How suffering and destruction caused by Israel’s Gaza assault serve the ideologies and goals of extremists

Experts say there is a danger that extremist narratives may seem vindicated if the international community fails to move the dial on the Gaza war or if the conflict escalates further across the region. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 21 February 2024
Follow

How suffering and destruction caused by Israel’s Gaza assault serve the ideologies and goals of extremists

  • Security chiefs have reported a rise in online extremism, hate crimes and individuals flagged to authorities since Oct. 7
  • Experts say ongoing conflict could be used by extremist groups to recruit followers and encourage lone-wolf attacks

LONDON: Violent extremist groups are exploiting public outcry surrounding the war in Gaza to fan the flames of radicalization, recruit followers, and encourage lone-wolf attacks in the West, counterterrorism officials have warned.

Since the Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7, which sparked Israel’s retaliation in Gaza, security chiefs have warned of a dramatic rise in violent Islamist tendencies, online terrorist propaganda, and the number of individuals flagged to authorities.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the provocative actions of Israeli forces deployed in the Gaza Strip would inflame feelings in Arab and Islamic countries, especially with the death toll approaching 30,000.




Since the Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7 and the devastating Israeli military retaliation, US and European security chiefs have warned of a dramatic rise in violent Islamist tendencies. (AFP)

He warned that these incidents could serve the ideologies of terrorism and extremism around the world.

Last month, Matt Jukes, head of UK counterterrorism policing, said events in the Middle East had created a “dangerous climate” in which anger at Israel’s actions and alleged Western inaction is feeding grievances that can be exploited by extremist groups.

“That puts us at a point in communities, on the street and online, which would lead us to describe what has happened in the Middle East as a radicalization moment,” Jukes said in a statement on Jan. 19. 

“These are the moments when a mixture of outrage, grievance and a set of enduring factors have the potential to influence those susceptible to being pushed towards terrorism.” 

Similar concerns were raised in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas-led attack by the head of MI5, Ken McCallum, who told the BBC that “lots of would-be-terrorists in the UK draw inspiration through their distorted understanding of what is happening in other countries.”

Likewise, in the US, FBI Director Chris Wray said: “We cannot and do not discount the possibility that Hamas or other foreign terrorist organizations could exploit the conflict to call on their supporters to conduct attacks on our own soil.”

Elizabeth Pearson, a counterterrorism expert and author of the recently published book “Extreme Britain,” believes the Israel-Hamas conflict is acting as “a lightning rod” for radicalization — a phenomenon made worse by preexisting grievances.

“This particular conflict has always been a symbolic vessel for different identities to feel — and also become — marginalized,” Pearson, who heads the master’s program in terrorism and counterterrorism studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, told Arab News.

“I’ve talked to Islamist activists in the UK and they explicitly set out to use this conflict and the plight of Palestinians to gain new members. The narrative of Muslim victimization and powerlessness is key here. Islamist responses are always: ‘The only way to solve this problem is to join our group.’”

Experts suggest there are several ways in which extremist groups may try to spin events in the Middle East to fit a particular worldview. For Alan Mendoza, executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, these follow a familiar format.




Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the provocative actions of Israeli forces deployed in the Gaza Strip would inflame feelings in Arab and Islamic countries. (AFP)

“The customary way the narrative emerges is along the lines of: ‘The West is corrupt and hypocritical,’” Mendoza told Arab News.

“‘Its allies kill innocent Muslims while it supplies them weapons and provides diplomatic coverage for them to do so. These same Western countries are increasingly oppressing their Muslim populations at home too. Come and join us to liberate our people.’”

The implications of this climate of radicalization in the UK are being expressed in several ways. The most obvious since the onset of the Gaza crisis has been the sudden spike in hate crimes and hate speech on social media.

“We are seeing a massive escalation in Islamophobia and, in particular, antisemitism,” Emily Winterbotham​​​​, director of the terrorism and conflict program at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told Arab News. 

“This is recognized by UK intelligence services. Protests and acts of antisemitism, Islamophobia, vandalism, and social tensions increase the environment of radicalization.”

Statistics from the London Metropolitan Police show there were 218 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 1 and 18 last year — up from 15 during the same period in 2022. Likewise, there were 101 Islamophobic offenses, up from 42. 

“We’ve also seen a 12-fold increase in hateful social media content referred to specialist police officers of the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit,” said Winterbotham​​​​. “This is primarily antisemitic content and from users not previously on police radar.”

And it is not just Islamist groups that have reportedly seized upon events in the Middle East to push an extremist narrative, recruit followers, and incite violence.

“Far-right groups in the UK are using the conflict to further delegitimize Islam and Muslims, siding with Israel in order to further an anti-Muslim agenda,” said Pearson.




According to Metropolitan Police figures, the amount of terrorist material appearing online surged to 15 times the level it was prior to Oct. 7. (AFP)

“Polarization, Islamophobia and antisemitism in wider society justify hatred and violence … It is the polarization, the inability to empathize with others, and ultimately their dehumanization, which is a key characteristic of radicalization.”

Anas Al-Tikriti, CEO and founder of the Cordoba Foundation, rejects the notion that Islamists or Muslims in general are solely responsible for the apparent rise in extremist content since the conflict began.

“I would suggest that any conflict, particularly the magnitude and obviously the territory that we’re talking about over the course of the past four months, will have created an increase, probably a significant increase, in radicalized tendencies on both sides,” he told Arab News.

“But why just focus on the Muslim side? Why not, for instance, talk about what’s happening on Zionist platforms and accounts?”

He added: “I doubt that there is anyone who is either shocked or surprised by the fact that the conflict in the manner and shape and form and the images that we have been engulfed with over the course of the conflict will have led to such tendencies. But I reject, I absolutely and utterly reject … that these are exclusive to Muslim circles.”

According to Metropolitan Police figures, the amount of terrorist material appearing online surged to 15 times the level it was prior to Oct. 7, before settling at a level seven times greater.

“That is extraordinary and demonstrates the volume and intensity of online rhetoric around the ongoing conflict,” said counterterrorism chief Jukes in his January statement.




Anas Al-Tikriti, CEO and founder of the Cordoba Foundation, says when international community agencies such as the UN fail to protect people’s lives, people will feel that they need to take things into their own hands. (AFP)

“We always see spikes after terrorist incidents, but what we have seen since Oct. 7 is higher and more sustained than ever before. This is a conflict and these are tensions playing out online in a way which, in our experience, is unprecedented.” 

What is less clear is whether this climate of radicalization is confined to the online sphere or is now evident in communities.

“Although the greatest forum for radicalization in this conflict has occurred online, video has emerged from several mosques of Friday sermons that can only be designed to inflame the views of those listening,” said Mendoza.

“Campuses have also not been immune to the greater trend of protest marches where extremist rhetoric is often heard and slogans displayed. 

“The implications are clear that if the spread of this activity is not checked, then it will not only continue but also worsen as the boundaries for what is acceptable are pressed.”

Counterterrorism experts view online activity as a good — if imperfect — barometer of radicalization in public life. The dilemma for counterterrorism authorities is recognizing the difference between chatter and an impending real-world threat.

“Much of this extremist content and radicalization is taking place in the online space, which mirrors but exaggerates what is happening in real life,” said Winterbotham​​​​.

“There is still insufficient understanding of the relationship between online extremist content and offline behavior. It is important to work to identify risk factors, language patterns and behavioral indicators, especially in the online space to help identify which extremist individuals and groups pose a risk of violence.”




The implications of this climate of radicalization in the UK are being expressed in several ways. (AFP)

There have lately been troubling examples of how terrorist material posted online can influence public opinion in unexpected ways. 

In November, “Letter to the American People,” a 2002 manifesto penned by Osama bin Laden, suddenly went viral on TikTok, with influencers reading parts of the document and characterizing the former Al-Qaeda leader as a hero. 

“The fact that Gen Z sees content in these videos as more credible than mainstream news is deeply concerning and benefits Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups,” said Winterbotham​​​​. 

“We are also witnessing the growth of conspiracy theories. This is nothing new, but it is the combination of these with extremist narratives that is distinctive. Given the polarization and radicalization of the debate over Israel and Gaza, a minority of Britons are engaging with often highly prejudiced conspiracy theories.”

Given this growing constituency of radicalized individuals, experts suggest it is not beyond the realms of possibility for domestic and foreign terrorist organizations to incite or actively carry out violent acts on British soil.

The UK terror threat level is currently rated as “substantial” — the third of five tiers — which means that an attack is considered likely. If terrorist groups decide to mount an attack in the UK, this threat level could rise to “severe” or “critical.”




Experts suggest there are several ways in which extremist groups may try to spin events in the Middle East to fit a particular worldview. (AFP)

“Hamas itself potentially poses a threat to UK soil, and we have seen foiled Hamas plots in Germany and Denmark already last year,” said Winterbotham​​​​, referring to the Dec. 14 arrest of four people on suspicion of planning to target Jewish institutions in Europe.

“Possible responses include striking abroad at Israeli embassies, diplomatic facilities, and representatives,” she added.

But it is not just parties to the conflict who might seek out Western targets. Groups like Daesh are also likely searching for an opening. 

“Recently, (Daesh) spokesman Abu Hudhayfa launched a new speech, ‘And kill them wherever you find them,’ which encouraged lone actor attacks,” said Winterbotham​​​​.

“We’ve already seen an uptick in lone actor attacks since Oct. 7 in Arras, France, Paris, Brussels, and a foiled attack in Las Vegas. Links to Gaza have been made.”

Al-Qaeda might also try to exploit this climate, with recent online activity suggesting the terrorist network is trying to encourage lone wolf attacks.

“In recent months, Al-Qaeda has ramped up its incitements against US-allied Arab governments,” said Winterbotham​​​​.

“On Dec. 26, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula relaunched its English-language magazine Inspire, with a video showing scenes from Gaza, protests, and US support of Israel, calling for attacks in America and against Jewish and Western targets, including US, British and French airlines and high-profile figures and containing instructions for home-made explosives.”

Palestine has never been one of Al-Qaeda’s top priorities, says Winterbotham​​​​. “Rather, it used Palestine in rhetoric to broaden appeal. However, the presence of Al-Qaeda’s de facto leader, Saif Al-Adel, in Iran is influential.”




Elizabeth Pearson, a counterterrorism expert and author of the recently published book “Extreme Britain,” believes the Israel-Hamas conflict is acting as “a lightning rod” for radicalization — a phenomenon made worse by preexisting grievances.(AFP)

Indeed, given its support for Hamas and other regional proxy groups, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and various Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, security officials also believe Iran is keen to exploit the climate of radicalization. 

In January, it emerged that videos of antisemitic speeches by Iranian generals, given to UK students, were being investigated by the Charity Commission. The regulator was also reportedly looking into chants of “death to Israel” at an Islamic charity’s UK premises.

The talks by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, recorded in 2020 and 2021 and which included denial of the Holocaust and references to an apocalyptic war on Jews, added to growing concerns that the IRGC is attempting to radicalize UK Muslims. 

Security services have previously warned that the IRGC is inciting violence and plotting to kidnap or kill people on British soil, leading to calls for it to be designated a foreign terrorist organization. Some believe the war in Gaza provides Iran with fresh opportunities. 

“Iran’s game here is simple,” said Mendoza. “By posing as the leading international defender of Gaza — even though in reality its support for Gaza has brought complete destruction for Gaza’s Palestinian inhabitants — it is able to channel the emotional rage expressed by the public into solidarity for Iran’s own fight with the West. 

“Iran and its proxies hope to use Gaza for their own PR purposes, as can be seen by public support for the Houthis in sections of the West despite the Houthis’ appalling human rights record and theological beliefs.”

To counter the phenomenon of radicalization, the UK government launched Prevent, a system first established in 2007 in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, to allow public institutions to flag individuals exhibiting extremist tendencies.

The rate of these referrals is seen as another barometer of the scale of radicalization at a given moment.

According to counterterrorism chief Jukes, referrals to Prevent were up 13 percent between Oct. 7 and Dec. 31 last year compared with the same period in 2022. Jukes said the increase “is directly related to the conflict in the Middle East.”

But just how effective is the Prevent strategy in stopping ideas from turning into intent?

“One of the issues with programs like Prevent is that they tend to be better at countering ideas by dismantling structured ideological belief systems,” said Winterbotham​​​​.




There have lately been troubling examples of how terrorist material posted online can influence public opinion in unexpected ways. (AFP)

“This may be of limited use when addressing issues related to the Middle East and contemporary forms of extremism based on hybrid and mixed ideologies.”

She called for “a more comprehensive engagement, involving a whole-of-society response that combines integrated, non-securitized preventive actions with targeted prevention activities.

“In countering extremist ideas and terrorist groups that aim to undermine democracy, it is more important than ever to establish robust systems of governance that treat all individuals fairly and consistently. 

“It is a key principle of our counterterrorism work but much of this goes far beyond counterterrorism.”

Pearson concurs that counter-radicalization policies need to be implemented sensitively — else they make matters worse.

“It’s important that those in charge do not amplify the emotions surrounding this conflict. Effective leadership should serve to calm, not inflame,” she said.

“Labels such as terrorist and extremist have tended to expand in recent years, covering more people and offenses. The UK should take care not to needlessly expand these terms.”

Of course, one way to remove the threat posed by radicalization emanating from the Gaza war would be a resolution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the cause of so much instability in the Middle East.

“There’s a very reasonable and quite sensible stand that the UK should have adopted many months ago,” said The Cordoba Foundation’s Al-Tikriti.

“That is to call for a ceasefire, which the UK government not only failed to do but went as far as to sack and to punish those who ever uttered the word, and even going as far as to label those who spoke of a ceasefire of being antisemitic, which is utterly absurd.” 

Under the circumstances, is there a danger that extremist narratives may seem vindicated if the international community fails to move the dial on the Middle East peace process or if the conflict escalates further in the region?​




Arab officials have warned that provocative actions of Israeli forces deployed in the Gaza Strip would inflame feelings in Arab and Islamic countries. (AFP)

​“Obviously when states, when international community agencies such as the UN, fail to protect people’s lives, when they fail to take control and to punish those who commit crimes, people will feel that they need to take things into their own hands,” said Al-Tikriti.

“And they will raise the volume of their narratives, the tone of their narratives, in order to expose the failures in the international community. 

“The other side will call this extremist. The government might also call it extremist. The head of UK counterterrorism policing might also call it extremist. I just call it a natural human reaction.”

For Mendoza, the international community’s response is likely immaterial in the eyes of extremist groups. “Extremists will use whatever factor they can to further their narratives,” he said. 

“If the dial is not turned on Middle East peace, they will use that as a path to recruiting for justice. And yet if the dial is turned, they will reject the peace deal that emerges as a betrayal of the historic land of Palestine and use that instead. 

“Equally, whether there is or isn’t further conflict in the Middle East, the situation will be spun to their benefit. This reminds us that the real problem of radicalization is not a foreign policy issue but a domestic policy. 

“If extremists are given free rein to organize and push their propaganda, then they will reap the rewards. It is only by adopting a zero-tolerance approach to their fantasies that we will be able to put the genie of radicalization back into its bottle.”

Regardless of how extremist groups may manipulate the narrative, the figures published by UK counterterrorism authorities show a correlation between the conflict in the Middle East and increased radicalization, creating a potential security threat.

“Extremist narratives resonate because they always contain some kernels of truth,” said Pearson. “The longer a conflict goes on, the more violence and injustice is visible online that bolsters the narrative, the greater the ongoing risk.”

 


Israel to summon ambassadors of countries that voted for Palestinian UN membership

Updated 21 April 2024
Follow

Israel to summon ambassadors of countries that voted for Palestinian UN membership

  • Thursday’s vote saw 12 countries on the UN Security Council back a resolution recommending full Palestinian membership and two — Britain and Switzerland — abstain
  • Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory

JERUSALEM: Israel will summon ambassadors of countries that voted for full Palestinian UN membership “for a protest talk” on Sunday, a foreign ministry spokesman said.
It came after the Palestinian Authority said it would “reconsider” its relationship with the United States after Washington vetoed the Palestinian membership bid earlier this week.
Thursday’s vote saw 12 countries on the UN Security Council back a resolution recommending full Palestinian membership and two — Britain and Switzerland — abstain.

A Palestinian doctor tends to a baby born prematurely after his mother was injured during Israeli bombardment, at the Kuwait Hospital in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip on April 20, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)

Only the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally, voted against, using its veto to block the resolution.
On Saturday, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Oren Marmorstein said the ministry “will summon for a protest talk the ambassadors of the countries that voted in the Security Council in favor of upgrading the status of the Palestinians in the UN.”
“The ambassadors of France, Japan, South Korea, Malta, the Slovak Republic and Ecuador will be summoned tomorrow for a demarche, and a strong protest will be presented to them,” he said in a post on X.

Blood stains are seen on a wall inside a house following an Israeli raid on the Nur Shams refugee camp in the occupied West bank on April 20, 2024. (AFP)

“An identical protest will be presented to additional countries,” he said.
“The unambiguous message that will be delivered to the ambassadors: A political gesture to the Palestinians and a call to recognize a Palestinian state — six months after the October 7 massacre — is a prize for terrorism.”
The draft resolution called for recommending to the General Assembly “that the State of Palestine be admitted to membership of the United Nations” in place of its current “non-member observer state” status, which it has held since 2012.
The majority of the UN’s 193 member states — 137, according to a Palestinian count — have recognized a Palestinian state.
 

 


Sudan’s horrific war is being fueled by weapons from foreign supporters of rival generals, UN says

Updated 21 April 2024
Follow

Sudan’s horrific war is being fueled by weapons from foreign supporters of rival generals, UN says

  • The RSF was formed from Janjaweed fighters by former Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, who ruled the country for three decades before being overthrown during a popular uprising in 2019
  • Mohamed Ibn Chambas, chair of the African Union panel on Sudan and high representative for its Silence the Guns in Africa initiative, called external interference “a major factor compounding both the efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and to stop the war”

UNITED NATIONS: The year-old war in Sudan between rival generals vying for power has sparked “a crisis of epic proportions” fueled by weapons from foreign supporters who continue to flout UN sanctions aimed at helping end the conflict, the UN political chief said Friday.
“This is illegal, it is immoral, and it must stop,” Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo told the UN Security Council.
Sudan plunged into chaos in mid-April 2023, when long-simmering tensions between its military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary commanded by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo broke out into street battles in the capital, Khartoum. Fighting has spread to other parts of the country, especially urban areas and the western Darfur region.
DiCarlo painted a dire picture of the war’s impact — over 14,000 dead, tens of thousands wounded, looming famine with 25 million people in need of life-saving assistance, and over 8.6 million forced to flee their homes.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, chair of the African Union panel on Sudan and high representative for its Silence the Guns in Africa initiative, called external interference “a major factor compounding both the efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and to stop the war.”
“As a matter of fact, external support in terms of supply of war materiel and other needs has been the main reason why this war has lasted so long,” Chambas said. “It is the elephant in the room.”
Neither DiCarlo nor Chambas named any of the foreign supporters.
But Burhan, who led a military takeover of Sudan in 2021, is a close ally of neighboring Egypt and its president, former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. In February, Sudan’s foreign minister held talks in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart amid unconfirmed reports of drone purchases for government forces.
The Rapid Support Forces’ leader, Dagalo, has reportedly received support from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group. UN experts said in a recent report that the RSF has also received support from Arab allied communities and new military supply lines running through Chad, Libya and South Sudan.
The Arab-dominated RSF has carried out brutal attacks in Darfur on ethnic African civilians, especially the ethnic Masalit, and has taken control of most of the vast region.
Its newest target appears to be El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. Edem Wosornu, the UN humanitarian office’s director of operations, said RSF-affiliated militias attacked and burned villages west of El Fasher on April 13.
“Since then, there have been continuing reports of clashes in the eastern and northern parts of the city, resulting in more than 36,000 people displaced,” she told the council.
Wosornu warned that “the violence poses an extreme and immediate danger to the 800,000 civilians who reside in El Fasher, and it risks triggering further violence in other parts of Darfur — where more than 9 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.”
Two decades ago, Darfur became synonymous with genocide and war crimes, particularly by the notorious Janjaweed Arab militias, against populations that identify as Central or East African.
That legacy appears to have returned, with the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Karim Khan, saying in late January there are grounds to believe both sides may be committing war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Darfur.
The RSF was formed from Janjaweed fighters by former Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, who ruled the country for three decades before being overthrown during a popular uprising in 2019. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and other crimes during the conflict in Darfur in the 2000s.
DiCarlo called for redoubled efforts to bring peace, saying UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ personal envoy for Sudan, Ramtane Lamamra, has proposed convening a meeting with African and Arab organizations and key countries “to develop a comprehensive mediation and peacemaking strategy.”
Chambas said the AU is appealing to countries in the region not to support either side.
It is also organizing “an all inclusive political dialogue for Sudanese that will prepare the civilians for post-war transition to democratic governance,” he said.
“The war has set the country back several decades and it will take more than a generation to rebuild Sudan to its pre-war state,” Chambas said.

 


‘Ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is top priority’

Updated 21 April 2024
Follow

‘Ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is top priority’

  • Fidan said the main cause of instability in the Middle East was Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and Western backing for Israel

ISTANBUL: The tension between Israel and Iran should not distract from the situation in Gaza, and the priority of the international community should be ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said.
Fidan was speaking in Istanbul on Saturday during Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s visit.
Shoukry urged Iran and Israel to exercise restraint.
Shoukry’s visit to Turkiye comes amid high tensions in the Middle East following the apparent Israeli attack on Iran. Israel has said nothing about the incident.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Fidan, Shoukry said the region was concerned about the ongoing escalation.
“We’ve warned of the expansion of the conflict from the very beginning,” he said.
“We’ve called on both parties (Iran and Israel) to exercise restraint.”
Fidan said the main cause of instability in the Middle East was Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and Western backing for Israel.
“Any development that could distract us from this fact should be ignored,” he said. “Our priority should be ending Israel’s occupation in Palestine and a two-state solution.”
He said he and Shoukry discussed efforts to deliver more humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Separately, Shoukry said Egypt would host a Turkish delegation to prepare for a visit by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to Turkiye at a future date.
The ministers met as Gaza’s civil defense agency said an Israeli strike killed nine members of a Palestinian family, including six children, in the southern city of Rafah.
Five children aged one to seven and a 16-year-old girl were among the dead, along with two women and a man, according to the city’s Al-Najjar Hospital.
“Nine martyrs, including six children, were pulled out from the rubble after Israeli air forces struck a house of the Radwan family in Tal Al-Sultan in Rafah,” Gaza Civil Defense agency spokesman Mahmud Bassal said in a statement.

 


Have deaths of Quds Force commanders in Iran-Israel shadow war dented IRGC’s public image and confidence?

Updated 52 min 28 sec ago
Follow

Have deaths of Quds Force commanders in Iran-Israel shadow war dented IRGC’s public image and confidence?

  • Analyst says impossible to speculate if the chain of command has been disrupted by post-Oct. 7 killings ascribed to Israel
  • Another analyst believes Quds Force has suffered setbacks as a result of blows suffered by proxies Hamas and Hezbollah

LONDON: Iran brought its decades-long shadow war with Israel into the open on April 13 when it mounted a combined drone and missile attack in retaliation for a suspected Israeli airstrike on its embassy annex in Damascus, which killed two senior commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Conceived as the principal defenders of the 1979 revolution, the IRGC has evolved into an institution with vast political, economic, and military powers and its own elite clandestine responsible primarily for its foreign operations, the Quds Force.

However, the delayed response and limited scope of the Iranian retaliatory attack has raised questions about the capabilities and competence of the Quds Force following the elimination of a number of its commanders and senior officers in Syria and Lebanon since Oct. 7.

Mourners attend the funeral in Tehran on January 22, 2023, of three Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps members killed in Damascus in a strike blamed on Israel on January 20. (AFP)

Although the April 13 attack was unprecedented, marking the first direct strike by Iran on Israeli territory, some experts think the culling of key officers, coordinators and financiers stationed in Arab countries in suspected Israel strikes has dealt the Quds Force a strategic setback.

The Quds Force helps Iran project influence through a string of regional militias known as the “Axis of Resistance,” made up of the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, the Syrian regime, and various armed groups in Iraq, including several Hashd Al-Shaabi-affiliated groups embedded in Iraq’s formal security apparatus.

Eva J. Koulouriotis, a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, believes the Quds Force’s geopolitical setbacks since Oct. 7 “are significant on a number of fronts.”

She added: “From an intelligence standpoint, and through monitoring the Israeli strikes, whether in Syria or Lebanon, it is clear that we are in front of a major breakthrough that reaches the highest levels inside the Quds Force itself and the militias it runs in both countries.

FASTFACTS

Quds Force personnel killed in Syria since Oct. 7 • Dec. 2, 2023: 2 killed in airstrike in Damascus.Quds Force personnel killed in Syria since Oct. 7

Dec. 2, 2023: 2 killed in airstrike in Damascus.Quds

Dec. 25: 1 killed in airstrike in Damascus.

Jan. 20, 2024:  5 killed in airstrike in Damascus.

Feb. 2: 1 killed in airstrike south of Damascus.

March 1: 1 killed in airstrike in Baniyas.

• March 26: 1 killed in strike in Deir ez-Zor.

April 1: 7 killed in strike on Iranian embassy annex in Damascus.

“This prompted Iran to confirm on the morning of April 14 that its major attack on Israel was to build new ground rules of deterrence to protect its officers and Quds Force advisers in the region.”

Iran’s direct attack on Israel sought to “create a new equation,” IRGC chief Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami claimed in a statement on April 14.

Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. (AFP/File)

“From now on, if Israel attacks Iranian interests, figures and citizens anywhere, we will retaliate from Iran,” he said in an interview with a state-owned television channel.

But as of Friday night, Israel did not seem deterred. Injuries and “material losses” were reported after a large explosion at a military base in Iraq used by the Hashd and home to its chief of staff.

The blast, at the Kalsu facility in Babylon, killed one Hashd fighter and wounded six more, according to nearby hospital sources. Factions within the Hashd took part in rocket and drone attacks on US forces in Iraq in the early months of Israel’s Gaza offensive.

The previous night, Iran’s Fars News Agency said the IRGC’s air defenses intercepted “suspicious objects” flying over Isfahan. Tehran played down the suspected Israeli attack on an air base, which it said involved small drones. Hossein Dalirian, a spokesman for Iran’s National Centre of Cyberspace, said there had been “no air attack from outside borders.”

The area is home to significant Iranian military infrastructure, including a large airbase, a major missile production complex and several nuclear facilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed there has been no damage to Iran’s nuclear sites.

Map showing the location of Isfahan in Iran, the target of a supposed Israeli drone strike last week. (APF/File)

Explosions were also reported in Iraq and Syria — where armed groups backed by Iran operate — but it was unclear if they were directly linked to the Isfahan strike.

In the months since the Hamas-led attack on Israel of Oct. 7 and the ensuing Israeli military assault in Gaza, Iran has reported the loss of at least 18 IRGC personnel in suspected Israeli raids across the region.

The deadliest of these took place on April 1 in Damascus, resulting in the death of the highest-ranking Quds Force commander in Lebanon and Syria, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, and his deputy.

All 18 Quds Force commanders were reportedly killed in Syria, according to the Financial Times, with 16 in Damascus, one in the coastal city of Baniyas, and one in Deir ez-Zor in Syria’s northeast.

A few days before the end of 2023, an Israeli air raid outside Damascus killed Razi Mousavi, a senior Quds Force adviser who was responsible for coordinating the military alliance between Syria and Iran, Reuters news agency reported.

In this photo taken on December 28, 2023, mourners attend the funeral of Razi Mousavi, a senior commander of Iran's Quds Force, who was killed on December 25 in an Israeli strike in Syria. (AFP/File)

Almost a month later, a suspected Israeli strike on a residential building in the Mezzeh Western Villas neighborhood of Damascus killed five Quds Force commanders, including the head of the force’s intelligence unit, Yousef Omidzadeh, and his deputy.

Iran’s retaliation of April 13 was a “symbolic” operation and “not meant to (cause) damage” but rather to “send a message to Israel,” Alam Saleh, an associate professor in Middle Eastern Studies at the Australian National University, told Arab News.

The 300 drones and missiles used in the attack were “insignificant,” said Saleh, explaining that “Iran could do the same with at least 3,000 missiles and drones, and it can do it for a month at least every day.”

The remains of a ballistic missile lies on the shore of the Dead Sea after it was shot down from the sky on April 14, 2024. It was one of the missiles launched by Iran during a missiles and drones attack against Israel. (Reuters)

Due to the nature of the Quds Force, Saleh believes it is impossible to tell whether it has been weakened as a result of its losses since Oct. 7. “We still have very little information about the Quds Force,” he said.

“The Quds Force is not a classic army or military organization. It’s an extraterritorial branch of the IRGC, which is in charge of its operations abroad, in the region particularly, and is in charge of Iran’s regional policies in general, especially when it comes to security studies.

“The Quds Force is accountable to the supreme leader in Iran (Ali Khamenei), so it’s not even part of the government, it is not accountable, it is not transparent.

“What we know is that the Quds Force is an organization that takes (leadership) actions — it is not an executing force — it doesn’t do things, it just leads. And that’s why it has been able to mobilize the non-Iranian armed groups across the region.”

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on December 28, 2023 leads a prayer next to the coffin of of Razi Moussavi, a senior commander in Iran's  Quds Force who was killed on December 25 in an Israeli strike in Syria. (KHAMENEI.IR via AFP)

Although the Quds Force is responsible for training and supporting its regional allies, including Hamas, Saleh said that this “doesn’t mean they are not physically present in the region.”

“They’ve been in Syria, they’ve been in Lebanon for decades, in Iraq, of course, even in Afghanistan, and in Yemen.”

Saleh stressed that even the size of the Quds Force remains unknown, with reports estimating the ranks of the IRGC’s overseas arm at anywhere “between 5,000 and 40,000.”

“What we know is that they are too powerful,” he said.

“Iran could have retaliated 10 or 20 years ago … (but IRGC leaders) have been waiting for this moment first to strengthen their military powers and, second, to enhance their influence and strengthen their allies in the region.”

Considerably less optimistic about the future of the “allies” is political analyst Koulouriotis. Examining the state of two key Axis of Resistance members, she told Arab News: “It is certain that Hamas, as an influential militia (in) the Israeli arena, has become extremely weak.

“Hamas was considered one of the most important pressure cards in the hands of the Quds Force.”

As for the Lebanese arena, she said: “Hezbollah is facing great pressure in the southern front in light of Israeli demands to implement Resolution 1701, which requires Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters beyond the Litani River, and Israeli officials continue to confirm their push to implement this resolution diplomatically and militarily.

“In both cases, Hezbollah is facing a difficult test today, which will make it less effective, leading the Quds Force to lose an additional pressure card in the region.”

However, a report released last month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said that “although Hezbollah has lost over 100 fighters since Oct. 7, this level of casualties is manageable for a large organization with many skilled personnel.”

Hezbollah, a key component of the ,” is considered one of the world’s most heavily armed non-state groups, according to Reuters, and has demonstrated the scale of its arsenal since Oct. 7.

Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets fired by Hezbollah fighters from south Lebanon over the Har Dove area on March 10, 2024, amid increasing cross-border tensions between the Iran-backed militia and Israel. (AFP)

The group is estimated to possess some 150,000 missiles and rockets, which, Hezbollah claims, can reach all areas of Israel.

According to Australian National University’s Saleh, if Israel has been killing Quds Force commanders “in order to change Iran’s behavior and (influence) in the region,” then it may not have achieved much.

“Hezbollah is strengthened,” he told Arab News. “Reportedly, it has over 150,000 rockets, and it has also been facilitated with drones. Of course, the Houthis are also strengthened and are more powerful than ever.

“Hashd Al-Shaabi in Iraq was able to attack an American military base in Jordan, which shows it has also been supplied with highly advanced drones.”

Since Oct. 7, Iran-backed militias have attacked US interests in Iraq and Syria more than 160 times, according to Pentagon figures. One attack on US forces in Jordan, carried out by Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah, killed three Americans.

“If we look at (Israel’s) so-called success from Tehran’s point of view, these assassinations did not work,” said Saleh, referring to the killing of Quds Force commanders. Instead, “they had a negative impact on the region. It made Iran more aggressive and more determined to respond.”

Saleh believes that while the killings “look good in the media,” when it comes to the attack on the Iranian diplomatic premises in Damascus, “Israel has miscalculated.”

And although the suspected attacks “show that Israel is, in terms of intelligence, powerful,” said Saleh, “strategically, (they) didn’t change anything — none of these assassinations changed Iran’s behavior, nor did they reduce its power.”

The Israelis “thought they got away with other assassinations or with targeting Iran’s interests, so they thought they could get away with” the Damascus strike, he said.

Stressing that the US is the only power that can cause “real damage to Iran’s military,” Saleh said Israel, which “doesn’t have the technology or capabilities to invade Iran’s nuclear sites,” has failed to drag the US into a direct confrontation with Iran.

“Iran illustrated a good degree of rationality and responsibility in attacking Israel” by informing the regional powers and international powers about their intentions and resorting to a “very low-scale, symbolic” attack, he said. 

However, “definitely, (the response) won’t be the same next time. Next time, it will be different. It will (involve) elements of surprise, strength, and regional proxies … to make sure Israel is deterred.”
 

 


UN: Complex medical equipment ‘purposefully broken’ in Gaza hospitals

Updated 20 April 2024
Follow

UN: Complex medical equipment ‘purposefully broken’ in Gaza hospitals

  • Speaking to journalists in Geneva via video link from Jerusalem, he described seeing “medical equipment purposefully broken, ultrasounds — which you will know, is a very important tool for helping ensure safe births — with cables that have been cut”

GENEVA: The UN has decried the intentional destruction of complex and hard-to-obtain medical equipment in Gaza’s beleaguered hospitals and maternity wards, further deepening risks to women already giving birth in “inhumane, unimaginable conditions.”
Recent UN-led missions to 10 Gaza hospitals found many “in ruins” and just a couple capable of providing any level of maternal health services, said Dominic Allen, the UN Population Fund or UNFPA representative for the state of Palestine.
He said that what the teams found at the Nasser Hospital complex, long besieged by Israeli forces during their operations in the southern city of Khan Younis, “breaks my heart.”

BACKGROUND

The World Health Organization has described the difficulty of bringing complex medical equipment into Gaza even before the current war erupted in October.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva via video link from Jerusalem, he described seeing “medical equipment purposefully broken, ultrasounds — which you will know, is a very important tool for helping ensure safe births — with cables that have been cut.”

Palestinian forensic experts inspect the body of a dead person uncovered in the vicinity of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on April 17, 2024 after the recent Israeli military operation there amid the ongoing fighting in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)

“Screens of complex medical equipment, like ultrasounds and others with the screens smashed,” he added.
The World Health Organization has described the difficulty of bringing such equipment into Gaza even before the current war erupted following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack inside Israel.
Allen warned that this “purposeful, wanton destruction in the maternity ward,” coupled with other damage and lacking water, sanitation, and electricity, was complicating efforts to get what was previously the second-most important hospital in the Palestinian territory up and running again “to provide a lifeline.”
Meanwhile, at Al-Khair, another specialized maternity hospital in Khan Younis, “it didn’t seem as if there was any piece of working medical equipment,” he said, lamenting that the birthing rooms “stand silent.”
“They should be places that give life, but they just have an eerie sense of death.”
Only 10 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are currently even partially functioning.
And Allen said that only three of those were now capable of assisting the estimated 180 women giving birth across Gaza every single day — around 15 percent of whom suffer complications requiring significant care.
The hospitals that can provide such care are thus facing significant capacity constraints.
The Emirati Hospital in the south, the main maternity hospital in Gaza currently, is, for instance, supporting up to 60 births every day, including as many as 12 Caesarian sections, he said.
Given the heavy pressure on the facility, women are discharged just hours after giving birth, “and after C-sections, it is less than a day,” Allen said, stressing “that increases risks.”
He said there was a risk in the number of complicated procedures linked to “malnutrition, dehydration, and fear, which impact the pregnant woman’s ability to give birth safely and carry their baby to full term safely.”
A doctor at the Emirati hospital had told Allen that “he no longer sees normal-size babies.”
Amid a “completely crippled” health system in Gaza, the UNFPA is “deeply concerned about the ability to provide postnatal care,” he said.
He said the agency was deploying midwives and midwifery kits to makeshift school centers to help fill the gap.
The current war started after Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on Oct. 7.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children. according to the territory’s Health Ministry.