October Newsletter

Hello everyone, how have you been? After a long, well-deserved summer break, we are finally back with the EST Observatory on EU-MENA Relations to uncover, grasp and explain the most important facts of the two regions. 

Here is the Observatory, and we are excited to present our new newsletter! Here is MENA Inside that will be published twice a month and will uncover facts and events in the Middle East and North Africa touching upon the EU’s interests.  

If you’ve missed the very first issue, catch up with it on the EST’s website, and check out our September insights!

Here we are again, refreshed and re-energized, with plenty of exciting updates to share. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the latest news from the region! 

Ps. Don’t forget to subscribe to Inside MENA to directly receive it in your email every fortnight! 

Gaza Strip: no way-out

Source: Al Jazeera

Special Israel-Palestine Conflict

Note: Due to the evolving nature of the situation, please note that the news is current at the time of writing (11 October). This piece of news is not intended to show any position of the Observatory and its members who express their solidarity to all the people who are suffering under the noise of bombs and rockets.

Something unexpected happened last Saturday when Israel’s southern borders were crossed by Hamas forces. As many people are positioning, or repositioning, themselves on the long-standing Middle Eastern conflict, let’s understand what happened in Gaza during this week. 

At dawn on October 7th, Hamas fighters entered Israel after half an hour of firing rockets into the Israeli sky: some parachuted in, some on the ground, while sporadic bombings continued to clash against Israel’s Iron Dome – the famous Israeli air defence system. Sources have also revealed that a dozen Israeli soldiers and civilians have been taken hostage by Hamas, but the situation is continuously evolving. 

But no need to rush, let’s give some context for the beginners: What is Hamas? Hamas is an Islamic Resistance Movement that was founded in 1987 after the start of the First Intifada (the Palestinian uprisings against Israel occupation of Palestinian territories). For more information about the creation of the group as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, take a look at this article. In 2006, against all odds and the surprise of the international community, they won most of the seats in the Palestinian National Authority against Fatah, the biggest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), that had been the most important resistance group against Israel, but that finally accepted to negotiate in the Oslo Accord of 1993. Hamas did not accept this solution, which created an internal war between both groups that eventually led to Hamas taking control of the Gaza strip in June 2007, removing Fatah officials and resulting in the dissolution of a unity government and leading to a de facto split of Palestinian territories. During the last years, Gaza has been labeled by humanitarian organizations as the “world´s largest open-air prison”, with the Israel state conducting discriminatory policies against Palestinians for many decades and carrying out a partial blockade in the area. 

Back on the situation: all around, world leaders have been sending the same message: no form of terrorism is accepted. The US stated that any support necessary for the defence of Israel will be provided, while the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, has firmly condemned the action of Hamas. Early this week, the EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi had announced the halt of EU funds to Palestine, but the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell marked an (E)U-turn, assuring due payments “will not be suspended”. As shown by Politico, Brussels’ debate has turned to Tehran, framing it as the regional feeder of Hamas. But this is likely to lead nowhere, reality is more simple: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most divisive issues, and the EU might struggle to find a coherent, united stance.

Clashes and bombings have not stopped: early this week, Benjamin Netanyahu – Israel’s Prime Minister – declared “full war” and the army started to attack the Gaza strip as a retaliation. At the time of writing, Israel has imposed a complete blockade on Gaza, cutting food, water and electricity. The consequences for the population are devastating, with thousands of Palestinians seeking to flee the strip, but there’s no place to go, and there seems to be no way out. At least until a humanitarian corridor is guaranteed and fully implemented.

Bullying the EU: Is Tunisia back to being the bad pupil?

In the light of increasing instability and surging boat departures from the Tunisian coast, the EU had finalized a deal with the southern Mediterranean country this summer. The deal was easy and clear: Brussels’ money in exchange for tighter border control. But clarity is not enough sometimes, and the deal is now teetering.

“Less for less”, some EU scholars would say, but, beyond moralism and ethics, this is what the EU does in the Southern Neighbourhood – the EU principal policy framework which involves Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia, and this is how diplomacy works when lights go out. After a few months of waiting, but this is routine since payments from Brussels always take time, a disbursement of 127 million euros was announced in mid-September. What could go wrong?

Early last week, Kaïs Saïed – the President of Tunisia – refused the money, accusing the EU of disregarding the MoU signed in July, and laughing off its “derisory” amount. If this reflects the pitfalls of engaging with authoritarian states, the move also shed light on the limited leverage the EU has with the southern shore of the Mediterranean. 

Rather, Saïed is doing arm wrestling by seeking to get more money and/or without conditions to reduce financial pressure over Tunis. Will it work? Only time will tell, but from being a model of cooperation in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is once again the bad pupil of the Neighbourhood class.

Conflict escalation in Syria

The 12-year conflict in Syria is taking a new trajectory. On October 5th, a drone attack on the Homs Military Academy killed at least 100 people. The Assad regime, who had claimed that the country is safe, blamed the attack on what he referred to as foreign-backed terrorist groups. In response, the Russian-backed Syrian forces launched high scale attacks on the opposition-controlled governorates of Idlib and Aleppo, where the rebel group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham exerts significant control. The shelling has targeted civilian infrastructure such as  hospitals, and Internally Displaced Persons camps, killing dozens and displacing at least 20,000 people.

The drone attack holds political significance because it shows that the regime has not won the war. President Assad has attempted to portray Syria as a safe country, and this move gave impetus to his readmission into the Arab League in May 2023. However, the war that erupted in 2011 in response to protests is still raging; state and non-state actors are still using the Syrian battlefield to compete for political clout, and the prospects of a peaceful Syria remain minimal. 

Furthermore, the fact that the identity of the perpetrator is not publicly known captures the complexity of the Syrian scene. The country is torn between a panoply of state and non-state actors whose interests are disparate and contradictory. For instance, one main reason why Türkiye is embroiled in Syria is to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The rebel group has claimed responsibility for the Ankara bomb attack which took place near the Interior Ministry in early October. Since then, Ankara has intensified its drone attacks on PKK rebels in Syria.

On the humanitarian side, the string of attacks shows that Syria is not safe for the return of Syrian refugees, contrary to what some politicians in neighboring countries (e.g., Türkiye, Jordan) posited to push for the so-called voluntary return. The truth is that Syrians who have not fled are trapped in a lingering conflict with many byproducts: a debilitated infrastructure, a fragile economy, and a bleak outlook.

Iranian Nobel Awardee behind bars

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi, who is detained in Tehran’s Evin prison for human rights activism. The Iranian government, which accuses Mohammadi of spreading propaganda against the state and engaging in acts against the country’s national security, described the Nobel Committee’s decision as being politically-motivated. Fabricating charges and denying fair trial has commonly been used by the Iranian regime to silence men and women who defy state authority, including those holding dual nationality. 

Mohammadi has been advocating for human rights for the past thirty years, but she rose to prominence thanks to her leading role in the Iranian protest movement. The latter erupted in September last year after the death of Mahsa Amini, allegedly due to violence after she had been arrested by the morality police – formally known as the Guidance Patrol or Persian Gasht-e Ershad – for breaching the dress code. Although the movement principally advocates for women’s rights, it is still an inclusive one, hence the slogan Zan, Zendegi, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom). From prison, the Nobel Laureate continues her advocacy by calling out violence against female inmates, including sexual abuse and solitary confinement. 

Mohammadi is the second Iranian woman to earn the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2003, lawyer Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Prize for her extensive work in human rights despite regime pressure. This is a symbolic victory for all Iranian women who yearn for freedom, respect and dignity. 

Now, a bit of a culture… 

In this section, we uncover some of the most listened and watched musicians, writers or youtubers of the Arab world or new publications, articles or books either from or on the region. If you have any suggestions, you’re always welcome to tell us via our email! 

Football first! After the amazing and surprising performance of Morocco at the 2022 World Cup and the new Arab era with more than 840 million euros spent in the only Saudi League for the summer session, MENA is rising to prominence in international football: Morocco will co-host, together with Spain and Portugal, the 2030 Football World Cup! 

Book your tickets in advance, but also our weekly suggestion (spoiler that’s a book): My Fourth Time, We Drowned, by Sally Hayden, depicts the hidden, dark side of migration and their unknown dynamics too often omitted: from international corruption to NGOs’ negligence and social media within the migrant perspective.

Let us know your thoughts on the migration industry!

For any questions or suggestions, don’t hesitate to reach us out at observatoryeumena@esthinktank.com! 

Learn more about EST at https://esthinktank.com/ 

See you in two weeks, inshallah! 

The Observatory