Trump and the Middle East: A new course

US President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, delivers remarks recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the White House in Washington, on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Updated 07 December 2017
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Trump and the Middle East: A new course

• Trump has instituted a policy of unwavering support for Israel after a period of strained relations between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The last days of the Obama administration included an extraordinary US refusal at the UN to block a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction.
Netanyahu welcomed Trump’s November 2016 election saying he was a “true friend of the State of Israel.” Since then, Trump has appointed a US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, known for his support for settlement activity, and ordered the withdrawal of US support for UNESCO, citing anti-Israel bias. Trump has tasked his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser, with relaunching moribund peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But he has been lukewarm about a Palestinian state and angered Palestinian leaders earlier this year with a threat — since withdrawn — to close the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington.
• Trump considers Iran to be the principal threat to US interests in the Middle East and has frequently condemned the Islamic Republic for what he sees as its “destabilizing” influence in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
Trump has been a relentless critic of the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 and has repeatedly threatened to scrap the agreement intended to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
• Trump has strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia. Relations with another Middle East powerhouse — Egypt — have also entered a new era under Trump. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was persona non grata under Obama and the US cut off some military aid because of the bloody crackdown on supporters of the former president. But Trump welcomed El-Sisi to the White House in April and proclaimed his “strong backing” for the Egyptian leader.
• Trump frequently accused Obama of failing to stand up to Bashar Assad and in April he ordered the first US military strike on Syrian troops since the civil war began in that country. Dozens of US missiles were fired at a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on a rebel town which left 87 people dead. The US has deployed some 2,000 troops in Syria and the Pentagon said Tuesday that they will stay “as long as we need” to prevent a return of the Daesh group.
Trump also reinforced the US military contingent in Afghanistan, a move at odds with Obama’s efforts to withdraw US troops from conflict zones abroad.


Hamas pledges Gaza rocket fire probe as calm returns

Updated 18 October 2018
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Hamas pledges Gaza rocket fire probe as calm returns

  • Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for a decade, issued a joint statement with its ally Islamic Jihad publicly disavowing the rocket fire
  • The risk of a new war, whether through miscalculation or design, remained

GAZA: Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas on Thursday pledged to launch an investigation into rocket fire at Israel the previous day, in an apparent bid to calm fears of a new war.
Israeli children returned to schools near the border with the Palestinian territory that had been closed on Wednesday after the pre-dawn rocket fire from Gaza badly damaged a family home in the southern city of Beersheba.
But the risk of a new war, whether through miscalculation or design, remained.
Three children had a narrow escape after their mother moved them into the safe room, as much of the rest of the house was destroyed, the army said.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for a decade, issued a joint statement with its ally Islamic Jihad publicly disavowing the rocket fire.
But Israel rejected their denial, saying they were the only groups armed with rockets of a range sufficient to reach Beersheba — 40 kilometers (25 miles) away — and the sea off Tel Aviv — 70 kilometers (45 miles).
Israel in any case holds Hamas responsible, as Gaza’s de factor ruler, for all fire from the territory regardless of who launches it.
“There are security service investigations in Gaza to uncover who is behind the rocket fire and there will be harsh measures against those (found guilty),” senior Hamas official Bassem Naim told AFP.
He said the rocket fire “aimed to sabotage Egyptian efforts” to broker a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel, which have fought three wars since 2008.
A video published by Hamas’s military wing on Thursday showed militants preparing rockets for launch, with the caption: “Read us correctly, a mistake would not benefit,” written in Hebrew.
Near daily protests along the border since March 30 against Israel’s crippling 11-year blockade of the impoverished enclave have sparked repeated clashes with the army.
More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, while one Israeli soldier has been shot dead.
Wednesday’s rocket fire triggered retaliatory Israeli air strikes that killed one suspected militant and raised fears of a new escalation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chaired a meeting of the security cabinet lasting several hours on Wednesday evening.
But no statement was released afterwards and Israeli media reported that ministers had failed to agree on how to respond to the rocket fire and the persistent protests.
The mass circulation Yediot Aharonot newspaper said the swift action of the mother in Beersheba to protect her family had probably prevented a new war.
“If the rocket attack had resulted in casualties, the political echelon’s manoeuvring room would have been reduced to zero, and Israel would have launched, just like it did four years ago, a military operation that it neither wants nor which it believes will be effective.”
Hamas seized control of Gaza from loyalists of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in a near civil war in 2007 and the split has made peace negotiations with Israel harder.
Egypt and the UN have been seeking to broker an agreement that would see Israel relax its blockade of Gaza in exchange for a prolonged period of calm from Hamas.
Abbas’s Fatah movement opposes any such deal, saying it amounts to a recognition of Islamist control in Gaza.
Egyptian Intelligence Minister Abbas Kamel had been expected in Gaza on Thursday for his first visit since taking up the post in January, fueling talk of a deal.
Hamas official Naim said the minister was forced to postpone because of a timetabling problem.
But an Egyptian delegation led by senior intelligence official Ayman Badea did travel to Gaza and met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniya.
An Egyptian official told AFP they were still hopeful of achieving a long-term deal to restore calm.
Egypt is one of only two Arab states to have official relations with Israel and plays a key role in indirect negotiations between the Jewish state and Hamas.
Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political analyst in Gaza, said those who fired the rockets wanted to prevent the Egyptian minister’s visit and “stop reconciliation and a truce.”
Fringe Islamist groups opposed to Hamas have previously fired rockets. Suspicion could also fall on factions within Hamas and Islamic Jihad opposed to a truce deal.