Another take on the Palestinian reconciliation "summit": punishment looms, as it does for "UN bid" too

The Jerusalem Post reports today that it has been told that “Palestinian unity efforts stumble” after the reconciliation summit in Cairo on Friday.

But, while there may be outstanding differences between the two largest Palestinian political factions, the real delay may be an attempt to avoid various threatened punishments, until something changes…

Khaled Abu Toameh, Arab affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, writes today, here, that he has been told “that differences between the two parties remained almost the same as they were before the summit. In addition to the ongoing dispute over the make-up of the proposed unity government, Fatah and Hamas have failed to solve their differences over the reconstruction of the security forces and the release of detainees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip being held by both sides. ‘The 45-minute meeting between President Abbas and Khaled Mashaal was not as successful as it is being portrayed’, a senior Fatah official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post. ‘The most important thing was that the two leaders met and agreed to continue talking about reconciliation and unity. It will take a long time before we ever see real changes on the ground’.”

Punishment for Palestinian Unity

Well, that will be reassuring to American officials who have been worried that they might have to punish the Palestinians, if they actually achieve unity”, by withholding large sums of money that have been the opium of the people in Ramallah.

Jordan-based Palestinian Journalist Daoud Kuttab had earlier reported “rumors” following the flying visit to see Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the Ramallah presidential headquarters [the Muqata’a] by Jordan’s King Abdallah II on Monday, that there were rumors that Palestinian officials told the Jordanian delegation they would not accept security aid if the U.S. withheld other forms of aid.

Kuttab developed this into two articles: one an opinion piece for the Washington Post, published here, and the second was published by the Huffington Post, here.

[See below for more…]

Punishment if Salam Fayyad is replaced as PM {?}

In his Jerusalem Post article, Abu Toameh reported punishment-related issues were a priority matter in the discussion, writing that “a senior Fatah official” told him “that Hamas’s refusal to accept current PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as head of any future government remained a major obstacle to the implementation of the reconciliation deal … Abbas had initially considered dumping Fayyad in favor of the establishment of a unity government with Hamas. However, immense pressure from the US and some EU countries, as well as a strong warning from Jordan’s King Abdullah, who flew to Ramallah last week for emergency talks with Abbas, persuaded the PA president to hold on to Fayyad … [But] Abbas explained to Mashaal [in Cairo on Friday] that without Fayyad the Palestinians would be punished by the Americans and Europeans, the official said. ‘But this did not change Mashaal’s position. Hamas believes that in wake of the Arab Spring, Arab governments would compensate the Palestinians for any loss of Western financial aid’. On Saturday, Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, reiterated his movement’s strong opposition to the appointment of Fayyad as prime minister of a unity government”.

Abu Toameh added that “Abbas also made it clear during the summit with Mashaal that he would not be able to incorporate Hamas militiamen in the PA security forces, another Fatah official said. The official quoted Abbas as saying that merging Hamas militiamen into the PA security forces would give Israel an excuse to launch attacks on these forces under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Abbas also expressed deep concern that Israel and Fatah would vehemently oppose any attempt to bring Hamas policemen to the West Bank, the official added”.

He also wrote in the JPost that “On the issue of ‘political detainees’ who are being held in PA and Hamas prisons in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the two parties continued over the weekend to blame each other for failing to release their supporters. Abbas and Mashaal have announced twice this year that they would end the arrests of Hamas and Fatah supporters. Despite the announcements, PA security forces continue to arrest Hamas supporters and activists in the West Bank. Hamas, on the other hand, has also been accused of cracking down on Fatah activists in the Gaza Strip by arresting them and preventing them from travelling outside the strip. PA officials denied on Saturday that the PA was holding people in detention for ‘political reasons’. They said all the Hamas detainees in West Bank prisons were being held for allegedly violating the law, but did not give further details … [n.b. Elections are supposed to be held around May 2012, according to a reconciliation agreement initialed in Cairo this past May. But…] According to Zahar, there is no way elections would be held while Hamas supporters remain in PA-run prisons”.

Continue reading Another take on the Palestinian reconciliation "summit": punishment looms, as it does for "UN bid" too

UNSG BAN makes second visit to post-war Gaza

UNSG BAN Ki-Moon entered the Gaza strip this morning (Sunday) — despite firing of at least four rockets from Gaza on Saturday to Israeli perimeter communities.

Such firing usually brings Israeli reprisals — but that will have to wait until BAN leaves the Gaza Strip. [UPDATE: SMS Israel is reporting that Palestinian sources say the IDF fired “tank shells” at southern Gaza — while BAN is in northern Gaza…]

BAN made a stop in the northern Gaza neighborhood of Ezbat Abed Rabbo (Abed Rabbo farms) in Jabaliya, which was one of the worst-hit areas during the IDF Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009). Almost every house was destroyed, and a whole area of small businesses as well — one by one by one.

With the Israeli ban on construction materials still in place — ostensibly because Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is still being held somewhere in Gaza since being seized in a cross-border raid in late June 2006 — there has been virtually no reconstruction. Families are still living in tents beside the rubble of their former homes.

Supplies of electricity and cooking gas are still unreliable and intermittant. Millions of liter of raw or partially-treated sewage from the densely-populated Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million people are trapped, has been pouring directly into the Mediterranean Sea. The current travels north — but this has apparently not bothered Israeli beach-goers so much that they have pressed for an end to the sanctions that the Israeli government ordered tightened after the mid-June 2007 Hamas rout of Palestinian/Fatah Preventive Security forces in Gaza.

Since September 2007, the Israeli Ministry of Defense has been in charge of these sanctions — which are directly administered by the Coordinator of [Israeli] Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). The Israeli Supreme Court was asked by a coalition of Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups to prohibit the military from carrying out what they say is “collective punishment” of the entire population of Gaza. But the High Court of Justice instead allowed the Israeli Military to proceed, on the sole condition that it would not allow a “humanitarian crisis” to develop.

BAN has reportedly just said in Gaza that this continued blockade or seige is “unacceptable”.

BAN, and the Quartet of Middle East negotiators of which he is part, have repeated their calls this week for an end to rocket and missile and mortar firing from Gaza, and for Gilad Shalit’s safe return home.

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar is reported to have said this morning that Fatah and “factions” are responsible for the continued projectile firing from Gaza — which he said Hamas wanted to stop. Zahar apparently told al-A3alam TV that the shelling “diverts the focus from the occupation crimes”.

IDF bombs UNRWA compound in Gaza City while UNSG BAN is in Israel + journalists offices are attacked

The IDF has bombed the main, large, UNRWA compound in Gaza City today — while UN SG BAN Ki-Moon is in Israel trying to do something to stop the military operation.

And, at least one hospital in Gaza City was hit — putting the lives of over 100 patients at risk — as the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) met top Israeli officials.

The Israeli attacks began on 27 December, first from the air and then from the sea. A ground operation began on 3 January, and it moved into a new phase today, as IDF forces entered at least three main population areas.

The AP has reported that “The UN chief says he has expressed ‘strong protest and outrage’ to Israel over the shelling of a United Nations compound in Gaza City. Ban Ki-moon is demanding an investigation into Thursday’s shelling. He says Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has told him it was a ‘grave mistake’.”

UPDATE: It was subsequently reported that Barak told BAN the IDF was merely returning fire that had come from the UNRWA building. The JPost said Thursday afternoon that in a meeting earlier in the day at the Defense Ministry in downtown Tel Aviv (it’s called the Kiriya), Barak told BAN and ICRC President Jacob Kellenberger that “IDF soldiers would continue to return fire in self-defense” … while at the same time facilitating “all necessary humanitarian work of the UN”, and continuing “to prevent harm to civilians to the best of its ability”.

The AP added that “The compound has been serving as a shelter for hundreds of people fleeing Israel’s devastating offensive in Gaza. UN spokesman Chris Gunness says at least three people were wounded.
The entire area is engulfed in smoke and it’s not clear whether anyone is still inside the compound. The compound includes the headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees [UNRWA], a school and other offices. Gunness says large amounts of aid supplies, as well as fuel trucks, could soon be destroyed”. This AP report can be read in full here.

UNSG BAN met various Israeli officials today, and so did the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jacob Kellenberger. The German Foreign Minister is around, and the Spanish Foreign Minister was here a day or two ago. Diplomats are tripping over each other to express their “shock” and perhaps even more — but it’s not really having a big impact here.

At a briefing in Ashkelon yesterday, IDF Major Avital Liebowitz told journalists that Phase III of the IDF Operation Cast Lead was not underway yet. But maybe were we in Phase 2.75? Intuition told me that the timing of the briefing was probably significant, and something was about to change. Asked after the briefing about Phase III, Israel Air Force Brigadier General (Reserve) Relik Shapir was very reluctant to deny an imminent development — like many senior military men, he apparently did not want to say an outright lie. When? Tonight?, I asked. He just smiled, mutely, and bobbed his head.

But, all reports indicate a major new IDF push into Gaza City is occurring as of this morning (Thursday), the 20th day of Operation Cast Lead, and panicked civilians are running in terror in every direction — that is, if they are able to run.

AP wrote that “Thousands of Gaza City residents fled their homes on Thursday morning as ground forces made their deepest foray yet into a crowded residential area, on Day 20 of its offensive on the Hamas-ruled coastal territory. Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships, tanks and heavy guns thrust further into the city than ever before to seek out Hamas fighters, executing the army’s most relentless shelling of the Gaza Strip in nearly three weeks of fighting … Much of the fighting was centred in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood, where some residents fled on foot while others remained in the precarious shelter of their homes as a night-time attack stretched into the morning. Tanks and bulldozers rolled into a neighborhood park, apparently seizing it as a kind of command center, witnesses said. Masked gunmen ran toward the areas under fire carrying bags containing unidentified objects. Residents were seen fleeing their homes in pajamas, some wheeling elderly parents in wheelechairs. Others were stopping journalists’ armored cars or ambulances pleading for someone to take them to safety. Israeli forces have encircled the city of 500,000 people for days. Tanks have made forays towards the center to test the resistance of Hamas and other militant groups but have balked at launching all-out urban warfare in Gaza City, where Hamas militants are more familiar with the lay of the land and Israeli casualties would be liable to spiral. Israel Air Force planes struck some 70 targets overnight, including weapons positions, rocket squads and a mosque in southern Gaza that it said served as an arsenal, the military said”. This AP report is published in Haaretz and can be read in full here.

The report also said that “The Al-Quds hospital in Gaza City was engulfed with flames after apparently being hit by Israel Defense Forces fire, as Israeli ground troops pentrated the city on Thursday”.

A message from SMS Israel reported a few minutes ago that part of Gaza City’s main hospital, Ash-Shifa, is up in flames. [AS OF THIS EVENING; THIS HAS NOT BEEN CONFIRMED.…] This has not been confirmed, but if it is, this development would be catastrophic for health care in what is today the main battlefield.

Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that there are also tank thrusts in Khan Yunis, to the south, and “pitched battles” in Jabaliya, in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, which is about 25 miles long and about 6 miles wide. And, AFP, some families ran to Gaza City’s hospitals — before the more recently-reported strikes — to seek some sort of shelter: ” ‘I brought the children to the hospital because they were scared at home, but here they are even more terrified’, 40-year-old Hossein said as he huddled with his wife and five children at a hospital in Gaza City where they took shelter shortly after dawn. ‘We can’t take this any longer. Look at my children, they’re trembling’, he said as explosions ripped through the air like thunderclaps and Israeli troops and Hamas fighters clashes less than 300 metres (yards) away”. This report can be read in full here .

Reuters reported that “A senior Western diplomat said Israel appeared to be trying to make last-minute gains on the ground before a truce could be imposed. ‘It’s a classic Israeli strategy’, the diplomat said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in broadcast remarks that Israel’s armed forces would ‘fight up to the last minute’.” This report is posted here .

And, in the afternoon on Thursday, the Jerusalem Post’s well-connected in the Defense Ministry correspondent Yaakov Katz reported that “IAF planes attacked five armed Palestinians in Gaza overnight Wednesday, who turned out to be the personal bodyguards of senior Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar, the IDF announced Thursday. The five men were allegedly guarding Zahar’s house in southern Gaza City and were all killed, according to reports”. This report can be read in full here.

Zahar is one of the most senior and most important Hamas leaders.

Exactly a year ago today — on 15 January 2008 — Zahar’s second son was killed during a surprise IDF attack on a group of what turned out to be Hamas fighters, and this sparked a sustained increase in reprisal firing from Gaza.

In September 2003, Zahar’s home was hit by a direct IAF air strike, and he lost his first son. In the same strike, a daughter was injured, and Zahar’s wife was paralyzed after suffering a spinal injury.

The Zahar family house — rebuilt in the same spot as the first home that was destroyed by the direct airstrike — is large, and well known. This journalist visited the home, with a number of other reporters, just after the mid-June 2007 Hamas take-over from Fatah security forces in the Gaza Strip.
Zahar opened the front gate to the home himself, to receive our group.

SMS Israel has just reported that the IDF has now surrounded the house of Mahmoud Zahar — and that the IDF is operating in the middle of Gaza City. [AS OF THIS EVENING; THIS HAS NOT BEEN CONFIRMED.…]

UPDATE: In a later message, SMS Israel reported that another Hamas leader, Saeed Siyam, has reportedly killed in an air force strike — and that other Hamas leaders may also be dead.
LATER UPDATE: Israeli sources later reported that Saeed Siyam’s brother, Ayad Siyam, and Salah Abu Shrakh, the head of the Hamas general security service, were also killed in the air strike.] Ma’an News Agency added that Saeed Siyam’s son was also killed, as were two others, in the attack.

Though it was reported at the beginning of Operation Cast Lead that the entire Hamas senior leadership had gone into hiding, this may have been untrue.

At least 20 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israeli areas around the beseiged coastal strip — areas where I was driving around yesterday (near Ofakim, Netivot, Sderot — where the ICRC chief Jacob Kellenberger visited earlier in the day), after getting lost while taking back roads without my map, driving down to Ashkelon after attending a earlier press conference in Jerusalem, then passing around Bethlehem to the south rather than getting tied up in traffic (after general alarms were sounded in error) to get to the more northern entrance to the larger and smoother but much more crowded main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road. It was beautiful yesterday — though there were also rockets fired there earlier in the day, and a few helicopters patrolled slowly overhead, and more police vans than usual were out on the otherwise empty roads. It was warm, and sunny, under a blue sky with sheer veils of white clouds spread out over the horizon. There were groves of orange trees, with ripe oranges hanging amid dark green foliage ready for picking, and well-tended and glistening-green fields interspersed with areas of plowed brown earth ready for planting. At a major road at the outskirts of Ashkelon, suddenly, the highway is decorated with double white-and-blue Israeli flags flying on the lampposts. Many police vans were patrolling in Ashkelon, too, and many of them -On – as well as many private cars — had smaller Israeli flags waving from their radio antennas.

UPDATE: Injuries were reported at the end of the day on Thursday following a Katyusha or Grad missile attack that hit the Israeli city of Beer Sheva, in the Negev desert.

On the other side of what looks, visually, like a rather open border, the attacks are being pursued without let-up. Over 1,000 Palestinians are reported dead since the IDF attacks began on 27 December, and over 5,000 wounded.

The Foreign Press Association (FPA) has just issued a most urgent protest, saying it is “alarmed to learn of the heavy firepower currently being employed by Israeli forces against the building in Gaza City that houses the Reuters news agency and other international media outlets. Initial reports are that these attacks have caused injury and damage. We also note that IDF bullets entered the windows of the offices of the Associated Press in a different part of the city today. We call on the military to halt this fire immediately. These are buildings housing journalists working for international news agencies and must not be targeted. We note that these buildings are well known landmarks in Gaza and that the IDF has been clearly notified of their location on several occasions“.

UPDATE: In an urgent notice to members, the FPA states that it “rejects and condemns the IDF policy of controlling the news coverage of the events in Gaza . By preventing the entry of foreign journalists into Gaza and bombing buildings housing offices of international media – contrary to IDF assurances that these media buildings would be safe – the IDF is severely violating basic principles of respect for press freedom. As a result of these unconscionable breaches, the FPA calls on all its members not to broadcast or print stills and videos the IDF provides as a substitute to independent reporting – until such time the IDF issues a formal apology for the attacks on the media buildings and offers assurances that no such event will occur in the future”.

The FPA is pursuing an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court for immediate access to foreign journalists to cover the on-going military operation.

By late afternoon in Jerusalem on Thursday, the FPA informed its members that “the FPA lawyers despatched a letter to the State Attorney’s office and the Defense Ministry lawyers demanding immediate implementation of the agreement reached under the auspices of the Israeli Supreme Court to let the foreign media into Gaza via Erez”. The FPA added that it “rejects out of hand accusations by government spokespeople to the effect that Hamas is controlling all the visual images coming out of Gaza. This accusation is totally untrue, totally outrageous and the sort of thinking on the Israeli side that puts all our journalists at severe risk”.

Israeli human rights groups who launched an appeal against the “Clear and Present Danger” facing Palestinian civilians in Gaza while the IDF pursues its attacks say that the Israeli High Court of Justice will convene in about two hours (at 16h30 in Jerusalem) to consider the situation. GISHA director Sari Bashi said in a message overnight that “Israel’ s Supreme Court will hold a second hearing in two urgent petitions brought by human rights groups in Israel. The petitions demand: 1.) That the military refrain from attacking medical teams in Gaza and permit the wounded to be evacuated to hospitals 2.) That the Defense Minister supply fuel and electricity to run Gaza ‘ s hospitals, water wells, and sewage pumps, and permit technicians to fix the crumbling infrastructure. The Court ordered the hearing after receiving a written update from the State on January 13, claiming that the State was doing enough to protect the civilian population in Gaza. The human rights groups argue that Israel is failing to fulfill its obligations under international law to protect Gaza’ s 1.5 million civilians – and that the factual presentation made by the State is incomplete, to say the least. They cite as an example the State’ s court filing from January 13, 2009 in which it informed the court that it allowed a small quantity of spare parts for the electricity grid to enter Gaza on January 9 – which is true. But the state neglected to mention that on January 13 – it bombed the warehouse where those parts were stored, destroying most of them.”

The Jerusalem Post is reporting today that the Israel Medical Association (IMA) chairman Dr. Yoram Blachar, who is also president of the World Medical Association (WMA), has expressed deep concern about the situation in Gaza — and he is now working to establish an international field hospital inside Gaza to treat the ill and wounded. The JPost article noted that the IMA “suggested to Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Avi Yisraeli that Israel allow the erection of a field facility on the border with Gaza to care for the wounded and seriously ill. The ministry agreed.” This report can be read in its entirety here.

Israeli journalist Gideon Levy — who has a powerful voice, but not one that is echoed in the majority of the Israeli population – wrote in Haaretz today: “God does not show mercy on the children at Gaza’s nursery schools, and neither does the Israel Defense Forces. That’s how it goes when war is waged in such a densely populated area with a population so blessed with children. About half of Gaza’s residents are under 15. No pilot or soldier went to war to kill children. Not one among them intended to kill children, but it also seems neither did they intend not to kill them. They went to war after the IDF had already killed 952 Palestinian children and adolescents since May 2000. The public’s shocking indifference to these figures is incomprehensible. A thousand propagandists and apologists cannot excuse this criminal killing. One can blame Hamas for the death of children, but no reasonable person in the world will buy these ludicrous, flawed propagandistic goods in light of the pictures and statistics coming from Gaza. One can say Hamas hides among the civilian population, as if the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv is not located in the heart of a civilian population, as if there are places in Gaza that are not in the heart of a civilian population. One can also claim that Hamas uses children as human shields, as if in the past our own organizations fighting to establish a country did not recruit children. A significant majority of the children killed in Gaza did not die because they were used as human shields or because they worked for Hamas. They were killed because the IDF bombed, shelled or fired at them, their families or their apartment buildings. That is why the blood of Gaza’s children is on our hands, not on Hamas’ hands, and we will never be able to escape that responsibility”. This article can be read in full here.

This is a monumental tragedy – and it must stop

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar mourns the death of his son today, killed by the Israeli military operating in the Zeitoun area of Gaza, east of Gaza City.

AP Photo by Khalil Hamra

The Israeli military said they were trying to stop Qassam, missile, and mortar attacks on Israeli territory from Gaza.

This is the second of Mahmoud Zahar’s sons to be killed in an Israeli attack. The first son was killed in an Israel airstrike on Mahmoud Zahar’s home. Zahar was also injured, as was his wife, whose spine was reportedly severed, resulting in her paralysis.

Recent reports in the Israeli media suggested that a decision had been made to assassinate all three of Hamas’ top leaders – including Mahmoud Zahar. Instead, it was Zahar’s son who died.

Interestingly, he was not wearing a military uniform.

Mahmoud Abbas morning the death of his son Hussam

Mahmoud Zahar is one of the main leaders of Hamas, and is said to be the strategist behind the June rout of Fatah security forces in Gaza.

Mahmoud Zahar leaving Shifa Hospital in Gaza City - AFP photo

The funerals for Hussam Zahar and those killed with him were held this evening. In total, 20 Gazans were killed by the IDF on Wednesday, and one Ecuadoran volunteer working on an Israeli farm on Gaza’s border was killed by a Palestinian sniper.

AFP Photo by Mahmoud Hams

At his son’s funeral, Mahmoud Zahar made these remarks, according to a report in the Ma’an independent Palestinian News Agency: “We do not send those young men to death for entertainment, or because we are hard-hearted. We are fathers and we realize very well what it means to lose a son. However, Palestine is dear and paradise is dearer, and liberation and dignity are much better than remaining under occupation … As I bid my most beloved one farewell, as I did with my elder son Khalid and other leaders before, I say that departure is very hard, yet what helps us remain patient is our prayers that God helps us remain steadfast. My vows to my sons and other ‘martyrs’ are that we will never give up until all of Palestine is free and we enter Jerusalem”. These remarks were reported by Ma’an News Agency here.