UNSG's new report on UNDOF mentions Golan minefields + Palestinian protests

The UN Secretary-General’s new report raises more questions than answers about two protests that turned deadly in the Golan Heights in the past month in which people who the UN report identified as “civilians”, and “largely young unarmed Palestinians” overran Syrian, UN, and Israeli lines — in an attempt to enter an area under Israeli control.

The UN said it still did not know the exact casualty toll. The report said that the two demonstrations “resulted in an unconfirmed number of civilian casualties and put the long-held ceasefire in jeopardy”.

The statement about the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire being in jeopardy is a surprise: there are no reports of any Syrian responses to the Israeli firing on the demonstrators.

The report was prepared, as it usually is, by the UNSG in connection with the imminent renewal of the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights later this month.   The UN has decided to ask for a regular six-month renewal, as has happened since 1974, and a threat to the cease-fire would be a good justification for renewal.

The report does not say that Syrian forces were in any way responsible for the organizing the protests, though it does note several times that the Syrian forces were present.

On May 15, it said, “A total of 44 civilian casualties, including four fatalities from IDF fire, were reported, but UNDOF has not been able to confirm these numbers”. In the second demonstration, it said, “Although UNDOF could not confirm the number of casualties during the 5 June events, up to 23 persons have been reported killed and many more wounded”.

The report said that it was still investigating an “incident” in which two civilians “entered Majdal Chams and demonstrated in the town centre” during the May 15 protest — and were detained by the IDF. They were returned two days later, on 17 May, “by the IDF through UNDOF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the Syrian authorities”. According to the UN report, “UNDOF is investigating the incident and both parties have agreed in principle to cooperate with UNDOF’s investigation”.

It also said it was still investigating an apparent attack by protestors, during the June 5 protest, on an UNDOF position. Stones were thrown at a UNDOF commander trying to calm the situation, several protesters climbed the walls and entered the UNDOF facility and some UNDOF military police were evacuated for their own protection.

Continue reading “UNSG's new report on UNDOF mentions Golan minefields + Palestinian protests”

AFP: UN report mentions unmarked minefield, denial of access to UN observer teams, in Golan

AFP has written a story from UNHQ/NY, based on an as-yet-unpublished UN report, that apparently says that Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators coming from Syria crossed an “unmarked minefield” in the Golan Heights on May 15 — the day that Israeli forces were surprised by the breach.

From the AFP story, published here, it is not clear if this referred to a field of Israeli, or Syrian, mines.

The unpublished UN report that AFP obtained is apparently linked to forthcoming UN Security Council consideration of periodic renewal, later this month, of the UN peacekeeping mandate on the Golan Heights, known as UNDOF [UN Disengagement Observer Forces]. This UNDOF report, published as a report of the UNSG, was due to be published on 10 June…

The AFP story, published yesterday [Wednesday June 15] says that “On May 15, about 4,000 mainly Palestinian demonstrators gathered on the Golan Heights on the anniversary of Israel’s 1948 creation. The UN report said about 300 moved toward the Israeli side ‘and despite the presence of the Syrian police, crossed the ceasefire line, through an unmarked minefield‘ and broke through an Israeli security fence. Israeli forces at first fired tear gas, then warning shots and then used ‘direct fire’, according to the UN, which said four dead and 41 wounded were reported. On June 5, Palestinians again gathered at two places on the Golan Heights ceasefire line. ‘Despite the presence of Syrian security forces, protesters attempted to breach the ceasefire line in both locations’, the UN said. Israeli forces again used tear gas and then live fire to deter the demonstrators. The UN said up to 23 people were reported killed and many more wounded … The UN report said ‘anti-government demonstrations in Syria spread to several villages’ on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line. UN observer teams have been denied access to six villages ‘ostensibly for reasons of safety and security of the military observers’, the report said”. This AFP story is published here.

This confirms the serious — and still unanswered — questions that have been raised in the past month:
(1) There is a question of proper notification, both to Syrian authorities and to UN peacekeeping missions working in the Golan.
(2) There is also an unanswered question about whether or not the minefields were properly marked [particularly any newly-laid minefields], in order to provide adequate warning to the demonstrators themselves.
(3) The breach of the Syrian and Israeli lines by Palestinian and Syrian protesters in demonstrations both on June 5 and also on May 15 has raised questions about how the UN peacekeeping forces who operate there are working.

The AFP story did seem to show UN confirmation that Syrian authorities didn’t do much but stand by and watch during May15 +June5 protests — though there was no real dispute on that point. The UN report apparently does not say that Syrian authorities actually sponsored, or even encouraged, the demonstrations. [It would be interesting to see anybody argue that the Syrian Army should actually have stopped the protesters from protesting — though the Lebanese Army did shoot at demonstrators on May 15.]

On Monday 6 June, a day after the latest demonstrations, the Israeli media published reports that newly-laid IDF minefields were among the preparations undertaken since the Nakba Day protests on May15 (when Palestinians + Syrians surprised the IDF by crossing the Golan on foot and entering Majdal Shams etc.) These newly-laid IDF minefields were reportedly planted expressly to prevent a second breach of the lines, in anticipation of the June 5 demonstrations marking the start of the June 1967 war (and the start of the Israeli occupation). An unclear number of people, said to be unarmed, were killed by unclear causes, apparently including minefield explosions.

UNDOF’s Croatian Battalion is located in the middle of the UN Zone that separates Israeli and Syrian lines near Majdal Shams.
The current UNDOF deployment map is published here.

The Israeli and Syrian lines are situated where agreed by a 1974 Agreement on the Disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces. It can’t be found on the UN website, but it is on the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, here. It shows the UN zone in the middle of the demarcated area:

Map of Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement - 1974
Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement Map - 1974

The story has not yet been developed.

It is not clear where the old minefields are, or whether they are all clearly marked. And it’s absolutely not clear where any newly-laid minefields are. But, all indications are that the newly-laid minefields were unmarked. (Except by two rows of barbed wire, according to an Israeli friend.)

One report, whose link I’ve unfortunately misplaced, did mention in passing that the IDF lines were overrun on May15 when Israeli troops stopped in their tracks, stunned to see the Palestinian demonstrators crossing minefields [marked, or unmarked?]

The first indications of injuries and deaths from mine explosions came from accounts given to the Israeli media by the IDF Northern Command on June 5, and then by IDF spokespersons themselves. The IDF aid that some protesters supposedly threw Molotov cocktails onto one minefield, apparently near Quneitra, thereby setting off one or more explosions. At least one IDF spokeswoman insisted, in an interview with one of my colleagues, that this peculiar tragedy involved minefields left over from the 1967 war.

UPDATE: However, the as-yet-unpublished UN report blame the fire not on Molotov cocktails supposedly thrown by demonstrators, but rather on the tear gas (or smoke?) canisters fired at the demonstrators by Israeli forces. Thanks to a tip from NYC-based journalist Alex B. Kane, who published his own account on Mondoweiss, there, we discovered a DPA [German Press Agency] story published by Haaretz on Tuesday evening, here reports that “A UN report on the Naksa day events said the IDF used tear gas, smoke grenades and live fire to prevent the demonstrators from crossing the ceasefire line. It stated: ‘Several anti-tank mines exploded due to a brush fire apparently started by tear gas or smoke grenade canisters near UNDOF facilities at Charlie Gate [near Quneitra?], resulting in casualties among protesters’. The brush fire was put out by Syrian and Israeli fire squads, and UNDOF, the report read”.

Another link in Alex Kane’s report for Mondoweiss, a Haaretz report published on June 6, here, “[IDF] Soldiers fired ‘with precision’ at the bottom half of the bodies of the protesters, the army said”. Then, an IDF spokeswoman said that this was further proof that the death toll figures had been exaggerated: We shot them in the feet, she said, and then the wounded were carried away on stretchers, pretending that they were dead…

So, to satisfy the IDF standards of proof that they were only “shot in the feet”, those injured should have walked back across the lines…?

IDF reportedly laid new minefields in Golan ahead of Sunday demonstrations

There were several Israeli media reports published yesterday (in English) and today (in Hebrew) that the IDF has, in recent weeks, laid new minefields in the Golan — as part of the military preparations against continuing demonstrations at the “border”.

According to these reports, new minefields were laid in the weeks between the May 15 Nakba Day demonstrations [marking the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians in the fighting that surrounded the creation of the State of Israel in 1948] and the June 5 demonstrations held on Sunday [to mark the 1967 war and the start of the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan].

On May 15, Israeli officials were surprised by an infiltration of Palestinians and their supporters who managed to cross the lines and enter the Golan town of Majdal Shams. One of these infiltrators even managed to get as far as Yaffa, the birthplace and home town of his parents, where he went for a meal, looked around, and then turned himself in to Israeli police.

The Syrian Golan Heights was occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war — and annexed by Israel in 1980, a move that UN members said was “null and void”.

The well-informed Defense Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, Yaakov Katz, wrote in an article published last night [06/06/2011 22:01] that “In general, the army was pleased with the way it handled the protests on Sunday … In the weeks before, the IDF prepared extensively, laying down new minefields, digging trenches and installing new barbed-wire fences … At least eight of the dead, IDF sources said on Monday, were killed by mines that exploded after the protesters threw Molotov cocktails in fields near the border, causing their premature detonation”. This was posted here.

Laying new minefields in the Golan raises serious questions — including whether proper notification was made, particularly to the Syrian authorities (also to the UN, which has peacekeeping missions there).

It also raises questions about whether such military measures — normally intended to address grave dangers and prevent invasions — are also intended as the Israeli response to protest demonstrations and civilian infiltration.

Continue reading “IDF reportedly laid new minefields in Golan ahead of Sunday demonstrations”

New IDF information offensive against Hizballah

An Associated Press report this morning indicates that the Israeli Defense Forces have launched a new information offensive against Hizballah.

The IDF has taken journalists to the the northern “border” [though there is no agreed border as yet] between Israel and Lebanon, and shown what the IDF claims is evidence that “Hezbollah is moving fighters and weapons into the villages of south Lebanon, building up a secret network of arms warehouses, bunkers and command posts in preparation for war. The Israeli military has begun releasing detailed information about what it calls Hezbollah’s new border deployment, four years after a cross-border raid by its guerrillas triggered a 34-day war … Neither side has signaled that another war is imminent, but the Israelis’ unusual openness about what they claim to know of Hezbollah’s preparations seems to have two goals: to show the reach of their intelligence, and to stake their claim that if another war breaks out and many civilians die, it will be because Hezbollah placed its armaments and fighters in their midst. Israel’s military says Hezbollah has changed strategy since the last war, moving most of its fighters and weapons from wooded rural areas into villages. It says the aim is to avoid detection and use to civilians for cover if war erupts”. This is reported here.

This, as we reported earlier on this blog, is exactly what the spoon-fed Israeli television + other media has been reporting for at least a year, if not more — obviously based on privileged background briefings from the IDF.

Continue reading “New IDF information offensive against Hizballah”

More on the recent Israeli-Lebanese firefight

lsraeli political and security analyst Shlomo Brom, [Brig-Gen {Res}], of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, INSS, has just written that: “Underlying this incident is the dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the demarcation of the Blue Line separating Lebanon and Israel, as well as Lebanon’s political reality. In its unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel withdrew to the Blue Line. This is not the international border agreed upon by Israel and Lebanon, although its route largely coincides with the 1923 international border. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, it fulfilled Security Council Resolution 425 calling on Israel to return to the recognized border between Israel and Lebanon prior to Operation Litani in 1978. This border, which was demarcated in cooperation with the UN, is called the Blue Line. Part of the Blue Line demarcation is accepted by Israel and Lebanon and is marked jointly on the ground, but there are still points of contention between the sides regarding the unmarked sections and how to translate the Blue Line in those locations into territorial markers. There are also places where due to topography the Israeli border fence is not situated on the border itself but within Israeli territory, with small pieces of sovereign Israeli land remaining on the Lebanese side of the fence. [n.b – This analyst is expressing an Israeli view, of course, as he certainly acknowledges.] The Lebanese army has a tendency to view Israeli military activity beyond the fence as an infiltration into Lebanese territory, even if it occurs in these areas. In the August 3 incident, Israeli activity to clear vegetation took place in territory of this category, beyond the fence and in an area with no border marking. The Lebanese claimed after the incident that the route of the Blue Line at this particular point is under dispute“.

Meanwhile, there’s an interesting view on what UNIFIL did as the confrontation began, which I found thanks to a tip from our reader, who comments under the name of Yul. This report on Youtube, shows a couple of “blue-beret” UNIFIL peacekeepers [who later put on blue helmets], one waving a blue UN flag, while one shouts, alternatively, (1) to the IDF to “Stop, Stop doing anything” [the IDF was carrying out “routine-maintenance” tree and shrub-pruning operation on the other side of a fence], and then (2) “Lower your guns”, to the Lebanese Army troops, lying on their bellies with weapons pointed as this IDF “routine-maintenance” proceeds [with heavy military escort]:

Shlomo Brom writes, in his INSS insight analysis, that “The Lebanese government could certainly have protested with more moderation and complained to UNIFIL about what it deemed was an IDF violation, instead of opening fire. However it chose to demonstrate a forceful policy and to instruct Lebanese army units in southern Lebanon accordingly. To be sure, there is a question as to whether there was a specific directive from Beirut to open fire in this particular case, but it is clear that the firm policy from Beirut’s direction played a key role in decisions by the local Lebanese command”.

However, as we have learned from reports published [in identical language] in at least two separate Israeli papers last week, and discussed in comments in an earlier post on this blog, the IDF has decided — since the “Second Lebanon War” in 2006 — to implement a forceful policy by “showing the flag” on a near-daily basis in enclaves along the Blue Line, in order to demonstrate Israeli claims to sovereignty.

So, it should be noted that while the IDF has been showing its muscle for several years, the Lebanese Army engaged the IDF for the first time ever, last week…

Shlomo Brom writes that “It seems the main reason for this policy is the political need for the Lebanese army to demonstrate that it – and not Hizbollah – is the defender of Lebanese sovereignty. In the game of internal Lebanese politics, Hizbollah justifies its military force as being Lebanon’s defender. Thus Hizbollah rushed in to declare that after this incident, next time its forces would respond to an attack on the Lebanese army, this in order to underline the authenticity of its role as defender of Lebanese sovereignty”.

Actually, if memory serves, Hizballah was somewhat more deferential to the Lebanese Army, and said it would respond to future attacks on the Lebanese Army if the Lebanese Army asks Hizballah to do so…

In any case, Brom’s analysis continues: “Moreover, Hizbollah senior officials claimed the incident was an expression of Israel’s desire to draw Hizbollah into a broad military confrontation. Apparently, Hizbollah has no interest in such a confrontation, at least at this time, and this reflects the extent of the mutual deterrence between Israel and Hizbollah that evolved in the aftermath of the 2006 war. This deterrence is based on the threat and capability of both sides to seriously damage the home front of the other”…

And, Brom said, “Also important here is UNIFIL’s role. If one of the two sides is interested in harming the other, it is not within UNIFIL’s power to prevent it, nor is it within its mandate. UNIFIL serves as a mechanism to help prevent conflict eruption when both sides have no interest in friction. In this case it appears that UNIFIL, cognizant of the dispute between the sides, tried to prevent the incident. Although it failed in this regard, it played an important role in contacts between the parties intent on containing the incident and preventing its mushrooming”.

Of course, it would be better if UNIFIL could fulfill its role without looking quite so silly.

UNIFIL was reportedly notified by the IDF at 0630 am on the morning of this engagement. The IDF began its “routine maintenance” at 1130 am — and the film shown on Youtube was clearly taken at mid-day.

Brom then summarizes: “Thus the initial conclusion from the August 3 incident is that all of the involved parties – Israel, Hizbollah, and the Lebanese government – want to avoid being drawn into a military confrontation and hence will strive to contain points of friction. The second conclusion is that since the interest of all sides at this time is to minimize points of friction, efforts toward the precise demarcation of the Blue Line on the ground under UNIFIL auspices must be accelerated. [Wouldn’t it have been better, here, to have written “under UN auspices”?] The third conclusion is that UNIFIL fulfills a positive and stabilizing role, even if it is unable to satisfy exaggerated Israeli expectations – to forcibly prevent any attempt to strike Israel. Within the limited framework of the mandate under Security Council Resolution 1701, UNIFIL is indeed functioning reasonably”. Shlomo Brom’s INSS analysis can be read in full here.

"It's ours!" – More Israeli imprecision about status of "border" from Haaretz

Here is another example of Israeli extreme imprecision about the nature of the demarcation between its territory and Lebanese, in a Haaretz editorial whose sub-headline says: “The government and IDF must understand that not every time is right for demonstrating Israeli sovereignty right up to the last millimeter, certainly not when tension is rising on both sides of the northern border“.

It would have been better to write: “The government and IDF must understand that not every time is right for demonstrating Israeli sovereignty right up to the last millimeter … especially when those last millimeters are not yet rightfully attributed”.

Instead, this Israeli practice of insisting that “it’s ours” — never mind the small details — leads to what is at the very least an extremely tense and dangerous atmosphere.

In fact, the “it’s ours” phenomena led, exactly, to what Israel has come to call its “Second Lebanon War” in the summer of 2006, when Hizballah fighters ambushed several Israeli soldiers along the Blue Line (in an area for which Lebanese reservations had been recorded during the demarcation process) in an operation conducted in sympathy (if not in actual coordination) with the cross-border raid from Gaza that resulted in the capture of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit in late June 2006. [Shalit is still being held captive, reportedly somewhere in Gaza.]

In any case, the Haaretz editorial itself, published yesterday (Thursday 5 August) noted that “the incident had threatening potential of widespread deterioration, and even war”. The editorial also acknowledged that “the government and the IDF have for several months been preparing the Israeli public for the possibility of a war in the north”.

Israeli friends, who get all their news from Israel Television reports — and who have total faith in every last word of those reports — have been shrieking at me for over a year that Israeli Television reports show that the entire population of southern Lebanon is being held hostage, in terror, to Hizballah, which sends troops into homes at will to fire rockets (from inside the houses) onto Israeli territory… Any question, or expressions of the slightest reserve, provoke accusations of naivete.A

The Haaretz editorial then states: “There’s no dispute, even according to the United Nations, that Israel was operating on its own territory [!!!] If Lebanon disagreed with the way the area was marked, or opposed Israel Defense Forces operations there, it could have contacted UN liaison officers”…

And, the Haaretz editorial continues: “This awareness should have led the government and the IDF to consider more carefully when to cut down a tree near the border. Operation Exposure, as the army is calling the tree cutting, may be necessary to give IDF troops a good view of what is happening in Lebanese territory, but when such an operation can trigger a war, the benefits must be weighed against the risks … The government and the IDF must understand that not every time is right for demonstrating Israeli sovereignty right up to the last millimeter, certainly not when tension is rising on both sides of the border. Employing restraint and waiting at such a time are not an expression of weakness, but of wisdom and political sensitivity”. This can be read in full here.

What does UNIFIL have to say today? The Blue Line is "sensitive", but "quiet prevails at this time"

This is what the UN likes best – holding meetings… [This one was, unsurprisingly, “constructive”]. That, and calling on both sides to exercise “maximum restraint” [safely, after the most senior officials in the U.S. administration already used the exact same language]…

Here is a statement issued today by the UNIFIL spokesperson in Naqoura, Lebanon:
“UNIFIL Force Commander Major-General Alberto Asarta Cuevas chaired an extraordinary tripartite meeting with senior representatives of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) tonight at the UN Position at the Ras Al Naqoura crossing in south Lebanon. The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Mr. Michael Williams also attended and addressed the meeting. The meeting specifically addressed the serious situation that developed in the last two days following the exchange of fire between Lebanese and Israeli forces across the Blue Line in El Adeisse yesterday, causing regrettable loss of lives. UNIFIL informed the parties that a thorough investigation into yesterday’s events is underway and presented its preliminary findings. On completion of the ongoing investigation, UNIFIL will share its findings with both the parties. In the meantime, UNIFIL urged the parties to exercise maximum restraint, avoid any action that could serve to heighten tensions, and work with UNIFIL in taking steps to prevent any recurrence of such a situation. Following the tripartite meeting, UNIFIL Force Commander Major-General Asarta said: ‘We had a constructive meeting. I stressed the importance of ensuring full respect for the Blue Line by all the parties. I reiterated the sensitivity of the Blue Line and urged utmost caution in any actions along the Blue Line that could be perceived as provocative and exacerbate tensions. I called on the parties to utilize the liaison and coordination mechanism through UNIFIL particularly on matters relating to the Blue Line in order to minimize the scope for any misunderstandings or apprehensions that may lead to wanton escalation’. The Force Commander noted that both the parties renewed their commitment to the cessation of hostilities and to UN Security Council resolution 1701 (2006) and undertook to work with UNIFIL to ensure that incidents of violence are avoided in the future.  He added that the situation has returned to normal and quiet prevails in UNIFIL’s area of operations at this time”.

UPDATE: The IDF later issued a rather uninformative statement, revealing only that it “was represented by Brig. Gen. Yossi Hyman, Head of Strategy in the IDF Planning Department, who was brought together with an LAF representative and UNIFIL Commander Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas. During the meeting, Gen. Cuevas urged both parties to exercise restraint in order to ‘refrain from any action that could lead to an escalation’.   Gen. Cuevas asked the LAF and the IDF to cooperate with UNIFIL, in order to prevent any future misunderstandings which could result in even worse consequences.  ‘UNIFIL is in contact with both sides, in order to ensure that the situation in the area is under control and that there is no violation of the Blue Line, it was reported”. This IDF statement is posted here.

Then, repeating its maddeningly careless (though perhaps deliberate) and imprecise use of language, the IDF statement concluded this statement by noting that “The Spokesman for the US State Department, Philip Crowley, also discussed the event during a press conference in Washington.  According to him, ‘the shootings by the Lebanese army towards IDF forces on the northern border are completely unjustified’.  Crowley also stressed that the pruning work executed by the IDF took place in Israeli territory“.

Actually, Crowley did not attibute that exact piece of territory to Israel.   Despite what the IDF wrote in their statement, a consultation of the transcript provided by the U.S.  State Department shows Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley told journalists at the daily State Department briefing in Washington on Wednesday that what Crowley said was this:  “The United Nations has now established that the trees cut by the Israeli Defense Forces were on the Israeli side of the line that separates Israel and Lebanon [n.b. – Crowley himself also carelessly and imprecisely used the word “border” a couple of times, later, but he was very careful not to say that the territory in question belonged to Israel].  The firing by Lebanese Armed Forces was wholly unjustified and unwarranted”.

Then, there was this exchange with a journalist at the State Department briefing:

QUESTION: Are the lines of demarcation along that border clearly defined? Do you know from the line?

MR. CROWLEY: I can only cite information reported today that the precise border is a matter of some dispute between the two countries. I’m not here to get involved in the middle of that.

QUESTION: One last quick follow-up. Are you concerned that the Israeli army might take this as a pretext to strike across the Lebanese border?

MR. CROWLEY: We certainly, as we have made clear yesterday and today and will continue to make clear, we do not think that this incident should escalate any further.

QUESTION: Do you take a – do you have any position on the actual tree trimming –

MR. CROWLEY: Again –

QUESTION: — in terms of whether – no, no, this is a serious question. I’m not suggesting that –

MR. CROWLEY: No, it is a serious question.

QUESTION: — tree surgeons be brought in to be part of the UNIFIL team.  But I am wondering if you think that that in itself is a provocative – if that is provocative.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the idea that you would have tree trimmings so you have clear sightlines across the border so that you would hope that these clear sightlines would prevent misunderstandings or unfortunate actions on side or the other. So – but the issue that I’m sure was covered today was whether there was proper notification that there was going to be this kind of activity on one side of the border. And if there was that kind of notification, how was it received on the other side? And precisely, what led to the circumstances where the Lebanese Armed Forces fired on the Israelis?

QUESTION: But your position would be then if there was proper notification, then it shouldn’t be a problem.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think we’re against tree trimming along the border if it improves – if it increases security along the border”…

UN headquarters in Haiti demolished – mission head Hedi Annabi feared dead

According to a statement made by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the French Ambassador to Haiti has visited the “devastated UN headquarters building in Port-au-Prince and said ‘everyone who was in the building is apparently dead’.” The Associated Press (AP) picked up reported Kouchner’s remarks to RFI (or perhaps to RTL, or both) in its latest story on yesterday’s earthquake in Haiti, which is being called a catastrophe of major proportions.

AP added that the head of the UN peacekeeping department, Alain Le Roy, “confirmed that Annabi was in the building at the time of the 7.0-magnitude quake”. Other UN buildings in Haiti were also damaged, he said. The earthquake hit Haiti at around 5 in the evening local time on Tuesday.

Hedi Annabi was a quiet, intense, Tunisian official who worked for several decades at UNHQ in New York. He used to live quietly with his European wife on Roosevelt Island, and commuted to work by cable car over NYC’s East River every day.
Continue reading “UN headquarters in Haiti demolished – mission head Hedi Annabi feared dead”

Free Gaza expedition warned not to try sea voyage to Gaza – but if it does, it will lose Cypriot support

The Free Gaza movement has been warned not to try to sail to Gaza — its latest expedition of two ships was supposed to leave Cyprus yesterday but did not, after Cypriot authorities required additional detailed inspections — but the international activists say they “will not back down from Israel’s threats and intimidation”

According to their latest update, maybe only one ship will go, but they will not be taking cement. They say they have a plan.

The activists said last night that “our ships were not given permission to leave today [Thursday] due to concerns about our welfare and safety. Our friends in Cyprus tell us that the voyage to Gaza is too dangerous, and they are worried we will be harmed at sea”.

In response, the group says, they intend to deliver a waiver “signed by all going to Gaza, that we absolve Cyprus of all responsibility for our safety” — and will set sail anyway today, Friday.

If it actually departs, this would be the eighth Free Gaza expedition from Cyprus to Gaza — and it might be the last.

The two boats in this expedition were supposed to be carrying “3 tons of medical supplies, and 15 tons of badly needed concrete and reconstruction supplies”, according to the Free Gaza movement, which began sea expeditions to Gaza last August with the express intention of breaking the seige — which Israel has since elevated into a formal naval blockade of Gaza.

In its latest statement issued Thursday night, the Free Gaza expedition spokespersons said that “The purpose of nonviolent direct action and civil resistance is to take risks – to put ourselves ‘in the way’ of injustice. We take these risks well aware of what the possible consequences may be. We do so because the consequences of doing nothing are so much worse. Anytime we allow ourselves to be bullied, every time we pass by an evil and ignore it – we lower our standards and allow our world to be made that much harsher and unjust for us all”.

They added that “The journey to Gaza is dangerous. The Israeli navy rammed our flagship, the Dignity, when we attempted to deliver medical supplies to Gaza during their vicious assault in December/January. Israel has previously threatened to open fire on our unarmed ships, rather than allow us to deliver humanitarian and reconstruction supplies to the people of Gaza. The risks we take on these trips are tiny compared to the risks imposed every day upon the people of Gaza”.

On Friday afternoon, the group indicated it was buying childrens’ toys to take with them to Gaza (in place of the cement, which Israel bans). But actually, childrens’ toys are banned as well — as the Israeli military-administered sanctions are said to be designed to allow in only the most basic supplies needed, a *humanitarian minimum”.

The Free Gaza statement says that “the American consulate in Nicosia warned us not to go to Gaza, stating that: ‘…[T]he Israeli Foreign Ministry informed U.S. officials at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv that Israel still considers Gaza an area of conflict and that any Free Gaza boats attempting to sail to the Gaza Strip will “not be permitted” to reach its destination’. Former U.S. Congresswoman and presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney [who is on the passenger list] responded to this warning by pointing out that, ‘The White House says that cement and medical supplies should get into Gaza and that’s exactly what we are attempting to take to Gaza. Instead of quoting Israel policy to us … the U.S. should send a message to Israel reiterating the reported White House position that the blockade of Gaza should be eased, that medical supplies and building materials, including cement, should be allowed in. The Free Gaza boats should be allowed to reach their destination, traveling from Cyprus territorial waters, through international waters, and straight into Gaza territorial waters. The State Department has chosen to advise us to take the Israeli notification seriously. Our question is, Can we take President Obama seriously? Will he stand by his own words and allow us to provide relief for Gaza or will he back down?’.”

Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire is also on the passenger list, which is posted here .

There do not appear to be any journalists on board — and there has been precious little media interest in this saga.

The groups’ statement added that “Cyprus has been a wonderful home for the Free Gaza Movement over these last 10 months. Cypriots know first-hand the terrible consequences of occupation. They too know what it is to suffer from violence, injustice, and exile. Since our first voyage to break through the siege of Gaza, the Cypriot authorities have been extremely helpful and understanding of our goals and intentions”.

Nevertheless, the Free Gaza movement is indicating it plays to defy the Cypriot authorities on this matter.

A Cypriot diplomat in the region says that there is no physical way the Cypriot authorities will try to stop this Free Gaza expedition from leaving port, if they intend to do so. But it would be a violation of Cypriot law or regulations, he indicated, because there is no “port” at the Free Gaza expedition’s destination in Gaza.

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(n.b. There is a little fishing port in Gaza City, but not a real seaport. The Agreement on Movement and Access [to Gaza] that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to become involved with negotiating — staying up all night on her birthday, 15 November 2005 — stated that “Construction of a seaport can commence. The GoI [Government of Israel] will undertake to assure donors that it will not interfere with operation of the port”. But, so far, there has been no movement at all on the construction of a seaport in Gaza.)

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While this technicality (the lack of a “port” in Gaza) was not invoked by Cypriot authorities during the earlier Free Gaza expeditions, there has been a powerful international effort in recent months to close all the loopholes.

And, the Cypriot diplomat added, “we cannot stop them, if they tell us they’re going to Crete, or someplace else, then change once they’re at sea and head toward Gaza”.

But, he added, if they do so, they will lose their base of support in Cyprus.

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Israel allowed the first expeditions to pass, explaining that they did not want to give the Free Gaza activists a propaganda victory. But, toward the end of the year, Israel took an increasingly tough stance. During the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead (27 December – 18 January), Israel announced its formal naval blockade on 3-4 January, the day that the Israeli Army began its ground invasion. And, a day or two before the Israeli government finally agreed to international calls for a cease-fire, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, Condoleezza Rice, signed a formal agreement with Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — the consequences of which were not all fully and immediately public — to participate in naval activities as part of a global interdiction of arms shipments that might be used by Israel’s enemies, either in Gaza or by one of Israel’s main nemesis, Hizballah, in Lebanon.

Israeli human rights activist Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), who sailed with the first Free Gaza expedition from Cyprus to Gaza last August — and when he left Gaza by land via Israel’s Erez “border” terminal to return to his home in Jerusalem, he was arrested and jailed for his trouble. He was freed on a modest bail, and charges against him are still pending.

He told me recently that he was thinking of participating in this Free Gaza expedition — but that he had heard that “UN forces” were a second level of interdiction operating in the Mediterranean Sea, and might also try to intercept the next expedition. I asked the UN spokespersons in Jerusalem and at UNHQ/NY if they knew anything about this, but they all expressed astonishment.

UNIFIL is the first UN peacekeeping operation ever to have a maritime component. It was deployed after Israel’s most recent war against Lebanon in the summer of 2006. According to a UNIFIL press release, “an Interim Maritime Task Force was deployed until 15 October 2006, when the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force led by Germany took over. On 29 February 2008, Germany handed over command of UNIFIL Maritime Task Force to the European Maritime Force (EUROMARFOR) led by Italy. Under this arrangement it was for the first time that EUROMARFOR – a Maritime Multinational Force formed in 1995 by France, Italy, Portugal and Spain to carry out naval, air and amphibious operations – operated under a United Nations mandate. The EUROMARFOR held command of UNIFIL MTF for one year, first under Italy’s lead (29 February – 31 August 2008) and then under France (1 September 2008 – 28 February 2009). On 1 March 2009, France/EUROMARFOR handed over the command of MTF to Belgium“… This press release is posted on the UNIFIL UN website here.

The European Union’s Maritime force, EUROMARFOR, which has participated in various naval interdiction missions, actually took over command of the maritime component of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and operated under a United Nations mandate for one year — from 29 February 2008 until 28 February 2009.

I then corresponded with a spokesperson of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) at UNHQ/NY, to ask if there were anything to this story.

Specifically, I asked, “Did either EUROMARFOR alone or EUROMARFOR-MTF intervene in any way with any of the Free Gaza expeditions (including the one that was interrupted by a forceful Israeli naval interdiction, after which the ship made its way to Lebanon for repair)? During this period that it commanded the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force (MTF), was EUROMARFOR involved in any maritime interdiction activity in the Mediterranean off Gaza?”

But the answer I received was this: “On the interdiction question, I daresay there would not be anything of the sort outside of Lebanon’s coastal waters, in line with Security Council resolution 1701 which defines the mandate of UNIFIL and its MTF.  I’ve also cc’ed colleagues at UNIFIL who may have suggestions/thoughts/insight on this”.

However, there was no further information forthcoming, either from DPKO in New York, or from the colleagues at UNIFIL.

Jeff Halper is not on the list of those aboard the two Free Gaza ships that were supposed to leave Cyprus Thursday.  He did not return a phone call Friday afternoon

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East Timor leader Ramos-Horta tells UN to stop investigation into 1999 killings

Reports today in the Australian press state that “East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta has said he wants the United Nations to drop its investigation into bloodshed surrounding a 1999 independence vote from Indonesia. Leaders in East Timor and Indonesia said in July that the issue was closed after expressing regret at the findings of a joint truth commission that blamed Indonesian security and civilian forces for ‘gross human rights violations. But the United Nations, which boycotted the truth commission, has said it will continue to back prosecutions through the Serious Crime Unit” … President Ramos-Horta, however, said that “As chief of state, I don’t authorize or allow the UN investigation into the 1999 crimes. Our position is keeping good ties with Indonesia”…
http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/10/13/2389997.htm