Rather than providing a quick rundown of the top stories from the past seven days, this week’s news post will look at two still-developing stories in the Middle East. The first is the continuing threat posed by the Islamic State, which has taken additional territory in Syria. The second is the growing violence between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. These issues, which are mired in deep rooted regional dynamics and have consequences that spill across borders, cannot be adequately explained in the standard one-paragraph format. Therefore, they will be the focus of this week’s post.
The Islamic State
We’ve spoken before about the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Iraq and last week filled readers in on the declaration of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS). The Islamic State is fashioned as a caliphate, which was the system of governance during the early centuries of Islam. The highest office at that time was that of the Caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad, who ruled the Muslim world prior to his death. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has taken the title of Caliph for himself, claiming authority over all Muslims. Although the former ISIS is not the only group active in the area, it is the most disciplined and has become the key leaders of the network.
Prior to declaring the Islamic State, the group had taken control of a huge swath of territory, ranging from a few dozen miles outside Baghdad up towards the Iranian border and north into Syria. That territory has since grown, giving them control of border crossings and oil fields. Mass executions of Iraqi military and the targeting of non-Sunni Muslims has forced mass displacement across Iraq, adding to the already extensive humanitarian crisis created by the millions of Syrian refugees across the region. The group has raided banks and military bases, giving them ample money and weaponry to continue the assault.
The international community is concerned, and rightfully so. The United States has sent hundreds of troops to Iraq to act in an advisory role, and an Iranian was killed in Iraq, which suggests Iran has already sent military assistance. Although this would provide an opportunity for the U.S. and Iran to work together, as both see the Islamic State as a grave threat, so far there has been no reported cooperation between the two countries. Activity in Syria is more difficult to monitor, particularly as the Islamic State is clashing largely with the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda linked terrorist organization once aligned with ISIS. By declaring a caliphate, the Islamic State is in direct confrontation with al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist Sunni groups, a move that could cause even more instability as extremist organizations fight it out over IS’s territory.
When three Israeli teenagers went missing on June 12, Israel began a harsh crackdown and search in the West Bank. Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli Defense Forces left several Palestinians dead before the bodies of the missing teens were found on June 30, a discovery that prompted what are believed to be revenge attacks carried out by Israelis. One Palestinian teen was burned alive, while his American-Palestinian cousin was beaten and detained by authorities.
The Israeli government has pinned the murder of the three Israeli teens on Hamas, a terrorist/political organization that came to rule the Gaza Strip through elections in 2006. Although the group has denied any involvement in the murders and no concrete evidence has been presented that points to a possible suspect, Israel has begun airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and Hamas has responded with rocketfire. Israel has also called up around 40,000 reserve troops, suggesting the escalation of fighting in the volatile area. At deadline, 25 Gazans had been killed in airstrikes.
Embargoes and frequent airstrikes have left the Gaza Strip a wasteland. Gaza, which is separate both physically and governmentally from the West Bank, struggles to secure food, educational materials, and medicine. Hamas, which the Israeli government refuses to negotiate with, is regarded by Western states as a terrorist organization, making it more difficult for Gazans to receive necessary humanitarian aid. Despite the highly politicized rhetoric that surrounds exchanges between Gaza and Israel, it is always civilians on both sides that suffer. The current round of airstrikes and potential ground invasion will only increase the already catastrophic humanitarian crisis faced by civilians on a daily basis.
There is also a political component to the Israeli campaign in Gaza. Hamas recently began the process of forming a coalition government with Fatah, another Palestinian organization that holds leadership positions in the West Bank. The two groups were in direct opposition until recently, and the move towards greater solidarity has Israeli officials worried. The timing on this campaign is likely not a coincidence, and is possibly intended to disrupt negotiations and cooperative efforts.
This escalation could have international ramifications as well, due to the upcoming deadline for the P5+1 and Iran to come to an agreement on a comprehensive nuclear deal. Israel and the U.S. are extremely close allies, to the point where many in the Arab world see Israeli action as an extension of U.S. policy. Meanwhile, Iran is strongly aligned with Palestine, and although relations have been tense in recent years, Hamas has received extensive funding and support from Tehran. Israel and Iran, on the other hand, are longtime enemies, often rhetorically sparring. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has pushed strongly for military action against Iran’s nuclear program and his government takes a hard line on Tehran having any nuclear capability. Although not directly involved in negotiations, Israel’s shadow can be seen as the U.S. attempts to strike a balance between supporting their ally and leaving the door open for an agreement. This campaign in Gaza could create tension, making an agreement more difficult to reach.