, what lessons can now be drawn to avoid their repetition and develop more aware foreign policies?

 

If one major lesson can be derived from what is contained in the Report is that, when intervening abroad, three elements are especially crucial.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the theatre of intervention from any point of view: geopolitical, geostrategic, ethnic and religious. This understanding –especially as far as the religious and ethnic complexities of the Iraqi state are concerned- was clearly lacking on part of the UK and the USA in 2003 and explains how it was possible for power to end up in the hands of a Shia-dominated and sectarian government such as al-Maliki’s.

Secondly, it is necessary to develop realistic objectives and to embrace a relevant strategy that deals not only with the military aspect of intervention but also with the political and civilian ones – two dimensions to which the UK and the USA gave little importance when planning their intervention in 2003 and which continued to underestimate thereafter.

Finally, the third necessary step is to elaborate a post-intervention strategy that deals with the long-term and that gives to the country in which intervention was carried out and to its institutions all the support needed in a phase as delicate and crucial as that of reconstruction.

 

With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot – the infamous Agreement with which France and the UK divided the Middle East into artificial states whose ethnic and religious contradictions have exploded over the past few years – we are now painfully reminded that there are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat anymore, and that our approach to the Middle East cannot be successful if History’s lessons are not learnt.

Eid al-Fitr and the challenges ahead for the Muslim world

After having a heavy meal cooked by a Muslim friend with whom I had the privilege to share the joy that Eid-al-Fitr brings with it, and while walking around the old city of Jaffa, where streets and restaurants were full of families dining together in a deeply cheerful and almost magical atmosphere, I could not but look back at the week that has just passed and at its painful events.

 

From Bangladesh, to Iraq, to Saudi Arabia – in fact – the Muslim world has gone over the past days through a series of attacks that have hit its heart, its people, and its symbols.

After suicide attacks in Dhaka on Friday and in Baghdad on Sunday, Monday was the turn of the Sauds’ Kingdom: starting from early in the morning, suicide bombers conducted attacks in Jeddah near the American consulate; in Qatif against a Shia mosque; and in Medina outside the Prophet’s mosque – which is Islam’s second holiest site and that during the month of Ramadan attracts thousands of pilgrims.

 

Despite thus far no official claim for the attacks has been made by any group, all fingers pointed to the Islamic State, considered to be the responsible for the escalation of violence that has tinted with blood the last days of the Muslims’ holiest month.

 

Such attacks, in fact, fully reflect what has been emerging over the past months as the new tactics employed by ISIS. As already underlined at the time of the latest attacks in Paris and Brussels, the group is changing strategy in order to deal with a changing scenario and with declining capabilities.

While in 2011 the group led by al-Baghdadi emerged on the Iraqi and Syrian scene and distinguished itself for its unparalleled capacity to conquest territory and to attract recruits worldwide in a way that no previous jihadist group had been able to do, over the past few months the situation has begun to change. The group, indeed, is continuously losing ground in both Iraq and Syria (where it is hit by regional and international enemies), and the more it loses ground the more the number of recruits decreases. To deal with a balance of force that is no longer leaning in its favour, ISIS is thus exploring new strategies.

 

On the one hand, the group is trying to expand its presence in those territories where the absence of credible and strong state institutions can be exploited to establish a local presence and gain new ground and support. This is what the group is now doing in countries such as Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, where the state institutions are either absent or so weak that it is possible for al-Baghdadi’s group to take advantage of the deteriorating political and security situation to occupy areas and try to win the support of a tired and hopeless local population.

 

On the other hand, the group is trying to compensate its territorial losses with a new al-Qaeda-like tactics. Rather than focusing exclusively on the project of creating an Islamic State in the area known as al-Sham, the group led by al-Baghdadi is now hitting foreign targets as well (the so-called “far enemy” of the 1990s al-Qaeda’s strategy). The aim of this new tactics is to expand the group’s global presence so as to retain the credibility it had gained in the jihadist universe, strengthen its image of success abroad, and obtain the visibility it needs to avoid the number of recruits to drop even more.

 

The attacks perpetrated in Saudi Arabia are fully coherent with this strategy. Through those attacks, in fact, the group tried to obtain visibility; to question the credibility of the Saudis as protectors of Islam’s holy sites; and to undermine the Kingdom’s relations with foreign allies and with its own Shia population.

 

However, the violence disseminated by the group rather than dividing the Muslim world has encouraged Muslims from all countries and all sects of faith to get together in condemning it. The hashtag #PrayforMedina has invaded the Internet, and public figures and groups from the whole Muslim world (Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, the Jordanian government…) have voiced their outrage.

This unity between Sunnis and Shias in condemning the acts of violence perpetrated by what is nothing more than a group of extremists shows how terrorism is the product of given social, political and historical contexts and occurrences and not –as many would like to make us believe – of given religious faiths.

Confronted with extremists such as ISIS-affiliates that threaten many countries’ security and stability, as well as Islam’s legitimacy and image, the challenge for Muslim states and Muslim people (both religious leaders and simple believers) all over the world is to stick united in condemning violence. Only in this way, in fact, it will be possible to use the power of information to spread religious awareness and thus counter the distortions that fanatics promote and prevent youngsters from falling victim of their heinous message.

 

And no day is better than Eid-al-Fitr to start a new year of inter-sect unity and cooperation against extremism.

The Israeli-Turkish deal between geopolitical interests and economic calculations

What led to the most recent deal between Ankara and Turkey and how to make sense of it in a region in constant turmoil, where the lines that link friends and separate enemies are as complex as never before

 

Last Monday, after almost two years of negotiations, Israel and Turkey reached an agreement that will re-establish full diplomatic relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.

The relations between the two countries were interrupted in 2010, when soldiers of the IDF attacked a Turkish vessel –the Mavi Marmara– that was trying to violate the blockade imposed on the Gaza strip and killed 10 activists who were on board. In a moment in time in which Israeli-Turkish relations were already tense, the episode of the Mavi Marmara was the event that led to the definitive collapse.

Six years of distance, two years of negotiations, and a constant deterioration of the security scenario in the Middle East were necessary to convince Ankara and Tel Aviv of the necessity to retie bounds and reach a deal.

 

The deal, announced on Monday by Netanyahu and Yildrim, does not represent a full success for either party (as it is, after all, the destiny of any credible diplomatic negotiation). Nevertheless, each side managed to have accepted at least some of its most pressing requests and to avoid making too dramatic concessions.

 

Of the three requests it had advanced, Turkey obtained from Israel formal apologies for the Mavi Marmara episode, as well as a compensation of 20 million $ for the families of the victims. Instead, the third request -the lifting of the naval blockade on Gaza- was (unsurprisingly) rejected by Israel. To the Israeli government, in fact, the naval blockade is crucial to escape the risk of weapons ending up in Hamas’ hands and threatening Israel’s national security. However, Ankara obtained the permit to transfer aid to Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod, managing in this way to preserve its credibility as defender of the Palestinian cause.

 

On its part, Israel obtained from Turkey the commitment to intervene heavy-handedly against any attempt made by Hamas to hit Israel from Turkish soil. In this way, Netanyahu managed not to damage his own credibility as guarantor of security in the eyes of the Israeli right-wingers and the Likud voters. Similarily, imposing the maintenance of the blockade on Gaza, he succeeded in preserving his image as strong and resolute leader.

Conversely, what caused outrage in the Israeli public opinion and political leadership, is the fact that Netanyahu did not succeed in obtaining from part of Hamas the restitution of the bodies of two IDF soldiers whom had been killed in Gaza in summer 2014, and the fact that he had to give in to the 20 million $ compensation.

 

Despite the criticism, though, the deal is fundamentally balanced, as it does not create winners nor losers. It is the result of a balance of interests and compromises that allowed both governments –at home- to present the deal as a success of foreign policy and –abroad- to strengthen their image and diplomatic stature.

 

Analyzed the terms of the deal, it is now to be asked what led Ankara and Tel Aviv to seek it. Which considerations and which interests are there behind a rapprochement that took six years to materialize?

 

Undoubtedly, the reason that for both countries played a major role is the deterioration of security in the Middle East, where civil wars, failed states, and terrorism have made it clear to Israel and Turkey how necessary it is to sow new bilateral relations and seek new room for cooperation.

 

It has been now almost 5 years, that the Syrian civil war and the collapse of the Iraqi state have been continuously producing for the regions’ security threats and challenges that Israel and Turkey must necessarily deal with.

Turkey, in particular, in the past few years has been observing with fear the rise of Kurdish separatism in Syria, that –like a spark ignited by the Syrian conflict- is now setting on fire Kurdish separatism in Turkey, and thus posing threats to the country’s integrity and security. In this context, it has become crucial for Ankara to to seek a resolution to the conflict that takes into account its own national interests, but the deterioration of relations with Putin’s Russia (only now starting to be improved again) and the failure of Erdogan’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has led Turkey to seek new ties and new friends in the region and to deem it rational a reconciliation with Israel.

 

Tel Aviv, for its part, is interested in the Syrian dynamics because of the way in which the Syrian war has created a fertile soil for the ascent of its historic enemies: Iran and Hezbollah. Active on the Syrian military landscape, indeed, Israel’s enemies (especially Teheran) have obtained not only military successes on the ground but they have also seen their political influence grow, they have obtained more say in the Levant’s developments, and have extended their range of action.

In front of such threat, it has thus become crucial for Israel to counterbalance Iran’s influence and prevent the rise of Hezbollah; and doing so has required Tel Aviv to seek regional partners and to look West towards Turkey.

 

Both Tel Aviv and Ankara, then, have a direct enemy in jihadist terrorism – of which Turkey has become privileged victim over the last year. Confronted with this common threat, a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey has emerged in the two capitals as first and necessary step towards a possible future cooperation in the fight against terrorism, which is perceived by the political class and by the public opinion of both countries as a priority.

 

To these security considerations, then, other calculations need to be added.

For both countries, in fact, the recent deal was motivated not only by geopolitical and geostrategic interests, but –as Netanyahu himself pointed out in presenting the deal to the Israeli public- also by economic calculations.

Indeed, the deal could now make it possible for Israel to sell the gas of which it is abundant to Turkey and –through it- to many European countries.

For its part, Turkey could benefit from buying gas from Israel since this would allow it to diversify its pool of gas suppliers nad become less vulnerable and less dependent on Russian gas.

 

Israel and Turkey have thus more than one single reason to retrieve their diplomatic relations. As seen, interests of national and regional security and economic interests have laid the bases to reach a deal with which Ankara and Tel Aviv are fundamentally trying to see how far can a future multi-dimensional cooperation be led, and how realistic it is to go over a thrust deficit that the developments of the past years require now to overcome.

 

(Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/FLASH90)