Israel says it will press offensive in Gaza until all goals reached

Pressure — from some quarters, at least — is rising to halt the IDF offensive in Gaza, but the Israeli Cabinet decided to day to press on with its attacks on targets in Gaza until all goals are reached.

This is despite — or because of — the dramatically-expanded range, over the past few days, of rocket and missile attacks coming from Gaza onto Israel, which have now reached Ashdod, a major port on Israel’s coast 23 miles north of Gaza, and Beersheva, 28 miles east in the Negev desert. Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility is not far from Beersheva.

Israeli warplanes and naval ships continued attacks, but the military allowed some 22 Gazans wounded in those attacks to enter Israel through the otherwise-closed Erez border crossing for medical treatment in Israel. Israel also made arrangements to allow some humanitarian goods to enter Gaza.

On the other hand, the Israeli government is not interested in a cease-fire, at least not yet. And the cabinet authorized the call-up of 2,500 more army reservists, in addition to the 6,500 already summoned, in preparation for a possible ground invasion. That now makes 9,000 reservists who have been told to report to a garrison on the Gaza border — and military experts in Israel have said that 10,000 reservists would be needed, if a decision is made to go in by land.

Haaretz is reporting that Prime Minister Olmert told his cabinet that “We did not begin the Gaza operation in order to finish it with rocket fire continuing like it did before” Olmert said.

The Jerusalem Post reported that 65 percent of its readers polled want a ground operation to go in and “clean up” Gaza.

Last night, the EU called for a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire, and the Quartet (the US, Russian Federation, European Union,and the United Nations) called for an immediate halt to all hostilities.

But the U.S. is still taking a publicly more aloof position — saying that Hamas must be the first to stop its fire.

President George W. Bush called Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the phone on Wednesday to talk about ways to “end the violence” in the Mideast, according to presidential spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who “would not say directly whether Bush had discussed with Olmert the idea of a cease-fire”, according to one news report. Jendroe also said that “Hamas hopefully realizes that they’re in a situation that is not helpful to their own people .. [and] That situation will not lead to a viable Palestinian state.”

This kind of activity shows that the major player, Israel, is playing for time.

If the intention is to completely oust Hamas — and re-install the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority that cut off relations with Hamas in June 2007 after a rout of Fatah security forces — then the planners are most probably aiming to get this done before 9 January, when Hamas, and many other Palestinians, believe the term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will legally be over.

AP reported that “Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said the Gaza government was functioning and had met over the past few days. ‘What our people want is clear: an immediate stop to all kinds of aggression, the end of the siege by all means, the opening of all border crossings, and international guarantees that the occupation will not renew this terrorist war again’, Nunu said in a statement”. This report can be read in full here .

Meanwhile, Foreign Ministers of the Arab League met in Cairo on Wednesday, and AP reported from the scene that “Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Wednesday blamed Palestinian divisions for Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, a reflection of U.S.-allied Arab governments’ anger at the Hamas militant group. Saud al-Faisal made the comments at the opening of an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Egyptian capital, convened to try to put together a joint response by the deeply divided Arab nations to the Israeli offensive, which has killed more than 370 Palestinians and sparked outrage across the Middle East … ‘This terrible massacre would not have happened if the Palestinian people were united behind one leadership speaking in one voice … We are telling our Palestinian brothers that your Arab nation cannot extend a real helping hand if you don’t extend your own hands to each other with love,” he said.

AP said it was clear that his words were directed at Hamas, but it’s not so clear — though Saudi Arabia is closely consulting with Palestinian President Abbas.

AP added, in the same news report, that “Egypt this week turned to Turkey — a regional rival of Iran with close ties to Israel — to put together an initiative to end the Gaza fighting. The Arab League foreign ministers Wednesday were reviewing the plan. The initiative calls for an immediate, unconditional halt to the Israeli assault, followed by a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel, and international monitors to guarantee the truce and the opening of border crossings into Gaza, which Israel has kept largely sealed since 2007”. This report can be read in full

There doesn’t seem to be very much of anything in this plan for either Israel or Hamas.

It’s not even clear if Hamas were to put its last card on the table — captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — that would be enough, at this point, to stop the Israeli military machine.

Meanwhile, the human suffering in Gaza is simply almost unimaginable –and may be about to get worse. Hospitals are dealing with an unprecedented number of casualties — without enough medical supplies, without much electricity, and without rest for medical staff who have worked around the clock since “Operation Cast Lead” (or “Operation Solid Lead”) began at mid-day on Saturday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — which normally works on the basis of confidentiality with states parties to the Geneva Conventions, and for whom the issuance of a public statement is a major criticism — said today that “We are concerned over the mounting number of civilians wounded or killed as a result of the hostilities”, according to Pierre Wettach, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Israel and the occupied territories. “Parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and fighters and between civilian objects and military objectives. Whether launching an attack or positioning military personnel and material, all those involved in the hostilities must take every possible precaution to minimize the potential harm to civilians and civilian objects. International Humanitarian Law also requires that medical staff and facilities be protected from attack and that the sick and wounded be evacuated and treated, no matter who they are”.

Wettach added that “We have raised these issues with the Israeli authorities and are continuing to do so. We have also drawn their attention to the importance of ensuring full respect for the principle of proportionality. In our contacts with Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip, we have repeatedly pointed out their responsibilities under international humanitarian law” — the ICRC is also concerned about the civilian deaths and injuries in Israel resulting from repeated rocket attacks launched from inside the Gaza Strip.

Amnesty International issued a statement today saying that “Israeli forces must bear in mind that there are no ‘safe’ places in Gaza for civilians to seek shelter. They know how densely populated the Jabalia Refugee Camp is and that the homes are mostly light structures with flimsy asbestos roofs and not able to withstand the effect of strikes”.

Amnesty also said that “risk to civilians is increased by artillery attacks on Gaza launched from Israeli gunboats off the coast. In the past, such artillery fire into densely populated areas has been
inaccurate, causing Israel to desist from such firing after attacks caused high numbers of civilian casualties”.

And the international human rights organization said that “Humanitarian workers, journalists and human rights monitors are urgently needed to assess needs, report violations and publicise the reality of the
situation on the ground.”

A panel of three judges on Israel’s Supreme Court today did not issue an expected ruling on the main plea by the Foreign Press Association (FPA) to lift the ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza to report on the situation there. Instead, the judges gave the Israeli Government until 10 a.m. on Thursday to answer if they would permit limited “pools” of journalists to enter to make reports on behalf of all other members of the FPA.

The FPA report to its members on the developments in court today says: “The Supreme Court has given the government until 10 a.m. tomorrow to allow limited access to the Gaza Strip for the international media. The Supreme Court is asking the government to allow in pools of up to 12 journalists each time the crossing (EREZ only) is open for humanitarian reasons. he Supreme Court ruling does not apply to any situation other than the current fighitng and our petition for free access under ordinary circumstances remains pending. Although we do not support the concept of pool coverage in Gaza, the Court left us no other choice, ruling that it could be pools or nothing. We have instructed the lawers to proceed in a manner that would avoid turning this pool arrangement into a precedent. Court Background from Board member Enderliln who was present in Court: ‘We are winning a principle. The judges reminded the State’s lawyer of a previous judgement the FPA won about the necessity of allowing a pool entering the “dangerous” area. At the time, the IDF gave in and opened up to all journalists. The State’s lawyers said they do not know this judgment… The judges told them they should have done their homework.”

On Thursday morning, however, wintry rainy weather is expected to clear up, and the cloud cover to lift — providing better conditions for the long-feared ground invasion.

There are reports just coming in from Palestinian sources who say they have encountered Israeli soldiers on the ground in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. But Israel television’s Channel Two reported tonight that a ground invasion will not happen before Friday morning — but this could be disinformation of the sort that preceeded the beginning of the Israeli attacks, by air, last Saturday.

Israeli Navy confronts and attacks Free Gaza boat headed to Gaza

UPDATED: The sixth Free Gaza expedition that set off last night on what it called a “mission of mercy” to Gaza from the port of Larnaca in Cyprus has been interdicted and attacked on the high seas this morning, the group says.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the ship was escorted back to Cypriot territorial waters, but it was later reported that the Israeli Navy only escorted the vessel out of Israeli waters — despite the Free Gaza denial that it had entered Israel’s maritime space in the first place.

It was not known during most of the day where the boat was, but at night it was reported to have entered the southern Lebanese port of Tyre. Damage to the front of the boat was visible from television shots.

“Let’s call it as it is. Our boat was rammed three times, twice in the front and once on the side,” according to Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Georgia, and the 2008 Green Party presidential candidate, who was on board the Free Gaza ship and intended to travel to Gaza to assess the ongoing conflict. She told the Associated Press (AP) that Israeli patrol boats “tracked us for about 30 minutes”.

And she told the Agence France Presse (AFP)that what had happened was “absolutely harrowing, but it pales in comparison to what the people in Gaza are experiencing right now.”

McKinney said that “All we want to do is deliver medical supplies… This is the first time that I am aware of that a vessel was attacked for no reason by Israelis.”

According to earlier information posted on the Free Gaza website, “The reports from the passengers and journalists on board is that she is taking on water and appears to have engine problems. When attacked, the Dignity was clearly in international waters, 90 miles off the coast of Gaza. The gunboats also fired their machine guns into the water in an attempt to stop the mercy ship from getting to Gaza. As the boat limps toward Lebanon, passengers have been in contact with the Lebanese government who have said the captain has permission to dock and are willing lend assistance if needed. Cyprus sea rescue has also been in touch, and has offered assistance as well … On board the boat are doctors traveling to this impoverished slice of the Mediterranean to provide badly-needed relief at the hospitals there. The crew and passengers were also hoping to take wounded out for treatment, since the hospitals are not coping. In addition, the Dignity was carrying 3 tons of medical supplies at the request of the doctors in Gaza … Israel thumbs its nose in the face of maritime law by attacking a human rights boat in international waters and has put all of these human rights observers at risk. At no time was the Dignity ever close to Israeli waters. They clearly identified themselves and the Israeli attack was willful and criminal”.

A source in Cyprus said that Tuesday morning that the Free Gaza ship was being escorted by Israeli Naval vessels — “and I do not think they will let the ship sink”, he added.

At the time of the interdiction, the Free Gaza ship, the SS Dignity, was reportedly somewhere offshore Haifa, the older and most northern of Israel’s two major port facilities, near Lebanon, according to other news broadcasts.

[Israel’s other major port is Ashdod, in the south of the country, not far from Gaza. One Israeli was killed on Monday in Ashdod, by a missile fired by Palestinians in Gaza, which is some 23 miles away. Ashdod was hit for the first time ever by a missile strike on Sunday.]

AFP later reported that Paul Larudee, one of the founders of the Free Gaza Movement, said the Dignity had been ‘surrounded’ in international waters about 70 kilometers (45 miles) off the Israeli coast.

The Free Gaza website said that “The Dignity has been surrounded by at least half-a-dozen Israeli warships. They are firing live ammunition around the Dignity, and one of the warships has rammed the civilian craft causing an unknown amount of damage. Contrary to international maritime law, the Israelis are actively preventing the Dignity from approaching Gaza or finding safe haven in either Egypt or Lebanon. Instead, the Israeli navy is demanding that the Dignity return to Cyprus – despite the fact that the ship does not carry enough fuel to do so”.

The ship is registered in Gibraltar, and was thus sailing under the British flag.

Intriguingly, Haaretz has just posted a report by correspondent Barak Ravid, stating that Britain is working with France on “forcing a cease-fire on Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip”. The report added that “A senior government source in Jerusalem said the initiative would be presented at a emergency session of the European Union’s foreign ministers in Paris. [n.b. — but it does not say when.] By going through the EU, a possible U.S. objection in the United Nations Security Council could be avoided — but this report says that U.S. Condoleezza Rice has been consulted, and has expressed support”.

In a report aired on CNN, according to the Free Gaza group, the Israeli Navy initially claimed “they thought it was a terrorist boat” — despite all the publicity that the Free Gaza organization gives to its activities, and despite its own advance communications to various Israeli governmental authorities about each expedition.

A Reuters story published on the Haaretz website that “[Yigal] Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said the boat failed to respond to Israeli naval radio contact, and that an Israeli vessel ‘clashed with the ship’. Free Gaza Movement told Reuters their boat, carrying 3.5 tons of medical aid with 16 people aboard, was rammed and shot at while in international waters about 70-80 miles off Gaza by Israeli naval vessel. Palmor denied there had been any shooting although the two ships made ‘physical contact’. He said no one had been hurt and that the Israeli ship escorted the aid boat back to Cypriot territorial waters”.

According to the AFP report, however, “the boat’s captain, Briton Denis Healey, 54, said on arriving in Tyre that the Israeli Navy had made ‘no contact’ with the Dignity. ‘Two Israeli gunboats were on our port side distracting us with their bright lights when another Israeli gunboat with its lights turned off rammed us from the front. I think they were distracting us from the port side … “The boat initially took in a lot of water,” added Healey … The Israeli spokesman accused the international activists of “seeking provocation more than ever.”

An article published earlier in the day on YNet, written by Roni Sofer, called what happened an “incident” and reported that “The foreign ship was notified that it was crossing into a closed military zone and ordered to retreat, but the captain did not stop and collided with the Israeli missile ship … Early Tuesday morning navy ships were called to stop a ship belonging to the International Solidarity Movement, which is recognized in Israel as a pro-Palestinian organization. The Israelis contacted the ship’s captain through the radio and ordered the ship to turn back. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the captain of the aid boat carrying several journalists attempted to evade one of the Israeli missile ships. The Israeli ship stopped, but a collision could not be avoided. Immediately after the incident the aid ship turned back. The Israeli naval ship offered to assist the passengers of the aid ship, who declined the offer. Israel then escorted the damaged ship until it exited the State’s territorial waters”.

The YNet report added that “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor said, ‘While it was just another one of the kind of ships that we have already seen, the situation in Gaza is different now. The area was declared a closed military zone. The fact that the ship was carrying journalists, including a CNN crew that has already broadcasted live three times, proves that this was a provocation on the part of the media. The ship’s passengers gave a different version of the story. Angela Goldfried of the Free Gaza Movement, who was in contact with passengers of the boat told Ynet, ‘Our ship was circled by 11 navy ships that fired at it and collided with it in international waters. We contacted the navy. They said the ship violated the Israeli border, but they cannot claim it’s the Israeli border when it’s not. According to Goldfried, the passengers on board the ship included Al-Jazeera and CNN journalists …” This article can be read in full on YNet here.

It was reported that the Cypriot authorities had been very reluctant to allow the Free Gaza boat — or any ship — to sail in the direction of Israel or Gaza while the IDF attacks on Gaza are continuing, but the expedition’s departure was eventually allowed.

Then, according to the Free Gaza movement: “At approximately 5am (UST – this should be about 8am in Jerusalem), well out in international waters, Israeli warships began surrounding the Dignity, threatening the ship. At 6:45am (UST) we were able to establish brief contact with the crew and were told that the ship had been rammed by the Israeli Navy in international waters, and that the Israelis were preventing the ship from finding safe harbor. We heard heavy gunfire in the background before all contact was lost with the Dignity”.

The Free Gaza group also reported that “The Dignity departed from Larnaca Port in Cyprus at 7pm (UST) on Monday 29 December, bound for war-devastated Gaza with a cargo of over 3 tons of desperately needed medical supplies donated by the people of Cyprus. At our request, the ship was searched by Cypriot Port authorities prior to departure, to certify that there was nothing “threatening” aboard – only emergency medical supplies.”

Also among the expedition’s 15 civilian passengers is Dr. Elena Theoharous, who is both is a surgeon and a Member of the Cypriot Parliament, and who was reportedly “traveling to Gaza to assess the ongoing conflict, assist with humanitarian relief efforts, and volunteer in hospitals”, according to information on the Free Gaza website website (

Three Al-Jazeera journalists are also on board the Dignity.

A group of Israeli-based foreign journalists also explored the possibility of sailing in their own chartered boat to get into Gaza to report on the situation there, particularly since Israel launched the present major attack on Saturday — especially as the IDF has kept the Erez Crossing closed to journalists for much of the past two months.

But, this group did not want to join the Free Gaza expedition, one of the journalists told me yesterday — as some of them were said to have had objections to joining the Free Gaza expedition, apparently for political and ideological reasons, and also apparently to preserve what they considered journalistic integrity.

[The Israel-based journalists exploring an alternative option were trying to get in to report on the situation inside Gaza, and were apparently not primarily interested in the Free Gaza experience. It would not, or should not, however, be considered either illegitimate or unprofessional for Al-Jazeera journalists on board to report on what is happening during the expedition, which is a part of this overall news story.]

The Foreign Press Association in Israel is reporting this morning in an email message to its membership that “The Erez Crossing remains closed to journalists today. Members are reminded of the FPA petition to the High Court which will be heard at 9.30 a.m. tomorrow (Wednesday)”. The FPA is asking Israel’s Supreme Court to order that foreign journalists be allowed to enter Gaza immediately in order to perform their journalistic functions and duties, and carry out their work.

In an open letter published on December 29th, the FPA wrote that “In an unprecedented restriction of press freedom The Gaza Strip has been closed to the foreign press. As a result the world´s media is unable to accurately report on events inside Gaza at this critical time. Despite our protests the Israelis authorities have refused to let journalists in. Our organization has over 400 members representing the world´s leading newspapers, tv and radio stations. It has been defending the interests of press freedom in Israel and the Palestinian Territories for over 50 years. Never before have journalists been prevented from doing their work in this way. We believe it is vital that journalists be allowed to find out for themselves what is going on in Gaza. Israel controls access to Gaza. Israel must allow professional journalists access to this important story”.

Israeli journalist Amira Hass, a long-time correspondent of Haaretz who lived in Gaza for three years, before moving to Ramallah in 1997, was a passenger on board the third Free Gaza expedition from Cyprus — becoming the first Israeli journalist who was able to enter the Gaza Strip in over two years. She said she had intended to remain in Gaza until the end of January, but was deported from Gaza by order of Hamas security, on the grounds that there were security threats to her life. She was escorted to the Erez land border crossing with Israel, where she was promptly arrested and jailed for violating the Israeli ban on Israelis entering Gaza, and she still faces a court hearing on the charge against her.

The IDF spokesperson reported Tuesday morning that “Israeli air and naval forces attacked dozens of Hamas targets throughout the Gaza Strip during the early morning hours on Tuesday. The targets included three buildings in the Hamas government complex in the Tel Al-Hawa neighborhood, Hamas training camps and outposts, stations held by the Islamist group’s naval force, a vehicle transporting a stockpile of Grad missiles, rocket launchers, a weaponry manufacturing facility and sites used as headquarters by terror cells”.

With naval attacks now added to the air attacks by Israel on Gaza, it is hard to see how the sixth Free Gaza expedition could have made it into Gaza port, in any case. The port, small and undeveloped as it is, used mainly by Gazan fisherman, was hit from the air during the first Israeli strikes on Saturday.

Day three: Israel presses attacks on Gaza

The death toll in Gaza rose to at least 307 persons on Monday morning, as Israeli presssed its air attacks on Gaza, and mobilized reserve troops and tank units.

UPDATE: Casualties rose in Gaza throughout the day Monday, and stood at 370 dead by nightfall, as severely wounded people succombed to their injuries, and as Israeli attacks continued. At least 1400 Gazans have been wounded.

A second Israeli death from Palestinian reprisal rocket attacks from Gaza was also reported Monday morning, when “projectiles” landed near a cultural center in downtown Ashkelon, a coastal city of some 120,000 people. It is the first death from Palestinian attack in Ashkelon, and it is apparently considered somewhat significant in Israel that the person killed by Palestinian fire in Ashkelon today was an Israeli Arab [i.e., therefore, in this context, Palestinian] construction worker. Later, Haaretz reported that the victim was a Bedouin.

UPDATE: Two more Israelis were killed by Palestinian shelling on Monday night — A woman was killed Monday evening in a Grad (or Katyusha) missile attack on Ashdod, a major coastal city with an important port installation north of Ashkelon. And someone was killed by a Qassem rocket attack on Nahal Oz — presumably the Kibbutz which is right next to the major fuel transfer point into Gaza.

A short while later, Kassam rockets landed in the smaller, and more interior, town of Sderot, with preliminary reports of injuries.

The IDF has now reportedly declared Israel’s “Gaza borderline communities”, around the perimeter of the Gaza Strip, a closed military zone. On Monday evening, rockets and missiles rained down on Israeli areas north and northeast of the Gaza strip.

The Associated Press reported that “Israel’s air force obliterated symbols of Hamas power on the third day of its overwhelming assault on Gaza on Monday … Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak told Israel’s parliament in a special session that Israel was not fighting the residents of Gaza ‘but we have a war to the bitter end against Hamas and its branches’. This AP report can be viewed in full here.

Israel’s Foreign Minister and Vice Prime Minister Tzipi Livni told the Knesset that “Since this past Saturday morning, Israel has been fighting the terrorist rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in order to change the security situation in Israel”.

Reuters reported from London that “Oil prices rose above $40 a barrel on Monday, boosted by the weak dollar and violence between Israel and Hamas that served as a reminder of tensions that could threaten crude supplies from the Middle East”.

Israel has offered (without much explanation) to permit some of the people wounded in its IDF attacks to enter Israel for medical care in Israeli hospitals. It is not clear if any of the wounded have yet accepted this offer — but there are unconfirmed reports that a few small children, apparently unaccompanied and without even a change of clothing, have arrived from Gaza — or are about to arrive — at East Jerusalem’s Palestinian hospitals for urgent treatment. Others may be transferred to the West Bank.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas issued his strongest condemnation yet of the operation, according to the AP, calling it a “sweeping Israeli aggression against Gaza”. AP also reported what appears to be a major turnaround: Abbas also said he would consult with Hamas in an effort to end the attacks. Until now, Abbas has refused to talk to Hamas, following the ouster of Fatah security forces in Gaza in mid-June 2007 , and has insisted that Hamas must reverse the situation and restore the status quo ante, first. However, it might not be so significant: Ma’an News Agency reported merely that Abbas, at a meeting of the PLO executive committee, “urged all factions, including Hamas, to take part in consultations about Gaza”. On Sunday, Abbas reportedly said that Hamas could have prevented Israel’s assault had it only agreed to extend the cease-fire, and he urged it to do so now.

Earlier Monday, the IDF announced it is allowing the shipment of some 80 truckloads of humanitarian supplies [n.b. these are not donations from Israel] into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing where the borders of Israel, Gaza, and the Egyptian Sinai intersect.

The Erez crossing into Gaza remains closed, the Foreign Press Association advised its membership. The press group reported that its request, submitted on Sunday to Israel’s Supreme Court, for an interim order allowing immediate access to Gaza for foreign journalists “was refused on grounds of being granted the hearing on Wednesday morning, now set for 9.30 am”.

The IDF sent out a message on Monday morning, saying that “The Israeli Air Force attacked a number of Hamas targets during the night, including Hamas outposts, weapon manufacturing facilities and a center for weapon research and development. The center, located in the Rimel neighborhood of Gaza City, was targeted in a combined IDF and the ISA operation, [as] the IAF struck buildings that were used as meeting places for senior leaders of Hamas. One of the structures struck housed explosives laboratories that were an inseparable part of Hamas’ research and development program, as well as places that served as storage facilities for the organization. The development of these weapons took place under the auspices of senior lecturers who are activists in Hamas. Among the weapons that have been developed and manufactured at this site are Qassam rockets. Hamas has been working tirelessly to extend the range of the rockets, as has been shown during the past few days”.

This IDF announcement adds, tellingly, that “In February 2007 the Fatah Presidential Guard raided the facility and uncovered many weapons including approximately 100 Qassam rockets, 250 RPG launchers, hundreds of assault rifles, lathes, and materials used for rocket manufacturing”.

The Associated Press reported this morning that “Hamas leaders were forced into hiding, most of the dead were from the Hamas security forces, and Israel’s military intelligence chief said Hamas’ ability to fire rockets had been reduced by 50 percent. Indeed, Hamas rockets fire dropped off sharply, from more than 130 on Saturday to just over 20 on Sunday. Still, Hamas continues to command some 20,000 fighters. Israel’s intense bombings — some 300 air strikes since midday Saturday — wreaked unprecedented destruction in Gaza, reducing entire buildings to rubble. After nightfall, Israeli aircraft attacked a building in the Jebaliya refugee camp next to Gaza City, killing a 14-month-old baby, a man and two women, Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said. In the southern town of Rafah, Palestinian residents said a toddler and his two teenage brothers were killed in an airstrike aimed at a Hamas commander. Israeli aircraft also bombed the Islamic University and government compound in Gaza City, centers of Hamas power, and the house next to the residence of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a Gaza City refugee camp. Haniyeh, in hiding, was not home … Gaza’s nine hospitals were overwhelmed”.

This AP report added that “The [U.S.] White House was mum about the situation in Gaza on Sunday after speaking out expansively on Saturday, blaming Hamas for provoking Israel’s retaliatory strikes”.

Dore Gold, a former Israeli Ambassador to the UN (1997-99), is now President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has just written an article attempting to refute criticism of the Israeli attacks on Gaza as being “disproportionate” — a violation of international law. Gold writes that “Israel is currently benefiting from a limited degree of understanding in international diplomatic and media circles for launching a major military operation against Hamas on December 27. Yet there are significant international voices that are prepared to argue that Israel is using disproportionate force in its struggle against Hamas … The charge that Israel uses disproportionate force keeps resurfacing whenever it has to defend its citizens from non-state terrorist organizations and the rocket attacks they perpetuate. From a purely legal perspective, Israel ‘s current military actions in Gaza are on solid ground. According to international law, Israel is not required to calibrate its use of force precisely according to the size and range of the weaponry used against it. (Israel is not expected to make Kassam rockets and lob them back into Gaza.) When international legal experts use the term ‘disproportionate use of force’, they have a very precise meaning in mind. As the President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague , Rosalyn Higgins, has noted, proportionality ‘cannot be in relation to any specific prior injury – it has to be in relation to the overall legitimate objective of ending the aggression’. (Her arguments were cited in ‘Responding to Hamas Attacks from Gaza – Issues of Proportionality Background Paper’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 2008.)

Gold’s argument continues: “In other words, if a state, like Israel , is facing aggression, then proportionality addresses whether force was specifically used by Israel to bring an end to the armed attack against it. By implication, force becomes excessive if it is employed for another purpose, like causing unnecessary harm to civilians. The pivotal factor determining whether force is excessive is the intent of the military commander. In particular, one has to assess what was the commander’s intent regarding collateral civilian damage … What was critical from the standpoint of international law was that if the attempt had been made ‘to minimize civilian damage, then even a strike that causes large amounts of damage – but is directed at a target with very large military value – would be lawful’. Numbers matter less than the purpose of the use of force. Israel has argued that it is specifically targeting facilities serving the Hamas regime and its determined effort to continue its rocket assault on Israel : headquarters, training bases, weapons depots, command and control networks, and weapons-smuggling tunnels. This way Israel is respecting the international legal concept of proportionality. Alternatively, disproportionality would occur if the military sought to attack even if the value of a target selected was minimal in comparison with the enormous risk of civilian collateral damage. This point was made by Luis Moreno-Orampo, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, on February 9, 2006, in analyzing the Iraq War. He explained that international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court ‘permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks [emphasis added] against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur’. The attack becomes a war crime when it is directed against civilians (which is precisely what Hamas does) or when ‘the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage’. In fact, Israeli legal experts right up the chain of command within the IDF make this calculation before all military operations of this sort.

Gold also wrote: “Moving beyond the question of international law, the charge that Israel is using a disproportionate amount of force in the Gaza Strip because of reports of Palestinian casualties has to be looked at critically. Israelis have often said among themselves over the last seven years that when a Hamas rocket makes a direct strike on a crowded school, killing many children, then Israel will finally act. This scenario raises the question of whether the doctrine of proportionality requires that Israel wait for this horror to occur, or whether Israel could act on the basis of the destructive capability of the arsenal Hamas already possesses, the hostile declarations of intent of its leaders, and its readiness to use its rocket forces already”.

Meanwhile, Israeli-American activist Jeff Halper, director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICADH), has also written on the massive and unprecedented Israeli attacks on Gaza that started Saturday — and on Israeli justification for those attacks — saying that “[T]he occupation, in which Israel controls Gaza under a violent siege that violates fundamental human rights and international law, is not even mentioned in Israel’s PR campaign. Speaking to the international community, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insists that no country would tolerate its citizens being attacked, a seemingly reasonable statement were it not for Israeli sanctions on Gaza, supported by the US and Europe–sanctions that preceded the rocket fire on Israel–or the fact of the Israeli occupation, in general. Solely focusing on the rocket attacks conceals the political policy that led to them: ‘The Hamas government in Gaza must be toppled’, Livni has said repeatedly. ‘The means to do this must be military, economic and diplomatic’. The responsibility for the suffering both in Israel and Gaza rests squarely with successive Israeli governments; Labor, Likud and Kadima alike. Had there been a genuine political process (remember, the closure of Gaza began in 1989), Israelis and Palestinians could have been living together in peace and prosperity for 20 years. After all, already in 1988 the PLO accepted the two-state solution, in which a Palestinian state would arise on only 22 percent of historic Palestine, alongside the state of Israel on the other 78 percent. A truly generous offer. In Israel, however, the effort is to hide its preference for control over peace. Framing its attacks as a response to rockets from Gaza, exploiting an immediate trigger to effectively conceal deeper political intentions and policies, does that. It also conceals Israeli violations of the ceasefire. The fact that the rocket attacks could have been avoided altogether through a genuine political process means that the people of southern Israel are being held hostage by their government, as well. Their suffering, and the suffering of the people of Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories, must be placed squarely at the feet of the Israeli government”.

Halper also wrote: “We call on the Israeli government to end its aggression immediately and enter into genuine political negotiations with a united Palestinian leadership. We call on the international community to end its sanctions on Gaza immediately in accordance with international law, initiate an effective political process to end the Israeli occupation and bring about a just peace, which reflects the will of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples”.

Tom Segev — one of Israel’s most respected historians — wrote in Haaretz that “Israel is striking at the Palestinians to ‘teach them a lesson’. That is a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom – via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover does with his donkey. The bombing of Gaza is also supposed to ‘liquidate the Hamas regime’, in line with another assumption that has accompanied the Zionist movement since its inception: that it is possible to impose a ‘moderate’ leadership on the Palestinians, one that will abandon their national aspirations. As a corollary, Israel has also always believed that causing suffering to Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over. All of Israel’s wars have been based on yet another assumption that has been with us from the start: that we are only defending ourselves. ‘Half a million Israelis are under fire’, screamed the banner headline of Sunday’s Yedioth Ahronoth – just as if the Gaza Strip had not been subjected to a lengthy siege that destroyed an entire generation’s chances of living lives worth living. It is admittedly impossible to live with daily missile fire, even if virtually no place in the world today enjoys a situation of zero terror. But Hamas is not a terrorist organization holding Gaza residents hostage: It is a religious nationalist movement, and a majority of Gaza residents believe in its path. One can certainly attack it, and with Knesset elections in the offing, this attack might even produce some kind of cease-fire. But there is another historical truth worth recalling in this context: Since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the Land of Israel, no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians”. Tom Segev’s article can be read in full in Haaretz here .

To prove the point, Haaretz reported in another story that the Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia said to journalists at a press conference in Abu Dis that “There are no negotiations and there is no way there could be negotiations [with Israel] while there are attacks against us”.

Amira Hass reported in Haaretz that “At noon Sunday, the Israel Air Force bombed a compound belonging to Gaza’s National Security Service. It houses Gaza City’s main prison. Three prisoners were killed. Two were apparently Fatah members; the third was convicted of collaborating with Israel. Hamas had evacuated most of the Gaza Strip’s other prisons, but thought this jail would be safe. At 12 A.M. on Sunday, a phone call roused S. ‘I wasn’t sleeping anyway’, he said. ‘I picked up the receiver and heard a recorded announcement in Arabic: “This is to warn you that we will bomb the house of anyone who has arms or ammunition at home” ‘… S. saw the results of some of Saturday’s bombings when he visited a friend whose office is located near Gaza City’s police headquarters. One person killed in that attack was Hassan Abu Shnab, the eldest son of former senior Hamas official Ismail Abu Shnab. The elder Abu Shnab, whom Israel assassinated five years ago, was one of the first Hamas politicians to speak in favor of a two-state solution. Hassan worked as a clerk at the local university and played in the police band for fun. He was performing at a police graduation ceremony on Saturday when the bomb struck. ‘”Seventy policemen were killed there, not all Hamas members’, said S., who opposes Hamas. ‘And even those who supported Hamas were young men looking for a job, a salary. They wanted to live. And therefore, they died. Seventy in one blow. This assault is not against Hamas. It’s against all of us, the entire nation. And no Palestinian will consent to having his people and his homeland destroyed in this way’.” Amira Hass’ article can be read in full here .

Nir Rosen wrote in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian newspaper in London that “The democratically elected Hamas government was targeted for destruction from the day it won the elections in 2006. The world told the Palestinians that they cannot have democracy, as if the goal was to radicalise them further and as if that would not have a consequence. Israel claims it is targeting Hamas’s military forces. This is not true. It is targeting Palestinian police forces and killing them, including some such as the chief of police, Tawfiq Jaber, who was actually a former Fatah official who stayed on in his post after Hamas took control of Gaza. What will happen to a society with no security forces?” Nir Rosen’s article can be read in full here .

There was a colorful and vigorous standoff between two groups of students at rival demonstrations just outside the main gate to Jerusalem’s Hebrew University Mount Scopus Campus at mid-day on Monday. On the sidewalk next to the university was the pro-Israel-attack group of demonstrators, waving white and blue Israeli flags in the bright sunshine. They were shouting, chanting, beating drums and blowing whistles, trying to drown out the equally vigorous and noisy pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the opposite sidewalk, who waved a few green, red, black and white Palestinian flags. Most of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators were Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, but they were joined by some blond Israelis as well. They were shouting and chanting in both Arabic and Hebrew. Some of the pro-Palestinian group carried posters with hastily-attached color photos of scenes of the dead and wounded in Gaza, and one carried a poster with the words “Who wants another holocaust” scrawled in English in black marker, while other signs were written in Hebrew. Despite the animation and the energy being expended, there was no hostility. The two groups were separated by police and border police and special forces personnel, standing in the road, looking relaxed and somewhat bemused — despite the tensions in other areas of Jerusalem.

Students protest in Jerusalem  Photo: Ronen Medzizni - on YNet

Day Two: Israeli attacks on Gaza continue

Targets in Gaza — including a mosque and Al-Aqsa television studios — were bombarded overnight and early on Sunday morning in Gaza. The number of casualties reported so far has not yet reached the double digits — far fewer than Saturday’s total, which was raised to 270 overnight.

The figures were revised during the day Sunday, upward to at least 285 dead and at least 900 wounded.

At the same time, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered a limited opening of Kerem Shalom crossing for the delivery of humanitarian supplies [n.b. though these are not a donation from Israel, however, but paid either by the Palestinians or by international donors] to the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely-populated areas on earth.

But the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Isael informed its members early Sunday morning that Erez crossing into Gaza is “Closed to journalists today”.

The press group informed its members that its lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court on Sunday morning for an interim injunction to open Erez to the foreign press immediately. And in a statement, the FPA demanded “immediate access for journalists to the Gaza Strip from the Israeli authorities in light of the current situation, which is of great interest to news consumers worldwide”. The statement said that “Because of the ongoing ban on journalists entering Gaza even during this period, the FPA has asked the Israeli Supreme Court to intervene”.

And, rockets fired from Gaza have reportedly reached as far north as the coastal city of Ashdod, one of Israel’s two major ports (the other is Haifa in the north), for the first time. The coastal city of Ashkelon, with major petroleum and electricity installations, was also hit. The IDF is reportedly calling up reserve tanks and troops in the south of the country to prepare for a ground invasion.

The United Nations Security Council met for emergency closed-door talks on Saturday night in New York, and members called, in a statement issued to the press, for an immediate halt to all violence and an immediate stop to all military activities. The Security Council also called for all parties to address the serious humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza and to take necessary measures, including opening of border crossings, to ensure the continuous provision of humanitarian supplies, including supplies of food, fuel and provision of medical treatment.

In a separate statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called on Israel to lift the air, sea and ground blockade imposed on the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. She also called for “independent outside monitoring” of the situation in Gaza — including by the UN Special Rapportuer on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied by Israel since 1967, Richard Falk.

Falk, a Professor Emeritus of International Law, was recently denied entry into Israel and, after a very unpleasant night, then unceremoniously deported from Ben Gurion International Airport, because of what the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said were Israel’s objections to his mandate (voted by the members of the UN Human Rights Council), as well as their objections to his past statements and positions.

Falk issued his own statement on the on-going Israeli attacks on Gaza, saying that “The Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip represent severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions, both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war”. Falk said that these severe violations include: collective punishment, the targetting of civilians, and a disproportionate military response. He also said that the unlawful rocket attacks from Gaza on civilian targets in Israel, illegal as they are, “does not give rise to any Israeli right, neither as the Occupying Power nor as a sovereign state, to violate international humanitarian law and commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in its response”.

Falk denounced Israel’s earlier “complete sealing off of entry and exit to and from the Gaza Strip”. And he added that “The Israeli airstrikes today [Saturday], and the catastrophic human toll that they caused, challenge those countries that have been and remain complicit, either directly or indirectly, in Israel’s violations of international law”. Falk said that countries who knowingly provided the military equipment including warplanes and missiles used in these illegal attacks, and/or who supported and participated in the siege of Gaza that itself has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, are indeed complicit.

He called on the UN system, and all UN member states, to develop new approaches on an emergency basis that would provide real protection to the Palestinian people — because, he said, the UN continues to be bound to an independent obligation to protect any civilian population facing massive violations of international humanitarian law – regardless of what country may be responsible for those violations.

The current President of the UN General Assembly — which could be called upon to consider the situation if the Security Council fails to act or is unable to do so — Miguel d’Escoto Brockman of Nicaragua, said in a separate statement that “the behavior by Israel in bombarding Gaza is simply the commission of wanton aggression by a very powerful State against a territory that [it] illegally occupies … [T]he time has come to take firm action if the UN does not want to be rightly accused of complicity by omission.”

Other international organizations also spoke out. The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that Gaza’s hospitals are overwhelmed and unable to cope with the scale and type of injuries that continue to come in. The ICRC said the first priority is to get more medical supplies to Gaza’s hospitals, right away — as stocks of supplies and medicines were already severely depleted due to the difficulty in bringing medical items into the Strip as the Israeli-military-administered blockade tightened over the past year. The ICRC also reminded the parties to the hostilities of their obligation to comply with international humanitarian law at all times, and added that “international humanitarian law requires that a clear distinction be drawn between the civilian population and civilian objects on the one side, and military objectives on the other side”. And it said that the parties are obligated to take all feasible precautions in order to spare the civilian population from the effects of hostilities., and to protect medical facilities and personnel.

Amnesty International said that “Such disproportionate use of force by Israel is unlawful and risks igniting further violence in the whole region, and that “Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, for their part, share responsibility for the escalation. Their continuous rocket attacks on towns and villages in southern Israel are unlawful and can never be justified”.

Amnesty International also said that “The international community must intervene without delay to ensure that civilians caught up in the violence are protected and that the blockade on Gaza is lifted.” And it added that Gaza residents experienced little or no improvement to their lives during the recent five-and-a-half-month ceasefire between Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, because of the Israeli blockade.

Back in Jerusalem, officials of Israel’s Foreign Ministry met Sunday, according to a statement they issued, “with representatives from UNSCO, UNRWA, the Red Cross and WHO for the purpose of estimating the humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip and ensuring the entry of the required aid, especially food and medical equipment. The Ministry officials assured the representatives of the international organizations that every effort would be made to transfer the necessary humanitarian aid.
In response to a request made by the international organizations, the Kerem Shalom Crossing was opened for the delivery of truckloads of food and medical equipment. The aid was donated by UNRWA, WHO and the Red Cross”.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday that “Yesterday, the State of Israel began military operations in the area of the Gaza Strip in order to restore normal life and quiet to residents of the south who – for many years – have suffered from unceasing rocket and mortar fire and terrorism designed to disrupt their lives and prevent them from enjoying a normal, relaxed and quiet life, as the citizen of any country is entitled to”.

And Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel briefed the press after the weekly ministerial meeting. Among other things, the Cabinet Secretary said: “IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Ashkenazi referred to the situation in the south. Most of the Palestinians’ 230-250 casualties are uniformed, armed Hamas personnel. [n.b., photos show that many were not armed at the time they were killed.] The IDF knew in advance that the next step will be an attempt by Hamas to respond by firing at Israeli communities and, therefore, launch sites were attacked in the second wave. The IDF will continue with the operation, as it was approved by the political leadership, while deploying for as long as may be necessary, and with all necessary means, and will operate, in the coming days, to call up additional reservists. ISA (Internal Security Agency) Director Yuval Diskin reiterated that the mood among a not unsubstantial part of the Palestinian population understands that the operation is against Hamas, which has inflicted great suffering on the residents of Gaza. Shock among the Hamas leadership is high. However, it views the assault as a first blow and is looking to carry out actions that will change the picture. There is no intention to harm the population or make life in the Gaza Strip difficult and, therefore, humanitarian aid will be given, and even expanded, according to directives from the political leadership. ISA Director Diskin reiterated the need for patience and determination. Hamas is yet to respond and may even try to surprise us. Israel Police Inspector-General Cohen said that the Israel Police is concentrating on three foci: the home front, disturbances to law and order, and the prevention of terrorism. Deployment is nationwide, alert levels are high and steps are being taken to maintain public order.”

Despite all this, Herb Keinon wrote in the Jerusalem Post today that “Israel is feeling ‘no real pressure’ from the world to end the operation in the Gaza Strip, and the amount of time the international community will sit relatively quietly on the sidelines depends on how things develop, senior diplomatic officials said Sunday … The seeming contradiction between the officials’ comments about unprecedented international support, an assessment widely echoed throughout the diplomatic and security echelon on Sunday, and the harsh statements beginning to issue from capitals around the world was chalked up to a difference between what is being said in public and in private … Israeli officials maintain that there is ‘greater understating than you can imagine’ for Israel’s actions …
Israeli officials pointed to the tepid statement that emerged from the UN Security Council as proof that serious pressure on Israel to end the operation had not yet begun … One senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem said this was an extremely low-key statement, both in the manner in which it was delivered – as a press statement and not a resolution – and in the language. This report can be read in full

The JPost story added that the first, if not only, “concrete diplomatic casualty of the operation may be the indirect, Turkish-mediated talks with Syria. According to the Syrian press, Syria notified Turkey it was ceasing all indirect talks with Israel as a result of the operation … [But] Neither officials in the Prime Minister’s Office nor Turkish diplomatic officials contacted by The Jerusalem Post could confirm the message.

An Israeli Air Force attack on some 40 tunnels along the Egyptian-Gazan border near Rafah on Sunday caused breaches in the wall that Egypt had constructed to pen the Palestinians in after their ten-day shopping spree and family visiting last January. Hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians again surged into the Egyptian Sinai. Ma’an News Agency reported that “The tunnels, about a quarter of which are now destroyed, are the only means by which Gazans have to obtain food, fuel and other necessities. Israel has closed the Strip’s crossings for all but a week and a half since its 4 November invasion of the area…”

An astonishing — but not surprising — story by Khaled Abu Toameh in the Jerusalem Post on Sunday reports that “Palestinian Authority [PA] officials in Ramallah said Saturday that they were prepared to assume control over the Gaza Strip if Israel succeeds in overthrowing the Hamas government. ‘Yes, we are fully prepared to return to the Gaza Strip’, a top PA official told The Jerusalem Post. ‘We believe the people there are fed up with Hamas and want to see a new government’. Another PA official said Fatah had instructed all its members in the Gaza Strip to be prepared for the possibility of returning to power. ‘We have enough men in the Gaza Strip who are ready to fill the vacuum’, he said. ‘But of course all this depends on whether Israel manages to get rid of the Hamas regime’. The two officials voiced hope that the current IDF operation would end Hamas rule in Gaza. They said that the PA was also prepared to dispatch security forces from the West Bank to replace the Hamas militiamen”. This JPost report can be read in full

UPDATE: Al-Jazeera International reported on Monday that Fatah and PA officials say they will not talk to Israel as long as this offensive is going on.

Protests against the IDF attacks continued on Sunday in the occupied West Bank (where the major Qalandia checkpoint — or as Israel’s Defense Ministry prefers to call it “border crossing” — was the scene of rock-throwing, to which the Border Police and soldiers at Qalandia responded with tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets), and in Israeli-Arab towns in the north and center of the country (including Lod, near Ben Gurion International Airport), as well as in East Jerusalem.

If the devastating Israeli attacks on Gaza result in the restoration of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority to power, and the ouster of Hamas, in Gaza, then these protests would not be directed only at Israel. And they could well grow.

What words?

Rockets and Mortars fired from Gaza from June-Dec 2008 - The Israel Project

The question has to be asked: in this graphic, sent out by email tonight from The Israel Project as part of a message entitled “Israel Defends Citizens from Hamas”, the number of “projectiles” fired from Gaza in December (through 18 December) was 120, fewer than the number in November (150), and far fewer than the number fired last June (260 on this chart), when the cease-fire (tahdiya) between Israel and Hamas began, so why now?

Even if you add the additional “projectiles” fired in the week since the cease-fire (and the graphic) ended (and it’s hard to keep score), you probably still wouldn’t come up to the June total.

[UPDATE: Perhaps I stand corrected. The Associated Press is now reporting (on Sunday morning in Jerusalem) that “The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired some 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week … ” This report can be viewed here.]

It is, of course, clearly intolerable for anyone to live under attack, with the threat of constant fear of bombing and shelling.

In any case, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas out of the country (out of Ramallah and of the West Bank), his appointed Prime Minister is taking the reins. Ramattan News Agency came off its strike to report that “Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian government in Ramallah, condemned the Israeli military attacks on the Gaza Strip and asked Israel to stop immediately. Fayyad stated that his government is in an urgent meeting to follow-up on the developments in the Strip during the Israeli strikes, while emphasizing that it is exerting all effort to make sure that attacks come to an end. Fayyad pointed out that the government is carrying a number of procedures and important steps regarding the incidents in Gaza, stating that a state of emergency has been called in the Ministry of Health and all health institutions in the Strip, instructing all doctors, including the retirees, to go to the hospitals and clinics to assist in aiding the victims”.

This would mean that Fayyad has ordered the Fatah loyalists who have been on strike against the Ministry of Health in Gaza to go back to work — even with Hamas — to deal with the emergency situation. (Ramattan News Agency’s website has itself been on strike, mainly against harassment by the PA in Ramallah, and it went back to work today because of the attacks).

Ma’an News Agency reported on Saturday night that “Not a single Gazan turned up at Rafah crossing Saturday despite an Egyptian promise to open the crossing and accept wounded Palestinians for treatment in Egyptian Hospitals. Between three and six hundred Palestinians were injured in Israeli airstrikes throughout the day, and Palestinian hospitals have almost entirely run out of medical supplies. The dead were carried home in cardboard boxes because Gaza City hospitals ran out of sheets. Palestinian medical sources said mild to moderate cases were turned away for lack of doctors and supplies, and reported bodies in hallways after morgues filled up. Despite Egypt’s offer to accept wounded Gazans medical sources said the condition of most of the injured was too fragile to make the trip to Rafah. Only if Egypt sent helicopters would the majority of serious cases be able to accept the offer, said Head of Emergency and Ambulance Services in the Ministry of Health Muawiya Hassanain.
Hassanain appealed to Arab states to send medical supplies so cases could be treated without being moved”. This report is posted here .

Elsewhere on its website, Ma’an said that “Medical sources say most victims are arriving to Gaza City hospitals in ‘pieces’,” and that “Hospital corridors are filled with bodies and gurneys, and local morgues have run out of space”.

And, in a report on the scene in Gaza City’s main hospital — which, like all the hospitals and clinics in Gaza, is running out or has run out of many needed materials — Ma’an says that “Death shrouds the hallways of Gaza City’s Ash-Shifa medical compound Saturday, its smell creeping in from all corners. Amputated bodies are strewn throughout hallways because morgues in the city can no longer accommodate the dead. In one corner a man stands with his seven year old son in a cardboard box because the hospital ran out of sheets to cover the dead with. This is how he will carry him home and bury him. Another man stands dazed, in shock after watching his son Mohammed killed during his graduation ceremony at the de facto police headquarters. The father of one of Mohammed’s classmates stood next to his son as he was decapitated. The man is still screaming. In the packed hospital waiting room a mother sits silently staring into the distance; her son was pronounced dead shortly after she brought him in … Twelve year old Ayman is screaming at his father who tries to prevent him from seeing the bodies of his uncle and brother, torn to pieces under sheets. ‘I’m not afraid to see them’, he screamed. In a rage as his father holds tight, Ayman catches the hand of a resistance fighter; ‘shell and kill them as they did to us’, he says…” This report can be read in full here.

In Israel’s perimeter communities just on the other side of the Gaza border, the Associated Press (AP) reported that “Streets were nearly empty in Sderot, the Israeli border town pummeled hardest by rockets. But dozens of people congregated on a hilltop to watch the Israeli aerial attacks”. How did they feel? Probably not too differently from the next door-neighbor of the man killed in nearby Netivot on Sunday, in retaliatory Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, who told the AP that “We need to finish this once and for all and strike back hard”. This AP story can be read in its entirety here.

Samuel Sockol and two special corespondents in Gaza (Islam Abedel Kareem and Reyham Abdel Kareem)reported in the Washington Post today that after the earlier IDF air attacks on Gaza, “Many people were reported still trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings”. Their story in the Washington Post added that “The attack was condemned by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank. Yasser Abed Rabbo, general secretary of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who is close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas … said prisoners from Fatah and other Palestinian factions opposing Hamas, who were held in the Hamas installations, were also killed as result of the strikes … One of the installations hit was the Arafat Academy of Police, where about 200 trainees were taking a course, witnesses said … Other installations struck included the Coast Guard, and buildings of the security service holding opponents of Hamas … Israel refused to allow journalists into Gaza. Gil Kari, spokesman for the Israeli military office in charge of liaison with Gaza, said the crossing to Gaza was closed today because of the Sabbath. ‘Today it was closed just like any Saturday, when we keep the crossing closed’.” This WPost article can be read in full

More details emerge on Gaza attacks from Israeli sources

Haaretz’s lead article this evening, written by Amos Harel and Barak Ravid, with news agency material incorporated, reports that “The first wave of air strikes was launched by 60 warplanes which hit a total of 50 targets in one fell swoop. The IAF deployed approximately 100 bombs, with an estimated 95 percent of the ordnance reaching its intended target … Immediately following the first wave, some 20 IAF aircraft struck 50 Palestinian rocket launchers in an effort to minimize Hamas’ retaliatory strikes … Senior military officials characterize the strikes as part of a ‘rolling operation’ and have thus begun a sporadic enlistment of the reserves, particularly in smaller units. Top IDF brass anticipate difficult days ahead, warning that the operation will extend beyond the next couple of days”. This full story can be viewed here.

This might be a possible error — or maybe Haaretz was wrong in the report above to say that only 100 bombs were used rather than 100 tons of bombs — but the Associated Press is adding that “Israeli military officials said more than 100 tons of bombs were dropped on Gaza by mid-afternoon. They spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines”. This full story is posted here.

In another Haaretz article published this evening, Amos Harel wrote that “This was a massive attack much along the lines of what the Americans termed “shock and awe” during their invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Simultaneous, heavy bombardment of a number of targets on which Israel spent months gathering intelligence. The military ‘target bank’ includes dozens of additional targets linked to Hamas, some of which will certainly come under attack in the coming days. Like the U.S. assault on Iraq and the Israeli response to the abduction of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser at the outset of the Second Lebanon War (the ‘night of the Fajr missiles’, a reference to the IAF destruction of Hezbollah’s arsenal of medium-range Fajr missiles), little to no weight was apparently devoted to the question of harming innocent civilians. From Israel’s standpoint, Hamas, which persistently fires rockets while using the civilian population as cover, had plenty of opportunities to save face and lower their demands. In stubbornly continuing to launch rockets during the course of recent weeks, it brought this assault on itself … A final decision on the precise timing of the operation was made on Saturday morning during consultations between the prime minister, the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff, and army generals. [n.b., strangely, Harel omits any mention of Tzipi Livni’s participation in these consultations, though as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister she was reportedly involved. Is this just an oversight?] The cabinet approved the assault in its last meeting on Wednesday. Since that day, the government has waited for the opportunity to strike. Apparently, an intelligence tip indicating that members of the Hamas military wing were convening for a meeting expedited the decision-making process on giving the go-ahead to act. A ccording to initial reports from Gaza, a number of senior Hamas officials were hit, yet the scope of the harm done to the group’s leadership has yet to be precisely determined. The Israeli objective is clear: deal as serious a blow as possible to the Hamas chain of command in order to throw its operating capabilities off kilter”. This article can be viewed in full here .

The Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz, who is well-connected with the Israeli Defense Ministry, reported Saturday evening that “The IDF was beefing up forces around the Gaza Strip on Saturday evening in preparation of a possible ground operation following a massive air assault earlier in the day”. His report is posted here.

The three top Israeli officials reportedly involved in the decision to launch the attacks today all gave press conferences on Saturday.

YNet reported that “Defense Minister Ehud Barak convened a press conference on Saturday afternoon to formally announce the beginning of the IDF’s operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The offensive was launched at around 11:30 am, with the IDF carrying out two separate waves of attacks. Some 80 warplanes and helicopters took part in the assault, and over 100 bombs were dropped on dozens of targets … The officials said the operation would involve mostly the IAF, which is using precision weaponry to obliterate Hamas’ underground facilities, but added that other forces may be sent in if necessary. The IAF is currently preparing for dozens of daily sorties into Gaza. Unmanned aircrafts will also assist with gathering intelligence. Barak laid out the three objectives of the offensive – dealing Hamas a forceful blow, fundamentally changing the situation in Gaza, and bringing to the cessation of rocket attacks against Israeli citizens. … The defense minister detailed the launch of the operation: ‘In the afternoon IAF aircraft attacked Hamas and terror targets in the Gaza Strip. In this strike the IAF hit more than 190 Hamas operatives, including senior police officials, and destroyed infrastructure used by the terror groups’. Barak noted in his statement to the press that the IDF and defense establishment have been preparing for the operation several weeks now”. This report can be found here.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who reportedly called all staff back from Hanukkah holiday vacations to lanuch a public relations blitz to justify the attacks today, told the press at a quickly-convened meeting in Tel Aviv this evening that “This is the translation of our basic right to self defense”, and added that “Israel expects the support and understanding of the international community, as it confronts terror, and advances the interest of all those who wish the forces of peace and co-existence to determine the agenda of this region”.

Livni also said that “Israeli citizens have been under the threat of daily attack from Gaza for years. Only this week – hundreds of missiles and mortars shells were fired at Israeli civilian communities including the firing of 80 missiles on a single day. Until now we have shown restraint. But today there is no other option than a military operation. We need to protect our citizens from attack through a military response against the terror infrastructure in Gaza … Israel left Gaza in order to create an opportunity for peace. In return, the Hamas terror organization took control of Gaza and is using its citizens as cover while it deliberately targets Israeli communities and denies any chance for peace. We have tried everything to reach calm without using force. We agreed to a truce through Egypt that was violated by Hamas, which continued to target Israel, hold Gilad Shalit and build up its arms. Israel continues to act to prevent humanitarian crisis and to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians. Unfortunately, Hamas cynically abuses its own civilian population and their suffering for propaganda purposes. The responsibility for harm to civilians lies with Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization, supported by Iran, that does not represent the legitimate national interests of the Palestinian people but a radical Islamist agenda that seeks to deny peace for the peoples of this region”. Livni’s remarks can be found in full here.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called a press conference for 8 pm, but nothing has appeared on the wires as yet. There is now a photo on the Jerusalem Post website showing that he had both Livni and Barak beside him — presumably to keep a unified message … And Haaretz was the first to report from the Olmert press conference that: “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday said no country in the world would put up with the rocket and missile strikes Israel suffers from and that the time had come to react … ‘Israel has done all it could to preserve the ceasefire with Hamas, but our desire for quiet was met with terror’ … Olmert added that Israel ‘is not itching for a fight, but will not back down from one either’.”

UPDATE: Extensive excerpts from a transcript of Olmert’s remarks at the start of the press conference provided by his office — “For approximately seven years, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens in the south have been suffering from missiles being fired at them. Life in the south under missile barrages had become unbearable. Israel did everything in its power to fulfill the conditions of the calm in the south and enable normal life for its citizens in the communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip. The quiet that we offered was met with shelling. No country can countenance such a reality! The lives of our citizens are not forfeit. In recent days, it became clear that Hamas is bent on conflict. Whoever heard Hamas’s statements understood that they decided to increase attacks on the residents of Israel by firing rockets and mortars indiscriminately. In such a situation we had no alternative but to respond. We do not rejoice in battle but neither will we be deterred from it. Preparations for the operation were extensive and thorough. The Security Cabinet unanimously approved it on Wednesday, 24.12.08, and when conditions were ripe, we decided to set the action in motion. Yesterday (Friday), 26.12.08, I held a series of discussions with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, ISA Director Yuval Diskin and other security establishment personnel, and it was decided that the operation would begin. The operation in the Gaza Strip is designed, first and foremost, to bring about an improvement in the security reality for the residents of the south of the country. This is liable to take time and each one of us must be patient so that we can complete the mission. We want to restore the quiet and the tranquility and give the residents of the south the ability to live the normal lives that every country provides its citizens … On Thursday, 25.12.08, I made it clear to the residents of Gaza that we are not acting against them and that we have no intention of punishing them for the actions of Hamas. We will see to the needs of the population in Gaza and will do our utmost to prevent a humanitarian crisis that will impinge upon residents’ lives. Residents of Gaza, we are not your enemies and we are not fighting against you. This terrorist organization has brought disaster to two peoples. Israel is not fighting the Palestinian people but the Hamas terrorist organization that has taken it upon itself to act against the residents of Israel. Therefore, the targets that were attacked today were selected accordingly, with stress being placed on avoiding harm to innocents. Our precise intelligence, from the IDF Intelligence Branch and the Israel Security Agency, enabled maximum strikes at those involved in terrorism and minimized harm to innocents. This is how we will act in the future, as may be necessary. Israel is currently focusing on striking at the terrorist organizations that are operating to undermine stability in the entire region. I hope that no other element in the region will think that while Israel is fighting in the south, that it will it is inattentive to what is happening in other areas. We will not hesitate to respond to any aggression against us. During the day, we spoke with the leaders of the main countries of the world and made it very clear that the situation cannot continue and that we were compelled to take action in order to halt the aggression against our citizens. We also made it clear that Israel will, at the same time, make every effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip”.

The Prime Minister also expressed sympathy with the family of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is being held, presumably somewhere in Gaza (unless he was smuggled out in one of the tunnels), since late June 2006.

And, finally, the JPost mentions in one of its reports that the code name for the IDF attacks on Gaza that started today, Operation Cast Lead, is taken from a “Hanukkah poem by H.N. Bialik referring to a ‘dreidel cast from solid lead’.”

A popular Hanukkah song for children, found through an internet search, is about a child who makes a dreidel (a kind of small square-sided top that spins, used in games played during Hanukkah) out of clay: “I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay, And when it’s dry and ready, Then dreidel I shall play”. The one given to my son when he was in nursery school in NYC is made of plastic.

Further web seaching shows that dreidels have been made out of ivory, bone, wood, lead, glass, silver, and various other materials.

But, while there is already, on Saturday evening, a new Wikipedia entry about Operation Cast Lead here, there is nothing that explains to me the significance of the phrase in the Bialik poem about a “dreidel cast from solid lead”.

A lead dreidel - from Dreidel Fun

But, information on the Dreidel Fun website (from which the image above is borrowed for purposes of illlustration), explains that “Of any single object, the Dreidel most exemplifies the history of the endurance of the Jewish people from destruction. The Dreidel, like the Jewish people, falls only to rise anew in strength, standing upright against all forces again and again”. This reference can be found here

UPDATE: Reuters is now translating the code-name of this IDF operation as “Solid Lead”, and is reporting here that the IDF airstrikes on Gaza on Saturday have killed 227 people “in one of the bloodiest days for the Palestinians in 60 years of conflict with the Jewish state”. The same report said that “Saturday’s death toll was the highest for a single day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948, when the Jewish state was established”.

IDF launches many coordinated air attacks across Gaza in two waves

Now, the anxious waiting is over. Events are moving into the next phase. Top Israeli officials decided on Saturday morning to launch reprisal attacks against Gaza.

The initial Haaretz report quotes Hamas sources as saying that “a series of Israeli strikes targeted its compounds through Gaza Strip, causing widespread panic. The Islamist organization said at least 40 Palestinians were killed in the attacks. Israel Air Force warplanes fired around 30 missiles at targets along the Gaza Strip’s coast on Saturday, causing heavy damage, witnesses said … [T]he airstrikes took place as children were leaving school. Plumes of black smoke rose over Gaza City, sirens wailed through the streets and women frantically looked for their children.”

By evening, more than 200 deaths were reported, and at least 700 injuries, as a new wave of Israeli attacks was reported underway.

A later Haaretz headline called the IDF action a “major offensive” and the story it accompanied called it the start of “a massive offensive”.

Haaretz journalist Amos Harel wrote that “This is the harshest IDF assault on Gaza since the territory was captured during the Six-Day War in 1967”.

The Foreign Press Association has informed its members in an update on entry to Gaza through Erez crossing that “We have been told that the border crossing is closed until further notice. We are trying to convince them to open Erez as soon as possible. Failing that, we are asking permission to send through a POOL:Camera crew/s, stills, print and radio”.

UPDATE: The IDF spokesperson issued two press statements — the most recent announced that what is apparently being code-named the “Cast Lead” Operation is continuing: “Since this morning, the IDF attacked dozens of targets affiliated with the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip. The targets included command centers, training camps, various Hamas installations, rocket manufacturing facilities and storage warehouses. The vast majority of the casualties are terror operatives; most of whom were wearing uniform and working on behalf of terror organizations“.

[Question: Doesn’t the fact that they are wearing uniforms make them soldiers, that should be treated like POWs if captured, under the Geneva Conventions? I think the uniforms in question are those of the Hamas police or internal security forces, who were killed while attending a police graduation ceremony. They do not appear to even be bearing weapons. See photo below. A second photo, showing collected bodies taken to Gaza City’s main Shifa Hospital, shows two kinds of uniforms — the black ones, and the blue camouflauge which I think are police.]

AFP photo published on Palestinian Pundit

A Reuters photo on Palestinian Pundit

Of course, there are also plenty of photos showing dead and injured people who are not wearing uniforms at all — including many women and children.

The IDF press announcement continues: “The operation is ongoing and will continue for as long as is necessary, pending security assessments by the General Staff the IDF Chief of Staff. The IDF wishes to emphasize that secrecy and the element of surprise were central to the implementation of the operation. The IDF also wishes to inform the Israeli public that it must prepare itself for continued rocket fire by Hamas. The patience and resilience of the Israeli public is required” … The earlier IDF announcement said that “The targets that were attacked were located by intelligence gathered during the last months and include Hamas terror operatives that operated from the organization’s headquarters, training camps and weaponry storage warehouses. The Hamas government leaders and operatives, which activate terror from within civilian population centers, are the sole bearers of responsibility for Israel’s military response. This response is crucial for preserving Israel’s security interests. The IDF Spokesperson wishes to emphasize that anyone sponsoring terror, hosting terror in his house, housing terror in his basement and sending his wives and children to serve as human shields, is considered a terrorist…”

From UNHQ in New York, a statement was issued saying that UNSG BAN Ki-Moon “is deeply alarmed by today’s heavy violence and bloodshed in Gaza, and the continuation of violence in southern Israel. He appeals for an immediate halt to all violence. While recognizing Israel’s security concerns regarding the continued firing of rockets from Gaza, he firmly reiterates Israel’s obligation to uphold international humanitarian and human rights law and condemns excessive use of force leading to the killing and injuring of civilians. He condemns the ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants and is deeply distressed that repeated calls on Hamas for these attacks to end have gone unheeded. The Secretary-General reiterates his previous calls for humanitarian supplies to be allowed into Gaza to aid the distressed civilian population. He is making immediate contact with regional and international leaders, including Quartet principals,in an effort to bring a swift end to the violence”.

And, Agence France Presse (AFP) is reporting that “Amr Mussa, secretary general of the Cairo-based Arab League, called an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers ‘to discuss the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip’. The meeting would take place in the coming hours, Mussa said in a statement. Earlier, Jordan had called for the gathering to be held on Sunday. He also asked Libya, as a member of the United National Security Council, to organise an emergency meeting on the subject of the Israeli raids”.

The Jerusalem Post calling this a massive operation, launched in two waves just minutes apart. “Hamas’s police spokesperson said that at least 40 people were killed in the initial attacks. Gaza health official Moawiya Hassanain later said that over 120 people were killed. The Jerusalem Post could not confirm either report … Shortly after the strikes began, Egypt was quoted by Al-Jazeera as condemning the Israeli action, calling it ‘an unprecedented massacre’.”

[UPDATE: By mid-afternoon in Jerusalem, the JPost was reporting upwardly-revised figures and some new details: “A Hamas spokesperson said that at least 150 people were killed in the attacks. Gaza health official Moawiya Hassanain said earlier that over 120 people were killed, and at least 200 injured. The Jerusalem Post could not confirm either report … Minutes after the first wave of airstrikes hit areas in the southern Gaza Strip, Palestinians reported a second wave which targeted installations in the center and the north of the Strip. Channel 22 reported that between 30 to 40 targets were hit. Hamas Interior Ministry said that all security compounds in Gaza were destroyed … In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, the government position regarding the operation was explained: ‘Given Hamas violations of the ceasefire agreement and the unrelenting attacks on Israeli citizens in the south, a decision was made on Wednesday, December 24 by the Ministerial Committee on National Security, in which the IDF was ordered to act to bring about a cessation of rocket fire for a length of time’, the statement said.” UPDATE: At about the same time, a Haaretz headline reported 155 deaths in Gaza so far … in the air strikes that it said “began with almost no warning at around 11:30 A.M … Egypt has opened its long-sealed border with Gaza to allow in the wounded for medical treatment … The Israel Defense Forces warned Saturday that the airstrikes “will continue, will be expanded, and will deepen if necessary. The Prime Minister’s bureau issued a statement on Saturday following the IAF strikes in Gaza. ‘The operation was launched following the violation of the terms of the lull by Hamas and the unceasing attacks by Hamas authorities on Israeli civilians in the south of the country’, the communiqué read. The decision on the attack was made Wednesday during a meeting of the security-diplomatic cabinet, which instructed the IDF to act in order to bring a prolonged halt of missile fire and terrorist attacks from the Gaza Strip’, the prime minister’s bureau said. ‘The cabinet authorized the prime minister, the defense minister, and the foreign minister to determine the timing and the method of operation in accordance with the cabinet decision, which was unanimously reached. The three [ministers] decided to [approve] the execution of the air force attack on Saturday morning. Israel wishes to make clear that it will continue to act against terrorist operations and missile fire from the Strip which is intended to harm civilians.” ]

[UPDATE TWO: Haaretz is now reporting here that “Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip fired rockets into southern Israel on Saturday after Israeli air strikes killed more than 155 Palestinians. One of the rockets directly struck a home in the town of Netivot, causing extensive damage. One person was killed in the attack and four suffered moderate to serious injuries”.]

Haaretz is reporting elsewhere that “Close to 200 Katyushas, Qassam rockets and mortar shells have been fired at the Negev since Hamas said it would not renew the tahadiyeh (lull) that had expired on December 19 … The various statements by Israel’s ministers reflect a good deal of confusion. Livni and Vice Premier Haim Ramon have spoken on several occasions about the need to topple the Hamas government in Gaza. Barak (and Ashkenazi, too) seems to feel that such a goal is unrealistic now. The main objective for the army is considerably more modest: exacting a significant price from Hamas, to prompt it to agree to return to the framework of the lull. The likely method for achieving this objective is not occupation of the Strip or the pursuit of every Qassam launcher … Israel’s leaders claim that they will avoid an all-out offensive, that occupation of Gaza is not an objective, and that Hamas is not interested in a major confrontation, either. But one has to wonder whether anyone has bothered to inform Hamas about this wonderfully rational scenario. The Palestinians have always had this annoying habit of not conforming to the nice plans the defense establishment has laid out for them. This week, Hamas did appear to be hallucinating, likening itself to its bigger and more dangerous sister, Hezbollah. The same type of slogans, threatening proclamations, videos of militants training – and even the same type of haughty TV broadcasters smilingly reporting on actions undertaken against the Zionist enemy. But Hamas also appeared to be repeating Hezbollah’s mistakes from 2006, arrogantly believing that if the Israelis declare they don’t want to reoccupy Gaza, then it is left with nearly unlimited room to maneuver. Even if it turns out that Hamas is right (which is highly unlikely), it is taking a tremendous gamble. A major air strike by Israel would apparently include bombardment of Hamas offices and institutions. A further deterioration to a large-scale frontal confrontation could end up costing Hamas its rule, although the IDF would surely suffer significant losses, too. Meanwhile, the tremendous importance that Hamas attaches to matters of honor and prestige cannot be discounted. A few mornings ago, while headlines in Israel reported on Hamas’ readiness to consider a new cease-fire, the organization was behind the launching of over 60 rockets and mortars, intended to settle the score for an incident the previous evening, in which paratroops killed three Hamas men out to plant explosives near the separation fence. As in the past, Hamas is prepared to risk its rule just to avoid the perception of having surrendered to Israel” … This analysis can be read in full here.

Haaretz reported that “A Reuters correspondent said Gaza City port and security installations … were badly damaged”. That would appear to be designed to prevent any further aid ships from running the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza and docking in the coastal strip — an Iranian ship is reportedly on its way, after a Libyan ship turned around when challenged by the Israeli Navy. And it would also appear to be an act of reprisal against the successful arrival of five Free Gaza expeditions that made round-trip voyages by sea from Cyprus. The initial Haaretz report can be read in full here.

Apparently, assured access to the sea is one of the demands Hamas has been making for any extension of the unwritten cease-fire (or tahdiya) it concluded with Israel, via Egypt, last June, and then renounced about a week ago. [See the article in the Jerusalem Post written by Yaakov Katz, who has excellent sources in the Ministry of Defence at this address. This article is also posted separately, and unsigned, as a JPost editorial here.]

The AP has just reported that “In the West Bank, Hamas’ rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement that he ‘condemns this aggression’ and calls for restraint, according to an aide, Nabil Abu Rudeneh”. This AP report can be viewed here .

Abbas, according to a report by Ma’an News Agency, left Ramallah on Saturday morning on his way to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the King. He would have to travel via Jordan, and may have still been in Jordan when the IDF strikes began.

Announcements of demonstrations and press conferences in Ramallah to denounce the attacks in Gaza are coming in by SMS.

According to Haaretz, at least one of the Israeli missiles struck Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City, where a graduation ceremony for new personnel was taking place at the time of the attack, and that “TV footage showed bodies of more than a dozen black-clad security men lying on the ground in one area”. The Jerusalem Post reported that “According to witnesses, among the killed was Gaza police chief Tawfik Jaber”.

Ma’an News Agency reported that “Among the police officers killed in the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip was de facto Police Chief Imad Al-Amsi”. Another Ma’an report said later that “Israel is targeting the Hamas leadership”, and added that “Confirmed casualties include Commander of the de facto Government Police Tawfiq Jabir, Governor of the Al-Wusta (central) Districts Ahmad Abu Aashur and Commander of Security and Protection Services in the de facto government police Ismail Al-Ja’bari”.

In addition, Haaretz says, “At least two people were killed and 30 wounded from an attack in Khan Younis, a refugee camp in the south of Gaza”.

Haaretz said that “Egypt has boosted the security along its border with Gaza, officials said Friday, in anticipation of an imminent Israel Defense Forces operation within the territory, fearing an Israeli incursion would result in a breach of the border. In January, Hamas militants frustrated over the tightened Israeli closure of Gaza blew holes in the border partition, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to stream into Egypt unchecked for ten days and stock up on food and other goods made scarce by the blockade. Egyptian officials told Israel Radio, however, that Egypt is pressing on with efforts to prevent the escalation of violence in the region. The officials said that representatives of Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman have approached senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar in the Gaza Strip and presented him with Egypt’s concerns”.

The JPost article also reports that “Twenty-five mortar shells have been fired into Israel since Thursday night”, and that — despite those attacks — a 35-year-old Palestinian who was wounded by a Kassam rocket attack from Gaza towards Israel was evacuated on Friday through the Erez crossing to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital in serious condition, after initial treatement in a Gazan hospital. This JPost report can be read in full here .

Two Palestinian girls were also killed on Friday in Gaza by a Palestinian rocket attack that fell short.

According to the Haaretz story: “Reportedly, a ‘limited operation’ will begin within days that will combine an air attack with some ground operations against Hamas and other Gaza terror groups. The cabinet has given the go-ahead for an operation of a few days’ duration with clearly defined goals”.

YNet , relying in part on Reuters, adds that “Israeli military have confirmed the attack, which followed a decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet to widen reprisals for cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel”. This YNet report is posted here.

The AP report says that “the number of simultaneous attacks was unprecedented … In one of the compounds, the bodies of more than a dozen uniformed security officers were seen lying on the ground. One officer, who had survived, raised his index finger in a show of Muslim faith and defiance [n.b., this act of “faith and defiance” is not only Muslim. But, for Muslims, it means one, as in “there is only one God”. This gesture was also used, if I am not mistaken, by the Jesus character in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar in the early 1970s — but in that contect, it meant the “One Way”].

In an opinion article in YNet, Brigadier General (ret.) Dr. Yossi Ben Ari, the former intelligence chief of the IDF’s Central Command, wrote: “The required mid-term goal is to minimize the depth and extent of the rocket threat posed to the civilian population in the south (and today we can openly talk about areas closer to central Israel. If the Second Lebanon War paralyzed the Haifa Port, the next clash vis-à-vis the Palestinians will create a similar threat on the Ashdod Port.) However, those who fool themselves into thinking that a major operation involving many troops and aimed at retaking the Gaza Strip would bring this about, are making a grave mistake, while being highly deceptive; there is no point repeating the disasters that such operation would prompt. In order to undermine the Hamas regime in Gaza (and thwart the prospect of a West Bank Hamas takeover in the future,) we would do well to quickly take offensive initiative that includes, simultaneously, the following components:

* Recapture the Philadelphi Route, but this time around take over a kilometer-wide strip to be permanently held by Israel. This should be done even if it requires us to evict residents from Rafah neighborhoods, and even if we need to compensate them with new housing at an alternative site. Such permanent hold would significantly undermine Hamas’ ability to equip itself with arms both above and under ground. This is the only way to ‘dry it up’.

* A wide-scale renewal of targeted eliminations, aimed both at Hamas’ senior military command, and more importantly, the organization’s political leadership (that is, senior Hamas members) that stimulates and manages terror in the south. Did anyone forget the immense effect the assassination of Sheikh Yassin and his replacement Rantissi had on Hamas’ motivation for violence?

* Comprehensive and ongoing aerial assaults targeting all permanent and mobile terror infrastructures spotted in the area.

* We should treat this like a war. We must indeed be careful, as much as his possible, about not hurting civilians, yet we must adopt any possible sanction that would make it difficult for Hamas to successfully wage its struggle from within the population.

Adopting a wide offensive initiative could make the difference: It will certainly affect the way we view ourselves in the future, and no less importantly, the way our image is shaped in the eyes of our enemies and allies. Even if the IDF does not win immediately, Israel’s ability to dictate the terms has a chance to bring victory later”. This article can be viewed in full here.

According to another report in Haaretz, Israel’s State President Shimon Peres said in an interview with the London-based Saudi newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat that “Israel has no intention of igniting a regional war. Peres told the London-based publication that Israel would undertake all necessary steps to put a halt to the firing of rockets, though he did qualify those statements by ruling out an Israeli re-entry into Gaza. The president refused to specify which tactics Israel would employ”. This report can be found here .

Peres also called, in the interview, for negotiations on the Saudi-launched “Arab Peace Initiative” that offered Israel full normalization of relations with Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied in the June 1967 war.

Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar, who has long been a correspondent for Haaretz, and who strongly backs the “Arab Peace Initiative” told me in an interview a few months ago that the major problem with this intiative is its name. He said Israeli officials would like to have had a hand in shaping it, and would like to re-negotiate it now as more of a joint effort.

Yes, other figures from the Israeli left have told me, if it seems silly, it’s not (at least according to them) — Israelis cannot accept a peace plan that is called “Arab”. So, it should be re-named as an “Israeli” peace initiative … What about re-naming it, then, an Arab-Israeli [in alphabetical order], or Israeli-Arab plan?

But that’s another story — and today there are the massive IDF attacks on Gaza to contemplate.

Sara Roy on Gaza's future — from November 2005

Just after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza, Sara Roy wrote these predictions, which take on a painful poignancy in light of what’s happening in Gaza today. Roy’s article was published in the London Review of Books on 3 November 2005.

Among Roy’s points, made in 2005 – three long years ago, and the situation has only gotten worse:
“According to the World Bank, Palestinians are currently experiencing the worst economic depression in modern history, caused primarily by the long-standing Israeli restrictions that have dramatically reduced Gaza’s levels of trade and virtually cut off its labour force from their jobs inside Israel. This has resulted in unprecedented levels of unemployment of 35 to 40 per cent. Some 65 to 75 per cent of Gazans are impoverished (compared to 30 per cent in 2000); many are hungry”.

“Last April President Bush said that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza would allow the establishment of ‘a democratic state in the Gaza’ and open the door for democracy in the Middle East. The columnist Thomas Friedman was more explicit, arguing that ‘the issue for Palestinians is no longer about how they resist the Israeli occupation in Gaza, but whether they build a decent mini-state there – a Dubai on the Mediterranean. Because if they do, it will fundamentally reshape the Israeli debate about whether the Palestinians can be handed most of the West Bank.’ Embedded in these statements is the assumption that Palestinians will be free to build their own democracy, that Israel will eventually cede the West Bank (or at least consider the possibility), that Israel’s ‘withdrawal’ will strengthen the Palestinian position in negotiations over the West Bank, that the occupation will end or become increasingly irrelevant, that the gross asymmetries between the two sides will be redressed. Hence, the Gaza Disengagement Plan – if implemented ‘properly’ – provides a real (perhaps the only) opportunity for resolving the conflict and creating a Palestinian state. It follows that Palestinians will be responsible for the success or failure of the Plan: if they fail to build a ‘democratic’ or ‘decent mini-state’ in Gaza, the fault will be theirs alone.”

“[T]he Disengagement Plan states that Israel will further reduce the number of Palestinians working in Israel and eventually bar them altogether. The same Harvard study predicted that within a few years Gaza’s labour force will be ‘entirely unskilled and increasingly illiterate’. Between 1997 and 2004, the number of teachers per student declined by 30 per cent, with 80 students per class in government schools and 40 per class in UNRWA schools. Test scores for Palestinian children are well below the pass level, and the majority of eight-year-olds fail to advance to the next grade. About 42 per cent of Gazans are now categorised by the World Food Programme (WFP) as ‘food insecure’ – i.e. lacking secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development; in five areas of Gaza, the figure exceeds 50 per cent. An additional 30 per cent of the population is ‘food vulnerable’, i.e. under threat of becoming food insecure or malnourished”.

“Since 2000, the economy of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has lost a potential income of approximately $6.4 billion and suffered $3.5 billion worth of physical damage at the hands of the Israeli army. This means, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, that the ‘occupied Palestinian territory has lost at least one fifth of its economic base over the last four years as a consequence of war and occupation.’ Yet the authors of the Plan are confident that ‘the process of disengagement will serve to dispel claims regarding Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.’ They assume, in other words, that Gaza’s suffering is a recent phenomenon borne of the last five years of intifada, and that the return of the land taken up by military installations and settlements – anywhere from 15 to 30 per cent of the territory – and the removal of 9000 Israeli settlers will soon redress the situation. Israel’s primary role in creating Palestine’s misery and decline since it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 is expunged from the narrative”.

“There is no doubt that the destruction wrought by Israel over the last five years – the demolition of homes (some 4600 between 2000 and 2004), schools, roads, factories, workshops, hospitals, mosques and greenhouses, the razing of agricultural fields, the uprooting of trees, the confinement of the population and the denial of access to education and health services as a consequence of Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints – has been ruinous for Palestinians, especially those in the Gaza Strip. But one need only look at the economy of Gaza on the eve of the uprising to realise that the devastation is not recent. By the time the second intifada broke out, Israel’s closure policy had been in force for seven years, leading to unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty (which would soon be surpassed). Yet the closure policy proved so destructive only because the thirty-year process of integrating Gaza’s economy into Israel’s had made the local economy deeply dependent. As a result, when the border was closed in 1993, self-sustainment was no longer possible – the means weren’t there. Decades of expropriation and deinstitutionalisation had long ago robbed Palestine of its potential for development, ensuring that no viable economic (and hence political) structure could emerge.
The damage – the de-development of Palestine – cannot be undone simply by ‘returning’ Gaza’s lands and allowing Palestinians freedom of movement and the right to build factories and industrial estates.
Enlarging its sliver of land – or Palestinian access to it – won’t solve Gaza’s myriad problems when its growing population is confined within it. Density is not just a problem of people but of access to resources, especially labour markets. Without porous boundaries allowing workers access to jobs, something the Disengagement Plan not only doesn’t address but in effect denies, the Strip will remain effectively a prison without any possibility of establishing a viable economy. Yet, it is the opposite idea – that with disengagement, development is possible – that Israel is trying to promote, in the hope that this will absolve it of any responsibility for Gaza’s desolation, past or present”

“the Plan gives Israel ‘exclusive authority’ over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, which translates into full control over the movement of people and goods into and out of the Strip. Israel will also ‘continue, for full price, to supply electricity, water, gas and petrol to the Palestinians, in accordance with current arrangements’. Israel will also continue to collect customs duties on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli shekel will remain the local currency. Further, the Israeli government is building a new terminal at the point where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet that would require Palestinian labour and goods to go through Israeli territory. Israel’s Interior Ministry retains full control over the issuing of Palestinian identity cards and all population data – births, deaths, marriages – and all Palestinians must continue to be registered with the ministry. There would be no point in the PA acting unilaterally and issuing Palestinian identity cards because Israel controls the international border crossings and Palestinian movements within the West Bank”.

“There is no reference in the Disengagement Plan to any link between Gaza and the West Bank, though there has been some discussion of a railway line between the two territories. The Oslo agreement stated that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were ‘one territorial unit’, but it seems clear that Israel will not tolerate a genuine territorial link between them. With implementation of the Plan, the population of Gaza is effectively sealed in, and the national dismemberment of the Palestinians, long a cornerstone of Israeli policy, has been achieved, at least with regard to the West Bank and Gaza”.

“The Plan puts an end to any hope of Palestinian territorial and national unity and contiguity, and can only accelerate Palestine’s gradual depopulation, continuing what the Oslo process began. Yet, like Oslo, Camp David and Taba before it, the Plan is rarely analysed. It is enveloped in silence.
Whatever else it claims to be, the Gaza Disengagement Plan is, at heart, an instrument for Israel’s continued annexation of West Bank land and the physical integration of that land into Israel. This is all but spelled out in the Plan itself, which states that ‘in any future permanent status arrangement, there will be no Israeli towns and villages in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand’ – and here, Israel is uncharacteristically transparent – ‘it is clear that in the West Bank, there are areas which will be part of the state of Israel, including major Israeli population centres, cities, towns and villages, security areas and other places of special interest to Israel.’ To my knowledge this is the first time that the formal annexation of West Bank land has been explicitly and officially put forward”.

“The international community, led by the United States, would like to weave the Disengagement Plan into the Road Map, believing it to be a first step towards the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. Yet under the terms of disengagement, Israel’s occupation is assured. Gazans will be contained and sealed within the electrified borders of the Strip, while West Bankers, their lands dismembered by relentless Israeli settlement, will be penned into fragmented spaces, isolated behind and between walls and barriers. Despite this terrible reality, the word ‘occupation’ has been removed from the political lexicon. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA and an architect of Oslo, never used the word ‘occupation’ in any of the agreements he helped draft. Yet it was the gap between the implication in the Oslo Accords that the occupation would end and the reality which emerged in its place that led to the second Palestinian uprising. At the Sharm el-Sheikh summit between Abbas, Sharon and Bush in February 2005, the word ‘occupation’ was again not mentioned. The final version of the Gaza Disengagement Plan makes no reference to it either, but the original 18 April 2004 version is explicit about what is clearly one of its main goals: on completion of the evacuation, the Plan states, ‘there will be no basis for claiming that the Gaza Strip is occupied territory.’ The omission of the clause from the revised plan of 6 June 2004 does not indicate a change in Israeli priorities. Indeed, one of the most striking elements of Geoffrey Aronson’s revealing technocratic study of the Plan, commissioned by an international donor and based on a series of interviews with Israeli officials, is Israel’s obsessive focus on legally ridding itself of occupier status in the Gaza Strip. It would appear that what this is really about is obtaining international acceptance (however tacit) of Israel’s full control over the West Bank – and eventually Jerusalem – while retaining control over the Strip in a different form.
It’s possible that with the Gaza plan Israel may, for the first time and with pressure from the international donor community, be able to secure Palestinian endorsement of what it is creating. Tragically, the Palestinian leadership continues to view the Gaza disengagement as a first step in a political process towards the resumption of negotiations for final status talks, and refuses to accept that disengagement from Gaza is the final status and that the occupation will not end.
As for the international community – in particular foreign donors – almost all its attention has been on ‘developing’ the Gaza Strip, a focus painfully reminiscent of some of the mistakes of the Oslo period. The same three misguided assumptions are made: first, that the pre-existing structures of occupation – Israeli control and Palestinian dependency – will be mitigated, perhaps even dismantled; second, that Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will have the effect of shifting the priorities of both Israelis and Palestinians from issues of territory and security to the economic interests of entrepreneurs and nations; and third, that innovative ways of thinking about economic co-operation will lead to political stability and peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.
These assumptions proved completely unfounded in the wake of Oslo (when, at least initially, there was a modicum of bilateralism and co-operation); why would one hope for something better now, with a unilateral disengagement plan that makes no secret of being a diktat, at a time when the structures of occupation and control are far more deeply entrenched? … [T]here is every reason to expect the Israeli authorities to use economic pressure not only to ensure control but to extract political concessions, much as they did during the Oslo period. Despite this – arguably because of it – international donors are again displaying their unwillingness to confront the occupation, preferring instead to mitigate the damage by helping the Palestinians deal with this unjust solution, whatever their private reservations. In so perverse an environment and in the absence of any challenge to Israel’s structure of control, international assistance will not eradicate poverty but simply modernise it. In so doing, donor aid – despite its critical importance – will solidify the structures of occupation by simply ignoring them. How, given this scenario, can Palestine ever become a productive society?”

“With the international community eager to be rid of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinians’ continued dispossession is regarded as the price of peace, not as a reason for conflict. So defined, Palestinian legitimacy, at least for some members of the international community, no longer derives from the justice and morality of its cause but from Palestinian willingness to agree to terms largely if not entirely imposed by Israel. Thus, with the Gaza Disengagement Plan, the Palestinian quest for minimal justice in the form of a state in 22 per cent of their homeland, once dismissed as utopian, is now derided as short-sighted and selfish. The asymmetries between occupier and occupied are not only sanctioned, but their institutionalisation is seen as progress. Like its predecessors, the Disengagement Plan is hailed as an act of courage, as yet another example of Israel’s desire for peace, of its willingness to make concessions and sacrifices without demanding equivalent concessions of the Palestinians, who are the real aggressors, repeatedly refusing Israeli generosity.
What the disengagement initiative makes explicit, in a way that Oslo did not, is the fact that Israel is really negotiating with the United States, not with the Palestinians, over how far it can go in dispossessing them. Despite Bush’s promises to Abbas regarding the contours of the Palestinian state and how it will be established, the US will, in the end, accept, as it always has, what Israel wants and does. According to Aaron Miller, a former State Department official who was heavily involved with the Middle East peace process, during his 25 years in government there never was ‘an honest conversation about what the Israelis were actually doing on the ground. Nor were we prepared to impose, at least in the last seven or eight years, a cost on the Israelis for their actions’.”

“[T]he Palestinians are supposed to begin negotiations at whatever point Israel (backed by the US) says they should, a point that alters in line with the diminished realities Israel has imposed on them. The result of Israel’s ever shrinking ‘offers’ is that compromise becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, and Palestinian violence more likely. With the Gaza Disengagement Plan, Israel’s generous offer has gone from a weak, cantonised entity in the West Bank and Gaza to the encircled and desperately impoverished enclave of the Gaza Strip – 1 per cent of historical Palestine. The disengagement from Gaza (while encircling it and absorbing the West Bank) is the most extreme illustration to date of Israel’s power to determine and reduce what there is left to talk about.
The weeks since the last Israeli soldier pulled out of the Gaza Strip have been marred by violence. There are almost daily battles between the PA and Hamas, Fatah and Hamas, and Gaza’s many clans, militias and security forces. Not since the terrible one-year period just before the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1993, when internal controls had weakened dramatically, have Gazans known such frightening insecurity. Although the disengagement did not cause a breakdown of the Palestinian community or the disintegration of Palestinian politics, it has certainly made the situation worse, given Israel’s decision to reshape the occupation without ending it – that is, to maintain external control of Gaza while ceding internal control, thereby creating a vacuum that is now being filled by competing internal forces … There are two imperatives in the short term: resolving the problems between the PA and Hamas, and securing official control over warring political factions and security services. Both seem unlikely in the face of Israel’s continued consolidation of power in the West Bank (and the PA’s inability to stop it) through settlement expansion, the wall, continued land confiscations and the de-Arabisation of Jerusalem …”

“By taking so much more away from Palestinians than any other agreement since the occupation began, the Disengagement Plan will prove disastrous for everyone, including Israel”.

The full analysis by Roy, published in 2005 in the London Review of Books, can be read here.

Why is Israel opening border crossings into Gaza this morning?

Despite the fact that IDF is continuing to prepare for an operation in Gaza, and that “projectiles” including Qassam rockets and mortal shells continued to fly into Israel on Thursday night, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has ordered that several border crossings into Gaza be opened on Friday morning for the transfer of what Israel considers vitally-needed goods.

One reason is, of course, the explanation offered in the Israeli media this morning: An unnamed defense official said that “We will make every effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.

So, from this it is possible to deduce that the situation is really, actually, pretty bad.

The goods that will be allowed into Gaza are not Israeli donations — they are either bought and paid for by the Palestinians themselves, or they are donations from the United Nations, the European Union, and other international or non-governmental organizations.

YNet is reporting Friday morning that “A security official said that despite Hamas’ conduct ‘we must keep mind that there are segments of the Palestinian population in Gaza which do not support terror, and we cannot neglect them”. Many voices have been calling on Israel to keep this in mind for well over a year.

The YNet story adds that this official said: “”The hardships of the civilians may not matter much to lecHamas, but we will make every effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis”.

The Israeli Defense Ministry is under obligation — according to a promise it made to the Israeli Supreme Court at the beginning of this year — not to allow a “humanitarian crisis” to develop.

It has not been clear, however, exactly what the Defense Ministry would understand as a “humanitarian crisis”. It would apparently necessarily involve deaths, according to Israeli-American Attorney Kenneth Mann, legal advisor to GISHA, an Israeli NGO which has fought [valiantly, but unsucessfully] in court to block the Israeli military-administered blockade on Gaza.

Today’s deliveries — if they actually take place, because, as the same YNet article reports, Brig.-Gen (Res.) Bezalel Treiber, head of the Crossings Directorate in the Defense Ministry, said that Israel “has various intelligence indicating that terror groups intend on targeting the crossings” — will supply “basic provisions, including sugar, rice and flour will enter Gaza. Five of the trucks will be carrying goods donated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s wife Suzanne” … [Question: what crossing will these enter through — will it be via Egypt through Rafah, which has been closed for months, but which Hamas wants opened?]

This YNet report can be read in full here .

The YNet report continues: “Wheat will be transferred into the Strip through the Karni crossing, and fuel trucks will enter through the Erez crossing”.

It is not clear if this is a journalistic or editorial error — the Erez crossing is only for human beings. The normal fuel transfer point is through a complex of underground pipes and storage tanks at the Nahal Oz crossing along the western border of central Gaza — but it is a point which has been particularly targetted for attack since last January.

According to an Associated Press report picked up and published elsewhere on YNet’s website, “The army said the first of an expected 90 trucks have started to deliver medicine, fuel, cooking gas and other vital goods on Friday to Gaza. Israel’s Defense Ministry agreed to open two of the three main cargo crossings into Gaza as part of its policy of avoiding a humanitarian crisis there. The move comes ahead of an expected Israeli incursion into Gaza to stop rocket launchings from the coastal strip. The crossings into Gaza were scheduled to be opened earlier in the week but were shut after Gaza militants bombarded Israel with the heaviest barrage of rocket fire since before an Egyptian-mediated truce took effect in June”. This report can be read in full here .

Some of the Jerusalem Post’s heavy-hitting correspondents (Herb Keinon, Yaakov Katz and unnamed others), with contribution from the AP news agency, reported on Friday that “Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided Thursday to open the Kerem Shalom and Sufa crossings to allow the transfer of the humanitarian supplies to Gaza. [Kerem Shalom is at the south-western tip of Gaza, where Israel, the Egyptian Sinai, and Gaza all intersect. Sufa is not far away, a little further north along the Gaza perimeter]. The shipment was originally scheduled to enter Gaza on Wednesday but was postponed due to the rocket fire. The Defense Ministry said the decision was made to permit the transfer after Barak received a number of requests from international organizations … Diplomatic officials said Thursday that while there was broad international condemnation of the Hamas attacks on Israel, there was also a great deal of concern about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. The officials also said that the barrage of rocket and mortar attacks over the last few days had not been covered that widely in the international press, which is currently focusing on Christmas holiday stories. Though an argument could be made that this would be a good time for a military operation, because much of the world is currently on vacation and not focusing on the Middle East, others say that because the world has not paid sufficient attention over the last two days to the pounding of the western Negev, any massive IDF attack now would seem inexplicable”. The full JPost report can be read here.

And some of Haaretz newspaper’s heavy-hitting correspondents (Amos harel, Barak Ravid and Avi Issacharoff, with contributions by various unspecified news agencies) wrote on Friday that “Reportedly, a ‘limited operation’ will begin within days that will combine an air attack with some ground operations against Hamas and other Gaza terror groups. The cabinet has given the go-ahead for an operation of a few days’ duration with clearly defined goals. On Sunday, the prime minister will hold a series of consultations ahead of a possible military action. No major move will apparently be made until these discussions have concluded … The meetings Olmert is expected to hold on Sunday will relate to three issues. The first is preparation of the home front: Olmert wants to know what reinforcement of buildings can be completed before military action is taken, and to urgently complete whatever can be completed in terms of reinforcement. The second issue involves humanitarian aid shipments to Gaza which Israel is to approve during the week. Olmert wants reports on stockpiles of essential items to ensure that a humanitarian crisis does not break out in the Strip during military action. The third issue involves diplomatic moves to garner international support for military action against Hamas. A government official in Jerusalem said there would be no moves before all necessary preparations are in place … Israel is planning a relatively short operation that will cause maximum damage to Hamas “assets.” The defense establishment says the operation would not necessarily limit itself to stopping rocket launches and that during the operation, daily massive rocket launches can be expected. Hamas might fire rockets with a range beyond the 20 kilometers it has used so far … Although Hamas operatives are behind most of the rocket launches, Palestinian sources in the Strip said Thursday that the Islamist group still wants to renew the cease-fire. The sources said Hamas is under pressure by Gaza residents and other factions to significantly improve the terms of the cease-fire, particularly regarding the opening of the crossings in light of the increased distress of the civilian population. The sources warned that an Israeli ground operation would result in many civilian casualties in Gaza, especially in the refugee camps … Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip Thursday there were long lines at bakeries, and sales were limited to NIS 3 [three shekels is less than one dollar, and is now worth maybe about 80 cents] worth of bread, less than a large family needs per day. Electrical power and water was cut several times Thursday. Cooking is difficult due to a gas shortage. ‘It is impossible to live like this’, a Gaza man told Haaretz. We have to come to some resolution – either a full cease-fire or full-scale fighting with Israel.” This Haaretz report can be read in full here.

Just on the cooking and other problems from daily life, Ma’an News Agency earlier this week published an article from Gaza that reported: “Some have begun mixing salt with gasoline and used the concoction as cooking gas; others have invested in the newly designed mud-stoves fueled with wood. Generators and solar panels are used when possible, and most are able to charge cell phones during the 8 hours of power supplied by either Israel or Egypt. As the Israeli blockade of Gaza tightens a strange mix of old and new has come to coexist in Gaza. Abu Ahmad, who recalls the war of 1948 and being displaced during the Nakba, says the current situation reminds him of life 60 years ago when his mother would make dinner in a refugee camp over a pile of wood. It is not uncommon to see someone tending supper over a mud-stove in the front of a home answer their mobile phone. This isn’t as strange as it seems, said Abu Ahmad. ‘We used to live without electricity or gas or anything’, he recalled, ‘but now people find it difficult to survive for too long without these things’. He has his own secrets for surviving the current situation, saying he adds nylon, paper and cardboard to his cooking fire to make the wood last longer. Um Salem described her struggle with the daily necessity of feeding her family. ‘It takes me six hours to cook!’ she said. So she wakes up at dawn to begin preparing the bread, since most bakeries are closed and she still has some flour left. The smell from the old paraffin burner she uses is awful, she explains, but with a baby around the home she refuses to use an open fire … The first time the electricity was cut, after gas ran out and before she had the paraffin stove was repaired, Umm Salem was in the middle of baking bread in the oven. ‘I went outside and collected as many old olive branches as I could and made a fire in front of the house’, she explained. ‘I put some papers and old sheets on the fire and just continued to cook the bread’. My family had to eat dinner, she shrugged. Umm Sami sighed and said, ‘The blockade controls everything, even what I make for dinner’.
Most life routines have been disrupted in Gaza. Doctors have reported seeing an increase in the number of skin irritations and rashes being diagnosed in infants, which are being attributed to the shortage of disposable diapers in the area. Since 2006 they have been named a prohibited item by Israeli authorities and have been smuggled in only through the tunnel network. Washing cloth diapers isn’t an alternative for many families, since several neighborhoods across Gaza face severe water shortages, and frequent disruption in water availability on account of poor maintenance of water lines. Repair equipment is unavailable. Services and products taken for granted my many are now unavailable to most Gazans. While almost anything can be smuggled into the area through the tunnels from Egypt, most cannot afford the high tariffs charged by smuggling traders. So from Pampers to Tylenol, Gazans, most of who are urbanites born and raised on modern convenience, are learning to live without; at least on a temporary basis”. This report can be read in full here.

The Foreign Press Association sent around a notice to its members on Friday morning saying that “We have just been informed [by the IDF] that the Erez Crossing [which is only for people, and not for goods] is open to journalists today until 2 p.m.”

Normally, the Erez Crossing is open until 8 p.m. every day — though it was closed for weeks in November and December.

The cargo crossings normally close on Friday for Shabbat and re-open on Sunday morning. Of course, a life-saving emergency could alter this schedule, under Jewish law …

Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who lived in Gaza for three years before moving to Ramallah in 1997, was able to return briefly by sailing across the Mediterranean with one of the recent Free Gaza expeditions that made a round-trip from and back to Cyprus. Amira, however, was deported by Hamas after a few weeks writing from Gaza, allegedly on the basis of concerns for her own security and safety. She was taken by Hamas and escorted to the Erez crossing, where she was promptly arrested and jailed by Israeli forces for violating a ban on travel of Israeli Jews into Gaza. She is still facing criminal charges in court.

This week, Amira wrote an article in Haaretz entitled: “The sewage is about to hit the fan in Gaza” , in which she reported that an artificial sewage lake in northern Gaza that overflowed catastrophically two years ago [in March 2007] during winter rains — drowning five people in the filthy water — has only continued to grow since then.

In her article this week, Amira reports that this one large sewage lake has only grown in size, and now covers “a total area of 350 dunams that is one kilometer long and contains 2.5 million cubic meters of effluent water with depth ranging from eight to 13 meters. The site of the lake overlooks an inhabited agricultural area of over 1,000 dunams with a population of 10,000. The dirt embankments surrounding the lake could collapse for a variety of reasons: heavy rainfall, stray Qassam rockets, mortars launched by the Israel Defense Forces, exchanges of gunfire … In 1976, Israel’s civil administration constructed a wastewater treatment plant in the northern Gaza district. It was intended to serve a population of 50,000 in the city of Jabaliya and to treat 5,000 cubic meters of sewage daily. After 1994, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the Palestinian Authority connected additional regions in the northern Gaza Strip to the central sewage system and to the plant, which today serves a population of 250,000. Experts estimate that 18,000 cubic meters of sewage water reach the plant daily. The increase in volume has created two problems. The effluent water is not thoroughly treated and the accumulating amounts have produced an artificial lake whose heavy foul odor has spread over a wide area over the years. Between 2001 and 2004 alone, the level of water in the sewage lake rose by 2.5 meters. In the 1990s, the UNRWA and the PA commissioned preliminary surveys for the construction of a new sewage treatment facility. However, donor states left the project out of its funding programs until 2005. The completion of the emergency sewage project has been delayed since late 2005, although the original plans called for completing it within a year, that is, by the end of 2006. The delays are the result of a combination of factors: the election of a Hamas-led government in Gaza, the imposition of a boycott on that government, the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and the closure of border crossings … Because of the delays, contractors avoided bidding for the public tender that was issued in December 2006 for the construction of the new treatment facility; they feared that they would not be able to obtain the necessary construction materials. Next January, a new tender will be issued. It was only the disaster of March 2007 that led to the renewal of the emergency work and to Israel’s granting permission for the transport of raw materials and gasoline for the project into the Gaza Strip. Negotiations with the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on the introduction of specific components, most of them produced in Israel (such as 2- to 6-inch diameter pipes) went on for months. When security clearance was finally given [n.b., this happened only after the specifications were changed so that the pipes would be plastic, and not steel — which the Israeli military feared could be used to launch rockets], another few months passed before the Israeli bureaucratic mechanism operating the border crossings allowed the entry of these components. The military confrontation between Hamas and Fatah has also produced delays. ‘If we are lucky, after June 2009, we can begin construction of the treatment plant, which will be 25 times the size of the one that was constructed in 1976’, Ali [Palestinian Water Authority engineer Saadi Ali]said. ‘The construction work will take at least three years. However, the most urgent task is to empty the sewage lake’. If the electric power cuts stop, if the gasoline is supplied, if the electrical engineer expert from Bethlehem arrives and if the diesel fuel for the giant generators is provided, then, according to Ali, the ’emptying of the sewage lake can be carried out within eight months to a year’.
This is what he said in mid-November. Today, given the delay of more than a month in the initial operation of the pumping station, even that projection seems overly optimistic”.

Amira also reports in the article that “The long, frequent electric power cuts are much more than simply ‘inconvenient’. They are causing serious environmental harm that will also affect Gaza’s Israeli neighbors. The flooding of the region surrounding the sewage lake would not only endanger the lives of many people, it would also inflict damage on fields and fill the open irrigation wells with sludge that would immediately contaminate the aquifer. ‘About a month ago, the electric power cuts lasted between six and eight hours, and we tried to navigate our way around them’, Ali said in a telephone conversation with Haaretz on Monday from Gaza. ‘Today, every electric power cut lasts 12 hours, and the power is then supplied for six hours. Since there is a shortage of natural gas for cooking, many people use electricity – when it is available – and the current is too weak to operate the [pumping station’s] machines’ … Out of dozens of vital infrastructure projects, including those for sewage treatment, the drainage of rainwater, and the replacement of water pipes, this is the only one whose implementation Israel has permitted for the entire Gaza Strip. NGEST and NGWWTP is the only project Israel has defined as humanitarian, life-saving and one to which its policy on the shutting down of border crossings does not apply”.

This article can be read in full in Haaretz here.

And, of course, the winter rains have started in the region — which will both fill up the sewage lake and weaken its embankments.

[n.b. – A World Bank expert told me in a conversation recently after a conference on water held in Jerusalem that the IDF had on more than one previous occasion in previous years threatened to bomb this sewage lake if it released too much pollution into the Mediterranean Sea near the coastline Israel shares with Gaza. However, since Gaza’s power plant shut down last January due to a lack of fuel resulting from military-administered sanctions tightened against Gaza, some 30 to 40 million liters of untreated or partially treated waste water flows into the sea daily…]

Another Christmas journey to Bethlehem

BBC Correspondent Aleem Maqboul has just completed a ten-day journey — on foot, with a donkey (actually, a series of donkeys) — from Nazareth (in Israel) to Bethlehem (just south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank). His intention was to replicate the journey taken by Joseph and Mary some 2008 years ago, as recounted by Luke in the New Testament of the Bible.

BBC correspondent Aleem Maqboul enters Bethlehem

Maqboul wrote in his trip diary’s final entry today that “throughout history, change in this part of the world has often come unexpectedly and in dramatic fashion. According to the Bible, a journey here made by a man, a heavily-pregnant woman and a donkey changed the world in an instant. Around two millennia on, their story still impacts on the lives of hundreds of millions of people”. The diary can be read in full on the BBC website here .

BBC's Aleem Maqboul walks toward Bethlehem with donkey

He also wrote: “Much of the trip was a reminder that, however obvious this sounds, people in a conflict zone are as three-dimensional as those anywhere else. There were, of course, sad indications of the tensions here. There was the silence of hundreds of people as they buried a 22-year-old militant in the village of Yamoon, after an Israeli army raid”. [n.b. – Maqboul wrote on this killing on 16 December, a day after he started his trip, saying: “On the news of one such raid, on a village close to the border crossing, I decided to take a detour. The raid was over, and the army had gone. They had killed a 22-year-old man, Jihad Nawahda. We were told he was a local leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group and had been wanted by the Israeli army for some time. Funeral prayers had already been carried out, and by the time I arrived, hundreds of men escorted the body to the cemetery for immediate burial, in accordance with Muslim tradition. A few black and yellow Islamic Jihad flags were carried in silence by the mourners”. This killing provoked a large increase in the number of “projectiles” being fired from Gaza onto Israeli territory in the vicinity of the northern Gaza strip. This entry in Maqboul’s trip diary can be found on this page.]

His final trip diary entry continued: “A sense of how far apart the worlds of Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers were, how little interaction there was between the two and how entrenched their views are. And then there was the military checkpoint that greets visitors entering Bethlehem. But people along the way did speak of hope – though not necessarily expectation – that things would get better one day”.

BBC's Aleem Maqboul has company as he walks near Nablus

However, on 23 December, Maqboul passed through Ramallah and then Jerusalem on his way, and noted: “Ramallah is the city in which I have lived for more than a year-and-a-half. Amid all the chaos and conflict in other parts of the Palestinian Territories, Ramallah tries hard to cocoon itself. Three Palestinian refugee camps are incorporated into the city; Jewish settlements expand on the hills around it; access to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, or parts of the northern West Bank has become difficult – yet the building work on new apartment blocks all over Ramallah points to the beginnings of economic progress. Socially too, the city has tried to remain resilient. An evening out in any number of fancy restaurants or bars hypnotises the wealthiest of Ramallah’s residents into thinking that all is well in the world. Many Palestinians here, outwardly at least, seem determined not to concern themselves even with the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, for example. Underneath, most acknowledge that Ramallah’s future is still incredibly fragile. Approaching the Kalandia checkpoint, through which I needed to pass continue my journey, I noticed a large, new piece of graffiti on the familiar grey … I negotiated the queues, turnstiles and x-ray machines with few hold-ups, and headed through the crossing towards the centre of Jerusalem. I was turned back at a subsequent, smaller, checkpoint [n.b., we know which one that was — the infamous “ar-Ram” checkpoint at Dahiet al-Bariid, and for more details and descriptions see our other posts on this blog], but it was a minor inconvenience as I knew a route around it…”

I don’t know what happened to the comments that I read on the site at an earlier stage of Maqboul’s journey …