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The Early Phoenix

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U.S., Israel Prepare Conflicting Proposals on Rafah Operation

TOP HEADLINES:

  • White House to Propose Alternatives to Rafah Offensive
  • Schumer Doubles Down on Criticism of Netanyahu
  • Hizballah Security Chief Safa Makes Unprecedented Trip to UAE
  • IAEA Chief Rafael Grossi in Damascus for First Time Since 2011
  • U.S. Signals Willingness for Strategic Dialogue on Syria with Turkiye

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★ ISRAEL & PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES

  1. U.S. Administration to Propose Alternatives to Israel’s Hamas Pursuit Without Rafah Offensive

The Biden administration will propose alternatives to a major Israeli offensive in Rafah during upcoming discussions with an Israeli delegation in Washington next week. The U.S. team will propose that the IDF should counter Hamas without significant ground operations, focusing instead on preventing weapon smuggling through the Philadelphi Corridor and relying on cooperation with Egypt to secure the Gaza-Egypt border as a more effective approach to dismantle Hamas capabilities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dispatching a high-level Israeli security delegation to discuss the U.S. proposals at President Joe Biden’s request. The delegation, led by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi will focus on potential actions in Rafah and humanitarian arrangements for the region but will underscore Israel’s determination to dismantle Hamas’s remaining forces in the Rafah area.

  1. Houthi Missile Struck Near Israel’s Eilat Port, Evading Defense System

For the first time, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) acknowledged a breach in its missile air defense by a cruise missile launched by the Iran-sponsored Houthi militia. Originating from the direction of the Red Sea, the missile managed to evade interception before landing in an open area north of Eilat. This incident is a significant change, as previous Houthi launches of ballistic missiles were successfully neutralized by Israel’s defense systems, including the Arrow missile defense. The IDF is investigating whether the incident exposed potential vulnerabilities in Israel’s missile defense capabilities. A Houthi spokesman claimed responsibility for targeting Eilat with several cruise missiles and attacking the American ship Madu in the Red Sea with maritime missiles.

  1. Iran-Sponsored Iraqi Militants Claim Drone Attack on Ben Gurion Airport

Iran-backed Iraqi armed factions announced they targeted Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport with drones early Wednesday, March 20, describing the attack as part of their “Islamic resistance” against Israel. This announcement follows their recent drone attack on an Israeli military airbase in the Golan Heights region and a previous strike on Ben Gurion Airport last week. The Iraqi militants have also warned the United States they might escalate armed operations in retaliation for continued U.S. military support to Israel.

  1. Canada Bans Arms Sales to Israel

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly announced a total ban on arms sales to Israel following the Canadian Parliament’s majority vote in favor of a non-binding proposal to halt such sales after extensive debate. The decision shifts from an initial suspension to a complete prohibition, reflecting Canada’s concerns over military sales to Israel while the conflict is ongoing in Gaza. The move also aligns with Canada’s support for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

  1. Schumer Doubles Down on Warning About Netanyahu, Says Israel’s Future at Risk Without US Support

Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, expressed concerns to The New York Times about Israel’s future without American support, particularly under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. Schumer fears Israel could become globally isolated, including in the U.S. He suggested Netanyahu might delay Israeli elections until 2026. His recent calls for early elections in Israel have sparked controversy and criticism from Netanyahu and others in Israel. Despite increasing international pressure, notably from President Joe Biden, who praised Schumer’s call for elections, Netanyahu has dismissed Schumer’s criticism and emphasized Israel’s sovereignty.

  1. Israel Submits Official Proposal to Hamas in Doha Talks

Israel formally offered a counterproposal to Hamas on Monday, signaling a potential advance in the ongoing cease fire and hostage release negotiations in Qatar, led on the Israeli side by Mossad Chief David Barnea. The Israeli offer includes discussions on the repatriation of residents to Northern Gaza and the release of prisoners. The focus of the Doha talks, as reported by “Kaan” and officials familiar with the negotiations, is primarily on exchanging Palestinian security detainees for 40 Israeli hostages. Observers expect that discussions may extend over several weeks and rounds of negotiations.

  1. Qatar Warns Rafah Operation Would Derail Hostage Negotiations

Qatar has expressed concerns that a significant Israeli military operation in Rafah could jeopardize ongoing talks in Doha aimed at securing a hostage deal involving Palestinian prisoners. This warning came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to visit the region to promote the agreement. According to Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari, such an operation would constitute a humanitarian catastrophe and severely affect the negotiations. Mossad Director David Barnea, who led the Israeli delegation, has briefed the war cabinet upon his return, with serious discussions continuing in Qatar. The talks aim to facilitate a temporary ceasefire and the release of about 40 hostages in exchange for Palestinian detainees, a process mediated by Qatar and Egypt.

  1. Hamas Says Israel’s Shifa Hospital Operation Disrupts Doha Talks, Seeks Russian and Turkish Guarantees for Gaza Deal

Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, accused Israel of attempting to derail ongoing ceasefire negotiations in Doha by launching a military operation that involved encircling and storming Al-Shifa Medical Complex in Gaza City early Monday. The attack on Gaza’s largest medical facility, Haniyeh asserted, demonstrates Israel’s broader assault on the vital infrastructure necessary for life in Gaza, as well as its efforts to sow chaos and bloodshed. Meanwhile, an Israeli channel reported that Hamas is demanding guarantees from Russia and Turkiye in any potential prisoner exchange and ceasefire deal concerning the Gaza Strip. Channel 13 revealed that besides the involvement of Egypt and Qatar, which have been mediating the talks, Hamas introduced new demands over the weekend for Russian and Turkish guarantees. Israel is against this request, according to the report. There has been no confirmation or denial from Hamas, Turkiye, or Russia regarding this claim. 

  1. U.S. Congress Extends UNRWA Funding Ban Until 2025

A deal between U.S. Congressional leaders and the White House has extended the prohibition on American funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which assists Palestinian refugees, until March 2025. This decision follows a temporary suspension of new U.S. contributions to UNRWA by the Biden administration, sparked by Israeli evidence that UNRWA employees took part in the October 7 assault on Israel and have ties to Hamas. Discussions on alternative humanitarian assistance methods for Palestinians in Gaza are expected to follow the public release of the bill details.

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★ IRAN

  1. Controversy Over Land Seizure Allegations Involving Tehran’s Friday Prayer Leader

Recent documents have implicated Kazem Sedighi, a figure close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in a scandal over the alleged appropriation of government land for personal gain. Sedighi, Tehran’s Friday Prayer Leader and head of the morality police, reportedly registered a 4,200 square meter park adjacent to the Khomeini Religious School under his and his family’s names, sparking widespread debate. Despite claims of signature forgery and betrayal by a trusted individual, the controversy has prompted calls for urgent judicial review, highlighting ongoing issues of corruption within Iran’s political and religious elites.

  1. Iran Seeks Closer Ties with Russia Post-Putin’s Reelection

Following Vladimir Putin’s reelection, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi reached out to express hope for strengthened Tehran-Moscow relations, aiming to forge a multipolar world order challenging Western dominance. Iran, aspiring for enhanced cooperation in economic, military, and security spheres, sees potential in joint projects like the Rasht-Astara railway and alignment in regional organizations such as BRICS and the SCO. Iran also continues to advance its nuclear and drone capabilities, supplying drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, indicating a deepening partnership with implications for regional and international security.

  1. Biden Extends New Year Greetings to the Iranian People, Pledges Continued Support for Freedom

In his message on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian new year, U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized America’s support for the Iranian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy, specifically praising the courage of Iranian women fighting for their rights. He pledged accountability for the Iranian officials responsible for human rights abuses. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Special Representative for Iran Abram Paley also conveyed Nowruz greetings, highlighting the promise of a brighter future and the untapped potential of Iran’s natural and human resources. 

  1. Iranian Workers Protest Falling Wages, Surging Inflation

In response to the Iranian government’s decision to raise wages by 35% for the upcoming year starting March 20—falling short of the 50% demanded by labor representatives and the current 50% inflation rate—workers and labor activists expressed strong opposition. The approved minimum monthly wage of approximately $185 does not match the inflation or the cost of living, exacerbating the economic strain on Iran’s 15 million industrial and service sector workers. Labor representatives criticized the government for neglecting workers’ needs and ignoring rising living costs and walked out of the Supreme Labor Council’s meeting. The situation underscores the growing disparity between wages and the actual cost of living, with many anticipating further protests due to persistent economic challenges.

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★ LEBANON

  1. Hizballah Security Chief Wafiq Safa Makes Unprecedented Trip to the UAE, Brokered by Assad

New information reveals that Hezbollah’s powerful chief security officer Wafiq Safa traveled to the UAE with two companions aboard a private plane. The visit aims to negotiate the release of Lebanese detainees before Ramadan’s end.  The initiative was reportedly brokered by Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, who facilitated talks between Hezbollah and the UAE regarding the release of Lebanese prisoners detained in the UAE over a decade ago for ties to Hizballah and Iran. The initiative also marked a significant step in the warming ties between Damascus and Abu Dhabi since March 2022.

  1. IDF Says Hezbollah Uses Ambulances for Military Purposes

The Israeli Defense Forces’ Arabic spokesperson, Avichay Adraee, disclosed that Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have been exploiting ambulances to move terrorists and arms in southern Lebanon. These ambulances are linked to the Islamic Health Organization, which has ties to Hezbollah and openly supports its militants’ activities against Israel. The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center reports that over 20 members from this healthcare organization have died fighting for Hezbollah, including several in the recent conflicts that erupted in October.

  1. Economic Crisis and Lack of Political Settlement Hinder Lebanese Army Deployment in the South

Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis and the absence of a comprehensive political settlement are major obstacles to deploying an additional 10,000 Lebanese troops south of the Litani River as envisioned in new proposals by U.S. and European negotiators who are seeking ways to defuse the Israel-Hizballah border conflict. Despite international efforts, mutual bombardments continue, with further army deployment contingent on a broader political decision for regional stability. The Lebanese army is experiencing severe financial constraints in Lebanon’s broader economic crisis, and this factor limits the LAF’s capability for expanded deployment not just in the south, but any region of Lebanon.

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★ YEMEN

  1. Houthis Target American Ship “Madu” in the Red Sea with Missiles

On Tuesday, Houthi spokesperson Yahya Saree announced the targeting of the American ship “Madu” in the Red Sea with several maritime missiles. Additionally, the Houthis claimed to have launched several cruise missiles at the Eilat area in Israel. This action follows the U.S. military’s earlier Tuesday announcement of destroying seven missiles, three drones, and three weapon storage containers belonging to the Houthis. 

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★ IRAQ

  1. UN Mission to Investigate ISIS Crimes in Iraq Forced to End Early

UNITAD, the United Nations mission established to assist Iraq in investigating accusations of genocide and war crimes committed by ISIS, has been forced to conclude its operations prematurely due to tensions with the Iraqi government. Initiated in 2017, nearly a decade after ISIS’s extensive territorial conquests in Syria and Iraq, the mission’s early termination comes at a time when many victims still seek justice. Despite achieving at least three convictions in Germany and Portugal, critics argue Iraq’s decision to end the mission hampers efforts to hold more ISIS members accountable and casts doubt on Iraq’s commitment to prosecuting such crimes domestically. UNITAD head Christian Ritscher said the mission is not yet complete and highlighted the need for more time to conduct investigations and manage millions of pieces of evidence. 

  1. Sweden Arrests Former Iraqi Defense Minister for Welfare Fraud

Swedish authorities detained Najah al-Shammari, Iraq’s former Defense Minister, at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport under suspicion of defrauding welfare benefits. Al-Shammari, who served as defense minister from 2019 to 2020 and was unknown in Sweden until his sudden political appointment, has been under investigation for “serious fraud” related to receiving Swedish public assistance while residing and earning a full salary in Iraq. Al-Shammari, also known as Najah al-Adeli in Sweden, became a Swedish citizen in 2015 after receiving residency in 2011. The case is ongoing, following his arrest after being sought by Swedish prosecutors for over a year and a half.

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★ GULF REGION

  1. Dubai Stock Exchange Plans to Sell a Third of Its NASDAQ Stake for $1.6 Billion

The Dubai Stock Exchange, the largest shareholder in NASDAQ, intends to sell approximately a third of its holdings, totaling 27 million shares, with a price range between $58 and $60 per share, aiming to raise up to $1.6 billion. Post-sale, the Dubai Stock Exchange will retain over 10% ownership in NASDAQ and plans to agree to an 18-month sale prohibition. This move, aimed at enhancing the capital structure and liquidity of the Dubai Stock Exchange Group, will position it as NASDAQ’s second-largest shareholder, according to CEO Essa Kazim. 

  1. Saudi Arabia Approves Opening of IMF Regional Office in Riyadh

The Saudi government has approved an agreement to establish a regional office for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Riyadh, as reported by the Saudi Press Agency. The decision, made by the Saudi cabinet led by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, reflects the Kingdom’s status as the largest economy in the region and a key G20 economy. The agreement, signed by the Saudi Ministry of Finance and the IMF in October 2022, aims to enhance the IMF’s presence and partnerships in the Arab region. Despite predicting a slowdown in economic recovery due to decreased oil production, the IMF forecasts strong non-oil sector growth in Saudi Arabia for the year.

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★ EGYPT AND NORTH AFRICA

  1. Will Egypt Sell Alexandria Port to Turkiye?

Greek media spotlight rumors that Egypt might sell or lease a strategically important port to Turkiye, as reported by Ta Nea Newspaper with the headline “Will Egypt sell Alexandria Port to Turkiye?” Egypt’s sale of the Ras El-Hikma area to the UAE for $22 billion was mentioned as a precedent. This potential deal with Turkiye could extend beyond bilateral relations, potentially opening new economic and trade opportunities across Africa for Turkiye. This speculation is supported by Turkiye’s recent diplomatic initiatives and investments in Africa, including opening 26 embassies and engaging in projects worth $85.5 billion. 

  1. Saudi Arabia Agrees to High-Level Financial Dialogue with Egypt

The Saudi Cabinet, led by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the finance ministries of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, aimed at establishing a high-level financial dialogue. This decision, reported by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), underscores the Kingdom’s commitment to fostering comprehensive development across all sectors and strengthening relations with both neighboring and friendly nations. 

  1. Significant Increase in Israel’s Natural Gas Exports to Egypt in 2023

In 2023, Israel’s Leviathan offshore gas field, managed by NewMed Energy, witnessed a 28% surge in natural gas exports to Egypt. Despite a drop in fourth-quarter profits, NewMed, the field’s major stakeholder, plans to enhance production by late 2025 with a $568 million investment alongside partners Chevron and Ratio Energies. This investment aims to boost the field’s output capacity from 12 billion cubic meters annually to 14 billion by the second half of 2025. While overall sales from the field slightly decreased, exports to Egypt notably increased to 6.3 billion cubic meters, maintaining steady sales to Jordan at 2.7 billion cubic meters.

  1. U.S. Approves $260 Million Javelin Missile Sale to Morocco

The U.S. State Department has authorized a significant arms deal, selling Javelin anti-tank missiles and related equipment to Morocco, totaling $260 million. This deal, announced by the Pentagon, emphasizes the U.S.’s support for enhancing Morocco’s long-term defense capabilities and maintaining its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Morocco, a major non-NATO ally, requested 612 FGM-148F Javelin missiles, including 12 training units, and 200 lightweight command launch units. 

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★ SYRIA 

  1. IAEA Chief Rafael Grossi Visits Damascus for First Time Since 2011

Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visited Damascus on Tuesday, marking the first visit since 2011, to initiate high-level discussions on Syria’s use of nuclear energy. The visit seeks to rebuild confidence between the two sides after more than a decade of Syrian government stonewalling of IAEA inquiries into Syria’s suspected construction of a covert nuclear reactor that was destroyed by Israel in 2007. 

  1. Russia Trains Syrian Regime Forces on Drones and Artillery

Russian military personnel in Syria have been conducting extensive training sessions for Syrian regime forces, focusing on the utilization of small drones and artillery. Images and videos shared by accounts linked to Russian forces show artillery units undergoing joint training, which includes maneuvering under simulated enemy attacks and transitioning to unprepared firing positions. The training emphasized both collective and individual standards for engaging artillery in combat, with drones being used for target reconnaissance and fire adjustment. Additionally, there was training on countering enemy drones, highlighting the use of the Russian-made “Garbia” anti-drone rifle to disrupt drone controls and safely bring them down.

  1. Airstrike Kills Hizballah Commander in Eastern Syria

An airstrike in Syria’s eastern city of Deir-ez-Zor on Tuesday resulted in the deaths of five commanders from Iranian-backed militias, including a Hezbollah commander, as reported by al-Hadath and corroborated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Previously, suspected Israeli strikes had targeted key figures within these groups, leading Iran’s IRGC to reduce its presence in Syria.

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★ TURKIYE

  1. U.S. Signals Willingness for Strategic Dialogue on Syria with Turkiye

Turkiye’s “Hürriyet” newspaper reported that for the first time, the United States has conveyed its readiness to engage in a strategic dialogue with Ankara on the Syrian conflict. This development follows the resolution of two major issues: Sweden’s NATO membership and the sale of F-16 jets to Turkiye, paving the way for a new political climate in US-Turkish relations. However, the contentious issue of U.S. cooperation with the Kurdish YPG, the backbone of the SDF in Syria, remains, with Turkiye seeking adherence to the 2019 agreement for the removal of Kurdish forces from the Turkiye-Syria border and the cessation of support to Kurdish factions aiming to establish a state.

  1. Turkiye Blames Moscow and Tehran for Failure of Normalization with Damascus

Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said that normalization with Damascus is unattainable due to Syrian decisions being influenced by Russian and Iranian allies. Fidan emphasized the need for Syria to consider its allies’ stances and dismissed the possibility of direct dialogue under current conditions. This stance is compounded by Moscow’s declaration that normalization is currently impossible, citing regional dynamics and American strikes on Iranian targets as distractions from Turkish-Syrian relations. Turkiye denies plans for a Erdogan-Assad meeting in Moscow and continues to threaten military actions in Kurdish regions for national security. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reaffirmed his commitment to completing the previously announced “security belt” in northern Syria, planning to extend it 30 to 40 kilometers deep. Starting next summer, Turkiye aims to fully secure its borders with Iraq while continuing its security efforts in Syria. 

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📌 Incase you missed it,

📰 THE EARLY PHOENIX March 19, 2024

🌍 The Region March 4, 2024

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