Rocket barrages, Israeli strikes threaten new Gaza war

Relatives of Mohammed Ouda, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike, mourn during his funeral in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 14 November 2018

Rocket barrages, Israeli strikes threaten new Gaza war

  • Schools were closed in the Gaza Strip and in southern Israel as both sides warned the other that it would respond forcefully to any further violence
  • The military says it has so far struck some 150 targets in the Gaza Strip

GAZA: Hamas and other Gaza militant groups said Tuesday they have accepted an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire after launching hundreds of rockets into Israel over the past 24 hours and weathering a wave of Israeli airstrikes.
There was no immediate word from Israel on whether it had accepted a deal to halt the heaviest exchange of fire with Gaza’s Hamas rulers since a 2014 war.
Just an hour before the militants made their declaration, the Israeli Security Cabinet said it had ordered the military to “continue operations as needed,” following a six-hour meeting.
The cease-fire was announced by a group of Gaza militant groups, including Hamas, whose leader Ismail Haniyeh earlier signaled a readiness to halt the latest round of fighting. He said the Islamic militant group would stop its rocket fire if Israel halts its airstrikes.
The worst escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since a 2014 war threatened to descend into full-blown conflict on Tuesday after further barrages of rocket fire and dozens more airstrikes overnight.
Six Palestinians were killed in Gaza in less than 24 hours as Israeli strikes targeted militants and flattened buildings while sending fireballs and plumes of smoke into the sky.

Sirens wailed in southern Israel and tens of thousands of residents took cover in shelters as around 400 rockets and mortar rounds were fired from the Gaza Strip, wounding 27 people, including three severely.
A Palestinian laborer from the occupied West Bank was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Schools were closed in the Gaza Strip and in southern Israel as both sides warned the other that it would respond forcefully to any further violence.
A spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing, Abu Obeida, threatened to further expand its targets “if the enemy continues to bomb civilian buildings.”
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said: “What we have signaled to Hamas over this night is that we have the intelligence and capabilities to strike a very wide range of military targets that belong to Hamas.”
Egypt, which has negotiated cease-fires following previous flare-ups, was said to be seeking to restore calm.
UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov, who along with Egypt had been seeking a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, called the escalation “extremely dangerous” and said on Twitter that “restraint must be shown by all.”
The latest round of violence began on Sunday with a botched Israeli special forces operation inside the Gaza Strip that turned deadly and prompted Hamas to vow revenge.
The clash that resulted from the blown covert operation killed seven Palestinian militants, including a local Hamas military commander, as well as an Israeli army officer.
Palestinian militants responded with rocket and mortar fire, as well as an anti-tank missile that hit a bus that Hamas says was being used by Israeli soldiers. A soldier was severely wounded in the attack.
Missile defenses intercepted more than 100 rockets from Gaza and most others fell in open areas, though some hit houses and other civilian structures.
“Within two seconds (after air sirens) we heard a huge boom, we saw our curtains flying in the air, windows (broken), and only after a few minutes when we went out, we realized that the missile had hit the building next to us,” said Claude Bonfito, who lives near a block of flats hit by a rocket in the Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Israel hit back with major airstrikes, with targets including Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV station and internal security headquarters in Gaza City.
The military says it has so far struck some 150 targets in the Gaza Strip.
“What happened was like an earthquake,” said Abu Ayman Lemzeni, who lives near the destroyed TV building.
“As you see, here there is no more the grocery, the pharmacy, the office, the wall, the building.”
Five of the dead in Gaza were claimed as members of various militant groups. Some 25 other people were wounded in the Palestinian territory, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
After Sunday’s clash, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris and flew home.
He convened a meeting of his security Cabinet on Tuesday.
The escalation has come despite Netanyahu’s decision to allow Qatar to transfer millions of dollars in aid to the Gaza Strip for salaries as well as fuel to ease an electricity shortage.
The agreements had led to calmer protests along the Gaza border after months of deadly unrest.
Sunday’s special forces operation and resulting clash upset those efforts, leading to questions over the timing of the covert Israeli move.
Israel said it was an intelligence-gathering operation and that those efforts must continue to defend the country.
Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars since 2008, and protests and clashes along the Gaza border since March 30 have repeatedly raised fears of a fourth.
At least 233 Palestinians in Gaza have since been killed by Israeli fire, the majority during protests and clashes.
Two Israeli soldiers have been killed over the same period.


Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

Updated 17 September 2019

Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

  • The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is putting increased pressure on the nation’s armed factions, including Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish guerrillas, in an attempt to tighten his control over them, Iraqi military commanders and analysts said on Monday.

Military commanders have been stripped of some of their most important powers as part of the efforts to prevent them from being drawn into local or regional conflicts.

The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq. 

Each side has dozens of allied armed groups in the country, which has been one of the biggest battlegrounds for the two countries since 2003. 

Attempting to control these armed factions and military leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing the Iraqi government as it works to keep the country out of the conflict.

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi dissolved the leadership of the joint military operations. 

They will be replaced by a new one, under his chairmanship, that includes representatives of the ministries of defense and interior, the military and security services, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Ministry of Peshmerga, which controls the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

According to the prime minister’s decree, the main tasks of the new command structure are to “lead and manage joint operations at the strategic and operational level,” “repel all internal and external threats and dangers as directed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” “manage and coordinate the intelligence work of all intelligence and security agencies,” and “coordinate with international bodies that support Iraq in the areas of training and logistical and air support.”

“This decree will significantly and effectively contribute to controlling the activities of all combat troops, not just the PMU,” said a senior military commander, who declined to be named. 

“This will block any troops associated with any local political party, regional or international” in an attempt to ensure troops serve only the government’s goals and the good of the country. 

“This is explicit and unequivocal,” he added.

Since 2003, the political process in Iraq has been based on political power-sharing system. This means that each parliamentary bloc gets a share of top government positions, including the military, proportionate to its number of seats in Parliament. Iran, the US and a number of regional countries secure their interests and ensure influence by supporting Iraqi political factions financially and morally.

This influence has been reflected in the loyalties and performance of the majority of Iraqi officials appointed by local, regional and international parties, including the commanders of combat troops.

To ensure more government control, the decree also stripped the ministers of defense and interior, and leaders of the counterterrorism, intelligence and national security authorities, and the PMU, from appointing, promoting or transferring commanders. This power is now held exclusively by Abdul Mahdi.

“The decree is theoretically positive as it will prevent local, regional and international parties from controlling the commanders,” said another military commander. 

“This means that Abdul Mahdi will be responsible to everyone inside and outside Iraq for the movement of these forces and their activities.

“The question now is whether Abdul Mahdi will actually be able to implement these instructions or will it be, like others, just ink on paper?”

The PMU is a government umbrella organization established by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in June 2014 to encompass the armed factions and volunteers who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. Iranian-backed factions such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah represent the backbone of the forces.

The US, one of Iraq’s most important allies in the region and the world, believes Iran is using its influence within the PMU to destabilize and threaten Iraq and the region. Abdul Mahdi is under huge external and internal pressure to abolish the PMU and demobilize its fighters, who do not report or answer to the Iraqi government.

The prime minister aims to ease tensions between the playmakers in Iraq, especially the US and Iran, by preventing their allies from clashing on the ground or striking against each other’s interests.

“Abdul Mahdi seeks to satisfy Washington and reassure them that the (armed) factions of the PMU will not move against the will of the Iraqi government,” said Abdullwahid Tuama, an Iraqi analyst.

The prime minister is attempting a tricky balancing act by aiming to protect the PMU, satisfy the Iranians and prove to the Americans that no one is outside the authority of the state, he added.