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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Gulf states and their US critics seek to shape US perceptions on the soccer pitch

UAE ambassador inaugurates soccer pitch in Washington DC

By James M. Dorsey

Gulf states seeking to polish images tarnished by allegations of violations of human rights and their critics are employing soccer in an effort to shape American perceptions. At stake for countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is more than just reputation; it is the ability to invest in strategic US assets without being challenged on their trustworthiness as investors and allies, and the ability to wield soft power as a defence strategy in the absence of real hard power.

Both Qatar and the UAE have been in the firing line for their treatment of foreign workers who constitute a majority of their populations but operate under a sponsorship or kafala system that puts them at the mercy of their employers. The two states, and particularly the UAE, have also been taken to task on issues such as freedom of expression, torture and due legal process in court cases against political dissidents. They have further learnt been tarred by the derailing on security grounds eight years ago by the US Congress of Dubai’s effort to take over management of six major American ports.

In trying to fend off criticism, Qatar is fighting a tougher battle than the UAE because of its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, support for Hamas, strategic relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, and aid to Islamist groups in Syria even though the Gulf state played a key role in recent weeks mediating ceasefire talks between the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip and the Obama administration.

In the latest round of Congressional criticism of Qatar, Pennsylvania Democratic Senator Robert Casey called on world soccer governing body FIFA president Sepp Blatter in a June 23 letter to deprive Qatar of its right to host the World Cup and award it instead to the United States. “It is clear that allowing the World Cup and the infrastructure projects leading up to it to take place in Qatar is no longer acceptable in the face of allegations of bribery and labour rights abuses,” Mr. Casey said.

A month later, Illinois Republican Pete Roskam, who co-chairs the House Republican Israel Caucus, expressed “grave concern” about the US relationship with Qatar. “I am deeply concerned that your close work with Qatar in pursuit of a Gaza cease-fire rewards, bolsters, and legitimizes Qatar’s longstanding sponsorship of the terrorist organization Hamas. The severity of the current conflict and possibility for even greater escalation underscores why we must hold Qatar and all those who sponsor terrorism accountable rather than look the other way as Doha enables terrorism against Israel,” Mr. Roskam wrote in a July 31 letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

While Qatar is playing defence with its critics using its soccer soft power strategy against it, the UAE is playing offense exploiting soccer in a bid to fend off criticism of its kafala system in advance of Dubai’s hosting of the 2020 World Exhibition. It also hopes that soccer will help it fend off campaigns attacking alleged poor labour conditions for foreign workers building a Guggenheim Museum and a campus of New York University in Abu Dhabi.

The exploitation of soccer is part of a $ 5 million a year UAE investment in public relations and public affairs in the US, a hefty amount compared to the $1.48 million in 2011 and $332,000 in 2013 Qatar has shelved out. Rather than spending money on big ticket public relations and lobbying companies, Qatar opted to attempt to win hearts and minds with establishment of Al Jazeera America, part of its global television network, and the expansion in the US of its belN sports television franchise.

If Qatar is reaching out to spectators, the UAE is targeting American families. A video produced by the UAE embassy in Washington shows young kids, boys and girls, from multiple ethnic backgrounds at the opening of the state-of-the-art Marie Reed Elementary School community soccer pitch in the city’s Adams Morgan district inaugurated by UAE ambassador Yousef al Oteiba, a Georgetown University graduate who speaks a native American’s English. Mr. Oteiba has inaugurated similar soccer pitches in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and earlier this month in Dallas in UAE-owned English Premier League club Manchester City.

The UAE hopes that its soccer strategy will not only enhance UAE recognition in multiple segments of American society across the country but will also endear itself to them in a bid to ensure that as the country is targeted for its human and labour rights record, voters may persuade members of Congress to adopt a softer line. It also hopes that like in the case of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the strategy would garner public support should the UAE ever need the international community to come to its assistance.
Qatar harbours similar aspirations. With its alternative strategy, Al Jazeera America today reaches 48 million homes while belN is positioning itself as a major American sports channels with broadcast rights to foreign leagues like those in Latin America, which appeals to the United States’ politically significant Hispanic community.

While there is no doubt that soccer opens doors to communities and levels of American society that countries like Qatar and the UAE would otherwise find difficult to tap into. The jury is out on whether the strategy, and if so which of the two approaches, will ensure national and international public empathy in the absence, at least so far, of a fundamental tackling of the human rights and labour issues for which Qatar and the UAE finds themselves in the dock.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gaza war puts sporting boycott of Israel back on the front burner

4 Palestinian kids killed by an Israeli shell while playing soccer on a Gaza beach

By James M. Dorsey

Ahmed Mohammed al Qatar and Udai Jaber’s burgeoning soccer careers came to a screeching halt in early August when the two 19-year olds were shot dead by Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Gaza during a protest against the war in Gaza. Days earlier, Ahed Zaqqut, a 49-year old Palestinian soccer legend, who once played a French team captained by European football governing body UEFA president Michel Platini, died when his home in Gaza was hit by Israeli fire.

The deaths of the three players and the trauma of Israel’s heavy handed month long assault on Gaza has not only cast a shadow over Palestinian soccer at a time that the Palestine national team was progressing with its qualification for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Club and upcoming participation in the Philippines’ Peace Cup.

Coupled with widespread international condemnation of Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war that has left almost 2000 Palestinians dead and many more injured, they deaths have also focused the sports world’s attention on problems Palestinian athletes face as a result of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza and fuelled calls for a sporting boycott of Israel as part of a larger boycott, disinvestment campaign. 

Among the often gruesome images of the Gaza war that sparked widespread condemnation was video footage of four Palestinian boys killed in an Israeli attack as they were playing soccer on a Gaza beach.

Israel two months ago averted sanctions by world soccer body FIFA with the establishment of an independent committee tasked with monitoring progress in the removal of Israeli obstacles such as restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian players and officials as well as the import of soccer-related goods. The commission is scheduled to report back to the FIFA executive committee in December. FIFA president Sepp Blatter cautioned when the commission was announced that to succeed the new committee “needs the full support of the Israeli government”.

If the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off remains as it is, the commission may not be able to report a great deal of progress. Israeli restrictions on travel out of the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza appear to have become more stringent since the Gaza war. Israel has barred thousands of Palestinians in recent weeks from leaving the West Bank.

“The main obstacle is the occupation and their treatment, daily, of the Palestinian sports community with hatred and enmity; restricting the movement of the players, staff and officials and even the movement of our national teams, whether men or women, from inside to outside (of the West Bank and Gaza) or inside the occupied territories,” said Palestine Football Association (PFA) president Jibril Rajoub on a 20-minute Al Jazeera talk show entitled ‘Is it time for a sporting boycott of Israel?”

Rajoub, widely believed to be positioning himself as a candidate in Palestinian presidential elections, has stopped short in recent interviews of reviving his call for FIFA suspension of Israeli membership. "We need to try to develop and invest in football in Palestine, despite the difficulties we face... We believe football should remain a tool to build bridges between people. Personally, I've been very saddened by the loss of Palestinian life in the conflict,” he said.

Rajoub may find his back peddling difficult to maintain as the prospects for renewed fighting in Gaza loom large with ceasefire talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas making little progress. The campaign to pressure FIFA to sanction Israel was part of a broader Israeli Palestinian move to gain recognition of Palestinian statehood through membership in international organizations and isolate Israel in the wake of the breakdown in April of US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Pressure on the Palestinian by the donors of President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority persuaded the Palestinians to put on hold plans to join the International Criminal Court which would have allowed them to mount a legal challenge against Israel. The Gaza war has however moved alleged Israeli war crimes centre stage and strengthened Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza and has been calling for charging Israel for its conduct of the war.

The Gaza war moreover has made fending off the the threat of sanctions against Israel amid international sentiment towards the Jewish state a major priority for the Israeli government and growing calls for Israel to negotiate directly with Hamas rather than through third parties.

That sentiment was already building in important segments of the international sports community prior to the Gaza war. Last year, more than 60 prominent European players, including Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Arsenal's Abou Diaby and Paris Saint-Germain's Jeremy Menez, protested against Israel’s hosting of the UEFA Under-21 championship. They warned that it would be “seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values… We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom,” the players said in a statement.

The stakes for Israel and the Palestinians are high. Israel cannot afford to become an international outcast while the Palestinians see anti-Israeli sentiment as an opportunity to further their cause. To avoid blacklisting at least on the soccer pitch, Israel could ease restrictions on Palestinian football.

Doing that however would likely be perceived as bowing to pressure, in the absence of a Palestinian-Israeli agreement on a long-lasting ceasefire in Gaza that would have to involve a controlled softening, if not lifting of the blockade. That is a tall order with the talks in Cairo hanging on a bare thread.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Syria’s Fallout: Rise of Islamic State jihadists

RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email: for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, Mr Yang Razali Kassim. 

No. 164/2014 dated 14 August 2014
Syria’s Fallout:
Rise of Islamic State jihadists
By James M. Dorsey

US President Obama’s decision to launch air strikes against the Islamic State jihadists in Iraq is fraught with pitfalls and could persuade IS to consolidate its position in Syria.


US President Barak Obama’s decision to launch air strikes against the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a large swath of Syria and Iraq, is fraught with pitfalls. Even if it succeeds in stalling the group’s advance in Iraq, the air strikes could persuade the Islamic State to re-focus its attention on Syria to consolidate its position in the knowledge that Obama is less likely to intervene to salvage the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Obama’s reluctance to support non-jihadist Syrian rebels in the early days of Syria’s civil war has produced the very nightmare he had tried to avoid: the emergence of a well-organized, well entrenched, competent and ruthless jihadist force that not only threatens to partition, if not take control of Syria but also Iraq, and poses a serious threat to Lebanon and Jordan. Also Obama left the door open to regional Sunni states to support the Islamic State often through non-official channels while allowing aid to jihadists to go unchecked.

Obama is banking on the establishment of an inclusive Iraqi government capable of reaching out to the country’s non-Shiite communities, to undermine support for the Islamic State’s popular base, foremost among whom are Sunni Muslims. While there is no doubt that many Sunnis were driven towards the Islamic State by outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Shiite sectarian policies, that gambit is countered by the fact that the United States and its allies have allowed the jihadist group to flourish In a festering sectarian milieu in which US allies like Saudi Arabia were as much drivers as was the outgoing Iraqi leader.

Fears of mission creep

With tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped by the jihadists on a mountain in northern Iraq under dire circumstances and the security of Iraqi Kurdistan under threat, until this latest crisis Iraq’s most stable region, Obama had little choice but to take action. Fears of mission creep in the United States may however not be unwarranted if the Obama administration indeed intends to defeat rather than just contain the Islamic State and attempt to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq that is hanging by a bare thread.

However growing Saudi-fuelled sectarianism in the Middle East is likely to backfire on the US effort as many Sunnis will perceive the air strikes as an expression of a pro-Shi’ite policy. Sunnis widely believe that US policy had brought Shiites to power in Iraq with the toppling in 2003 of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Iran, they fear, could return to the international fold if negotiations to solve the nuclear problem are concluded successfully. All of this comes on top of US reluctance to give Syrian rebels the means to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a leader of the Alawites, which is an offshoot of Shi’ism. The Sunnis sense of being embattled is reflected in the fact that they have acquiesced in the repression and effective expulsion of other Iraqi minorities such as Christians and Yazidis.

Few doubt the Islamic State’s military performance, enhanced by advice from senior military officers who served under Saddam as well its strategic and tactical flexibility. With US air strikes targeting sophisticated primarily US military hardware captured by Islamic State fighters from fleeing Iraqi soldiers as well as concentrations of the group’s fighters, the Islamic State is likely to revert in Iraq to its military origins: an infantry force that engages in guerrilla tactics and employs suicide bombers. It is a strategy that could reduce the effectiveness of air strikes.

Refocussing on Syria

On a grander scale, Islamic State may also complicate Obama’s options by re-focussing on territorial gains in Syria. It virtually crushed this week all opposition in the eastern province of Deir ez Zour, Syria’s sixth largest city. The Islamic State has proven its ability to fight on multiple fronts in contrast to Assad’s war-weary military that appears to fight one battle at a time, with campaigns that persuade civilians to flee in a bid to isolate rebels and force them to surrender.

As a result, the Islamic State could first concentrate on capturing Aleppo, Syria’s embattled largest city, rather than advancing towards the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, which no doubt would provoke intensified US military strikes. Successful in Aleppo, it could consider moving to threaten Damascus. Such a move would put Obama and America’s Gulf allies in a bind: allow Syria with its borders with Israel, Jordan and Lebanon to fall to the strongest, most brutal jihadist group to have emerged to date or step in to save a despotic, brutal leader allied with Iran and Russia whose demise is a US policy goal.

The pitfalls for Obama don’t stop there. If stopping the Islamic State in its tracks and eventually rolling back its advances with US air forces supporting Iraqi and Kurdish ground troops is the medium term goal, short term necessities force it to adopt measures that are more likely to lead to a break-up of the Iraqi nation state. With politicians in Baghdad struggling to replace Al-Maliki with a more inclusive Iraqi national government, highly motivated but poorly armed Kurdish Peshmergas with a long history of fighting Saddam are the US’ main ally on the ground. The Obama administration’s decision this week to arm the Kurds with light weapons and ammunition is likely to fuel Kurdish ambitions for independence that had already kicked into high gear with the collapse of the major units of the Iraqi military in the face of Islamic State advances.

Those fears are also justified given that the United States may not be able to continue differentiating between the situation in Iraq and in Syria. For the Obama administration, the stakes are high. While sympathetic to the goals in Iraq outlined by Obama, humanitarian relief for a community threatened with a massacre and protection of US personnel, many Americans, after a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are war weary. At the same time, US credibility is on the line in a region that has few security alternatives but the United States but is increasingly sceptical about its ability to live up to expectations.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Year after Cairo carnage, Sisi turns page on Arab Spring (JMD quoted on AFP)

Year after Cairo carnage, Sisi turns page on Arab Spring

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency on July 7, 2014 shows Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi giving a speech in Cairo in which he said a decision to raise fuel prices was "bitter medicine" that should have been taken
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Cairo (AFP) - A year after a bloody Cairo crackdown, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has tightened his grip on Egypt, crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, jailed top opponents and turned the page on the Arab Spring, critics say.

The assault was "one of the largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history," said New York-based Human Rights Watch in a report released Tuesday to mark the anniversary.On August 14, 2013, after Sisi ousted Egypt's first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the security forces launched a crackdown on thousands of his supporters at protest camps in Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares that left hundreds dead.
In Rabaa al-Adawiya alone, at least 817 people were killed, it said, calling for top officials to be investigated for likely "crimes against humanity".
According to an AFP correspondent who was at the square, more than 100 protesters were killed several hours into the crackdown.
Police said eight policemen also died in Rabaa, from a total of 42 policemen killed across Egypt that day.
The crackdown was launched after thousands of pro-Morsi supporters refused to end their sit-ins despite repeated warnings by the interim authorities installed by Sisi, who at the time was army chief.
Since then, more than 1,400 people have been killed in street clashes, including in the Rabaa carnage, over 15,000 jailed including Morsi and the top leadership of his Muslim Brotherhood, and over 200 sentenced to death in speedy trials.
The authorities have also dissolved the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, since Sisi became Egypt's second democratically elected president following a landslide victory in a May vote.
"Sisi has succeeded in eliminating most opposition within Egypt to his rule," said James Dorsey of the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"He has banned organisations, jailed opponents and certainly in early days after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi used brutal force to suppress groups like the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
"He is operating in an environment where for all practical purposes there is no independent media to hold him to account. As a result he has consolidated his rule.”
- 'Random shootings' -
Survivors say the Rabaa al-Adawiya crackdown was not just to break the pro-Morsi sit-in but to eliminate the Islamist's supporters.
Egypt's liberal activists who revolted in 2011 against longtime president Hosni Mubarak seeking democratic freedoms largely kept quiet over the crackdown, but soon bore the brunt as authorities banned all unauthorised rallies.
The secular April 6 movement which in the heady days of the Arab Spring led the anti-Mubarak revolution has also been banned, prompting activists to charge that Egypt was heading for a worse autocracy than under Mubarak.
Sisi had made it clear even before becoming president that his priority was Egypt's stability rather than democratic ideals.
It could take "20 to 25 years to achieve true democracy" in Egypt, Sisi said in early May.
- Brotherhood needs 'strategy' -
The crackdown has crippled the Brotherhood, which swept all elections after Mubarak's fall until Morsi's ouster, and triggered divisions within its ranks, according to analysts.
Officials accuse the movement of being implicated in militant attacks which they say have killed more than 500 security personnel since the July 2013 ouster of Morsi.
"The challenge for the Brotherhood is not to allow internal divisions to translate into an organisational split," said Shadi Hamid, fellow at Brookings Institution's Centre for Middle East Policy.
The movement lacks a strategy to counter Sisi's "resilience" to stay in power and needs a long-term formula, he said.
"They don't have any major strategy beyond protests, protests, protests, while waiting for the economy to suffer," said Hamid.
The pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance has called for nationwide protests on Thursday under the slogan "We Demand Retribution" to mark the first anniversary of the crackdown.
The new authorities have succeeded in "destroying the status which the Brotherhood achieved" after Mubarak's ouster, said Ziad Akl, researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
"Today their businesses are confiscated, journalists giving their side of the story are jailed ... The regime has succeeded in turning the Brotherhood into an illegitimate entity and forced it to go underground."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Saudi efforts to professionalize soccer marred by politics

Source: Arab News

By James M. Dorsey

Efforts to professionalize soccer in the Saudi Arabia in advance of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are marred by efforts to maintain political control of the game, a lack of transparency and accountability, and disputes between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Prominent Saudi businessmen and soccer officials grumbled over the awarding earlier this month by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) of soccer broadcast rights to Middle East Broadcasting Center Group (MBC) for a period of 10 years in a deal worth 3.6 billion Saudi riyals or $960 million. The deal with MBC, which is chaired by Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Brahim, an in-law of Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family, was rushed through in an effort to pre-empt a  possible bid by beIN Sports, the sports channel of the Qatari state-owned Al Jazeera network. MBC’s flagship, Al Arabiya, was founded as a counterweight to Al Jazeera.

Saudi Arabia alongside the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew its ambassador from Doha earlier this year in protest against Qatari support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose government was last year overthrown by a military coup in Egypt and which has since been banned as a terrorist organization in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Egypt this week banned the group’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.

Ahmed Eid Al Harbi, the federation’s first freely elected president who is widely seen as a reformer, suggested in a news conference that the non-transparent awarding had been decided in consultation with the senior government officials because there had been national issues involved that were “larger than soccer.” Al Harbi did not elaborate on what those issues were.

But Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a prominent member of the Saudi ruling family and one of the world’s wealthiest men, suggested on Twitter that the awarding to MBC had violated King Abdullah’s orders without specifying what they were. Prince Alwaleed said that he had put forward a bid that was 400 million riyals ($100 million) higher than that of MBC.  MBC expects to annually broadcast some 240 matches on four free-to-air channels launched earlier this month.

The awarding came shortly after King Abdullah tasked the Saudi national oil company Aramco with the construction in the next two years of 11 stadia, each with a capacity of 45,000 spectators. The decision coupled with a plan to privatize soccer clubs that are owned by the government or members of the ruling family appeared to have resolved a debate about whether the kingdom’s first national sports plan should emphasize spectator or performance sports.

The debate was sparked by concerns that soccer pitches like in other Middle Eastern and North African countries could emerge as venues for the expression of pent-up anger and frustration. In the realization that Saudis are soccer crazy, the government has quietly sought advice on how to deal with fans following a number of incidents on Saudi pitches and fans forcing Mr. Al Harbi’s predecessor Prince Nawaf bin Faisal to step down, the first time popular pressure obliged a member of a Gulf ruling family to resign.

The plan to build 11 new stadia made no mention of possibly including facilities for women spectators in a country that enforces strict gender segregation. The issue of soccer pitches as a venue for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration arose again during the recent World Cup in Brazil against a backdrop of an on-off again debate in the kingdom about women’s sports and access to stadia. A Saudi psychiatrist, Imad al-Dowsari, warned in a study that women’s passion for soccer served to release pent-up energy and endangered their role in society.

Saudi Arabia has no official facilities for female athletes or physical education programs for girls in public schools. Spanish consultants hired to draft Saudi Arabia’s first ever national sports plan were instructed by the government to do so for men only.

Saudi Arabia alongside Yemen was moreover the only Middle Eastern nation that refused to sign on to a campaign by the region’s soccer associations grouped in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) to put women’s soccer on par with men’s football.

Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" as well as a corrupting and satanic influence that  would spread decadence. The clerics warned that running and jumping could damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.

Concern that the World Cup could lead to violations of Saudi Arabia’s strict gender rules prompted authorities in the province of Mecca, home to Islam’s holiest city, to remove public television screens during the tournament to prevent men and women from mixing.

The move sparked protests on social media. “Those who removed the screens showing the World Cup in the gardens didn't do it because of mixing but because they love to kill peoples’ pleasure,” thundered an angry soccer fan on Twitter. “If a person is sitting with his family, and he is in charge, what kind of mixing are they talking about?” asked another.

For his part Al Harbi last year suggested that the creation of facilities for women would increase capacity at stadiums by 15 percent He initially announced that two stadia in Jeddah and Riyadh would be refurbished so that they could accommodate women but then was forced to backtrack saying that it would have to be based on “a sovereign decision. Neither I nor SAFF can make it. Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision.”

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Cairo Talks: Mediation or End Game in the Gaza War?

By James M. Dorsey

Joint efforts by Israel and Egypt to prevent Hamas from emerging from the Gaza war with a political victory not only threaten to undermine efforts to achieve a formal Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire but could also close the door to a potential breakthrough that would allow for Palestinian economic development, the creation of building blocks for a future resolution of the conflict, and at least a partial reversal of damage to Israel’s international standing.

Key to the stalled Egypt-led talks in Cairo to negotiate an end to fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist militia that controls the Gaza Strip, is the intimate relationship forged between Israeli and Egyptian leaders since the military coup that toppled Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi a little more than a year ago. The relationship is built on shared political goals, first and foremost among which deep-seated animosity towards the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot.

At the core of the virtual breakdown of the ceasefire talks is Hamas’ demand backed by all Palestinian factions, including the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas that any halt to the fighting involve a lifting of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. It is a demand that addresses not only Israel but also Egypt which has refused to reverse its closing of border crossings with Gaza. For its part, Israel has demanded with Egyptian support the demilitarization of Gaza.

On the face of it, the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating position would seem hard to bridge. 
Lifting the Gaza blockade would hand Hamas a political victory. Demilitarization would constitute a political defeat at a time that Palestinians are winning international sympathy; Israel’s image has been severely tarnished as it faces mounting criticism from some of its closest allies and a significantly strengthened movement calling for a boycott of and sanctions against the Jewish state; and world leaders, including President Barak Obama, are starting to question the blockade of Gaza.

Bridging that gap is no mean fete. It threatens to be a still-born baby when the mediator shares the political goals of one of the parties and is reluctant to put forward demands of the other party because they contradict the mediator’s own objectives. Yet, that is what is happening in Cairo.

Egypt demonstrated its approach when it a month ago it put forward the very first proposal to achieve a ceasefire in the Gaza war. The proposal was rejected by Hamas because Egypt did not even bother to consult it before putting its proposal forward. Egypt has maintained its approach throughout the talks that last week succeeded in silencing the guns for 72 hours but have failed to advance prospects for a more long-lasting ceasefire.

Throughout last week’s talks Egypt has sought to water down the Palestinian demands for a lifting of the blockade and the building of a port in Gaza that would give the strip its only link to the outside world that would not go through Egypt or Israel. In an absolution of responsibility, Egypt advised the Palestinians that their demand for an opening of Egypt’s border crossings with Gaza had been rejected by Israel. Egypt advised the Palestinians that an easing or lifting of the blockade would only be possible in exchange for demilitarization, the effective defanging of Hamas and other militant groups in Hamas. Palestinian negotiators have stuck to their core demands but dropped several of their conditions for a permanent ceasefire including the release of Palestinians who had been freed as part of US-sponsored peace talks earlier this year and have since been re-arrested and expansion from three to 12 miles of Gaza’s territorial waters.

While Israel has rejected the demand for a port as well as safe passage for Palestinians travelling between Gaza and the West Bank it has said it would allow the transfer of funds for the payment of Hamas government employees and the rebuilding of the territory as well as some easing of restrictions on border crossings. Israel has also backed down on its opposition to a Hamas-backed national unity government headed by Abbas that would extend its rule to Gaza. In agreeing to a reconstruction of Gaza, Israel has however insisted on strict controls on any goods that could be used to build tunnels or weapons.

If the peace talks have produced anything, it is a conviction among Palestinian negotiators that Israel would like to see an end to the hostilities. The problem is that this reinforces Palestinian resolve. The dilemma is that “Israel demands a cease-fire before renewing negotiations, whereas Hamas believes that only rocket fire will make Israel more flexible,” said prominent Israeli journalist Zvi Bar’el in Ha’aretz newspaper.

Egypt appears for now to have closed the door to avenues that could lead to a bridging of the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating positions such as international policing of any agreement that would be implemented incrementally based on fulfilment of obligations by both parties at each stage of the process. Egypt argued that such steps should be part of peace rather than ceasefire negotiations. Egypt’s “only concession so far has been to hold talks even in the absence of a cease-fire,” Bar’el concluded.

The stalemate in the talks in the absence of an honest broker holds out little hope for a semi-permanent silencing of the guns. Egyptian strongman-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi appeared to be signalling that with his departure on Sunday for visits to Saudi Arabia, his main foreign backer, and Russia. He has left General Mohammed Ahmed Fareed al-Tohami, the head of Egyptian military intelligence, the agency traditionally dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issues, in charge of the stalled talks.

Israel meanwhile appears to be taking care since the last ceasefire elapsed that fewer civilians are killed in the fighting witness the significantly lower casualty figures in recent days. Gaza moreover no longer monopolizes the top of the international agenda with the United States entering the Iraqi fray in a bid to roll back advances by the Islamic state, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syrian and Iraqi territory and threatens the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq as well as Lebanon.

Egypt’s effort to exploit the Cairo ceasefire talks to its and Israel’s advantage is a reflection of a successful Israeli diplomatic effort over the past year to convince Al Sisi that they share common interests. A report in The Wall Street Journal suggests that if anything Al Sisi is more hard line towards Hamas than the Israelis themselves.

The paper quoted Israeli officials as worrying that Egypt’s closure of tunnels leading from Gaza to the Sinai that with the blockade were crucial for the delivery of badly needed civilian supplies without offering the Palestinians an alternative supply line could backfire. “They were actually suffocating Gaza too much,” the Journal quoted an Israeli official as saying. While Egypt seems bent on effectively destroying Hamas, Israel wants to see a severely weakened Hamas that is nonetheless capable of controlling more militant groups in Gaza. Egyptian attitudes toward Gaza are highlighted by the fact that Egypt since the toppling of Morsi has accused Hamas of conspiring with Morsi and the Brotherhood against the Egyptian state. In fact, some of the charges being levelled against Morsi in legal proceedings in Egypt involve Hamas.

A senior Israeli official, General Amos Gilad, the Israeli defence ministry’s director of policy and political-military relations, who played a key role in forging the Israeli-Egyptian alliance, hinted at the two countries’ close cooperation during a recent visit to Singapore. “Everything is underground, nothing is public. But our security cooperation with Egypt and the Gulf states is unique. This is the best period of security and diplomatic relations with the Arabs. Relations with Egypt have improved dramatically,” Gilad said.

It is a cooperation that in the short-term allows Israel to proceed with its military effort to soften Hamas in the hope that it will be able to dictate terms for a halt to the fighting. It could also allow Hamas and Israel to observe an undeclared ceasefire. In the medium-term however, it is a strategy that is likely to backfire given the newly found resilience among Palestinians based on their military performance over the past month. Palestinians realize that they are in no position to defeat Israel militarily. They don’t need to as long as they stand their ground. Politically, the war in Gaza despite Egyptian support, is likely to go down in history as one of Israel’s most significant setbacks.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Lessons from Gaza for Israel’s military: Unprepared for unconventional warfare

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No. 159/2014 dated 7 August 2014
Lessons from Gaza for Israel’s military:
Unprepared for unconventional warfare
By James M. Dorsey

As Israelis and Palestinians negotiate a lasting ceasefire a public post-mortem has begun in Israel of the month-long assault on Gaza.  At the core of the debate is the question whether the Israel Defence Forces’ organization, strategy and doctrine meets the requirements of unconventional rather than conventional warfare.
ISRAEL’S POST-GAZA domestic battles have erupted days after the withdrawal of Israeli forces, following almost a month of confrontation of Hamas, the Islamist militia-turned-army in the making that controls the Gaza Strip.

At stake is Israel’s performance in the war with Hamas, in which Gaza suffered billions of dollars in infrastructural damage and tremendous human losses and suffering, yet Hamas remains a military force to be reckoned with. Indeed Hamas has emerged as the key Palestinian player with which Israel is now negotiating, rather than the Palestine Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, albeit through Egypt as intermediary.

Criticism in Israel focuses on the military’s politically mandated strategy and its failure in recent years to reorganize and review its doctrine and strategy in a world in which Israel is more likely to confront unconventional rather than conventional forces. Israel’s last four wars were against the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Changing politics and demography

The debate about the Israeli military comes against the backdrop of its changed demography. Israel’s military today is not what it was in the late 1980s when it told then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during the first Intifada or Palestinian popular uprising against Israeli occupation: ”We can solve this militarily but not on terms that would be politically or morally acceptable to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) or the government. .. you, Mr. Prime Minister have to solve it politically.” A few years later Rabin engaged in the failed Oslo peace process with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Nor is the Israeli government similar to that of Rabin. The government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in the first week of the assault on Gaza apparently turned down a proposal to conduct lightning strikes inside Gaza that would have destroyed Hamas’ command and control centres and other military infrastructure. It also refused to entertain a proposal for a full re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. Debkafile, a news website with close ties to the military and Israeli intelligence, suggested that had Israel opted for lightning strikes “at an early stage in the conflict, instead of ten days of air strikes, it might have saved heavy Palestinian losses and property devastation, the extent of which troubles most Israelis too.”
Too fat to enter a tunnel

Israel’s liberal Ha’aretz newspaper added in an editorial: When you’re too heavy, big or bloated, it’s hard to move, run or even bend down. Your arm is so fat it can’t reach into a tunnel. It gets stuck and you stand there helplessly. That’s precisely the situation with the Israel Defence Forces. It’s a King Kong of an army — big and cumbersome; every move unintentionally knocks down a house, bridge or UN school in Gaza... The top brass has forgotten that line in the Book of Proverbs: ‘with wise advice thou shalt make thy war.’

With analysts predicting increased differences between the military and Israel’s political leadership in the wake of the Gaza war, both entities are coping with very different political and demographic constituencies. Israel’s right-wing has moved further to the right forcing Netanyahu to fend off pressure from coalition partners like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman whose Yisrael Beytenu (Israel is our Home) Party ended its alliance with the prime minister’s Likud early in the war, and economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Habait Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) Party that both advocated reoccupation.

Similarly, religious and conservative forces have become more prominent in the Israeli military. The commander of Israel’s elite infantry Golani Brigade Col. Ofer Winter, that suffered high casualties in the last month, declared holy war on the Palestinians in a message to his troops at the beginning of the Gaza war that went on to say:  “The Lord God of Israel, make our way successful. … We’re going to war for your people Israel against an enemy that defames you.”
Winning decisively
Calls for a reorganization of the Israeli military including a review of its strategy and doctrine are fuelled by the fact that military intelligence struggled to cope with Hamas’ ability to quickly change tactics and strategy; faulty analysis that predicted that Hamas would quickly sue for a ceasefire; gaps in intelligence about where Hamas leaders were hiding and where the group had stored its rockets arsenal; a political failure to assess the strategic importance of the tunnels, including the fact that some of them ended on the Israeli side of the border forcing the military to change the focus of its operation; and underestimation of the enemy demonstrated by the use on several occasions of old M113 personnel carriers with inferior armour, and vehicles that had not been reinforced, at times a lack of body armour and radio communications, and the deployment of some troops that had no combat experience.

Said Amos Harel, one of Israel’s most respected military commentators: “These phenomena show that the IDF, especially the ground forces, needs to think hard and plan anew. Israel’s technically advanced forces found an enemy playing in a different field, thus eroding its advantages. The Israel Air Force, with the assistance of MI (military intelligence) and the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service), can strike its targets with great precision. But against Hamas or Hezbollah, this may not be enough to win decisively… If the IDF wants to preserve its ability to win using manoeuvres, quite extensive changes must be considered.”

Reorganizing the military and revamping its doctrine and strategy is no mean task. It involves a debate that by definition will have to also include Israel’s broader policies towards the Palestinians at a time that popular anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian sentiment is running high.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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