GroundBrief: March of Return, Egypt frees al-Qassam militants, suicide bombing in Idlib and more

By: Joe Truzman March 03, 2019

This week, the United Nations Human Rights Council released their findings on Israel's actions during Gaza’s March of Return in 2018. The report is long and detailed and could not find a connection between militants and the March of Return. It did find that Israel had no justification to shoot Palestinians at the security fence.

A few initial thoughts and findings.

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1. Friday’s March of Return 

What happened: There were minor security breaches at the fence by border unit groups. A group of militants GroundBrief has been tracking, were able to infiltrate Israel, recover IDF tear gas canisters and return to Gaza unharmed for a second week in a row. We produced evidence of the recovery in our GroundBrief ACCESS Telegram channel.

Analysis: Hamas continues to loosely enforce an understanding between militant groups and Israel to not allow mass rioting at the security fence. However, night-time border units are active and violent with the use of explosives at the security fence. Also, incendiary and explosive balloons are launched on a daily basis by the Sons of Zouari. As we move closer to the one year mark of the March of Return, March 30th, we expect the violence at the border to drastically increase.

Anybody recognize the young man cutting the security fence?

2. Egypt releases four members of al-Qassam Brigades 

What happened: Three years ago, members of al-Qassam Brigades were kidnapped on a bus headed to Cairo International Airport. Some reports claim ISIS was behind the kidnapping to pressure Hamas to cease its crackdown on ISIS supporters in the Gaza Strip. Other reports state it was Egyptian Special Forces tipped off by Israel's Mossad due to intelligence indicating the four al-Qassam members were headed to Iran for military training.

Analysis: Regardless of who was behind the kidnapping, this is a big win for Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ political chief. Do you know who didn't greet the four al-Qassam members at a reception with Haniyeh and other senior Hamas leadership? Yahya Sinwar — one of the 1,027 prisoners released in the 2011 prisoner exchange. Reports state trouble is brewing inside Hamas leadership, specifically between Haniyeh and Sinwar.

3. Friday's Suicide bombing in Idlib 

What happened: Seven people were killed and others were injured when a suspected member of ISIS walked into the the Fusion restaurant in Idlib. He fired at people eating inside before detonating his explosive vest. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says six of those killed were jihadists.

Analysis: Idlib has suffered multiple bombings in the last few weeks. It is likely the bombing was an attack by competing jihadist groups. Al-Qaeda’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is the dominant rebel group in Idlib. The bombings aren't the only problem facing the last major rebel strong hold in Syria; Pro-Assad forces are mounting on the outskirts of Idlib in what is likely an upcoming offensive backed by Russian air power.

4. White phosphorus rounds used against ISIS in Southwestern Syria 

What happened: On Friday, there was heavy shelling against ISIS positions in eastern Syria at the al-Baghouz camp. Most prominently, the use of white phosphorus is controversial. Phosphorus burns carry a greater risk of mortality than other forms of burns due to the absorption of phosphorus through the burned area.

Analysis: The use of white phosphorus has isn't new in Syria or Iraq. There have been extensive reports of its use against ISIS by American and Iraqi forces. When the last pocket of ISIS is defeated, it won't resolve the issue about what will happen to the SDF. Will Assad move in and retake land it lost during the Syrian Civil War or will it allow the SDF to rule the area autonomously similar to the Kurds in northern Iraq?

5. Al-Shabab detonates car bomb in Mogadishu

What happened: On Thursday night, a vehicle packed with explosives detonated at the gate of the Makka al-Mukarama hotel. Militants from al-Shabab took up position in a nearby building and fought off Somalian security forces for almost 24 hours. All al-Shabab militants were killed but not before killing at least 30 people. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it targeted the Makkah Al-Mukaramah, which is a popular meeting place for politicians and government officials along with high profile businessmen.

Analysis: The American military has been conducting airstrikes against the al-Qaeda linked militant group for some time. However, it hasn't stopped al-Shabab from conducting operations against civilian targets in Somalia. The United States Africa Commander doubted American airstrikes would be able to defeat al-Shabab. It has only deterred them to a point. It will take more help, specifically for the Somali National Army to create real change against al-Shabab.

6. Cairo train station explosion 

What happened: On Wednesday, at least 25 people were killed and 50 injured after a train smashed into a barrier at Cairo's main train station. The country's top prosecutor ordered late Thursday that those arrested — two train conductors, their aides and two other rail workers — remain in custody for four more days pending further investigation.

Analysis: Egyptian investigators have remained tight lipped pending its investigation of the accident. The working theory is the train was going too fast, derailed and smashed into a barrier. Videos of the accident and its aftermath went viral on social media, causing a public outcry. This may force the Egyptian government to quickly solve the case: Why did this accident happen?