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.

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