Middle East

Has Iran lost control of its proxies?

During a press conference in Tehran at the end of last month, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps spokesman Brigadier-General Ramezan Sharif claimed that ‘the Al-Aqsa Storm was one of the retaliations of the Axis of Resistance against the Zionists for the martyrdom of Qasem Soleimani’. It was an extraordinary statement. Iran had insisted that while it supported the Al-Aqsa Storm (what Hamas calls its 7 October attack), it wasn’t directly involved in its planning or execution. Israeli intelligence believes this to be true. Despite receiving significant Iranian weapons and training, Hamas had not informed Tehran in advance of its plans. So why was Sharif suddenly claiming Hamas acted as part ‘of

The mystery of the Mandaeans, the gnostic sect that worships John the Baptist

Gnosticism – the belief that the creation of the material world was a mistake, and the creator deity a bungling lesser entity distinct from the supreme God – has been vigorously opposed by both Jews and Christians down the centuries. Yet even when censured, the gnostics’ views retained a certain appeal. They said that human beings have a spark of light from above and, with the right preparation for the journey, can hope to ascend beyond this broken material prison to the celestial realm of light. We can see the impact of that viewpoint in popular thought about the afterlife, even among those who reject Gnosticism’s other teachings as heresy.

Inside the Hamas split over its war with Israel

Hamas leaders based in Qatar have been holding talks with Palestinian officials from Fatah, the political organisation that dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA) which governs the West Bank. The once rival organisations are in discussions about forming an alliance for governing Gaza after the war with Israel. For the Palestinian Authority, this is an opportunity to return to Gaza nearly 18 years after the organisation lost the legislative elections to Hamas in 2006. The PA has been deeply unpopular among Palestinians for some time. A poll conducted in Gaza and the West Bank at the end of November found that support for Hamas tripled since the start of the war,

‘A war for Middle East stability’: Israeli President Isaac Herzog on what’s at stake in the conflict with Hamas

President Isaac ‘Bougie’ Herzog is Israeli aristocracy. His father, Chaim Herzog, was the sixth president, serving between 1983 and 1993; his grandfather Yitzhak Herzog was chief rabbi; his maternal uncle was Abba Eban, the most famous of the country’s foreign ministers. After leading the Israeli Labor party and the parliamentary opposition in the Knesset between 2013 and 2017, Isaac became Israel’s 11th president in July 2021. He is the first to be born in Israel since the Declaration of Independence 75 years ago. My first question rather asks itself: how is the war going? ‘Depends on what you mean by war,’ Herzog quickly replies, before turning the discussion away from

Why is Australia turning its back on Israel?

In the days after the 7 October attack on Israel, Australia vowed to stand with Israel. It appears to have forgotten that pledge. When the United Nations General Assembly voted in October in favour of an immediate humanitarian truce in Gaza, Australia abstained because the motion failed to explicitly mention, let alone condemn, Hamas. James Larsen, Australia’s representative to the UN, said he could not support the resolution because its failure to name the 7 October culprits meant it was ‘incomplete’. Last night, the UN General Assembly again voted resoundingly in favour of a ceasefire. This time, Australia abandoned its principles, broke with the United States and the United Kingdom, and

There’s only one winner in Egypt’s sham election

After three days of voting, the polls close today in Egypt’s presidential elections. The result is expected on 18 December, but voters already know there can be only one winner: president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has been in power for nearly a decade. The other candidates for the presidency (those permitted to stand against him) aren’t really running to win but are simply there to make up the numbers and help create the impression that voters are being offered a choice. This sham of an electoral process reveals much about Sisi’s iron grip on the country and its main organs of state, including the much-feared security services. After seizing power

Joe Biden is all at sea on Israel’s war in Gaza

No amount of presidential bluster or White House spin can disguise the fact that the Biden administration appears increasingly clueless about what to do about the war in Gaza. Having tied US policy to Israel’s war aims – specifically the destruction of Hamas – US president Joe Biden now finds himself in a tight spot as the death toll in Gaza continues to rise. It is not entirely his fault: backing Israel – both militarily and  politically – is  a longstanding pillar of US Middle East policy, regardless of which political party is in power. Biden was merely reaffirming this when he stood behind Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ in the wake

Israel should think twice before assassinating Hamas’s leaders

Israel knows that airstrikes alone cannot help it to win its war against Hamas. To handicap its enemy, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) must kill or capture the group’s leaders, both in Gaza – where they are hiding out in intricate tunnel complexes – and elsewhere, in other countries in the Middle East, including Qatar. But the cost of such dangerous operations will be high – and could easily backfire. For now, the priority for Israel is targeting Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. On the hitlist is Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza; Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades; and Deif’s second-in-command,

Why Israel is changing tactics in its war on Hamas

The conflict in Gaza is about to enter a crucial phase as Israel continues its military campaign to destroy Hamas. After a seven-day pause in hostilities saw Hamas release 110 hostages in return for 240 Palestinians, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) are now locked into a more complex and politically tricky battle as they venture into southern Gaza. If the IDF adopts the same tactics in the south as they did in the north of the Gaza Strip, then thousands more Palestinian civilians will die. There are signs, however, that Israel is changing tactics after bowing to pressure from allies. Over 15,000 civilians have been killed, according to the Hamas-controlled

How Hamas’s ceasefire gamble backfired

Hamas’s refusal to negotiate the return of the remaining women still in captivity and an early morning missile attack on Israel brought the ceasefire to an abrupt end on Friday. The Israeli government would have continued to put up with minor infractions by Hamas, and carried on with the deal, despite their repeated violations. However, Hamas’s insistence on drastically changing the terms of the agreement pushed Israel to resume assaults in a sign to Hamas that it refuses to be pushed around. Hamas needed the ceasefire, but miscalculated – thinking that it could push the envelope even more without consequence. It went too far. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has been

Can Hamas really be ‘eliminated’?

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell offered a provocative insight into the nature of Hamas this week. Speaking at the Union of the Mediterranean Forum, Borrell said that: ‘Hamas is not merely a group of individuals but an unkillable idea and ideology.’ This view is a worrying one for Israel as it seeks, in the words of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to ‘eliminate’ Hamas. But what if Borell is right that Hamas cannot be destroyed? History suggests that seemingly invincible organisations and ideologies can indeed be defeated, often after military defeat, through thorough socio-economic and political reformations. Take Nazi Germany. While comparisons with the Third Reich are easy to reach

Has Israel learned the lessons of Ukraine’s war with Russia?

Israel’s ceasefire with Hamas – which has allowed for the release of dozens of hostages – looks set to continue. But make no mistake: this war is far from over. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas, a mission that he will not back down from any time soon. The fight against an estimated 30,000 Hamas soldiers will be a long and difficult one. While Israel’s firepower vastly outmatches that of Hamas, defeating an insurgent army will prove a difficult endeavour for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Israel could find itself in a situation comparable to Ukraine – another country with state-of-the-art weaponry that struggles to deliver

Jake Wallis Simons

A ceasefire leaves Israel in a dangerous position

A four-day pause and the release of 150 Palestinian prisoners. Seen from London or New York, this seems like a reasonable measure to secure the return of 50 Israeli hostages. Pause the fighting; allow humanitarian aid to reach Gaza; satisfy the Americans, who were reportedly pushing hard for the deal; get a good number of your citizens back. What’s not to like? The reality, however, is somewhat more complicated. A four-day pause in fighting is not a static affair. At least, it may be for the IDF, but it isn’t for Hamas. They will spend the time resupplying, including seizing as much aid as they need from humanitarian convoys entering

What’s the truth about Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital?

Last week’s military operation in Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital was mired in controversy. According to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), the hospital was a significant target in Israel’s war against Hamas because they believed a command centre was located under the hospital complex. International spectators, including some of Israel’s closest allies, were concerned about the raid and told Israel to act with extreme caution to avoid casualties among hospital staff and patients.   International organisations – including the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nation Population Fund, UN officials, media outlets and Middle Eastern countries including Jordan and Turkey – condemned Israel’s operations in the hospital. The WHO described the scene as a ‘death zone’, but without

Why climate activists love to hate Israel

Climate activists have been busy since 7 October. The demands for ‘action now’ on global warming continue, but affairs in the Middle East are proving to be a distraction for Just Stop Oil. Cries of ‘free Gaza’, ‘ceasefire now’, and even ‘from the river to the sea’ – a chant, purported to be a cry for peace and ‘solidarity’ with Palestinians, but used by those who want to wipe Israel off the map – have now joined, and at times drowned out, the usual green slogans. Just Stop Oil (JSO) activists took part in a sit-in protest at London’s Waterloo station on Saturday to demand a ceasefire, despite Hamas continuing to

Jake Wallis Simons

A potential hostage deal shows the weakness of Hamas

Details are sketchy and the deal is far from done, but all the signs are pointing towards a hostage agreement in which up to 50 Israelis are released by Hamas in return for a ceasefire of several days. Make no mistake: this indicates that both tactically and strategically, the war is moving decisively in Israel’s favour. This much seems obvious when the prospective, Qatar-brokered deal is held against the hostage playbook that has been followed by both sides over the years. By that old equation, one Israeli captive was worth up to a thousand Palestinians. That was seen most vividly during the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, when 1,027

Victory over Hamas will be hard to achieve

‘If you want peace, destroy Hamas. If you want security, destroy Hamas. If you want a future for Israel, the Palestinians, the Middle East, destroy Hamas,’ Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week. Given its formidable military capabilities and the considerable international support it receives, Israel holds the upper hand in the ongoing war. But if the Middle East has taught us anything, it is that the notion of ‘victory’ is an elusive endeavour.   The total defeat of Hamas will be a difficult, if not impossible, task for Israel. Following the devastating terror attack on 7 October, Israel has found itself ensnared in a brutal war. But as the

Will Lebanon be dragged into a war with Israel?

Southern Lebanon In the week following the 7/10 attacks by Hamas, a journalist in Beirut put the question all of Lebanon wanted to ask to the Prime Minister, Najib Mikati: do we have to be dragged into the war with Israel? It was more of a cri de coeur than a question, because the whole country knows the answer and knows that Lebanon has no choice. Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist party and militant group, unofficially controls many, if not most, of the levers of power in Lebanon and it does not answer to the people or the government here. Hezbollah’s leader, the reclusive cleric Hassan Nasrallah, holds no public office

Gaza and the terror of tank warfare

As Israel encircles Gaza City, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) is conducting what we in the British Army call Fibua, or Fighting In Built-Up Areas. Less ceremoniously, it’s known as Fish – fighting in someone’s house – or Fish and Chips – fighting in someone’s house and causing havoc in people’s streets. But the flippant name belies the danger – and terror – of these operations. My taste of Fibua came in 2004 during tank operations in Al Amarah in southern Iraq. While my experience might be a little out of date, the fundamentals of urban combat for tanks haven’t really changed. The tank is a formidable weapon. But when you’re

The pointless spectacle of the pro-Palestine march

Now that Sir Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has defied calls to ban a pro-Palestinian march through London on Armistice Day, attention inevitably turns to what might happen on the day itself. Will there be violence? Could groups intent on causing mayhem splinter from the main protest? Will counter-protesters clash with pro-Palestinian demonstrators? How will the police maintain control of events on the ground and ensure the protest passes off peacefully?  Well down the list of questions and issues is Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, ostensibly the reason for this weekend’s public protests. That is revealing in itself: the actual conflict is almost a side show in the