Middle East update: March 9-10 2019



The Syrian Democratic Forces militia resumed its offensive to capture ISIS’s last Syrian enclave around the town of Baghouz on Sunday evening, with reports of airstrikes on the town and clashes between ISIS and SDF fighters. The SDF had previously announced a Saturday deadline for civilians to flee Baghouz and/or ISIS fighters to surrender, but that deadline was met with a new wave of people exiting the town and so the deadline was pushed back another day. It’s unknown how many ISIS fighters are left in Baghouz but it is clear that there are some still there, and if they haven’t surrendered yet it stands to reason they’re prepared to fight to the bitter end.

A car bomb in Manbij on Saturday wounded eight people, seven of them civilians and one a “US-backed fighter” which seems like a euphemism for the SDF. Nobody has claimed responsibility but ISIS would seem to be a prime suspect. In Idlib, meanwhile, the “White Helmets” group claims, via Turkish media, that four civilians were killed on Saturday by an apparent Russian airstrike in the Jisr al-Shughur region. The group says Syrian and Russian air forces as well as pro-government forces on the ground spent much of Saturday striking the mostly rebel-held province.


Sunday saw the first major fighting between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces in Hudaydah since the two sides worked out the general framework of a ceasefire for the port city back in December. So…that’s not good. There have been clashes in the city since December, but witnesses are reporting that both sides have been throwing up defensive works, so this doesn’t seem like just another skirmish. The Houthis have apparently reneged on their agreement to withdraw from the ports of Salif and Ras Issa, which was supposed to then lead to a mutual withdrawal from Hudaydah, and that had put the ceasefire agreement on life support. If it’s now kaput, that’s not only bad from the standpoint of humanitarian aid access (Hudaydah is the main port of entry for most of the aid coming into Yemen) but it also means any peace process is set back to square zero. The Houthis also reportedly captured a town in Hajjah province on Sunday, though that’s not a ceasefire violation since the December agreement only covered Hudaydah.


The Israeli military struck several Hamas targets in Gaza again on Sunday in response to a rocket fired out of the besieged enclave. The rocket caused no casualties and no damage, the resulting airstrikes caused damage but as far as I can tell there haven’t been any reports of casualties.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas picked a new prime minister on Sunday, naming economist and pal Mohammad Shtayyeh to the job. Shtayyeh replaces Rami Hamdallah, who had held the job since 2013 because he was acceptable to Hamas and thus would have been able to lead a Palestinian unity government. That unity government never materialized, and Hamdallah never really got along with Abbas, so he announced his resignation in late January. Shtayyeh is coming in to the job at a trying time, what with the Palestinian Authority having recently told Israeli officials to cram their tax remittance payments and thereby blowing a massive hole in the PA’s budget. The PA plans to drastically cut public sector salaries and is hoping to get some bank financing to keep itself afloat.

The leader of the Middle East’s Only Democracy™ would like to remind you that his government merely tolerates the existence of the over 15 percent of its citizenry who happen to have been born Arab:

Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel is “not a state of all its citizens”, in a reference to the country’s Arab population.

In comments on Instagram, the prime minister went on to say all citizens, including Arabs, had equal rights, but he referred to a deeply controversial law passed last year declaring Israel the nation state of the Jewish people.

“Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” he wrote in response to criticism from an Israeli actor, Rotem Sela. “According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it.

“As you wrote, there is no problem with the Arab citizens of Israel. They have equal rights like all of us and the Likud government has invested more in the Arab sector than any other government,” he said of his rightwing party.

As the comments caused waves in Israel, Netanyahu again spoke of the issue at the start of a cabinet meeting. He called Israel a “Jewish, democratic state” with equal rights, but “the nation state not of all its citizens but only of the Jewish people”.

Netanyahu’s main argument heading into next month’s election is that his main competition, Benny Gantz and his what-passes-for-centrist-in-Israel-nowadays Blue and White party, will be unable to mathematically form a government without the support of one or both of Israel’s Arab parties. That’s it. The mere idea that Arabs might play even a tangential role in a theoretical Gantz government is supposed to be enough to send Israeli voters into a panic. And it probably is.

The hostility to Arab Israelis isn’t just a religious thing, it’s also racism. And the reason I say that is because it rears its head even when there are no Muslims in the picture:

Ofra Mazor, 62, had been looking for her sister, Varda, for 30 years when she submitted her DNA samples to the Israeli genealogy company MyHeritage in 2017. Her mother, Yochevet, who is now deceased, said that she got to breast-feed her sister only once after giving birth to her in an Israeli hospital in 1950. She was told by the nurses that her newborn daughter had died. Ms. Mazor’s mother didn’t believe the nurses and had her husband demand their child back. He was never given the child.

A few months after submitting her DNA, Ms. Mazor received the call she’d been waiting for: A match had been found. Last January, the sisters were reunited. Varda Fuchs had been adopted by a German-Jewish couple in Israel. She was told at a young age that she was adopted. The sisters are part of a community of Israelis of Yemenite descent who for decades have been seeking answers about their lost kin.

Known as the “Yemenite Children Affair,” there are over 1,000 official reported cases of missing babies and toddlers, but some estimates from advocates are as high as 4,500. Their families believe the babies were abducted by the Israeli authorities in the 1950s, and were illegally put up for adoption to childless Ashkenazi families, Jews of European descent. The children who disappeared were mostly from the Yemenite and other “Mizrahi” communities, an umbrella term for Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. While the Israeli government is trying to be more transparent about the disappearances, to this day, it denies that there were systematic abductions.

See? Racism.

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