All of a sudden, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr appeared on the TV screen — on all the news channels.

In Arabic, FM Amr announced that “efforts had led to a cease-fire, an end to the violence and bloodshed we have witnessed”.   He said this cease-fire would start at 21:00 in Cairo [20:00 GMT].

He read a statement in Arabic, speaking about the end goal being a comprensive and just resolution.  “We are calling for a fair solution to the Palestinian question”, and he said Egypt will continue in its efforts.  And, he indicated that he hoped the divisions between Palestinian factions would end, and the Palestinians will be united.

Then, Sec of State Clinton said, “To hold, the rocket fire must end and a broader calm return”.  She said that the people in the region deserve to live “free from fear and violence”, and that “in the days ahead, the U.S. will work to improve conditions for the people of Gaza, and provide security for the people of Israel”.

@TimothyS — CNN just reported that US will spend an additional $600 million on Israel’s Iron Dome system as part of the Gaza cease-fire agreement.

UPDATE: An alternative theory: RT.com reported on 23 November, here, relying on a report on the not-always-reliable Debka.com, that “the pause in fighting comes after the US promised to send troops to Sinai. According to Debka, US troops will soon be en route to the Sinai peninsula…Debka reports this week that Sinai will soon be occupied by US troops, who were promised by President Barack Obama to Israel’s leaders as a condition that a ceasefire be called. Once deployed, the Americans will intervene with the rumored arms trade orchestrated by Iranians, ideally cutting off supplies for Hamas while at the same time serving as a thorn in the side of Iran…The decision to send US troops to Sinai in exchange for a ceasefire was reportedly arranged early Wednesday morning after Pres. Obama made a deal over the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu…A ceasefire has since been called after a week of fight, but more military action could soon occur, claims Israel, if the flow of weapons to Gaza is not stopped… Debka’s sources suggest that US troops may now have to intervene in Sinai if any smugglers should attempt to move weapons into Gaza. ‘By opening the Sinai door to an American troop deployment for Israel’s defense, recognizes that the US force also insures Israel against Cairo revoking or failing to honor the peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979’, adds Debka.  According to their sources, US troops are expected in Egypt early next week”.

The Guardian reported here that “Barack Obama heaped praise on Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu for agreeing to the Egyptian ceasefire plan and offered increased US funding to beef up Israel’s air defence batteries.  The White House, in an unusual twist, highlighted that Netanyahu had followed Obama’s advice, which was to accept the ceasefire deal…[The White House statement] publicly stressed the fact that Netanyahu had taken Obama’s advice. ‘The president commended the prime minister for agreeing to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal – which the president recommended the prime minster do – while reiterating that Israel maintains the right to defend itself’, the White House said.”

Continue reading Cease-fire?

Israel has no intention of entering into a formal cease-fire agreement with Hamas

It is not really clear — at least not to me — what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is up to.

Yesterday, at a meeting he convened of Israel’s “security cabinet”, he got agreement to put at the top of the Israeli government’s priorities the release of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid in June 2006 and is believed to be held, still, somewhere in Gaza.

Hamas has said over and over again that Shalit will be released only if Israel frees many of those on a list of about 1400 Palestinian prisoners Hamas has specified. It was recently reported (just around the time of the cease-fires after the recent 22-day IDF military operation in Gaza), that Israel might be ready to free about 1000 Palestinians — the most generous offer to date.

But, Hamas has always insisted not just on quantity, but on its own specifically-named choices.

On Wednesday, Olmert apparently blithely ignored this fact — and got the security cabinet to approve his own list.
Continue reading Israel has no intention of entering into a formal cease-fire agreement with Hamas

A cease-fire?

There was an attack on an Israeli patrol alongside the Gaza border yesterday (Israeli media say a roadside explosion went off just on the Israeli side of the border), near Kissufim. One Israeli soldier was killed, and several wounded.

All crossings between Israel and Gaza were then closed (barring the entry and exit of journalists, who were given the right to travel through the Erez Terminal only when it is open … so the Israeli Supreme Court decision is not an independent right for press freedom of movement.)

Then, there were the Israeli responses: First, a home near Khan Younis was hit. Then, a man riding a motorcycle in the area was killed. Then, Israeli government officials said the response hadn’t come yet. Then, overnight, there were Israeli Air Force bombing raids, said to be directed at tunnels in or around Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

It has often been observed in this region that a cease-fire that can be disrupted by one act is hardly a cease-fire …

And, with many thanks to my friend and colleague in Geneva, Robert Parsons, for pointing this out: it should be noted that the French newspaper Le Figaro has asked an important question — which few if any other media has done — about whether or not the roadside bomb that caused yesterday’s explosion was placed BEFORE or AFTER the cease-fire, reporting that “Several minutes after the explosion of this bomb, which may or may not have been placed after the cease-fire, clashes were already occurring between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters in Khan Yunes. Israeli tanks and helicopters opened fire in the direction of Palestinian lands before an operation combed the area as Israeli aircraft flew over the sector. A Palestinian was killed in these clashes”…

[“Quelques minutes après l’explosion de cette bombe, dont on ignore si elle a été posée après le cessez-le-feu ou s’il s’agit d’un engin plus ancien, des accrochages se sont produits entre soldats israéliens et combattants palestiniens à Khan Younès”… The full report is posted here or ici, as we say in French .]
Continue reading A cease-fire?

European leaders come from Egypt to Jerusalem for dinner

Israel’s main highway No. 1 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was completely closed to traffic from 16h30 until 19h30 Sunday evening, to allow for the secure and unimpeded arrival of six European leaders who had earlier attended a meeting in Egypt co-hosted by Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited them to dinner in his official residence in Jerusalem.

The dinner was organized less than 20 hours into a cease-fire that Israel had unilaterally proclaimed after twenty-two days of military attack on Gaza.

They all wore business attire and suits — and posed for photo-ops as if it were a G-8 Summit. There were floral arrangements, plenty of flags, and avowals of unusually close friendships.
Continue reading European leaders come from Egypt to Jerusalem for dinner

Unprecedented humanitarian operation to follow unprecedented military attacks

It appears that an unprecedented humanitarian operation for Gaza will now follow three weeks of unprecedented Israeli military attacks that, it has now been determined, have met and surpassed their goals.

Israel is about to open, with a certain amount of fanfare, a “forward emergency treatment center” at the Erez border crossing to receive, treat, and perhaps refer to Israeli hospitals, some of the nearly 6,000 Palestinians in Gaza who have been wounded by the IDF Operation Cast Iron over the past three weeks, and probably also some critically ill patients who may not have been wounded but who need advanced treatment not currently available in Israel.

A note of caution: the IDF says Operation Cast Iron is continuing, despite the unilateral cease-fire that began at 2 am today.

UPDATE: Word has just been received of a Hamas decision to have its own one-week cease-fire (can this be called “unilateral”, too?) to allow for the withdrawal of IDF troops.
Continue reading Unprecedented humanitarian operation to follow unprecedented military attacks

IDF:"the operation has not yet ended" — explains how it will implement the unilateral cease-fire

An announcement sent to journalists by the IDF spokesman this morning said that “As the decision goes into effect, the commander of the operation, GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, will order the redeployment of IDF forces within the Gaza Strip in accordance with security assessments“.

Columns of IDF tanks were reported leaving parts of Gaza this morning.

At the same time, it says, “As ordered by IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, and Maj. Gen. Galant, the operation has not yet ended, and the IDF’s air, naval, ground and intelligence forces will remain alert so as to be ready for any situation“.
Continue reading IDF:"the operation has not yet ended" — explains how it will implement the unilateral cease-fire

Egyptian President Mubarak demands immediate Israeli cease-fire

It’s not clear what this means, or where this move fits into any choreography of events that are unfolding in this region, but Egypt’s President Mubarak said in an address on state television: “I demand Israel today stop its military operations immediately. I demand from its leaders an immediate and unconditional cease-fire and I demand from them a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Strip.” This report can be read in full on AP here, and on AFP here.

In a separate story, AFP reported that “Egypt, which had been trying to broker a reciprocal peace deal, said the main problem was, according to Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, ‘Israeli intransigence’. He added that ‘Israel is drunk with power and violence’. Abul Gheit also said that Cairo is ‘absolutely not bound’ by the US-Israeli agreement on arms smuggling’.” This AFP report is posted here.
Continue reading Egyptian President Mubarak demands immediate Israeli cease-fire

Oh, so it's not Phase III in Gaza, at least not yet – goal trumps mission

It was not really clear.

Now, after days of ambiguity — apparently, ambiguity with pleasure, to keep the opponents off guard — the top story now (Tuesday morning in Jerusalem – but still Monday night on our time-stamp) in Haaretz is that “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday sent a message to a number of world leaders that Israel wants to see a diplomatic move through Egypt that would lead to a cessation of arms-smuggling into Gaza, before the Gaza operation enters its third phase. Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met last night to discuss contacts with Egypt. It is still unclear when the Defense Ministry’s security chief, Amos Gilad, will leave for Cairo to discuss ways to stop the smuggling with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman … Emissaries from Hamas arrived last night in Cairo for cease-fire talks with Egyptian officials. They are expected to present objections to Egyptian demands but will apparently not reject the Egyptian initiative outright. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Monday that his organization would cooperate with initiatives for a cease-fire and an opening of the crossings in Gaza. Olmert told foreign leaders that talks with the Egyptians were moving ahead, and that he was ready to give these talks a chance before deciding to expand Operation Cast Lead. Olmert told them he wanted to try to avoid an expansion, but would do so if there were no other choice and the Egyptian effort proved fruitless. In contrast with his statements abroad, Olmert has broadcasted a tougher message domestically. Speaking to mayors in Ashkelon on Monday, Olmert said there were two conditions for an end to the operation: a cessation of Hamas rocket fire and a cessation of smuggling and Hamas’ strengthening … ‘If these two conditions are met, we will cease the Gaza operation. Anything else will slam into Israel’s iron fist. Will it take time? It will take time. We will continue for as long as it takes to remove the threat over our heads. We have reached marvelous achievements in the fighting’, Olmert said. ‘This is the moment for the test to see who has stronger willpower, us or them’.” This report in Haaretz can be read in full here.

So, Olmert is saying it will take some time to stop Operation Cast Lead, and that Israel will continue in the present mode until Egypt plays out its intermediary role with Hamas.

Meanwhile, Hamas official Ismail Haniya called the war “foolish” [as in “unnecessary”]. But what Hamas wants is a total Israeli pull-back [NO Israel-created “security zones” inside the Gaza Strip] and an end to the blockade [including open crossings].

Olmert bragged on Monday in Ashkelon that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was “shamed” — after Olmert’s phone call to Bush — by the order from President Bush not to vote in favor of the UNSC cease-fire call last Thursday (so she abstained, and the resolution passed). Condoleezza must [NOT] have been pleased to read Olmert’s words …

Now, UNSG BAN Ki-Moon is coming to the region for a week — and from now until the weekend, at least, Israel will be under diplomatic pressure (perhaps Rice’s revenge?) not to go too crazy.

But, the humanitarian situation is completely untenable — and it is getting worse. So Israel will also be under enormous diplomatic pressure (more Rice) to be nice to Gazan civilians. And how can that be done while escalating the military operation? How can it even be done while continuing the operation?

Yaakov Katz, who is very well connected inside Israel’s Defense Ministry, wrote last night that:
“Meanwhile, Israel is considering establishing a field hospital in the Gaza Strip to treat Palestinian civilians wounded in fighting between the IDF and Hamas. The plan would be to establish the field hospital outside the Gaza Strip, but the IDF is also considering the possibility of erecting the hospital inside the Palestinian territory so it will be more accessible to the Palestinian population. It would be run by the IDF Medical Corps”. This report can be read in full here.

Two voices in Haaretz today — both apparently reading from the same briefing book — called for stopping Operation Cast Lead, and declaring victory:

1.) Amir Oren in Haaretz wrote: “To judge by the sights and sounds on the Negev’s roads, at military staff headquarters and at training facilities, Operation Cast Lead is about to take off to new heights.
This is not fraud, and not even self-delusion. They really are preparing, and who if not the Israel Defense Forces of recent years knows that it is better to be prepared to fight without fighting than to fight without being prepared? But the implementation of the operation’s next phase will mean admitting failure because the operation, including surrounding Gaza to pressure Hamas, is meant to support diplomatic moves. The international arena and the politics of decision making all focus now on stopping the operation. On Monday, a white flag was raised for the first time – not Hamas’, but Ehud Olmert’s, as he joined Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak in understanding that stopping now is better than an entanglement that will overshadow the operation’s achievements.

“Defense Minister Barak, IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet security service head Avi Diskin know that the desire to thwart terror justified doubling the operation. But they also know that broader considerations are working against this desire. They are all devoted to the principle of ‘sticking to the mission in light of its goal’, and when the mission – striking hard at Hamas – clashes with the goal, the goal wins out. The main goal, which dictated the operation’s logic in its aerial phase and ground phase so far, was deterrence – to convince Hamas to refrain from shooting its rockets for a very long time. The image of solid American support builds deterrence no less than the taking of a fortified objective in some God-forsaken neighborhood. The Israeli threat to embark on a year-long operation is not serious, GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant warned (and did not recommend) Olmert and Barak at the Gaza Division headquarters. A week before Barack Obama moves into the White House, and a month before Barak and Livni hope to reach the elections without a slap in the face from the Americans, who would risk a bitter honeymoon with Obama? We are quick to forget, but our great friend George W. Bush protested vehemently after Operation Defensive Shield entered Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, and demanded that we stop. If that was Bush, what will Obama do when the IDF conceded that of 901 Palestinians killed (as of Monday morning) only 400 were identified as Hamas operatives? Some 250 men, women and children were caught in the cross-fire, and the others are in some in-between group. And what will happen when the forces roll southward in a firestorm, followed by bulldozers that will mow down hundreds of houses on the Philadelphi route to put an end to the tunnels? Israel will be quickly tossed out of both south and north, losing diplomatic assets in the process … The chances of persuading Hamas to stop the rocket fire is high: The rate of firing has fallen continually, from 80 to 60 to 40 to 20. And the chances of it signing a pledge to stop smuggling is low. Israel will have to take what it can get, not as little compared with before December 27, but less than it had hoped”. This report, in Haaretz, can be read in full here .

2.) Ari Shavit wrote in Haaretz that: “The war on Hamas is a war for Israel’s sovereignty. It was launched due to repeated rocket attacks after Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. No country in the world would put up with a situation in which its sovereignty is undermined and its citizens threatened. Given its small size and many enemies, Israel cannot put up with this. It is therefore up to every decent person who wants Israel to strive for peace, end its occupation and return to its original borders to support its fight for sovereignty. The war on Hamas has bred a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed, thousands have been wounded, and more than a million have been left homeless and in despair. There is no denying that Israel should have done much more to prevent the enormity of this crisis from happening. But the international community – which openly supports a war against the Taliban that has taken the lives of hundreds of innocent people – cannot, and must not, condemn this war. Over the past two weeks, Israel has behaved obtusely and insensitively. But waging war is not a crime. It is yet another chapter in this tragic saga that must come to an end. Since launching its attack on Gaza on December 27, Israel has achieved most of its goals. Hamas received a harsh blow, Israel regained its deterrent capabilities, and there is a chance the rocket fire on southern Israel will end. A correct diplomatic move may now stop the arms smuggling from Egypt and undermine the Palestinian extremists. If this happens, Israel could achieve its desired overall goal: peaceful coexistence with a weakened and deterred Hamas … But to maintain these achievements, Israel must not expand its operation in Gaza. On the contrary. The relative success should be used to forge a swift diplomatic agreement – one that would stop the firing, halt the killings and bring the soldiers back home. Olmert should abide by his own mantra: Enough is enough”. This report can be read in full here .

Israel decides to continue military operation in Gaza – despite UNSC call for cease-fire

Just hours after the UN Security Council met in New York to adopt a new resolution calling for “an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza”, the Israeli government decided to continue its military operation in Gaza, citing continuing rocket fire from Gaza.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, according to a statement circulated by his media adviser, that “The State of Israel has never agreed that any outside body would determine its right to defend the security of its citizens. The IDF will continue operations in order to defend Israeli citizens and will carry out the missions with which it has been assigned in the operation. This morning’s rocket fire against residents of the south only proves that the UN Security Council Resolution 1860 is not practical and will not be honored in actual fact by the Palestinian murder organizations.”

The new UN SC Resolution, while calling for an “immediate, durable and fully-respected” cease-fire (apparently meaning it should be all three things), in fact also recognized that efforts to conclude a cease-fire are still underway.

So, it isn’t over yet — not the fighting and the fear and the dying, and not the diplomacy, either.

The just-adopted Resolution 1860 called upon “Member States to intensify efforts to provide arrangements and guarantees in Gaza in order to sustain a durable ceasefire and calm, including to prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition and to ensure the sustained re-opening of the crossing points on the basis of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between the Palestinian Authority and Israel; and in this regard, welcomes the Egyptian initiative, and other regional and international efforts that are under way”…

Libya’s representative at the meeting, Abdurrahman Shalgam, who had pushed for SC action, admitted that “not all of the [Arab] Group’s proposals and demands had been met, including the desire for a mechanism to ensure a quick resolution to the crisis”.

And, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who went to NY and stayed for three days to negotiate this resolution, called the new Resolution 1860 a “basis” for the resolution of the situation, and “a step towards the collective goals reflecting the desire of all for sustainable peace in the region. While much remained to be done, much work was under way … Many tasks remained to be addressed, including rooting out the causes of the hostilities, tackling the smuggling and provision of weapons, securing crossing points in line with the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, and providing security for the Israeli people and a better life for the people of Gaza”, according to a UN summary press release. ‘

Rice also said “We must establish an international consensus that Gaza must never again be used as a launching pad for rockets against Israeli citizens, because it is important to remember how this crisis began” … She said that “Hamas had refused to extend the ‘period of calm’, and its continued armament was a root cause of the current situation”

Rice explained that she abstained in the vote — but allowed the resolution to pass – because “the United States thought it important to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation efforts in order to ‘see what this resolution might have been supporting’.”

Everything now apparently depends on the Egyptian-French initiative.

The problem is, this effort, too, wants to convince Hamas that it has lost.

Some analysts say that Hamas has avoided direct engagements with the IDF inside Gaza. Some say that, should the IDF Operation Cast Lead continue, Hamas will be trying to lure the IDF into a trap.
But that is far from clear.

If Hamas has any card left in its hands, it would be IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured near Gaza in a cross-border raid in June 2006

The newly-adopted resolution encourages “tangible steps towards intra-Palestinian reconciliation including in support of mediation efforts of Egypt and the League of Arab States as expressed in the 26 November 2008 resolution, and consistent with Security Council resolution 1850 (2008) and other relevant resolutions”.

That earlier UNSC Resolution 1850, adopted on 16 December, declared its support for the Annapolis process of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which it said was “irreversible”, and it called on both parties to fulfil their obligations under the “Roadmap” — and to refrain from any steps that could prejudice the outcome of the negotiations.

But, it very importantly also called on all states and international organizations to “support the Palestinian Government that is committed to the Quartet Principles … and respects the commitments of the PLO” — which is an explicit call to support the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. At the same time, this wording implies the de-legitimization of Hamas.

The new UNSC resolution 1860, adopted hours ago, repeats this position.

After the vote in the Security Council meeting, Rice said, significantly, that “There would need to be a principled resolution also of the political challenges in Gaza that re-established the Palestinian Authority’s control, including over borders; facilitated the normal operation of Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings; and, in time, the opening of other crossings”. And she stated yet again that “the United States supported President Mahmoud Abbas as he carried out his responsibilities towards the establishment of a State of Palestine”.

Abbas, who had been in New York for several days, very diplomatically left the day before the vote and went to Spain, then to Cairo, to discuss the situation in Gaza. Hamas has said it will not recognize Abbas’ term in office after midnight on 9 January.

Meanwhile, the AP has reported that “Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the U.N. failed to consider the interests of the Palestinian people. ‘This resolution doesn’t mean that the war is over’, he told the al-Jazeera satellite television network.” The full AP story can be found here .

But, in an Op Ed article published in Haaretz today, Bernard Avishai (an Israeli) and Sam Bahour (a Palestinian-American) — both businessmen — argued that “Israel cannot make Hamas surrender – it cannot ‘win’. Meanwhile, the carnage will help Hamas, and other Palestinian military factions, make their case – not only in Gaza, but across the West Bank too … It should be clear by now that Hamas’ appeal only grows when Israelis attacks Palestinians. It increased when Israel insisted that occupied territory was merely ‘disputed’, ignoring its obligations under international law, and tried to dissociate its unilateral ‘disengagement’ from Gaza from the continuing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Hamas appealed to circles upon circles of Palestinian youth, who, grieving for friends or relatives killed in clashes with occupation forces, or appalled by iron-fist policies, succumbed to rage or survivors’ guilt. Its appeal increased in the absence of any concrete progress toward peace, indeed, when the peacemaking process seemed endlessly stalled. Hamas’ appeal spread, finally, when Palestinian economic life seemed futile, or inevitably corrupt – when a fight to the last martyr seemed the only chance at a meaningful life – or death. Give Gazans open borders, relief from grinding poverty, and business opportunities with West Bank and foreign partners and, over time, this will win over Hamas-controlled tunnels and smuggling every time. The Palestinian private sector, centered in Ramallah, has begged Israel and the international community for 18 months to allow it access to Gaza, to build new businesses. Israel refused. Tragically, many who have been killed this past week were not Hamas militants, but rather Palestinians who worked in Hamas-run ministries or institutions because they had no choice if they wanted to feed and clothe their children. The critical point, surely, is that one cannot do in two weeks with force what you need to do over a generation with reciprocity. Even as it worked toward an overall solution to the conflict, Israel could have respected international law regarding occupation, observed the Geneva conventions, helped build Palestinian civil society, stopped settlement construction, invited international monitors, and allowed Palestinians to compete non-violently, politically, economically and socially. It could have, in short, allowed for unity and rationality in Palestinian politics. This is not, well, rocket science”. This OpEd piece can be read in full here .

The same message, of course, could also be addressed to the United States and to the Quartet (composed of the USA, the Russian Federation, the EU, and the UN) that it set up to support the Bush Administration’s vision of Middle East diplomacy.

In a separate development, the UN Human Rights Council has begun an emergency meeting in Geneva to consider the situation in Gaza, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, saying that while the harm to civilians in Israel caused by Hamas rockets is unacceptable, Israel must nevertheless abide by international humanitarian law. The High Commissioner — who will have previously taken the pulse of the Human Rights Council — reportedly called for an independent investigation of possible war crimes in Gaza and in Israel. This would also put Hamas on the spot.

Also Friday, the Foreign Press Association informed its members that, according to its lawyers, “The State has clarified that as soon as the situation permits they are aware of the fact that the media have to be permitted to enter Gaza and as soon as possible will permit pools to do so”.

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…]