Meanwhile, in Gaza…(cont'd more)

The Israeli Air Force reports that it has attacked Gaza tonight, targetting what it said was a group of Palestinians launching rockets toward Israel. The IAF said that one person was killed, and four injured. There have been Israeli reports of sporadic firing from Gaza in recent weeks.

Earlier today, Gaza’s former parish priest, Father Manuel Musallam, told me in an interview in his home in the West Bank town of Bir Zeit today, outside Ramallah, that he fears a renewed Israeli attack on Gaza. Father Musallam spent 14 years serving the Catholic Church in Gaza, and endured the unprecedented Israeli military attack last winter before being pulled out, by Church authorites, into what appears to have been a forced retirement last May, the day before the Pope arrived in the Holy Land. “I had written to the Pope to come to Gaza, to say NO to the suffering of Gaza, to the deaths and the injuries and the fear and the hunger and the thirst of the people of Gaza”.

Father Musallam expressed indignation that in a report on the important events of the year 2009, the Church (here, apparently, headed by Patriarch Fouad Twal) said that the visit of the Pope was the most important event. “This was a big mistake”, said Father Musallem. “The Church neglected to say that the Church of Palestine suffered the war on Gaza — I was there, and I say that that was the most important fact of 2009”.

On 23 December, the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, retired Princeton Professor of International Law Richard Falk said in a statement sent to journalists by email that “People of conscience everywhere, as well as governments worldwide and the United Nations, should take note of the dire situation in Gaza [one year after the start of Operation Cast Lead on 27 December 2008, and the air offensive moved into a ground invasion on 3-4 January 2009] … The ordeal of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza affected by the Israeli blockade, over half of whom are children, has been allowed to continue without any formal objection by governments and at the UN… [But] so far, there is no evidence of meaningful international pressure being brought to bear to end the blockade or to ensure that Israeli and Hamas officials are held accountable for alleged war crimes perpetrated during the Gaza attacks … this represents both a tragic failure of responsibility by the powerful governments of the world and of the UN. The unlawful blockade imposed by Israel continues, and is in its third year”, said the UN expert.

The UN message noted that “insufficient food and medicine was reaching Gazans, producing a further deterioration of the mental and physical health of the entire civilian population. Israel has not allowed building materials to enter the Gaza Strip to repair the billions of dollars of damage resulting from the heavy bombardment and artillery assaults on the civilian infrastructure of the whole area. The blockade continues to cause major breakdowns of the electricity and sanitation systems due to the Israeli refusal to let spare parts needed for repair get through the crossings”.

Special Rapporteur Richard Falk called on European and North American allies of Israel to “insist that Israel immediately ends its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, backed up by a credible threat of economic sanctions”. And, Falk said, the recommendations of the Goldstone report should be fully implemented. South Africa’s Justice Richard Goldstone’s report said that both Israel and the Hamas authorities in control in Gaza should each establish independent investigations into the possible commission of war crimes that may have amounted to crimes against humanity. More is available on this from the weibsite of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva here.

According to a recent story on the Ma’an News Agency, “The website of Israel’s Reshet Bet radio station reported that Israel will soon deliver its response to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after Israel’s political and military leaders debate whether to make public their findings. The news site also said that Israel’s response was the result of months of deliberations involving the Prime Minister’s Office, the Justice Ministry, the National Security Council, and the Foreign Ministry. The report also says a senior Israeli military official recently presented UN officials in New York with an Israeli rebuttal of Goldstone’s findings, including the results of 120 domestic investigations”. This Ma’an News Agency story is posted here.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke by telephone with UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon today (Monday 5 January).

Earlier, on 27 December, UNSG BAN said that “he was deeply concerned that a year after the outbreak of Operation Cast Lead ‘neither the issues that led to this conflict nor its worrying aftermath are being addressed. Very few of the key elements for stability, as identified in Security Council resolution 1860, have been implemented. While violence has been at lower levels this year, incidents continue and there is no durable ceasefire in place … The quality and quantity of humanitarian supplies entering Gaza is insufficient, broader economic and reconstruction activity is paralyzed, and the people of Gaza are denied basic human rights. Efforts are being made to combat illicit trafficking of weapons, but smuggling continues. Egypt has tirelessly worked for Palestinian unity, but without a breakthrough so far … [And there is a] sense of hopelessness in Gaza today for 1.5 million Palestinians, half of whom are under eighteen. Their fate and the well-being of Israelis are intimately connected”. According to a report on Israel’s YNet website, “Ban continued to say that a ‘fundamentally different’ approach to Gaza is urgently required, and called on Israel to ‘end the unacceptable and counterproductive blockade of Gaza, facilitate economic activity and civilian reconstruction, and fully respect and uphold international law’. Addressing Hamas, the UN chief urged … ‘an end to violence and fully respect and uphold international law’, and called on all Palestinians to ‘work for unity and elections within the framework of the legitimate Palestinian Authority’. In conclusion, Ban said, ‘Today’s anniversary is a reminder of the bitter consequences of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to which there is and can be no military solution’.” This report can be read in full here.

Also on 27 December, Patrick Cockburn wrote in a New York Times book review of the apparently extraordinarily well done political cartoon book by Joe Sacco, “Footnotes in Gaza“, that “Governments and the news media alike forget that atrocities live on in the memory of those most immediately affected. Sacco records Abed El-Aziz El-Rantisi — a leader of Hamas (later killed by an Israeli missile), who in 1956 was 9 and living in Khan Younis — describing how his uncle was killed: ‘It left a wound in my heart that can never heal’, he says. ‘I’m telling you a story and I am almost crying. . . . They planted hatred in our hearts’. The vividness and pace of Sacco’s drawings, combined with a highly informed and intelligent verbal narrative, work extremely well in telling the story. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how any other form of journalism could make these events so interesting. Many newspaper or television reporters understand that the roots of today’s crises lie in obscure, unpublicized events. But they also recognize that their news editors are most interested in what is new and are likely to dismiss diversions into history as journalistic self-indulgence liable to bore and confuse the audience. In fact, “Footnotes in Gaza” springs from this editorial bias against history. In the spring of 2001, Sacco and Chris ­Hedges (formerly a foreign correspondent of The New York Times) were reporting for Harper’s Magazine about Palestinians in Khan Younis during the early months of the second Palestinian intifada. They believed the 1956 killings helped explain the violence almost 50 years later. Perhaps predictably, however, the paragraphs about the old massacre were cut. American editors weren’t the only people who found their delving into history beside the point. When Sacco returned to Gaza to search for witnesses and survivors in 2002 and 2003, with Israeli forces still occupying the area, young Palestinians could not understand his interest in past events when there was so much contemporary violence”… Patrick Cockburn’s NYTimes book review of Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” was published here.

Karin Laub reported from Rafah for AP today on the Egyptian efforts to put an underground wall or barrier to block tunnels coming and going from Gaza. She wrote that “Today, nearly 400 tunnels run under Gaza’s border with Egypt, employing 15,000 people and bringing in $1 million in goods a day, said Issa Nashar, the Hamas mayor of the Gaza border town of Rafah. The municipality supplies electricity and levies $2,500 in taxes per tunnel, he said. Large white tents mark the tunnel entrances on the Gaza side. During a tour Monday, rows of tents were visible along most of the border. A stretch of sandy soil, about 200 yards (meters) wide, runs between the tents and the first Egyptian demarcation, in some places a low stone wall and in others a line of rusty steel containers. The tunnels run under the border and emerge about half a mile (a kilometer) away on the Egyptian side, the exits often disguised by homes. [N.B. we reported this after a visit to the terrifying tunnels site last May…] Construction of the anti-tunnel wall is believed to have started some time in November, though Egyptian officials initially would not discuss the project and still decline to provide details. In recent days, as opposition to the wall mounted, Egypt’s leaders have struck a defiant tone. ‘Egyptian borders are sacred and no Egyptian allows any violations in one way or another’, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said last week. It’s impossible to gauge how much of the wall has already been completed, but smugglers watch the construction with growing concern. Tunnel operators standing near Monday’s work site said they have not been directly affected so far, but fear the day when they have to stop working. Profits from the tunnels are still considerable. A 36-year-old former taxi driver said he makes $100 a day, a large sum for Gaza, by pumping fuel from Egypt through his tunnel. Amid the uncertainty, rumors are running wild. Many here believe Egypt plans to flood the area and are already scheming to make their tunnels waterproof. Nashar, the Rafah mayor, said enterprising smugglers have managed to cut pieces off the underground wall. Others have raised the possibility that the smugglers might simply dig deeper, going below the underground wall. Two years ago, Hamas militants cut down a metal border wall that had been erected by Israel, enabling tens of thousands of Gazans to pour into Egypt until the border was resealed. During Israel’s 38-year military control of Gaza, Israel tried in vain to halt the smuggling, including tearing down houses along the border and blowing up tunnels. In Israel’s three-week military offensive against Hamas last winter, warplanes repeatedly bombed the border area, causing some damage, but failing to close down the tunnels”. Karin Laub’s report from Rafah can be read in full here.

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