Fateful days: Iran nuke deal, embassy move, Gaza march
The Middle East is bracing for milestone events packed into one week – beginning Tuesday – that could reverberate in unforeseen ways and change the trajectory of a region shaped by growing conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, leaders of the Shiite and Sunni Muslim camps.
In this short span, the United States is to decide whether to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and then move its embassy in Israel to contested Jerusalem, provoking Palestinians at a time when many thousands plan to march from blockaded Gaza to Israel’s border – and perhaps overrun it.
A look at what’s ahead:
The Iran deal
President Donald Trump is expected to announce Tuesday whether he will keep the U.S. in a 2015 deal that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbing its nuclear program.
A pullout is opposed by other world powers, but supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A U.S. withdrawal and the possibility of an eventual collapse of the deal raises concerns about escalation, even war –particularly if Iran is seen as resuming its pursuit of nuclear weapons and Israel retaliates.
Tensions between Israel and Iran already are high over Iran’s efforts to expand its military presence in Syria and airstrikes attributed to Israel that killed Iranian fighters there, prompting threats of reprisal by Tehran. Netanyahu says he’ll counter “Iran’s aggression … even if this means a struggle.”
Israeli security officials say forces are already on high alert in northern Israel.
Netanyahu’s critics inside Israel warn that he is pursuing a risky course by trying to torpedo the nuclear deal, without assurances that the U.S. has prepared for the fallout.
Iran could respond by activating regional allies – Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Gaza-based Hamas – but faces limits. Both groups have to keep in mind local constituencies that endured painful Israeli airstrikes in previous cross-border confrontations.
Hezbollah, armed with tens of thousands of rockets trained at Israel, hopes to integrate further into Lebanese politics after scoring gains Sunday in the country’s first election in nine years. Hezbollah’s calculations could change if it succeeds in setting up military positions in southwestern Syria, allowing it to launch rockets without concern for Lebanese civilians being harmed in counterattacks.
Sunni Muslim Hamas, which has had ambivalent ties with Shiite-led Iran since seizing Gaza in 2007, wants to avoid another war with Israel and is betting on mass border protests to break a decade-old blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt.
A U.S. embassy in Jerusalem
On May 14, Israel’s 70th anniversary, the U.S. ceremoniously opens its new embassy in Jerusalem, in line with Trump’s recognition in December of the city as Israel’s capital. Israel has excitedly welcomed the move.
For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, it spells the end to hopes that the U.S. would one day get Israel to cede the West Bank and Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem – lands it captured in 1967 – to a Palestinian state.
Trump’s predecessors have said conflicting claims to Jerusalem must be resolved through negotiations. His claims that the Jerusalem policy shift doesn’t preclude talks on how to share the city is met with scorn by Abbas, who suspended ties with Washington and considers it unfit to keep serving as the sole Mideast broker.
Abbas warned recently that he would take “tough steps” against the U.S. and Israel, but didn’t spell them out. Options endorsed last week by the Palestine Liberation Organization include suspending recognition of Israel and walking away from interim peace deals of the 1990s.
Signaling that he’s in no rush to respond, Abbas left Sunday for a trip to Venezuela, Chile and Cuba. Even if he’s back by May 14, he won’t have time to get far-reaching decisions approved, if only as a formality, by senior PLO figures.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II seems to have resigned himself to the U.S. shift on Jerusalem, whose Israeli-annexed eastern sector, sought as a Palestinian capital, houses major shrines of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. U.S. officials have told the monarch he would continue to serve as custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in the city.
Beyond such assurances, the kingdom, where most residents are of Palestinian origin, relies on U.S. aid and discreet security ties with Israel. Despite Abdullah’s tough rhetoric on Jerusalem, he recently ended a months-long diplomatic crisis with Israel, signaling he is ready to move on.
Sunni Arab states might issue new statements critical of the U.S. Embassy move to appease domestic audiences. However, the Saudi-led camp has cheered Trump’s aggressive stance toward Iran, and will likely avoid hurting the new alliance.
On the day of the U.S. Embassy move, Hamas plans to bring the largest crowd yet to the Gaza-Israel border, as part of an open-ended blockade-busting protest campaign.
Since the weekly demonstrations began in late March, protesters have mostly thrown stones and burned tires on the Gaza side, stopping short of large-scale border breaches.
Two senior Hamas officials said such breaches will become inevitable when crowds gather on May 14, the day of the embassy move, and likely also on May 15, when Palestinians mark their “nakba,” or mass uprooting during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation.
More than two-thirds of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of refugees. Blockade-linked hardships, from 16-hour-a-day power cuts to sweeping travel bans, have pushed more people to go to the border, despite the risks.
So far, 40 protesters have been killed and more than 1,700 wounded by Israeli troops.
A mass breach is bound to lead to more casualties. Israel has dug in, despite international criticism of its use of lethal force against unarmed protesters. Israel says it needs to maintain the blockade to contain Hamas and that it will defend its border at all costs.
The border marches are expected to continue at lower intensity during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins around May 16, said the two Hamas officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss internal deliberations with reporters.
Hamas is investing as much in the new tactic as it did in its military wing, responsible in the past for suicide attacks and rocket fire on Israel, the officials said. The group believes the protests have become the only remaining tool for breaking the blockade.
Abbas is not expected to try to compete with Hamas during “nakba” rallies. In the West Bank, his security forces have kept demonstrators away from Israeli army positions.
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