WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) – The United States said on Sunday it carried out another round of air strikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq and Syria, this time in response to drone attacks by the militia against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.
In a statement, the U.S. military said it targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq. It did not disclose whether it believed anyone was killed or injured but officials said assessments were ongoing.
Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran in a statement named four members of the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction they said were killed in the attack on the Syria-Iraq border. They vowed to retaliate.
The strikes came at the direction of President Joe Biden, the second time he has ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militia since taking office five months ago. Biden last ordered limited strikes in Syria in February, that time in response to rocket attacks in Iraq.
“As demonstrated by this evening’s strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
The strikes came even as Biden’s administration is looking to potentially revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The decision to retaliate appears to show how Biden aims to compartmentalize such defensive strikes, while simultaneously engaging Tehran in diplomacy.
Biden’s critics say Iran cannot be trusted and point to the drone attacks as further evidence that Iran and its proxies will never accept a U.S. military presence in Iraq or Syria.
Iran called on the United States to avoid “creating crisis” in the region.
“Certainly what the United States is doing is disrupting security in the region, and one of the victims of this disruption will be the United States,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday.1/4
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends the Ministerial meeting of the global coalition on Syria and Islamic state, in Rome, Italy, 28 June, 2021. ANSA/Angelo Carconi/Handout via REUTERS
In an apparent indication that Baghdad is determined to avoid getting sucked into a U.S.-Iran escalation, Iraq’s military issued a rare condemnation of the U.S. strikes. The Iraqi and U.S. militaries continue close coordination in a separate battle in Iraq, fighting remnants of the Sunni extremist group Islamic State.
Biden and the White House declined comment on the strikes on Sunday. But Biden will meet Israel’s outgoing president, Reuven Rivlin, at the White House on Monday for a broad discussion that will include Iran and U.S. efforts to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Those efforts have raised serious concerns in Israel, Iran’s arch-foe.
U.S. officials believe Iran is behind a ramp-up in increasingly sophisticated drone attacks and periodic rocket fire against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, where the U.S. military has been helping Baghdad combat the remnants of Islamic State.
Two U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias carried out at least five drone attacks against facilities used by U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq since April.
The Pentagon said the facilities targeted were used by Iran-backed militia including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.
The U.S. military carried out strikes with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, officials said, adding the pilots made it back from the mission safely.
“We assess each strike hit the intended targets,” one of the officials told Reuters.
Iraq’s government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against U.S. forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.
Earlier in June, Iraq released Iran-aligned militia commander Qasim Muslih, who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges, after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.
Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington Editing by Matthew Lewis
The Russian naval task force deployed to Syria in recent days appears to have stepped up its drills in the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, a recent video shows that at least some of the Russian participants have been shadowed by F-35B stealth jetsoperating from the U.K. Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeththat’s conducting combat operations in the region, against ISIS targets. The latest Russian maneuvers come as tensions between Moscow and the United Kingdom remain high, after a Royal Navy destroyer sailed in waters close to Russian-occupied Crimea last week, and as large-scale, U.S.-led maneuvers in the Black Sea kick off today.
The latest official video of the Russian deployment reveals that at least some of the three Tu-22M3 Backfire-Cbombers and two MiG-31K Foxhoundjet fighters armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles that deployed to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria’s coastal Latakia province last week are now conducting joint maneuvers with Su-35S Flanker fighters. The latter type is seen flying as an escort, carrying various air-to-air missiles, and operating from the same base. Also evident is at least one Su-34 Fullback strike jet, albeit armed with only a pair of short-range missiles for self-defense. Unlike the Tu-22M3 and MiG-31K, the Su-35s and Su-34s have been seen at the Syrian airbase regularly for years now.
Previously, we have seen Tu-22M3s operating from Syria with a single example of the Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) or improved Kh-32 anti-ship missile, but the video reveals a two-missile loadout. Theoretically, each Tu-22M3 can carry three of these weapons, two under the wings and one under the fuselage, but with a considerable reduction in range, since the fuel load has to be reduced accordingly. Therefore, two missiles are normally the maximum practical load, while one missile provides for a range of almost 1,400 miles. The MiG-31K is seen with its standard load of a single Kinzhal missile carried on the centerline.
These missions also included an A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control aircraft, which is seen in the video operating from Khmeimim, as well as over the eastern Mediterranean. This aircraft, which is a familiar presence in Syria, could be coordinating the exercise, as well as keeping an eye on other movements in the air and at sea, such as CSG21 and its F-35Bs.
One brief sequence shows an F-35B flying in a steep bank, apparently filmed from a Russian Navy warship. The distance at which the jet is shadowing the vessel means it’s unclear it was from the Royal Air Force or U.S. Marine Corps, but examples from both services are now onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Finally, there is a sequence in the video from an unspecified Russian Navy warship, allegedly the Admiral Makarov, one of the two Admiral Grigorovichclass frigates that are involved in the current drills, the other being Admiral Essen. As well as commands being issued from the bridge, we see the crew racing to battle stations and close-ups of AK-630 multi-barrel gun, though no live-firing is seen. One of these same weapons was used to fire a ‘warning shot’ toward HMS Defender in the Black Sea last week.
The remaining three Russian Navy warships involved in the maneuvers are the Slava class guided-missile cruiser Moskva and the Improved Kilo classsubmarines Stary Oskol and Rostov-on-Don. All these are from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Two other Russian assets that have been announced as taking part in the maneuvers have not been seen so far — these are the Il-38 May and Tu-142MK Bear-F long-range anti-submarine aircraft.
The official statement provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense reiterates the fact that the current exercises are focused on defending friendly ships against aerial attacks. The carriage of hypersonic missiles (Kinzhal) is also mentioned but it’s not clear if these were used to replicate hostile attacks on the surface combatants. That would, however, fit in with reports last week of simulated enemy aircraft flying a mock attack against a frigate with anti-ship missiles. Moreover, the defense of surface combatants against targets flying at hypersonic speed — generally taken to mean in excess of five times the speed of sound — is a growing area of concern for navies around the world. For its part, the Kinzhal, which is a converted short-range ballistic missile, is claimed to be able to fly at 10 times the speed of sound.
“Particular attention was paid to countering airplanes, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles of the imaginary enemy,” the latest report explains. The same drills also include ensuring the security of Khmeimim Air Base and the Russian Navy’s logistics hub in the Syrian port of Tartus.
While this is the second time that the Tu-22M3 has been deployed to Syria, the emphasis on the type’s maritime strike mission is noteworthy, especially as it coincides with the high-profile appearance of HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean for the first time, as first of its first operational cruise, as part of Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21). The MiG-31K and its Kinzhal missile have not been deployed outside of Russian territory before this, and it seems highly likely they are also on hand to practice the anti-shipping mission, too.
We have discussed previously the significant power-projection capability that even irregular deployments of small numbers of Tu-22M3 and MiG-31K aircraft, and their respective missiles, can bring to the Russian outpost in Syria. While the Kh-22/32 and Kinzhal missiles are dual-role, allowing them to be configured to attack targets at sea or on land, the current deployment is stressing maritime missions, and these aircraft provide another way of both protecting Russian Navy ships and submarines operating in the wider region, as well as offering the potential for offensive actions against enemy shipping. All these missiles can also be fitted with nuclear warheads if required.
Now that the runway and its facilities at Khmeimim have been modernized, the airbase is better able to host deployments like this in the future. It could also pave the way to having long-range Tu-95MS Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack strategic missile-carriersoperating out of Syria, too.
The fact that the Russian exercise is happening simultaneously with CSG21 being in the Mediterranean is unlikely to have been a simple coincidence. After all, official Russian accounts note that “one of the objectives of the exercises will be to monitor the actions of the [British] aircraft carrier group.”
So far, there does not appear to be any corresponding imagery released by the Royal Navy or U.S. Marine Corps showing their perspective of the Russian maneuvers, but we can be confident that both sides are watching each other closely. The War Zone will keep you updated as the exercise continues to unfold, during a period of notable tensions between Russia and the United Kingdom.
The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning released its fiscal 2022 Pentagon-funding bill, which proposes $706 billion in defense spending, or roughly $10 billion above the amount enacted for the current fiscal year. When added to the $11 billion for military construction appropriators are seeking separately, that sets it about even with Biden’s $716 billion request.
The legislation, crafted by Democrats, includes $134.3 billion for procurement, which is $2.2 billion less than the current year’s budget. For research funding, appropriators are proposing $110.4 billion, which is $3.2 billion above the current year’s budget.
Appropriators were expected to tailor Biden’s request, but at first blush the bill doesn’t appear to include any major pushback against the administration’s strategy of divesting from legacy platforms to reinvest in cutting-edge technologies.
For the Navy, the bill adds a second Arleigh Burke-class destroyer sought widely by lawmakers, and it cuts one of two towing, salvage and rescue ships. Otherwise, it matches Biden’s two Virginia-class attack submarines, one Constellation-class frigate, one John Lewis-class fleet oiler and the one ocean surveillance ship.
The Biden administration’s omission of the second destroyer was controversial on Capitol Hill because without it, the Navy cannot meet its obligation under multiyear contracts with both Ingalls Shipbuilding and General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works. Those contracts call for each of the companies to build one ship in FY22.
If passed into law, the bill would stymie the Navy’s request to retire three littoral combat ships with some restrictive language: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be obligated or expended for the purpose of decommissioning the USS Fort Worth, the USS Detroit, or the USS Little Rock.”
All told, appropriators propose the same number of ships as Biden — eight — but they add $915 million above the Navy’s budget request.
For aircraft, the bill would add 12 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, of which the administration sought none; four C/KC/MC-130J tankers for 134 total; six MQ-9 Reaper drones for 12 total; $170 million for the second and third set of five CH-47F Block II Chinook helicopters; three UH/HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters for 33 total; and two CH-53K helicopters for 11 total.
It matches Biden’s request for 85 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 12 F-15EX aircraft and 14 KC-46 tankers, plus assorted helicopters. The Air Force’s unfunded priorities list conspicuously omitted additional Lockheed Martin-made F-35s, but it did want another 12 Boeing F-15EXs to help narrow a projected gap as the service divests its aging F-15C/D fleet.
Wading into controversy around nuclear modernization, the bill matches the Navy’s decision to shelve its sea-launched nuclear cruise missile. While the decision was been cheered by arms control advocates and some lawmakers, it’s come under tough scrutiny from Republicans, who argue the move should be subject to the rigor of the administration’s upcoming Nuclear Posture Review.
The bill includes the administration’s 2.7 percent pay raise but takes sharper aim at personnel costs, trimming $488 million from the request for a total of $167 billion.
The bill also gets rid of the much-criticized overseas contingency operations account, like the Biden request.
“The Defense Appropriations bill provides resources requested by the Secretary of Defense to protect our national security, maintain a strong industrial base to support good paying jobs, and counter the rising threats from our adversaries, including China,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said in a statement. “As it protects our nation, it also honors the soldiers and civilians who serve and support our nation’s military by providing for them and their families. This includes strong funding to combat sexual assault in the military, a serious and pervasive problem that for too long has been overlooked by the Pentagon.”
Casualties in the 2021 Gaza War: How many and who were they?
During the 11 days of Hamas’s rocket assault against Israel, twelve civilians in Israel and an IDF soldier, Omer Tabib, were killed by Hamas terrorists. An additional 312 civilians and three soldiers were wounded in Israel.
In Gaza, the Hamas-run Ministry of Health claimed 256 deaths. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said that only 80 were combatants. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) wrote, “[A]t least 253 Palestinians have been killed, 129 of whom were civilians.”
That means 124 of the dead were combatants, close to a 1:1 ratio, unprecedentedly low in terms of civilians killed in urban warfare. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel, nine children and 10 adults were killedby Palestinian rocket fire. OCHA concluded, “The result was Hamas killing its own civilians and destroying infrastructure.”
It is critical to emphasize that not all deaths in Gaza were caused by Israeli weaponry. At least 680 Palestinian rockets fell short or misfired, landing inside Gaza. These rocket misfires account for some 15 percent of the total Palestinian rockets launched.
History repeated itself for the unfortunate residents of Gaza. In 2015, a Hamas rocket fell short and killed 11 children. In the latest round of fighting, a Palestinian rocket struck power lines in the Strip, leaving many Palestinians without power during the war.
Israel’s precision strikes spared civilians
The Israel Defense Forces sought to avoid civilians. However, in cases of senior Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad commanders hiding amid civilians, including their families, the IDF struck at these military targets—all considered as such under international military law.
IDF airstrikes also targeted the “Metro,” a massive underground network of tunnels built by Hamas that contained command posts and weapons-storage rooms, enabling the movement of fighters unseen, in order to attack Israel.
The IDF has named 25 senior commanders and senior technical officials of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad who were killed in airstrikes. Among those were Bassem Issa, commander of Hamas in Gaza City; Juma Tahla, head of Hamas’s Cyber Command; Khazem Khatib, Hamas’s chief engineer; and Dr. Jamal Zabdeh, an aerodynamical engineer and head of development.
The head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza, Matthias Schmale, told Israeli TV that Israeli airstrikes in Gaza were “precise” and “did not hit, with some exceptions, civilian targets.” He later had to apologize to Hamas for this statement.
Israel’s moral defense forces
Israel makes every effort to save civilian lives, and every death is considered tragic. British Col. Richard Kemp, who fought against the Taliban in Afghanistan, called the IDF “the most moral army in the world” for good reason. There has never been another situation in modern urban warfare in which armed forces destroyed 1,000+ military targets, and such a low number of civilians were lost. This result is not a coincidence; it is because of intentionally cautious IDF procedures that save Palestinian lives.
The IDF makes phone calls in Arabic to residents near targets, drops leaflets and even engages in “roof knocking” of buildings, in which small bomblets are dropped on roofs to spur people to flee before the target is destroyed. IDF commanders give civilians ample time to flee, and ensure that as many lives as possible are saved. Recently, a journalist complained that the IDF only gave him one hour to flee from an office building used by Hamas. He failed to mention that nobody was killed in the strike, despite the building housing Hamas facilities and offices.
Here is the text of an IDF phone call to a Gaza resident in Arabic prior to an attack that appeared on a U.N. website: “How are you? Is everything okay? This is the Israeli military. We need to bomb your home, and we are making every effort to minimize casualties. Please make sure that no one is nearby since in five minutes, we will attack.”
According to a U.N. statement on June 21: “The IDF are on solid legal ground when attacking military infrastructure, the problem being the infrastructure is interwoven with ordinary peoples’ lives(emphasis added). The IDF should acknowledge that they will inevitably kill civilians, who can’t escape the conflict when destroying military targets in Gaza, and possibly find other ways to destroy military targets. Gaza’s factions, in turn, should stop committing the war crime of firing rockets from residential areas towards other residential areas which would, in turn, not provoke a violent response from Israel.”
Hamas turns Palestinian civilians into a terror weapon
While the IDF makes every effort to protect the innocent, Hamas makes every effort to put them in harm’s way. Hamas intentionally places its missile launchers, mortars, armories, tunnel systems and other weaponry in civilian areas. Hamas terror tunnels have been found underneath schools and apartment buildings and adjacent to hospitals.
Missile launchers are concealed in densely populated residential neighborhoods with no regard to the lives of those who must live alongside them. Even the press has been threatened to accept Hamas weapons in and around their offices, according to a former journalist who worked for the Associated Press.
The deaths of children
One of the most distressing aspects of media coverage of the 2021 fighting was the deaths of children. The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel found that 62 children in Gaza under 16 were killed. However, at least nine of these youths were killed by errant Hamas rockets.
Likewise, under the cruel reality of the Hamas regime, many young individuals are already combatants and pose deadly threats to the lives of others before adulthood. According to the Coalition to Save Palestinian Child Soldiers, at least 160 minors have died digging Hamas tunnels, and at least 29 have died as suicide bombers.
Hamas lauds the presence of youth in its armed wing, promoting a culture of jihad and martyrdom from a young age in education and media. Though, of course, not all children who were tragically lost were involved in terrorist operations, the incomprehensible truth is that some were.
Hamas’s recruitment of children to the cause of jihad is emphasized by the militants. Following the recent fighting, the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, raised a child brandishing a gun and called for the elimination of Israel. Kindergarten graduation ceremonies re-enact the murder of Jews. Hours of this type of footage may be seen in the Gaza children’s TV program “Self-Sacrificing Fighter (Fida’i).” The show includes scenes that justify the murder of Jews because they are all “criminals.”
On the Israeli side, five-year-old Ido Avigal was killed by rocket shrapnel when a Hamas rocket struck his family’s apartment building in Sderot. Sixteen-year-old Nadine Awad, a Muslim Arab-Israeli girl from Lod, and her father, were also killed by Palestinian rocket fire.
Mainstream media embrace inaccuracies regarding Gaza children
The New York Times provides a case study of inaccurate reporting on casualties among Palestinian children. On May 26, the Times published a front-page report titled, “They Were Only Children,” which displayed pictures of 67 children in Gaza allegedly killed by Israel. It included 20-year-old Khaled al-Qanou and 15-year-old Muhammad Suleiman, both confirmed Hamas members engaged in violent anti-Israel activity. In addition, in its initial publication–corrected later–the paper included an old stock photo of a young girl and falsely claimed that Israel had killed her.
Palestinians do not all die from the conflict
Hamas and other anti-Israel groups in Gaza are known to blur the lines between those who died of natural causes and those who died in the war. The CIA Factbook reports the natural death rate (including infants) in Gaza to be 2.94/1,000 people. With a population of more than two million, about 6,000 Gaza residents die of natural causes in a year: about 16 deaths per day. These statistics do not include the deadly impact of the COVID-19 virus in Gaza.
It is safe to assume that many people in Gaza also died of natural causes during the 11-day war. In the Strip, where Hamas tightly censors information, it is difficult to know if some natural deaths were falsely attributed to deaths from the conflict, especially during the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
It would not be the first time such “errors” are used for propaganda purposes. In 2020, U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) retweeted a tweet from Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi claiming that “a herd of violent Israeli settlers threw” Qais Abu Ramila into a well. In fact, the boy had accidentally drowned in a rain ditch.
The “Intrafada”: Hamas murders other Palestinians
Whenever Israel retaliates against Gaza terrorists and facilities, the regime in Gaza searches in its midst for possible spies and Israeli collaborators. Hamas uses these victims as scapegoats for their own failures, accusing them of providing information to Israel, but does not present evidence or hold a trial. Sometimes, Hamas does not release the names of those they execute, leading some to suspect that they added these individuals to the civilian casualty toll. Intelligence collection on this subject is difficult in the immediate aftermath of war, but nearly a year after the Gaza War of 2014, Amnesty International exposed that Hamas executed 23 Palestinians during the 50-day war, including six in a public firing squad execution.
In February 2016, a Hamas commander, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, was executed without trial, accused of providing Israel with information used in a failed attempt to assassinate Hamas military leader Mohammed Dief in 2014. Following the 2021 fighting, Hamas arrested 43 people on charges of spying for Israel. Some of the accused may have already been brought before a “military field court.” This is routine behavior for the authoritarian Hamas leadership, and extrajudicial killings likely occurred as a result of this war as well. More details will probably come out after the fact, as in the previous wars.
Eli Nirenberg is a student at Washington University in St. Louis.
Lenny Ben-David is the Jerusalem Center’s Director of Publications. Ben-David served 25 years in senior posts in AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission in the Embassy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs (Urim Publications).
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
No. 647 June 28, 2021
This article is part of the forthcoming Jerusalem Center research report: The Gaza War 2021: The Iranian and Hamas Attack on Israel.
As recognized by international law, Israel has the legal right to employ the force necessary to defend itself. President Biden, on May 16, 2021, “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza.”
From a young age, Palestinian children are indoctrinated by the Palestinian leadership to seek death through war. For example, the daughter of a Hamas official was recorded saying, “If we die, we will die as Martyrs for the sake of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa.” Such indoctrination is reinforced in summer camps for children and culminates in the conscription of children into military units, in direct violation of international humanitarian law.
In the course of the 11-day conflict, from May 10 to May 21, 2021, Hamas launched 4,300 rockets at Israeli civilians in a blatant violation of international humanitarian law, which calls to protect civilian populations during military operations. Article 25 of the 1907 Hague Regulations specifically prohibits attacks or bombardment of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings that are undefended.
Hamas unapologetically uses its own civilians as human shields, unconcerned with the fatal ramifications of its actions. British Colonel Richard Kemp designated Hamas as “the first ‘army’ in history to use their own civilian populations as a primary weapon of war.” On May 12, 2021, UN Special Coordinator Tor Wennesland told the UN Security Council, “Hamas and other militants’ indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars from highly populated civilian neighborhoods into civilian population centers in Israel violates international humanitarian law, is unacceptable, and has to stop immediately.”
Israel makes a concerted effort to limit civilian casualties. The IDF engages in the practice of “roof knocking” to warn civilians prior to an attack on Hamas targets. In addition, before Israeli attacks, civilians receive phone calls advising them to evacuate. Israeli drones watch from above, and attacks are permitted only after it is confirmed that the building has been evacuated.
Hamas demonstrates no respect for international humanitarian law designed to protect innocent civilians. Therefore, it is vital that Hamas be held accountable for its illegal actions in international forums and international courts of law. Without doing so, there will be no justice for those who have suffered from the grave human rights abuses committed by Hamas.
Rules of Law
As recognized by the international community, Israel has the legal right to defend itself under international law. When confronted with threats by Hamas to Israel’s citizens and national security, it is well within Israel’s right to employ the force necessary to defend itself.
U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated this sentiment on May 16, 2021, when he “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza, and condemned these indiscriminate attacks against Israel.”1
During a debate on a one-sided resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on May 27, 2021, several speakers said, “the indiscriminate barrage of rockets fired by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad into Israel were completely unacceptable.”2
Despite international law justifying Israel’s self-defense efforts, Israel continues to come under fire from international organizations. On March 3, 2021, the International Criminal Court, which launched a war crimes probe into the 2014 Gaza War, concluded, “The Court may exercise its criminal jurisdiction in the Situation in Palestine, and that the territorial scope of this jurisdiction extends to Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”3The “State of Palestine” became a member of ICC and the Assembly of States Parties in the ICC in January 2015, while Israel is not a member state.4
The Use of Child Soldiers
One large group victimized by Hamas is Palestinian children. From a young age, Palestinian children are indoctrinated by the Palestinian leadership. Hamas-controlled media encourage young viewers to seek death through war and violence or become martyrs by sacrificing their lives for Jerusalem. Their young age and naïveté leave children vulnerable to the influence of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic language, indoctrinating them to resort to violence.
For example, the daughter of Hamas’ Ministry of Internal Affairs’ spokesman Iyad Al-Buzum, Lama, was recorded saying, “If we die, we will die as Martyrs for the sake of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa,” insisting that Israel “will be destroyed” – evidence of the tenor of Hamas’ media campaigns.5
Additionally, Palestinian leaders use social media to share videos of child fighters, encouraging other Palestinian children to follow their lead. On February 17, 2020, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party shared a video produced by Gaza TV Media with a child soldier speaking about his desire to “shoot Jews” and “die for Jerusalem,” encouraging followers to “share the video.”6
Much of the indoctrination of Palestinian children takes place during summer camps run by armed groups like the al-Qassam Brigades7 and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s Saraya al-Quds,8 which aim to instill Islamist values and military training in children. Promotional videos and advertisements entice young children to register for these camps, culminating in the conscription of children into military units.
What International Law Says
The 2007 Paris “Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups”10define a “child soldier” as any person below the age of 18 who has been recruited or used by an armed group in any capacity, not just a child who has taken direct action in hostilities. By this internationally accepted definition, Palestinian children in Hamas’ summer camps and those brainwashed by armed groups through other media all fit into the category of “child soldiers.”
Hamas’ indoctrination of children has fatal consequences: many Palestinian children engage in violence against Israel, which often results in casualties. Such was the case with Samah Mubarak, 16, who was killed after she attempted to stab an Israeli security officer in 2019.11 Both Nihad Raed Muhammad Waked and Fouad Marwan Khaled Waked, both 15, were killed after opening fire at IDF soldiers in 2016.12
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court13 stipulates:
Article 8(b)(xxvi) considers the conscription or enlisting of children into the armed forces a war crime.
The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child14 includes:
Articles 28 and 29, which refer to the right of the child to an education.
Article 36, which protects the child against all forms of exploitation.
Article 38(2), which prohibits children under the age of 15 from directly engaging in hostilities.
The 2000 Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict “exists to strive for the promotion and protection of the rights of the child.”15
Article 1 prohibits the conscription of children under 18 into the armed forces.
Various international campaigns, such as UNICEF’s “Children, Not Soldiers”16and the Coalition to Save Palestinian Child Soldiers,17 were created to campaign against the use of child soldiers in conflict.
Hamas’ control of the media means that much of the reporting coming out of Gaza is unreliable. Some journalists in Gaza report threats by Hamas if they film certain content, such as Hamas firing rockets. [See a compilation of threats to journalists, including a Spanish journalist’s admission, “If ever we dare pointing our camera on (rocket teams) they would simply shoot at us and kill us.”18] This inability to report the news objectively contributes to an overall lack of transparency regarding events in Gaza, often leading to one-sided and misinformed reporting.
In addition to facilitating the spread of false news and promoting widespread media bias against Israel, Hamas is in violation of freedoms of the press and speech. Censorship and misinformation hide the truth, and only the occasional testimonies of journalists and activists regarding their experiences reveal the extent of the limitations to freedom of speech and freedom of the press under Hamas.
To control the media, Hamas resorts to arbitrary arrests of journalists and activists. In April 2017, Hamas arrested 17 activists and journalists and charged them with “spreading false rumors and news through social networking sites,”19despite their denying such charges.
Gazan journalist Ahmed Said recalled that Hamas police spokesman Ayman Al Batnihi told him after his arrest that Said was “causing us many problems and inciting people. I know how to deal with people. You need to be hanged.”20
The New York Times Was Not Harassed by Hamas
Bias in the media is seen in major international news sources. On May 28, 2021, the New York Times published a front-page spread containing 65 pictures of children supposedly killed during the 2021 Gaza War. This article, clearly designed with an anti-Israel agenda, was based on misinformation, some obtained from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry or the terrorist-affiliated NGO, Defense for Children International-Palestine.21 On May 10, 2021, at least nine of the children pictured were killed when errant Hamas rockets fell short of reaching Israel and hit Gazan civilians.22Overall, 680 Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets fell on Gaza.23 On May 13, 2021, the IDF published a video documenting a Hamas rocket falling on Gaza.24 In addition to the children, the Gazans killed by Palestinian rocket fire included ten men and two women.25
Moreover, some of the children pictured by the Times were actually terrorist operatives. For example, Muhammad Suleiman,16, a member of Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, was killed with his father, Tsabar, a Hamas commander, on May 10, 2021.
It was the biggest show of force by the populist cleric since the mid-2000s, when his followers battled the U.S. occupation and inflicted thousands of American casualties.
Two days later, Sadr made a rare appearance in front of news cameras from his base in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. He said his Peace Brigades deployed because of a terrorist threat against Shi’ite holy sites. Iraq was not secure without his paramilitaries, he added. “The security forces are in a state of collapse.”
For Sadr’s opponents and allies alike, the cleric’s message was clear: after years on the fringes, Sadr is back. On the streets and in the corridors of power.
These new positions have brought the Sadrists financial power. Ministries where Sadrists or their allies have recently taken senior posts account for between a third and a half of Iraq’s $90 billion draft budget for 2021, according to a Reuters analysis. Iraq’s government didn’t comment.
Yet some Western diplomats say privately they would rather deal with an Iraq dominated by Sadr than by his Iran-backed Shi’ite rivals. Sadr is a more nationalist Shi’ite figure.
Since the defeat of the Sunni extremist Islamic State in 2017, the United States and the Iran-backed militias that fought the group have turned their guns on one another with rocket attacks and drone strikes. With his Shi’ite rivals distracted, Sadr quietly set to work in politics.
“We found Sadr one of the principal brakes on expansion of Iranian and very sectarian Shia political influence in Iraq after the 2018 elections,” said Doug Silliman, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and President of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Reuters interviewed more than two dozen people with direct knowledge of Sadr’s activities – including his allies and opponents – and reviewed legal documents to chart how his supporters have taken command of key positions in ministries and state bodies that control wealth and patronage networks – what Iraqis call the “deep state.”
Senior government officials and Shi’ite politicians say the Sadrists have learned some of their political tactics from Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed and populist Shi’ite group with which the Sadrist Movement maintains close contact. These methods include ways to avoid splitting the Sadrist vote and so to maximize electoral gains.
Nassar al-Rubaie, a top political representative of Sadr, summed up the Sadrists’ revival. “Today, we have Sadrists in positions in every state institution,” he said. “This is a blessing from God!”
Cleric Hazem al-Aaraji, a close aide of Sadr, told Reuters the Sadrist Movement is stronger than at any point since 2003. Sadr, he said, is “the most powerful man in Iraq.”
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has previously denied that the Sadrist Movement controls senior posts in his administration and insists he is in charge. His government didn’t respond to detailed questions for this article.
A U.S. official declined to comment on internal Iraqi affairs. Iranian officials didn’t respond.
His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, led dissent among Iraq’s oppressed Shi’ite majority against Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and was killed by the regime in 1999. Muqtada al-Sadr, 47, draws on his father’s martyred status and his own reputation as a cleric who never fled Iraq. Other prominent figures in post-Saddam governments returned from exile in Iran and the West after the U.S.-led invasion.
In 2003, Sadr and his Mehdi Army, a thousands-strong militia formed as a volunteer force against American invaders, defied the U.S. occupation.
Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City district is a Sadrist bastion of three million people. Among them is Jaafar Mohammed, a 37-year-old fighter. He told Reuters he fought against the Americans in the early 2000s. “I sold my daughter’s gold earrings so I could afford a gun.” He later participated, unarmed, in protests that toppled an Iran-backed government in 2019.
In a mosque in the southern city of Basra, graduates in search of work waited in March to speak to Sadr’s religious aide Aaraji. The cleric explained to Reuters that he helps graduates find jobs by talking to politicians, to people in the Sadrist Movement or even to Sadr.
Two of the graduates told Reuters they tried for years through connections with other political parties to get jobs in the energy sector. “The Sadrist Movement were the only people who helped,” said 25-year-old Shihab al-Din Nouri. “I got a steady job through them three months ago working in the Basra Oil Company. I’ll vote for them in the next election.”
A KEY MEETING
Starting in the mid-2000s, Sadr generally stood apart from Iraqi governments that were supported by either America or Iran.
In 2007 he pulled his Sadrist Movement out of the government over its refusal to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. In 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki led a crackdown on Sadr’s Mehdi Army that killed several hundred fighters. And in 2014, Sadr announced he was quitting politics. Aides say he feared his reputation would be hurt by association with a ruling class that is perceived by almost all Iraqis to be corrupt.
To be sure, the Sadrist Movement continued to hold key posts in some ministries, notably the health ministry, and it continued to field candidates in elections. But it ceased to be a major force in the government of Iraq.
Sadr’s attitude began to change in the summer of 2018 at a meeting with several of his most senior political representatives at his home in Najaf, according to two senior Sadrist officials familiar with the episode. The Sadrists had just won their strongest ever election result and controlled the biggest parliamentary bloc. Sadr listened to those who wanted to take top state administrative posts. “They lobbied Sayyed Muqtada for his blessing” to install Sadrists in top jobs, said one of the officials.
Sadr gave cautious assent. “If you’re able to correct the mistakes made by previous governments and save the country from chaos, then proceed,” the official quoted him as saying. “If you fail it will be on your heads.” Sadr declined to be interviewed for this article.
WHERE POWER LIES
In the months that followed, the Sadrists surprised some observers by forgoing top ministerial positions. Instead they targeted one job in particular that would prove decisive in their future hold on the levers of power: secretary-general of the prime minister’s office, a role that oversees appointments to state bodies.
“Parties supported by Iran didn’t appear to understand the value of that post, and were focusing on minister jobs, so they agreed to the deal. It ended up being the most important post the Sadrists have taken,” said a lawmaker who was allied with Sadr at the time. A Sadrist official recounted that a personal connection tipped the balance: The Sadrists’ candidate was from the same southern city as then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. “Sometimes these ties can affect decisions,” he said.
Hamid al-Ghizzi, a Sadrist bureaucrat, took the post and set about ordering the removal of almost all government officials who had been appointed on an acting basis. In a May 2019 directive, Ghizzi said acting post holders were to be replaced by permanent appointees. These new appointments would require the approval of parliament – where Sadrists now had the upper hand. The directive targeted jobs at the level of deputy minister, senior ministry officials and heads of independent state bodies. These roles are involved in awarding contracts, budget spending and ministry appointments.
While Sadr’s political rivals focused on the commanding heights, the Sadrists recognized that “sometimes real power lies at the bottom,” said a senior government official. “The Sadrists focus on institutions with money and access to resources.”
Rubaie, Sadr’s political representative, noted that governments are swept away at the ballot box but the state “is permanent and all positions other than the minister are part of the state. A minister comes and goes, but the deputy will stay.”
Ghizzi declined an interview request. His office said the secretary-general’s role is the administration of state institutions and political appointments are outside its remit.
INTO THE VOID
Still, some posts were out of the Sadrists’ reach. Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi refused the Sadrists’ pick for central bank governor and several other roles under pressure from Iran-backed groups to resist Sadrist appointees, according to a former minister and a lawmaker involved in the talks. “They wanted to control the state oil marketer, central bank, interior ministry senior positions and various government banks. Abdul Mahdi resisted,” the former minister said. Abdul Mahdi didn’t comment.
But the last obstacles would vanish within months.
In late 2019, protests erupted against Abdul Mahdi’s Iran-backed government. Demonstrators slammed corruption and foreign influence, with particular venom reserved for Iran. Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed militias cracked down on the unarmed protesters.
Sadr took to Twitter calling for the government’s resignation. His supporters joined the protests. “Having the Sadrist Movement on our side was extremely important. It’s a powerful force and it gave us moral and material support,” 31-year-old pro-democracy protester Mustafa Qassim said.
Abdul Mahdi’s government announced it would resign in November 2019.
Weeks later a drone strike ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump killed Iran’s top Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport. The loss of the two men further fractured and divided the pro-Iran bloc.
Into the void stepped Sadr. He used the scattering of his rivals and a weak interim prime minister, Kadhimi, to accelerate the Sadrists’ takeover, according to a dozen current and former government ministers and Western diplomats.
Kadhimi, who remains in office, has denied that the Sadrist Movement is calling the shots. “The only thing Sadr asked of me and the Sadrist Movement was: Take care of Iraq,” he said in a televised interview in May. He didn’t elaborate. Kadhimi’s office didn’t respond to questions from Reuters.
Starting in September 2020, Ghizzi and the prime minister’s office signed off on a raft of appointments. The Sadrists took the role of deputy interior minister for administrative affairs, a job that oversees spending and appointments. A Sadr loyalist became a deputy in the communications ministry. Where the Sadrists haven’t filled posts directly, their preferred candidates have, making them beholden to Sadr, government officials and lawmakers said.
Posts the Sadrists dominate through allies include a deputy oil minister, the central bank governor and other sensitive fiscal posts, according to oil and finance ministry officials. Sadr aide Rubaie denied that Sadrists control the central bank. Central bank governor Mustafa Ghaleb and deputy oil minister Karim Hattab didn’t respond to questions from Reuters.
A recent report by Chatham House, a London-based international affairs think tank, estimates the Sadrists have taken some 200 of the most influential sub-ministerial positions since 2018.
The Sadrist Movement’s increasing role in the running of the state has helped it push its choice of legislation and approve or veto key government decisions. The 2021 budget allocates more funds to Iraq’s southern Shi’ite heartlands, the Sadrists’ traditional support base, and to the ministries where it has the most influence, according to senior Shi’ite and Kurdish politicians. That may leave less for northern Sunni areas that were destroyed in the battle with Islamic State and are in desperate need of reconstruction. The Sadrist Movement didn’t comment.
An early general election set for October and a new election law, both pressed for by the Sadrists, favor large parties with a wide popular support base because candidates will require more votes, and could fuel Sadr’s ascendancy, legislators and analysts say.
Hezbollah, the armed Shi’ite movement that has come to control much of the Lebanese state, has provided political instruction to the Sadrists, said two Sadrists and three senior Shi’ite officials. For example, in local elections in 2009, the Sadrist Movement calibrated the number of candidates it put forward in each area to avoid splitting the Sadrist vote.
The Sadr aide and two other Sadrist officials said the movement and Hezbollah remain in close contact and regularly share political, economic and military expertise including how to deal with local and regional political crises. They declined to elaborate. The two organizations use a similar approach of local outreach combined with militia and political activity. They have family ties through second cousins and marriage. Sadr’s family historically hails from Lebanon.
A Hezbollah spokesman confirmed the group had provided what he called assistance and electoral instruction to Iraqi factions including the Sadrists, and said relations between the two movements were “ongoing and positive.”
With elections due in October, the Sadrists are feeling confident. “The (next) prime minister will, one million percent, be a Sadrist,” deputy parliament speaker Hassan al-Kaabi said in a televised interview in April.
Most of Sadr’s opponents concede that the Sadrists will come first, and their outsize influence in state administration will give them the final say on who leads the government.
That prediction poses a dilemma for Western and regional powers.
Sadr has variously railed against Tehran, Washington, London and Gulf Arab capitals for their interference in Iraq. But he has also been one of the few senior Shi’ite leaders to visit Saudi Arabia and has spent long periods in Iran despite an uneasy relationship with the Islamic Republic.
“Muqtada has good relations with the Gulf, Iran, Turkey,” a senior Sadrist official said, but corrected himself after mentioning America in the same breath. “He has relatives in (the holy Iranian city) Qom,” he said, referring to Sadr’s reclusive older brother, who is based in Iran.
A senior official in Iraqi Kurdistan, the autonomous region which has close ties with the United States, said of Sadr’s geopolitical alignment: “I find it very hard to see Sadr confronting Iran. In the end, Muqtada will be closer to Iran than he will to America.”
A Western diplomat said Western nations viewed Sadr as an “unknown quantity” who is the only Iraqi leader able to enact reform and counter Iran-backed militias but retains a deep distrust of America and Britain in particular.
“There would also be concerns over human rights,” the diplomat said, referring to Sadr’s Islamist stance against homosexuality, alcohol consumption and women’s freedoms. In March last year, Sadr blamed the legalization of same-sex marriage by some foreign countries for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sadr’s ascent also carries risks for his movement.
Followers have sometimes been ruthless in their grabbing of state posts, said two senior government officials who oppose Sadr.
Abu Amir, a teacher in southern Iraq, described being threatened by supporters of Sadr to step down from his position as headmaster of a state school – a job his Sadrist predecessor had just been sacked from over corruption charges. They wanted his Sadrist predecessor to be reinstated, he said.
“As soon as I began the job, I got messages from Sadr supporters threatening me and telling me to resign,” he said. The deputy education minister – a Sadrist newly appointed in his post – walked into the school a few days later with armed men and reinstalled the disgraced former head. Abu Amir had already fled. He asked that he not be identified by his full name for fear of retribution. The Sadrist Movement didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Some younger Sadrists are meanwhile abandoning the movement.
Qassim, the protester, used to be a supporter. He said he and many others left in disgust after followers of Sadr turned on the pro-democracy activists in early 2020. Sadr abruptly withdrew his backing for the protests a few weeks after they succeeded in their goal of toppling the Iran-backed government.
“Sadr might be gaining state power, but he’s losing people like me,” said Qassim.
Nope (Reporting by John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed; Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; edited by Janet McBride)
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