Anthony Billingsley, UNSWThe latest violence between Israeli and Palestinian forces should come as no surprise. The issue of Palestinian statehood has been off the international agenda since US President Barack Obama effectively washed his hands of the issue. The Trump administration then focused on Israel’s relations with other Arab states at the expense of the Palestinians.
However, the tensions underlying the current violence have been building for some time and have the potential to become particularly serious.
In East Jerusalem, Israeli settlers have been trying to seize control of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a historic part of the city. They have resorted to the Israeli Supreme Court, which usually supports the government and settler line in matters relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. The court’s judgement was expected this week, but was deferred.
Palestinians have also been complaining about draconian restrictions imposed on worshippers during Ramadan at the Haram al-Sharif, the area including the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock (which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount).
Moreover, the end of Ramadan coincided with Jerusalem Day, a celebration of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and with al-Nakba on May 15, the Palestinian day of mourning to mark the Arabs’ loss in the 1948 war.
These factors have given the unrest added ferocity.
Possible war with Gaza, or civil war
Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, which were won by Hamas, violence between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza has been a regular occurrence.
There were major outbreaks in 2008 and 2014 when Israeli forces entered the area, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians.
There are worrying signs now that another Israeli incursion is being prepared — and another war will follow.
As the fighting has intensified, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has expressed concern war crimes are being committed. Israel has been accused of resorting to disproportionate force in Gaza, and both sides have been criticised for causing civilian deaths.
A particularly worrying aspect of these clashes is that intense fighting has also broken out between Israeli Palestinians and Jews in a number of Israeli cities and towns.
While Israeli Palestinians (who are citizens of Israel) have always been concerned about the fate of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, they have tended to be left alone, and inter-communal violence has been largely avoided.
But harmony between the two groups is fragile, and this outbreak could have serious implications. Israel’s president is warning of a civil war.
Why diplomacy has failed
A major problem is there is no means of bringing about a negotiated solution to the decades-long, seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama attempted to initiate negotiations by appointing former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. The administration’s focus was on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, but it was unable to make any progress with either the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, developed a plan that effectively bypassed the Palestinians and focused on Israel’s relations with Arab Gulf states. This was rejected by the Palestinians.
The international community has been equally ineffective in trying to reduce tensions in recent weeks. Russia has called for a reconvening of the Quartet, a body formed under former US President George W. Bush’s administration that brought together the US, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
China, meanwhile, has urged the UN Security Council to take action to de-escalate tensions — a move that was blocked by Israel’s ally, the US.
The one party that might have the capacity to bring about a ceasefire and promote negotiations is the US. However, beyond issuing the usual platitudes of concern, President Joe Biden has defended Israel’s response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
Biden is focused largely on domestic issues and does not need the distraction of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a highly divisive issue in American politics. Moreover, Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation in the US, making it difficult for Biden to apply greater pressure on Israel.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has done nothing to moderate tensions in recent weeks and his language on Gaza has become increasingly defiant. The conflict could be politically expedient for the beleaguered leader — it may help him regain the prime ministership after he was unable to form a government following recent elections.
Yair Lapid, the opposition leader who was asked by the president to try to form a government last week, has had to suspend coalition negotiations while the fighting continues. His main hope is frustration with Netanyahu will encourage his negotiating partners to continue their talks to try to oust him from power.
The Palestinian side is no better placed to enter negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas ceased engagement with Israel as a result of what he described as Israel’s refusal to negotiate and the Trump peace plan, which was widely seen as anti-Palestinian.
Abbas had called for Palestinian legislative elections in late May and presidential elections in July, but both have been postponed indefinitely. Though he hasn’t said it outright, his concern (as well as those of Israel and the US) is his party’s rival, Hamas, would easily win.
Abbas’s decision has infuriated Palestinians and added to the tensions in the East Jerusalem and Gaza over recent weeks.
Abbas’s hand is further weakened by the lack of support from other Arab governments, such as the UAE and Egypt. The result is Abbas is an isolated, impotent figure with few friends and waning support among the people he is supposed to represent.
Where to from here?
The relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is filled with suspicion and hate built up over decades. Both sides believe their cause is just.
While Israel’s survival is not at issue here, its future could be seriously influenced by the way its leaders handle crises like this. The departure of Netanyahu could be a positive step, but will not be decisive. The two sides need the international community to help them end the fighting and find a way out of the impasse they find themselves in.
This crisis represents an early major challenge for the Biden administration, but one the new US president will likely be reluctant to take on.
I grew up in Ethiopia during the days of the military government. For years before its overthrow in 1991, the national army was locked in a protracted war against rebel movements in the north. It was common in those days to hear state media reporting the capture or recapture of towns from rebel forces. The parading of prisoners of war made daily headlines.
However, you would hear a completely different story if you had the courage to tune in to rebel broadcasts, which were banned, or foreign radio. I remember my father making sure that the door and windows of our house were securely closed before tuning into Voice of America Amharic.
Thirty years later, Ethiopians faced another bout of internal armed conflict in the north and found themselves again glued to radio and television not to miss the news about advancing and retreating armed forces. And it’s just as hard to verify reports since telephone and internet links to Tigray have been cut and access tightly controlled since the fighting began on November.
The federal government launched a military offensive against the regional government of the state of Tigray in retaliation for its attack on the Northern Command of the federal army stationed in the capital of the state government. Since then, the conflict has escalated markedly.
While the Ethiopian federal government controls the federal police and the national army, the Constitution allows each of the country’s 10 states to deploy its own police force to enforce their laws. In addition, some of the states have heavily armed special forces.
Though the conflict appeared to have begun abruptly, the drums of war were beating for almost two years. The seeds of the current conflict were sown even earlier when public unrest erupted against the government, in power for almost 27 years, five years ago .
The protests eventually led to political realignment within the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnic based parties. The end result was the dislodging of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front as the dominant member of the coalition and the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in April 2018.
Outwardly, the political configurations seemed to have taken place smoothly. But it did not take long before cracks within the ruling party started to emerge. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, whose leaders retreated to their stronghold state of Tigray, complained of ethnic marginalisation and economic sabotage.
Had the national government and Tigray state government attempted to engage in intergovernmental dialogue, things might have turned out differently.
Elections and COVID-19
On March 31, Ethiopia’s National Electoral Board announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, national elections would not be held as scheduled. The decision gave rise to a constitutional conundrum. The Constitution, it appears, has no definitive answer regarding the fate of an incumbent whose term comes to an end before an election is held in the country.
Therefore, the national parliament sought advice from the House of Federation. This second chamber of the Ethiopian federal parliament ruled in favour of extending the term of the office of the incumbent administration until the next elections are held.
But not everyone supported the decision of the government to seek guidance from the House of Federation. Nor with the decision that was rendered by the House. The state government of Tigray and a number of other opposition parties deemed the move as illegitimate control of power. They called for a national dialogue that should lead to the establishment of a transitional government.
Tigray took its opposition further by establishing its own electoral board and holding an election. After carrying out its election, Tigray declared the federal government illegitimate and withdrew its members of the federal parliament.
Some aspects of the decision of the House are arguably problematic. These include its decision to extend the term of office of state councils and executives. Unlike other federal constitutions, the Ethiopian constitution is largely silent about the organisation and functioning of state governments. That is left to state constitutions. This suggests that any decision regarding state governments and state parliaments must be based primarily on state constitutions.
Yet, irrespective of the merits of the decision, the House body has the power to interpret the constitution and must be respected as such. For this reason, Tigray attack on the federal government as illegitimate was constitutionally problematic. The bodies that have the ultimate power to interpret the constitution have allowed the federal government to stay in power until the next elections are held.
The intergovernmental tension was further exacerbated when the House of Federation suspended the transfer of funds to Tigray state government. It elected to work directly with local governments in Tigray, bypassing the state government. Tigray reacted by making public its intention to withhold all federal taxes collected in the state.
One would have hoped that Addis Ababa would first see out the full implementation of the use of the power of the purse to resolve the tension. But instead the country was plunged into a military conflict to resolve intergovernmental disputes.
The Constitution allows the federal government to intervene in state governments. This ranges from giving directives on matters that are normally left to state government to removing a state government and assuming its responsibilities.
Although a constitutionally valid option – and more tempting once Tigray attacked the Northern Command – it was a politically unwise move that is fraught with disastrous consequences. A federal intervention in Ethiopia is not what we see in other federal countries, given that some of the state governments command a heavily armed force in the form of a special police force.
The state of Tigray is reported to have 250,000 strong well-armed militia and special force. A federal intervention that happens under this context unavoidably becomes an armed conflict, if not a civil war.
That is why the claim of the current administration that it is pursuing a law enforcement operation falls flat in the face of reports of the rocket missiles and air bombardments dominating the news about the conflict.
The actions and reactions of both governments reveal the limits of the law and violence to dampen intergovernmental tensions. What is striking (and tragically so) is that there has not been a single report of both governments sitting behind closed doors and engaging in intergovernmental dialogue. This is despite a number of attempts by a group of elders.
Instead, matters were allowed to fester through demonstrations, press releases and wars of words that only served to deepen the rift among communities.
The state government of Tigray expressed its willingness to engage in a dialogue. But, it said it was not interested in a bilateral dialogue that aimed at resolving the conflict between the two governments. It insisted that the dialogue should include all opposition parties and other stakeholders.
It was expected that Abiy could only see this as a call to gang up against his administration and oust him from office, making the demand a non-starter. On the other hand, his government has rejected efforts by international powers to halt the deadly fighting as interference in internal matters. This is an odd argument coming from a prime minister eager to play peacemaker in neighbouring countries.
Perhaps, what was – and still is – needed is a negotiation that aims at de-escalating the conflict between the two governments. The rest can wait for another day. The country cannot afford the continuation of the conflict that has already cost thousands of lives, created enabling environment for massive human rights violations, further deepened communal divisions and made the continued existence of the country more precarious than ever.
A version of this article was first published in Verfassungsblog.
The missile attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on Eritrea in mid-November transformed an internal Ethiopian crisis into a transnational one. In the midst of escalating internal conflict between Ethiopia’s northernmost province, Tigray, and the federal government, it was a stark reminder of a historical rivalry that continues to shape and reshape Ethiopia.
The rivalry between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the movement which has governed Eritrea in all but name for the past 30 years – the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front – goes back several decades.
The histories of Eritrea and Ethiopia have long been closely intertwined. This is especially true of Tigray and central Eritrea. These territories occupy the central massif of the Horn of Africa. Tigrinya-speakers are the predominant ethnic group in both Tigray and in the adjacent Eritrean highlands.
The enmity between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front dates to the mid-1970s, when the Tigrayan front was founded in the midst of political turmoil in Ethiopia. The authoritarian Marxist regime – known as the Derg (Amharic for ‘committee’) – inflicted violence upon millions of its own citizens. It was soon confronted with a range of armed insurgencies and socio-political movements. These included Tigray and Eritrea, where the resistance was most ferocious.
The Tigrayan front was at first close to the Eritrean front, which had been founded in 1970 to fight for independence from Ethiopia. Indeed, the Eritreans helped train some of the first Tigrayan recruits in 1975-6, in their shared struggle against Ethiopian government forces for social revolution and the right to self-determination.
But in the midst of the war against the Derg regime, the relationship quickly soured over ethnic and national identity. There were also differences over the demarcation of borders, military tactics and ideology. The Tigrayan front eventually recognised the Eritreans’ right to self-determination, if grudgingly, and resolved to fight for the liberation of all Ethiopian peoples from the tyranny of the Derg regime.
Each achieved seminal victories in the late 1980s. Together the Tigrayan-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and the Eritrean front overthrew the Derg in May 1991. The Tigrayan-led front formed government in Addis Ababa while the Eritrean front liberated Eritrea which became an independent state.
But this was just the start of a new phase of a deep-rooted rivalry. This continued between the governments until the recent entry of prime minister Abiy Ahmed.
If there’s any lesson to be learnt from years of military and political manoeuvrings, it is that conflict in Tigray is unavoidably a matter of intense interest to the Eritrean leadership. And Abiy would do well to remember that conflict between Eritrea and Tigray has long represented a destabilising fault line for Ethiopia as well as for the wider region.
Reconciliation and new beginnings
In the early 1990s, there was much talk of reconciliation and new beginnings between Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea. The two governments signed a range of agreements on economic cooperation, defence and citizenship. It seemed as though the enmity of the liberation war was behind them.
Meles declared as much at the 1993 Eritrean independence celebrations, at which he was a notable guest.
But deep-rooted tensions soon resurfaced. In the course of 1997, unresolved border disputes were exacerbated by Eritrea’s introduction of a new currency. This had been anticipated in a 1993 economic agreement. But in the event Tigrayan traders often refused to recognise it, and it caused a collapse in commerce.
Full-scale war erupted over the contested border hamlet of Badme in May 1998. The fighting swiftly spread to other stretches of the shared, 1,000 km long frontier. Air strikes were launched on both sides.
It was quickly clear, too, that this was only superficially about borders. It was more substantively about regional power and long standing antagonisms that ran along ethnic lines.
The Eritrean government’s indignant anti-Tigray front rhetoric had its echo in the popular contempt for so-called Agame, the term Eritreans used for Tigrayan migrant labourers.
For the Tigray front, the Eritrean front was the clearest expression of perceived Eritrean arrogance.
As for Isaias himself, regarded as a crazed warlord who had led Eritrea down a path which defied economic and political logic, it was hubris personified.
Ethiopia deported tens of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean descent.
Ethiopia’s decisive final offensive in May 2000 forced the Eritrean army to fall back deep into their own territory. Although the Ethiopians were halted, and a ceasefire put in place after bitter fighting on a number of fronts, Eritrea had been devastated by the conflict.
The Algiers Agreement of December 2000 was followed by years of standoff, occasional skirmishes, and the periodic exchange of insults.
During this period Ethiopia consolidated its position as a dominant power in the region. And Meles as one of the continent’s representatives on the global stage.
For its part Eritrea retreated into a militaristic, authoritarian solipsism. Its domestic policy centred on open-ended national service for the young. Its foreign policy was largely concerned with undermining the Ethiopian government across the region. This was most obvious in Somalia, where its alleged support for al-Shabaab led to the imposition of sanctions on Asmara.
The ‘no war-no peace’ scenario continued even after Meles’s sudden death in 2012. The situation only began to shift with the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn against a backdrop of mounting protest across Ethiopia, especially among the Oromo and the Amhara, and the rise to power of Abiy.
What followed was the effective overthrow of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front which had been the dominant force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition since 1991.
This provided Isaias with a clear incentive to respond to Abiy’s overtures.
Tigray’s loss, Eritrea’s gain
A peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, was signed in July 2018 by Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki. It formally ended their 1998-2000 war. It also sealed the marginalisation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Many in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front were unenthusiastic about allowing Isaias in from the cold.
Since the 1998-2000 war, in large part thanks to the astute manoeuvres of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Eritrea had been exactly where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front wanted it: an isolated pariah state with little diplomatic clout. Indeed, it is unlikely that Isaias would have been as receptive to the deal had it not involved the further sidelining of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, something which Abiy presumably understood.
Isaias had eschewed the possibility of talks with Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn. But Abiy was a different matter. A political reformer, and a member of the largest but long-subjugated ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, he was determined to end the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s domination of Ethiopian politics.
This was effectively achieved in December 2019 when he abolished the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and replaced it with the Prosperity Party.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front declined to join with the visible results of the current conflict.
Every effort to engage with the Tigrayan leadership – including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – in pursuit of a peaceful resolution must also mean keeping Eritrea out of the conflict.
Unless Isaias is willing to play a constructive role – he does not have a good track record anywhere in the region in this regard – he must be kept at arm’s length, not least to protect the 2018 peace agreement itself.
Eleven years after the U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, triggering a war between Islamic State militants and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, Iraq has finally achieved some measure of stability.
But the Iraqi government isn’t taking any chances that this terrorist organization, commonly known as “IS,” could regroup.
Over 19,000 Iraqis suspected of collaborating with IS have been detained in Iraq since the beginning of 2013, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, according to reporting by Ben Taub of the New Yorker. Sunnis are members of the sect of Islam from which IS predominantly recruits.
Suspected terrorists are often tortured into offering confessions that justify death sentences at trial. According to Amnesty International, common forms of torture include “beatings on the head and body with metal rods and cables, suspension in stress positions by the arms or legs, electric shocks, and threats of rape of female relatives.”
The government’s crackdown on Sunnis – even those with no evidence of ties with Islamic militants – sends a troubling signal about Iraq’s prospects for peace.
Our research into conflict zones shows that when post-war governments use violence against citizens, it greatly increases the risk of renewed civil war.
Repression following civil wars
The period after an armed conflict is fragile.
Citizens traumatized by violence wish fervently for peace. Defeated armed factions may have their sights set on revenge.
It is a risky strategy.
We studied 63 countries where civil war occurred between 1976 and 2005, including El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The results, which were published in the academic journal Conflict, Security and Development in January, show a 95 percent increase of another civil war in places where governments engaged in the kind of torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances that Iraq’s government is now undertaking.
Civil war is most likely to break out in former conflict zones if civilians believe they will be targeted by the state regardless of whether or not they actually support an insurgency.
Often, our results show, people respond to indiscriminate clampdowns by arming themselves. That is easy to do in conflict zones, which are home to many former rebels with extensive battlefield training and access to weapons, including both active militant groups and the remnants of vanquished insurgencies.
Assessing the risk of renewed war in Iraq
Sadly, Iraq has been down this road before.
In 2007, the U.S. military surge sent more than 20,000 additional American troops into combat in Iraq to help the government of Nuri al-Maliki – which came to power after Hussein’s demise – fight Al-Qaida and other Islamic militants.
The U.S. enlisted Sunni insurgents to help them find, capture or kill Al-Qaida operatives during this period of the Iraq war, which is often called “the surge.”
That decision inflamed the centuries-old sectarian divide between Iraq’s two dominant religious groups, Sunni and Shia Muslims.
During former Iraqi President Hussein’s rule, Sunni Muslims controlled the country, and his government actively repressed Shia citizens. Since Hussein’s ouster, however, Iraq’s government has been run by Shia Muslims.
After the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011, the U.S.-backed al-Maliki government began a brutal campaign to consolidate its authority. From 2012 to 2013, he expelled all Sunni officials from Iraq’s government and silenced opponents using torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances.
At the time, our study of renewed fighting in conflict zones had just begun. The preliminary findings made us concerned that al-Maliki’s use of violence to assert control over Iraq could restart the civil war by pushing angry Sunnis into the arms of militant groups.
Unfortunately, we were right.
Starting in 2014, the Islamic State began moving swiftly from Syria – where it was based – to conquer major cities across neighboring western Iraq.
Iraqi Sunnis, who were excluded from politics after Hussein’s overthrow and fearful of government repression, did little to stop the incursion. Islamic militants increased their recruitment among Iraqi Sunnis by promising a return to Sunni dominance in Iraq.
Many Sunnis took up arms against their own government not because they supported IS’s goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East but because they hated al-Maliki’s administration.
By June 2014, the Islamic State had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, just 250 miles north of Baghdad. It took three years of fighting and the combined force of Iraqi, U.S. and Kurdish troops, as well as Iranian-backed militias, to rid the country of this terrorist organization.
In September 2017, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Abadi claimed victory over IS in Iraq. The international community turned its focus toward Syria, where Islamic militants were continuing their war on citizens and the government.
What’s next for Iraq
Still, the Islamic State remains a persistent and legitimate threat to both Syria and Iraq, with some 30,000 active fighters in the region. Its commanders have reportedly buried large stockpiles of munitions in Iraq in preparation for renewed war.
American intelligence officials have warned against President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying it will give IS more freedom to regroup there and in Iraq.
The Iraqi government’s crackdown on Sunnis is, in part, an effort to eliminate this threat, since IS could draw renewed support from disaffected Sunni Iraqis across the border.
But many observers think Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi is also exacting revenge on Sunnis for previously joining IS in armed warfare against Iraq’s government.
Rather than prevent more fighting, our research suggests, Iraq’s clampdown on Sunnis may spark another civil war.
Eric Keels, Research Associate at One Earth Future Foundation & Research Fellow at the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee and Angela D. Nichols, Assistant Professor, Florida Atlantic University