Middle East Ticker

The Middle East Ticker

By Yishai Schwartz, Jennifer R. Williams
Friday, July 31, 2015, 7:22 AM

Five year-old Mavi Marmara case tests independence of ICC prosecutor: In May 2010, a flotilla of activists sailed from Turkey in an attempt to break through the Israeli naval blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. Although most vessels in the convoy were stopped without incident, Israeli commandos boarding the Mavi Marmara were attacked with knives and iron bars, and some were briefly captured and taken below. In the melee that followed, soldiers used live fire and nine of the Turkish combatants were killed. The incident created a low point in Israeli-Turkish relations and spawned multiple investigations and reviews, both Israeli and international. In 2013, the Union of Comoros (the country in which the ship was registered) referred the case to the International Criminal Court for prosecution as a war crime. A little over a year later, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda closed her office’s preliminary examination after concluding that the incident did not meet the Rome Statute requirement of “sufficient gravity.” Just over two weeks ago, however, a three-judge Pre-Trial Chamber ruled on an appeal of Bensouda’s decision, requesting that she open a full investigation of the decision. The decision not only drew fury from Israel--which has long seen most international legal fora as biased against it--but also a scathing dissent, and criticism from former ICC officials concerned over the independence of the ICC prosecutor. Although Bensouda seems to has the authority to simply reject the Pre-Trial Chamber’s request, on Monday she filed an appeal seeking to have the earlier decision reversed.

In related news, Israel is providing limited cooperation to the ICC’s preliminary examination into last summer’s Gaza War: Generally, Israel staunchly opposes international investigations of its soldiers, and refuses to confer legitimacy on them through cooperations. Rather, Israel insists that its robust, independent judiciary is--like most other Western democratic countries--fully capable of holding its army to account, and sees the disproportionate international focus on Israel as unbalanced and representative of animus. Israel maintains that the limited cooperation being offered to Bensouda’s probe is not representative of a change in policy, but is only being offered in order to argue that the ICC lacks jurisdiction. At the same time, Israel’s Military Advocate General continues to conduct investigations, including lately, of some high-ranking officers.

Amnesty International releases report alleging Israeli war crimes in Rafah rescue attempt: In one of the bloodiest incidents of last summer’s Gaza war, Hamas militants ambushed an Israeli patrol just an hour into an agreed-upon ceasefire, disappearing with one soldier into Hamas’ tunnel system. Israeli soldiers immediately lay down extremely heavy fire as they tried to trap the hostage-takers, reportedly killing over a hundred civilians--who had started returning to the neighborhood with the announcement of a cease-fire. Because Amnesty lacked access to the sites or to Israeli soldiers involved in the incidents, the report is largely based on the research of two contract field-workers and analysis of photographs from the immediate aftermath. Much of the report is heart-wrenching, painstakingly documenting the loss of innocent life, but as an investigation of criminal action, it suffers (likely irredeemably) from the absence of Israeli perspectives.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia sign “Cairo declaration”: Gulf News reports that “Saudi deputy crown prince and defense minister Mohammad Bin Salman met with Egyptian president Abdul Fattah Al Sissi Thursday in Cairo where whey signed the ‘Cairo declaration’ to enhance mutual cooperation between the two countries.” According to a statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency:

[T]he two sides agreed to develop a package of executive mechanisms in the following areas:

  1. To develop their military cooperation and work to create the joint Arab force.
  2. To enhance the joint cooperation and investments in energy, electricity grid connection and transport areas.
  3. To achieve economic integration between the two countries and work to make them a key focus of the world trade movement.
  4. To intensify the Saudi and Egyptian mutual investments to launch joint projects.
  5. To enhance the political, cultural and media cooperation between the two countries to achieve the desired objectives in the light of the common interests of the two countries and the two brotherly peoples, and meet the challenges and threats posed by the current stage.
  6. Delimitation of the maritime boundary between the two countries.

Speaking at a ceremony today at the Egyptian Military Academy, President Sissi of Egypt described his country and Saudi Arabia as the “wings of Arab national security.” “You will not see us but together,” he said.

Tensions between Bahrain and Iran continue to rise: As reported by Reuters, “Bahrain said on Saturday it had foiled an arms smuggling plot by two Bahrainis with ties to Iran and announced the recall of the Gulf island kingdom’s ambassador to Tehran for consultations after what it said were repeated hostile Iranian statements.” Then just three days later, a bomb killed two policemen and wounded six other people outside a girls’ school in the Bahraini village of Sitra. Bahraini state media said the explosives resembled those seized on Saturday. Bahrain, which is governed by the Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa royal family with strong backing from Saudi Arabia, has faced growing unrest from its Shiite population since the Arab uprisings of 2011 and frequently accuses Iran of providing support to violent Shiite opposition groups inside Bahrain. Bahrain is also home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who is currently in Kuwait as part of a regional tour aimed at calming the concerns of the Gulf Arab states over the Iran nuclear agreement, described the claims regarding the alleged smugglers as “baseless” and stated that “[t]he timing of the announcement is an attempt to prevent any progress in cooperation between Iran and other Gulf states.”

Kuwaiti authorities break up an alleged Islamic State terror cell: The Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior announced on Thursday that security authorities have “taken a pre-emptive move, uncovering a cell of the terrorist organization Daesh.” (Daesh is the term used in the Arabic-speaking world to refer to the Islamic State or ISIS). As reported by Gulf News:

The arrests come one month after a deadly bombing at a Shiite mosque.

Authorities arrested four men while the fifth was killed in a “terrorist” operation in Iraq, the ministry said in a statement. All the members are Kuwaiti nationals.

Four cell members have allegedly taken part in fighting in Iraq, including the member who was killed, while another “facilitated and supported their travel to Iraq to take part in terrorist operations,” the ministry said.

The detainees confessed they had received “indoctrination courses on the terrorist group and its deviant thoughts, in addition to advanced practical training on using firearms before taking part in combat action in Syria and Iraq.”

Although security officials in Western countries, including in the United States, are very concerned about the potential terrorist threat posed by foreign fighters returning from the wars in Iraq and Syria, Lawfare’s Daniel Byman has argued that “[t]he Arab world’s foreign fighter problem makes the West’s concerns seem minor.”

Somali militant group Al Shabaab claims responsibility for Mogadishu hotel bombing: The Al Qaeda-linked group has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s massive suicide bomb attack on the Jazeera Palace Hotel that killed at least 13 and wounded more than 40, claiming the attack was in response to assaults by an African Union force and the Somali government. As reported by Gulf News, the hotel, which houses a number of foreign embassies including those of China, Qatar, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates and is popular with foreign visitors, “has also been the target of Al Shabab attacks in the past, including in 2012 when suicide bombers stormed the hotel while [Somali] President Hassan Shaikh Mohammad was inside.” Sunday’s attack garnered additional international attention because it “came as US President Barack Obama left neighbouring Kenya and headed to Ethiopia, both key nations contributing troops to the African Union force battling the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group.”