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Intel Report: Middle East Update


 

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Date: 03/05/2024


Hamas-Israel

  • The situation in Gaza is tense. Israel is preparing for a new military operation in Rafah to defeat Hamas infra- and command structure. It is expected that the operation will begin in the coming weeks. According to the IDF, nearly 80% of the Hamas command structure has been neutralized and thousands of Hamas fighters have been killed or arrested since October 7, 2023.

  • On May 1, Israel reopened the Erez checkpoint border crossing in the northern edge of the Gaza Strip, allowing aid trucks to pass through it, and pledged to allow the use of the Ashdod port. Despite increasing aid arriving inside the Gaza strip, the situation is still dire and the World Food Program has warned of an imminent famine.


Iranian allies

  • The Islamic Resistance, an Iraqi militant group with military and logistical support from Iran, have continued their attacks on Israel, US military installations, and merchant shipping lanes the past month. They have also launched drones and rockets at Israel and at military installations run by the US in Iraq and the surrounding areas. 

  • The Houthi rebel group in Yemen has also continued their attacks on Israel, the US and UK navies, and merchant ships in the Red and Indian Sea. Most of the drones and missiles launched by the Houthi have been intercepted, but a number of merchant vessels were damaged by the attacks. The role of Iran in providing support to the Houthi and Iraq based groups has diminished severely since the beginning of April 2024 after pressure from the US. Iran has called back its electronic surveillance vessel that was anchored near the coast of Yemen and was likely giving intelligence to the Houthi. Iran has also recalled a large number of IRGC advisors across the region for fear of being targeted by Israeli drones and missiles.


Israel internal politics

  • Netanyahu’s government is facing a major crisis. A centrist bloc in Israel’s government formed, adding pressure to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Former Justice Minister Gideon Saar left Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party to join forces with former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, announcing the establishment of a separate center-right bloc in Parliament. This move might not have an immediate effect on internal affairs, but it signals a fracture in Israeli politics. Gantz is the favorite to become Israel’s next Prime Minister in the 2026 elections, and in March 2024 he had already carried out a visit to  Washington and London without the approval of Netanyahu, upsetting his right-wing and religious nationalist coalition partners. Moreover, a poll by Channel 12, one of Israel’s main television channels, showed growing support for early elections immediately or after the war in Gaza is over, with 50% of right-wing voters being in favor. 

  • The war cabinet of Netanyahu is under pressure from both the left and the right, split by ongoing political disagreements. The left criticizes the government’s inability to negotiate a release for the remaining hostages held by Hamas, while the right-wing calls for more forceful reactions. Gantz’s voice has emerged as a voice of moderation during talks about a possible Israeli response, managing to de-escalate tensions. Protests in favor of a hostage deal in the streets of Tel Aviv are growing and are likely to continue in the coming months. 


Hezbollah, IRGC, Lebanon, Syria 

  • During the month of April 2024, the situation regarding Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Lebanon and Syria has seen significant developments in the conflict with Israel. 

  • On April 1st,  a strike, widely attributed to Israel, demolished a building next to the Iranian consulate in Damascus killing seven high ranking officers, including two generals from Iran’s IRGC. Among them, there was the Iranian commander of the elite Quds Force in Lebanon and Syria, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi. Two weeks later, on April 13, Iran launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israeli soil, most of which were intercepted (99%) either outside Israeli airspace or over the country itself, lightly damaging an Israeli air military base. Israel’s war cabinet decided on responding to the Iranian attack, which was carried out with mini drones. They hit an army base in Isfahan, a significant Iranian military infrastructure, including a large airbase, a major missile production complex and several nuclear programmes. Iran did not respond to the limited attack, preventing a cycle of action and counter reaction that would escalate dangerously. 

  • Meanwhile, the intense fighting between the IDF and Hezbollah continued to escalate. Thousands of residents in Northern Israel and in Southern Lebanon areas have left their homes in a mass evacuation, due to the escalating cross-border hostilities. On April 24, the Israeli military said artillery and fighter jet strikes had hit around 40 targets in Southern Lebanon in the Ayta al-Shaab area, including storage facilities and weapons in a region it said was used extensively by Hezbollah forces. These strikes came a day after Hezbollah launched a drone attack on Israeli military bases in the north of Israel. The attack used drones designed to keep Israeli air defenses busy, while others laden with explosives targeted Israeli bases. 


US, UK, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE

  • The US, UK, France, the UAE and Jordan played significant roles in defending Israel from the Iranian missile and drone attacks. The participation of the Jordanian army raised some criticisms within the country, due to the Jordanian internal political criticisms of Israel’s actions in Gaza. However, the Jordanian army only shot down drones that violated its airspace. 

  • Since February 2024, France has merged its diplomatic initiatives with the US to focus on reaching a ceasefire, and has been trying to act as intermediary between Israel and Hezbollah. On April 30, France’s Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne asked Israel to make public its position on a proposal put forward by France, and modified during a visit to Lebanon earlier in the week, aimed at defusing tensions between Israel and Lebanon. Earlier this year, Sejourne presented a proposal to both sides that entailed Hezbollah’s elite unit pulling back 10km from the border, and Israel halting strikes in Southern Lebanon.

  • The US has been supporting Israel both militarily and diplomatically, playing an important role in the normalization accords between Israel and the Arab States, and in negotiations in general. However, recently US President Joe Biden warned that Washington’s policy could shift if Israel fails to take steps to address civilian harm and humanitarian needs arising from the ongoing conflict. 


Analysis

  • The Israeli military operation in Gaza is likely to continue the coming months. Netanyahu and high-ranking members of the IDF are convinced that they are close to completely neutralizing the capabilities of Hamas. The final part of the operation is likely to be a full-scale attack on Rafah which is believed to house several large groups of well-trained and armed Hamas soldiers. However, Rafah is also the main hub for humanitarian aid and due to the attacks in the north, thousands have fled to the city. Any attacks put civilian lives at risk and will severely affect the humanitarian situation in the strip. Israel planned to relocate Gazans to camps outside of Rafah by the Israeli military, but it is unclear if it will actually implement them. On the other hand, Israel could recall troops from Gaza and refrain from attacking Rafah under the conditions that Hamas disarms itself and that all hostages are released. These negotiations are, however, slow and very fragile.

  • Prior to the recent attacks, Israel and Iran had been engaged in a shadow war, in which Israel prioritized halting the cross-border flow of Iranian weapons shipments from Syria to Lebanon and IRGC related installations in Syria. Iran has invested greatly in the production of missiles and drones, but has also been supplying significant amounts to its partners; the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is also believed to be cooperating with Russia in building air defense systems and drone production. Further escalation from Israel against IRGC targets in Syria would dramatically heighten tensions, causing the risk of an escalation of violence across the region.

  • Israel’s tensions with Iran, and the increased conflict with Hezbollah, have increased  the possibility of a war between Israel and Hezbollah. Since October 7, the Israel-Lebanon border has been a major flashpoint, with cross-border fire occurring nearly daily. The violence has significantly affected both sides, displacing thousands of people in both countries. On April 21, Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s emergency war cabinet declared that Israel’s border with Lebanon now constitutes its “operative front” and “its greatest and most urgent challenge”. A possible Israeli attack on Lebanon would be catastrophic for the country, which is ill-prepared for a major war, with a collapsed health sector and in the grips of a financial crisis. If war between Israel and Hezbollah breaks out, Israel would likely suffer significant military and civilian losses. Israeli forces are stretched out across two fronts and Hezbollah is more powerful than Hamas. An Israeli attack on Lebanon would likely draw more Iranian-affiliated groups in support of Hezbollah, creating a full escalation at a regional level. Western forces would likely get more involved, in particular the US as their bases throughout the Middle East may be targeted. However, as long as the conflict in Gaza is ongoing, there are little prospects of de-escalation on the Israel-Lebanon border. 

  • US efforts to prevent a full scale war continue. In mid-April, the CIA director met with the Head of Turkey’s intelligence agency to ask for help mediating between Israel and Iran. Negotiations have been taking place for the past year, but Hezbollah has maintained its position that until there will be a cease-fire in Gaza, they will not collaborate in the negotiations. On May 1, Antony Blinken met in Jerusalem with Netanyahu, to discuss Israel’s planned military operation in Rafah. The US asked to facilitate the delivery of aid to Gaza, and said it will not support a military operation in Rafah without an effective plan to ensure civilian safety. However, Netanyahu remains determined to destroy the remaining Hamas fighting formations in Rafah, and it is likely that Israel will not follow the advice of the US. The truce deal proposed by Egyptian mediators would see a release of 33 Israeli hostages, in exchange for a large number of Palestinian prisoners, and a cease-fire in Gaza. Blinken has urged Hamas to accept the deal, who said they were still pondering the proposed deal, but expressed the belief that the proposal would not be enough to end the war. Moreover, Israel is postponing sending a delegation to Cairo for follow-up talks, and has refused the option of halting war efforts. Despite the international pressure Netanyahu is facing, it is unlikely that he will accept any truces involving a ceasefire in Gaza. Negotiations have not stopped, but a conclusion has not been reached yet. 


Conclusion 

Negotiations between Israel and Hamas for a truce are unlikely to be successfully concluded any time soon, and the Israeli military operation in Gaza is likely to continue in the coming month. The US retracted its support for a full-scale attack on Rafah, unless precautions were taken to prevent civilian casualties. However, Netanyahu remains determined to carry out his plan to fully neutralize the remaining Hamas fighting formations. The offensive is likely going to happen in the coming weeks, and it would put the lives of thousands of civilians  in Gaza at risk. In that case, an escalation of attacks between Hezbollah and Israel is likely. A possible war in Lebanon would be catastrophic for all the parties, because more actors would be involved, including more Western forces, and it could dangerously escalate to a regional level. In the meantime, until a ceasefire in Gaza is reached, it will be difficult for the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict to de-escalate.



 

20240503 ME Update
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