Abbas: "We are at a crossroads"

“We have made precious sacrifices until our right to establish our state is recognized … We placed ourselves under the sponsorship of the international community, and year after year we have been disappointed”, said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a speech that was billed to journalists as a press conference called on one-and-a-half hours’ notice, Thursday night.

There were rumors all day — and in fact, all week, and even for months — that Abbas (Abu Mazen) would not run again as President, if and when the next Palestinian elections are held.

In his speech Thursday night, in the Muqata’a, the Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas told certain political figures and journalists present in the hall, and a worldwide television audience, that he does not intend to be a candidate in those elections.

He said that he has now so informed the (PLO) Executive Committee, and the (Fatah) Central Council — and, that while he appreciates their position (they want him to run), he hopes they will appreciate his position as well.

“This is not a tactic or a maneuver”, Abbas said. “There are other steps I will take in time”, he added, without further explanation.

UPDATE: Angry Arab (As’ad AbuKhalil) picked up on his blog today this interesting comment from an article by Tony Karon in Time magazine: ” ‘This is political theater’, says Amman-based Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabani. ‘The Palestinian Central Election Committee is expected to conclude that the election Abbas called for in January can’t be held, because Hamas won’t allow them to go ahead in Gaza, and Israel won’t allow them to go ahead in East Jerusalem … So what he did today was announce that he won’t be a candidate in an election he knows is not going to happen”
… This article can be read in full here.

On 24 October, in what was regarded as (and later admitted to be) a kind of manoeuver (or pressure, on Hamas, for concessions in reconciliation talks), Abbas — who heads the premier and largest Palestinian movement, Fatah — launched launched the necessary three-month election preparation process, and declared that Palestinian presidential and legislative council elections would take place on 24 January 2010.

In his speech tonight, Abbas said he has been “surprised by the biased position that the U.S. showed to Israel” …

He then added that the present situation “pushes me to address the Israeli government and people, and to say … that peace is more important than any governmental coalition”.

Abbas listed a series of points that he said were basic to any solution, including that: UN resolutions should be implemented; the Palestinian state should be established inside the borders that existed prior to 4 June 1967; East Jerusalem would be its capital; there should be a just solution to the Palestinian refugee question; there is no legitimacy for keeping Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory; security arrangements should be reached concerning the borders between the two states; Palestinians should have access to water resources according to international law, and the right to control national resources that are either on, above, and under its soil; all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails should be released.

Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour, who lives in the West Bank town of Ramallah-Al Bireh, has just written here that “If Palestinians are beginning to sound like a broken record in calling for their inalienable rights to be respected, then so be it. I prefer that the Palestinians remain transfixed on resolving their plight using international law rather than falling for Israel’s trap of either living in the law of the jungle or as inferiors in a flawed and illegal political settlement which will only prolong the conflict”.

“I greet the families of our martyrs, and our prisoners”, Abbas said in his speech on Thursday. “The time has come for these peoples to be free, and to end the occupation… it is time to declare our independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders”.

Then, as he finished reading his prepared text (with punctual glances at the assembled audience), Abbas stood up and said: “Yella” (“Let’s go”). and walked out of the room.

He was wearing a nice quality silk (presidential) tie, in a subdued red pattern with blue.

And, several Presidential advisers — Nabil Abu Rudaineh, Nabil Shaath, Mohammed Shtayyah — all suggested to journalists, after Abbas’ speech, that there might just be a remote possibility that he could still change his mind, if something happened …

“Today he revealed the depth of his discouragement, frustration and anger, after five years of doing his best — and after the retreat of the President of the U.S. from his previous positions”, Nabil Shaath told journalists. “Today he is telling us he will not nominate himself — he already told the PLO Executive Committee and the Fatah Central Committee, who unanimously objected”, Shaath said. He added: “The man has not resigned. He is only saying he will not run again”.

Mohammed Shtayyah indicated, in an interview with Al-Jazeera television, after the Abbas speech in the Muqata’a, that one of the main factors in the decision had been that “America, the biggest supporter of the peace process, pulled back its position”. Another factor was the massive wave of criticism following the Palestinian leadership’s initial agreement, at the beginning of October, to postpone consideration in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva of the Goldstone report on the Gaza war until next March. Nevertheless, Shtayyah said, “he is the only candidate for us”. Abbas has “sent the ball back to the international community”, Shtayyah added, “and they must do something if they want Abu Mazen. For, if he’s not running for election, peace will lose”.

After an initially promising start, the Obama administration seems unable to understand how it should stand on principle in the Middle East. It also does not seem to get that it pushed the Palestinian leadership too far, while at the same time it more or less swallowed the Israeli position whole, in one gulp, and then tried to sell to the Palestinians yet another Israeli proposal that would limit, but not stop, settlement construction.

The Washington Post reported here that “Abbas got into political trouble at home when he succumbed to U.S. pressure to delay UN consideration of a report [the Goldstone report] accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza; he later reversed himself. When Clinton met him Saturday and pressed him to accept the limited Israeli settlement plan as a basis for talks, he refused. Hours later, Clinton met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and pronounced the Israeli offer ‘unprecedented’ — sparking Arab outrage, which she spent the next several days trying to dampen”.

Time magazine commented that “Netanyahu was offering a partial freeze, not including new settlements in East Jerusalem, the desired capital of a future Palestinian state. This was a nonstarter for the Palestinians, but it had the holographic glow of a step forward. It was an ‘unprecedented’ offer, Netanyahu trumpeted … It was a tough moment for Clinton, playing second fiddle at the Bibi-does-Gandhi show. President Barack Obama had softened his language on the settlements a few weeks earlier: instead of a total freeze, he had talked about Israeli ‘restraint’ in settlement-building. And now Clinton seemed to cement the Administration’s retreat, agreeing that Netanyahu’s proposal was, indeed, ‘unprecedented’, even though the U.S. still favored a total freeze. The most important thing, she added, was for the parties to get to the table as quickly as possible. The onus was back on the Palestinians — and the Palestinians quickly expressed outrage … clearly, Clinton had been too bullish on Netanyahu’s proposal (which had been negotiated over months with Middle East envoy George Mitchell and was seen, privately, by the Americans as real progress) … [and] her performance in Jerusalem indicates that she needs a few lessons in Middle East Haggling 101 … At home, she has often seemed tentative and deferential. In a conversation with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates aired by CNN in early October, Clinton’s cautious formality took a backseat to Gates’ brisk, humorous confidence on policy issues. Abroad, she seems far more confident, at times to the point of recklessness, as in Jerusalem”. This commentary can be read in full here.

The Associated Press reported that “After Abbas’ speech Thursday, [U.S. Secretary of State Hilary] Clinton praised his leadership in working toward the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. She ignored a question about whether she would try to persuade Abbas to stay on and said: ‘I look forward to working with President Abbas in any new capacity to help achieve this goal’.” here.

Reuters later reported, here, that Abbas “offered” to quit over stalled peace process, and added that “his phrasing did appear to leave some room for a change of heart”. The Reuters report also said that Abbas appeared “visibly tense” — and in the room it was obvious that there was a lot of adrenalin flowing in his veins — but on camera, this did not really come across. And, though he spoke briskly, Abbas did not use fighting words.

Right after the speech, there were very small numbers of Fatah demonstrators assembled in Ramallah’s central Manara Square (circle) after the Abbas speech, and urging him to withdraw his decision not to run…

Fatah and Hamas – What's the problem? A view from Yasser Abbas

Other excerpts from the interview with Yasser Abbas in Ramallah on 18 December 2008:
Part 4: Separation of Powers in Ramallah
Part 3: Business and Businessmen in Palestine
Part 1: Fatah and Hamas – and the Abbas family house in Gaza

Yasser Abbas (apparently named after Yasser Arafat), Palestinian businessman and older of the two surviving sons of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview in his office last December, just before the IDF military attack on Gaza:  “You have been politically confused due to the Hamas situation in Gaza – politically confused.  This country has one head, it does not has two heads.  One decides who the second one is.  It’s not two who decide how to run the country.   It’s the President [who] gives a mandate to the Prime Minister, and this President can take his mandate back any time he likes, when he doesn’t see it fit”.

Yasser Abbas continued: “The Ministry, the Cabinet, is ousted in three cases: either the President takes back the mandate from the Prime Minister, or the Prime Minister resigns, or one-third of the cabinet resigns, as a total.  OK?  So these three conditions decide the political relationship, political, in the by-laws, of the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister.  The issue with Hamas becoming, yeah, we are the government – that’s what created the problem here.  Ok?  So, two presidents?  Two heads?  Two governments?  There’s only one legitimate government.  There is no two governments.  This what so-called government of Hamas is pure garbage, they are nothing.  They don’t run nothing.  They run a bunch of gangs, ok, that they are trying to run the country but they are not.  They know nothing about how to run a country.  They are not legitimate whatsoever.  And I’m sure of what I’m saying”.

Q:  What’s interesting, though, about what happened when Hamas took over security in Gaza, was that they continued to recognize the President as the President –  at least until the 9th of January (2008) – and to some, to me, it looked like an occasion that was lost because of hostility, after the government was dissolved … How do you see this crisis?

A:  Well, they cannot deny the legitimacy of the President.  The President has more legitimacy than they do.  It’s very simple.  The President has been elected by all the Palestinians with a percentage of 62.8% percent, in January of 2005.  The President will maintain a President until January 2010, even though his term is four years, but the law says both two elections should take place together, legitimate [legislative] and presidency, simultaneously.  The word “simultaneously” means, both elections will be done in one day.  That’s what simultaneously means – this is how they taught me that in school.  If anybody interprets that in his own terms, that’s his own problem, he has to go and learn Arabic, or English.

Continue reading Fatah and Hamas – What's the problem? A view from Yasser Abbas

Worst Palestinian political crisis in years

There is chaos in Ramallah, as Palestinian politicians fumble for explanations of why — and even how — the Palestinian Ambassador in Geneva was authorized to withdraw support for a resolution he had been pushing to have the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva endorse the findings of the Goldstone Fact-Finding Mission that looked into last winter’s Gaza war.

Instead, members of the Islamic Conference and other countries in Africa and Asia tabled a motion — and this is what passed and was adopted instead — calling for the Human Rights Council to discuss the report again in March 2010.

“We just don’t know what happened”, said one official with the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit in Ramallah.

“Nobody seems to know”, he said.

PLO Executive Committee meeting - Maan photo published on Electronic Intifada

On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahoud Abbas ordered — after consulting with the PLO Executive Committee and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — an INVESTIGATION into how. exactly, the decision to withdraw support for resolution endorsing the Goldstone happened.

Then, Abbas travelled to Yemen.

Ma’an News Agency reported that “The secretary of the PLO Executive Committee, [Yasser] Abed Rabbo said in a statement that ‘after deliberating between President Abbas and members of the Executive Committee of the PLO, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, President Abbas issued a decree to form a committee to find the reasons behind postponement of the debate on Goldstone’s report at the UN Human Rights Council” the statement added.

The three-member investigative committee is headed by PLO Executive Committee member Hanna Amireh, and includes Azmi Shuaibi, and  Rami Al-Hamdallah.  They are supposed to submit their report to the PLO EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE (and not to the public) in two weeks, according to the statement issued in Abed Rabbo’s name.

But, if the Palestinian president doesn’t know how such a momentous decision was made — an astonishing admission in itself —  then isn’t a little more urgency required?

Many Palestinian officials in Ramallah were not answering their phone on Sunday afternoon.  So far, no  official has made any explanation to the public — not even saying that “We don’t know what happened”.

UPDATE: CORRECTION ON TUESDAY 6 OCTOBER – APPARENTLY THE FATAH CENTRAL COMMITTEE DID NOT MEET, ALTHOUGH SOME OF THE MEMBERS HAVE MADE STATEMENTS: One knowledgeable Palestinian source said that the Central Committee had condemned the withdrawal of support for the resolution endorsing the conclusions contained in the Goldstone report. The Agence France Presse (APF) quoted recently-elected Central Committee member Mohammed Dahlan, here, as saying “he was against delaying the vote to endorse the report. ‘Fatah fully supports the Goldstone report. We don’t know the exact reasons for delaying (the vote)’, he told AFP on Saturday”.

Nasser al-Qudwa, former Palestinian Ambassador to the UN in New York, who subsequently served under his uncle, Yasser Arafat, as PA Foreign Minister, is another one of the newly-elected members of the Fatah Central Committee. He said “We issued an official statement on Friday that was clearly supportive of the report and its recommendations, and expressing great regreat at what happened. We also called for the Goldstone report to be upheld in different arenas”. He said on the phone on Sunday that he had told various Palestinian and Arab media that “what happened was wrong, and should be rectified”, and he said that some “follow-up ideas” were being considered.

Among the ideas he mentioned were: calling on the UN Secretary-General to present the Goldstone Report to the UN Security Council directly [we have already predicted, in our previous post, that this will not happen], or possibly calling for an extraordinary session of the Human Rights Council. But for the U.S., who has already complained that too much of the Council’s attention has been focused on Israel already, this will be a very objectionable . And, I wonder which members of the Human Rights Council would be willing to go along with another Palestinian move, just after this fiasco?

The Palestinian Ambassador in Geneva, Ibrahim Kraishi, apparently received instructions in writing — “an official paper from Ramallah”, the knowledgeable Palestinian source said — but it has not yet been made clear who sent it. “These are the worst days ever for the Palestinian Authority,” this source added. “Say anything you like, I can only agree with you … This is very painful”.

The Palestinian Ambassador in Geneva, Ibrahim Khraishi, is still there, and has not been recalled, this official said.

As we reported yesterday, here, he is the only Palestinian official whose fingerprints can be found on this move.

A demonstration has been called for Monday at noon in downtown Ramallah.  One big question is how the Palestinian security forces will behave.   In the past, they have been brutally repressive of any anti-regime demonstrations.

One likely fall guy, or scapegoat, appears at the moment to be Riyad Al-Maliki, who is the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Minister.  Reuters reported that “Abbas’s foreign minister, Riyad al-Malki, said the Authority agreed with postponing until March a vote that could lead to the Security Council referring Israel and Hamas to the International Criminal Court. Israel has denounced the report as biased”.  This report is posted here.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is also taking a share of the blame.

But, a few very well-connected Palestinian officials are pinning the blame squarely on the Palestinian Ambassador in Geneva. And YNet is reporting that “According to another PA official … the fact that Israel’s envoy to the UN in Geneva made the agreement public ‘complicated matters’ for the Authority and made it appear as though it were cooperating with Israel ‘at the expense of those who were killed in Gaza’.” This YNet story is published here .

So, by this reasoning if he had dissembled and lied and been vague, the Palestinian Ambassdor in Geneva would have done a good job?

However, Amira Hass reported in Haaretz on Sunday that “Palestinian sources told Haaretz that Abbas made the decision to delay the vote immediately after meeting with the U.S. Consul General last Thursday, without the knowledge of the PLO leadership or the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and without any consultation … The Palestinian sources said they believed that the consul general had passed on an unequivocal request from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ensure that the document remain on the table at the Human Rights Council … Abbas on Saturday made his first direct comments about media speculation on the issue, saying that his initial position had been misrepresented and that this was not a case of him withdrawing his support for the Goldstone report”. Amira Hass also reported that this situation has “shocked the Palestinian public”. Her article can be read in full here.

AFP reinforced this line, reporting that a senior member of the PLO said, under condition of anonymity that “Abu Mazen (Abbas) was himself responsible for this decision … He was under pressure from many states, especially the United States and Britain”.

UPDATE: Abbas himself said in an interview shown on Monday on Al-Arabiyya TV and Al-Jazeera TV that it wasn’t such a big deal, that people should be patient, and that March 2010 is just around the corner.

Palestinian Economy Minister Basem Khoury resigned on Saturday in protest of the decision to withdraw support from the Goldstone report. Khoury had recently taken heavy flak for meeting Israeli Minister for “Regional” Cooperation, and had promised not to do it again in the current circumstances. Now, he has resigned.

Planning Minister Ali Jarbawi said “someone made a mistake” and that he would seek an explanation at a Cabinet meeting on Monday, according to the Associated Press (AP). The AP report added that “Abbas’ critics are unlikely to go after Abbas personally and are more likely to seek the dismissal of advisers seen as encouraging him to take the decision. Abbas aides have defended the decision, saying the Palestinians needed more time to win international support for the Goldstone report”. This AP report is posted here. This AP report also cast doubt on the reported motives for the resignation of the economy minister: “It was unclear whether the resignation was to protest Abbas’ decision, and Khoury declined comment”.

Palestinian Minister of Social Affairs Majida Al-Masri said Saturday that the official Palestinian stance on the UN-backed Goldstone report harmed Palestinian national interests and embarrassed supporters of the Palestinian people, according to a report by Ma’an News Agency which added that “The first member of the caretaker government to speak out against the Palestine Liberation Organization move, Al-Masri … called the stance of the Palestinian ambassador to the UN ‘contradictory to Palestinian national consensus’, and a move that ‘angered friends and allies of the Palestinian people’.  Al-Masr is, a member of the politburo of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).  Ma’an noted that ” DFLP leaders also accused the PLO, of which Hamas is not a member, of making a decision that ‘deepened Palestinian rivalry and posed questions about the motives for such a stance and the decision makers who gave directives’.”   Ma’an’s report can be read in full here.

In another report, Ma’an noted that “A spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) slammed the role of the Palestinian Authority … and described the PA decision as ‘irresponsible’ and one that deeply harms the Palestinian struggle … In his statement, the PFLP spokesperson said the PA request to delay the Goldstone report was putting to waste what could have been a major tool in the Palestinian struggle, and in fact encourages Israel and Israeli forces to continue to practice oppression against the Palestinian people. ‘There are no justifications for these actions’, a statement said.”   This Ma’an report added that “When probed for a rationale PA sources said they wanted ‘unanimity’ in the Human Rights Council on the report, and noted discussion on the matter would have a negative influence on the peace negotiations.   This Ma’an report is posted here.

The only explanation that has given for the decision to withdraw support from the vote is “American pressure”.

The U.S, Administration seems not to have correctly calculated the Palestinian public reaction, and its revulsion against this move. The Palestinian Authority is in danger of losing legitimacy.

Families in Gaza who lost relatives, and who also lost their homes and sources of livelihood were devastated by the decision. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh joined them at a press conference in Gaza City to denounce what had happened. Haniyeh reportedly called the decision to withdraw Palestinian support for the Goldstone report “reckless and irresponsible”.

Palestinian Academic Salman Salman said at the end of a three-day conference on “the fading prospects for a state” at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, outside Jerusalem, on Saturday that “It was stunning to see what happened yesterday on TV, the withdrawal of the resolution … It never happened before. Why? Because it might make Israel angry? If so, what kind of peace do we think we will have?”

One respected Palestinian journalist said on the phone on Sunday that he was angry — and that everybody he knows is angry. “I think it’s a catastrophe”, he added.

Another Palestinian journalist who works with the Palestinian Media Center said angrily on the phone that “the PA leadership knows very well what is behind the decision”. Although Palestinian Ambassadors are supposed to be appointed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — the body that concluded the Oslo peace agreements with Israel. and that was recognized by Israel. As a result of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established as an interim authority in the occupied Palestinian territory. According to the Oslo Accords it is not supposed to conduct foreign policy. But, this journalist noted, it is now a “mixture”, and the PA Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki is appointing ambassadors with the full knowledge of Israel, he noted, without any apparent problem,

Last week, as we reported here Haaretz reported that the Israeli Defense Minister had made it clear that Israel would not agree to release telecommunications frequencies to the Palestinian Authority unless the Palestinians dropped attempts to get the International Criminal Court in the Hague to investigate last winter’s 22-day IDF Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. If Israel does not release the frequencies by October 15, the Wataniya mobile phone company set up between Palestinian and Kuwaiti, then Qatari, investors, will hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for substantial financial penalties due to the delay.

On October 1, Jerusalem-based Ben Lynfield had an excellent report in The Independent saying that “Israel is threatening to kill off a crucial West Bank economic project unless the Palestinian Authority withdraws a request to the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged Israeli crimes during last winter’s Gaza war. Shalom Kital, an aide to defence minister Ehud Barak, said today that Israel will not release a share of the radio spectrum that has long been sought by the Palestinian Authority to enable the launch of a second mobile telecommunications company unless the PA drops its efforts to put Israeli soldiers and officers in the dock over the Israeli operation. ‘It’s a condition. We are saying to the Palestinians that “if you want a normal life and are trying to embark on a new way, you must stop your incitement”, Mr. Kital said. “”We are helping the Palestinian economy but one thing we ask them is to stop with these embarrassing charges”. As long as the Wataniya Mobile company is unable to begin its operations, communications costs are likely to remain inordinately high for Palestinian businesses and individuals. But thwarting the company benefits four unauthorized Israeli operators who make sizeable profits in the Palestinian market using infrastructure they have set up in the illegal Israeli settlements across the West Bank … The Israeli stance on the frequencies marks a flouting of the efforts of the international community’s Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, who last month urged that the’is very aware’ there will be no release unless the Palestinians drop their request to the ICC”. Ben Lynfield’s report in The Independent can be read in full here.

The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah reported on 2 October, citing in part Ben Lynfield’s story in The Independent, that “Although the PA acted under US pressure, there are strong indications that the commercial interests of Palestinian and Gulf businessmen closely linked to Abbas also played a part”.  The Electronic Intifada story is here.

However, it is not likely that even the financial penalties that MAY be chalked up by delays in the Wataniya deal are enough to have justified the very substantial political costs that the Palestinian Authority may pay after having withdrawn its support for a UN Human Rights council resolution endorsing the Goldstone report.

There may be quid pro quo that were offered that have not yet publicly been revealed.

But so far, the only change is that Israeli sources are reporting that they expect negotiations with the Palestinians to resume this week during, or right after, a forthcoming visit by U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell. But, it was not the Israelis who broke off the talks, but the Palestinians, and during the very IDF military operation against Gaza that the Goldstone report is all about. This would, then, be yet another Palestinian concession…

Meanwhile, the political crisis that is developing now is threatening the very legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership. The U.S. and any others involved in putting this pressure on the Palestinians may have badly miscalculated.

Free Gaza boat returned to Cyprus for "repairs" – then may have set sail for Gaza again tonight

The absence of news about what is going on with this sixth Free Gaza expedition is very curious, very curious indeed.

Apparently, the expedition encountered rough seas soon after setting out from Larnaca on Monday afternoon, then returned to port a few hours later. Then, it was explained that there had been some damage to the ship’s generator.

The ship being used for this expedition, Spirit of Humanity, would set sail for Gaza again Tuesday, it was reported —if repairs could be made — despite the continuation into the 18th day of the Israeli Defence Force’s Operation Cast Iron, during which Israel imposed a formal naval blockade on Gaza’s territorial waters (delineated as a “fishing zone”, then as a “zone of economic activity”, in the Oslo accords). See our previous posts here.

The Free Gaza movement website has absolutely no notice about the supposed damage, the return to Cyprus, or the possible second departure on Tuesday — no update at all. Some of the phone contacts listed for information do not answer. Others are unusually close-mouthed.

Only a very few media outlets are reporting anything at all — China’s Xinhua News Agency, and a Taiwan website picked up an AP story from Cyprus about the supposed damage and return to Larnaca for repair. One Cypriot website, and one in Greece, have provided some details. Another one in the United Arab Emirates — www.7days.ae — seems to have the most recent news, from a Dubai-based doctor on board.

The Cypriot website reported that “Coordinator of the mission and Free Gaza Movement representative Vangelis Pissias said that the effort to travel to the Gaza Strip comes after the attack [in the high seas, according to the Free Gaza movement, at the end of December, a few days into the IDF military operation against Gaza] against the movement’s vessel Dignity and after the destructive operation of the Israelis against the people of Gaza. He said that we cannot remain indifferent, adding that their message is that human beings have to help other people when they suffer and they are in pain … [He also] noted that there have been threats against the mission, adding that they have received a note which defines the area which Israel has declared as war zone, approximately 20 nautical miles south of Gaza. Responding to a question, he said that they will try to enter Gaza through the normal way and will not provoke anybody”. This website report added that “Member of Greek opposition PASOK party (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) Sofia Sakorafa said that activists know about the diplomatic note which the Republic of Cyprus has received from Israel to prevent the sailing of the ship and added that the mission was informed by the Cyprus government about the issue“. This report can be read in full here.

The UAE website, 7DAYS, reported that: “Dr Ali Dabbagh was speaking on the phone to 7DAYS when news came through from the Israeli embassy in Cyprus that the navy would use all possible methods to stop the boat from reaching Gaza. Dr Dabbagh, a 52-year-old Dubai-based eye specialist, was standing onboard a Greek-registered ship laden with medical supplies when the Israeli response was announced. He lifted up his mobile phone as the ship’s captain asked if anyone wanted to turn back. ‘They answer is unanimous. Nobody is going to turn back’, he told 7DAYS … Dabbagh rushed to the Cypriot port of Larnaca last week after hearing that the US-based group ‘Free Gaza Movement’ was attempting a second emergency relief mission after it was previously rammed by the Israeli navy. Dr Dabbagh said last night that the group had faxed the Israelis a full list of all passengers and supplies on board “right down to the nitty gritty” … Dr Dabbagh’s wife, Sana, said the Free Gaza Movement ship, The Spirit of Humanity, would likely be reinforced with extra exterior protection before it tries to make it through the Israeli blockade. She said she was deeply worried for her husband but ‘understood completely’ why he wanted to carry out the mission. ‘He is not trying to be a hero. People must understand that. He is just doing the right thing under the circumstances and bring supplies to the people of Gaza’, she said … If Dr Dabbagh reaches Gaza, it will be the first time he will have been there since the 1950s. His Palestinian father was forced to flee the territory with his family after the creation of Israel in 1948″. This report on 7DAYS can be read in full here.

A Cypriot source told me just now that the ship was supposed to sail around 4 or 5 pm on Tuesday, but there is no confirmation about whether or not they actually did. “They didn’t let us know”, he said.
He also said he was informed that the number of persons on board the Spirit of Humanity — if it is sailing tonight — is indeed now fewer than the 34 who set sail yesterday.

UPDATE: Matthew Lee reports from the United Nations on his Inner City Press blog today that “On UN computers, the website of the Free Gaza Movement is blocked. Inner City Press asked about its attempts to deliver aid to Gaza by ship at the UN’s noon briefing on Tuesday… Later in the day, alerted by a UN staff member that the web site had been blocked, Inner City Press typed it in: www.freegaza.org. This results in a message from the ‘ICT Security Unit’ that ‘you have been redirected to this page because the site you are attempting to access is blocked according to the policy as detailed in ST/SGB/2004/15’. This Secretary-General’s Bulletin allows staff ‘limited personal use of ICT resources’ unless these involve ‘pornography or engaging in gambling’ or would ‘compromise the interests or the reputation of the Organization’.”

Matthew Lee adds as a footnote to this post that “At 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday Inner City Press learned that the UN General Assembly will hold its postponed special session on Gaza this Thursday at 10 am. During Tuesday morning’s closed door consultations in the Security Council, France’s Jean-Maurice Ripert said that the General Assembly should be careful to remain consistent with the Council. Why?” This post can be read in full here.

Meanwhile, Iranian radio has reported that an Iranian ship carrying aid to Gaza was turned back by the Israeli navy on Tuesday. Ma’an News Agency in Bethlehem says that the radio reported that “An Iranian ship that was carrying foodstuff and medicine was stopped by the Zionist regime’s navy 20 miles off the coast of Gaza”, and added that “the ship had left the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas 13 days earlier, according to Reuters. On Monday night Iran’s foreign minster said the ship had passed through the Egypt’s Port Said and was en route to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip”. Ma’an added that “In a statement on Tuesday morning Israel said its Navy ‘assisted in enforcing the marine closure on the Gaza Strip in preventing the entering of boats that might arrive in the area’.” This report by Ma’an News Agency can be read in full here.

But, Reuters has reported that “Iranian state radio said an Iranian ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip was stopped by Israel’s navy off the coast of the Palestinian territory. An Israeli military spokesman said he had no report of any such encounter”. This Reuters report can be read in full here .

UPDATE: An IDF spokesperson confirmed Wednesday — after earlier dissemination and denial — that the Israel Navy late Tuesday night DID turn away an Iranian ship that was attempting to dock in Gaza, according to Haaretz, which also reported that “After being turned back by the Israel Navy, the ship then tried to unload the supplies in the nearby Egyptian port of el-Arish, but was prevented from doing so by the Egyptian Navy”. This report can be read in full here.

Later, Yaakov Katz — who has excellent sources in Israel’s Defense Ministry — reported more details in the Jerusalem Post: “The Navy intercepted an Iranian ship loaded with medicine, food and clothing destined for Gaza, the IDF said Wednesday. On Tuesday, the boat docked in Port Said, Egypt, but the Egyptians refused to allow it to unload its cargo. Nevertheless, at midnight Tuesday, the boat left ort Sa id and tried to go to Gaza. A Navy Sa’ar 4.5 class ship intercepted the Iranian boat and transmitted a clear message on Channel 16 – the international communication line for ships – that it would not allow it to enter the waters around Gaza. On Wednesday morning, when it was 30 miles off the Gaza coast, the Iranian boat again tried to move towards the Strip, and the Navy again intercepted it, the army said. It then returned to El-Arish, in Egypt, and two Egyptian boats prevented it from docking there.
Since that time, the boat has been sitting 30 miles off the coast of Gaza and has been closely tracked by the Israeli navy. Israel has been coordinating all activity regarding the Iranian boat with the Egyptians. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that Iran would do what it can to get the ship to Gaza, state television reported. The head of the humanitarian aid group sponsoring the ship, Ahmad Navabi, said in comments aired on television Wednesday that the Israeli navy approached the cargo ship, Shahed, just 20 miles off the coast of Gaza at dawn and ordered it to turn back.
“An Israeli warship approached our cargo ship and warned us not to approach Gaza. We could see the lights at Gaza coast. We were forced to change route toward an Egyptian port,” Navabi said.
Iranian state television broadcast what they said was a radio exchange between the Israeli navy and the Iranian ship in which the Israelis said: ‘Gaza is closed. Leave the area immediately’. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday Iran has stepped up diplomatic efforts to push for an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza, state television reported. ‘In short term, the most important measures are to end (Israeli) assault on Gaza, end the Gaza blockade and recognize the rights of the Gaza people’, Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying. Navabi said his group may try to send the humanitarian aid to Gaza through Egypt to Gaza … Iran has already sent a cargo plane filled with 50 tons of aid to Egypt to be sent on to Gaza. This is the first Iranian boat to try to reach Gaza during the siege”. This report can be read in full here.

A Qatari ship and a Libyan ship carrying supplies for Gaza were both turned around by the Israeli Navy, both before the current Israeli military operation in Gaza.

Concern about the situation inside Gaza is mounting to new heights.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) issued the following statement in Ramallah: “The Palestinian leadership has decided to consider Gaza strip as a region of national disaster… where all the efforts and all the capabilities of the Palestinian Authority inside the Palestinian territories and all the efforts and capabilities of the Palestinian people outside the occupied territories will be directed toward the support of our people in Gaza Strip. All projects will be frozen for the sake of supporting our people in Gaza”. This is aimed at addressing the feelings of deep despair among Palestinians evident here in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

However, the PLO statement then goes on to take a position that favors the itself (as currently composed) and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), at the expense of Hamas: “We believe that all Palestinian forces at this moment should stress on one main issue – their unity on the ground and at the same time, the support of the Egyptian Initiative for putting an end to the Israeli aggression reaching a ceasefire. This will help in moving towards other issues – mainly lifting the siege, opening all the crossings and the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from they occupy in the Gaza Strip”.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator reported in its daily 17h00 briefing on Tuesday that “The humanitarian crisis is intensifying and the number of Palestinian civilian casualties is increasing. Israeli bombardment is causing extensive destruction to homes and to public infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip and is jeopardizing water, sanitation and medical services. Increasing numbers of Palestinians are fleeing their homes as Israeli forces penetrate deeper into the Gaza Strip. Hospitals are overstretched as medical staff attempt to cope with the high number of casualties, many of whom have multiple injuries. Of particular concern are children, who make up 56 percent of the Gaza population. On 13 January, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its deep concern ‘at the devastating effects that the current military engagement in Gaza is having on children’ … WHO reports that the emergency room of Dorah Paediatric Hospital was directly hit on 12 January … Palestinian Ministry of Health (MoH) figures as of 1600 hours 13 January are 971 Palestinians dead, of whom 311 are children and 76 are women. The number of injured stands at 4,418, of whom 1,549 are children and 652 are women. The MoH reported on 12 January that the number of children fatalities has tripled since the beginning of the ground operation on 3 January (compared to the number of child fatalities from 27 December to 3 January). The danger to medical staff and the difficulty of extracting the injured from collapsed buildings makes proper evacuation and estimation of casualties difficult …

“In response to allegations of the looting of food aid, the humanitarian agencies (UN and partners) involved in the delivery and distribution of food supplies affirm that there has been no reported theft or misuse of these supplies. They emphasize that careful mechanisms for monitoring aid flows are in place, although the ongoing conflict makes such monitoring difficult … Since 3 January, there have been numerous media reports about the alleged use of white phosphorous (WP). Human Rights Watch has stated that while the Israeli army appears to be employing WP as an ‘obscurant’ to hide military operations, ‘WP also has a significant, incidental, incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire. The potential for harm to civilians is magnified by Gaza’s high population density, among the highest in the world.’ The Israeli army has informed Human Rights Watch and reporters that it is not using WP in Gaza …

“The number of people who have fled their homes in Gaza remains unknown, but is estimated in the tens of thousands …

“As of this morning, 60 percent of Gazans are not receiving any power. The rest receive electricity intermittently … On the morning of 13 January, GEDCO [the Gaza electricity company] discovered that its warehouse in Gaza City was hit. It estimates financial losses of at least $400,000, including desperately needed spare parts for the electricity network…

“Many water wells and sewage pumps are still not functioning due to the lack of electricity, diminished fuel supplies to operate back-up generators and lack of spare parts — and the danger in reaching affected areas … 500,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip still do not have access to running water. Even before the current military operation, 80 percent of drinking water in Gaza was not safe for human consumption, according to WHO guidelines. 29,952 bottles of drinking water (1.5 litres each) from UNICEF entered Gaza on 12 January and were provided to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society for distribution [to 1.5 million people]… Sewage continues to flow in the streets in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya. UNRWA was unable to deliver fuel to the Beit Lahia Wastewater Treatment Plant to alleviate pressure on the banks of the sewage lake containing three million cubic metres of raw and partially treated wastewater due to the precarious situation. The sewage lake is in danger of overflowing placing up to 15,000 at risk. CMWU needs urgent approval from the Israeli authorities to assess the impact of wastewater leakage from the Gaza City Wastewater Treatment Plant…

And, the visiting President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jacob Kellenberger, who was in the Gaza Strip today, said that “Both parties must ensure that all victims are cared for rapidly, at all times of day. In particular, the wounded must be evacuated and receive treatment … Injured people cannot wait for days, or even for hours, before being treated. The work of medical personnel must be respected – and this is not negotiable.” Kellenberger said that what he saw in Gaza today “was shocking”. He added: “It is unacceptable to see so many wounded people. Their lives must be spared and the security of those who care for them guaranteed.”

On Wednesday (14 January), the ICRC says, *Mr Kellenberger will visit Sderot in southern Israel, where civilians are enduring rocket attacks from Gaza, and meet with Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue teams. He will also hold talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and President Mahmud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority”.

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Thanks to Sam Bahour for pointing to this: One personal testimony from Gaza, broadcast today in The Story, a radio program produced at North Carolina Public Radio (WUNC). and hosted by Dick Gordon. It is co-produced and distributed by American Public Media. This program can be heard by clicking here.

The speaker is Maha Mehanna, a freelance Arabic-English translator based in Al-Rimal — an area that used to be a very nice area of Gaza City:
“Since the start of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, Israeli warplanes have been bombing and shelling several locations in the area near our house, very near our house. With each bombardment, we felt our house shake like an earthquake and windows break, not to mention our utter fear and horror. We have not had any electricity for 17 days now, but this was something we got used to, since, before the Israeli aggression, for nearly 18 months, we lived with only 4-6 hours of electricity a day, many times only having it after 3:00AM.

“We have 13 young children at home, and all of my family, including my brothers and their families, are staying with us in one crowded room at our home downstairs, in the dark and the cold, to seek shelter. We prefer to die all together if a missile would strike. My younger nephews and nieces are very scared all of the time and don’t sleep well. They refuse to go to the toilet on their own, we take turns accompanying them. The bombings continue, day and night, and we don’t stop feeling scared. We hardly get any sleep …

“As if the bombings were not enough, we also receive daily recorded phone calls from the IDF to intimidate and terrorize us. In these recorded calls, the IDF asks us to follow their instructions and obey their orders for our own safety. They also say that they don’t target us, but that they target Hamas militants only. The IDF also asks us to stay away from Hamas elements and to avoid dealing with them or helping them and the caller warns us not to allow them use our homes or residential areas. The IDF also said in one of the recorded calls that “this is not a nightmare, this is the hell the Hamas leadership brought to you,” which made us not know if we are being targeted or not. In their latest recorded call this evening, the caller said that they will escalate their military operations in Gaza and that we should prepare ourselves for the next stage and keep following their instructions and obeying their orders. How does one prepare to be a victim of a war crime?

“We also receive calls from the Israeli intelligence, in good Arabic, pretending to be sympathetic Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Algerians, Sudanese or Libyans. After expressing horror at the Israeli war and asking about the safety of our family, the callers ask us about local conditions, whether the family supports Hamas and if there are fighters in the building or the neighborhood.

“To add insult to injury, the warplanes also drop leaflets in Arabic all over the Gaza Strip to intimidate and terrorize Gazans even more. In one of the leaflets, the IDF orders people to leave their areas immediately because they claim they have been forced to respond immediately and operate in their residential area due to the terrorist activity that terrorist elements are carrying out from those areas. The irony is that the warplanes are dropping such leaflets everywhere in Gaza, and anyone who reads them thinks that their areas are targeted. This has created mass hysteria. And even if they felt terrorized and intimidated and decided to follow the IDF orders and evacuate their areas, where can they go? Nowhere is safe in Gaza…”