The National Interest Foundation Newsletter, Issue 201

The National Interest Foundation Newsletter

Issue 201, August 4, 2023

Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. In this week’s headlines: we analyze what is behind the recent meeting between Palestinian factions in Egypt, look into the U.S. campaign for a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, explore the recent violence in Ein el-Hilweh Camp in Lebanon, and examine the recent law passed by the Jordanian legislation limiting free speech online.

Written by Jacob Van Veldhuizen and Toni JeBailey

Intra-Palestinain Reconciliation

The continued intrusions into the West Bank put pressure on Palestinian leaders to reconcile their differences. (Photo from AP)

What is Driving the Intra-Palestinian Reconciliation in Egypt?

A meeting between Palestinian factions took place in Egypt this past weekend to discuss reconciliation efforts. The meeting comes at a time of unprecedented violence in the West Bank as Israel stages near-nightly raids. It was organized by the Egyptian government and headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting has been viewed by many observers as an effort to calm tensions as they in the West Bank. The United States and other Arab governments were involved behind the scenes, working with the Egyptian government in initiating this meeting. It is unlikely any decrease in tensions will result from negotiations, as the extremist far-right government continues to violently expand settlements. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) boycotted the meeting to protest the detention of its members by the Palestinian authority. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also boycotted the talks. Their absence is notable and highlights the continued division among many Palestinian groups, not just Hamas and Fatah.

During the meeting, both sides agreed that reunification was essential for the Palestinian cause, but how that will happen is far from agreed upon. Past attempts have so far been futile, and there is little evidence to think this meeting will result in anything substantial. At the end of the meeting, it was agreed upon to form a committee on intra-Palestinian reconciliation, which at face value seems like progress. However, similar committees have been formed in the past and have achieved little. Palestinian observers remain pessimistic. Moukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist in Palestine, holds this sentiment. “The best way to kill something is to form a committee for it,” he explains.

This was also a chance for Abbas to try and improve his popularity. He is currently very unpopular and widely seen as corrupt. The security coordination deals with Israel he agreed to are unpopular and Israel rarely keeps up their side of these deals. This combined with growing discontent over the conditions in the West Bank has made Abbas deeply unpopular. It is unlikely that one meeting will change any of this, especially a gathering that accomplished little.

The ideal path forward, and one that enjoys wide popularity, is to hold elections. The last legislative election was held in 2006. Hamas won this election. After Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Abbas dismissed the coalition and appointed Salam Fayyad to form a new government. Elections were planned to be held in 2021 but were postponed by Abbas, who cited Israeli obstruction. Though obstruction was present, it was also evident Abbas was postponing the election to keep himself in power. In a poll held in the same year as the last election, it was found that nearly 80% of Palestinians wanted him to resign from his position. If legitimate elections were held, it is almost certain Hamas would win. It is important to note, however, that a Hamas victory would mean a significant decline in funding and international recognition for the Palestinian cause. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. This would limit diplomatic capabilities, though they have not been very effective in the past either.

With neither side willing to sacrifice their political gains, the chances of reconciliation are very slim. The common ground that is needed to form a unified strategy does not exist. The status quo will continue for the time being, despite neither Hamas nor Fatah being content with it. Conditions are worsening in both Gaza and the West Bank, and the division among Palestinian factions is exacerbating it. A united Palestine is essential moving forward, especially as the extremist Israeli government continues to escalate tensions in the West Bank.

Saudi-Israeli Normalization

Jake Sullivan’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia is part of the intensified efforts by the United States to reach a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. (Photo from NYT)

U.S. Continues to Push for Saudi-Israeli Normalization

With the recent return visit of Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s National Security Advisor, to Saudi Arabia this past week, the United States continues its campaign for Saudi-Israeli normalization. Following Sullivan’s previous visit in May, a new sense of urgency has been reinstated regarding the policy prospect as the U.S. continues its goal of bridging relations between the two countries. While no breakthrough has been announced, Sullivan’s tour also follows a visit to Saudi Arabia by Secretary of State Antony Blinken the month prior, with the same goal of normalization intended. As the United States aims to broker the historic deal, it comes at a time of shifting power dynamics within the region as the U.S. seeks to reinstate itself as a major contender.

Many roadblocks lie ahead of Saudi-Israeli normalization, as Yuli Edelstein, head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, stated, “I think it’s too early to talk about a deal being in the works.” With most of the conversations primarily occurring between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., the former has been adamant on the contingency of a large-scale mutual security pact and a civilian nuclear plan between the two countries. These two demands have thrown a wrench in negotiations, as Saudi Arabia remains deeply unpopular in the U.S. Congress. Any mutual security pact needs to be approved by the body. There is also great concern among policymakers about supplying the Gulf state with nuclear materials.

The U.S. also aims to distance the relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia, their control over energy output and prices, and China’s growing impact and power within the region. While Israel’s demands for normalization remain unknown, it is believed that the latter state will demand some recognition in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As Saudi Arabia would be unsatisfied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise not to annex the West Bank, more action regarding conflict resolution would be demanded. With President Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government hesitant to any solution with Saudi Arabia, it is unknown if any backlash will occur if plans for normalization move forward. Israeli National Missions Minister Orit Strock remarked, “We certainly won’t agree to such a thing,” in regards to any concessions regarding Palestinians being agreed on between Saudi-Israeli negotiations, with Netanyahu’s administration remaining firm in its right-wing, extremist stances. Due to the latter’s recent judicial overhaul approval, there is high tension between the respective Biden and Netanyahu administrations. Hence, the nature of the discussions remains convoluted within the current environment.

Netanyahu’s recently announced a 100 billion shekel ($27 billion) railway outbound from Tel Aviv and the potential for future expansion to connect with Ridayh as plans for normalization become greater in potential. Yet, as the United States remains the principal actor in negotiations, it is to be determined if either Saudi Arabia or Israel will take the following steps towards rapprochement and normalization with each other. Rumors of a potential compromise between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia continue to surge, yet a successful deal remains contingent on Israeli concessions regarding Palestine. With the United States adamant about the success of normalization, optimism regarding successful discussions remains high from the Biden Administration. As Israel and Netanyahu’s administration remain steadfast, only time and new proposals will indicate if a normalization plan can successfully progress.

Violence in Palestinian Refugee Camp

Recent factional violence in the Ein el-Hilweh Camp in Lebanon has already caused dozens of casualties. (Photo from AFP)

Violence Continues in Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon

Fighting has persisted at the Ein el-Hilweh Camp following the assassination of Palestinian faction Fatah commander Abu Ashraf al-Armouchi and four of his bodyguards this past Saturday. Ein el-Hilweh is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, located near the southern port city of Sidon and home to over 55,000 refugees. Conflict first began after an unknown gunman attempted to kill Mahmoud Khalil, but shot Ashraf al-Armouchi, who is responsible for security inside Ein el-Hilweh, instead. Following the assassination, fighting continued between factions, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens more. The violence forced over 2,000 refugees to flee, and nearby hospitals and buildings to evacuate.

Due to a longstanding agreement between parties, the Lebanese army is prohibited from entering the camp, surrounded by a large wall with limited access. The conflict resolution inside the camp, per the agreement, is left to groups in Ein el-Hilweh.

The camp was established in 1948 under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, primarily in response to Palestinians fleeing after the Nakba and the creation of the state of Israel. Since then, it has remained the largest of the 12 official UN refugee camps in Lebanon. Over 479,000 Palestinian refugees are currently living in Lebanon’s refugee camps. Violence in the camp is not an anomaly. Multiple clashes have erupted over the past few decades between several armed factions, and the Lebanese military inability to use force to end violence due to the standing agreement.

An attempted ceasefire started Monday after a meeting between Fatah, Lebanese Amal, Hezbollah, and other groups, fighting has persisted. Following the spillover of conflict outside of the camp that injured several Lebanese army officials, the army warned of the “consequences of exposing military posts and their personnel to danger, whatever the reasons, and stressed that the army will respond to fire in kind.” The director of the UNRWA in Lebanon, Dorothee Kraus, stated that all UNRWA operations within the camp have been suspended due to the conflict. She said that safety in Ein el-Hilweh must be restored for the betterment of all civilians and children. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the recent attacks, asking Palestinian forces to cooperate with the Lebanese army to mediate the situation.

The violence in Ein el-Hilweh is a consequence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and mirrors similar to the current conflict at the Lebanese-Israeli border. This past month, incidents at the borders left three Hezbollah members injured from Israeli fire, as Lebanese fighters and citizens alike attempt to retake what they consider Lebanese land fenced off by Israeli forces.

The migration of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon has remained steady for over 70 years has provided Fatah and other Palestinian factions with members and thus increasing their presence in the refugee camps. As violence continues, there is no telling if a ceasefire will hold, or if greater jurisdiction from the Lebanese army is needed to end the fighting. Nevertheless, Ein el-Hilweh is a reminder of the Palestinian plight for existence, as the generational conflict for autonomy feeds the conflict with Israel.

Jordanian Cybersecurity Law

Jordan’s new cybercrime law has raised concerns about its potential use to stifle the freedom of speech. (Photo from AFP)

The Danger of Jordan’s New Cyber Crime Law

After a lengthy six-hour debate and despite public criticism, Jordan’s lower house of parliament recently passed a new law allowing for more government control of online content and limiting online speech with penalties for violating the legislation increasing in severity. Aimed to prohibit content “promoting, instigating, aiding, or inciting immorality,” the law punishes those who violate with up to three months in prison and/or upwards of 25,000 dinars ($35,000 USD) in fines. The cybercrime law consists of 41 articles intended to replace and update a similar law from 2015. With the legislation set to be passed by the Senate and approved by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, it will likely be enacted within the upcoming days.

Before the law’s approval, 14 human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, released a joint public statement condemning the law and its limitations on civil rights. Citing the amendments as “draconian,” they expanded that the wording of the legislation consisted of “vague provisions which open the door for Jordan’s executive branch to punish individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression, forcing the judges to convict citizens in most cases.” These vague provisions include posts seen as “promoting, instigating, aiding, or inciting immorality,” demonstrating “contempt for religion” or “undermining national unity”. The law also threatens citizens’ privacy, as methods to identify offenders have become more invasive. One of the offenses added punishes individuals who publish names or pictures of police officers online. In the letter, the 14 human rights groups also urge legislators to consult with civil society. This is unlikely to happen.

The cybercrime law follows a series of previous crackdowns by the Jordanian government on social media and online content, including the blocking of TikTok this past December. This was to stop the spread of videos showing anti-government protests. Additionally, spyware technology has been implemented to allow authorities to track down those violating social media use rules and limitations. There have been over 22,759 violations recorded between 2019 and 2023. The Jordanian government claims the laws are to decrease the number of violations. The vagueness of this law coupled with the increased severity of punishments points to more devious intentions. This law can and will likely be used to subvert dissent and silence critics of the government. It can also be used to silence political opponents and prevent them from participating in elections. It also gives the government the ability to classify what is “fake news” and what isn’t, giving them versatile tools to destroy the freedom of the press.

The Jordanian government is using the age-old guise of improving security to justify the new restriction. Jordian citizens continue to fear what the next steps look like from their government moving forward. Their freedom of expression is in danger. The final vote of approval by the Senate and the King is yet to occur, with online journalists aiming to meet with members of parliament to help create discourse to discourage the decision. With denouncement from human rights groups and journalists alike, this should serve as an alarm for all of those who hold the ideal of free speech dear.