Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Iran, Gaza and Gilad Shalit

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Update from AIJAC

December 23, 2009
Number 12/09 #06


Today's Update concerns the linked issues of Iran, Egypt, Gaza and the fate of Gilad Shalit.

It opens with a discussion in the Wall Street Journal of "The Peoples' Revolt in Iran," an editorial discussing the mass protests at this week's funeral for opposition figure (but former heir apparent to the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) Hossein Ali Montazeri.

The editorial summarises the Iranian opposition movement's aims, discusses the failing legitimacy of the Iranian regime, and questions US President Barack Obama's engagement with it at the same time all this has been happening. To read this important editorial, CLICK HERE.

In a position paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iran expert Mehdi Khalaji ponders the next moves for the opposition movement. It was published Dec. 18, but is still relevant and well worth reading.

Iran's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, recently made a trip to Cairo, where he defended Iran's support for Hamas. Meanwhile, in the lead up to the state visit, Egyptian newspapers have been warning against Iran's growing interference in the Arab world.

Also in the Egyptian media, though slightly off-topic, a debate on the banning of the niqab, the head-to-toes covering for Muslim women, in al-Azhar girl schools and women's dorms at al-Azhar University, one of the bastions of Islamic learning.

Still on Egypt, Cairo's decision to build a metal barrier on and under the Egypt-Gaza border is, not surprisingly, causing Egyptian-Hamas tension. Khaled Abu Toameh, of the Jerusalem Post, has a useful analysis of the whys and wherefores of Egyptian-Hamas relations here.

Our second article in today's Update is a briefing by BICOM on Israeli policy vis-à-vis access to Gaza. While there is no particularly new insight in the briefing, it's very useful to remind ourselves of what the policy is, why it's in place, and the ramifications this has on Egyptians, Israelis, Palestinians and their respective leaderships and diplomatic relations. This is especially true as renewed talk of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap will likely refocus media attention on Gaza. To read the BICOM briefing CLICK HERE.

Two other recent BICOM briefings are also worth reading; one about Israeli inquiries into Operation Cast Lead and another about recent revelations of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's peace offer to the Palestinians.

The fate of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006, has been dominating Israeli headlines for the past few days. Israel and Hamas are very close to making a prisoner exchange deal. Israel has apparently agreed to the number - one thousand - of Palestinian prisoners to be released. However, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu doesn't want any of them to be released to the West Bank, where they will be closer to Israeli citizens and better able to go back to their terrorist ways. Rather, Netanyahu wants them to be exiled to either Gaza or abroad. Hamas is refusing these demands.

But beyond these small but important differences, is the more fateful decision Netanyahu has to make as to whether the release should go ahead at all. Should Israel obtain Shalit's release, but also release terrorists (possibly endangering more Israeli lives in the process), and thereby encourage other Palestinian plots to capture more Israelis? Indeed, Palestinian Media Watch has released a report cataloguing all the statements made in Palestinian media supporting more kidnapping.

Netanyahu's inner 'kitchen cabinet' of seven, including Netanyahu, is apparently split down the middle, meaning the final decision is ultimately up to Netanyahu alone. There are many articles for and against the deal. One against it is a Jerusalem Post editorial. From the same paper comes an impassioned plea against the deal by a man whose son was killed fighting Hamas. A Haaretz editorial, which argues the case for the deal, is the third article of this Update. To read it, CLICK HERE.

This will be the last Update for 2009. AIJAC wishes all those who celebrate Christmas a safe and happy holiday, and a happy new year to all our readers.

AIJAC also wishes to apologise for the two identical Updates that would have appeared in your inboxes yesterday morning, Australian time. A technical hiccup was the culprit.

Readers may also be interested in:
  • Adm. Mike Mullen, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said force must be an option for Iran.
  • Hamas has claimed credit for the recent arrest warrant issued in Britain for Kadima leader and former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
  • Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has made his first trip to Syria in his new role, meeting the man he believes killed his father.
  • Polish police found the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign stolen from over Auschwitz's entry.
  • World War II pope, Pius XII, has moved one step closer to sainthood, in a controversial move by Pope Benedict XVI.
  • MEMRI has translated a debate on al-Jazeera between a Bahraini liberal and Egyptian Islamist.
  • The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece by former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton on the problems with universal jurisdiction.
  • Former US President Jimmy Carter, whose book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, and various other actions and statements have caused outrage, has apologised to Israel. It's four months too early to be an April Fools joke, so he might be serious. 

The Peoples' Revolt in Iran

Editorial, Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2009

The foundation stones of Iran's Islamic Republic were shaken again yesterday, showing that the largest antigovernment movement in its 30 years may be one of the biggest stories of next year as well. Now imagine the possibilities if the Obama Administration began to support Iran's democrats.

The perseverance of the so-called Green Movement is something to behold. Millions of Iranians mobilized against the outcome of June's fraudulent presidential election, and their protests were violently repressed. But the cause has only grown in scope, with the aim of many becoming nothing less than the death of a hated system.

Yesterday offered a glimpse into the regime's crisis of legitimacy. As in the waning days of the Shah in the late 1970s, Iranians merely need an excuse to show what they think of their rulers. The funeral of a leading Shiite cleric who'd inspired and guided the opposition brought out tens to hundreds of thousands to Iran's religious capital of Qom. Media coverage is severely restricted, but the demonstration's size was impossible to deny.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died Sunday, was no ordinary religious figure. He stood alongside the leader of the Islamic Revolution, his mentor Ayatollah Khomeini, and he was handpicked to replace him. But Montazeri broke with the ruling mullahs in the late 1980s, criticizing their violence and repression. And in recent months, he became a spiritual leader to the opposition.

He knew the regime intimately: "A political system based on force, oppression, changing people's votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate," he wrote.

Ailing at his death, Montazeri leaves behind a legacy Iranian modernizers can build on. Like the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, he believed that the Shiite clergy should stay out of democratic politics. He also helped shape views on Iran's nuclear program. In October, Montazeri issued a fatwa against developing an Iranian bomb. His statement confirmed the view among Green Movement figures who believe an atomic weapon will only consolidate the regime's hold on power and isolate Iran.

Absent religious legitimacy for the so-called Islamic Republic, the current rulers must rely on blunt means of preservation, such as the elite Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji militias. Thus Iran seems to be morphing into a military dictatorship, not unlike the Poland of Wojciech Jaruzelski after the "workers"-the supposed communist vanguard-turned against that regime.

Relying on thugs carries risks. During the summer protests, many protestors were killed, tortured and raped in the regime's jails. Among the dead is the son of a prominent conservative parliamentarian. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei sought to damp public outrage by closing the most notorious prison at Kahrizak, but pressure has continued to build. Reversing months of denials, the government on Saturday acknowledged the abuses, bringing charges against 12 military officials for the murder of three young protestors this summer.

Previously a neutral broker in Iranian politics, Khamenei undermined himself by siding so openly with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after June's elections. The decision to prosecute, which he would have had to sign off on, may be another miscalculation. A trial could help expose the corruption at the heart of this system.

(Another Polish parallel comes to mind: The 1984 trial of the secret policemen who murdered the pro-Solidarity priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, that further hurt that government's credibility.)

Which brings us to President Obama. Throughout this turbulent year in Iran, the White House has been behind the democratic curve. When the demonstrations started, Mr. Obama abdicated his moral authority by refusing to take sides, while pushing ahead with plans to negotiate a grand diplomatic bargain with Mr. Ahmadinejad that trades recognition for suspending the nuclear program.

Mr. Obama has since moved at least to embrace "universal values," and in his Nobel address this month he mentioned the democracy protestors by name. The White House yesterday sent condolences to Montazeri's friends and family, which is what passes for democratic daring in this Administration.

But the White House is also still pleading for talks even as its December deadline passes without any concession from Tehran. Meantime, the Iranian opposition virtually begs Washington not to confer any legitimacy on the regime, and the democracy demonstrators crave American support. Iran's civil society clock may now be ticking faster than its nuclear clock. However hard it may be to achieve, a new regime in Tehran offers the best peaceful way to halt Iran's atomic program. Shouldn't American policy be directed toward realizing that goal?

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BICOM Briefing: Israeli policy on access to Gaza

December 21, 2009
Key points

* Israel's policy on its border with Gaza is determined by both security and political considerations. Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction and is still holding kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel does not want to act in a way that will enable Hamas to reap political reward from its control of Gaza or that would undermine the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. In addition, Israel fears Hamas may use imported materials, including construction materials, for military purposes.

* Israel facilitates the flow of goods including food, medical supplies, educational material and agricultural materials through its border into Gaza. There is no limit on the quantity of essential commodities allowed.

* At the same time, Israel's policy is not to operate normal trade relations with the Hamas regime. Therefore Israel restricts the type of goods and materials that enter from Israel.

What is the situation in the Gaza Strip?

Gaza has been under the complete control of Hamas since they violently expelled forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. Hamas, backed by Iran, poses a threat to Israel, Egypt and the moderate Palestinian camp. Due to this, both Israel and Egypt tightly restrict access through their respective borders. Israel controls the airspace and coastline.

As a result of the restrictions, international aid agencies report extensive problems. The economy is very weak, and there are severe shortages of certain goods including building materials. Infrastructure, including power, sewage and water facilities, is in a poor state of repair. Existing problems were exacerbated by damage caused by Operation Cast Lead. Many houses and buildings that were damaged remain unrepaired. There are considerable strains on basic services including health and education. Delivery of services is greatly complicated by the division between the Hamas regime in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

The UN, World Bank and other international aid agencies operate extensively on the ground. The UN agency UNRWA alone employs more than 10,000 people to run internationally funded health, education and social services.

What goods enter Gaza from Israel?

Israel accepts that even though it withdrew from Gaza, and considers Gaza under the rule of Hamas to be an 'enemy entity', it still has a humanitarian responsibility to the population. Israel, therefore, allows international aid and trade in basic commodities through its border.

There is no limit on the quantity of essential commodities entering Gaza from Israel, only on types of goods. Goods that routinely enter include food, medical supplies, educational materials/stationary, cleaning supplies, agricultural materials, animal feed and livestock. Israel also supplies commercial fuel for the power station and cooking fuel.

In addition Israel has responded to specific needs and requests from international aid agencies. Israel recently allowed the transfer of Swine Flu vaccines, masks and medications into Gaza. In November, Israel facilitated thousands of cattle to be shipped into Gaza for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. In the past few months, materials have entered to facilitate water, sewage, and electrical infrastructure repairs. In July, Israel authorised hundreds of tonnes of cement and building materials to support UN-sponsored construction projects.

Figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) show that the total amount of materials transferred into the Gaza Strip from Israel in 2009 up to the end of November (not including fuel) was 28,431 truckloads, compared to 26,838 trucks for the whole on 2008. Of 64,000 tonnes of goods that entered Gaza from Israel in November, 89% was private sector trade and 11% was international aid.

Israel is not the only source of goods into Gaza. Whilst Egypt allows hardly any goods to enter though its border, much of what enters Gaza today is smuggled though tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. This includes a wide range of goods not allowed through the Israeli border, including weaponry. It was recently reported that Egypt is erecting a metal wall along its border with Gaza in an attempt to prevent smuggling through the tunnels.

Whilst the quantities of basic goods that enter Gaza from Israel have fluctuated over the past year, this is linked to demand, which is also affected by the supply from the smuggling tunnels. A UN report in October suggested that one reason the quantities of certain materials entering from Israel had declined was 'market saturation'.

From the beginning of the year to November 16, 4000 medical patients accompanied by 3600 escorts had passed through the border into Israel for medical treatment. Some traders also have special dispensation to enter Israel to organise imports of goods. 18500 permits had been granted for Palestinians to leave Gaza and enter Israel or travel overseas in 2009.

Why are there restrictions on the Israel-Gaza border?

The Gaza Strip is under the complete control of Hamas. They are able to manage what passes through the borders for their own political and military purposes. Israel's policy on its border with Gaza is determined by both security and political considerations.

On a political level, Israel balances its humanitarian responsibility to Gaza's population with its desire not to take actions that will strengthen Hamas's regime and undermine the moderate Palestinian camp in the West Bank. Israel is also concerned not to make concessions to Hamas whilst they continue to hold Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive. Israel therefore restricts the range of goods that it allows to be imported into Gaza, and has only allowed exports via its border in isolated cases. Israel is aware that Hamas is able to divert goods that enter to its own supporters. In February, UNRWA temporarily suspended aid shipments into Gaza after an aid consignment was confiscated by Hamas.

On a security level, Israel is also extremely wary of allowing the entry of 'dual use' materials that could be misused by Hamas. A Human Rights Watch in a report in August 2009 noted that steel pipes and fertiliser have been used in the production of rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants. Cement can also be used by Hamas for its military infrastructure.

Since Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has been rearming with help from Iran. In November 2009 Hamas test fired a rocket in with a range of 60km, capable of reaching Tel Aviv.

Operating the border crossings themselves poses security risks for Israel. There were several terror attacks on the crossing points in 2008. At the fuel terminal at Nahal Oz, for example, two Israeli workers were killed in April 2008. Security threats to the terminal have forced operations to be shifted to an alternative facility at Kerem Shalom crossing point.

Hamas has recently taken steps to restrict who enters Israel from Gaza. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) recently condemned Hamas for creating a new obligation for individuals to obtain permission from the Hamas controlled Ministry of Interior in Gaza before they can travel. According to PCHR, on 7 December, 37 patients and their companions were prevented from leaving Gaza because they had failed to obtain the new exit permits.

Political background

In 2005, Israel withdrew all civilian and military presence from Gaza in an attempt to create grounds for Palestinian sovereignty without Israeli control.

The Agreement on Movement and Access was established in November 2005, creating a framework for greatly advancing movement and access in Gaza and the West Bank, including the import and export of goods and the movement of people.

Implementation of the Agreement on Movement and Access became impossible after the election of Hamas in January 2006. Rocket attacks from Gaza against Israeli civilians greatly increased after the election of Hamas. After Hamas violently expelled forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas from Gaza In June 2007, they strengthened their hold on Gaza and increased their arsenal. In the first four months of 2008 there was a rocket or mortar fired at Israel on average every three and a half hours.

Under what circumstances might the situation change?

Both Israel and Egypt are likely to remain reluctant to relax the restrictions on Gaza whilst the Hamas regime remains in place. Israel demands that Hamas meet the conditions of the Quartet by recognising Israel, renouncing violence and accept previous agreements.

Egypt has offered to open its Rafah border crossing if Hamas agrees to sign a unity agreement with Fatah, but finding agreement between Hamas and Fatah has proven elusive.

Israel is keen to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian moderate camp, and to avoid steps that will strengthen Hamas, especially with Palestinian elections now due. Israel is also reluctant to ease its restrictions without a deal to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Either a deal to bring about the release of Shalit, or a Palestinian unity agreement leading to new Palestinian elections in Gaza and the West Bank, could bring a change in the political climate that might improve the situation in Gaza.

The West Bank: An example of cooperation and growth

Since the split between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2007, the international community has sought to support moderate Palestinians in the West Bank, and not the Hamas regime in Gaza. The Israeli government is seeking to promote Palestinian economic development in the West Bank, in the belief that this will undermine extremism and create a more conducive environment for peace. Israeli restrictions on movement and access in the West Bank have been eased considerably. In mid-2009, the IMF estimated that if easing of restrictions continued, economic growth in the West Bank for 2009 could reach 7%.

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End the indecision

Editorial, Haaretz, December 22, 2009

The scope of the dilemma facing Israel's decision-makers regarding the deal to free Gilad Shalit is demonstrated by the protracted deliberations of the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers yesterday and Sunday. The smaller the gaps become between the positions of Hamas and Israel, the more obvious the difficulty becomes. The ultimatum of the German mediator underscored to the cabinet the necessity of making a decision.

The apparent tie among the other six ministers means that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will determine the abducted soldier's fate. It is he who will have to explain his decision to that part of the Israeli public that will object to it. If he approves the deal he will have to explain the release of prisoners responsible for major terror attacks in exchange for Shalit. If he rejects the mediator's offer, he will have to explain why to the Shalits and to those who support accepting Hamas' demands.

Infuriatingly, these agonizing deliberations are taking place three and a half years too late. The Hamas demands are not new, and the lengthy and frustrating negotiations have made it clear that there is a limit to the concessions each side is prepared to make. The mistakes made during the term of prime minister Ehud Olmert and the foot-dragging in Netanyahu's have added to the other considerations surrounding the decision: the superfluous ones of prestige, party politics and personal pressures. They have shifted the focus of the decision making process from its proper place - delivering on the state's duty to - to populist considerations.

The cabinet will not be able to wash its hands of responsibility with the spurious claim that it has "done everything" to obtain Shalit's release. True, it clamped a cruel blockade on Gaza as a means of applying pressure, but the heavy price of that is paid by the Gazans, not Hamas. The massive military operation in Gaza did nothing to advance his release, and in the end Israel had to return to negotiations.

Not a single new reason that justifies keeping the Shalits and the Israeli public in suspense - and jeopardizing Shalit's life - has been added to the sum total of security and political considerations. Israel's security does not depend on whether another 10 or 20 terrorists are freed. Israel's prestige is not measured only by its ability to combat terrorism, and its failure is not a function of the roars of triumph with which Hamas will welcome its freed prisoners. Gilad Shalit, who could have been free a long time ago, must come home now.

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