Prof. Richard Falk on Gaza: "To lock people into a war zone .. evokes the worst kind of international memories of the Warsaw Ghetto …"

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territory said in a telephone interview arranged by the UN in Geneva that “the entire Gaza population, which had been trapped in a war zone with no possibility to leave as refugees, may be mentally scarred for life. If so, the definition of casualty could be extended to the entire civilian population”.

We discussed this situation in our earlier post, “No other country in the world…” here.

“To lock people into a war zone is something that evokes the worst kind of international memories of the Warsaw Ghetto”, Falk said in remarks that were reported today on Israel’s YNet website.

The reference was to a sealed-off part of the Polish city of Warsaw during World War II, where Polish Jews were herded by occupying German Nazi forces into a closed part of the city, starved, and then either methodically removed for transport to a death camp, or murdered.

Falk said Israel had made no effort to allow civilians to escape the fighting.

Falk told YNet that “There could have been temporary provision at least made for children, disabled, sick civilians to leave, even if where they left to was southern Israel”.

YNet added that “Falk, who was denied entry to Israel two weeks before the assault started on Dec. 27, dismissed Israel’s argument that the assault was for self-defense in the light of rocket attacks aimed at Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip. ‘In my view the UN charter, and international law, does not give Israel the legal foundation for claiming self-defense’, he said. Israel had not restricted fighting to areas where the rockets came from and had refused to negotiate with Hamas, preventing a diplomatic solution, Falk [also] said”.

“Falk, speaking by phone from his home in California, said compelling evidence that Israel’s actions in Gaza violated international humanitarian law required an independent investigation into whether they amounted to war crimes. ‘I believe that there is the prima facie case for reaching that conclusion’, he told a Geneva news conference”. This article can be read in full on the YNet website here.

Amnesty International today issued a call to the Israeli authorities “to disclose the weapons and munitions their forces used during the three week military campaign in Gaza which began on 27 December. ‘We now know that white phosphorous munitions were used in built-up civilian areas, although the Israeli authorities previously denied this’, said Donatella Rovera, who is heading an Amnesty International investigation team in Gaza. ‘Now we have irrefutable evidence of the use of this weapon, but the doctors who treated the first casualties did not know what had caused their injuries’.

Amnesty said that “Israel’s earlier refusal to confirm that its troops had used white phosphorus meant that doctors were unable to provide correct treatment. White phosphorous particles embedded in the flesh can continue to burn, causing intense pain as the burns grow wider and deeper, and can result in irreparable damage to internal organs. It can contaminate other parts of the patient’s body or even those treating the injuries. ‘We noticed burns different from anything we had ever dealt with before’, one burns specialist at Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital told Amnesty International. ‘After some hours the burns became wider and deeper, gave off an offensive odour and then they began to smoke’. The condition of people with burns caused by white phosphorus can deteriorate rapidly. Even those with burns that cover a relatively small area of the body – 10 to 15 per cent – who would normally survive, can deteriorate and die”.

Other victims of the conflict have wounds which doctors say they are finding hard to treat because of uncertainty about the nature of the munitions which caused them. ‘Doctors tell us they are encountering new and unexplained patterns of injury among some of the Palestinians injured in Israeli military attacks’, said Donatella Rovera. ‘Some victims of Israeli air strikes were brought in with charred and sharply severed limbs and doctors treating them need to know what weapons were used’. Dr. Subhi Skeik, head of the Surgical Department at al-Shifa Hospital, told Amnesty International delegates: ‘We have many cases of amputations and vascular reconstructions where patients would be expected to recover in the normal way. But to our surprise many of them died an hour or two after operation. It is dramatic’.”

Rovera added that “Israeli officials have repeatedly said that its military operation was against Hamas, not against the people of Gaza. There can be no excuse for continuing to withhold information vital to effective treatment of people wounded in Israeli attacks. Lack of cooperation by Israel is leading to needless deaths and unnecessary suffering … The Israeli authorities should fulfil their obligation to ensure prompt and adequate care for the wounded by making a full disclosure of the weapons and munitions they used in Gaza and provide any other relevant information that may help medical teams … It is vital and urgent that the Israeli authorities disclose all relevant information including what weapons and munitions they used”.

Meanwhile, urgently needed supplies are not getting into the Gaza Strip, five days after a 22-day Israeli military offensive has ended. Israeli government ministers now say that it will take the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinians in a cross-border raid in June 2006, to pry open the border crossings.

UN agencies say that the Israeli military is allowing limited quantities of very basic supplies like flour and canned meat into Gaza, while all the other items that ordinary people need to live are still banned. And, UN officials say, only one-third to one-half the amount needed is getting in.

The UN’s top humanitarian official John Holmes arrived in Gaza City Thursday to inspect the situation on the ground. Holmes said that the steep Palestinian casualty toll was “extremely shocking”. He suggested the UN might ask Israel to compensate it for wartime damage to UN compounds in Gaza. Hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid were destroyed by an Israeli shelling of the main UN compound.

Israeli human rights organizations have called on the government to immediately and fully open the crossings of the Gaza Strip to the passage of goods and people, noting that more than 300,000 people still without access to running water; there is sewage running in the streets; and some 200,000 people are still without electricity, nearly a month after the start of Israel’s military offensive after nearly a month.

Haaretz newspaper published an editorial saying that “The questions are plentiful and troubling: the mass killing of civilians, among them 300 children and 100 women; the shooting at medical crews; the use of illegal munitions against a civilian population, including white phosphorus shells; the prevention of the evacuation of wounded; bombing and shelling of schools, hospitals, supply convoys and a UN facility. These questions cannot remain unanswered. The suspicion that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza is liable to cause it great damage. This is precisely the moment at which Israel needs to preempt the others and investigate itself. It is impossible to ignore what has already been reported, and one must not leave the task of investigating solely to foreign bodies, some of whom are hostile. Israel also needs to ask itself what was done in its name in Gaza. Were deeds that are never to be done, even in a time of war, perpetrated? Has the IDF crossed the line according to international law? Was there no other way apart from such widespread killing and destruction?” This editorial was published here.

Tunnels dug underneath the border into the Egyptian Sinai are reported to be back in operation – and some may never have shut down, even at the height of the Israeli military offensive, despite intense Israeli air raids.

The tunnels have become an essential life-line for the import of almost all normal goods that the Israeli military has blocked for over a year. No exports from Gaza have been allowed.

Palestinian tunnel operators say that the most profitable items for them to bring in are food and fuel. But the Israeli government is demanding that the tunnels be closed to end arms smuggling into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

A U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding signed on Friday set the stage for the interdiction of Iranian arms shipments to Hamas in Gaza. An Israeli paper reported today that U.S. Naval vessels have stopped and boarded an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, and reportedly found ammunition “hidden” in crates.

Israeli envoy Amos Gilad returned to Cairo for talks Thursday, a day after Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni traveled to Brussels to secure agreements on European participation in interdiction efforts.
Livni was told, however, that European leaders wanted the crossings into Gaza opened first, to allow the immediate provision of urgent humanitarian relief, and then supplies for rebuilding Gaza’s badly-damaged if not devastated infrastructure.

Livni said, however, that before that happens, there must first be the return of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has spent two and a half years in captivity, somewhere in the Gaza Strip.

For that to happen, Hamas has said that Israel must reciprocally free a large number of some 1400 Palestinian prisoners whose names are on a Hamas list. Israeli officials have been reluctant to give Hamas any kind of boost that they fear might work to undermine Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is holding some 11,000 Palestinian prisoners and detainees. Now, Israeli officials indicate, they are ready to be more flexible.

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