Lurching from crisis to crisis in Gaza

Following up on the situation in Gaza – fuel cuts Phase II, “mistaken” electricity cuts, and crisis of lack of spare parts

The Israeli Defense Ministry’s program to punish Gaza’s population for Qassam rocket fire into Israeli territory is apparently moving into a new phase.

A second round of fuel cuts – Phase II — was scheduled to start on 30 December, with a military-ordered reduction of some 35% to 43% (apparently depending on what numbers are used as the baseline) in the amount of gasoline that will now be supplied to the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli human rights organization GISHA has brought together a group of Israeli and Palestinian human rights bodies who have petitioned the Israeli High Supreme Court to block the military-ordered cuts in fuel and electricity to Gaza, and to revoke the 19 September Israeli cabinet decision that is the basis of these cuts – the declaration that the Gaza Strip is a “hostile entity” or “enemy territory”. The petitioners argued that this is not purely and simply an economic boycott.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said recently that his country was engaged in a “true war” with Gaza – which is being waged with one eye constantly on the reaction of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who is trying to shepherd the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority into a peace agreement that will include the creation of a Palestinian state – if possible, before George Bush leaves office in January 2009.

At the heart of the human rights groups’ petition to the Court is the argument – still resisted by many within Israel, though widely accepted everywhere else in the world, and not explicitly enunciated in the documentation presented to the Court – that Israel continues to be in occupation of the Gaza Strip from which it carried out a unilateral “disengagement” in the late summer of 2005, removing some 8,000 Israeli settlers and the Israeli Defense Forces that were protecting them.

Israel controls all external access to Gaza, but wants to keep at more than an arm’s length

Gaza’s population of nearly 1.5 million Palestinians – at least one-third of whom are refugees from what is now Israel.

Israel continues to maintain total control over Gaza’s air and maritime space – the litmus test in international law to determine whether or not Israel’s occupation continues, regardless of protests and denial. Israel also meets the additional test of exercising “effective control” of the Gaza Strip – the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) go in and out at will, and operate largely as they wish.

Israeli surveillance drones are constantly buzzing overhead, and a large white surveillance blimp is tethered just over the Erez crossing from Israel into northern Gaza – and others may be placed elsewhere around the Gaza Strip — in addition to all the usual electronic and satellite monitoring.

Israel insists it should have the right, for its own security, to decide about all human entry and exit from Gaza – and was very unsettled by Egypt’s recent unilateral decision to permit the passage of pilgrims through Rafah to perform the Hajj.

Sanctions were first imposed against the Palestinian Authority and the entire Palestinian territory after Hamas won the majority of seats in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in early 2006. Sanctions were tightened against Gaza after the Hamas rout of Fatah security forces in mid-June 2007, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the National Unity Government and created a new Hamas-free administration.

Now, Israel makes all decisions about which goods can officially pass into or out of the Gaza Strip, and which cannot – other than through highly risky smuggling. Only ten essential supplies are now permitted, the AP reported on 13 November: “Israel allows in 10 basic items — cooking oil, salt, rice, sugar, wheat, dairy products, frozen vegetables, frozen meat, medical equipment and medicine”.

It is an unprecedented regime of control – and neglect – with no apparent mechanism of appeal.

So far, the Israeli High Supreme Court has declined to intervene in the military’s decision to order the first phase of fuel cuts that started on 28 October.

A private Israeli company, Dor Alon, which enjoys an Israeli-awarded monopoly on fuel sales to the Gaza Strip – their sales to the Palestinian Authority account for some 40% of their business — apparently experienced no qualms in complying immediately with the instructions.

Phase I cuts were supposed to reduce by 15% the amount of fuel supplied to Gaza in the month of October. But the actual quantities of fuel supplied were not cut evenly across the board, the human rights groups and various monitoring organizations say. The fuel deliveries are made weekly, and figures from the receiving bodies indicate that industrial diesel used to run the main Gaza Power Plant was reportedly reduced by 12%-15%, while benzene (gasoline, petrol) used for automobiles was reduced by 40%.

On 31 December, the Coordinator of (Israeli) Activities in the Territories, Moshe Krif, said he didn’t know about Phase II going into effect or not, but added: “I just know that all the needs are supplied”.

The Court has not yet responded to the human rights groups’ recent repeated requests for a restraining order to block Phase II fuel cuts. However, the Court has now asked the state to respond by Sunday 6 January – but this does not “tie the state’s hands” meanwhile, GISHA’s executive director Sari Bashi explained.

These measures now proposed by the Israeli Defense Ministry apparently include a temporary restoration, to pre-cut levels, in the amounts of diesel fuel that will be allowed into Gaza – after, Bashi noted, functioning hospitals have been significantly impaired for lack of diesel, and tens of thousands of Gazans are being deprived of clean water on a rotating basis.

Diesel is used to operate generators, which are vitally-needed back-up sources of power during rolling and random power outages in Gaza. Some hospital systems, including the laundry and sanitation services at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, run on diesel. And some automobiles and other vehicles also use diesel fuel.

Bashi, a lawyer, said that the state – which told the Court that it “limits the humanitarian impact as much as possible” — now appears to be trying to modify its reduction of vital supplies to Gaza, “when the damage gets bad enough”.

But, Bashi says, “this is completely illegal, and it is endangering 1.5 million people who are being pushed to the brink”.

Gisha and its co-petitioners argued that “any reduction in electricity supply to Gaza would inevitably damage the operation of hospitals, water systems, and other vital services”.

The electricity cuts that were to go into effect on 2 December have been delayed pending further clarification. On 30 November, the Israeli High Court asked the government for more information on the impact of proposed electricity cuts, and said it assumed the military would accordingly delay its planned cuts.

According to GISHA’s Sari Bashi, the army indicated in early November that it was already installing voltage-reduction dimmers on four out of the 10 or 11 feeder lines through which the Israel Electric Company (IEC), a semi-public utility, supplies electricity to various parts of the Gaza Strip.

The military’s plan was to restrict electrical supply by 5% (from 400 ampere to 380 ampere daily) on one of these lines per week, until all four lines were regularly operating at the reduced capacity.

But, Bashi said, in information it supplied to the court on 20 December, the state revealed that erroneous information had earlier been given when it reported that no restriction was currently being imposed.

In fact, Israel Electric Company reported that it had “accidentally” reduced the electrical supplies to Gaza by 5% on two lines for much of a 13-day period in December. When that “local error” was discovered on the morning of 18 December, it said, the load regulation was removed on both lines, and “the former situation was reinstated”.

In addition, Israel Electric Company said, since January 2007, two other lines coming from Israel “have been operating with load regulators, which limit the supply of electricity to 330 ampere”.

When that was discovered in December, one of those two lines was boosted up to 380 ampere – corresponding to what the line would carry if the 5 % electricity cut were allowed.

It is not clear if the other line is still operating only at the more reduced 330 ampere capacity.

The explanation offered was an agreement, dating back to 2005 (but apparently only acted upon in January 2007), between Israel Electric Company and the Palestinian Authority, to regulate the two lines “so that each line would supply 11 MW, which is around 330 ampere”.

It was “as a courtesy”, Israel Electric Company said, that 400 ampere – “more electricity than was agreed with the Palestinians” – had been supplied to the Gaza Strip throughout 2006.

The state attorney argued that all this only goes to show that the military’s planned electricity cuts will not cause severe and disproportionate harm to the residents of the Gaza Strip, as the human right groups have claimed.

The Israeli High Supreme Court reacted with withering criticism, saying that “the facts were not properly investigated” and the “course of events described above was puzzling”.

It demanded more specific clarification from the state, and scheduled a hearing in late January.

Electricity and fuel are actually closely interconnected. Israel now supplies some 140 MW of electricity directly to Gaza. Gaza’s main power plant – which is designed to be able to generate 140 MW of electricity – can now only provide some 55 to 60 MW per day. And to do even that, it needs diesel fuel imported from Israel, which is being paid for by the European Union.

Dr. Rafiq Maliha, Deputy Director of the Gaza Power and Electricity Company, said that “There are two problems at the Gaza power plant, and the main one is lack of fuel. We are receiving fuel, but not the proper amount. We are already experiencing reductions, and we are almost eating our reserves”.

The other problem has followed the June 2006 Israeli air attack in anger on the Gaza power plant which destroyed, one by one, all six transformers at the power station. “We now have only a temporary configuration, which is just working partially”, Dr. Maliha explained. “We have not been able to restore the plant’s capacity – and now we are only able to produce a maximum of 60 MW of electricity rather than 140 MW that the plant was designed to generate. Since the attack, we have been running in a constant state of deficit”.

At present, Gaza needs 240 MW of electricity a day but is getting only some 80% of that amount, from three sources: The Israel Electric Company is currently supplying some 120 MW; Egypt is providing 17 MW across the border to the Rafah district in Gaza; and the main Gaza Power Plant is generating some 55-60 MW.

The 20% deficit is being managed by “burden-sharing”, which distributes the planned cuts through rolling black-outs and brown-outs. Electricity must be cut for several hours a day, every day, in different areas of Gaza. Back-up generators then must be used for the most essential public services. But, in the current situation, this is a fragile compromise.

The deficit could have been reduced with the recent delivery of a new transformer, Dr. Maliha said, which would add 25-30 MW of production per day, so that Gaza power plant could now provide up to 80 MW of electricity. But, to do that would require receiving 500 cubic meters of diesel fuel per day – and that is double the amount presently supplied under Phase I cuts.

Due to lack of fuel, Dr. Maliha explained, “We are running only two gas turbine units out of four”.

The numbers are chilling: “Each unit needs 160 cubic meters per day of liquid fuel to operate (or 720 cubic meters per day for all four) – and each unit will generate 25 – 30 MW of electricity”, he explained. “Until the end of October, early November, we were receiving 360 cubic meters a day, and running two turbines. But what we are now receiving now is only 250 cubic meters of fuel a day – which is not enough to run even two. So, we have been dipping into our reserves – which were 2000 cubic meters – to make up the difference. And, by the end of December or the first days in January, we will have zero reserves left”.

Unless there is a change in the meantime, Dr. Maliha said, “when the reserves are exhausted, we will be receiving only enough incoming fuel to run one turbine per day with the present cuts”, and the Gaza’s main power plant will have to cut back its output by 25-30 MW of electricity per day. Then, Gaza’s present daily electricity deficit will almost double.

In addition to the calculations concerning the turbines, any power they generate requires step-up and step-down transformers to distribute the electricity in Gaza. A new transformer has just been delivered to Gaza, Dr. Maliha said, “and with a new transformer, we can run a new turbine. But to do that we also need more fuel.”

In an affidavit submitted with GISHA’s petition to the Israeli High Supreme Court, Nedal Toman, engineer and project manager for the Gaza Electricity and Distribution Company (GEDCO) stated that “There is no interconnected electricity grid in Gaza, the system of the electricity lines is a radial system and not a ring system. That means that it is not possible to stop electricity supply to a sub-line feed from the main line – we can only cut the electricity to the main line”.

That means, Toman explained, that “There is no technical way to be able to supply electricity in lower voltage [amounts] through the main lines – you either supply electricity, or not”.

Toman also said that when electricity does have to be cut, it is done by operating “disconnection pillars” to cut power to the main lines in a certain area, so that other areas will be supplied with electrical capacity. This is a dangerous operation, he said, and it should normally be done only once a year. But, in Gaza, it is now being done up to four times a day to re-route the electricity supply. And, Toman reported, 4 technicians have been killed and 45 have been injured with burns on their arms and faces while operating the “disconnection pillars” in the past four years.

Many very basic items are out of stock in GEDCO’s warehouse, Toman stated. They are even out of low and high voltage fuses. “We cannot even find one in Gaza”, he said, “and so we are using used and second hand ones. These fuses are highly important because they function as protectors. They control the amount of electricity that enters the transformers, and they protect the wires so that they will not be burned from too much electricity entering them”.

Ominously, Israel bans the entry of all spare parts into Gaza – including those needed for essential support systems as water and sewage pumps, electrical installations, and back-up generators – which threatens to throw the entire precarious situation into chaos at any moment.

Maher Najjar of the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility said in a phone conversation on 16 December that the second of Gaza’s three big stand-by generators had just failed, “and we have no spare parts to fix it”.

This was a minor catastrophe, Najjar explained in a phone interview from Gaza, that could quickly become a major one, if there is any loss of electricity – because this stand-by generator has been used to maintain operations in one of
Gaza City’s major sewage pumping stations. And, there are now constant power reductions and outages in Gaza, Najjar indicated.

As an immediate emergency measure, Najjar said, “We have asked GEDCO not to cut power at all to this sewage pumping station”. But if anything happens — for example, if demand suddenly exceeds capacity — then, Najjar indicated, the system will fail — and Gaza City’s Zeitoun district will be flooded with sewage.

“We have three containers of spare parts sitting in Ramallah”, Najjar said. “But we have not received any spare parts for over five months, nearly six months”, he explained. And, he added, many letters have been sent to the Israeli authorities about this urgency of this problem — without any response so far.

The Coastal Waters Municipalities Water Utility has been working with the World Bank, and hopes that institution may weigh in soon.

Last week, Najjar reported that one of the two broken big back-up generators was being cannibalized for spare parts to fix the other one at Pump Station 7, which he said was a top urgent priority. “If there is no generator at the pumping station, there will be a sewage flood. So, we divert our resources to the pumping station, and even if that means that the waste water will be only partially treated, it is less critical”, Najjar explained.

Even without an immediate crisis, Najjar said, “we have 30 to 35 projects that are stopped or frozen because we cannot repair any assets.

For the present infrastructure, “If you don’t have preventive maintenance, then you have breakdowns”, Najjar said.

“It’s a matter of a potential catastrophe”, Najjar said, “and the whole water and sewage system is at risk, if the situation does not change.

Benazir's husband refused autopsy – wants Hariri-style UN investigation

Agence France Presse has reported this afternoon that Benazir’s husband refused an autopsy, but wants a Hariri-style UN/international investigation into her killing:
“Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari, demanded a United Nations probe into her assassination along the lines of the world body’s probe of the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. ‘We demand a Hariri commission-style investigation’, Zardari told reporters. ‘We are writing to the United Nations for an international probe into her martyrdom’. With her party openly ridiculing government assertions that she had died by hitting her car sunroof on Thursday — and not from bullet or shrapnel wounds in the attack — Zardari said he had denied permission for an autopsy. He said he had lived in Pakistan ‘long enough to know’ how it would have been handled”. This AFP report is here.

UN Security Council negotiated statement about Benazir's assassination

Matthew Lee described on his Inner City Press blog the negotiations conducted by the president of the UN Security Council before the statement issued concerning Benazir Bhutto’s assassination: “In the hours after Benazir Bhutto was killed, the 15 members of the UN Security Council negotiated and agreed to a Presidential Statement of condemnation. A sixteenth country was consulted: Pakistan. According to Council diplomats involved in the negotiations, among the changes made before the final Presidential Statement was issued was the omission of any temporal reference in the Council’s statement of the ‘need to bring perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of this reprehensible act of terrorism to justice’. The proposal was to say this should be done as soon as possible, but this was omitted, apparently to make it less likely that the matter could be brought back before the Council if the investigation is too slow or otherwise not credible. Before these Security Council negotiations, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had issued a statement, including a ‘call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice as soon as possible. I convey my heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Bhutto’s family, her colleagues and to the people of Pakistan. While strongly urging for calm and restraint to be maintained at this difficult time, I call on all Pakistanis to work together for peace and national unity‘. In the Council, it was suggested that the Presidential Statement should track Ban Ki-moon’s already-issued statement. But issue was taken with the phrase “as soon as possible” and “peace” — “international peace and security” being the legal hook for the Council to send peacekeepers or investigators, as in Lebanon, to a country … [And so] the phrase ‘as soon as possible’, which is in the Secretary-General’s statement…did not make it into the Council’s Presidential Statement … The real question, though, concerns the omission of those fighting for democracy and rule of law.
While the final Presidential Statement offers a ‘tribute to former Prime Minister Bhutto’, it had been proposed to also mention those fighting for democracy and the rule of law. But this too was omitted, apparently under the theory that it might embolden and even empower those questioning the rule of Pervez Musharraf. One is left with a watered down statement, and ever-multiplying questions”. Matthew Lee’s post is here.

And, here is the final result, the UNSC’s Presidential Statement, read out by the current SC President for the month of December, Ambassador Marcello Spatafora of Italy:

“The Security Council condemns in the strongest terms the terrorist suicide attack by extremists that occurred in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on 27 December 2007, causing the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and numerous other casualties, and expresses its deep sympathy and condolences to the victims of this heinous act of terrorism and their families, and to the people and the Government of Pakistan. The Security Council pays tribute to former Prime Minister Bhutto.

“The Security Council calls on all Pakistanis to exercise restraint and maintain stability in the country.

“The Security Council underlines the need to bring perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of this reprehensible act of terrorism to justice, and urges all States, in accordance with their obligations under international law and resolution 1373 (2001) and consistent with resolution 1624 (2005), to cooperate actively with the Pakistani authorities in this regard.

The Security Council reaffirms that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.

“The Security Council further reaffirms the need to combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. The Council reminds States that they must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law.

“The Security Council reiterates its determination to combat all forms of terrorism, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations.”

This statement is contained in a UN press release here.

And, as the UN press release says, the meeting started at 2 p.m. and ended at 2:05 p.m.

More Benazir post-mortem

The AP had a fuller version of comments quoted yesterday from Bhutto’s spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who had been with Benazir when she was shot and rode with her as she was rushed to the hospital:
“She was bleeding profusely, as she had received a bullet wound in her neck. My car was full of blood. Three doctors at the hospital told us that she had received bullet wounds. I was among the people who gave her a final bath. We saw a bullet wound in the back of her neck,” she said. “What the government is saying is actually dangerous and nonsensical. They are pouring salt on our wounds. There are no findings, they are just lying.”

The same AP story reported that Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, who gave the press conference saying — preposterously — that Benazir died from banging her head on a lever of the sun roof in the car in which she was riding, “stood by the government’s version of events, and said Bhutto’s party was free to exhume her body for an autopsy…[And he] defended the government’s ability to carry out its investigation. He said an independent judicial probe should be completed within seven days of the appointment of its presiding judge. ‘This is not an ordinary criminal matter in which we require assistance of the international community. I think we are capable of handling it’, he said”.

At-largely here shows photos shown on Pakistan’s Dawn TV of the assassin – clean-shaven, in a suit, with sunglasses (could it be a woman, Larisa asks?). Comments on democraticunderground here say that the suicide bomber, with white fabric over his(?) head, stays right behind the person with the gun:

image of Bhutto assassin firing - from Dawn News TV

image of Bhutto assassin from Dawn News TV


Meanwhile, the same AP story added, “White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Pakistan had not officially requested U.S. help. ‘It’s a responsibility of the government of Pakistan to ensure that the investigation is thorough. If Pakistani authorities ask for assistance we would review the request’, he said. A senior U.S. official, however, said Pakistan was already ‘discussing with other governments as to how best the investigation can be handled’. With the United States, the discussions ‘are about what we can offer and what the Pakistanis want. Having some help to make sure international questions are answered is definitely an option’, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no agreement had yet come from the discussions. There was no immediate confirmation from Pakistani officials”. This AP report is posted here.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is why Benazir studied for two Bachelor’s degrees — the first from Harvard, the second from Oxford in the U.K. — instead of going for a Master’s. Then, a New York Times story made me realize that it was all about networking, about making contacts, rather than earning one degree or another. (But a second bachelor’s degree would also be a bit easier than going for a Master’s … especially if Benazir is one of those girls who just want to have fun.)

The NYTimes article today, entitled How Bhutto Won Washington, reported that “Ms. Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader and two-time prime minister, who was assassinated in Rawalpindi on Thursday as she campaigned for the office a third time, had a more extensive network of powerful friends in the capital’s political and media elite than almost any other foreign leader. Over the years, she scrupulously cultivated those friends, many from her days at Harvard and Oxford. She was rewarded when her connections — at the White House, in Congress and within the foreign policy establishment — helped propel her into power in Pakistan … She arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1969 as a primly dressed 16-year-old, bewildered by American customs … But Ms. Bhutto adapted, and quickly befriended not only Mr. [Peter W. Galbraith, identified in the NYTimes piece as “a former United States ambassador and a longtime friend of Ms. Bhutto’s”] Galbraith but E. J. Dionne and Michael Kinsley, now both columnists for The Post, and Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute and a former managing editor of Time. By the time she got to Oxford, Ms. Bhutto drove a sports car, and she soon became president of the Oxford Union debating society. ‘I remember her being very intense’, Mr. Isaacson recalled. ‘But she had this really big smile, and she had this ability to be charming’. Ms. Bhutto’s first important trip to Washington was in the spring of 1984, when Mr. Galbraith, then a Democratic staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acted as her host and tutor. By then she was 30 years old and scarred from the bloody politics back home. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been president and prime minister of Pakistan but was hanged in 1979 on the orders of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military ruler. Ms. Bhutto, who had spent months in prison and years under house arrest, was now leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party of her father and determined to oust General Zia. Her goal in Washington was to persuade conservative Reagan administration officials that they would be better off with her in power. It was not going to be easy: Ms. Bhutto’s father was known for his fiery anti-Western rhetoric, and she had marched against the Vietnam War at Harvard. ‘What she was up against was her reputation of being this anti-American radical’, Mr. Galbraith said. ‘So we spent a lot of time talking about what messages she needed to convey’. In meetings with key members of Congress at the time — among them Senator Charles H. Percy, the Illinois Republican who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Representative Stephen J. Solarz of Brooklyn, who was a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — Ms. Bhutto, under Mr. Galbraith’s tutelage, expressed her support for democracy and the mujahedeen ‘freedom fighters’ who were battling the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. ‘She was this completely charming, beautiful woman who could flatter the senators, and who could read their political concerns, who could persuade them that she would much better serve American interests in Afghanistan than Zia’, Mr. Galbraith said. On that same trip, Mr. Galbraith introduced Ms. Bhutto to Mark Siegel, a political operative who had been executive director of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Siegel was taken with Ms. Bhutto and supported her cause. He became a lobbyist for the government of Pakistan when Ms. Bhutto was in power. Most recently he was her collaborator on a book scheduled for publication in 2008. ‘I started to walk the halls of Congress with her in 1984, and she developed poise and confidence and maturity’, Mr. Siegel said. ‘She also understood how important these relationships were’. Still, he said, ‘I would have dinner parties at my house in the beginning, and it was not so easy to get journalists and congressmen and senators to come’. That changed in November 1988, when Ms. Bhutto’s party won a plurality in Parliament in the Pakistani elections but fell short of a majority. As Mr. Galbraith tells it, Reagan administration officials went to Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Pakistan’s acting president, and told him that since Ms. Bhutto commanded the most votes, he would have to invite her to form a government. Ms. Bhutto became prime minister on Dec. 2. ‘And that was the direct result of her networking, of her being able to persuade the Washington establishment, the foreign policy community, the press, the think tanks, that she was a democrat, that she was a moderate, that she was going to be against the Soviets in Afghanistan’, Mr. Galbraith said … Although Ms. Bhutto was twice expelled from office on charges of corruption, she kept up her visits to Washington, usually several a year. She would call on administration officials and members of Congress willing to see her as well as reporters and editors at The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Soon her American Christmas card list, excluding people in government and Congress, was up to 375 names. ‘She understood the nature of political life, which is to stay in touch with people whether you’re in or out of office’, said Karl F. Inderfurth, the former assistant secretary of state for South Asia who attended a dinner for Ms. Bhutto at the Willard Hotel on her last trip to Washington, in September. ‘She was a superb political operative’. Like other foreign leaders, Ms. Bhutto engaged a public relations firm to arrange meetings for her with administration officials, members of Congress and journalists. For the first six months of 2007, the firm Burson-Marsteller took in fees of close to $250,000 for work on behalf of Ms. Bhutto”. This NYTimes analysis is published here.

Another NYTimes article, an opinion piece, said that “Much has been made since her death of her apparent recklessness. But she had done her calculations and reached the conclusion that the only way she could rally her supporters was by going to them. ‘She wasn’t as reckless as people are making her out to be’, the former police officer told me over the phone. ‘The bulge that you saw under her shalwar kameez wasn’t extra pounds that she had put on during exile. She always wore a bulletproof vest in public’.”

Well, but she also put on some extra pounds, and you don’t need to look at her midriff to see it — it was evident in her face, and neck, and hands.

Anyway, this same NYTimes piece reported that “In the London press conference [just before her return], she was asked about her deal with Mr. Musharraf, which was going to allow her to return without facing charges for the rampant corruption that occurred under her watch. It was a question that had become the bane of her existence. Suddenly, her calculated, irritated voice mellowed and she spoke like the naïve, passionate activist I had seen as a child: ‘I lost my father. Both my brothers were killed violently. Scores of my party workers have died in the struggle for democracy, and now our citizens are being killed indiscriminately every day. We have to stop this. And in order to stop this I’ll talk to anyone that I have to‘ … Throughout her career there were attempts to portray her as a Westernized woman of questionable character. Shortly after her death, I was talking with another friend, one who had never thought much of her. ‘Remember those leaflets we used to collect before her election?’ he asked. He was referring to the 1988 election campaign, when her political rivals hired planes to throw leaflets with photographs that were doctored to show her wearing bikinis and miniskirts and dancing at college parties. It did not stop the people from voting her into power. For Pakistan’s military-mullah establishment, she always remained a bad girl. Not just any ordinary privileged heir to a political dynasty, but a girl half the nation swooned over; a sharp political operator, a speaker who even in her stilted Urdu could have a million people dance to the wave of her hand. And she was not a revolutionary by a long shot — but she could bring people to her rallies, and more important, polling stations by promising them jobs and reasonable electricity bills. On Thursday a heartbroken Bhutto-lover called and left a teary message on my voice mail. He just wanted to share his grief, but reminded me of something else: ‘She might have lost her political battle, but look at it this way. She raised three kids, took care of an ailing mother and still managed to stay in South Asia’s most notorious arranged marriage’.” This opinion piece in the NYTimes is published here.

Juan Cole compares Hilary Clinton and Obama on Benazir's assassination

Juan Cole has posted his comments comparing the reactions to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination by two American Democratic candidates for President, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, on his blog, Informed Comment, today — starting with Hillary Clinton’s comments in her interview Friday with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Situation Room:
“I don’t think the Pakistani government at this time under President Musharraf has any credibility at all. They have disbanded an independent judiciary, they have oppressed a free press. Therefore, I’m calling for a full, independent, international investigation, perhaps along the lines of what the United Nations has been doing with respect to the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon. I think it is critically important that we get answers and really those are due first and foremost to the people of Pakistan, not only those who were supportive of Benazir Bhutto and her party, but every Pakistani because we cannot expect to move toward stability without some reckoning as to who was responsible for this assassination.

Therefore, I call on President Musharraf and the Pakistani government to realize that this is in the interests of Pakistan to understand whether or not it was al Qaeda or some other offshoot extremist group that is attempting to further destabilize and even overthrow the Pakistani government, or whether it came from within, either explicitly or implicitly, the security forces or the military in Pakistan. The thing I’ve not been able to understand, Wolf – I have met with President Musharraf, I obviously knew Benazir Bhutto and admired her leadership – is that President Musharraf, in every meeting I have had with him, the elites in Pakistan who still wield tremendous power plus the leadership of the military act as though they can destabilize Pakistan and retain their positions; their positions of privilege, their positions of authority. That is not the way it will work. I am really calling on them to recognize that the world deserves the answer; the Bhutto family deserves the answer, but this is in the best interest of the Pakistani people and the state of Pakistan …

Blitzer: Senator, just to be precise; you want a United Nations international tribunal, or commission of inquiry, whatever you want to call it, along the lines of the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri?

HRC: There are other institutions that are international that have credibility, like INTERPOL and others. It doesn’t have to be the exact model of the Hariri investigation but it needs to be international, it needs to be independent, it needs to have credibility and nothing that would happen inside of Pakistan would. I’m reluctant to say it should be an American investigation where we send our law enforcement personnel, because I’m not sure that would have credibility for a different reason. So that’s why I’m calling for an independent international investigation”...

Juan Cole adds: “Barack Obama objected to Clinton’s call for a UN special inquiry, saying that ‘It is important to us to not give the idea that Pakistan is unable to handle its own affairs’. While Obama’s concern for Pakistani sovereignty is admirable, Clinton’s suggestion of a United Nations commission would, I think, be quite popular in Pakistan except in military circles … And it is certainly the case that the Pakistani public would be more likely to believe a UN commission than it would to believe Pervez Musharraf on this issue”.  Juan Cole’s comments on Clinton’s and Obama’s response to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination are posted here.


What more can be said about Benazir’s death? The statement that she died by hitting her head on the sunroof of her car is preposterous.

Yesterday, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that Benazir died from a severe wound to her left temple, from which brain matter was oozing.

The American television network, ABC, showed video (now posted on its website — see sidebar on this page here) of Benazir’s last moments in which, as the anchor explains, three gunshots are clearly audible.

(ABC says the video was shown at the press conference given by Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior — in which the preposterous hitting-her-head-on-the-sunroof theory was advanced.)

Angry Arab wrote today that “The brilliant Interior Minister of Pakistan said that Bhutto died from hitting her head against the car roof, but in the same press conference it was said that Al-Qa`idah killed her. So are we being told that somebody from al-Qa`idah pushed her head against the car, now that the death is thus explained?” See his 29 December post here.

An anonymous Pakistani journalist wrote in The Guardian’s Comment is Free today that: “I spoke with some of the house owners [in Rawalpindi] about the incident. ‘Political rallies are apt to happen around these parts, and the police always ask us if they can depute officers from our roof to survey the situation. They didn’t this time. When I asked them about it prior to BB’s arrival, they told me to stay inside and bolt my gate‘, one resident told me. The former chief of the ISI Hamid Gul spoke on a segment on Dawn News TV, where he asked, rhetorically, why the scene of the assassination washed out and cleaned up before forensics were allowed to assess it. Even within the supposedly monolithic intelligence agency there are ongoing questions and dissent being voiced. Where does that leave us? Pakistan’s Interior Ministry held a press conference on Friday night, stating the official government line about the assassination. They said Benazir was killed after smashing her head on her car’s sunroof while trying to duck, and that no bullet or shrapnel was found inside her. This statement was delivered by spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema, who was dripping with sweat when journalists at the press conference began needling his statements. Cheema boasted that the government had intercepted a telephone conversation between tribal leader Baitullah Masood and an Al Qaeda militant, in which Masood congratulated him on the killing. Journalists were skeptical. If the conversation could so easily be intercepted afterwards, why couldn’t they have been intercepted earlier? And to what extent does Pakistan’s intelligence agency maintain links with Taliban and Baitullah Masood? Both of these questions were posed, to which Cheema robustly recited that we should trust our military intelligence agencies upon which the rest of the world depends. ‘Rest of the world’, in this case, must mean America. And it’s very convenient for this government to blame the assassination on Islamic terrorists. When local governments were faced with student agitation about the state of emergency, or striking farmers organising in Okara, local police were quick to charge activists with terrorism. There is a pattern of this administration trying to invoke terrorism whenever its legitimacy is challenged locally or abroad”.

Comment from SharifL: “…All political assassinations in Pakistan remain inexplicable since the truth about them has never been investigated or investigated but not made public. Most of the conservative Muslims, and I include AlQuida and taliban in this group, consider it a hideous act to kill women. Subjugate them, treat them differently is acceptable, in fact not uncommon, but not killing. Sherry Rehman, a leader of PPP, and a woman, has countered the Government claim that BB died of bomb blast. Sherry says she was sitting next to Bb and saw two bullets hitting her neck and head. If this is true then it shows that the protection given to Benazir was not sufficient. My question is this: You see a guy, or may be more than one, take out a gun, aim at Bb and shoot. Any nobody from the security was able to stop it and for them it is easier to deny this, since this might show that either the agencies were involved or the protection was not there. I do not want to start the blame game, but the fact is when I saw the street where it took place, being washed and blood cleared a few hours after the ac, i knew the investigation will not get anywhere”. The article and the comment on it from SharifL are posted here.

THe McClatchy newspaper group is reporting that “In Pakistan, the shifting government explanations and Bhutto’s burial without autopsy aroused suspicion. Babar Awan, a senior official of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, said of the sunroof theory: ‘That is a false claim’. He said he’d seen her body after the attack and there were at least two bullet marks, one in the neck and one on the top of the head: ‘It was a targeted, planned killing. The firing was from more than one side’. Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, Mohammadmian Soomro, told the Cabinet that Bhutto’s husband had insisted on no autopsy. But according to a leading lawyer, Athar Minallah, an autopsy is mandatory under Pakistan’s criminal law in a case of this nature. ‘It is absurd, because without autopsy it is not possible to investigate. Is the state not interested in reaching the perpetrators of this heinous crime or there was a cover-up?’ Minallah said. The scene of the attack also was watered down with a high-pressure hose within an hour, washing away evidence”. This McClatchy report is published here.

Another McClatchy story reported that: “The election rally had been long and lackluster, but on viewing the crowd gathered at the gates of Liaquat Bagh park, Bhutto turned to her deputy, Amin Fahim, and said she wanted to wave, Fahim recounted. The sunroof was opened and she stood up. Three to five shots were fired at her, witnesses said. She was hit in the neck and slumped back in the vehicle. Blood poured from her head, and she never regained consciousness. Moments after the shooting, there was a huge explosion to the left of the vehicle. Witnesses said that Bhutto’s bodyguards pounced on the assassin, who then blew himself up, shredding those around him. Ambulance crews collected pieces of flesh from the scene. The road turned red with pools of blood. I was standing near the rally stage, about 30 to 40 yards away from the scene of the shooting. There was pandemonium. On hearing the shots, I started running toward the scene. Then came the explosion … The assassination occurred in this garrison city housing the headquarters of the Pakistan army, an institution that has always seemed opposed to Bhutto. A couple of miles away across Rawalpindi, a previous military regime had executed her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister, in 1979, when she was 26. Police officers had frisked the 3,000 to 4,000 people attending Thursday’s rally when they entered the park, but as the speakers from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party droned on, the police abandoned many of their posts. As she drove out through the gate, her main protection appeared to be her own bodyguards, who wore their usual white T-shirts inscribed: ‘Willing to die for Benazir’.” This report is published here.

But — suppose that the assassin (who could hardly be an assassin if Benazir died by hitting her head on the a lever in the sunroof of the car, he would merely then be an assailant) did not blow himself up — suppose he was blown up, as a cover-up?

A story in Counterpunch noted that “She had been addressing an election rally in Liaquat Bagh. This is a popular space named after the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was killed by an assassin in 1953. The killer, Said Akbar, was immediately shot dead on the orders of a police officer involved in the plot“. This account is posted here.

The Associated Press reported today that “Bhutto’s spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who was in the vehicle with her boss, disputed the government’s version. ‘To hear that Ms. Bhutto fell from an impact from a bump on a sunroof is absolutely rubbish. It is dangerous nonsense, because it implies there was no assassination attempt’, she told the BBC. ‘There was a clear bullet wound at the back of the neck. It went in one direction and came out another’, she said. ‘My entire car is coated with her blood, my clothes, everybody — so she did not concuss her head against the sun roof’. The government said it was forming two inquiries into Bhutto’s death, one to be carried out by a high court judge and another by security forces”. This AP report can be seen here.

Bhutto sent Musharraf a letter naming three who should be investigated in case she were assassinated

The NYTimes reported today that “Ms. Bhutto has long accused parts of the government, namely the country’s premier military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, of working against her and her party because they oppose her liberal, secular agenda. In a letter she sent to Mr. Musharraf just before her return to Pakistan in October, she listed ‘three individuals and more’ who should be investigated for their sympathies with the militants in case she was assassinated. An aide close to Ms. Bhutto said that one of those named in the letter was Ijaz Shah, the director general of the Intelligence Bureau, another of the country’s intelligence agencies, and a close associate of Mr. Musharraf’s. The second official was the head of the country’s National Accountability Bureau, which had investigated Ms. Bhutto on corruption charges. The third was a former official in Punjab Province who had mistreated her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, when he was in jail awaiting trial on corruption charges”. This NYTimes story is published here.

Asia Times Online says caller claimed credit for Bhutto assassination

Asia Times Online reported from Karachi that, immediately after the attack in Rawalpindi that claimed the live of Benazir Bhutto on Thursday evening, “al-Qaeda’s top commander for Afghanistan operations and spokesperson Mustafa Abu al-Yazid” said in a telephone interview that ”We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat mujahideen”.

Asia Times did not say who initiated the phone call. But, the Asia Times report said that Mustafa said: “ ‘This is our first major victory against those who have been siding with infidels [the West] in a fight against al-Qaeda and declared a war against mujahideen’ … He said the death squad consisted of Punjabi associates of the underground anti-Shi’ite militant group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, operating under al-Qaeda orders”.

Asia Times said that “Bhutto died after being shot by a suicide assailant who, according to witnesses, also detonated a bomb that killed himself and up to 20 others at a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Bhutto, with Western backing, had been hoping to become prime minister for a third time after general elections next month”.

The Asia Times story is posted here.

However, as China Hand noted in a recent posting on his (her?) blog: “Under the constitution passed after Musharraf seized power in 1999, Bhutto is barred from serving as prime minister as she has held the office twice. But he said: ‘If she wins enough votes, we may reconsider the third-term condition’.” This comment was posted on 17 December here.

(Musharraf himself has just won a third term in office, and while he remained head of the army. He resigned that post after the recent election.)

Hanan Ashrawi on Benazir Bhutto: a very brave woman whose assassination is a very big loss

In our previous post, Bhutto in Geneva, we picked up on a comment in one of YNet’s stories today which reported that Israeli Knesset Member “Colette Avital (Labor) met Bhutto for the first time in the 90s at a dinner held by former US President Jimmy Carter, when the Labor Knesset member served as Israeli consul general in New York. During the party, Avital recalled, Bhutto sat in on an argument she held with Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi over the regional conflict“.

(Colette Avital, for what’s it’s worth, was one of the signatories of The Geneva Accord/Initiative, and was present at the Swiss-sponsored 3 December 2004 “Public Commitment” in Geneva, including at a post-commitement press conference in which she participated with Avraham Burg and Qaddura Fares.)

Reached by telephone in Ramallah just now, Hanan Ashrawi recalled her first meeting with Benazir Bhutto at that event. “It wasn’t an argument”, Ashrawi said. “We were invited by President Carty to the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, to a small dinner”. Ashrawi said that she met Benazir Bhutto several times afterwards: “She certainly was a very brave woman, who stood for democracy despite lots of obstacles — social, societal, and even personal. She steered the course for democracy and against any extremism and violence”.

Ashrawi said that Bhutto’s assassination is “a very big loss to the woman’s movement in politics and democratic movements globally. Her courage is quite noted, and she paid with her life”.

The Jerusalem Post has reported that Israel’s President Shimon Peres, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman have all said they believe Benazir Bhutto wanted to establish official relations with Israel. Israeli President Shimon Peres told JPost that Benazir “expressed interest in Israel and said that she hoped to visit upon returning to power“. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the JPost that “Upon her return to Pakistan two months ago, Bhutto had stopped in London and, through a mutual acquaintance, relayed a message that she would “in the future like to strengthen the ties between Israel and Pakistan.” And Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman told the JPOST that “Bhutto was interested in normalizing relations with Israel. ‘She was interested in me relaying that information to Washington and the US, which I did’.”

(In 1994, during the Oslo process — and after the Gaza-and-Jericho first withdrawal of the Israeli Defense Forces from occupied Palestinian territory — there was a flap about Benazir Bhutto wanting to visit Gaza, but without asking for a visa from Israel. But, as Israel has controlled all access to Palestinian territory for decades, that was not possible, and Benazir’s visit was called off. The New York Times reported on 31 August 1994 that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that Israel would give permission for Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan to visit the Gaza strip: “Mr. Peres said that he and the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, Yasir Arafat, had reached an agreement on the visit, proposed for Sept. 4, in a telephone call. ‘Yes, we more or less agreed on that’, Peres told Israeli army radio when asked if they had spoken of the visit. ‘I don’t know the dates, but Israel’s agreement will be given’. The issue of who would have to give permission for the visit was seen as a delicate one of sovereignty over the self-rule area. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel said Monday that Ms. Bhutto had displayed bad manners by announcing that she would visit without permission. Today, Pakistan criticized the ‘discourteous’ remarks by Rabin. Israel insists that under its self-rule agreement with Palestinians, any visitor whose country does not have diplomatic relations with Israel would require its clearance for entry to Gaza. Israel controls all crossings to the strip”. The NYTimes story is archived here.)

President Musharraf also made overtures to Israel. His foreign minister met Israel’s Foreign Minister (Silvan Shalom, at the time) in Istanbul in September 2005, after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza. The Washington Post reported at the time that “Pakistan does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, although senior officials from the intelligence services of both countries have maintained regular back-channel contacts since the early 1990s, according to an aide to Musharraf, who spoke on condition of anonymity …T he meeting at a hotel in Istanbul between Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and Israel’s top envoy, Silvan Shalom, was initiated by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, and signaled the government’s desire to improve relations with the Jewish state after decades of enmity, Pakistani officials said … Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, Kasuri said Pakistan had no immediate plans to formally recognize Israel, a step he said would come only ‘following progress toward the solution of the Palestinian problem’. He described the meeting as ‘a gesture to underscore the importance that we in Pakistan attach to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza’, adding, ‘It is important that Israel is encouraged to continue to pursue the course of peace’ … Musharraf’s aide described Thursday’s meeting as part of a broader initiative. The meeting could soon be followed by an official visit to Gaza by a Pakistani delegation, officials said. ‘Pakistan believes that by engaging Israel diplomatically, it can help resolve the Middle East crisis’, Kasuri said in a telephone interview from Istanbul”. This Washington Post article is archived here.

What this shows, it seems, is that both Bhutto and Musharraf are consummate politicians who believed that having cordial relations with Israel is key to having good relations with Washington.

Hanan Ashrawi said in the phone interview today that Benazir had never told her of any interest in establishing relations with Israel: “She was extremely supportive of the Palestinian cause, and dead set against the Israeli occupation, and against the continuation of the occupation. She said she supported an independent Palestinian state — and she said that the occupation must end, and that’s why she didn’t want to deal with the Israelis when she wanted to come to Palestine”.

Benazir Bhutto was surrounded by security before being killed

Does it look as though there’s any laxity in the security surrounding Benazir Bhutto, as she was leaving the rally in Rawalpindi yesterday that was her last — and just moments before she was killed?

Reuters photo from Reuters TV - Benazir leaves rally shortly before being killed

The AP has just reported that “Benazir Bhutto was the target of threats from virtually all of the militant groups who make Pakistan their home — from al-Qaida to homegrown terrorists to tribal insurgents on the Afghan border. Her assassination after a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi — where the country’s military and intelligence services are based — also focused anger and suspicion on the government of President Pervez Musharraf”. The AP report by Kathy Gannon from Islamabad is posted here.

Having considered all that, Benazir’s assassination does not appear to be at all in Musharraf’s interest…

The brilliant China Hand has written, in this comment posted on his (her?) blog on Thursday 27 December, that: “Beyond the immediate tragedy of Benazir Bhutto’s death by violence in Rawalpindi, the greater tragedy for Pakistan is that the opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power—one that did not involve assassination, judicial murder, or legal vendetta—has been lost. What was going to happen after January 8 parliamentary elections was probably not going to be fair, democratic, or ungrudging, but the consensual shoehorning of some combination of Bhutto and elements of Sharif’s PML-N into Pakistan’s governing arrangement seemed imminent. Now these hopes have been dashed, brutally and seemingly totally. And at a stroke, the assassination has revealed how rickety the U.S. brokered deal to elevate her into the prime ministership was, and, more importantly, displayed frailties and fissures at the heart of Pakistan’s political institutions and civil society … The fatal deficiencies of ability and/or will displayed by Musharraf’s military-backed government in protecting the democratic parties, their leaders, and the process itself are now a matter of dismayed speculation … That Pakistan’s democratic process could apparently unravel so quickly with the death of one person gives a sense that Pakistan’s democratic process is so weak, so compromised, and so mismanaged that its basic viability as a vehicle for national unity and civil society is called into question … Pakistan was expecting that an unconstitutional backroom deal brokered by the United States with the acquiescence of a politically crippled president would somehow survive its way through the sausage grinder of opposition by the secular judiciary, the intelligence services, and Islamist forces, wind its way through an opaque, rigged parliamentary process, survive whatever street demonstrations got thrown at it, and emerge as a new, viable Pakistani polity … For Musharraf personally, the assassination looks like a disaster. At best he looks like a mug, at worst a murderer, in any case a like a lousy president in a country grappling with a national crisis. Nawaz Sharif, now Pakistan’s leading opposition politician, has already called on Musharraf to resign and that could easily turn into the price that Pakistan’s military is willing to pay to ratchet down the domestic crisis. It’s impossible to divine what calculations go on in the black heart of Pakistan’s intelligence services, and they are doubtless not shedding any tears over the death of Bhutto. But their future actions may provide some clues as to their complicity—and their commitment to Pakistan’s civil society and willingness to engage with and accommodate democratic forces. In the coming days, an important indicator will be whether the intelligence services and the army decide to take seriously this affront to their pretensions as stewards of Pakistan’s security. Also, if they do decide to do more than incarcerate some symbolic offenders in an attempt to appease domestic and international opinion, it will be interesting to see whether Pakistan’s soldiers and spooks can exploit their close relationship with Islamist groups to punish the offenders against Pakistan’s law, order, and society, and at the same time thread the needle between law enforcement, suppression, and oppression more successfully than the United States has done in that part of the world“. See China Hand’s latest post here.