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

IDF launches many coordinated air attacks across Gaza in two waves

Now, the anxious waiting is over. Events are moving into the next phase. Top Israeli officials decided on Saturday morning to launch reprisal attacks against Gaza.

The initial Haaretz report quotes Hamas sources as saying that “a series of Israeli strikes targeted its compounds through Gaza Strip, causing widespread panic. The Islamist organization said at least 40 Palestinians were killed in the attacks. Israel Air Force warplanes fired around 30 missiles at targets along the Gaza Strip’s coast on Saturday, causing heavy damage, witnesses said … [T]he airstrikes took place as children were leaving school. Plumes of black smoke rose over Gaza City, sirens wailed through the streets and women frantically looked for their children.”

By evening, more than 200 deaths were reported, and at least 700 injuries, as a new wave of Israeli attacks was reported underway.

A later Haaretz headline called the IDF action a “major offensive” and the story it accompanied called it the start of “a massive offensive”.

Haaretz journalist Amos Harel wrote that “This is the harshest IDF assault on Gaza since the territory was captured during the Six-Day War in 1967”.

The Foreign Press Association has informed its members in an update on entry to Gaza through Erez crossing that “We have been told that the border crossing is closed until further notice. We are trying to convince them to open Erez as soon as possible. Failing that, we are asking permission to send through a POOL:Camera crew/s, stills, print and radio”.

UPDATE: The IDF spokesperson issued two press statements — the most recent announced that what is apparently being code-named the “Cast Lead” Operation is continuing: “Since this morning, the IDF attacked dozens of targets affiliated with the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip. The targets included command centers, training camps, various Hamas installations, rocket manufacturing facilities and storage warehouses. The vast majority of the casualties are terror operatives; most of whom were wearing uniform and working on behalf of terror organizations“.

[Question: Doesn’t the fact that they are wearing uniforms make them soldiers, that should be treated like POWs if captured, under the Geneva Conventions? I think the uniforms in question are those of the Hamas police or internal security forces, who were killed while attending a police graduation ceremony. They do not appear to even be bearing weapons. See photo below. A second photo, showing collected bodies taken to Gaza City’s main Shifa Hospital, shows two kinds of uniforms — the black ones, and the blue camouflauge which I think are police.]

AFP photo published on Palestinian Pundit

A Reuters photo on Palestinian Pundit

Of course, there are also plenty of photos showing dead and injured people who are not wearing uniforms at all — including many women and children.

The IDF press announcement continues: “The operation is ongoing and will continue for as long as is necessary, pending security assessments by the General Staff the IDF Chief of Staff. The IDF wishes to emphasize that secrecy and the element of surprise were central to the implementation of the operation. The IDF also wishes to inform the Israeli public that it must prepare itself for continued rocket fire by Hamas. The patience and resilience of the Israeli public is required” … The earlier IDF announcement said that “The targets that were attacked were located by intelligence gathered during the last months and include Hamas terror operatives that operated from the organization’s headquarters, training camps and weaponry storage warehouses. The Hamas government leaders and operatives, which activate terror from within civilian population centers, are the sole bearers of responsibility for Israel’s military response. This response is crucial for preserving Israel’s security interests. The IDF Spokesperson wishes to emphasize that anyone sponsoring terror, hosting terror in his house, housing terror in his basement and sending his wives and children to serve as human shields, is considered a terrorist…”

From UNHQ in New York, a statement was issued saying that UNSG BAN Ki-Moon “is deeply alarmed by today’s heavy violence and bloodshed in Gaza, and the continuation of violence in southern Israel. He appeals for an immediate halt to all violence. While recognizing Israel’s security concerns regarding the continued firing of rockets from Gaza, he firmly reiterates Israel’s obligation to uphold international humanitarian and human rights law and condemns excessive use of force leading to the killing and injuring of civilians. He condemns the ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants and is deeply distressed that repeated calls on Hamas for these attacks to end have gone unheeded. The Secretary-General reiterates his previous calls for humanitarian supplies to be allowed into Gaza to aid the distressed civilian population. He is making immediate contact with regional and international leaders, including Quartet principals,in an effort to bring a swift end to the violence”.

And, Agence France Presse (AFP) is reporting that “Amr Mussa, secretary general of the Cairo-based Arab League, called an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers ‘to discuss the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip’. The meeting would take place in the coming hours, Mussa said in a statement. Earlier, Jordan had called for the gathering to be held on Sunday. He also asked Libya, as a member of the United National Security Council, to organise an emergency meeting on the subject of the Israeli raids”.

The Jerusalem Post calling this a massive operation, launched in two waves just minutes apart. “Hamas’s police spokesperson said that at least 40 people were killed in the initial attacks. Gaza health official Moawiya Hassanain later said that over 120 people were killed. The Jerusalem Post could not confirm either report … Shortly after the strikes began, Egypt was quoted by Al-Jazeera as condemning the Israeli action, calling it ‘an unprecedented massacre’.”

[UPDATE: By mid-afternoon in Jerusalem, the JPost was reporting upwardly-revised figures and some new details: “A Hamas spokesperson said that at least 150 people were killed in the attacks. Gaza health official Moawiya Hassanain said earlier that over 120 people were killed, and at least 200 injured. The Jerusalem Post could not confirm either report … Minutes after the first wave of airstrikes hit areas in the southern Gaza Strip, Palestinians reported a second wave which targeted installations in the center and the north of the Strip. Channel 22 reported that between 30 to 40 targets were hit. Hamas Interior Ministry said that all security compounds in Gaza were destroyed … In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, the government position regarding the operation was explained: ‘Given Hamas violations of the ceasefire agreement and the unrelenting attacks on Israeli citizens in the south, a decision was made on Wednesday, December 24 by the Ministerial Committee on National Security, in which the IDF was ordered to act to bring about a cessation of rocket fire for a length of time’, the statement said.” UPDATE: At about the same time, a Haaretz headline reported 155 deaths in Gaza so far … in the air strikes that it said “began with almost no warning at around 11:30 A.M … Egypt has opened its long-sealed border with Gaza to allow in the wounded for medical treatment … The Israel Defense Forces warned Saturday that the airstrikes “will continue, will be expanded, and will deepen if necessary. The Prime Minister’s bureau issued a statement on Saturday following the IAF strikes in Gaza. ‘The operation was launched following the violation of the terms of the lull by Hamas and the unceasing attacks by Hamas authorities on Israeli civilians in the south of the country’, the communiqué read. The decision on the attack was made Wednesday during a meeting of the security-diplomatic cabinet, which instructed the IDF to act in order to bring a prolonged halt of missile fire and terrorist attacks from the Gaza Strip’, the prime minister’s bureau said. ‘The cabinet authorized the prime minister, the defense minister, and the foreign minister to determine the timing and the method of operation in accordance with the cabinet decision, which was unanimously reached. The three [ministers] decided to [approve] the execution of the air force attack on Saturday morning. Israel wishes to make clear that it will continue to act against terrorist operations and missile fire from the Strip which is intended to harm civilians.” ]

[UPDATE TWO: Haaretz is now reporting here that “Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip fired rockets into southern Israel on Saturday after Israeli air strikes killed more than 155 Palestinians. One of the rockets directly struck a home in the town of Netivot, causing extensive damage. One person was killed in the attack and four suffered moderate to serious injuries”.]

Haaretz is reporting elsewhere that “Close to 200 Katyushas, Qassam rockets and mortar shells have been fired at the Negev since Hamas said it would not renew the tahadiyeh (lull) that had expired on December 19 … The various statements by Israel’s ministers reflect a good deal of confusion. Livni and Vice Premier Haim Ramon have spoken on several occasions about the need to topple the Hamas government in Gaza. Barak (and Ashkenazi, too) seems to feel that such a goal is unrealistic now. The main objective for the army is considerably more modest: exacting a significant price from Hamas, to prompt it to agree to return to the framework of the lull. The likely method for achieving this objective is not occupation of the Strip or the pursuit of every Qassam launcher … Israel’s leaders claim that they will avoid an all-out offensive, that occupation of Gaza is not an objective, and that Hamas is not interested in a major confrontation, either. But one has to wonder whether anyone has bothered to inform Hamas about this wonderfully rational scenario. The Palestinians have always had this annoying habit of not conforming to the nice plans the defense establishment has laid out for them. This week, Hamas did appear to be hallucinating, likening itself to its bigger and more dangerous sister, Hezbollah. The same type of slogans, threatening proclamations, videos of militants training – and even the same type of haughty TV broadcasters smilingly reporting on actions undertaken against the Zionist enemy. But Hamas also appeared to be repeating Hezbollah’s mistakes from 2006, arrogantly believing that if the Israelis declare they don’t want to reoccupy Gaza, then it is left with nearly unlimited room to maneuver. Even if it turns out that Hamas is right (which is highly unlikely), it is taking a tremendous gamble. A major air strike by Israel would apparently include bombardment of Hamas offices and institutions. A further deterioration to a large-scale frontal confrontation could end up costing Hamas its rule, although the IDF would surely suffer significant losses, too. Meanwhile, the tremendous importance that Hamas attaches to matters of honor and prestige cannot be discounted. A few mornings ago, while headlines in Israel reported on Hamas’ readiness to consider a new cease-fire, the organization was behind the launching of over 60 rockets and mortars, intended to settle the score for an incident the previous evening, in which paratroops killed three Hamas men out to plant explosives near the separation fence. As in the past, Hamas is prepared to risk its rule just to avoid the perception of having surrendered to Israel” … This analysis can be read in full here.

Haaretz reported that “A Reuters correspondent said Gaza City port and security installations … were badly damaged”. That would appear to be designed to prevent any further aid ships from running the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza and docking in the coastal strip — an Iranian ship is reportedly on its way, after a Libyan ship turned around when challenged by the Israeli Navy. And it would also appear to be an act of reprisal against the successful arrival of five Free Gaza expeditions that made round-trip voyages by sea from Cyprus. The initial Haaretz report can be read in full here.

Apparently, assured access to the sea is one of the demands Hamas has been making for any extension of the unwritten cease-fire (or tahdiya) it concluded with Israel, via Egypt, last June, and then renounced about a week ago. [See the article in the Jerusalem Post written by Yaakov Katz, who has excellent sources in the Ministry of Defence at this address. This article is also posted separately, and unsigned, as a JPost editorial here.]

The AP has just reported that “In the West Bank, Hamas’ rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement that he ‘condemns this aggression’ and calls for restraint, according to an aide, Nabil Abu Rudeneh”. This AP report can be viewed here .

Abbas, according to a report by Ma’an News Agency, left Ramallah on Saturday morning on his way to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the King. He would have to travel via Jordan, and may have still been in Jordan when the IDF strikes began.

Announcements of demonstrations and press conferences in Ramallah to denounce the attacks in Gaza are coming in by SMS.

According to Haaretz, at least one of the Israeli missiles struck Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City, where a graduation ceremony for new personnel was taking place at the time of the attack, and that “TV footage showed bodies of more than a dozen black-clad security men lying on the ground in one area”. The Jerusalem Post reported that “According to witnesses, among the killed was Gaza police chief Tawfik Jaber”.

Ma’an News Agency reported that “Among the police officers killed in the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip was de facto Police Chief Imad Al-Amsi”. Another Ma’an report said later that “Israel is targeting the Hamas leadership”, and added that “Confirmed casualties include Commander of the de facto Government Police Tawfiq Jabir, Governor of the Al-Wusta (central) Districts Ahmad Abu Aashur and Commander of Security and Protection Services in the de facto government police Ismail Al-Ja’bari”.

In addition, Haaretz says, “At least two people were killed and 30 wounded from an attack in Khan Younis, a refugee camp in the south of Gaza”.

Haaretz said that “Egypt has boosted the security along its border with Gaza, officials said Friday, in anticipation of an imminent Israel Defense Forces operation within the territory, fearing an Israeli incursion would result in a breach of the border. In January, Hamas militants frustrated over the tightened Israeli closure of Gaza blew holes in the border partition, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to stream into Egypt unchecked for ten days and stock up on food and other goods made scarce by the blockade. Egyptian officials told Israel Radio, however, that Egypt is pressing on with efforts to prevent the escalation of violence in the region. The officials said that representatives of Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman have approached senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar in the Gaza Strip and presented him with Egypt’s concerns”.

The JPost article also reports that “Twenty-five mortar shells have been fired into Israel since Thursday night”, and that — despite those attacks — a 35-year-old Palestinian who was wounded by a Kassam rocket attack from Gaza towards Israel was evacuated on Friday through the Erez crossing to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital in serious condition, after initial treatement in a Gazan hospital. This JPost report can be read in full here .

Two Palestinian girls were also killed on Friday in Gaza by a Palestinian rocket attack that fell short.

According to the Haaretz story: “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”.

YNet , relying in part on Reuters, adds that “Israeli military have confirmed the attack, which followed a decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet to widen reprisals for cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel”. This YNet report is posted here.

The AP report says that “the number of simultaneous attacks was unprecedented … In one of the compounds, the bodies of more than a dozen uniformed security officers were seen lying on the ground. One officer, who had survived, raised his index finger in a show of Muslim faith and defiance [n.b., this act of “faith and defiance” is not only Muslim. But, for Muslims, it means one, as in “there is only one God”. This gesture was also used, if I am not mistaken, by the Jesus character in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar in the early 1970s — but in that contect, it meant the “One Way”].

In an opinion article in YNet, Brigadier General (ret.) Dr. Yossi Ben Ari, the former intelligence chief of the IDF’s Central Command, wrote: “The required mid-term goal is to minimize the depth and extent of the rocket threat posed to the civilian population in the south (and today we can openly talk about areas closer to central Israel. If the Second Lebanon War paralyzed the Haifa Port, the next clash vis-à-vis the Palestinians will create a similar threat on the Ashdod Port.) However, those who fool themselves into thinking that a major operation involving many troops and aimed at retaking the Gaza Strip would bring this about, are making a grave mistake, while being highly deceptive; there is no point repeating the disasters that such operation would prompt. In order to undermine the Hamas regime in Gaza (and thwart the prospect of a West Bank Hamas takeover in the future,) we would do well to quickly take offensive initiative that includes, simultaneously, the following components:

* Recapture the Philadelphi Route, but this time around take over a kilometer-wide strip to be permanently held by Israel. This should be done even if it requires us to evict residents from Rafah neighborhoods, and even if we need to compensate them with new housing at an alternative site. Such permanent hold would significantly undermine Hamas’ ability to equip itself with arms both above and under ground. This is the only way to ‘dry it up’.

* A wide-scale renewal of targeted eliminations, aimed both at Hamas’ senior military command, and more importantly, the organization’s political leadership (that is, senior Hamas members) that stimulates and manages terror in the south. Did anyone forget the immense effect the assassination of Sheikh Yassin and his replacement Rantissi had on Hamas’ motivation for violence?

* Comprehensive and ongoing aerial assaults targeting all permanent and mobile terror infrastructures spotted in the area.

* We should treat this like a war. We must indeed be careful, as much as his possible, about not hurting civilians, yet we must adopt any possible sanction that would make it difficult for Hamas to successfully wage its struggle from within the population.

Adopting a wide offensive initiative could make the difference: It will certainly affect the way we view ourselves in the future, and no less importantly, the way our image is shaped in the eyes of our enemies and allies. Even if the IDF does not win immediately, Israel’s ability to dictate the terms has a chance to bring victory later”. This article can be viewed in full here.

According to another report in Haaretz, Israel’s State President Shimon Peres said in an interview with the London-based Saudi newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat that “Israel has no intention of igniting a regional war. Peres told the London-based publication that Israel would undertake all necessary steps to put a halt to the firing of rockets, though he did qualify those statements by ruling out an Israeli re-entry into Gaza. The president refused to specify which tactics Israel would employ”. This report can be found here .

Peres also called, in the interview, for negotiations on the Saudi-launched “Arab Peace Initiative” that offered Israel full normalization of relations with Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied in the June 1967 war.

Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar, who has long been a correspondent for Haaretz, and who strongly backs the “Arab Peace Initiative” told me in an interview a few months ago that the major problem with this intiative is its name. He said Israeli officials would like to have had a hand in shaping it, and would like to re-negotiate it now as more of a joint effort.

Yes, other figures from the Israeli left have told me, if it seems silly, it’s not (at least according to them) — Israelis cannot accept a peace plan that is called “Arab”. So, it should be re-named as an “Israeli” peace initiative … What about re-naming it, then, an Arab-Israeli [in alphabetical order], or Israeli-Arab plan?

But that’s another story — and today there are the massive IDF attacks on Gaza to contemplate.

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…]

Olmert warns on Gaza invasion: This could be the "last minute" + "Hamas must be stopped"

Today, Thursday, is Christmas day, and much of the world’s focus is on Christian celebrations in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Christ.

But not far away, one of the most densely-populated areas on earth — Gaza, worn down after more than a year of tightening Israeli Defense Ministry sanctions, and nearly three years of international sanctions imposed after the Hamas victory in Palestinian Legislative Council elections — prepares for what appears to be an imminent Israeli invasion.

On Wednesday, the Israeli cabinet cabinet appeared to approve a military response to escalating “projectile” fire from the Gaza Strip. A report in Haaretz said that “The cabinet discussed the situation in the Gaza Strip for about an hour [on Wednesday], during which the ministers were presented with various options for an Israel Defense Force response to ongoing Qassasm missile strikes in the western Negev. The actions are to constitute a gradual escalation, particularly from the air to hit Hamas government and military ‘assets’ in the Gaza Strip”. This article can be read in full here.

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert warned today in an interview with Al-Arabiyya television that this could be the “last minute”, as his successor as head of the Kadima Party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, flew to Cairo to discuss the situation with Egyptian President Husni Mubarak.

In the interview, Olmert called on the people of Gaza to rise up and stop Hamas, just as George Herbert Walker Bush wanted the Shi’a to rise up against Saddam Hussein just after the Desert Storm action was stopped against Iraq in 1991. Olmert said, according to a transcript provided by the Israeli government press office, that: “Israel withdrew from Gaza approximately three years ago not in order to return to it. I appeal to the residents of Gaza: I speak to you as a father and grandfather and I know that there is nothing I want less than to put my children and grandchildren in danger. Is it the spirit of Islam to kill innocent children? To shoot rockets at kindergartens and at civilians? I do not think that this is the spirit of Islam. Hamas, which does this against the spirit of Islam, is the main reason for your suffering – for all of ours. I say to you in a last-minute call, stop it. Stop it. You the citizens of Gaza, you can stop it. I know how much you want to get up in the morning to quiet, to take your children to kindergarten or school, the way we do, the way they want to in Sderot and Netivot. Hamas is the enemy of the residents – not only in Israel but in Gaza. We want to live as good neighbors with Gaza. We do not want to harm you. We will not allow a humanitarian crisis and that you should suffer from a lack of food or medicines. We do not want to fight the Palestinian people but we will not allow Hamas to strike our children. We have very great and destructive strength – which we do not wish to use. I think of the tens of thousands of children and innocents who will be in danger as a result of Hamas’s actions. Do not let the murderers of Hamas, which is acting against the values of Islam, put you in danger. Could I allow more missiles against the residents of Israel? More strikes at children and civilians and do nothing? Certainly not. Hamas is firing at us and at the power station that is supposed to supply electricity to Gaza. Stop them. Stop your enemies and ours. Tell them to stop shooting at innocents. I did not come here to declare war. I have said in the past – as long as I am Prime Minister, I intend to reach peace with, not fight, the Palestinians. But Hamas must be stopped – and so it will be. I will not hesitate to use Israel’s strength to strike at Hamas and Islamic Jihad. How? I do not wish to go into details here.”

One major deterrent against a major Israeli military operation in Gaza, until the increase in fighting and counter-attacks in recent weeks has changed the calculation, was the estimated cost for an Israeli “re-occupation”: 17 million shekels a day, or $500 million shekels a month, not counting the costs of supporting the military, but just for basic necessities like Pampers and food for 1.5 million Gazans.

It was later reported that Mubarak told Livni that Israel should exercise “restraint” — this is not exactly asking Israel to desist.

In fact, it looked as if Mubarak was condoning an Israeli military action, so long as it would somehow be conducted with “restraint”. Indeed, Mubarak expressed concern about the “humanitarian” situation in Gaza.

According to another report in Haaretz, “Egypt has informed Israel that it would not object to a limited Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi reported Wednesday.The paper claimed that Egyptian Intelligence chief, Omar Suleimanm, met last week with Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry’s diplomatic-security department, and rejected Gilad’s request that Cairo use its influence to persuade Hamas to extend a truce with Israel that expired last Friday. At the same time, the paper said, Suleiman told Gilad that Egypt would not object to a limited Israeli operation in Gaza aimed at toppling the Hamas government … According to the report, which has yet to be confirmed by any other source, Cairo is furious with Hamas for having torpedoed Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks between the Islamic movement and the rival Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, last month [9-10 November]. The paper said that Suleiman accused ‘Meshal’s gang’ – a reference to the Damascus-based head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshal – of behaving arrogantly toward Egypt, and added that there was no choice but ‘to educate the Hamas leadership – even in Damascus’. The report sparked outraged reactions in Hamas, and the movement’s Al-Aqsa television station interviewed several senior Hamas officials who lambasted Egyptian policy”. This report can be read in full here.

Livni said later that she would not presume to ask Egypt’s permission to “invade” Gaza.

Ma’an news agency reported that “Former deputy Israeli defence minister, Efraim Sneh [who is still a member of the Israeli Knesset] on Wednesday called on the Israeli government to carry out a military mission against Hamas offices in Damascus if the Palestinians continue to shell Israeli towns bordering the Gaza Strip. He added that Syria must dismiss Hamas officials or at least leash Hamas”. This can be found here.

The Israeli press and the international news agencies which report from Israel reported this morning that “The defense establishment is currently preparing for a military move against Hamas targets in Gaza, after the Islamist group launched more than 80 rockets into Israel on Wednesday. As an initial retaliatory measure, an Israel Air Force strike killed a Hamas gunman in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. Israel’s response will go beyond the air raid, an Israeli official told Haaretz. ‘Our response will be substantial and painful to Hamas’, the official said … During a cabinet meeting about the situation in and outside the Gaza Strip, a senior Israel Defense Forces officer gave ministers in attendance an overview of the potential retaliatory moves that the defense establishment is planning against Hamas’ regime. Most strikes will come from the air and be aimed at facilities believed to be of strategic importance to Hamas’ political and military leadership. However, the officer said that weather conditions are currently preventing the air force from launching the raids … Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government said it had shown restraint until now but vowed to act if the salvoes continued. The same official said that Israel would be willing to extend the June cease-fire, which expired last week, if Hamas would agree to resuming it … Sources close to Livni said she intended to tell Mubarak that Israel will not accept Hamas’ current terms for a ceasefire. Hamas’ statements also contained a similar mix of threats and assurances … Other spokespeople said the organization will agree to ‘resume’ the ceasefire, if the organization’s conditions are met. Hamas is demanding an improved ceasefire agreement, that also includes the West Bank”. These details were reported in Haaretz here.

Another analysis in Haaretz says that “The sharp turns that Hamas has made in its policy concerning the cease-fire with Israel more resembles a speeding racecar than a government policy. Despite statements that the organization’s top-brass have made about being willing to resume the cease-fire in its previous format, the resumption of massive Qassam fire from Gaza to Israel indicates that Hamas may have decided to push for a head-on confrontation with Israel. However, despite the significant escalation as over 80 Qassam missiles were fired into Israeli towns Wednesday, Hamas’ interest was and still is to resume the cease-fire with Israel. However, Hamas wants to improve the terms of the deal. In doing so, Hamas’ regime in Gaza is taking a risk that could lead to its toppling … The slaying of three Hamas militants near the border separating the Gaza Strip from Israel on Tuesday night also have served to persuade Hamas’ leaders to opt for a confrontational position, as did Egyptian indifference to renewing the talks for a ceasefire. The fact that Israel did not open the crossings into the Strip to let in aid from Egypt was also believed to be connected to this decision … If violence at a low intensity fails to persuade Israel to let goods into the Strip, then, according to Hamas’ approach, another escalation in violence could help Israel make the right decision. The organization’s leadership expects an Israeli retaliation, but they assume it will be limited in scope. They deduce this from what they view as an Israeli reluctance to launch a massive land invasion”. This analysis can be read in full here.

The Spin in Sharm

Despite the spin from both sides, it is not entirely clear what happened in a one-hour summit meeting on Tuesday between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

An Israeli official told journalists who were waiting at the summit site as the meeting was underway that he expected the two leaders would discuss four subjects: (1) the “calm” or “tahdiy’a”; (2) the two-year detention of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit; (3) negotiations with the Palestinians; and (3) negotiations with Syria. “There’s enough on the plate”, he said, “and we always try to do this at least twice a year”:

But, the timing appeared to be anything but routine. The Olmert trip to Egypt was announced only a few days earlier — on Thursday 19 June – the day after confirmation of an anxiously-awaited Egyptian-brokered agreement between Israel and Hamas to a truce, or “tahdiya”, in Gaza.

There are still important clarifications needed on the issues of (1) the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of Shalit, and (2) on the opening of border crossings between Gaza and Israel – and, possibly even more important, the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.


Suleiman Awwad, chief spokesman for Egypt’s President Mubarak, briefs journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday after Olmert-Mubarak summit meeting

Suleiman Awwad by Marian Houk


Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, briefs journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday after Olmert-Mubarak discussions.

Mark Regev by Marian Houk

Journalists coming from Israel – including the locally-powerful Israeli media, as well as the more distantly significant members of the Foreign Press Association working in Israel – were originally invited to join the trip, flying on Olmert’s plane.

At the last minute, the journalists were separated from the Prime Minister and his team of officials, as a second special flight was added.

For those used to the now near-total Israel-imposed physical and psychological separation and isolation of the Palestinian territory from Israel, it was surprising to hear the captain’s periodic announcements from the cockpit: “We’re overflying northern Jerusalem now, and on the left side is the city of Ramallah”. Then, “We’re now flying down along the Dead Sea. On the right, behind us, is Jerusalem, Kirya Arba and Hebron”. As if Ramallah and Hebron were just another part of the body politic, as normal and as comfortably familiar as Jerusalem and Kirya Arba, a major Jewish settlement in the southern West Bank overlooking Hebron (where Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the February 1994 massacre of Palestinians at dawn prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, lived and is buried).

Arriving in the Sharm as-Sheikh terminal, however, there was a quick return to reality. Greeting one journalist from Tel Aviv, who couldn’t seem to quite recall where we had met, this journalist said the meeting had been in the Muqata’a Presidential headquarters in Ramallah (for the most recent Condoleeza Rice press conference). Those who overheard showed reactions of momentary shock. Heads turned suddenly, and body positions were changed.

Israelis – including journalists — are not allowed under penalty of the law and a 5000 shekel fine to enter the West Bank’s “Area A” zones – described as zones of mortal danger. Under the Oslo Accords, “Area A” was supposed to be under the total control of the Palestinian Authority. In fact, “Area A” comprises only the major cities of the West Bank — including Ramallah, for example, as well as Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, and so on.

But, the concept of Palestinian “total control” is highly abstract – and has been since the Israeli Defense Forces re-entered, in 2002 at the height of the second Intifada, all areas from which it had previously withdrawn.

And, it has still not withdrawn, despite calls from the international community.

The Israel Defense Forces conducts nightly raids and even sometimes daily raids anyway. And, in these raids, Palestinians are often “detained” (and taken back to Israel to be jailed, in blatant and unchallenged violation of the Geneva Conventions), or sometimes killed, right under the eyes of their families and neighbors – or any passersby, including the generally oblivious tourists (who go mainly, as French President Nicholas Sarkozy did on Tuesday, to Bethlehem).

That Tel Aviv-based journalist, who was at the Palestinian Presidential Compound in the Muqata’a, however, is the bearer American passport – and, more significantly, did not arrive in Ramallah under his own power, or in a taxi, but rather was allowed to join up with the U.S. State Department’s convoy of “traveling press” who accompanied the U.S. Secretary of State on her plane from Washington. So, he actually arrived in “Area A” — in Ramallah, and into the Muqata’a itself — in a heavily-defended convoy protected by all levels of American (and more remotely by Israeli) security.

Many West Bank Palestinians are also holders of American passports, but this does them very little good at any of the internal checkpoints, or even at most ofI the West Bank “border crossings”.

In any case, logistical preparations made by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office for Tuesday’s trip to Sharm as-Sheikh, were relatively brisk and efficient.

But, the information component – at least on the Israeli side – was strangely absent.

It was not entirely clear whether this was just business as usual, or a last-minute political calculation – as if the intention had originally been for a high-profile announcement of progress of some importance, which had suddenly become impossible.

In other words, the lack of information could have been simply due to the very usual sort of tough labor-union-type of Israeli protectionism, in which only the home team (the Israeli media) is favored — despite some very secondary concern about maintaining favorable outside public, at least to the extent possible.

Or, it could have been due to some last-minute second thoughts about the wisdom of allowing the media (particularly the aggressive and locally-powerful Israeli press) too close access to the beleagured Israeli Prime Minister, who was suddenly facing a renewed ultimatum from Defense Minister Ehud Barak that could have resulted in a potential vote of no-confidence in the Knesset, and a fall of Olmert’s government, on Wednesday.

In fact, the Israeli media reported in the main headlines on Wednesday morning, all-night negotiations did achieve a compromise between Barak’s Labor Party and Olmert’s Kadima colleagues to avert action in the Knesset in exchange for Kadima moves to hold party primaries by late September (in other words, well after cross-examination – which Olmert says will exonerate him — of Jewish-American businessman Morris Talansky, a witness whose testimony about Olmert’s periodic requests for periodic large sums of cash had badly damaged the image of the sitting Prime Minister).

A columnist in Haaretz wrote, in an apparently factual (no, not satirical) story published Wednesday morning, that Olmert had personally sent notes “in his own neat handwriting” to Labor Party ministers telling them that “Your fundamental mistake, and first and foremost that of [Ehud] Barak is in assuming, where Barak has always failed, that he could control everything that may happen [emphasis added here]. That is idiocy. The minute the Knesset decides to move up the elections, it is a path of no return. The High Court of Justice will intervene, the Knesset will be in turmoil, and I will be painted as someone who is fighting to save his ass at the expense of the country”…

The new compromise between Barak and Olmert may also have another aspect, which was reported in a separate Haaretz story on Wednesday morning: Barak – who Olmert has pointedly said is in control of the West Bank, and clearly also Gaza as well – ordered all the border crossings into Gaza sealed as a result of the firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza on Tuesday – one of which damaged a home in Sderot. That “projectile” firing from Gaza was reportedly in response to the IDF killing, earlier Tuesday, of two Palestinians during a raid in Nablus.

Barak’s order to re-seal the border crossings will very likely cause immediate grave problems – including the shut-down, again, for lack of fuel, of Gaza’s only power plant –
as the Israeli Defense Ministry’s stated policy has been to keep Gaza on the very edge of the cliff without actually allowing it to fall over.

The Defense Minister’s decision came despite – in fact, in clear defiance of — a statement issued by the Quartet meeting in Berlin on Tuesday, in which the Quartet members (the U.S., European Union, Russian Federation and the United Nations) expressed “continuing support for Egyptian efforts to restore calm to Gaza and southern Israel and welcomed the period of calm that began on June 19. The Quartet urged that the calm be respected in full and expressed the hope that it would endure, and lead to improved security for Palestinians and Israelis alike, and a return to normal civilian life in Gaza. In this respect, the Quartet looked forward to increased humanitarian and commercial flows through the Gaza crossings under the management of the Palestinian Authority, consistent with the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, and welcomed the European Union’s offer to resume its monitoring mission at the Rafah crossing point. The Quartet expressed its strong support for the steady and sufficient supplies of fuel to Gaza and for the immediate resumption of stalled UN and other donor projects there. It further tasked the Quartet Representative to develop and promote implementation of measures, in coordination with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to improve conditions in Gaza, as a matter of urgency”.

Olmert – upon his return from Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday afternoon – immediately called the Palestinian fire a “blatant violation of the cease-fire on the part of Palestinian groups in the Strip”.

Hamas had originally tried to position itself as the chief defender of Palestinians by demanding that the cease-fire be applicable also to the West Bank. But this was refused,
and the agreement does not apply to the West Bank. A concession was made by Hamas to get the deal. It was, however, immediately described by all sides as “fragile”.

Hamas officials also said they would not be responsible for any violations by other Palestinian groups of the cease-fire or “tahdiya”.

The Israeli Government, however, has the position that Hamas is in charge of the Gaza Strip, so Hamas bears the ultimate responsibility for any attacks on Israel, even those attacks carried out by other groups.

Nor was there any major increase, starting on Sunday, despite initial predictions when the truce deal was first announced, of the amount of traffic at the border crossings through which the Israeli military controls the entry of all goods and people into the Gaza.
This apparently may have been mainly due to the court case instituted on Saturday after the end of the Sabbath (Shabbat) by the parents of Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier being held in Gaza. The Shalits had asked the Court for clarifications about the negotiations, and also asking the Court to instruct the government not to lessen pressure for their son’s release. They said their aim was to save their son’s life.

Israel’s YNet website reported on Sunday, however, that Barak said, as the Israeli cabinet held its weekly meeting, that “Anyone who lives in the Middle East and thinks that the ceasefire itself or the opening of border crossings will provide enough leverage to result in the immediate return of Gilad Shalit would do well to come back down to Earth … We’re not deluding ourselves, opening or closing gates won’t make it possible to retrieve Shalit”. However, YNet added, Barak said that “the ceasefire provides us with an opportunity for intense negotiations over Shalit, and we will have to make some tough decisions.”

And another YNet article reported, that Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s Security-Diplomatic Bureau – who has been the main liaison with Egypt on the Gaza truce talks – met with Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad (the young Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza), on Sunday night at the direction of the Israeli Supreme Court.

YNet reported that an apparently very well-informed “Defense Ministry official stressed that were it not for the Gaza truce, a path that could lead to Schalit’s release would not even exist. ‘At this present moment, the truce is the best option which can be be used as a framework to kick start a process of dialogue, which, with Egyptian mediation, we hope will bring about Gilad’s return’, he said. ‘I explained in great detail the advantage of this process as opposed to other options through which it is doubtful that Gilad will be released. [By contrast, or on the other hand] We could never have ensured that Gilad would be freed as soon as the cease-fire went into effect’, this Defense Ministry official told YNet. The YNet article continued: “Gilad stressed that that Rafah border crossing ‘is closed and will remain closed’, emphasizing that in any case, Schalit’s captors had no interest in transferring him from Gaza to Egypt”.

Then, on Monday afternoon, the Israeli Supreme Court declined to intervene in the Israeli Government’s decision to pursue the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas.

Interestingly, among the concessions that former American President Jimmy Carter said he had obtained from his various meetings with Hamas officials in the West Bank, in Cairo, and in Damascus, was that Hamas would allow Shalit to send a rare letter to his parents (this was delivered through the Carter Center office in Ramallah last week), and then allow Shalit to be transferred from Gaza to Egypt in an intermediary phase, pending the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations for his release.

There was no mention of this at all in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday.

It would have been difficult, however, for Egypt to agree to continue, in any way, the continuation of Shalit’s captivity, even for humanitarian reasons, and even if it would improve the conditions in which Shalit is being held.

But why the more nuanced Israeli position explained on Sunday was reversed so sharply by Olmert in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday is unclear.

On Tuesday afternoon, after the Olmert-Mubarak summit consultations, an Israeli official traveling with the Israeli Prime Minister told an Israeli reporter that Egypt had given Israel strong assurances that Rafah would not be opened again until Shalit is released.

An earlier estimation in the Israeli press, published over the weekend, was that Egypt has actually allowed Rafah to open at least 50 times – to Israel’s great and expressed displeasure — since the European Union withdrew its monitors there under instructions following the Hamas rout of Fatah Security forces in mid-June 2007. This included when Palestinian pilgrims from Gaza were unable to leave for the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, which Israeli officials protested strenuously, and then again after the Gaza pilgrim endured great hardships in returning from Mecca, and several died in the difficult conditions when some refused Israeli orders to re-enter only through the Israeli-controlled high-tech Kerem Shalom crossing (near which Shalit was captured in June 2006). Another of the reported 50 times Egypt allowed Rafah to stay open was immediatly after the January 23 planned breach from Gaza of the sealed Rafah crossing, following one of the shut-downs of the Gaza power plant for lack of fuel.

According to the Ynet report, Barak said on Sunday [apparently in the regular weekly Israeli cabinet meeting] that “regarding the Rafah crossing, the issue has not yet been resolved. The Egyptians know we have tied Rafah to other issues on the agenda.”

Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev told journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh Tuesday afternoon, after the Olmert-Mubarak meeting, that for the Israeli government and the Israeli public, “the issue of Shalit is central”.

He stated firmly that Israel “cannot talk about anything close to a normal opening of the border crossings [with Gaza] without Shalit’s release”. According to Regev,“the deterioration of relations between Israel and Gaza started with the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit”.

Regev pointedly added, Tuesday, that “We heard some statements from Gaza over the weekend that were not factual, and we were disturbed”.

The journalists who traveled from Israel to cover the Olmert-Mubarak meeting were given a totally uninformed choice, upon arrival in Sharm as-Sheikh, of going to the Royal Golf Hotel where the meeting was actually held – where, the journalists were told, they would be held in a room for the duration, without even water to drink, and with no access to the internet.

Otherwise, the Israeli organizers said to the traveling press, they could go to the Movenpick Hotel, where there would be wireless internet availability, and all sorts of other creature comforts.

This journalist was one of a few who chose to be as close as possible to the meeting – and discovered that the room where the journalists were told they would be (and were) confined, was also, happily, where the official Egyptian press was waiting.

Israeli and Egyptian television cameramen happily traded film shots after they returned from their permitted exit – alone –from the confinement room for an initial “photo op”.

And a few Israeli officials worked the room, and one in particular was received very well, who earnestly and with sincerely explained Israel’s position at length in excellent fluent Egyptian-accented Arabic. She appeared to be just another journalist, but she turned out to be the very open and effective Director of the Arabic Press and Public Affairs Department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Amira Oron.

Mubarak’s main spokesperson, Suleiman Awad, then came when the summit meeting was over to brief the waiting journalists that the discussions had been “very constructive” — an “open, transparent consultation on the current situation in the Middle East” that focused mainly on (1) “the package of understandings relating to the cessation of hostilities in Gaza”, and (2) “the negotiations between the Palestine National Authority and the Israeli authorities on final status sticky issues”.

Asked about a proposed prisoner swap involving some of the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails and Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held for the past two years by Palestinian fighters in Gaza, Awad told journalists to “wait and see” until Mubarak addresses the issue in an interview with Israeli Channel 1 TV to be aired on Tuesday evening.

After the interview was aired, however, the Israeli press and public seemed largely unimpressed with the anticipated “revelations”.

On Wednesday morning, the main headline in the Jerusalem Post was that Mubarak said “Use of force against Iran will be a mistake …Whether this force is used by the US or Israel it will lead to tragedy.” On Shalit, Mubarak reportedly commented: “Why mix the issues? Is it better to fire at each other even if Schalit is not released?” Mubarak added that it was “only a matter of time” before Shalit is freed, the Jerusalem Post reported, and he urged patience and “careful consideration”.

The report said that Mubarak scoffed at the notion that Shalit could be smuggled out of Gaza if the border crossing at Rafah were reopened: There is no way this can be done secretly… everyone will know about it.” This, interestingly, was the concern famously expressed in late June 2006 by Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev, when he was working earlier for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and explained that Israel’s air raid that destroyed Gaza’s only (civilian) power plant just after Shalit’s capture was justified because, without electricity for lights, it would be much more difficult for Shalit’s kidnappers to move him around “in the dark”.

A European diplomat with long experience in the region said that he had been learned, at the time, that Shalit was originally captured by the same Dagmush family in Gaza that had also seized BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Hamas, the diplomat said, successfully issued an ultimatum at the time to the Dagmush clan to hand over Shalit – if not, Hamas threatened, according to the diplomat, to destroy the whole quarter where the family lived and everyone in it, including Shalit, they didn’t care. The strength and severity of the ultimatum had the desired effect, the diplomat said.

(It was many long months before Hamas issued the same sort of ultimatum to get the apparently much more expendible and less high-value Johnston released.)

Awad, in his briefing to journalists on Tuesday, said that President Mubarak expressed hopes in the meeting with Olmert that both Israel and the Palestinians will “stick to their commitments, entrench the current calm, and refrain from any acts that would recreate the vicious cycle of violence”. This, he said, would enable the Palestinian people to establish an independent Palestinian state.

Egypt, Awad said, has “exerted a great deal of effort in arduous negotiations to conclude the current talks about Gaza” – and it has been doing so for months and months. But, he said, “I do not want to go into the details”.

He added that Egypt is willing and even determined to continue its efforts, Awad added, but this requires compromise and flexibility “from both parties – Israel and the Palestinians”.

In his briefing to the journalists after the summit meeting, the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesman Mark Regev said diplomatically that Israel “applauds Egypt’s role” in bringing about the calm and the release – “but as to the details, they are discrete, and between the two governments”.

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert left Sharm as-Sheikh in time to join Israel’s President Shimon Peres for the formal farewell ceremony for French President Sarkozy at Ben Gurion Airport.

Officials in Olmert’s office offered to facilitate the transfer and access for any of the traveling journalists who also wanted to cover the airport ceremony – but, at the passport control re-entry, where the Israeli journalists had quick and easy passage, the officials from the Prime Minister’s staff simply abandoned two American journalists (including this one) who were delayed by the procedures. This was not surprising, the other American journalist said. These officials simply aim to help their friends in the Israeli media, and that’s it.

Before being obliged to go through passport control, the group of journalists who wanted to attend the farewell ceremony had been bussed around the area where the French plane was waiting, and a double row of Israel and French flags (all in crisp tones of white and blue with a touch of red in the case of the French) were flapping in the hot breeze. All was calm, and there was no sign of anything unusual.

It must have been just at the same time that an Israeli Border Policeman who was guarding the ceremony – but at least 100 meters away from the Prime Minister and the two Presidents, and on a roof – was shot. It was immediately declared most likely a suicide – a conclusion that was reinforced following a short investigation.

The Jerusalem Post added, in a report in Wednesday’s paper, that “No one on the tarmac heard the shot that ended a border policeman’s life a few hundred meters away from the leaders of Israel and France at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday, but security agents, fearing an assassination attempt, scrambled into action after news of the unexpected development reached them via their radio earpieces”.

Outlines of a Grand Deal – Israel Egypt Palestine – shaping up

An intriguing story in Haaretz today reports that Israeli and Egyptian representatives have “agreed in principle Wednesday to a deal that would have Egypt replace Israel as the Gaza Strip’s sole electricity provider”. The story also states that “Israeli security sources said the infrastructure minister and the Defense Ministry have been in talks with Egypt for a long time. The deal won the approval of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is interested in severing ties with Gaza”.

There is nobody who wouldn’t be pleased by such a deal.

Contacted by this reporter, a spokesperson for the Ministry of National Infrastructure, said Thursday morning that he had tried to check the Haaretz report but so far “We don’t know anything about it” – though, he added, the Haaretz journalists who wrote the story are good reporters.

But, as the Israeli spokesperson confirmed, the deal is actually between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

This deal was reported in a story published by this reporter in December (see UN Truth on 8 December here ).

It is not clear what role, if any, Israel would have in the deal – though the Israeli government would clearly like to be kept informed.

Dr. Omar Kittaneh, head of the Palestinian Energy Authority in Ramallah, told this reporter in early December that Egypt has agreed to build new lines with a capacity to carry up to 300 MW of electricity. “We’re expecting the line to be in operation at the beginning of 2009?, he said.

This could theoretically be enough to supply all the electricity needs of the Gaza Strip — though, Dr. Kittaneh noted carefully, “there are no commitments yet about the amount of electricity that will be supplied, only about the line capacity”.

Dr. Kittaneh was in meetings in Cairo on Thursday.

The Haaretz story today says that “Under the deal, Egypt would set up a new power line from the Sinai Peninsula town of Arish to the nearby Gaza Strip. The 150-megawatt line would cost $35 million to set up, and would be operational within two years”.

If that is the case, Egypt will not be supplying all of Gaza’s electricity – for the present demand in the Gaza Strip is for some 240 MW of electricity per day.

But, because of the Israeli fuel sanctions imposed on the Gaza Strip on 28 October, and electricity cuts that went into effect on 7 February, Gaza has been getting something like 20% percent less than that – or, not more than 200 MW on a good day.

However, it now appears the Israeli military-ordered electricity cuts, which were approved by the Israeli Supreme Court on 27 January, and went into effect on 7 February, were a bad idea. The electricity cuts appear to have been rescinded.

In fact, Israel now appears to be providing more electricity to Gaza than previously, rather than less.

Peter Lerner, the spokesperson for COGAT (Coordination of [Israeli] Government Affairs in the Territories), told this reporter Thursday that Israel is now supplying 124 MW of electricity per day to the Gaza Strip.

Before the cuts, Israel was supposedly providing 114 MW per day to Gaza, but technical problems and “local error” – not discovered until the Israeli Supreme Court had asked the military to provide clear information – had lowered that amount.

Gaza’s own power plant is providing about 55 MW of electricity per day. Egypt currently supplies 17 MW of electricity through one direct feed line from Rafah in the Sinai to the Rafah District in Gaza.

Egypt cannot offer an immediate solution to Gaza’s electricity problem – it cannot increase the amount of electricity it provides at the moment, as the line capacity is full.   And, it will take at least one year to build the new line to Gaza, once the contracts are approved.

Dr. Kittaneh indicated in December that tenders will be issued soon for the Egyptian line to Gaza. He said that the cost will be paid by a $32 million dollar grant from the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

These lines will not be simple feeder lines, which send electricity in only one direction, Dr. Kittaneh explained. They will be two-way lines capable of transmitting electricity in either direction over interconnected grids. “Interconnectivity is the modern policy choice being made by every country in the world now”, Dr. Kittaneh added.

An eventual connection from the West Bank to the Jordanian grid has also been approved, Dr. Kittaneh indicated.

These decisions were approved by all seven countries who are part of an interlinked grid of seven regional electric authorities (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon , Libya , Iraq and Turkey), at a meeting of Arab League Ministers of Electricity last March — soon after the formation of the “National Unity” Palestinian Authority Government following Saudi mediation between Fatah and Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority recently presented a five-year Master Plan for reviving the Palestinian infrastructure and economy to a post-Annapolis meeting of donors in Paris in December, and it included a request for some $200 million to develop the electricity sector, according to Dr. Kittaneh.

The Gaza power plant, still under Israeli military-applied Phase I fuel sanctions, is currently receiving only 2.2 million liters of industrial diesel fuel a week, enough to providing between 45-65 MW of electricity per day over seven days to Gaza City and Central Gaza.

The Gaza power plant, originally built to produce 140 MW per day, is now capable of generating 80 MW of electricity, if only it had enough fuel.

It was destroyed in a June 2006 IDF bombing after the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit from near Kerem Shalom. Corporal Shalit is still being held somewhere in Gaza.

Even if Gaza’s power plant were operating only at its present full capacity of 80 MW, it could, together with the reported future expected Egyptian supply of 150 MW (half of the proposed Egyptian line’s capacity), meet the total present electricity demand of the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.

But, so long as the Gaza power plant must operate with the Israeli-supplied industrial diesel fuel needed to operate, Gaza will remain dependent on Israel for a substantial portion of its electricity.

One option for Gaza to “disengage” from Israel would be to convert the Gaza power plant operation from diesel fuel to natural gas – and to buy gas from Egypt, pending development of Gaza’s own offshore gas discoveries. This option was included in a World Bank report on Palestinian energy that was published last May.

An Egypt-Gaza pipeline could be in place by 2009, the World Bank said.

(The construction of a pipeline returning from Ashkelon to Gaza – see scenario below –
could take about the same amount of time – but would depend on a drastically different political environment.)

Converting the Gaza Power Plant operation from diesel fuel to natural gas would save a lot of money – over $45 million dollars per year at its present reduced level of operation, and almost double that amount if it were to operate at full capacity.

Initially, it was planned that Gaza’s own offshore natural gas discoveries were supposed to help fuel the Power Plant – but negotiations concerning exploitation and marketing of this gas have been complicated, and they have recently been put on hold.

Even in a best-case scenario, that Palestinian offshore gas would now not be available before 2011 at the very earliest.

In the past month, liquid natural gas from Egypt began flowing to Israel in a 100-km (63-mile) undersea pipeline from El Arish to Ashkelon , as part of a long-term bilateral deal agreed in 2005 between Israel Electric Company and the Israeli-Egyptian consortium East Mediterranean Gas (composed of Egyptian General Petrol Corporation + Israeli businessman Yossi Meiman’s Merhav company).

The Egypt-Israel pipeline running from El-Arish, on the northern Sinai coast to the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, apparently runs undersea about 10 miles off shore – but though the area demarcated as the Palestinian maritime space.

The planned development of the Palestinian offshore gas would have included the building of a pipeline from the Gaza Marine field to Ashkelon, where the gas would have been processed, and the construction of a secondary pipeline to transport the processed gas from Ashkelon back to Gaza City, for delivery to Gaza’s power plant.

This plan was worked up by BG (British Gas), which has 25-year development rights to the Gaza offshore gas deposits granted by the PA and the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, with input from the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF) and from the head of Palestinian Energy Authority, Dr. Kittaneh.

However, the plan was put on hold in December (for a second time) by BG, in exasperation with the difficulty of negotiations with the Israeli government who would have been the buyer of the Palestinian gas. The main sticking point concerned pricing matters – though Israeli concerns about ensuring that this revenue would not go to funding Hamas militancy also remained.

Nevertheless, Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure Benjamin (Fouad) Ben Eliezer, continues to express great interest in the option.

In any case, around the time the Egypt-Israel gas supply agreement shaped up in 2005, it was then reported that a part of the Egyptian gas going to Israel could be also piped to the Gaza Power Plant — presumably pending the development of Gaza’s own offshore gas fields.

This scenario can still be dusted off to offer one quick fix – and there are signs that the possibility is under discussion.

Intriguingly, the talks that Egypt is conducting at the request of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, with Israel and “Palestinian factions”, and apparent American approval, could be shaping up to a grand deal.

But this will depend on order being restored to the current chaotic situation in Gaza – and calm in Israeli-Gaza as well as in overall Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The construction of part of the infrastructure envisaged for the development of the Palestinian offshore gas – that is, an Ashkelon-Gaza City pipeline – could theoretically move into the realm of the possible, though only if firing of rockets and missiles and other projectiles from Gaza is stopped.

Additional Egyptian gas could be piped to Ashkelon, then back to Gaza City.

Once the Gaza Maritime wells are developed and in production, the Egyptian gas could be then be “repaid” – to either Egypt or Israel, depending on the deal – with Palestinian gas.

No indication on deal to re-open Rafah crossing

With all these intensive talks in recent days, there is still no indication of any deal near on the important issue of reopening the Gaza-Egyptian border at Rafah.

No question has been asked in any of the press conferences given over the past few days by any of the principals involved.

There are only two hints that something may be up:

1) reports that David Welch is being sent back to Cairo. Haaretz reported that “Abbas said Wednesday that Rice told him she would send an envoy to Egypt, which often mediates between Israel and Hamas. [Rice briefly visited Egypt for talks on Tuesday morning, and Welch was in her entourage, before she arrived in Israel and headed straight to Ramallah] ‘There are real efforts being exerted by Egypt for the truce’, Abbas said”.

2) the statement issued this moring by Israel’s Security Cabinet saying they would work “To reduce the strengthening of Hamas, including in coordination with – and by – Egypt“.

Reuters has reported that “Israeli and European officials said one proposal under consideration would seek to open the Rafah border crossing to cargo, expanding on its former role for travellers only. Israeli defence officials said that could be acceptable to the Jewish state as a way of limiting its responsibility for supplying Gaza’s 1.5 million residents. But Egypt opposes any attempt by Israel to shift the burden, Western diplomats said … Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told reporters in Jerusalem his bloc’s border monitors were ready to return to Rafah after a nearly nine-month absence provided any agreement includes Egypt … Solana declined to say whether Rafah’s role could be expanded beyond passengers. ‘We are working on that, and working on that with intensity’, he told reporters … Abbas’s foreign minister said last week that having Palestinian Authority personnel at Rafah would give Abbas’s administration a ‘foothold’ again in Gaza … Israeli officials said the government would be willing to see Rafah open to both goods and people because it would further Israel’s goal of disconnecting from Gaza. Palestinians also have concerns, however, that linking Gaza closer to Egypt could hamper efforts to found a state in both Gaza and the West Bank … Israel has resisted international pressure to reopen the main Karni commercial crossing between Israel and Gaza, citing security concerns. Israeli officials said opening Rafah to passengers and goods could reduce the pressure to open Karni. To ensure Rafah would function more regularly, Washington supports stationing EU monitors both in Israel and in Egypt, Western diplomats said. The unarmed monitors, who withdrew from Rafah after Hamas’s takeover, have been based in Israel”. This Reuters report is posted here .

Israel's Gaza policy combines military attacks with sanctions

Despite evidence over the past two decades that sanctions can harm a civilian population even more than the leadership which is the ostensible target — and in contradiction to its own arguments that sanctions are a more merciful instrument of pressure than all-out war — the Israeli military has continued in recent weeks to tighten sanctions against the Gaza Strip, while at the same time escalating its military actions.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said several times in recent months that his country was engaged in a real war with Gaza – an appreciation that is shared by residents of the Gaza Strip in recent days.

What is happening now, Israeli analysts say, is a “measured escalation”.

Sanctions were officially imposed against the entire Palestinian Authority (PA) in early 2006 after Hamas’ victory in Palestinian Legislative Council elections. Hamas’ rout of Fatah security forces there in mid-June 2007 was the justification for a nearly-complete Israeli closure and the application of even more sanctions against Gaza — while sanctions were subsequently rapidly lifted from the Ramallah-based PA leadership.

Then, as firing of “projectiles” from Gaza onto Israeli territory continued, the Israeli Cabinet issued a declaration on 19 September determining that Hamas-run Gaza was “hostile territory”, or an “enemy entity”.

The Cabinet decided to continue “military and counter-terrorist operations against the terrorist Organizations”. At the same time, it also decided “to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity”, and to tighten restrictions on the movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip.

In late January, the Israeli Supreme Court (High Court of Justice) denied petitions submitted by a group of ten Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups to block military-ordered electricity cuts against Gaza. The Court had earlier declined, during the course of hearings, to intervene in the military-ordered fuel cuts.

The human rights groups had argued that the sanctions would target civilians, and would punish individuals for acts that they did not personally commit. They said that these sanctions amounted to collective punishment, which is illegal under international law.

But, they lost.

Israel supplies all of Gaza’s fuel, and more than half of Gaza’s electricity. Only Israeli-supplied water is unaffected.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in an interview after U.S. President George Bush’s meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah January that “Abu Mazen said that the humanitarian needs of the population in Gaza — including fuel, electricity, water, food and medical supplies — should not be touched, and Bush seemed to agree.”

Erekat added that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had also pledged, twice, not to touch these vital supplies — the first time on 25 June at a meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, and the second time in early January.

Israel’s military now makes all decisions about which persons – and which goods – can officially pass into or out of the Gaza Strip.

Only ten essential supplies are now being permitted into Gaza: cooking oil, salt, rice, sugar, wheat, dairy products, frozen vegetables, frozen meat, medical equipment and medicine.

Other essential items like cement or pipes or water are prohibited because the Israeli military says they can have a dual use – such as fortifying underground bunkers or concealed missile launchers, or making rockets.

Spare parts are also banned, and Gaza’s vital infrastructure is crumbling — threatening to throw the entire precarious situation into chaos at any moment.

It is an unprecedented regime of control and neglect, with no apparent mechanism of appeal.

**********

In its 27 January ruling, Israel’s Supreme Court adopted the government’s argument that Gaza is no longer occupied, following the 2005 unilateral Israeli “disengagement”, which removed 8,000 settlers and the Israeli Defense Forces protecting them, from Gaza.

The official claim that Gaza is no longer occupied is widely believed in Israel, though in few other places in the world.

International law experts say that Israel’s continued control of Gaza’s air and maritime space is sufficient to confirm that the occupation continues, without even entering into a debate over whether the Israel military maintains “effective control” inside the Gaza Strip.

The Court’s only concern was that there should be no humanitarian crisis, and the panel of judges who heard the case said they were satisfied with assurances given by the military that it would comply with Israeli law – and those aspects of international law that apply to Israel – and would continue to transfer “the necessary amounts of fuel and electricity for the essential humanitarian needs of the civilian population in the Strip”.

The state attorney, representing the military, told the court that “there is nothing to obligate them to allow the transfer of non-essential good or goods in quantities that exceed that which is needed to meet basic humanitarian needs”.

The Court noted, in its ruling, that “The security apparatus conducts a weekly evaluation of the situation that relies, in part, on communication with Palestinian bodies active in the areas of electricity and healthcare, as well as on communication with international organizations.”

But, Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which has taken a leading role in the effort to get the Israeli Supreme Court to block these sanctions, says, all these cuts “are completely illegal”.

The Court’s ruling at the end of January was a deep disappointment but not a surprise to the human rights petitioners, some of whom said that the Court has a history of taking the side of government policy.

In an excerpt from the Supreme Court ruling translated from Hebrew by Gisha, the judges wrote: “Under the current circumstances, the primary obligations borne by the State of Israel with regards to the residents of the Gaza Strip are derived from the state of armed conflict that prevails between it and the Hamas organization which controls the Gaza Strip; its obligations also stem from the degree of control that the State of Israel has over the border crossings between it and the Gaza Strip; and also from the situation that was created between the State of Israel and the Gaza Strip territory due to years of Israeli military control in the area, as a result of which the Gaza Strip is at this time almost totally dependent on Israel for its supply of electricity”.

According to Bashi, ´This is an unprecedented decision authorizing collective punishment in its most blatant form. The Court’s ruling relies on unsubstantiated declarations by the military and ignores the indisputable and well-documented evidence of harm to civilians caused by the fuel and electricity cuts…”

And, Bashi has said, we find the Court’s factual inquiry to be flawed.

Gisha has argued that Gaza is not an “enemy state” — but rather it is an “occupied territory”.

Bashi has said that “It is not allowed to cut civilian access to electricity, to deprive people of water or hospitals of fuel – not even a little bit”. “What’s happening in Gaza is very, very bad”.

In a lengthy interview with the Jerusalem Post interview after the Court’s decision, Sari Bashi explained that “Israel is saying that Gaza may not receive fuel and electricity from anywhere else in the world, and restricting what is received through its borders. The European Union is buying 100% of the industrial diesel fuel for Gaza’s power plant. This is a humanitarian donation project. But, if the EU were to bring canisters of industrial diesel on a ship and try to dock it in Gaza, Israel’s navy would sink the ship. If the EU were to fly it in by plane, the Israeli air force would shoot down the plane. Israel requires the EU to bring the industrial diesel through the Nahal Oz border crossing. This is not trade. This is a blockade in which Israel decides the terms under which people may bring humanitarian goods through the blockade. This is unprecedented. Furthermore, between Israel and Gaza there are specific obligations. Gaza is occupied territory under international law. This means that Israel owes positive obligations to actively facilitate the provision of humanitarian services and the functioning of normal life in Gaza. The reason for this is control. Israel controls the funding of public services in Gaza, through its control of the tax moneys collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. These are the tax moneys that pay public servants in Gaza. Israel also controls the Palestinian population registry, determining who is a resident of Gaza, who may live there, who may enter. And Israel controls Gaza’s borders: land, air and sea. That control creates responsibility”.

Speaking with Al-Bayan last week, Bashi, a lawyer who participated in arguing this case before the Supreme Court, said the ruling “ignores the law – it doesn’t even try to address the legitimate legal questions we raised”.

In fact, she said, “the Court did not rule, but instead it just accepted the military claim it
Could make these cuts without causing any humanitarian damage”. But, Bashi said, the concept of a “humanitarian minimum has no basis in law”.

“I would even go so far as to say that we are more than disappointed, we believe the decision is illegitimate”, Bashi stated, “because once a court stops applying legal standards, it loses its authority”.

She said that the Court was “politically not prepared to intervene, in addition to staying silent on the law. It was under a lot of political pressure from the Justice Ministry which suggested that the Court would be responsible for Israeli casualties if it blocked the sanctions and thereby increased the likelihood of a ground invasion”.

“We are now pursuing other avenues, such as our advocacy efforts to highlight the responsibility of the international community”, Bashi said.

And, she added, “We’re in a constant process of raising issues and concerns with the military. We’re not in a rush to sue”.

Bashi also noted that “even among Israeli military officials, there is a recognition that the harsh restrictions that have been imposed on Gaza are not advancing any legitimate military goals – and they’re also illegal”.

**********
Gisha Legal Adviser Kenneth Mann said after the last hearing that the judges appeared to believe that if there are no physical injuries and casualties, there was no humanitarian crisis. “Gazans sitting in the cold and the dark for 12 hours or more at a time is not a humanitarian crisis for them”, he said.

The final Supreme Court hearing in Jerusalem was conducted almost as if the dramatic events at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt had not happened.

Bashi said afterwards that “We let the judges know that the state violated the request” for the appearance at the hearing of two Gaza professionals who are co-petitioners in the case, and who could have explained the technical details concerning the Gaza power plant and Gaza´s electricity-distributing company.

Dr. Rafiq Maliha, project manager of the Gaza Power Plant, and Engineer Nedal Toman, project manager of GEDCO, were informed that they would be given permits to participate in the Supreme Court hearing that Sunday. The two Palestinians arrived at the Erez terminal at 7 am. But, they said, they were not actually given the permits and allowed to leave until the court session started at 10 am.

Despite their best efforts, and a frantic taxi ride from the Gaza border to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, the two professional experts were only able to arrive at the Supreme Court building about 20 minutes after the hearing was concluded by the judges, who decided not to wait for their arrival.

Toman has explained in several sworn affidavits presented to the Court that it is impossible to redirect electricity in Gaza. But, during the hearing, the state attorney told the Court – without the benefit of Toman´s presence for any questioning on this precise point – that some unnamed “Palestinians” had told the military the exact opposite.

The Court decided to allow itself to be convinced by the state and military assurances that it is not Israel’s intention to cause humanitarian damage in Gaza.

Any damage that results would therefore be accidental and unintended – and thus within the realm of legality.

*********

Since 7 February, the electricity that Israel’s Electric Company sells to Gaza, and supplies through three of ten direct-feed lines at various points across the Israel-Gaza border, has been gradually reduced, by military order, though the use of recently-installed “load regulators” that apparently can be operated like dimmer switches.

The military informed the court late last year that it would continue reducing the electricity on these lines at periodic intervals, until there is a stop to attacks from Gaza on Israeli territory.

But, so far, Gisha’s Sari Bashi said the military has confirmed that there has been only one reduction on one electricity line from Israel to Gaza so far – a 5% reduction on a line that supplies 14 MW. The military has written to her that restriction on supply of electricity from additional lines is to be done subject to an evaluation of the situation and evaluation of the effectiveness of the reduction. Such decision has not yet been made.”

The Palestinian Authority has a contract to buy 120 MW of electricity daily from the Israel Electric Company, but in recent months – even before the cuts were authorized — the supply was often somewhat less. In statements to the Court, the military has admitted factual errors, mistakes and “local error” which resulted in cuts of directly-supplied Israeli electricity despite the Courts previous request to hold off until it reached a decision. There have also been recent “technical problems” on some of the lines.

The Court in its ruling said “we found it hard to get information on this issue from the state’s representatives”.

The Israel Electric Company is paid by the Israeli Ministry of Finance from withheld Palestinian funds — taxes and customs duties collected under the terms of the Oslo Accords by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, but retained, ostensibly due to Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory, and only sporadically released to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Gaza’s own electricity-generating power plant was destroyed in an Israeli air raid in anger in late June 2006, after IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured near the Kerem Shalom crossing (where the borders of Israel, Gaza, and Egypt meet).

Before the Israeli air attack, the Gaza power plant generated some 89-90 MW of electricity per day. It has been designed to be able to produce 140 MW.

Gaza’s current electrical demand is for some 240 MW per day.

It took months of reconstruction work — and negotiation with various parts of the Israeli government — to get in the materials needed, and there was a partial restoration of the Gaza power plant’s functioning in November 2006.

Since then, the power plant has been running on industrial diesel fuel which is ordered by the Palestinian Authority, and delivered by the private Israeli company Dor Alon. The fuel — costing some $10 million per month before the military-ordered cuts on 28 October — has been paid for by the European Union’s Temporary International Mechanism (TIM), because of the financial restrictions imposed after Hamas’ electoral victory. (The TIM has just been replaced by a new mechanism considered more suitable for the present circumstances).

Despite all these efforts, only half of the plant’s pre-strike capacity was restored. After reconstruction, it only got up to 65 MW per day, running two turbines at full loads — before the military-ordered fuel sanctions kicked in on 28 October.

Then, because the plant was allowed to receive only 2.2 million liters of fuel per week – not quite enough to run two turbines at full loads, it dipped into its reserves to continue operating at this level for a while, until the fuel reserves were depleted in early January.

Since then, Gaza’s power plant runs just on what it received daily. It is now operating two turbines at partial loads, and generating only between 45-55 MW of electricity per day – though it is now ready to add a repaired third turbine that could help produce 80 MW per day, if enough fuel were available (each turbine requires 160,000 liters of industrial diesel fuel per day, or 1.12 million liters per week, to operate at full loads.)

In January, the military nevertheless informed the Court that it believes 2.2 million liters of industrial diesel fuel per week is enough for Gaza´s power plant.

Now, without replenishment of the power plant’s fuel reserves – which has not been permitted — a shortfall on any one day could mean that the power plant would again have to shut down, as it did on 20 January for two days, after the IDF stopped fuel deliveries for a couple of days because of fierce fighting around the Nahal Oz crossing where fuel is transferred from Israel to the Gaza Stop.

Fighting in the last four days of February again caused another near-shutdown, because
fuel supplies were not being delivered to Gaza. One of the two turbines would have had to shut down on Friday, but according to the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), Nahal Oz was opened for fuel that day, and 400,000 liters were delivered to Gaza from Israel. Some areas of central Gaza regularly experience power cuts of approximately 8 to 12 hours a day now, but a turbine shutdown could cause cuts of as much as 20 hours a day, UNSCO said.

These fuel cuts have exacerbated an already-existing shortfall in electricity in the Gaza trip, which is now being compounded by the electricity cuts.

As a result of the rolling electricity black-outs and brown-outs — and the lack of ordinary diesel fuel to operate back-up and stand-by generators — Gaza’s water utilities are emptying 40 million liters of raw sewage a day directly into the Mediterranean Sea, in an effort to avoid catastrophic flooding that could endanger human lives in the densely-populated Gaza.

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Egypt currently supplies 17 MW of electricity through one direct feed line from Rafah in the Sinai to the Rafah District in Gaza.

Egypt cannot offer an immediate solution to Gaza’s electricity problem – it cannot increase the amount of electricity it provides at the moment, as the line capacity is full.

However, according to Dr. Omar Kittaneh, head of the Palestinian Energy Authority in Ramallah, Egypt has agreed to build new lines with a capacity to carry up to 300 MW of electricity. “We’re expecting the line to be in operation at the beginning of 2009″, he said.

This could theoretically be enough to supply all the electricity needs of the Gaza Strip — though, Dr. Kittaneh noted carefully, “there are no commitments yet about the amount of electricity that will be supplied, only about the line capacity”.

Tenders will be issued soon, he indicated, and the cost for the new lines will be paid by a $32 million dollar grant from the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

These lines will not be simple feeder lines, which send electricity in only one direction, Dr. Kittaneh explained. They will be two-way lines capable of transmitting electricity in either direction over interconnected grids, interconnectivity is the modern policy choice being made by every country in the world now, Dr. Kittaneh added.

A connection from the West Bank to the Jordanian grid has also been approved, Dr. Kittaneh indicated.  It was reportedly inaugurated last week.

At a meeting of Arab League Ministers of Electricity last March — soon after the formation of the “National Unity” Palestinian Authority Government following Saudi mediation between Fatah and Hamas — this decision was approved by all seven countries who are part of an interlinked grid of seven regional electric authorities (Egypt , Jordan, Syria, Lebanon , Libya , Iraq and Turkey).

The Palestinian Authority recently presented a five-year Master Plan for reviving the Palestinian infrastructure and economy to a post-Annapolis meeting of donors in Paris in December, and it included a request for some $200 million to develop the electricity sector, Dr. Kittaneh indicated.

Converting the Gaza Power Plant operation from diesel fuel to natural gas would save a lot of money – over $45 million dollars per year at its present reduced level of operation, and almost double that amount if it were to operate at full capacity.

Gaza’s own offshore natural gas discoveries were supposed to help fuel the Power Plant – but negotiations concerning exploitation and marketing of this gas have been complicated, and they have recently been put on hold. That gas would not be available before 2011 at the earliest, in a best-case scenario.

Earlier this year, the World Bank suggested that the Palestinians might consider buying gas from Egypt meanwhile to operate the Power Plant more economically – a pipeline could be in place by 2009 — pending development of Gaza’s own offshore gas.

Last week, liquid natural gas from Egypt began flowing to Israel in a 100-km (63-mile) undersea pipeline from El Arish to Ashkelon, as part of a long-term bilateral deal between the Israeli-Egyptian consortium East Mediterranean Gas (composed of Egyptian General Petrol Corporation and Israeli businessman Yossi Meiman’s Merhav company) and Israel Electric Company.

That pipeline apparently runs through about 10 miles off shore though the area demarcated as the Palestinian maritime space off Gaza.

It was reported, around the time the Egypt-Israel agreement shaped up in 2005, that a part of the Egyptian gas going to Israel could be also piped to the Gaza Power Plant, which was originally designed to operate on gas, and could be converted back at a reasonable cost relatively quickly.

If order can be restored to the current chaotic situation in Gaza, this scenario could be dusted off.

Gaza’s dependence on Israel would be lessened, to everyone’s satisfaction.

And, the gas that could be diverted to Gaza’s power plant in the near term might be “repaid” once the offshore gas deposits in the Gaza Marine wells within Palestinian maritime space are developed.

Long-term deal: Egyptian gas flows to Israel

Israel’s Minister for National Infrastructure, Brigadier General (reserve) Binyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer said in Jerusalem last week that he expects natural gas will be flowing from Egypt to Israel by the beginning of March, in an undersea pipeline from El Arish to Ashkelon.

Ben Eliezar, who belongs to the Labor Party, said that gas was first injected into the pipeline on the night of 19 February, “on a trial basis”. He said he hoped the full flow would be carried within days.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense confirmed on Thursday that the Egyptian gas has arrived successfully in Ashkelon, but the activation of the flow, or its distribution all over the country, will be in a few days. He said there would be an official inauguration ceremony just before the middle of March.

“By the way, the contract we signed with Egypt is for twenty years”, Ben Eliezar noted. This, he said, will help consolidate peace with Egypt . He made these remarks at a panel discussion held during The Jerusalem Conference on 20 February.

Israel’s first Ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, who is now retired, told journalists at a briefing in Jerusalem on Thursday that Egypt’s interest in the deal is that “it needs technology and investment from Israel, and we are ready to give it”.

Agence France Presse (AFP) reported this week that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood opposition, which controls a fifth of seats in parliament, says that the Egyptian Government is committing a “crime” against the Palestinian people by selling this gas to Israel while Israel is tightening sanctions and maintaining a siege of the Gaza Strip.

Ben Eliezar himself signed the Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt’s Oil Minister Sameh Fahmi in June 2005. The preliminary agreement was for 15 years – with the Israeli-Egyptian consortium East Mediterranean Gas (composed of Egyptian General Petrol Corporation and Israeli businessman Yossi Meiman’s Merhav) to provide 1.7 billion cubic meters or 59-60 billion cubic feet of gas annually to the Israel Electric Company for about $2.5 billion a year — with an option to extend for another five years.

The deal was first discussed in 1999, under Israel ’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also a member and now the leader of the Labor Party — but was frozen for five years after the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

Around the time the agreement shaped up in 2005, it was reported that a part of the Egyptian gas going to Israel will be piped to the Gaza power station, which was originally designed to operate on gas.

Gaza ’s power plant has been meanwhile operating on Israeli-provided industrial diesel fuel, paid for by the European Union since November 2006. Before the recent Israeli military-ordered fuel cuts to Gaza reduced the quantity of fuel permitted to enter Gaza , the bill amounted to some $10 million a month.

Israel’s Minister Ben Eliezar predicted last week that an increasing proportion of Israel ’s energy mix will be satisfied by natural gas – rising from 20% at present to 40% in the next decade.

The highly-advantageous deal with Egypt – in which Israel locked in a relatively low price for the life of the contract, while the market price has risen several times — will only supply part of Israel’s needs.

While the gas well in the Mediterranean that belongs to the Israeli company Delek will be depleted in the coming decade, Ben Eliezar said, there is another well located 90 kilometers west of Haifa could, if proven, sustain Israel for the next 30 years.

Ben Eliezer said at the conference that Israel was still negotiating with BG over a deal to buy a large part of the output of the Gaza Marine gas wells located in Palestininian maritime space in the Mediterranean Sea, about 36 kilometers off Gaza’s coast – despite the fact that BG indicated on 20 December that it was calling off the negotiations with Israel. The main problem was reportedly that BG had insisted that Israel pay the market price for the Palestinian gas, while Israel wanted a more favorable deal.

The Israeli Minister mentioned that there were on-going discussions with Russia ’s Gazprom, and with Azerbaijan .

He also said that Israel has been negotiating with Turkey for almost three years on constructing three undersea channels or pipelines from Turkey to the Haifa in Israel’s north, and Ashkelon in Israel’s south.

As a country with difficult relations with its neighbors, Ben Eliezar said, Israel has to “make sure that we have at least five sources of energy” in order to ensure a constant supply.

Gaza crisis deepening

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have just allowed supplies of nitrous oxide gas needed for anesthesia in surgery to enter the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian independent news agency Maan.

An IDF spokesperson at the Erez crossing from Israel into Gaza said that the Palestinian request for the gas was made only on Sunday afternoon, and denied previous refusals “Unfortunately the Palestinians informed us about the urgent need for gas at the last moment, after the depletion of their reserve,” Maan reported.

However, the Maan report said, the spokesperson of “the de facto Palestinian Health Ministry [Maan terminology] in Gaza Khalid Radi disputed this account”. The Maan report that supplies of nitrous oxide gas were allowed into Gaza on Monday is here.

On Sunday, the Ramattan Palestinian independent news agency reported that operatiing rooms in Gaza hospitals had been closed because nitrous gas used for anesthesia was running out.

Ramattan said that “The spokesperson of the dismissed Ministry of Health [Ramattan terminologyy], Khaled Radhi, told RNA that nitrous is running out in Gaza, pointing out that the last amount of the gas, two tubes, could finish any time … [and] that the (Hamas-led) Ministry of Health in Gaza appealed to concerned international bodies and to the World Health Organization”…
The Ramattan report that there were only two tubes of nitrous oxide left in Gaza on Sunday is here.

Maan also reported on Monday that over 100 Gazan patients needing urgent medical treatment were awaiting Egyptian approval for their transfer to Egypt for care. The “deposed” [Maan terminology] Palestinian Health Minister in the “de facto” [Maan terminology] “government of the Gaza Strip, Basim Na’im, said Monday that … some, but not all of the patients may be Hamas-affiliated”.
The Maan report about delays in transferring Gazan patients to Israel is here.

On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet discussed a proposal from Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon that “the Defense Ministry permit the transfer of 4,500 calves into Gaza. According to the minister, the transfer of the calves, which were imported to the region from Australia, could help prevent starvation in the Strip. He said he was considering submitting a bill that would omit the agricultural aspect from the Cabinet’s recent declaration of Gaza a ‘hostile political entity’. According to Simhon, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai approved the gradual transfer into the Strip of 1,500 out of the 4,500 calves that are quarantined in Israel … [and that] … Another shipment of 1,500 calves is currently on its way from Australia. Ramattan said that “The spokesperson of the dismissed Ministry of Health [Ramattan terminologyy], Khaled Radhi, told RNA that nitrous is running out in Gaza, pointing out that the last amount of the gas, two tubes, could finish any time … [and] that the (Hamas-led) Ministry of Health in Gaza appealed to concerned international bodies and to the World Health Organization”…
The Ramattan report that there were only two tubes of nitrous oxide left in Gaza on Sunday is here.

Maan also reported on Monday that over 100 Gazan patients needing urgent medical treatment were awaiting Egyptian approval for their transfer to Egypt for care. The “deposed” [Maan terminology] Palestinian Health Minister in the “de facto” [Maan terminology] “government of the Gaza Strip, Basim Na’im, said Monday that … some, but not all of the patients may be Hamas-affiliated”.
The Maan report about delays in transferring Gazan patients to Israel is here.

On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet discussed a proposal from Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon that the Defense Ministry permit the transfer of thousands of Australian calves into Gaza . The Israeli Ynet website reported over the weekend that the Agriculture Minister “was considering submitting a bill that would omit the agricultural aspect from the Cabinet’s recent declaration of Gaza a hostile political entity … ‘We cannot let the population in Gaza starve, despite the Cabinet’s decision’, Simhon said”.

News reports after the Israeli Cabinet meeting say that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni opposed another proposal from Simhon — to allow agricultural produce from Gaza, destined for Europe, transit Israel.

Ynet had reported earlier that “The Dutch government has invested 20 million euros in Gaza’s agricultural field this year, especially in flowers and strawberries”.
The Ynet report on the Israeli agricultural minister’s proposals to avoid starvation in Gaza are here.