There was a significant drop in reported fatalities throughout the Middle East region last week, primarily along the battlefronts in Syria and Yemen. This drop is possibly due to a less substantial decrease in instances of remote violence (airstrikes, shelling), combined with Syrian Democratic Forces’ (QSD) territorial gains in the Hajin enclave. Meanwhile, regional demonstrations have continued to rise, particularly in Palestine, Iran, and Bahrain.

In Palestine, there was a heavy spike in violence last week in the West Bank as tensions between Palestinians, Jewish settlers, and Israeli security forces reached a boiling point (for more on violence in the West Bank, see this recent ACLED piece). As is often the case in the West Bank, armed attacks by Palestinians against settlers and Israeli security forces, or vice versa, led to a slew of retaliatory attacks and punitive demolitions. On 9 December, a drive-by shooting by Palestinians near Ofra settlement reportedly left seven people hospitalized, including a pregnant woman. Hamas claimed that one of the attackers was their own; however, similar attacks are often perpetrated by unaffiliated Palestinians. Eight more people were reportedly killed in the ensuing violence, mostly during battles between lone Palestinians and Israeli security forces. Others were injured during riots and clashes between settlers, security forces, and Palestinians.

In Gaza, weekly demonstrations as part of the National Movement to Break the Siege continued along the border, and also off the coast – the latter known as a maritime march. While the level of unrest has dipped compared to recent months, at least 71 people were still reportedly injured by Israel fire during the demonstrations.

In Lebanon, an army soldier was reportedly killed and three were injured when their patrol came under fire in the al-Sharawneh neighbourhood of Baalbek. While initial army reports made no claim as to who the attackers were, a later report said they were members of the Jafaar clan. Lebanon is home to several powerful armed clans whose members often form de facto militias which engage in both criminal and political violence (Al Jazeera, 18 August 2012).

In Israel, a large number of demonstrations continued against recent instances of domestic violence against women, and also by members of the Haredi Jewish community against the mandatory army draft. Riots broke out in several areas of the country over a variety of issues.

In Jordan, clashes broke out during demonstrations at the Fourth Circle in Amman which were demanding constitutional reform and the release of detained activists. Similar demonstrations have been ongoing in the capital over the past few weeks, with participation steadily growing. In June 2018, then Prime Minister Hani Mulki resigned following wide scale popular backlash to a proposed tax bill, which was later amended and approved in November 2018. These recent demonstrations are a renewed version of those in June, arguing that the same issues still remain (Jordan Times, 7 December 2018).

In Iraq last week, people all over the country celebrated the one year anniversary of their ‘victory over the Islamic State (IS)’, officially recognised as a holiday on 10 December 2017. While IS still continues their insurgency within Iraq, they no longer hold territory and the nature of the fight has shifted underground. While the celebrations occurred without any violence, it was reported that a militia affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) foiled at least one attempted IS attack in Diyala governorate (Iraqi News, 10 December 2018).

Meanwhile, the Basrah demonstrations intensified further as crowds of angry locals surrounded the governorate directorate building in the provincial capital and shot the head of the Health Committee, Haider Saadi, in the arm as he attempted to escape; a day later, demonstrators began a march towards the homes of officials before being intercepted by police. Riots broke out during clashes with police, leading to a mosque being burned near the home of provincial council head Waleed Kitan. These recent demonstrations mirror those which erupted in the southern governorates earlier in the year (for more on that, see this ACLED piece). Demonstrators have been protesting against government corruption, and demanding better jobs and services, and have also risen up to a lesser degree in the other southern governorates.

In the north of the country, Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants intensified, particularly in the mountainous regions of Dahuk and Erbil, but also in northern Ninewa. In one instance, a Kurdish refugee camp was targeted in Makhmur, Erbil governorate, reportedly killing four civilians.

In Turkey proper, reports of battles between Turkish security forces and PKK militants remained relatively low, with an ongoing military operation against cornered PKK fighters in Ovacik district of Tunceli province lasting into this week.

Elsewhere, dozens of Free Women’s Movement (TJA) and Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) workers were detained during raids after they took part in a hunger strike to oppose the isolation of detained PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

In Iran, demonstrations by various labour groups, farmers, and students continued last week across the country. Noteworthy is the continuation of the protest by hundreds of workers of the Iran National Steel Industrial Group (INSIG) in Ahvaz, which continued into its fourth week. The workers assert that they want their production line restored and overdue wages paid. The four steel plants of this company were re-privatised in May 2018, as Bank Melli Iran took over the INSIG, which employs around 4,000 people. Among other demands, the workers have been calling for an end to privatisation and the return of their factory to public ownership. The Ahvaz Intelligence Department has summoned at least 10 protesting workers and has allegedly threatened them to end the protest. A worker was arrested on 11 December, but has been since been released (Iran HRM, 11 December, 2018).

In Bahrain, several anti-regime riots and protests were reported ahead of the annual Martyrs’ Day. On 17 December 1994, two Bahraini youths were shot dead by police in Jidf Hafs and Sanabis. Annual demonstrations have occurred since. The shootings were the beginning of an uprising that continued until 2000. The two youths, Hani Khamis and Hani Al Wasti, were demonstrating against the regime when they were shot.

In Yemen, heavy clashes between pro-Houthi and anti-Houthi fighters occurred throughout last week in Hodeidah city, with shelling and ground battles being reported in the southeastern neighborhoods of the city on Friday and Saturday. These clashes were in anticipation of a city-wide ceasefire that was brokered during talks in Sweden mid-week and went into effect on the eve of 17 December. Intense battles were also fought throughout the week in the Tuhayat and Durayhimi districts located just outside the port city.

Pro-Houthi forces also clashed with anti-Houthi soldiers and UAE-backed Security Belt forces in the vicinity of Haqab village, located south of Damt city in Ad Dali governorate. Clashes were likewise fought throughout the week between pro-Houthi groups and Coalition-backed troops in Baqim district of Sadah, Maqbanah district of Taiz, and several areas along the northern border with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, protest rallies were held in Aden to demand the trial of Hani bin Breik, leader of the Southern Transitional Council. Protesters are accusing him of being behind the murder of clerics and local Al-Islah party leaders in the city (for more on assassinations in South Yemen, see this ACLED piece). Additional protests were held outside the central prison in Mukalla city, Hadramawt governorate, by members of the “Detainees’ Mothers Association”, who accused authorities of arbitrarily detaining their relatives.

In Syria, ongoing violence continued in the three main areas of contestation. Similarly to the last few weeks, regime and loyalist militias shelled areas throughout the governorates of Hama, Idleb, and parts of Lattakia and Aleppo. Occasional clashes and assassinations were reported in the area surrounding Aleppo itself.

In the east, Hajin town was finally captured from IS by a combined effort of Iraqi, Coalition, Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD), and other fighters, following a protracted siege of the militant group’s last major stronghold. Despite this, violence continued in areas surrounding Hajin, making it likely that IS-sponsored violence will continue, albeit with a less territorial imprint.

Finally, ongoing tensions between QSD and Turkish fighters flared up once more as Turkey appeared to prepare for an assault. Civilians fled the Ras al Ain area as thousands of Turkish fighters mobilized along the front line. Several IED attacks in Euphrates Shield-controlled areas were also reported, as well as ground clashes in Menbij.

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Regional Overview – Middle East
19 December 2018
Tom Hart
Tom Hart
Middle East Research Manager
Tom Hart is a Middle East Research Manager with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), and a part-time brewer and genealogist. He received his BA in International History from Carleton University in Ottawa, where he focused on colonial relationships, intercultural interaction, and geocultural perspectives. Mr. Hart is currently based out of Ottawa, Canada, and is fluent in English and French.
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