Since the United States declared the opening of its new embassy in Jerusalem, violence has broken out along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, where thousands of protesters have gathered for months for what they have dubbed “The Great March of Return” [to Israel].
Earlier this week, Israeli troops fired into the crowd from across the border fence, killing at least 58 Palestinians and wounding more than 2,700. Israel has faced international backlash for its heavy-handed approach to the protests, including Turkey expelling its ambassador and a number of countries calling for an investigation of the bloodshed. However, what’s just as interesting is which voices are missing in the conversation.
For more on that, The Cipher Brief spoke with Rob Richer, former Associate Deputy Director of Operations at the CIA with deep ties across the Middle East.
What is the long-term impact of the decision by the U.S. to relocate its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem?
The concern I have really is the short-term, and the short-term effect is what we saw in Gaza on the border two days ago, and through Ramadan we’re going to continue to see a lot of loss of life. We’re probably going to see terrorist groups associated with the Palestinians return to more dire actions against Israel and those who support the move to Jerusalem.
And to remind: the Palestinian terror groups were some of the strongest groups we had prior to the birth of al Qaida. The PFLP, Abu Nidal, Wadi Haddad—those groups, who are history, were responsible for some pretty catastrophic attacks; Black September and others. Granted, most of the people who were in these groups are my age, they’re in their 60s and 70s. But they have sons and relatives who remember the fight and when there’s no hope, people strike out.
So I’m very concerned about Ramadan, I’m very concerned about the months to come.
I’m as concerned—for the long-term implications—that the current administration is trying to link Iran to the disturbances and the crisis between Gaza, Palestine and Israel, as I think you heard from Ambassador Nikki Haley yesterday at the UN. And that’s so far from the truth. The Iranians will agitate against Israel, but this is purely people who have been subjugated, isolated, not allowed to have free trade, live in very dire conditions—and I have been in Gaza. It’s some of your worst nightmares, if you have to live there without water, infrastructure, the availability to have a job…and look across a fence and see some of the lands that you and your family owned occupied by someone else. And you realize that the city that you called capital, that was a beacon for you, for religion and everything else—Jerusalem—has now been basically recognized as the state capital of another country. That’s serious.
Look, I thought for sure we’d be better off than we are today. On my wall I’m looking at right now I have two awards from two different administrations for my contributions to Middle East peace, and obviously that just didn’t go where we thought it would. We have an administration that’s making a case for Iran. You have a country, Israel, that will use any violence to further their case on Iran. You have Palestinians who feel like they have no hope, and most believe that they have no future. All of this is a pretty ugly witch’s brew.
At the same time, there’s an absence in the region of uproar at both the totality of the embassy move, and the fact that the move was not associated with anything else. We gave something and got nothing in return. We did something without a fig leaf to the Palestinians to say—hey, look, we have to move this, the time is right. Okay, that’s the president’s decision. But in return, here’s where we’re at in the peace process, on this date we’re going to do this, and by the way we’re going to all [the Palestinians] to have some trade to their ports. Something to have a quid pro quo. There was nothing. It was so one-sided and so without discussion, it was almost an affront to those involved.
What concerns me seriously right now is the absence of some voices about what happened and what is going to happen. If you look at the world press right now, the King of Jordan has spoken very forcefully as has his government. The Kuwaitis are trying to move a resolution through the UN and they’re speaking forcefully. But the Arab states which have the most influence in this U.S. administration—mainly because of money, investment, and ties to Jared Kushner and others—are the Emirates and the Saudis. And they have the ability to actually influence Congress and this administration. They’ve been passive. Except for a couple of lackluster statements, they basically look like they’re abandoning the two-state solution and they’re abandoning the Palestinians.
What do you make of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia’s statements concerning the Palestinians, and him basically siding with the Trump administration?
MBS has given no indication in his short time as Crown Prince and prior to that that he cares about the Palestinians or a two-state solution. It’s been documented that the Saudis have a back-channel to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they’re looking at a number of regional programs together, and both have strong ties the U.S. administration—particularly Jared Kushner, who was acting as mediator for this issue. He’s their voice, and he’s basically in the pocket particularly of the Saudis, and politically of the Israelis. MBS has written the Palestinians off, and he’s indicated that he is more than willing to let the Palestinians be the problem of Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen, where a lot of Palestinians reside, and wherever else in the world they are. He’s worried about his role, and the preeminence of Saudi Arabia on the world stage.
It’s a pretty sad fact because if the Saudis and to a lesser extent the UAE were to put their financial ties to the U.S., and their support to a number of think tanks and other things on the Hill, in play here, we could probably leverage something to move some part of the peace process forward and to get the administration at least be…less biased.
Was it two thousand people wounded, just in this last weekend? Sixty plus dead? On a fence line which they never penetrated. So the protesters were shot at a fence line, none of them had weapons that have been identified and a lot of them were women and young children. You’ve got rubber bullets, you’ve got tear gas, there are all these irritants and agents you can use to get people away from a fence line. There has been documented proof by the world press that snipers were targeting people’s knees and legs, which when using high-powered rounds removes their leg. So you’ve not created dozens and dozens of amputees. With the infrastructure in Gaza, you’re giving them a death sentence because the heath system is so poor. Or you create yet one more person who can’t work and is now a burden to their family, who is now going to hold animus towards Israel for years to come. It’s a vicious, vicous circle—and again, the U.S. administration did not condemn it. Nikki Haley released a strong statement linking it all to Iran. And this drumbeat against Iran is bad for the region and bad for the world.
What were your thoughts on Western coverage of the situation?
I think there has actually been strong coverage in the United States, and I think people particularly in the editorial pages are taking issue with the lack of involvement of this administration and the lack of influence being exerted against the Israelis to moderate what they’re doing or to at least have a dialogue. I think the EU is being very aggressive, and I think they’re taking a strong stance. Heck, even the Russians and the Chinese and the Turks are saying things. So I think the world media sees it for what it is.
You know, if this were any other place in the world and 60 people were killed and 2,000 people were wounded, the U.S. would be pounding a gavel at the UN. The administration would be pounding the table. It’s just not happening. Because the Israelis—their influence on the Hill and on this administration is simply remarkable. Their lobby, their financial ties—all this stuff plays into this. It’s really a sad state of affairs and there’s no balance to it.
Any last thoughts?
I think this is an administration that manages by soundbites. And they manage by soundbites that appeal to their base, particularly as we approach the midterms, and by this time next year they’ll be starting to get ready for a presidential election. I think so much of that is to support a day-to-day approach to popularity with his base. I see no indication of strategic thought or strategic long-term view—at all. It’s about today. And you see that in the tweets that come from the White House about mundane daily issues that show up on Fox News or elsewhere. So there is no vision.
Now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a man of vision, and it’s possible that in that position he may be able to influence a bit. At the same time, other parts of the team—Secretary of Defense General James Mattis is a moderate, and he has got a pretty experienced worldview. And National Security Advisor John Bolton, for being a hardline guy, has experienced a lot and is a guy who does listen. So the hope is-though I haven’t seen this yet—put them all in the room together, combined with a hopefully very good CIA director in Gina Haspel, may be able to exert some influence on one person: the president.
Editor’s note: Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU, has since stated that 50 of the Palestinians killed in the violence were members of the group, though it did not clarify in what capacity.