Today was one of the most memorable days of my life. Things in the Middle East got very real today. We spent the entire day on copters flying South to Gaza with the Israeli Defense Force and then North to Golan/Syria and Lebanon with Israel's "Wolf Blitzer". We were 10 seconds away from Gaza's Hamas mortar batteries as well as 200 yards from Hezbollah's missile arsenals in Lebanon. We also looked out over Syria's massive civil war from the Golan Heights.
Region on Fire: My summary takeaway is that there is seismic change going on in the Middle East across nearly every country. Most of the countries in the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, etc) were created arbitrarily by the British and French who took nomad (and warring) tribes and drew nation-state boundries around them (a concept foreign to them). Each is now in the process of splintering apart into its Shiite, Sunni, Christian, etc sub-factions. The only thing that held these entities together were brutal dictators who used force/terror to bottle the 1700 year old genie (when Sunni & Shiites first split). Syria is splintering, Lebanon is getting bold, Gaza re-arms, Iraq is fracturing, the Palastinians are slow rolling and Iran races to go nuclear (while funding many of Shiite terrorist activities around). Israel sits in the middle, growing more resolute to take action while Europe prepares to impose its will on Israel and the US sits bewildered. It feels like something is going to go bang in the night coming up.
Breakfast w/the General: We started the day with bfast with Major General Amos Yadlin, the former head of the Israeli intelligence operations. He commented that much of the conflict is being driven by Sunnis vs Shiites vs secularists, especially their extreme branches. As a result, unnatural alliances are forming. Arabs vs Arabs, Arabs vs Israelis, Arabs with the west and against the west. Billionaires in Saudi Arabia funded initial ISIS activities but now, as ISIS has grown more radical, they have pulled back as ISIS condemns the Saudi secular rule. Hamas is in Gaza and Egypt is at war with fellow Arabs and allied with Israel. Hezbollah fights ISIS in Syria (terror organization vs terror organization).
He commented that the region is struggling to find a form of government that both is consistent with its history/culture and yet brings it economic strength & political stability. It has tried monarchies, dictatorships, socialism, capitalism and now, the extreme factions are pulling it towards religious Islamic rule (unfortunately back into the dark ages).
Iron Dome Command Visit: We drove down to Palmachim military air base & the Iron Dome battery to see what few get to: inside the Cube which controls and launches the anti-missile systems (Iron Dome, David, Arrow, etc) protecting Israel from the South. We sat 20 ft from the control room in the bunker.
Israel has three levels of defense:
Iron Dome for short range...2-10 sec to respond to rockets usually from Gaza
-- this summer: 7,000 rockets fired, 7 casualties, 1-3 shelter trips per day in Tel Aviv
Arrow 2: 10-60 sec to respond, midrange missiles from Iran, Syria, etc
Arrow 3/Patriot: long range ballistic missiles with 2-10 min warning
Gaza/Hamas Mortars in the South: Egypt and Israel are allied in fighting Hamas both in Gaza and the Egyptian border. Our copters landed outside Ashood which is 10 secs from Gaza mortar and rocket launches. This is where the underground tunnels under the security border from Gaza emerged into Israel that were destroyed over the summer. Hamas spent $50-100m building these 32 cement encased tunnels. Weapons came through these which were up to 90 feet down. They took two years to build, some 2 miles long and up to $3m each. In the Eqyptian side, Egypt claims it destroyed over 600 smuggling tunnels into Gaza. Some are so large that vehicles can drive through.
Gaza is a tragedy. It has the potential to become a key economic center for the Palastinians...it has a port, sits on both the Egyptian and Israeli borders and had plans to build a regional airport. However, it lacks a middle class, with almost 2m fifth generation Palastinian refugees there. As a result, it suffers economically and Hamas has stepped in (funded by Iran & others) to provide key resources like schools, shelters, food, etc. In exchange, Hamas uses these same homes & schools as origination for tunnels into Israel. Additionally, it fires its rockets & mortars from these urban centers. As you can see from this photo, Israel sits with its Security wall (upper right) and much of the border & parts of the interior Gaza lay in rubble from counter strikes (left).
Jerusalem the current flash point given the Palestinian driver attack and his subsequent killing by the police. When the security wall left 300,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side and milliins economically shut off from Israel on the other side. I found out today that the Palestinian's funeral was the night we were in Jerusalem and many were watching to see if anything erupted. Today, there are clashes as Palestinians on the Temple Mount throw rocks down at the Wailing wall attendees.
New Canvas: We then flew North by copter to the Golan Heights/Syria and Lebenon border). I had the good fortune to sit next to Alon Ben-David, Israel's "Wolf Blitzer". He had a surprising optimism for the potential of the region. He pointed out that every 100 years, you have a chance at a new canvas. With Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Kurds/Turkey and such all in flux, there was opportunity to bring parties to the table. The Palastinian issue seems to be a distant second to the Shiite/Sunni conflict across all countries. The hope would be that with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Eqypt, PLA all united by the Shiite/ISIS threat, they combined with the US/Europe could be a force of positive redesign of Middle East. That said, with the Egyptian peace talks likely stalled, Hamas rebuilds its tunnels, Israel digs in and Arab/Israeli relations in Jerusalem grow more tense.
Me with Alon (Wolf) on the copter:
Syria Is Splintering up North: Looking down from the Golan Heights, we could see the battle lines of the massive civil war in Syria (could drag out for 10 more years). The Asad regime has surpressed the Sunni/Shiite tensions underneath a brutal dictatorship. There are a dizzing array of factors battling each other in Syria..Shiite Hezbollah (Iran supported), Syrian Shiites and minority groups like Christians support Asad. Meanwhile, Sunni forces take various forms, ranging from Free Syria Army (supposedly a moderate consortia), Jabhat al-Nustra (Syria's Al-Queda...middle) and ISIS (extreme Sunni) and 10 various rebel Sunni groups. These extreme groups feel empowered with the overthrow of Mubarak & Huseein. Here is the Syrian panorama from Golan:
Let Syria Burn...for many in the Middle East, Syria at war works well for them. Hezbollah is dragged into this, Syria is not a unified threat to Israel and ISIS shows itself to be barbaric.
Lebanon Waking Dragon: In the last two weeks, Lebanon has begun to stir after 7 years of quiet. After the 2006/7 war where Israel drove all the way to Beruit and destroyed Hezbollah's buildings, it has kept its head relatively low. However, recently, it blew up an Israeli jeep using an IAD. This renewed confidence is troubling. Hezbollah is backed by Iran through Syria. In the picture below (only 200 yards away), there are large houses built by Hezbollah for civilians. There are over 100,000+ missiles, all larger, more accurate than those from Hamas, stored or even have built in firing silos. Iran has armed Lebanon as a deterent to Israel bombing its nuclear bomb efforts. Syria is critical to Lebanon as it is the direct route to Iran for weapons. If these missiles launch, they will do significant damage to Israel.
We returned back to Tel Aviv for dinner with the IDF 8200 Elite Intelligence unit...the best of the best. Quite a day.