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Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin: Between Israel and Hamas

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In recent weeks and months there has been a cacophony of Salafi protest that has swept Gaza against the ruling Hamas government related to treatment of prisoners, corruption, and ability to practice Islam as they see fit.

One of the groups speaking out has been Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, a jihadi organization that is sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s worldview. By glomming onto a mainstream Salafi cause, MSM is attempting to co-opt individuals to gain a stronger footing within Gaza to challenge Hamas (albeit only at the political and not military level yet), whom they view as an enemy similar, though, on a lesser level than Israel.

Background

Following a cross-border attack on Israel carried out by one Egyptian and one Saudi fighter, the organization’s formation was first declared on 19 June 2012, which was announced in a video released from the Sinai Peninsula, featuring seven fighters. The two attackers read their martyrdom wills in the video as well.

In the first part of the video, the speaker in the center reads out a statement and begins by invoking Qur’an 61:4, ‘Verily does God love those who fight in his path in a row as though they were a firm edifice,’ followed by references to standard global jihadist themes such as the necessity of implementing the Shari’a on Earth and reviving the glory of the Ummah.

The Majlis also appeals to fellow Muslims in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, as well as the ‘Syrian Muslim people- the mujahid [people] brutalized under the control of the idolatrous, criminal Nusayri [derogatory term for ‘Alawite’] regime.’

The flag used is identical to the one pioneered by al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi branch known as the Islamic State of Iraq, and the group praises ‘Sheikh Osama Bin Laden’ in its founding statement. Yet, while the al-Qa’ida affiliation thus illustrated is not in doubt, the group’s primary focus to attack Israel has been evident from the beginning.

This is apparent in the reference to the obligation of ‘the people of Tawhid [monotheism]’ to heed the ‘screams of al-Aqsa and the moans of prisoners under the grip of the enemy Jewish cowards.’ The founding statement includes in its conclusion a call for God to defeat ‘the Jews and the kuffar.’

In a video from October of last year, the Majlis likewise vowed to fight the Jews as enemies of God. In the wake of an April 2013 rocket attack on Eilat, the group released a video, part of which featured scenes of Jews praying at the Western Wall, denounced by the Majlis as the ‘Judaization of al-Aqsa.’ The video then continues with the recurring theme of treatment of Muslim prisoners by Israel.

MSM and Hamas

The focus on Israel is also made clear by the fact that the organization maintains a presence among Salafist jihadists located in the Gaza Strip. In light of Hamas’ detention and torture of jihadist individuals, the Majlis has on more than one occasion raised the issue of Hamas’ conduct towards Salafist militants.

For example, a senior Salafist in Gaza affiliated with the Majlis recently affirmed: ‘We will continue the jihad regardless of the stance of Egypt or Hamas,’ adding that the Majlis has ‘precise knowledge on the complete cooperation between Egypt and Hamas in the war against the Salafists.’

In a similar vein, the Majlis recently released a statement calling for the release of all Salafist detainees held prisoner by the Hamas government: ‘Everyone who has a free voice and noble pen, and everyone who has a living conscience and faith should raise his voice to pressure the dismissed government to put a stop to its pursuit against the rights of its mujahideen.’

Criticism of Hamas has been a recurring theme in Salafist discourse. A very noteworthy example is a Salafist-Jihadist video (NB not from an al-Qa’ida affiliate) from about a year ago that purports to document evidence on numerous counts of Hamas’ perpetrating- in the words of the video title- ‘massacres…in Gaza against the Salafist mujahideen.

For example, at 17:40 onwards, the video offers a purportedly intercepted radio transmission from the leadership of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades giving orders to destroy houses and a mosque frequented by Salafists with missiles.

Like the affirmation to continue jihad despite perceived Egypt-Hamas cooperation against Salafist militants, the latest call by the Majlis for Hamas to release Salafist detainees comes following the killing by Israel of a Majlis militant called Haitham Ziyad al-Meshaal, now commemorated as a ‘martyr’ in a video released by the organization.

The day before Haitham was assassinated, relatives of imprisoned Salafist militants in Gaza held a demonstration calling on Hamas’ security forces to release their detained kinsfolk. The al-Qa’ida flag’s presence may indicate that some of the imprisoned fighters in question are members of the Majlis.

It turns out that Haitham, who was targeted as a suspect behind the rocket attacks on Eilat, had once been a member of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades but according to the Majlis, left out of disillusionment with Hamas’ participation in ‘the game of democracy’ (a reference to the 2006 legislative elections that were judged to be free) and its ‘removal of the divine Shari’a.’

One should compare this sentiment with a statement from the group that condemned Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafist parties (e.g. Egypt’s an-Nour) for entering into the ‘mud of democracy.’ Here is a photo of Haitham from his funeral in Gaza– his coffin wrapped in the al-Qa’ida flag. His dislike of the concept of democracy is corroborated by his testimony in the video celebrating his martyrdom.

Unsurprisingly, Hamas condemned Israel’s targeting of Haitham, but many in jihadist circles did not fail to notice Hamas’ double standard behind the condemnation.

For instance, the jihadist outlet Ibn Taymiyyah Media released a statement noting that the Salafist jihadists in Gaza have been caught between the ‘hammer of Jewish aircraft and the anvil of Hamas and its security apparatus,’ noting the ongoing imprisonment and disappearances of Salafist militants.

In the meantime, however, Hamas, which has a vested interest in portraying itself as the true spearhead of ‘resistance’ against Israel, remains undeterred from cracking down on Salafists it perceives as its rivals, having just announced the arrest of several ‘extremist’ Salafist militants in Gaza on charges of stealing missiles.

The accusation of stealing weaponry- a familiar charge on Hamas’ part- is strongly denied by the Salafists, including those affiliated with the Majlis, which in October of last year released a video to refute the allegation. The video purportedly shows how they themselves manufacture projectiles to fire against Israel.

The global jihadist ideology of the Majlis and its animosity towards Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood notwithstanding, it should not be thought that the group is planning on armed confrontation with Hamas or the Egyptian government anytime soon.

On the contrary, when there was an attack last year on Egyptian border guards at the Rafah crossing into Gaza, the Majlis was quick to issue a denial of responsibility, while condemning the Egyptian army’s stance against jihadist fighters.

Conclusion

In short, the group will continue to attempt to carry out attacks on Israel, while avoiding an open fight against Egypt or Hamas. Even so, Salafist resentment about treatment under Hamas’ hands could lead to a more general shift in the Salafist trend in Gaza towards the open al-Qa’ida affiliation of the Majlis. Indeed, the banners on display at that demonstration in Gaza on Monday by the relatives of imprisoned Salafists may be a strong indication that such a turn is already underway.

To an extent, it would seem Hamas heeds internal Salafist pressure to enforce Islamic law more rigidly, as illustrated by the recent initiative for gender segregation in schools. Yet in the eyes of the Salafist militants, these Islamization moves are merely cosmetic and do not compensate for imprisoning and torturing Salafist brethren and so ultimately cannot off-put attempts by the Majlis to co-opt Salafist opinion in Gaza towards its orientation.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.

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The 25-year China-Iran agreement

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On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.

In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:

  • China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
  • China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
  • The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
  • 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
  • China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
  • At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
  • Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
  • Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.

Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”

Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.

Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”

China’s objectives

Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.

The Iranian regime’s objectives

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.

Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.

Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.

Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.

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China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship

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China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.

The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.

Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.

Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”

During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.

China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.

China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.

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The analysis of developments in relations between Turkey and Israel

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The fear of Biden’s Administration, the concern over the Abraham Accords (see below), the positioning of the geopolitical status in the Middle East, and the safeguarding of interests in Israel are the main factors through which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to improve relations with Israel which, however, he connects to the Palestinians.

The statements made by Turkish President Erdoğan’s on developments in relations with Israel have confirmed media reports of his repeated attempts to reach an understanding on several controversial issues, as well as paving the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The statements made by President Erdoğan, as well as other Turkish officials, have stressed the connection between the change in Turkish-Israeli relations and Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian issue.

The “linking principle” connecting the two issues has been a key factor in Turkish foreign policy since the 1950s, and it operates in the range between words and deeds, which at times have also led to severe crises in the relations between the two countries.

At the time Turkey opposed the partition plan, but recognised Israel and maintained diplomatic relations with it. Relations were suspended after the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, when Turkey recalled its diplomatic representative from Tel Aviv, announcing he would not return there “until a just solution to the Palestinian issue was found in accordance with UN Resolutions”.

After rising to power, President Erdoğan has developed the aforementioned “linking principle”. Against the backdrop of Israel’s actions with the Palestinians, Turkey has increased its political and economic support for its Muslim brethren and caused crises.

President Erdoğan’s recent statements have been made against the backdrop of this policy: on the one hand, the Turkish President has expressed his country’s desire to improve relations with Israel and continue intelligence cooperation; on the other hand, he has maintained that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is “unacceptable”.

It is important to note that Turkey will not relinquish the “linking principle”, which differs from the principle of the new Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel. The so-called Abraham Accords, such as the recognition of the State of Israel by the United Arab Emirates in September last year: the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel, after Egypt and Jordan; the fourth one if we considers Mauritania’s “frozen” recognition.

The policy implemented by President Erdoğan is not only shaped by foreign relations, but is also a Turkish internal issue in which public opinion plays a key role. It seems that until elections are held in Turkey (scheduled for June 25, 2023), there will be no complete normalisation with Israel. The majority of the Turkish population supports the Palestinians and their rights, feels full solidarity for them and opposes the Israeli presence.

Moreover, President Erdoğan regards the Palestinian issue as an important factor in building a renewed Turkish Muslim national identity. These stances increase his popularity and strengthen people’s support for him and his party, as well as his authority and prestige in the Muslim world.

At the same time, however, this policy also has pragmatic implications: President Erdoğan is not severing ties with Israel, but merely creating actions that lead to symptoms of “diplomatic” crises.

Despite this wait-and-see attitude, economic ties between Turkey and Israel are flourishing. According to official data, in 2018 exports from Turkey to Israel were worth 6.5 billion dollars and imports 1.9 billion dollars (excluding diamond trade and tourism).

Following the crisis in relations and the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Turkey (May 2018), exports had fallen to 4 billion dollars in 2019 and imports to 1.7 billion dollars. Although declining, there are still deep economic ties.

Trade relations, however, are not the decisive factor in determining the nature of Turkey-Israel relations. There are four issues that are believed to have led Turkey to review its relations with Israel:

1. Turkey has welcome the new U.S. President, Joe Biden, with caution and fear that he will oppose Turkish activities in the region. The U.S. leader may also be very tough on security, armaments and minority rights in Turkey. Some believe that improved relations with Israel will calm down the situation with President Biden, and the U.S. Congress and the Zionist lobby will be able to contribute to this result. It is not known, however, whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be as good a mediator with Biden as he was with Donald Trump.

2. Turkey is seeking to remove the isolation imposed on it due to the distribution of marine economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean area, and is trying to bring Israel on its side to develop a joint stance and oppose such subdivisions. According to Israeli sources, Turkey has made Israel a generous offer to expand its area of control over the marine economic zones, in exchange for Turkey’ siding with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Israel has reacted cautiously, both because it much weighs President Erdoğan’s intentions and because it is actually interested in strengthening its relations with the above stated countries.

3. Turkey is worried about the Abraham Accords for normalisation with Israel, particularly the aforementioned one with the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey aims at limiting their influence and status as a further “undertaking” of Arab rivals. Turkey endeavours to dismantle a rising alliance between the Arab countries and Israel. After all, we wonder why Turkey is not instead trying to improve its ties with Arab countries to achieve the same goal. Could it still be because of history and traditional mutual dislike?

4. Turkey is trying to relieve the pressure on its activities in Israel and Palestine as a result of the possible improvement in relations with Israel. Turkey funds important projects in Jerusalem and Israel is trying to contain and restrain it. Conversely, an improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations could release the Israeli brake.

To date, no official Israeli response has been provided to Turkish statements. Israel’s media speak of suspicion and coldness in response to the Turkish rapprochement, with fears that President Erdoğan is preparing a ploy, a trick aimed not at improving his relations with Israel, but at sabotaging Israel’s relations and contacts with other countries.

However, leaks from senior Israeli officials indicate that their country has set conditions for restoring relations, which include ending Turkey’s ties with Hamas and transferring Turkish projects to Jerusalem through Israeli channels, as well as abstaining from voting against Israel in international organisations and adopting a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is not yet clear what the fate of Turkey-Israel relations will be in the coming months, with President Biden in the White House and after the Israeli elections held on March 23, 2021. It is important to note, however, that Turkey will not give up the “linking principle”, which differs from the new principle of Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel.

The Turkish “linking principle” is a real need for Turkey- hence the Palestinian leadership must work with Turkey to maximise common goals, especially with regard to Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza.

Not easy steps to make, but not impossible either.

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