The extensive impact of the Ethiopian crisis
Foreigners are being urged to leave Ethiopia immediately while commercial flights are still operating. Israel, Britain, and the United States have advised against all travel to the country, except for Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (where advice remains against all but essential travel).
This comes as thousands of opposition fighters are just more than 300km from the capital Addis Ababa, which they’ve vowed to overthrow. Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) has warned that the risk of the country “descending into widening civil war is only too real”. The government has detained at least 16 UN staff and dependants without any explanation.
Last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago, declared a state of emergency. Since then, police have been going door to door in the capital arresting, without a court order, anyone suspected of collaborating with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The government considers its members secessionist terrorists.
For a year, Addis Ababa and Tigray fighters have been at war, mostly in the north of Ethiopia where the group is dominant. In recent months, the conflict escalated rapidly after fighters began to retake most of the Tigray province and expand into neighbouring regions. The civil war now threatens to engulf the capital.
The TPLF claims to be pushing toward Addis Ababa to force the government to lift restrictions on aid flowing to their region. The UN accuses Ahmed Ali of operating a de facto blockade which he denies. But it has been four months since the last big shipment of medicines and health supplies were allowed into the north of the country.
More than seven million people are estimated to need humanitarian assistance with about 400 000 people in Tigray alone living in famine-like conditions. Thousands have been killed, and more than two million have fled their homes since last November.
The UN reports “extreme brutality” being meted out by both sides on civilians. It says there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of international human rights and humanitarian and refugee law are being carried out by all sides. Their intransigence has scuttled hopes of a ceasefire that international mediators including the African Union and United States were pressing for.
The war has also sparked an internal conflict in Israel. Since fighting broke out a year ago, more than 2 000 Ethiopian Jews have been airlifted to Israel in state-run operations. “We must continue to act to bring them over to Israel quickly,” vowed Israeli President Isaac Herzog recently.
But after the new immigrants were settled in various absorption centres, suspicion about the information they had given to Israeli authorities started surfacing. A probe by the Immigration and Population Authority raised “serious doubts” as to whether 61 of them were, in fact, Jewish. In spite of their affidavits, an investigation also found that “most of the petitioners didn’t come from a combat area as claimed, and weren’t in life-threatening danger”.
It turned out that the list of names compiled for rescue came from a man who emigrated to Israel from Ethiopia 25 years ago. According to media reports, among the 61 were his sons, his ex-wife, who is Christian, her husband, and their children, and a number of people he worked with in the past.
It has dampened efforts by Pnina Tamano-Shata, the Israeli aliyah and integration minister, to bring more Ethiopians to Israel. She is urging Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to speed up the immigration process. There are thought to be between 7 000 to 12 000 Ethiopian community members still waiting to make aliyah, many of whom live in the Tigray region, the heart of the conflict.
It’s here where Israeli intelligence officials are warning Israelis and Jews to be vigilant. According to Israeli media, the country’s national intelligence, the Mossad, recently thwarted multiple attacks by Iran against Israeli tourists and businessmen in at least three African countries. The targets were visiting Tanzania, Senegal, and Ghana.
Five suspects, all with African passports, have reportedly been arrested. The concern is that in countries where security is compromised, particularly in Africa, Iran is seeking to avenge the death of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated last November. Tehran blames the Mossad.
The ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel goes back decades, but Iranian efforts recently spiked. This is likely to continue until the country’s leadership feels it has achieved some kind of revenge and deterrence against Israeli attacks on it.
The Ethiopian crisis could provide fodder for increased attacks against Jews and Israelis in that country. Aware of this, the Israeli foreign ministry has started evacuating the families of Israeli diplomats from Ethiopia and is urging Israeli citizens residing in the country to exercise vigilance and be regularly updated on the progress of fighting in general and in the capital in particular.
Addressing the UN Security Council on 8 November, Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, said that in spite of much speculation about how the Ethiopian crisis would unfold in coming weeks, “in a country of more than 110 million people, more than 90 different ethnic groups, and 80 languages, no one can predict what continued fighting and insecurity will bring”.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for three decades before Ahmed Ali took power in 2018 and sought to reduce the group’s influence. Tigrayans are deeply resented by many of Ethiopia’s non-Tigrayans and Ahmed Ali has vowed to “bury this enemy with our blood and bones”. The prime minister has called the fight against former government soldiers and volunteers from the country’s Tigray region an “existential war”.
The conflict has already taken thousands of lives and spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. There are fears it will spill beyond the country’s borders as the heavyweight of the volatile region teeters on the brink of chaos.
Black Eyed Peas lead singer says being in Israel is like mishpocha
(JTA) Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am feels at home in Israel, so much so that he used a Yiddish word to describe the feeling he gets in the country.
While on a visit to Israel to perform with his group, will.i.am, born William James Adams Jr, said on 29 November that he wouldn’t boycott the country, and that being in Israel was like being among family – or mishpocha.
“I always wanted to come to Israel. Growing up in Los Angeles, a lot of my friends are Israelis,” said will.i.am, who isn’t Jewish. “My grandma came here. When she visited, she would say, ‘I’m going to the holy land.’ She came with her church. It was always a place of aspiration and wonder, and when I first came, I brought my grandma. I always love coming here. It’s like mishpocha.”
The rapper made his remarks at a technology forum in the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem. This isn’t the first time the Black Eyed Peas have performed in Israel, where they put on concerts in 2006 and 2007.
Speaking at the conference, will.i.am explained how one of his childhood friends inspired him to throw some other Hebrew words into one of the band’s most popular songs, I Gotta Feeling. In that song, will.i.am famously shouts out “Mazeltov!” and another band member responds with “L’chaim!”
“I wanted to make Benjamin‘s dad proud,” the rapper said of his childhood friend. “So I said, ‘Mazeltov,’ ‘L’chaim’, and he was like, ‘Will, I always knew you are mishpocha’. So to me, when I say mishpocha, I mean that dearly. This place is magical to me, for my grandma wanted to come here, and I can’t let politics get in the way of where my heart is going.”
Will.i.am also worked the word “mishpocha” into a music video for a song the Black Eyed Peas made with Israeli pop duo Static and Ben El in 2020.
“What’s up, mishpocha?” he asks at the beginning of the music video.
#TefillinAgainstTerror campaign turns on the light
In times of darkness, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair instead of fighting for the light. The murder of South African Eli Kay was one such tragic moment, and the world seems a little darker since this bright soul was taken so senselessly this week.
One can feel almost paralysed by the sadness and injustice of the world, but it’s exactly at these times that one must take action to show our humanity. This was what motivated Michael Kransdorff and Rabbis Ari Shishler and Eitan Ash to start a campaign in defiance of terror and in honour of Kay.
They are asking Jews around the world to wear tefillin and share a photo on social media with the hashtag #TefillinAgainstTerror. The campaign will include lighting Chanukah candles and other mitzvot for men and women.
“Like most in the community, I was shocked to hear the news on Sunday about Eli’s murder,” says Kransdorff. “I didn’t know him personally, but felt so connected to his story, his commitment to serve Israel, his love of the land, and passion for Jewish history and people. I was also extremely frustrated that the South African government was refusing to condemn this vicious act of terrorism.”
He spoke to Shishler and other Zionist activists “about something positive we could try to do in response. Of course, this is a personal tragedy for his family and friends. But it’s also an attack on the right of the Jewish people to pray at the Kotel. Eli was killed with his tefillin in hand on his way to morning prayers. His murder requires a response, to say we won’t allow terror to intimidate us. We will continue to pray as Jews. So we decided to launch the Tefillin Against Terror campaign.”
Kransdorff hasn’t put on tefillin in years, “but I have committed to doing it for 25 days for the 25 years of Eli life. Today, [24 November] is really day one of the campaign. The response has been amazing. It’s catching on all over the world and building momentum. It’s on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. People are sending pictures on WhatsApp of themselves as well.”
Kransdorff is chairperson of the Jewish National Fund, and “we’re supporting this campaign, but it’s a grassroots campaign – it’s not about organisations. We want as many people as possible to take part. Tefillin is the first leg of the campaign. It’s Chanukah on Sunday night, and this is also when shiva ends. We are hoping to dedicate Chanukah candles to Eli. In fact, there are lots of parallels with the Chanukah story. The Greeks tried to deny our rights as Jews to pray in the temple, and we responded with lighting the chanukiah. Hamas and our enemies today have the same intention, and we will respond to their darkness by creating light.
“I know the community is shocked and traumatised about Eli’s death and the lack of condemnation from the South African government,” says Kransdorff. “Now is the time for a united response in Eli’s memory, and to say, ‘Am Yisrael Chai!’ We think the #TefillinAgainstTerror campaign and Chanukah lighting does that in a powerful way.”
Follow the campaign and share a photo of yourself at @TefillinAgainstTerror on Facebook and Instagram, or @TefillinforEli on Twitter, using the hashtag #TefillinAgainstTerror.
Coronavirus and the increase in terrorism
From the moment COVID-19 started spreading across the world, extremist groups wasted no time in encouraging their supporters who tested positive for the virus to spread it amongst authorities and the police force. Neo Nazis and other white supremacist organisations urged their followers to transmit it specifically to Jews. They were directed to go into police stations, political offices, centres of worship, and to cough or lick a door handle.
It’s now more than a year-and-a-half since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, but we still don’t know the full effect it’s had on all of us. One area in which more research is needed is on its impact on terrorism. Initial studies, most notably carried out by the United Nations (UN), have found that there is as yet limited evidence of any clear correlation between the pandemic and a change in the nature or intensity of extremist violence. But the suggestions are there, most likely because in many parts of the world, COVID-19 has increased the underlying drivers that are often conducive to terrorism.
The virus has caused unprecedented anxiety and uncertainty. Grievances people had before, and the untenable conditions in which many communities live, have intensified. This is true not only for camps housing refugees and internally displaced persons across Europe and the Middle East, but also in those places where the international community has been forced to redirect funds from pre-existing humanitarian priorities to COVID-19 responses. Experts agree that the impact on already vulnerable populations has made them the ideal breeding ground for radicalisation.
The good news is that border-control measures, such as restrictions on international travel, have curtailed the physical movement of terrorists. But the downside is that because radicalised individuals have been forced to remain in their home states instead of travelling to conflict zones, the risk of increased local terrorist activity has risen. There’s also some evidence to suggest that the reduction in passenger travel has led to a rise in illicit activities using parcel services and maritime cargo.
As international commercial aviation slowly returns to pre-pandemic levels, experts anticipate a potential increase in both terrorist travel and other illicit activities such as smuggling. But what has most people worried is what extremist organisations have been doing online during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The answer is clear. Many have used this time to plan, fundraise, and advance their agenda in cyberspace. Through virtual platforms, terrorist and violent extremist groups have sought to expose an increasingly online global population to their propaganda.
Many of these terror groups have also been forced to adjust their operational methods. There was already a trend pre-COVID-19 for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL also known as Daesh) to develop more decentralised, strategic, and tactical operation online. This has since intensified.
So far, efforts by large media platforms to prevent this have mostly failed, especially amongst those with less stringent content-moderation policies. They’ve struggled to handle the recent growth in traffic and in some instances their efforts have proven to be counterproductive. Often, after de-platforming (banning/removing) a group or individual, the culprit has simply moved to smaller platforms that are less capable of monitoring their activities. They’ve also been left feeling socially excluded, potentially making them more ripe to terrorist rhetoric and propaganda. Counter terrrorism measures have also often encouraged individuals to shift to the dark web, creating additional monitoring challenges.
Economic hardship like rising unemployment, poverty, growing inequality, and food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19 have left vulnerable communities more susceptible to online misinformation and disinformation. Terrorist groups (including ISIL and Al-Qaida) and extreme right-wing groups are using conspiracy theories to target such communities and exploit pre-existing social and communal tensions. Especially with regards to children, the pandemic has severely restricted access to education worldwide, aiding in the recruitment of youngsters by terrorist organisations. By using charities, providing food or monetary resources, groups have managed to cultivate authority and legitimacy, while expanding their recruitment and radicalisation tactics.
The rise in general online financial activities and transactions has also given more opportunities for terror groups to grow their fundraising capabilities. Financial institutions are struggling to conduct customer due diligence and detect potential financial anomalies because such a huge number of people have suddenly moved all their operations online. There’s also a shortage of funds to deal with the problem. In some cases, countries have had to redirect funds from counter-terrorism projects to help their economies deal with the COVID-19 fallout.
Fuelling the situation has been attempts by various governments to lockdown their populations to stop the virus’ growth. Often this has spurred violent protests that in many countries have brought together citizens who might be anti-government for other reasons. The most recent UN research shows that lockdowns diminished trust in authorities, especially amongst vulnerable populations, and created anger and fear.
Some violent extremist groups have sought to develop ties with anti-vaccination communities. In Somalia, for example, the Al-Shabaab terrorist group has issued statements warning local populations against the use of the vaccine, and blamed Somalia’s enemies for distributing a harmful substance among the population.
Without equal access to vaccines, local and regional outbreaks of the virus will continue, perpetuating the threat posed by the pandemic. And even as long-heralded vaccines are rolled out around the world, persistent questions from the very beginning continue on the backburner. Was COVID-19 the fruit of a Chinese bioweapons programme developed in the Wuhan Institute of Virology? Whether yes or no, its devastating impact across the world is likely to inspire some terror groups to consider developing biological weapons for hostile purposes in the future. The pandemic has illustrated biology’s potential to cause harm on a global scale and this, possibly more than anything else, has experts most worried.
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