Professor Richard Falk on UN Board of Inquiry report and on the need for further investigation

Here (via Palestinian Pundit) is an Al-Jazeera International interview with Professor Ri
chard Falk, who speaks from his home in Santa Barbara, California, giving an early reaction (on 5 May) to UN Secretary-Genera BAN Ki-Moonl’s presentation of his Board of Inquiry Report on deaths, injuries, and damage to UN installations in Gaza during the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead.

Falk is the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and — in what is regarded by many as a complete fiasco — he was detained overnight in bad conditions then deported after trying to enter Israel through the Ben Gurion International Airport on 15 December (just three days before the start of Operation Cast Lead). See our earlier postings here and here.

Here is my transcript of most of Falk’s remarks in his recent interview with Al-Jazeera:

(1) “I am somewhat disappointed by the SG’s tone in response to this very serious and scrupulously-argued report that’s based on a very careful analysis of the available evidence. It is true that that the UN Human Rights Council has designated an investigatory team headed by Justice Richard Goldstone that is planning to examine the human rights violations and international humanitarian law issues that occurred during the Gaza attacks. So, he [UNSG BAN Ki-Moon] might have better argued that there was already underway a parallel UN initiative and therefore there wasn’t a need for a further inquiry under the auspices of the SG’s office” …

(2) “I would say, serious as the attacks on these UN facilities are, they’re a relatively minor part of the onslaught on Gaza as a whole, and the real center of inquiry should be the violations of international humanitarian law in relation to the civilian population and the civilian infrastructure of Gaza, where I think one would find in the course of an impartial investigation that very serious crimes of war had been committed and there should be some procedure for accountability that follows from such an investigation”.

(3) “One interpretation of his [UNSG BAN Ki-Moon’s] response is to say that the UN through the HRC has already authorized such a full-scale investigation. And having been in touch with the Goldstone group, I know their intention is to carry out such an investigation. So in one way Ban Ki-Moon’s response was somewhat misleading, because the UN is already committed — subject to Israel’s cooperation — to conduct just that sort of full-scale investigation, which is long-overdue. It should have been carried out by now, because the longer you wait, the harder it is to gather convincing evidence”.

(4) “Israel has not yet made clear what non-cooperation means. If it is carried to the extreme that it was in my case — that is, expelling the investigators if they try to enter — then it will pose a very serious obstacle to a real investigation. But if it merely means that they won’t make the higher officials of the Israeli government available for interviews and won’t share the evidence that they have under their disposal, then it’s a limitation but it wouldn’t be a fatal obstacle to carrying out a meaniful investigation. But what is important is that this investigation go forward. There are other groups that have attempted and are attempting to report more fully on the commission of war crimes during the Gaza attacks,including a very high-profile delegation lead by John Duguard who was my predecessor as Special Rapporteur, and it was done under the auspices of the Arab League and is expected to issue a report in the coming weeks”.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, on Friday (8 May) the team of international human rights experts examining alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law committed in the context of the December-January Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip ended a week of closed-door preparatory meetings in Geneva on Friday. According to remarks made by the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon at the regular noon briefing at UNHQ/NY, the team, headed by former UN war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, held initial meetings with a broad cross-section of stakeholders, including representatives of Member States, the UN, and non-governmental organizations. The Mission also established terms of reference and a three-month programme of work.  That means their report will not be out before the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) final report on the conduct of Operation Cast Lead, which is expected to be released in June.

Justice Richard Goldstone speaking at the UN Office in Geneva - AP file

Photo of Justice Richard Goldstone speaking at a press conference at the UN Office in Geneva

The Human Rights Council-appointed team stated that they plan to conduct visits to affected areas of southern Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Gaza. and they indicated that they have requested Israel’s cooperation in this regard. The UN spokesperson said that “According to Justice Goldstone, the Mission will focus its investigation not on political considerations, but on an objective and impartial analysis of compliance of the parties to the conflict with their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law — especially their responsibility to ensure the protection of civilians and non-combatants”.

U.S.: Board of Inquiry mission was to develop a clear record of the facts. Barak: copy of internal IDF investigation to be given to UNSG, showing that IDF did not fire intentionally at UN

At the U.S. State Dept Briefing on Tuesday (5 May), spokesman Robert Wood said in answer to a journalist’s question: “We would just note the Secretary General’s reminder that this board of inquiry, for one, is not a court of law. It is not a judiciary body. Also, I think in his cover letter, he reminded everyone that the mission of this board of inquiry was to develop a clear record of the facts. And, in fact, I believe he noted that two of the board’s recommendations were basically outside the terms of reference that applied to the board. So, you know, one of the things that we have said from the beginning is that these types of inquiries need – they need to refrain from politicization, and we still believe that to be important. So we’ll need a little bit more time. We just, as I said, received the report and we’ll take a look at it”.

The State Department’s remarks carefully echoed what UNSG BAN Ki-Moon had carefully said earlier in the day in New York: “I would emphasize that a Board of Inquiry is not a judicial body or court of law. It does not make legal findings and does not consider questions of legal liability.
My purpose in establishing this Board was to develop a clear record of the facts surrounding these serious incidents and their causes and to determine where responsibility might lie, bearing in mind the complexities of the overall situation”.
The findings, the “clear record of the facts” that the UN Board of Inquiry was charged with developing, and the determination of where responsibility might lie, could lead to further international action.

BAN Ki-Moon in UNRWA compound in Gaza on 20 January 2009 - Maan Photo by Wissam Nassar

UNSG BAN Ki-Moon visits UNRWA compound in Gaza City on 20 January 2009, just days after an IDF attack using white phosphorus.  The ruins of the compound and the destroyed relief supplies are still smoldering.

Haaretz reported on Tuesday evening that “Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday denied claims made by a United Nations panel of inquiry that Israel Defense Forces troops fired intentionally at UN facilities in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead … Barak has asked that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon be given a copy of the internal IDF investigation into Cast Lead, according to the Defense Ministry. The army’s investigation included assessments of incidents in which IDF troops or aircraft fired on UN facilities in the Gaza Strip. The internal investigation proves irrefutably that the IDF did not intentionally fire at those facilities, the Defense Ministry said”. This can be read in full here.

Meanwhile, UNSG BAN Ki-Moon told journalists at UNHQ/NY on Tuesday that “The Government of Israel has informed me that it has reservations and objections to elements of the summary. At the same time, I am pleased that the Israeli Government has agreed to meet United Nations officials to address some of the Board’s recommendations, in so far as it relates to Israel”.

Russia, who currently chairs the UN Security Council, has convened a special meeting of the Council to discuss the situation in the Middle East. Since the Annapolis process began in November 2007, Russia has been trying to get a high-level meeting of the Quartet to assess progress in the negotiations — but the U.S. and Israel, at least, have not wanted to commit to any date. UNSC Resolution 1860, adopted on 8 January at the height of the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead against Gaza,

Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard analyzes IDF war on Gaza

A legal analysis by Michael Sfard, legal counsel for Yesh Din (Volunteers for Human Rights), quoted here extensively with his permission, puts into context the revelations by Israeli soldiers published in the Israeli media in about their “permissive rules of engagement”.

This analysis also sets the stage for the United Nations Human Rights Council’s consideration, on Monday in Geneva, of reports about the hostilities during the war.

Sfard wrote, in his analysis, that the first and most important principle of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), its raison d’etre, is the principle of Distinction: “Combatants must always aim their weapons at military targets, at combatants and military objects only. Combatants are never allowed to aim their weapons at civilians or civilian objects. There is only one exception, and that is when civilians participate in hostilities and endanger the lives of others, and then the ordinary principle of self defense of combatants allows them to use force against civilians, for the duration of the civilians’ active involvement in the hostilities. That is the only exception and it is not relevant to our case of the Gaza War”.

The second principle of IHL, Sfard states, is the principle of Proportionality, which states that aiming weapons at, or targeting, legitimate targets (such as combatants or military objects), is not legal if if there is reason to believe that illegitimate targets (civilians or civilian objects) will be harmed by the attack, and that the foreseen harm to these illegitimate targets is greater than the advantage gained by the destruction of the legitimate target.

In the war in Gaza, Sfard wrote, “there are alarming indications that we [Israel] have violated both principles. The amount – or the gravity – of the violation and the number of offenses – war crimes – that we have committed, is indeed dependent on facts. It is important to mention that according to international law, not enabling an impartial, professional, independent investigation of allegations of violations of international humanitarian law is in itself a violation of international law. So, if there are factual questions, for example, whether if before the attack on the UNRWA school there was indeed fire shot from the school at the soldiers or if the attack targeted not the UNRWA school but a nearby location, then Israel must allow an impartial, professional, independent investigation to be held. And if Israel doesn’t do so this in itself is a violation of international law”.

In the war in Gaza, Sfard wrote, “there are alarming indications that we [Israel] have violated both principles. The amount – or the gravity – of the violation and the number of offenses – war crimes – that we have committed, is indeed dependent on facts. It is important to mention that according to international law, not enabling an impartial, professional, independent investigation of allegations of violations of international humanitarian law is in itself a violation of international law. So, if there are factual questions, for example, whether if before the attack on the UNRWA school there was indeed fire shot from the school at the soldiers or if the attack targeted not the UNRWA school but a nearby location, then Israel must allow an impartial, professional, independent investigation to be held. And if Israel doesn’t do so this in itself is a violation of international law” …

“Allegations have been made regarding the legality of the rules of engagement ordered to infantry units during Operation Cast Lead. Soldier testimonies published in the Israeli media alleged that the applicable rules of engagement defined ‘shoot-to-kill zones’. If that is true, that means that soldiers were ordered to shoot indiscriminately at combatants and civilians alike. That is the clearest violation of the principle of Distinction …

“The most simple allegation that can be made, and it seems that cannot be refuted, against the Israeli army in the Gaza War is that it implemented a declared policy of targeting civilian infrastructure and civilian objectives, which was termed by Israeli leaders as a policy of targeting ‘symbols of the Hamas regime’, or ‘symbols of government’. In the framework of this policy, we targeted governmental offices, such as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Transportation. We targeted the Palestinian Parliament, the Parliament House in Gaza, and police stations, the police main headquarters, and many others. These are civilian objects and are not a legitimate target …

“I have to stress that police, even if armed is not a combating force under international law, unless the police force is a part of the combating infrastructure. Policemen do not enjoy the rights of combatants according to international law; if they engage in battle, if they take part in hostilities, they can be tried, and they don’t enjoy Prisoner of War status if captured. At the same time, and as a consequence of that, they do enjoy the protections afforded to civilians and thus they are not a legitimate target …

“Of course if civilians were in these institutions during the attack then the offense is much graver and then we are dealing not only with destruction of civilian infrastructure and objects, but also with a possible crime of wanton killing of civilians

On Proportionality, Sfard wrote: “[P]roportionality in essence is a principle that is based on morality, and my morality is [or,may be] different than other men or women’s morality. But if I equate what happened in this recent conflict to what has happened in incidents in the past to see what Israel has said is Proportionate and what Israel has said is not Proportionate, this time we can see a huge drop in moral standards by Israel.

“Case in Point: Five and a half years ago, Israel assassinated Hamas extremist Salah Shehade killing fourteen civilians and wounding another hundred in that attack. Israel has never claimed that this attack was Proportionate. Israel claimed in writing, before the High Court of Justice, that had they known that civilians in such numbers were around Salah Shehade at the time, they would have not carried out the attack. Their defense was different then, they said they did not know: ‘we did not expect, we could not foresee the damage to civilians and civilian objects’.

“In this war we have many many many Salah Shehade assassinations. And this time Israel has not said it is sorry for the loss of life, and has not said ‘we did not know that civilians were there’. Actually it says something completely different. It says ‘we called them and we announced that we are going to bombard this house and we gave them a chance to leave’.

“Well, that means that Israeli decision makers knew that there were civilians in the house. The reason why they [the civilians] did not leave the house is immaterial, irrelevant to the question of whether the attack was legal or not. It might be that those people did not leave because some of them were old, some of them may be handicapped, maybe children did not leave for other reasons, and maybe they are fanatics who do not think that they should leave just because Israeli airplanes were going to shoot at them. It is not important. The fact of the matter is that the result in many attacks was grossly disproportionate according to the standards Israel claimed it held five years ago.

“It is also irrelevant whether the attack was meant to kill a combatant or a terrorist that was in the house, or whether the attack was meant to demolish ammunition that was hidden the house. It is not important, as long as the house was not used during the attack to shoot at soldiers. If someone shoots at you, you can shoot back, you can defend yourself, that’s clear. [But if not…]

“And now we are getting to the second point that I wanted to make about proportionally. And that is the point, the most complex one, what do you do when you are shot at from a civilian object? And that was the Israeli defense regarding the UNRWA school, and regarding Dr. Abu El Esh, and other incidents where they shot at protected areas. Again, the incidents have to be investigated and Israel must allow investigations, and if it doesn’t, that’s a violation in itself.

“But let’s assume Israel is telling the truth, and the attacks on these places were carried out as responses, retaliations, or self defense, because Israeli soldiers were shot at from these places, then we have to ask ourselves whether the counter attack was Proportionate. According to media reports, and these incidents must be fully investigated to resolve factual issues, what we have seen during this war was that every time snipers shot at Israelis, the Israeli army responded with bombs, either from the air or by tanks, which demolished the whole compound from where snipers allegedly shot at them. There is a specific example in the High Court of Justice’s decision on the legality of the assassinations policy case, where former Chief Justice of the High Court of Justice Aharon Barak states that it would be proportionate to shoot at a sniper that is shooting at you from a balcony, but it would be disproportionate to drop a bomb that would demolish the whole building and would bury underneath not only the sniper but also his neighbors…

In addition, Sfard wrote: “There is one principle in International Law of Armed Conflict which was certainly violated grossly in the recent Gaza War. I am referring to the duty of the fighting powers, definitely in circumstances of actual occupation and when engaging in offensive in a civilian area, to allow civilians to escape the battle zone.

[This is a point discussed in our earlier post, on 6 January, “No other country in the world”, here.]

The point is also perfectly corroborated with the just-released testimony of one of the soldiers, “Aviv”, who said: “they [the IDF commanders] used a huge amount of firepower and killed a huge number of people along the way, so that we wouldn’t get hurt and they wouldn’t fire on us. At first the specified action was to go into a house. We were supposed to go in with an armored personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally, Cruel] to burst through the lower door, to start shooting inside and then … I call this murder … in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified – we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this? From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled I didn’t really understand: On the one hand they don’t really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they’re telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault”… This was included in our previous post, here.

Back to Michael Sfard’s analysis. He also noted that: “Israel says, and probably rightly so, that the arena of battle was forced on us, that we didn’t chose where to fight, that the Hamas combatants were hiding in the streets of downtown Gaza. But what could a civilian who did not wish to be part of the fighting do in order to save herself and her family? Israel did not open a humanitarian corridor for those who wished to leave their houses and stay away from the fighting area until the hostilities were over. And that is possibly the worst violation of Israel’s responsibilities under International Humanitarian Law in the Gaza War, and one that created many levels of violations, because the IDF forced civilians to stay in a combat zones. The civilians could not get medical care or be treated, they could not get food and water supplies, and they were victims of direct attacks and enormous psychological stress.

“I am not a military expert – but I believe it would have given Israel a huge military advantage if tens of thousands of civilians would be allowed to leave the combating area and it seems, and this is based purely on a suspicion, but it seems that not allowing civilians out was part of the strategy in order to create the deterrent that Israeli leaders talk about constantly. And if that’s true, it is a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law“.

New report says UNRWA should promote "normalization", end refugee status for Palestinians

With impeccable timing, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has published a polemical new paper — vainly described one of the few (if not the only) “dispassionate examination” [in English] — by an American former legal adviser of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Near East refugees.
Continue reading New report says UNRWA should promote "normalization", end refugee status for Palestinians

Israeli government condemns "attempts to cast aspersions" on IDF – promises "operational investigations"

The Israeli Ministry of Defense has announced that “a Jordanian military field hospital has been coordinated between Israel and the Jordanian authorities and is scheduled to arrive tomorrow at the Gaza Strip. Some 33 trucks, with approximately 210 medical staff and equipment, will access the region at Allenby Bridge and make their way to the Gaza Strip via Erez Crossing”.

At its weekly cabinet meeting, the Israeli government adopted a statement saying that “As a moral army without peer, the IDF took care to act in accordance with international law and did its utmost to prevent harming civilians who were not involved in the fighting, including their property, and to this end, inter alia, distributed very many flyers and also used the local media and the local telephone network in order to deliver timely general and detailed warnings to the civilian population. The IDF also acted to provide for the humanitarian needs of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip during the fighting …”

The Israeli cabinet statement added that:
As in any operation, the IDF will undertake operational investigations, and draw lessons and the necessary conclusions therefrom. The Government expresses its full confidence in this serious process and ascribes national importance to them. The Government condemns and rejects the attempts to cast aspersions on the character of the IDF, its soldiers and commanders, and expresses its confidence in its norms and values” …

On January 10, Human Rights Watch posted a statement on their website saying it believed the IDF is using White Phosphorous in Gaza. See post here.
Continue reading Israeli government condemns "attempts to cast aspersions" on IDF – promises "operational investigations"

On the one hand – then on the other hand

It has been reported that “U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday she had told Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Ministers Tzipi Livni, that more care must be taken to avoid incidents such as the bombing of a United Nations aid warehouse and training center in Gaza. ‘We had a discussion of the difficulties that this (the bombing of the warehouse) had caused and the need to try to avoid such incidents’, said Rice when asked whether she had protested to Israel’s government after the warehouse bombing”. This report can be viewed in full here.

Take more caretry to avoid … even for diplomats, this is not very strong language, and seems utterly disproportionate in comparison to the gravity of what happened, which may very well turn out to be a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, and a war crime.
Continue reading On the one hand – then on the other hand

"No other country in the world…"

“No other country in the world does what Israel does”, say some of my Israeli friends. “We tell the people to evacuate when we are going to bomb”.

Yes, but where do they think the evacuees are going to go?

There is really nowhere to go.

Nowhere in Gaza is prepared to handle thousands and thousands of large families.

And, one might ask, what provisions has the IDF made to help these fleeing families?

There were no preparations for this on the Hamas side, because it was hoped the ground invasion could be frightened off, with slogans like, “We have prepared a grave for you”, etc … It was actually hoped this would not happen.

Al-Jazeera aired a report of families walking almost aimlessly in downtown Gaza City. There is nowhere to go, those interviewed complained.

Some went to UNRWA schools. This morning, an UNRWA school, apparently full of displaced refugees, was hit.

Apparently not just one, but two, UNRWA schools were attacked on Tuesday, according to AP: “It was the second deadly Israeli attack to strike a UN school in the past few hours”, AP reported here .

One was in Jabaliya, the other one was in Gaza City. In one of them — it now appears to be the one in Jabaliya — the death toll is now given as 40, and rising.

The IDF later said that an “initial inquiry” into this “incident” — apparently meaning the school that was attacked in Jabaliya — “indicates that a number of mortar shells were fired at IDF forces from within the Jabalya school. In response to the incoming enemy fire, the forces returned mortar fire to the source. “This is not the first time that Hamas has fired mortars and rockets from schools, in such a way deliberately using civilians as human shields in their acts of terror against Israel”.

The IDF even offered old footage of another incident, as illustrative proof: “This was already proven several months ago by footage from an unmanned plane depicting rockets and mortars being fired from the yard of an UNRWA school. This footage has been released in the past, and is now being re-released, and is available via JCS – Jerusalem & Tel Aviv: 02-6701771 or 03-6238840”.

UPDATE: The Israeli Foreign Ministry has just called this “incident” a “heartrending tragedy”, and added that “initial investigations indicate that Hamas terrorists fired mortar bombs from the area of the school towards Israeli forces, who returned fire towards the source of the shooting. The Israeli return fire landed outside the school, yet a series of explosions followed, indicating the probable presence of munitions and explosives in the building. Intelligence indicates that among those killed were Immad Abu Iskar and Hassan Abu Iskar, two known Hamas mortar crewmen”.

In any case, you can’t find any of this out from the UNRWA website — if you land on the UNRWA website there is no information, just a Flash Appeal, as this catastrophe is yet another good occasion to ask for more donations, by credit card or wire transfer … and the death toll in one of the schools is now given as 40, and rising.

AP reported from inside the Gaza Strip that “Israeli forces edged closer to Gaza’s major population centers on Tuesday and attacked new sites, including a U.N. school, claiming more civilian lives after ignoring mounting international calls for an immediate cease-fire…where hundreds of people from a Gaza City refugee camp had sought shelter from Israel’s blistering 11-day offensive against the Hamas militant group … U.N. officials say they provided their location coordinates to Israel’s army to ensure that their buildings in Gaza are not targeted. The Israeli army had no comment on the latest strikes, but in the past has accused militants of using schools, mosques and residential neighborhoods to store weapons or launch attacks … ‘The battle is bitter but unavoidable. We set out on this operation in order to deal Hamas a heavy blow and to alter living conditions in the south of the country and to block smuggling into the Gaza Strip’, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. … In Geneva, the international Red Cross said Gaza was in a ‘full-blown’ humanitarian crisis. Its head of operations, Pierre Kraehenbuehl, said the few remaining power supplies could collapse at any moment … ” The AP report can be read in full here

There have been over 630 Palestinian deaths over the past 11 days, and at least 3,000 wounded. “There are so many amputations”, one doctor said. “Israel must be using some new kind of weapon”.

Some 525 “projectiles” have been fired from Gaza onto nearby Israeli areas, during the same period.

Many Israelis in the communities bordering Israel have been suffering from constant fear and anxiety — and many have been treated for hysteria. Four have been killed in the last 11 days.

Palestinians in Gaza have also been terrorized.

Nobody knows really what is happening, except from IDF sources, IDF footage, IDF photos — and a bit of footage also from Gaza-based Ramattan News Agency. Even Israel television buys their footage…

The Foreign Press Association (FPA), very frustrated, send this statement out: “The FPA strongly protests the Israeli government’s decision to continue the ban on international journalists entering Gaza despite the Supreme Court ruling requiring it to allow access. The unprecedented denial of access to Gaza for the world’s media amounts to a severe violation of press freedom and puts the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs. We call on the Israeli authorities to lift this ban immediately in line with the decision of their own country’s Supreme Court and the basic principles of democratic statehood”.

But, McClatchy bureau chief here, Dion Nissenbaum, reports on his Checkpoint: Jerusalem Blog that, as more and more journalists continue to arrive every day in hopes of getting into Gaza, the IDF seems to have hardened its position: ” ‘The ruling was issued not in the time of a full-blown military operation that is taking place now’, said Maj. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for Israel’s defense ministry”.

Dion also reported that, on Monday, “the first eight reporters selected in a surreal and secretive process by the local Foreign Press Association once again packed their bags today and camped out at the border crossing in hopes of getting in. They were supposed to go in last Friday, but Israeli officials at the time said they were too busy letting about 300 foreigners who live in Gaza get out before they launched the ground offensive. Today, Israel let in convoys from the UN and the Red Cross who passed into Gaza while the journalists cooled their heels and waited. Eventually, the Israelis said there were ‘security alerts’ and warnings of an attack on Erez, so they sent the reporters home”.

Ramattan has on its website a letter sent to Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which makes complaints about other mistreatment of the press, particularly the local Palestinian press in Gaza: “The Committee to Protect Journalists urgently demands an explanation for the bombing of Al-Aqsa TV headquarter in Gaza City by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on Sunday. We are also dismayed by the army’s decision to declare Gaza’s northern boundary with Israel and other parts of the territory ‘closed military zones’. This latest move, along with previously stated restrictions, prevents journalists from effectively reporting from the Gaza Strip. On December 27, Israeli authorities officially denied a request by Gaza-based Ramattan news agency to transport cameras and other equipment from Ramallah to Gaza in an effort to cover unfolding events in Gaza, according to the news agency’s Web site. Members of the news media must be allowed to report on the situation in Gaza while retaining the protections guaranteed by Security Council Resolution 1738, as well as other universally accepted instruments of international law….” This can be viewed on the Ramattan website here.

Haaretz’ Yaakov Katz reported on Sunday on the beginning of the ground invasion on Saturday — which was not reported, apparently by censorship rules, until almost 8:30p.m — that: “The explosions started to escalate at around 4 p.m. as the IDF let loose its artillery cannons along the Gaza border, with the aim of ‘softening’ open areas in the Strip that are believed to be filled with booby traps and land mines. At the same time, thousands of troops from a wide range of infantry, armored and engineering units began taking up positions along the border before the invasion … Meanwhile, all along the border, an electrical blackout was imposed on communities to hide the IDF preparations and deployment. At several points – near Erez, Kfar Aza, Nizmit and Kerem Shalom – large contingents of journalists gathered to see the gunfights in the Gaza Strip. Bullets could be seen flying in both directions as well as into the air, likely attempts by Hamas to shoot down IAF attack helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles”. Katz’s report is posted here.

Yet other journalistic sources reported that the IDF attacks began to grow in intensity around 6p.m. on Saturday night — two and a half hours before the first reports were allowed to be published.

One journalist — who did not have a press card, and who therefore would not have been asked to sign the obligatory form accepting IDF censorship — was reportedly arrested on Monday for having violated the censorship regulations by reporting too early that the ground invasion had begun. According to a report in Haaretz: “A reporter for Iranian television [n.b., it was not official Iranian television – Press TV says the report was working for Al-Alam] was arrested by Israeli authorities on Monday for a dispatch which broadcast news of the Israel Defense Forces’ entry into the Gaza Strip. The journalist is alleged to have violated military censorship laws which forbade the news media from releasing information during the initial stages of the ground incursion. The reporter, a resident of the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al Amud, was questioned by the police international investigations unit. He turned himself into authorities via his attorney”. This report can be read in full here.

Another story in Haaretz reported that “According to Danny Seaman, the director of the Israel Government Press Office, the reporter had been refused a press card for security reasons. The approach is stricter in general, Seaman explained, because ‘too many times we have spoken in too many voices. This time it’s clear that the system is unified and serious. That was also one of the Winograd Committee’s conclusions, but this time there won’t be censorship violations that won’t be dealt with’.” This Haaretz story also said that “Israel says it does not want the foreign press in Gaza due to concerns that something might happen to them that will hamper Israel’s operations. ” ‘What if one of these media stars gets hurt? Even if it isn’t Israel’s fault, it will be perceived as fundamental for the Palestinians’, an Israeli source said. That is apparently only part of the reason. Keeping the foreign journalists in Israel, sources say, is good for Israel’s image because the media is experiencing the war from the Israeli side. As soon as the IDF gets a hold in the Strip, it is expected that the IDF Spokesman will let Israeli and foreign journalists in with the army. For the time being, the only presence documenting events is the spokesman’s office”. This Haaretz report can be found here.

The Jerusalem Post reported that “GPO [n.b., the Israeli Government Press Office] head Danny Seaman said Monday that a crater caused by an Israeli shell on the Palestinian side of the road near the crossing was the reason the foreign press had not been let in Monday. ‘The eight aren’t going in today because of a technical problem on the Palestinian side – a crater caused by a shell overnight that disabled the road’, Seaman explained. He added that efforts would be made to repair the area so that reporters could go in on Tuesday. Lerner said he knew nothing about a crater in the road. Meanwhile, the FPA, which represents foreign journalists in Israel and the Palestinian territories, expressed growing exasperation Monday with the ongoing press ban, and suggested that Israel was mixing genuine security concerns and games. ‘We are waiting day by day, hour by hour’, said Glenys Sugarman, executive secretary of the FPA. ‘We just don’t know when we will get in’. Sugarman said that she had been told Monday that there was a suicide bomber on the Palestinian side of the border, which was why the border was quickly closed as a group of foreign nationals were leaving the Palestinian territory. ‘There are security issues, but there is playing around as well’, she said”. This JPost report can be found here .

The National, an English-language newspaper published in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., reported that “The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) regards the Israeli ban as a dangerous violation of press freedom that adds to ‘ignorance, uncertainty and fear’ in the region. ‘The Israeli ban on foreign news media from Gaza since Dec 27 raises concerns that there is a systematic attempt to prevent scrutiny of actions by the Israeli military’, said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. ‘The eyes of the world are on Gaza, but Israel is trying to censor the news by keeping the media at bay’. Human Rights Watch urged the Israeli government to abide by the Israeli high court ruling and allow foreign media into Gaza. The presence of journalists and human rights monitors in conflict areas provides an essential check on human rights abuses and laws-of-war violations, Human Rights Watch said”. This report is posted here .

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department Spokesperson, Sean McCormack, has told journalists that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is going to New York today to attend a UN Security Council meeting on Gaza: “There is a UN Security Council meeting, and this is previously scheduled. It was called by the chair [President] of the Security Council for this month, and that is France. I think Foreign Minister Kouchner expects to be there. So she will participate in that discussion. She will also have a series of meetings, bilateral as well as other configurations, that are intended to try to move forward on the pathway that we talked a little bit about yesterday – these three elements. And just to review, the three elements being an end to rocket fire coming out of Gaza, a – steps to address smuggling, as well as steps to open up the crossings going into Gaza using the 2005 Movement and Access Agreement, elements thereof perhaps, as a model or basis for opening up those access points and having those be secure as well … We would like an immediate ceasefire, absolutely, an immediate ceasefire that is durable and sustainable and non-time-limited. So you know, we can sort of go round and round with these – with the semantics. But of course, we – look, nobody wants to see violence. We would like to see the violence end today. But we also want to see it end in a way that is sustainable and durable, so that we aren’t – you know, you don’t have my successor up here three months, four months, six months from now, talking about the same thing … I fully understand the situation in Gaza. It is – the humanitarian situation there is dire, and we are working to try to address that in terms of getting goods in – into Gaza, as well as once they are into Gaza, to the people who need them. And we’re working with the Israelis as well as others on those questions … I would expect today that there would be a discussion, perhaps tomorrow there would be a follow-up session.”

Asked by a journalist if this was being viewed as a way to get the Palestinian Authority back [in contzrol] in Gaza, the spokesman replied: “No, it’s a side effect, perhaps, of having an agreement that’s consistent with the 2005 agreement, but it’s not the – that’s not the main objective. The main objective is to actually encourage legitimate trade across those borders in a secure fashion, so that on one side the Israelis can feel confident in the fact that those are secure crossing areas; and for the Palestinian people, they can actually engage in legitimate commerce and thereby improve in some form or fashion the situation on the ground”.

McCormack also said that “the schedule is still coming together at the moment, but I would expect that she [Secretary Rice] would meet with some of her Arab foreign minister counterparts. She will try to meet with [Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas, who will be up in New York, as well as to have other side meetings”.

Two new UN reports on the Palestinian situation

Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar has written this week about two new UN reports on the Palestinian situation:

1. OCHA – The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

To fully appreciate this item, a little background — Kevin Kennedy is a former U.S. Marine, who became a “star” in Kofi Annan’s UN, and whose rise continues…]

“If it did not deal with human beings, including infants, the latest report published over the weekend by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in the occupied territories, on the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip would be one of the funniest documents ever published here.

The report, which relates to the period between June 28 and July 5, reveals that the situation is anything but pleasant. It is estimated that 75 percent of the workshops in the Gaza Strip are not operating at all or are operating at less than 20 percent their usual activity due to a lack of raw materials.

However, the report states that the situation is not all that terrible. ‘Humanitarian imports into Gaza between June 25 – July 1 through Kerem Shalom, Sufa and Karni have met 70 percent of the minimum food needs of the Gazan population’.

Basing himself on UN World Food program (WFP) figures, the coordinator notes that this is ‘a significant increase from the prior week, where only 21 percent of the food needs were met’. The authors of the report do not confine themselves to general data. They append a table that details daily local consumption in the Gaza Strip alongside the level of imports and the local supply. Not only in metric tons; someone went to the trouble of calculating the percentages for them. And there is also a total of the two.

The report’s implication is that if there is no flour, let them eat animal feed. If there is no rice, drink oil. If there is no hummus, lick sugar. What is important is that the total amount of essential foodstuffs reaches 70 percent. Behind these dry numbers lurks a juicy story about the tense relations among the UN organizations operating in the territories. It turns out that at OCHA’s Jerusalem offices they are quite ashamed of this document, which bears their organization’s name. The instruction to publish it came from the office of Kevin Kennedy, the humanitarian coordinator in the office of Michael Williams, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy to the territories.

In this branch of the UN they are trying to curry favor with the Israelis and the Egyptians, who, as everyone knows, are not going out of their way to enable Hamas to maintain orderly life in Gaza.

The envoy’s office stands firmly behind the Israeli position, which insists on operating the Kerem Shalom crossing point in particular, despite strong objections by the Palestinian side.

The office also supports Egypt’s objections to opening the Rafah crossing point without European inspectors. Members of the Meretz Knesset faction, who returned yesterday from a visit to Cairo, were told in the Egyptian capital that ‘it is necessary to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza’, but ‘it mustn’t become too good there’…

Kennedy’s office has responded that there is no significance to the calculation of the average supply of various foodstuffs and hence to the ostensible improvement in the humanitarian situation. It was promised that this would be fixed and would not be repeated in future reports”…

Read the full Haaretz article by Akiva Eldar here.

2. UNWRA – The Un Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees

Akiva Eldar’s article in Haaretz is entitled:

    Border Control / Who told them to give birth at night?

“The small village of Azun Athma is located in the southeastern part of the West Bank, not far from Qalqilyah and too close to Israel and the Jewish settlements of Etz Efraim, Elkanah, Sha’are Tikva and Oranit, which surround it in all directions. To ensure the security of the residents of Israel and for the sake of the settlers’ convenience, the Palestinian village has been encircled by a fence and has become an enclave closed on all sides. In order to partake of essential services in the West Bank, the inhabitants of Azun Athma pass through a gate controlled by the Israel Defense Forces. They undergo physical searches each time they exit and enter. At 10 P.M. the soldiers close the gate and only open it again the next morning at 6 A.M.

It is common knowledge that the Palestinians suffer from a serious lack of discipline, which starts in their mother’s womb. There are fetuses that insist on coming into this world right at the time when the Israeli soldiers go to sleep. What is to be done with these babies when Azun Athma only has a clinic providing the most basic services for two hours, twice a week? To make sure they will receive proper medical care during the birth, pregnant women (in an average year about 50 babies are born in the village) tend to leave their homes and move in with relatives, who reside in places where one can obtain accessible and good medical services. Thus, of the 33 babies that were born to inhabitants of the village between January of this year and the beginning of June, 20 were born outside the village. The others were born in their mothers’ homes without the aid of a doctor or a qualified midwife.

According to a report published yesterday by the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the publication of which coincided with the third anniversary of the ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague concerning the security fence, the 10 Palestinian communities surrounded by the fence have no access to 24-hour emergency services. The authors of the report estimate that when construction of the fence is completed along the planned route, about 50,000 people will find themselves in a similar situation.

Their examination of 57 Palestinian communities also shows that the ruling of the International Court of Justice has not resulted in a dramatic change in the situation: of the 61 passages in the fence, only 26 are open all year round for the use of Palestinian farmers, while less than half the farmers enjoy direct and regular access to their lands; the gates are open only$ 64 percent of the planned and declared time; in 72 percent of the communities there have been complaints about routine humiliation and verbal harassment on the part of the soldiers; 24 percent of the communities complained of damage caused to produce as a result of being refused entry to agricultural areas; and 85 percent of traditional roads have been ruined and cut off by the fence”…

Read the full Haaretz article by Akiva Eldar here.