Hamas, Fatah + Palestinian Factions agree to try to form one government

After the first day of full meetings in Cairo today on national reconciliation, the main Palestinian factions — including hitherto bitter rivals Hamas and Fatah — said they had reached agreement in principle on a new government.

There is not yet agreement on what kind of new government it should be.
Continue reading Hamas, Fatah + Palestinian Factions agree to try to form one government

A winning formula – withhold salaries in the West Bank to pay for damaged homes in Gaza?

There’s something unclear here.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has generously offered — or maybe even actually sent — millions of dollars or shekels or whatever to Gaza to “compensate” people whose homes have been damaged or destroyed in the recent 22-day IDF Operation Cast Lead, designed to stop rocket firing from Gaza onto Israel.

But, the border crossings are closed into Gaza — pending the successful outcome of Egyptian-led negotiations with Israel — so no reconstruction materials are allowed into Gaza. The tunnels, of course, are still operating, despite regular IDF and sometimes even Egyptian attacks — making them a very risky business.

The crossings will not be opened (or, will not be fully opened, depending on the report) until the successful conclusion of Egyptian-led negotiations between Israel (whose Prime Minister staunchly denies negotiating with Hamas) and Hamas. Prime Minister Olmert has now said that the crossings will not be opened (or, fully opened), until the release of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was captured just outside the Gaza border in June 2006 and who is believed to be still held somewhere in Gaza.
Continue reading A winning formula – withhold salaries in the West Bank to pay for damaged homes in Gaza?

Day three: Israel presses attacks on Gaza

The death toll in Gaza rose to at least 307 persons on Monday morning, as Israeli presssed its air attacks on Gaza, and mobilized reserve troops and tank units.

UPDATE: Casualties rose in Gaza throughout the day Monday, and stood at 370 dead by nightfall, as severely wounded people succombed to their injuries, and as Israeli attacks continued. At least 1400 Gazans have been wounded.

A second Israeli death from Palestinian reprisal rocket attacks from Gaza was also reported Monday morning, when “projectiles” landed near a cultural center in downtown Ashkelon, a coastal city of some 120,000 people. It is the first death from Palestinian attack in Ashkelon, and it is apparently considered somewhat significant in Israel that the person killed by Palestinian fire in Ashkelon today was an Israeli Arab [i.e., therefore, in this context, Palestinian] construction worker. Later, Haaretz reported that the victim was a Bedouin.

UPDATE: Two more Israelis were killed by Palestinian shelling on Monday night — A woman was killed Monday evening in a Grad (or Katyusha) missile attack on Ashdod, a major coastal city with an important port installation north of Ashkelon. And someone was killed by a Qassem rocket attack on Nahal Oz — presumably the Kibbutz which is right next to the major fuel transfer point into Gaza.

A short while later, Kassam rockets landed in the smaller, and more interior, town of Sderot, with preliminary reports of injuries.

The IDF has now reportedly declared Israel’s “Gaza borderline communities”, around the perimeter of the Gaza Strip, a closed military zone. On Monday evening, rockets and missiles rained down on Israeli areas north and northeast of the Gaza strip.

The Associated Press reported that “Israel’s air force obliterated symbols of Hamas power on the third day of its overwhelming assault on Gaza on Monday … Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak told Israel’s parliament in a special session that Israel was not fighting the residents of Gaza ‘but we have a war to the bitter end against Hamas and its branches’. This AP report can be viewed in full here.

Israel’s Foreign Minister and Vice Prime Minister Tzipi Livni told the Knesset that “Since this past Saturday morning, Israel has been fighting the terrorist rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in order to change the security situation in Israel”.

Reuters reported from London that “Oil prices rose above $40 a barrel on Monday, boosted by the weak dollar and violence between Israel and Hamas that served as a reminder of tensions that could threaten crude supplies from the Middle East”.

Israel has offered (without much explanation) to permit some of the people wounded in its IDF attacks to enter Israel for medical care in Israeli hospitals. It is not clear if any of the wounded have yet accepted this offer — but there are unconfirmed reports that a few small children, apparently unaccompanied and without even a change of clothing, have arrived from Gaza — or are about to arrive — at East Jerusalem’s Palestinian hospitals for urgent treatment. Others may be transferred to the West Bank.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas issued his strongest condemnation yet of the operation, according to the AP, calling it a “sweeping Israeli aggression against Gaza”. AP also reported what appears to be a major turnaround: Abbas also said he would consult with Hamas in an effort to end the attacks. Until now, Abbas has refused to talk to Hamas, following the ouster of Fatah security forces in Gaza in mid-June 2007 , and has insisted that Hamas must reverse the situation and restore the status quo ante, first. However, it might not be so significant: Ma’an News Agency reported merely that Abbas, at a meeting of the PLO executive committee, “urged all factions, including Hamas, to take part in consultations about Gaza”. On Sunday, Abbas reportedly said that Hamas could have prevented Israel’s assault had it only agreed to extend the cease-fire, and he urged it to do so now.

Earlier Monday, the IDF announced it is allowing the shipment of some 80 truckloads of humanitarian supplies [n.b. these are not donations from Israel] into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing where the borders of Israel, Gaza, and the Egyptian Sinai intersect.

The Erez crossing into Gaza remains closed, the Foreign Press Association advised its membership. The press group reported that its request, submitted on Sunday to Israel’s Supreme Court, for an interim order allowing immediate access to Gaza for foreign journalists “was refused on grounds of being granted the hearing on Wednesday morning, now set for 9.30 am”.

The IDF sent out a message on Monday morning, saying that “The Israeli Air Force attacked a number of Hamas targets during the night, including Hamas outposts, weapon manufacturing facilities and a center for weapon research and development. The center, located in the Rimel neighborhood of Gaza City, was targeted in a combined IDF and the ISA operation, [as] the IAF struck buildings that were used as meeting places for senior leaders of Hamas. One of the structures struck housed explosives laboratories that were an inseparable part of Hamas’ research and development program, as well as places that served as storage facilities for the organization. The development of these weapons took place under the auspices of senior lecturers who are activists in Hamas. Among the weapons that have been developed and manufactured at this site are Qassam rockets. Hamas has been working tirelessly to extend the range of the rockets, as has been shown during the past few days”.

This IDF announcement adds, tellingly, that “In February 2007 the Fatah Presidential Guard raided the facility and uncovered many weapons including approximately 100 Qassam rockets, 250 RPG launchers, hundreds of assault rifles, lathes, and materials used for rocket manufacturing”.

The Associated Press reported this morning that “Hamas leaders were forced into hiding, most of the dead were from the Hamas security forces, and Israel’s military intelligence chief said Hamas’ ability to fire rockets had been reduced by 50 percent. Indeed, Hamas rockets fire dropped off sharply, from more than 130 on Saturday to just over 20 on Sunday. Still, Hamas continues to command some 20,000 fighters. Israel’s intense bombings — some 300 air strikes since midday Saturday — wreaked unprecedented destruction in Gaza, reducing entire buildings to rubble. After nightfall, Israeli aircraft attacked a building in the Jebaliya refugee camp next to Gaza City, killing a 14-month-old baby, a man and two women, Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said. In the southern town of Rafah, Palestinian residents said a toddler and his two teenage brothers were killed in an airstrike aimed at a Hamas commander. Israeli aircraft also bombed the Islamic University and government compound in Gaza City, centers of Hamas power, and the house next to the residence of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a Gaza City refugee camp. Haniyeh, in hiding, was not home … Gaza’s nine hospitals were overwhelmed”.

This AP report added that “The [U.S.] White House was mum about the situation in Gaza on Sunday after speaking out expansively on Saturday, blaming Hamas for provoking Israel’s retaliatory strikes”.

Dore Gold, a former Israeli Ambassador to the UN (1997-99), is now President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has just written an article attempting to refute criticism of the Israeli attacks on Gaza as being “disproportionate” — a violation of international law. Gold writes that “Israel is currently benefiting from a limited degree of understanding in international diplomatic and media circles for launching a major military operation against Hamas on December 27. Yet there are significant international voices that are prepared to argue that Israel is using disproportionate force in its struggle against Hamas … The charge that Israel uses disproportionate force keeps resurfacing whenever it has to defend its citizens from non-state terrorist organizations and the rocket attacks they perpetuate. From a purely legal perspective, Israel ‘s current military actions in Gaza are on solid ground. According to international law, Israel is not required to calibrate its use of force precisely according to the size and range of the weaponry used against it. (Israel is not expected to make Kassam rockets and lob them back into Gaza.) When international legal experts use the term ‘disproportionate use of force’, they have a very precise meaning in mind. As the President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague , Rosalyn Higgins, has noted, proportionality ‘cannot be in relation to any specific prior injury – it has to be in relation to the overall legitimate objective of ending the aggression’. (Her arguments were cited in ‘Responding to Hamas Attacks from Gaza – Issues of Proportionality Background Paper’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 2008.)

Gold’s argument continues: “In other words, if a state, like Israel , is facing aggression, then proportionality addresses whether force was specifically used by Israel to bring an end to the armed attack against it. By implication, force becomes excessive if it is employed for another purpose, like causing unnecessary harm to civilians. The pivotal factor determining whether force is excessive is the intent of the military commander. In particular, one has to assess what was the commander’s intent regarding collateral civilian damage … What was critical from the standpoint of international law was that if the attempt had been made ‘to minimize civilian damage, then even a strike that causes large amounts of damage – but is directed at a target with very large military value – would be lawful’. Numbers matter less than the purpose of the use of force. Israel has argued that it is specifically targeting facilities serving the Hamas regime and its determined effort to continue its rocket assault on Israel : headquarters, training bases, weapons depots, command and control networks, and weapons-smuggling tunnels. This way Israel is respecting the international legal concept of proportionality. Alternatively, disproportionality would occur if the military sought to attack even if the value of a target selected was minimal in comparison with the enormous risk of civilian collateral damage. This point was made by Luis Moreno-Orampo, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, on February 9, 2006, in analyzing the Iraq War. He explained that international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court ‘permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks [emphasis added] against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur’. The attack becomes a war crime when it is directed against civilians (which is precisely what Hamas does) or when ‘the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage’. In fact, Israeli legal experts right up the chain of command within the IDF make this calculation before all military operations of this sort.

Gold also wrote: “Moving beyond the question of international law, the charge that Israel is using a disproportionate amount of force in the Gaza Strip because of reports of Palestinian casualties has to be looked at critically. Israelis have often said among themselves over the last seven years that when a Hamas rocket makes a direct strike on a crowded school, killing many children, then Israel will finally act. This scenario raises the question of whether the doctrine of proportionality requires that Israel wait for this horror to occur, or whether Israel could act on the basis of the destructive capability of the arsenal Hamas already possesses, the hostile declarations of intent of its leaders, and its readiness to use its rocket forces already”.

Meanwhile, Israeli-American activist Jeff Halper, director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICADH), has also written on the massive and unprecedented Israeli attacks on Gaza that started Saturday — and on Israeli justification for those attacks — saying that “[T]he occupation, in which Israel controls Gaza under a violent siege that violates fundamental human rights and international law, is not even mentioned in Israel’s PR campaign. Speaking to the international community, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insists that no country would tolerate its citizens being attacked, a seemingly reasonable statement were it not for Israeli sanctions on Gaza, supported by the US and Europe–sanctions that preceded the rocket fire on Israel–or the fact of the Israeli occupation, in general. Solely focusing on the rocket attacks conceals the political policy that led to them: ‘The Hamas government in Gaza must be toppled’, Livni has said repeatedly. ‘The means to do this must be military, economic and diplomatic’. The responsibility for the suffering both in Israel and Gaza rests squarely with successive Israeli governments; Labor, Likud and Kadima alike. Had there been a genuine political process (remember, the closure of Gaza began in 1989), Israelis and Palestinians could have been living together in peace and prosperity for 20 years. After all, already in 1988 the PLO accepted the two-state solution, in which a Palestinian state would arise on only 22 percent of historic Palestine, alongside the state of Israel on the other 78 percent. A truly generous offer. In Israel, however, the effort is to hide its preference for control over peace. Framing its attacks as a response to rockets from Gaza, exploiting an immediate trigger to effectively conceal deeper political intentions and policies, does that. It also conceals Israeli violations of the ceasefire. The fact that the rocket attacks could have been avoided altogether through a genuine political process means that the people of southern Israel are being held hostage by their government, as well. Their suffering, and the suffering of the people of Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories, must be placed squarely at the feet of the Israeli government”.

Halper also wrote: “We call on the Israeli government to end its aggression immediately and enter into genuine political negotiations with a united Palestinian leadership. We call on the international community to end its sanctions on Gaza immediately in accordance with international law, initiate an effective political process to end the Israeli occupation and bring about a just peace, which reflects the will of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples”.

Tom Segev — one of Israel’s most respected historians — wrote in Haaretz that “Israel is striking at the Palestinians to ‘teach them a lesson’. That is a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom – via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover does with his donkey. The bombing of Gaza is also supposed to ‘liquidate the Hamas regime’, in line with another assumption that has accompanied the Zionist movement since its inception: that it is possible to impose a ‘moderate’ leadership on the Palestinians, one that will abandon their national aspirations. As a corollary, Israel has also always believed that causing suffering to Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over. All of Israel’s wars have been based on yet another assumption that has been with us from the start: that we are only defending ourselves. ‘Half a million Israelis are under fire’, screamed the banner headline of Sunday’s Yedioth Ahronoth – just as if the Gaza Strip had not been subjected to a lengthy siege that destroyed an entire generation’s chances of living lives worth living. It is admittedly impossible to live with daily missile fire, even if virtually no place in the world today enjoys a situation of zero terror. But Hamas is not a terrorist organization holding Gaza residents hostage: It is a religious nationalist movement, and a majority of Gaza residents believe in its path. One can certainly attack it, and with Knesset elections in the offing, this attack might even produce some kind of cease-fire. But there is another historical truth worth recalling in this context: Since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the Land of Israel, no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians”. Tom Segev’s article can be read in full in Haaretz here .

To prove the point, Haaretz reported in another story that the Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia said to journalists at a press conference in Abu Dis that “There are no negotiations and there is no way there could be negotiations [with Israel] while there are attacks against us”.

Amira Hass reported in Haaretz that “At noon Sunday, the Israel Air Force bombed a compound belonging to Gaza’s National Security Service. It houses Gaza City’s main prison. Three prisoners were killed. Two were apparently Fatah members; the third was convicted of collaborating with Israel. Hamas had evacuated most of the Gaza Strip’s other prisons, but thought this jail would be safe. At 12 A.M. on Sunday, a phone call roused S. ‘I wasn’t sleeping anyway’, he said. ‘I picked up the receiver and heard a recorded announcement in Arabic: “This is to warn you that we will bomb the house of anyone who has arms or ammunition at home” ‘… S. saw the results of some of Saturday’s bombings when he visited a friend whose office is located near Gaza City’s police headquarters. One person killed in that attack was Hassan Abu Shnab, the eldest son of former senior Hamas official Ismail Abu Shnab. The elder Abu Shnab, whom Israel assassinated five years ago, was one of the first Hamas politicians to speak in favor of a two-state solution. Hassan worked as a clerk at the local university and played in the police band for fun. He was performing at a police graduation ceremony on Saturday when the bomb struck. ‘”Seventy policemen were killed there, not all Hamas members’, said S., who opposes Hamas. ‘And even those who supported Hamas were young men looking for a job, a salary. They wanted to live. And therefore, they died. Seventy in one blow. This assault is not against Hamas. It’s against all of us, the entire nation. And no Palestinian will consent to having his people and his homeland destroyed in this way’.” Amira Hass’ article can be read in full here .

Nir Rosen wrote in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian newspaper in London that “The democratically elected Hamas government was targeted for destruction from the day it won the elections in 2006. The world told the Palestinians that they cannot have democracy, as if the goal was to radicalise them further and as if that would not have a consequence. Israel claims it is targeting Hamas’s military forces. This is not true. It is targeting Palestinian police forces and killing them, including some such as the chief of police, Tawfiq Jaber, who was actually a former Fatah official who stayed on in his post after Hamas took control of Gaza. What will happen to a society with no security forces?” Nir Rosen’s article can be read in full here .

There was a colorful and vigorous standoff between two groups of students at rival demonstrations just outside the main gate to Jerusalem’s Hebrew University Mount Scopus Campus at mid-day on Monday. On the sidewalk next to the university was the pro-Israel-attack group of demonstrators, waving white and blue Israeli flags in the bright sunshine. They were shouting, chanting, beating drums and blowing whistles, trying to drown out the equally vigorous and noisy pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the opposite sidewalk, who waved a few green, red, black and white Palestinian flags. Most of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators were Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, but they were joined by some blond Israelis as well. They were shouting and chanting in both Arabic and Hebrew. Some of the pro-Palestinian group carried posters with hastily-attached color photos of scenes of the dead and wounded in Gaza, and one carried a poster with the words “Who wants another holocaust” scrawled in English in black marker, while other signs were written in Hebrew. Despite the animation and the energy being expended, there was no hostility. The two groups were separated by police and border police and special forces personnel, standing in the road, looking relaxed and somewhat bemused — despite the tensions in other areas of Jerusalem.

Students protest in Jerusalem  Photo: Ronen Medzizni - on YNet

IDF Colonel: Israeli army controls the West Bank

This information is in a report Monday night from Agence France Presse: “A total of 87 members of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s party, which was largely expelled from Gaza when Hamas seized power there in June 2007, arrived in the desert town of Jericho in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. ‘(Israel) decided to take the humanitarian decision to transfer to Jericho 87 residents of the Shujaiya neighbourhood in Gaza because of the violence carried out by Hamas’, Colonel Yoav Mordechai of the Israeli army said. ‘We talked with them on the bus and we told them that Jericho and the West Bank are different from the Gaza Strip and that the Israeli army controls this region. They have to respect the law‘, he told reporters…[emphasis added]”.

The full AFP report can be read here

Israeli Defense Minister Barak reverses decision – will send Fatah "asylum-seekers" to Ramallah after all

While there is still no word — and there may never be — on the wishes of the 150 Fatah “asylum-seekers” from Gaza concerning their personal immediate futures, the Israeli Minister of Defense (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak reportedly (according to the Israeli media) reversed course on Sunday, after 32 or 34 of them were returned to Gaza and immediately arrested by Hamas.

After all-night consultations with PA officials in Ramallah (and possibly elsewhere), Barak has decided that some 130 of them will be transferred to the PA capital city of Ramallah during the day on Monday.

[188 were admitted to Israel — but only after first being strip-searched, blindfolded and handcuffed, photographed by journalists (a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which bans the public humiliation or display of “protected persons”, as these 188 almost certainly are — i.e., living under occupation, and in this case a belligerent military operation). They were then vetted by the IDF and the Israeli security service Shin Bet, the Israeli media reports today, to counter security arguments being advanced in some Israeli media, after concerns reportedly expressed by Israeli military and security sources, about the admission or correct treatment of these “asylum seekers”. The arithmetic of this is that some 32 to 34 were sent back to Gaza, possibly forcibly and against their will — this is not yet known. And about 23 still remain in Israeli hospitals in Ashkelon and Beersheva for medical treatment.]

Sending those fit to Ramallah is better than returning them to Gaza, under the circumstances.

It comes after PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad initially asked Israel to take these people in — and then reportedly changed their minds, hardly a responsible attitude worthy of a peoples’ leaders.

Egypt — taken much more seriously by the Israeli government — also asked Israel to admit these “asylum seekers”. Egypt may or may not also have asked that they be transferred to Ramallah.

Another alternative, of course, would have been to grant these people asylum in Israel… But that would be very complicated for the Israelis, who say they are so fearful of any thought of Palestinian “return”.

In international law, and according the the 1951 refugee convention, Israel will have become a country of first asylum after admitting these 188 persons. It would then have the obligation to allow these people to be interviewed by officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — without any Israeli official present — to determine whether they are willing to return to Gaza, or even whether they are willing to go to the West Bank.

Now this becomes internationally complicated, because UNRWA (The UN Relief and Works Agency for Near East refugees) is responsible for Palestinian refugees in its five “areas of operations” …
and UNHCR has responsibility outside those “areas of operations”.

But is Israel considered to be in or outside of UNRWA’s area of operations?

Regardless of whether the answer to that is yes or no, it is very unclear how UNHCR and UNRWA would then divide up or assume responsibility for these “asylum seekers”.

The petition submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court on Sunday pinpoints Israel’s responsibility.

Israel’s YNET news website reported Monday that “In the petition, ACRI Attorney Oded Feller said the lives of those who are being sent back to Gaza is at risk, adding that sending back people who request political asylum to the place they had escaped from constitutes ‘one of the most severe human rights violations and is a breach of Israeli law and human morality’.”

Fatah members shot at by Israelis, strip searched — and then Mahmoud Abbas says send them back to Gaza

There is something stunningly awful about this Hamas-Fatah-Israel story over the past 12 hours or so.

I’m not sure it doesn’t exceed the Hamas-Fatah battles that took place in Gaza in mid-June 2007, when first Hamas, then Fatah, each threw members of each other’s groups off of high-rise buildings to their deaths. There was also a reported spate of “knee-cappings” at the time.

On 25 July, a bomb explosion killed a number of Hamas security men, and a little girl. Hamas blamed Fatah — and one Hamas member said that those responsible should be hung and shot, at the same time.

Hamas has gone after the perpetrators with massive force.

Both Hamas (in Gaza) and Palestinian Authority Security Forces (Fatah in the West Bank) have arrested each other’s members.

I even saw one report that the PA had set up CHECKPOINTS in the northern West Bank to find Hamas members.

Then, Hamas moved against the Fatah-affiliated Hilles clan in Gaza, blaming them for the car bombing.

Last night, at the request of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and at the simultaneous request of Egypt, Israel agreed to allow some 188 Fatah members — all or most of them from the Fatah-loyal Hilles clan — to flee from the Hamas security forces who were chasing them in hot pursuit, and to allow them to cross into Israel.

Apparently the aim of those fleeing Gaza was to seek “asylum” in the West Bank.

The Israeli decision was taken after Israeli forces first shot at the fleeing asylum seekers, hitting some of them — and some of the Hamas security forces who were pursuing them as well. Hamas gunfire wounded others.

Then, the Israeli forces ordered these “asylum-seekers” to strip-search, to reassure the Israeli soldiers.

The stripped men were then hand-cuffed and blind-folded.

IDF soldiers checking Fatah men who fled clashes with Hamas at the Gaza crossing before dawn Sunday.- David Boymovitch

This morning, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas apparently changed his mind, and said he did not want these Gazans to be brought to the West Bank, so Israel announced they would be sent back to the Gaza Strip.

A first group of some 30 persons was sent back, and then promptly arrested by Hamas.

In a “humanitarian” gesture, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced that those being treated for their wounds in hospital would be allowed to stay until their treatment was over, and then they would be sent back to the Gaza Strip.

These people are Fatah members, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not only the elected head of the Palestinian Authority, he is also the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and he is head of Fatah as well. It is an unconsionable move for him to have requested their admission into Israel, then requested their return to Gaza, where they are sure to be treated roughly by Hamas.

These people are refugess, already, and — because they are Palestinian refugees in one of UNRWA’s field of operations, they are UNRWA’s responsibility as well. No comment has been made by UNRWA.

These people are asylum seekers, and as such fall under certain protocols of humanitarian law. One question of particular relevance, which has not been answered, is whether or not they agree to be sent back to Gaza.

There is also something wrong about permitting these stripped, blindfolded and handcuffed prisoners — refugees, and persons living under a military occupation — to be photographed for public display. This violates the Geneva Conventions.

YNET photo - 2 Aug 2008

This evening, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) announced that it has petitioned to Israel’s Supreme Court to keep these asylum seekers from being returned to Gaza.

Haaretz reported that “Israel sent the group back on Sunday after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad withdrew an earlier request for Defense Minister Ehud Barak to allow the Gazans entry to Israel and then to transfer them to the West Bank … The infighting with Hamas left at least nine people dead and more than 80 wounded. Egypt was also a party to the PA’s request on Saturday for Israel to allow entry to the men, who belong to the Hilles clan which is affiliated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction. A spokesman for Barak said the wounded would remain in Israel for treatment and the rest would be returned to the Hamas-held territory. Fatah leader Hussein Al-Shaikh, the senior civil affairs official in the Palestinian Authority, said: ‘We are discussing with the Israelis how to allow the people to return to Gaza’. Defense sources said it was likely that Fayyad and Abbas’ backtracking is connected to power struggles within Fatah. The security establishment was examining on Sunday morning ways to ensure the safe return of the remaining men who fled Gaza. ‘After the occupation refused to receive most of those who fled Gaza, dozens have returned and the Palestinian police have taken them into custody’, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. Saturday’s fighting erupted when Hamas forces surrounded the Shejaia district of Gaza City to arrest 11 people suspected of a role in bombings that killed seven people, including five Hamas militants, on July 25”. The full article can be read on Haaretz here .

The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday evening that “Nimr Hammad, a political adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, had said anyone wanted by Hamas would be allowed to remain in the West Bank for their safety, while the rest will be returned “to their families and their homes.” He would not say how many were included in each group or offer an explanation for the move. In any case, Hamas decided to arrest the entire group that was sent back to the Strip. The decision to allow the group to enter Israel was made in coordination with the political echelon. Israel said it had been Abbas who originally asked to let them through. However, it was believed that the Palestinian leader might fear that allowing the men to stay in the West Bank would be handing Hamas a victory while weakening his own supporters in Gaza. The Palestinians were returned Sunday via the Erez border crossing and the IDF boosted troop deployment in the area out of concerns Hamas would repeat Saturday’s mortar and sniper attacks on the group … Toward Saturday night, the 188 clan members approached the border fence with Israel near the Nahal Oz fuel crossing, laid down their weapons and asked soldiers to allow them to cross over … Wary Israeli troops allowed them to cross the heavily guarded border, stripping them first to make sure none were concealing weapons or wearing explosives. Soldiers prepared stretchers, and ambulances rushed the badly wounded to nearby hospitals. Mortar shells landed nearby as the Palestinians crossed into Israel. One of the wounded men, Shadi Hilles, was hospitalized Sunday morning in Ashkelon. He said he was wounded when Hamas attacked the clan’s compound with shoulder-launched rockets and mortars, forcing him to crawl through nearby fields to safety. ‘We crawled to the border, that was our solution, and I think we stayed at the border for two or three hours until the army let the injured enter’, he said. IDF sources said the group was allowed into Israel out of ‘humanitarian concerns’ that they would be slaughtered by Hamas”. The full JPost report can be read here .

YNET news website reported earlier Sunday that “Hamas’ media outlets reported that Abbas and Israel were not interested in some of the Fatah members who fled to Israel. PA officials said that the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah was displeased with the Fatah men’s escape from the Strip and that the return of another group to Gaza would be considered in the coming days. ‘We are against emigration within the PA territories, regardless of its reasons’, a PA official said. Israeli security sources expressed their objection to the transfer of the Fatah men to the West Bank, explaining that these were people who were involved in terror activities against Israel in the past and that such a move would harm Israel’s defense interests”. The full YNET report can be read here .

Earlier, Ali Waked reported on YNET that this rout of the large pro-Fatah family was the culmination of the Hamas take-over of Gaza in mid-June 2007. Until now, Waked wrote, Hamas has largely left unchallenged other Palestinian groups. Now, he said, Hamas is asserting its full control in Gaza.

Then, the Associated Press (AP) added this from Ramallah on Sunday night: “The escape posed a dilemma for Abbas. After the Hamas takeover of Gaza last summer, he agreed to resettle some 250 of his Gaza loyalists in the West Bank. It’s been a costly arrangement — the refugees each get $350 a month, in addition to government salaries, and Abbas’ cash-strapped government covers rent for dozens of the most senior among them. The 2007 exodus also sent a message that Fatah is abandoning Gaza to Hamas. Abbas wanted to send a different message this time, aides said. ‘Fatah officials in Gaza should stay in their posts and should not leave Gaza to Hamas’, Fahmi Zaghrir, a West Bank spokesman for Fatah, said Sunday. An exception would be made for those wanted by Hamas, added Nimr Hamad, an Abbas adviser. In Jordan for talks on Sunday, Abbas called for dialogue to solve the dispute. He said the Palestinians must ‘continue to hope, even if we fight between each other or have differences’. At least three refugees won assurances they’ll be able to settle in the West Bank, among them Ahmed Hilles, the clan leader, and two other’s on the Hamas wanted list. Negotiations between the clan and Abbas’ office over the fate of about a dozen others were continuing Sunday.
Ahmed Hilles was recovering in an Israeli hospital Sunday from a bullet wound in his leg. Hilles had long been one of the most powerful Fatah figures in Gaza, along with former strongman Mohammed Dahlan.
Unlike Dahlan, who had frequent run-ins with Hamas, Hilles was seen as a mediator. He is a longtime friend of Ahmed Jaberi, head of Hamas’ military wing, and the two were imprisoned together in Israel.
As a result, Hamas forces largely left the Hilles clan alone and in possession of its weapons after the 2007 takeover…” This AP report can be read in full here .

Maan News Agency reported Sunday night that in fact 11 people were killed and 107 injured in Saturday’s battle in the Shuja’iya neighborhood of Gaza, which is near the Nahal Oz fuel transfer crossing operated by Israel where the “asylum-seekers” were allowed into Israel.

A "Prague Spring" in the Middle East?

Peace appears to be breaking out all over, after one of the gloomiest recent periods in the region, during which speculation about imminent war has been nearly non-stop .

The truce or calm (“tahdiya”) between Israel and Hamas – which the parties say they hope will last at least an initial six months — started at 0600 Thursday morning.

A comment this week by a Syrian official this week that peace with Israel would be “bliss” caused pulses to race — not only in Israel.

And, despite a pro-forma Lebanese rebuff, an Israeli overture to Lebanon, following U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s surprise visit there earlier this week – after which it has been reported that she is now backing the return of the Shebaa Farms area to Lebanon (as Hizballah has insisted) – also appears to hold future promise. If true, it is an astonishing but eminently pragmatic decision – indicating that the Bush Administration might be ready to shed its highly-ideological positions in order to make some solid moves for peace in the region.

The Israeli overture appears to contradict its satisfaction when the UN (after strong urging by the Secretary-General’s special envoy, Norwegian former Oslo negotiator Terje Roed Larsen) said that the information it had on file suggested that the area was part of occupied Syrian territory, a position close to Israel’s own view. Israel, until now, has felt it only needed to address the issue of relinquishing Shebaa Farms when the time would eventually come – in a far distant future – to make peace with Syria. One of the arguments made by UN officials is that neither Syria nor Lebanon had made their positions perfectly clear in writing.

But. a week ago, Lebanon indicated it would be formally presenting its claim – in writing – to the UN Secretary-General in New York.

After a period of anxious dragged-out uncertainty, all these developments now appear to be converging at a dizzying speed.

The Egyptian-brokered “tahdiya” between Israel and Hamas is being explained primarily, by all sides, as a “face-saving” way of ending the Israeli military-imposed sanctions on Gaza that all reasonable observers now say has, in fact, caused the humanitarian crisis that the Israeli military and political leadership has promised the international community it would not allow to happen.

An Israeli media report in advance of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent visit to Washington said that he would be told that the closure and siege of Gaza had failed, had become counter-productive, and must be ended.

The Jerusalem Post reported in early June that a “a senior State Department official told the Post that policy has appeared to have backfired. Palestinian rocket attacks against southern Israel have continued and Hamas is gaining strength due to popular disaffection, while Hamas can still get the resources it needs. “Within Gaza, Hamas seems the least affected by the closure,” he said. A new approach must be found “that wouldn’t benefit Hamas… but to find that new approach is very difficult because Hamas is in control.”

However this policy turn-around was packaged and justified is of rather lesser importance than the fact that it appears to be getting underway.

Rice hinted, in remarks she made at a joint press conference with Palestinian President Abbas this week, that European displeasure with the overall situation was a factor which needed to be taken into account.

Amnesty International reported from London at the end of May, in its 6oth anniversary annual report, that “in June [2007], the Israeli government imposed an unprecedented blockade on the Gaza Strip, virtually imprisoning its entire 1.5 million people population, subjecting them to collective punishment and causing the gravest humanitarian crisis to date.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory stated starkly, in a report published this week in Geneva, that “regular military incursions, the closure of crossings, the reduction of fuel and the threat to the banking system have produced a humanitarian crisis in Gaza”.

And, even many Israelis appeared to be fed up with the situation, at least as indicated in an independent poll commissioned by the Israeli human rights organization Gisha. The results of the poll, released on Wednesday (yesterday), indicated that “Seventy-nine percent of respondents believe that the closure primarily affects the civilian population in Gaza and causes hardships in the daily lives of the residents”, Gisha reported.

Gisha reported that “the survey was conducted upon the one-year anniversary of the closure Israel imposed following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007”.

Intriguingly, the poll also reported that “Seventy-six percent believe that Gaza residents deserve human rights. Fifty-seven percent disagree with a statement that those who advocate for human rights on behalf of Palestinians are anti-Israel; 39% think these advocates are anti-Israel”.

The poll did not, however, seem to dare to ask whether or not the respondents believed that the closure of Gaza and the Israeli military-administered sanctions were collective punishment that are immoral and illegal under international law – a position that Gisha itself has consistently espoused.

But, Gisha Director, Sari Bashi, wrote that “It turns out that the Israeli public is more realistic than the politicians acting in its name, who are trying to justify a gross violation of the rights of Palestinian civilians, using a ‘security’ justification that most Israelis think has no basis … Israeli decision-makers would do well to listen to the people, who are warning them that Israel ‘s policy in Gaza is primarily harming Palestinian civilians – against Israel ‘s own interests.”

And, AFP reported from Gaza Thursday that the Hamas (and “deposed”) Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told reporters “on an unusually conciliatory note” that the truce could also offer “comfort” to Israelis who have suffered shelling from Gaza.

Rather than signaling a permanent separation between the West Bank and Gaza, as some analysts had predicted, this “tahdiya” appears to be somehow linked, both conceptually and politically, to a reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas administration in Gaza – despite official Ramallah’s previous reluctance.


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One of the biggest surprises after last year’s rout of Fatah security forces by Hamas in Gaza was the vicious and venomous attitude of the Fatah losers.

“Hamas is worse than Israel – Hamas is like the Nazis”, more than one of the evacuated Fatah personnel said excitedly to journalists, including this one.

Over the past year, most Palestinians have been as angry with the Fatah rivalry with Hamas and its complicated consequence as with the increasing burdens of the continuing Israeli occupation.

To the surprise of many international observers, who have become conditioned to thinking of Fatah as the “good guys”, many Palestinians blamed Fatah even more than Hamas — though strong criticism of Hamas was not lacking.

Sitting in the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah last year, where many of the Fatah evacuees spent their early days after getting out of the Gaza Strip in various surprising ways (some even via sea in coordination with both Egypt and Israel), and still in a state of shock, one man on crutches with his lower leg in surgical support bandages, one Fatah member said to this corresponsent, with a perfectly straight expression on his face: “Hamas has killed other Palestinians – Fatah never did that”.

Challenged on his point that Fatah had never harmed other Palestinians, he continued to resist the argument. “Name me names”, he insisted. “Tell me who, exactly, was killed by Fatah?”

He said that what upset him most – and his voice cracked and his eyes swelled with tears as he spoke –was seeing the late Yasser Arafat’s uniform, looted from one of the buildings that Hamas fighters entered during the fighting, on sale in the Gaza City market for a relatively few shekels.

Like the other evacuees, he got out of the Gaza Strip with his lives, but without his family. He was worried about his family left behind, and he said that one of his young daughters was so scared and upset that she had to be hospitalized.

That would not happen now, of course, in Gaza, where hospital services and facilities are so limited due to the Israeli military-administered sanctions that have caused so much suffering in the coastal strip over the past months, and resources previously devoted to such tender treatment of more priviledged patients might well be foregone now in favor of rather more urgent cases.

Recently, the Minister of Health in the “deposed” or “de facto” Government trying to function in Gaza, Bassem Naim, appealed for the return to work of thousands of badly-needed Ministry of Health employees who have been paid from Ramallah to stay home, and not work since last year’s “military coup” by Hamas in Gaza — and the subsequent “political coup” by President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, who dismissed the Hamas-led National Unity Government formed only a few months earlier after Saudi mediation efforts in the holy city of Medina.

This was only one of the absurd consequences of the Fatah-Hamas rivalry – which an article published in the April issue the American monthly magazine Vanity Fair magazine argued – with convincing testimony – was encouraged by the U.S. Administration in an effort to oust Hamas, which was regarded as an obstacle to peace with Israel.

Palestinian Authority technocrats in Ramallah did their best to negotiate with their multiple Israeli counterparts to get whatever vital supplies they could into Gaza – and the negotiations were complicated and intricate, both with the Israeli private sector (the Dor Alon fuel company which has the exclusive contract to deliver fuel to Gaza, paid for either by the Palestinian Authority of – in the case of the special industrial diesel fuel used only by Gaza’s Power Plant, by Europen Union donors), and with the various branches of the Israeli Government, bureaucracy including the Ministry of Finance, and, most importantly, the Ministry of Defense as well as the Israeli Defense Forces.

But, these technocrats reported in recent months that attacks from Gaza on the border crossings seemed specifically aimed at exacerbating the various crises – particularly the shortage of fuel.

Israeli Government spokespersons were also quick to seize on the apparent paradox – the attackers on Israeli crossings, the Israeli spokespersons said in chorus, were really victimizing their own people.

Other sources, including some in the Palestinian media, said that these attacks on the crossing were ordered by Fatah in order to provoke Israel into a full-scale invasion of Gaza.

A few foreign journalists, on the other hand, said they were told that the attacks on the crossings were being carried out by various families (“hamula”) who were putting on pressure to stop Israeli and Egyptian efforts to close down their smuggling tunnels that ran under the border to the Sinai.

It was – and remains – very difficult to know what actually was going on.

Meanwhile, the UN Secretary-General welcomed the announced Israel/Gaza Cessation of Violence, saying in a statement issued in New York that he “hopes that these efforts will both provide security and an easing of the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and end rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli targets. He also hopes that this cessation of violence will lead to a controlled and sustained opening of the Gaza crossings for humanitarian and commercial purposes”.

The UN Chief might have gone even further than that diplomatic phrasing, and said that he hoped that the Gaza crossings would be opened for all normal aspects of human life

Amnesty International: Palestinian are worn down by decades of occupation and now torn apart by factional strife

Amnesty International has just published a report saying that Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are “Torn Apart By Factional Strife”.

Both sides – Fatah and Hamas – have shown “a flagrant disregard for the human rights of a civilian population already worn down by decades of Israeli occupation, military campaigns and blockades”, Amnesty International reported.

The international human rights advocacy organization added that one of the consequences has been “a sharp deterioration in the humanitarian situation of the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip”.

The full report is published here.

Palestinian Prisoners release – update

UPDATE: The BBC is reporting that 29 Palestinian prisoners are now moving in an armoured bus toward the Gaza Strip. The Ramattan independent Palestinian news agency reports that the bus arrived at the Erez crossing at noon. The Maan independent Palestinian news agency says, however, that “Israeli forces have been firing heavily on the area surrounding the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, eyewitnesses told Ma’an reporter”. Yesterday, a 14-year-old boy was shot and wounded when he, with other family members, surged forward in anticipation of their loved ones’ arrival, and passed into an area that the IDF views as a no-go zone.

[One of the 30 originally approved for release has apparently left Fatah and joined Hamas, and the Israelis will not release anyone from Hamas, so only 29 instead of 30 prisoners are being released Tuesday. But, has anyone thought, if those reports from Gaza about Hamas repression of Fatah are true, what might be awaiting these releasees? Hamas leaders, however, have welcomed this release, as they say they have welcomed all releases of Palestinian prisoners, no matter how small.]

Earlier today, Kol Israel Radio reported that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, wrote a letter a few days ago objecting to the release of any Palestinian prisoners to Gaza, while IDF Corporal Gilead Shalit remains captive there. Shalit was siezed in June 2006.

Haaretz reports on Tuesday that there is anger at Ashkenazi among members of the Knesset for having circulated his letter among members of the Israeli Cabinet. These Knesset members say this action “may have delayed” the release yesterday of the 30 Palestinian prisoners who were scheduled to return Gaza. The list of Palestinian prisoners to be released had, actually, been previously approved by the “inner” or Security Cabinet, as well as by the full Cabinet. Haaretz says that Ashkenazi himself had also given his approval, but said in his letter that it is nonetheless immoral. The Knesset members apparently object to the military interferening in politics (!)

Haaretz also reports that a spokesperson for Israel’s President Shimon Peres refused to confirm whether this action was the reason Peres yesterday refused to sign the pardon for these Palestinians. Peres’ signature on the pardon is apparently required for the release of the Prisoners from Gaza to go through. As Haaretz explains today: “Peres’ signature was not required for the release of West Bank-based prisoners because the area is under the authority of the Israel Defense Forces and the men were freed in accordance with an order signed by an IDF general.”

These prisoners then underwent an “extra security check” on Monday.

The Haaretz story explaining the “legal and technical” issues holding up the release of some 29 or 30 Palestinians from Gaza is here.

This is a subtle new re-statement of the position still held by some in Israel (though nowhere else in the world) that Gaza is not under Israeli occupation, while the West Bank is.
Continue reading Palestinian Prisoners release – update

Haaretz ponders Israeli re-occupation of Gaza

Last update – 08:50 13/06/2007
ANALYSIS: Re-occupation of Gaza – is it the only way out?
By Danny Rubinstein, Haaretz Correspondent

The general collapse of government functions in the Gaza Strip Tuesday urged several senior Palestinian figures to seriously contemplate Professor Ali Jarbawi’s advice to disband the Palestinian Authority.

Even before the civil war which Hamas and Fatah are starting in the Strip, Professor Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University maintained that the Palestinian Authority was a mere illusion of power: occupation under the guise of self government, and therefore useless.

On Tuesday, a Palestinian journalist likened the Palestinian Authority to a smoke-belching car wreck, adding that it was time to toss the keys to the Israelis. His view is shared by many Palestinian civilians in Gaza, who in recent days have told the media that they are fed up. “We’ve had enough, we should be so lucky as to see the return of the Israeli occupation.”

The recent events we have been witnessing in Gaza are actually the disbanding of Palestinian rule. The primary reason for the break-up is the fact that Fatah, headed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, has refused to fully share the PA’s mechanism of power with its rival Hamas – in spite of Hamas’ decisive victory in the January 2006 general elections.

Fatah was forced to overrule the Palestinian voters because the entire world demanded it do so. The United States, the European nations, most of the Arab leaders and, of course, the State of Israel, warned Fatah not to share power with Hamas.

And so, after the Israeli pullout, instead of becoming a model for Palestinian self-rule, Gaza turned into the exact opposite. Matters have come to the point where Hamas operatives attempted all through Monday and Tuesday to take by force what they believe they rightfully deserve”…
Continue reading Haaretz ponders Israeli re-occupation of Gaza