A former Israel Defense Forces intelligence chief has called this month “the most dangerous Israel has faced since the 1967 Six Day War”, due to a number of converging risk factors. The 70th Nakhba commemoration of Palestinian displacement following Israeli independence will take place against the backdrop of the controversial U.S. embassy relocation to Jerusalem, the abandonment of the Iranian nuclear deal, high-risk military skirmishes in Syria and the Golan Heights, and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. In this piece, we examine the threats borne by these converging events.


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Yesterday marked the semi-official holiday known as “Jerusalem Day”, commemorating the capture of Jordanian-held parts of the contested city during the 1967 war. This year’s celebration has been one of the largest recorded, in part due to it also coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Israeli independence and the controversial relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In moving the embassy, Washington is now essentially recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital.

While Israel celebrates, however, for Palestinians the month carries a very different meaning. For the Arabic world, the 15th of May is known as Yawm an Nakba, meaning “Day of Catastrophe”, and commemorates the displacement of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians and the beginnings of a refugee crisis that continues to trouble the region today. Historically, the anniversary sees regular violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli security forces. This year, the perception among most Palestinians is that Trump has ceded Jerusalem to Israel. The annual “March of Return” along the Gaza border often sees violence erupt, and is this year expected to be particularly troublesome.

This situation is compounded further by the recent announcement by the Trump administration of Washington’s intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, in part due to significant Israeli efforts to influence the President’s decision. Prior to the withdrawal announcement, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu launched a series of combative accusations regarding a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program, supposedly gained through a high-risk Mossad operation in Tehran that claims to have smuggled hundreds of kilograms of paper and digital files on Iran’s weapons program to Israel with Iranian agents in close pursuit.

Adding to the tensions between Israel and Iran, are a series of strikes across the Syrian frontier. On the night of Trump’s announcement, Israeli Defence Force (IDF) jets struck multiple targets inside Syria, claiming to be bases for Iranian forces preparing to launch missile strikes against Israel. The following evening, Iranian forces – most likely proxy forces under Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps command – launched a series of missile strikes against Israeli positions in the Golan Heights. This strike drew a large-scale retaliatory strike against a further 50 Iranian targets. These events follow at least three Israeli strikes on Iranian bases inside Syria this year which have reportedly killed over 20 Iranian officers, and the downing of an explosives-laden Iranian drone in Israeli airspace in February.

Compounding the escalating situation between Iran and Israel is the fact that tomorrow also marks the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which often represents a period of heightened extremist activity and associated political tensions across the Islamic world. Jihadi groups appear to have already begun their annual Ramadan offensive this weekend, with a small-scale knife attack in Paris, and a coordinated series of suicide bombings in Surabaya, Indonesia, where Islamic State-affiliated bombers detonated explosives in three Christian churches within ten minutes of each other, killing 13 and wounding 40. In 2016, the Islamic State called for a global “month of calamity” during the Ramadan period, which preceded one of the most deadly months in terms of terrorist activity in recent history. Following this, in 2017 the Islamic State released a video urging its followers to conduct attacks throughout Ramadan, which led to incidents in the UK, France, Egypt, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, the Philippines and Australia. In 2014, the Ramadan period saw a full-scale war erupt between Iranian-backed Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip.

In an interview with Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin called May 2018 the “most dangerous month for Israel since 1967”, and has  warned against Israeli complacency and overconfidence. Yadlin pointed to Israel’s failure to predict the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Egypt and Syria caught Israeli forces off-guard on the Jewish religious holiday and inflicted heavy casualties before being defeated by the IDF. In May 1967, Egypt expelled UN peacekeepers from the Sinai peninsula and three Arab nations mobilised their forces along Israel’s borders. Israel eventually launched a series of preemptive strikes and defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, gaining several still-contested territories in the following conflict.

While both Iran and Israel remain at arms’ length from one another geographically, the risk of a localised small-scale conflict erupting closer to Israel in Syria and the wider Levant remains high. With Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arabian nations making moves to normalise relations with Tel Aviv, the wider region will also find itself pressured between their desire to counterbalance increasingly assertive Iranian attempts at local hegemony and their own populations’ anti-Israeli sentiment. The latter will present new opportunities for Iran to stir up trouble for its Gulf rivals, as Tehran will capitalise on anti-government attitudes generated by a combination of the Nakhba anniversary and any Gulf-Israeli cooperation. Combined with the Nakhba anniversary and somewhat uncautious U.S. foreign policy decisions in the region, May 2018 could indeed prove extremely dangerous for Israel.

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia Pacific  regions in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in MENA-region geopolitical intelligence consulting, in particular in support of the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Israeli Defence Forces

 

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