Day 7 of IDF Operation Pillar of Clouds [a/k/a Defense Pillar]

Day 7 opened with reports from international journalists in Gaza saying it had been an unusually quiet night — but the IDF reporting some 180 overnight strikes.  The rocket fire from Gaza resumed just before the start of the business day.

UNSG Ban Ki Moon was in Egypt, and had already made a press statement from Cairo saying it would be a bad idea for Israeli to move to a ground operation inside Gaza, before a delegation of Arab Foreign Ministers headed by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Araby headed to Rafah to go to Gaza on another solidarity visit.

European Foreign Ministers and Quartet Envoy were doing the rounds in the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Ramallah circuit.

A surprise announcement this morning said that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was diverted to head to the region from Thailand today, and should arrive in Israel by the afternoon or evening to strengthen efforts to conclude a cease-fire.

Then, by  mid-day the  cease-fire [vs escalation by ground invasion] roller-coaster ride picked up weight + speed.  Via Twitter:

@CNNInternatDesk – BREAKING NEWS: Israel Security Cabinet decided to put temporary hold on possible ground offensive into Gaza

RAGreeneCNN ?@RAGreeneCNN – Israel to HOLD OFF on ground offensive “for a limited time for a diplomatic solution,” Israel govt official tells CNN’s @camanpour

Earlier, veteran French TV [2] correspondent Charles Enderlin ?@Charles1045 – Avant de faire des concessions majeures au Hamas en échange d’un cessez le feu Bibi veut la preuve que le Hamas contrôle Gaza  [My translation:  Before making major concessions to Hamas in exchange for a cease-fire, Bibi wants proof that Hamas controls Gaza { !!! }]

Enderlin’s next Tweet said: je n’arrive pas a croire que Benjamin Netanyahu va conclure un accord avec des terroristes 🙂
[My translation: I Ican’t believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is going to make an agreement with terrorists : )…]

Then just after 13:hh, a Tweet from the BBC’s Lyse Doucet [@bbclysedoucet] – Mohammed Deif Head of Hamas Military wing will give “important announcement” on #Hamas TV shortly #Gaza #Israelah

But, the BBC’s Paul Danahar then Tweeted: @pdanahar – Head of the Hamas military wing Mohamed Deif in #Gaza says nothing about ceasefire he just encouraging people to keep fighting

@pdanahar – Head of the Hamas military wing Mohamed Deif in #Gaza says their fighters should be ready for a ground war with #Israel

And then from @bbclysedoucet – Deif Head #Hamas Military wing says #Israel ground invasion best way to get Pal prisoners released – by capturing Israel soldiers

Just after 14:00 air raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem. There is no Iron-Dome battery in Jerusalem. An explosion was heard. The missiles [reportedly, two] apparently hit an area of open ground. The AlQassam Brigades said they were M-75 missiles with a 75-km range. It was later reported [via Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency] that the missiles hit in a Palestinian area near Surif, Beit Ummar, in the southern West Bank.

Not long afterwards, the IDF reported they made a direct hit on a motorcycle, killing the riders who the IDF identified as the crew which fired the missiles towards Jerusalem.

After that, leaflets were dropped in certain areas of Gaza, instructing residents to leave their homes and move towards the center of Gaza City.  That should make it very crowded…

This could be an indication of an imminent ground invasion. Or, it could be a Psy-Ops operation intended to push truce negotiations forward.Leaflets dropped by the IDF in Gaza Tuesday afternoon instructing residents to move towards specified areas in the center

A translation, posted here, offered by Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center says:

Military Communique  

To the residents of Sheikh Ajleen, Tal Al-hawa, Al-Rimal janoob, Al Zaytoon neighborhood, Shija’eya, Al Turkman, and New Shija’eya,

The IDF is not targeting any of you and does not want to harm you or your family. For your safety, we demand you to evacuate your homes immediately and move toward the center of the city via one of the following paths: Al Qahira, Jami’at Al Dool Al Rabya, Al-Aqsa, Alqadsyah, Om El Laymon, Salah Eldeen, Almansoorah, Khalas and Baghdad. The designated area in the city of Gaza is limited to west of Salah-a-deen Road, north of Omar Al Mokhtar Road, east of AlNassir Road and south of al-Quds road. This is a temporary confrontation and in the end every person will return to his home . Obeying these IDF instructions will keep civilian residents like you from harm’s way

The leadership of the Israeli Defense Force

An alternate translation can be found here.

Yousef Munayyer notes that the area delineated is “the most densely populated area of the Gaza Strip in and around Gaza city. This is one of the most densely populated places on earth. According to UN OCHA, the population density in this area is close to 7,000 persons/SqKm. Hundreds of thousands of people are being told to immediately leave their houses”…

His post offers a larger map, published here, showing exactly the area defined. He explains: “The red area represents the neighborhoods which must evacuate immediately into the area in the blue square”.

People in the center of Gaza are advised to go be squeezed together inside an even tighter and smaller area — for how long?

Tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of terrified people, crowded overnight into a central area — without shelter, sanitation, food and water?

The Arab League delegation of Foreign Ministers did go in and out of Gaza today, rolling in impressive SUVs on some surprisingly clear streets with security guards standing in the doors of the cars as the convoy whizzed passed.  Ismail Haniyeh gave the group a brief lecture, then they went to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu showed some emotion.

AlQassam Brigades said the Turkish FM was “sharing the #Palestinian people pain and sorrow”, and Tweeted a photo of one of the moments: @AlqassamBrigade – pic.twitter.com/JHMh4PEI

Turkish FM Ahmet Davuto?lu at Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital - 20 Nov 2012

Then, two journalists working for Al-Aqsa TV [Mahmoud Al-Komi and Husam Salama ] were killed in a targetted strike moments after the Arab League delegation’s convoy left, burning to death in their struck car, which was clearly marked “PRESS”.  A third journalist was targetted a short while later, elsewhere in Gaza.   Ma’an News Agency later reported here that Palestinian press freedom group Mada “condemned the strike as a ‘heinous crime … (and) a flagrant breach of the international conventions that protect journalists’.”, and demanded an international investigation.

Six men accused of being “collaborators” — identifying targets for Israeli strikes — were pulled out of a van that pulled up on a downtown street and shot in front of surprised onlookers.  Despite the ongoing air attacks, the crowd grew when the executioners said that the men were collaborators.  One report later said Hamas was investigating.  Reuters reported that “Hamas executed six Palestinians accused of spying for Israel, who a security source quoted by Hamas Aqsa radio said had been ‘caught red-handed’ with ‘filming equipment to take footage of positions’.  The radio said they had been shot. Militants on a motorcycle dragged the body of one of the men through the streets”. This report is published here

The Gaza Mall, which also houses the offices of AFP, was targeted later.

The only explanation is this Tweet put out by the IDF: @IDFSpokesperson – Targeted in #Gaza over evening: bank used to finance Hamas operatives, command & control center, Hamas hideout & operatives’ meeting place

According to a later report on Reuters, here, “Israel’s military said it had been targeting a Hamas intelligence centre in the tower”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ] issued a statement saying that Israel “must immediately halt airstrikes targeting news offices”, apparently referring to the strikes over the past several days.  The CPJ statement is published here.

CPJ later issued a second statement, which focused a bit more on the targetted killing of the three Palestinian journalists working for Al-Aqsa TV + Radio.

“We’re alarmed by the mounting toll on journalists in Gaza,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. “Israeli airstrikes continue to put journalists in harm’s way. This reflects the risks journalists face while reporting on conflict, especially in such a densely populated area.” A third journalist was killed when his car was hit by a missile this evening, The Associated Press reported citing a Gaza official. Initial local news reports identified the journalist as Mohamed Abu Aisha, director of the private Al-Quds Educational Radio. The reports said his vehicle was hit while he was driving in the Deir al-Balah neighborhood, but did not say whether Abu Aisha was reporting at the time. CPJ continues to investigate the circumstances of his death. This is posted here

This morning, it was reported that 111 Palestinians had been killed since the start of Pillars of Clouds.  By 16:30, the death toll in Gaza had increased to 121… and counting. Just after 22:00, Arwa Damon of CNN posted this Tweet:

@arwaCNN – #gaza casualty toll in last 7 days – 130 dead, more than 1020 injured

The Haaretz Live Blog reported here at 10:40 P.M. “IDF: Since beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, 1,500 targets were hit in the Gaza Strip, 133 on Tuesday. Iron Dome intercepted 389 rockets since operations’ onset, including 51 on Tuesday”…

UNSG BAN in Jerusalem with Netanyahu, in Ramallah with Abbas

UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon met Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem today, then Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

After both meetings, there was a press conference.

In Jerusalem with Netanyahu, BAN said “Settlements do not help the peace process… I told the prime minister that he should refrain from future construction”. [Just future construction? The goalposts keep getting moved…]

Netanyahu reportedly told BAN that the settlement issue must be discussed during negotiations, “it can’t be a precondition”… [So, the Palestinians need to negotiate about settlements? Somehow, this sounds different than just saying settlements are one of the final status issues in negotiations…]

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Netanyahu thanked Mr. Ban for his ‘good intentions’, but he said the settlement question should be dealt with as part of a final agreement. ‘It cannot be a precondition to enter into that agreement’, he said”. This is published here.

This NYTimes story added: “An Israeli official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue said Israel was ‘ready for mutual confidence-building measures in the framework of a peace process that is moving forward’ — in other words, as long as the measures came with guarantees that the Palestinians would stick with the talks. He would not specify what steps they might include. Another Israeli official said that in a closed meeting with Mr. Peres, Mr. Ban suggested that Israel, as the stronger party, should release Palestinian prisoners as one way of improving the atmosphere”…

In Ramallah with Abbas, BAN said “A viable Palestinian state is long overdue. I continue to believe a two-state solution is long overdue … The international community has been clear: all settlements are contrary to international law … [In the “exploratory” talks recently in Amman] the Palestinians have been forthcoming in producing proposals on territory + security, and I very much hope Israel will present their proposals. This is what I told Israeli leaders today”.

BAN also said, in answer to a question from the press, that “I fully share the Palestinians’ complaint that they have been under occupation for such a long time, suffering all these hardships without prospects of knowing when this will be over … We have wasted almost 20 years since Oslo … [But] negotiations is the best way to get results”.

Travelling with BAN was the former UN Special Envoy here, Terje Roed Larsen [who is still working on the Lebanon dossier]…

The long-serving Ambassador of the Observer Mission of Palestine, Riyad Mansour, was also present.

BAN added, in response to another question, that “On 23rd September I received the Palestinian application for UN membership, and I immediately conveyed it to the UN Security Council. I made it immediately clear that I fully support the aspiration of the Palestinian people to become a UN member within the framework of two states … it’s still in the hands of the UN Security Council”.

Abbas told BAN: “Mr. Secretary-General, I hope to be able to host you soon in an independent state”…

But, Abbas said, in response to a question from the press, that “We toured the whole world to get 9 votes in the UN Security Council, though I knew at the end that we faced the veto … Unfortunately, we did not achieve our goal of getting 9 votes … At some point we will review all our steps in the near future”.

He also said there was “a need to stop the campaign of arrests” and to free detained parliamentarians”…

Abbas, in his remarks, did not insult the Quartet … instead, he offered a light but rather indistinct compliment.

The Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat was seated in the front row, during the press conference [next to Terje Roed Larsen], and PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi was there as well.

“In the end”, Abbas said, I wish to assert that what we want is a two-state solution within the 1967 borders, and the need to end the Israeli presence on all our territory, including the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem”.

[Last week, at the end of the 5th “exploratory meeting” in Amman in which Israeli + Palestinian negotiators sat together for the first time a long time, an Israeli envoy made sweepingly broad indications of Israel’s territorial interests — and said Israel wanted to keep a security presence along the Jordan River…]

Tomorrow, BAN is going to Gaza in the morning, and will address the Herzliya Conference at 8 PM, before flying back to New York after midnight.

[Earlier on this trip away from New York, the UNSG was in Ethiopia; Davos, Switzerland, and Amman…]

Mahmoud Abbas in New York – meets UNSG, but does not [yet] submit letter asking for UN membership

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has arrived in New York for what has looked like an eventful week that would culminate in a Palestinian bid for full membership in the United Nations.

Abbas met the UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon today — but did not submit the letter that has to be given to the UN Secretary-General to start the process.

Why?

About a week ago, Abbas told journalists including correspondents from The New York Times that he would submit the letter to the UNSG as soon as possible after he arrived in New York.

The answer can only be — Abbas is allowing maximum time for diplomatic contacts and negotiations to play out.

On Friday, in the Muqata’a Presidential Headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas gave a televised speech in which he said he would hand the letter to the UNSG on Friday, at the end of Abbas’ scheduled address to the UN General Assembly. He is 14th on the speakers’ list on Friday, listed between Tajikistan and Japan.

Palestinian officials say they expect this means Abbas will be one of the last speakers on Friday morning — about 12:30, they predicted [but it could well be later].

It would be a dramatic visual if Abbas, speaking at the podium of the General Assembly on Friday, simply turned around and handed the Palestinian letter up to the UN SG, who will be seated behind a marble table on an elevated platform directly behind Abbas.

After Palestinian officials made clear that they intended to go through with their UN bid, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was inscribed two or three speakers later, after Abbas speaks on Friday.

The Obama administration has said it will use its veto power, as one of the 5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, to stop the Palestinian bid, if necessary.

However, it became clear over the weekend that the U.S. would prefer to defeat the move in another way — by persuading enough members of the Security Council to not support the Palestinian bid, so that it will fail to win the 9 votes needed to pass, and be adopted.

This is trickier — and would require the U.S. to abstain [for its no vote would automatically become a veto].

It would also mean persuading the EU to adopt a common position, and also abstain. There are 4 EU members on the UN SC:
Britain + France, who are also permanent members with the veto power; and Germany + Portugal, non-permanent members who could either abstain [if there is a common EU position], or vote no.

A defeat by abstention, rather than by veto, would be a much softer blow to the Palestinian plan — a kinder, more gentle dissuasion –and easier to explain on the international level, and in the Middle East. It would be a nicer way to leave the door open for a second Palestinian try, without causing the same bitterness here on the ground that a U.S. veto would do [even if joined by Britain + France].

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in New York today that “We along with all the other twenty six countries of the European Union have withheld our position on how we would vote on any resolution that may come forward in the General Assembly in order to exert as much pressure on both sides to return to negotiations. That is the only real way forward.”

TODAY’s RECOMMENDED READING:
(1) PALESTINIANS TURN TO UN, WHERE PARTITION BEGAN, by Neil MacFarquhar, published 18 September 2011 here.
(2) REJECTION OF PALESTINIAN STATEHOOD DENIES FREEDOM, by Ahmad Tibi, published today here
(3) ABBAS DEFIANT AS ‘ALL HELL’ BREAKS OUT OVER UN PLAN, by Maan News Agency using material from a Reuters report, published today here.

Continue reading Mahmoud Abbas in New York – meets UNSG, but does not [yet] submit letter asking for UN membership

UNSG BAN says two-state solution to Israel-Palestinian conflict "is long overdue"

Was the UNSG taking a diplomatic half-step back from his earlier support for a long-overdue Palestinian State?

What he said, at a hastily-summoned press conference at UNHQ/NY on Thursday, was exactly this: “I am profoundly troubled by the lack of progress in the peace negotiations. It is vital that they resume. Ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieving a two-state solution is long overdue. Time is not our friend”.

[As we reported in our last post, on 10 September, here, what the UNSG BAN said in Australia that day was somewhat different. According to AFP, he said this: “The two state vision where Israel and Palestinians can live… side by side in peace and security — that is a still a valid vision and I fully support it… And I support also the statehood of Palestinians; an independent, sovereign state of Palestine. It has been long overdue“.]

The U.S. State Department spokesperson said last Thursday that the Obama Administration would use the American veto in the UN Security Council if the Palestinians pursued their announced intentention to seek full UN membership.

Though U.S. envoys Dennis Ross and David Hale are on their second trip to the region in as many weeks to try to avert the Palestinian move, Palestinian officials say they are going to pursue it — unless, of course, an excellent offer is made up until the last minute.

Even if a Palestinian State is somehow admitted as a full member of the UN Organization, Palestinian officials say, they intended to pursue negotiations with Israel on the next day…

Palestinian Authority [PA] Foreign Minister Riyad Malki told members of the Foreign Press Association [FPA – in Israel] at a briefing convened at FPA request on Thursday that at end of Mahmoud Abbas speech around midday on 23 September from the podium of the UN General Assembly in New York, after the very last sentence, Abbas – who is Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO, in addition to acting President of the PA — will present the official request for the state of Palestine to be granted full membership to the UNSG”.

UNSG BAN Ki-Moon will be seated on an elevated table behind the podium. All Mahmoud Abbas will need to do is turn around and hand up the official Palestinian letter of request — and this will be in public, in full view of the whole world.

Continue reading UNSG BAN says two-state solution to Israel-Palestinian conflict "is long overdue"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BAN at Annapolis: This time, let us see it through

UNSG BAN Ki-Moon told delegates at the Annapolis conference that he was “very pleased and moved to be a part of this historic meeting”. He pledged “the full support of the United Nations family for the renewed effort”, adding that “[f]or 60 years, the Organization has provided the broad parameters for peace, first in the partition plan, and then in Security Council resolutions 242, 338, 1397 and 1515”.

BAN’s speech, however, revealed that he has a particularly bad speechwriter.

He did not mention The Wall — despite the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the UN’s prinicipal judicial organ, the International Court of Justice — though he did refer to “the barrier, but so briefly you would have missed it if you blinked.

BAN said that “The Palestinians have been deprived of their fundamental right to self-determination for 60 years”.

He said that “Their society has been increasingly fragmented – territorially, by settlements, land expropriation and the barrier; socially and economically, by closure; and politically, between Gaza and the West Bank. They have begun to fear that the dream of statehood may slip beyond their grasp. We must reverse this growing sense of despair, and build a process that begins to change the lives of Palestinians, and secures their independence and freedom. The process must end the occupation and create an independent and viable State of Palestine, at peace with itself and its neighbours”.

BAN confirmed the phenomenon first identified in 1999 by long-time Knesset Member Azmi Bishara, who said that the creation of a Palestinian state was becoming an Israeli demand, Ban said, “For its part, Israel faces genuine security challenges. The Israeli people have sought security and freedom from threat for 60 years. But this has proven elusive. Recently, they have felt anew the threat of attack, and their very right to exist has been questioned. Some have started believing that territorial withdrawal only brings new acts of terrorism. We must reverse this loss of faith, and build a process that delivers on the vital interests of Israelis: a Palestinian State that is a true partner, secure and recognized borders, and a permanent end to the conflict”…

BAN SAID THAT “success depends not on what we say today, but on what we do tomorrow. There will be a steering committee and the Quartet will have its own role, complementary to a trilateral monitoring mechanism”

So, now the Quartet will be complementary to the mechanism that will be headed by former Nato commander-in-chief, U.S. General Jim Jones?

BAN also observed that “The people of Gaza have suffered more than anyone else from conflict and poverty … Humanitarian aid is no substitute for a functioning economy”.

He called for concrete initiatives. He said that “We will also have to work politically to restore the unity of Gaza and the West Bank under the legitimate Palestinian Authority”. And BAN concluded, “As we re-embark together on this quest, there can be no second thoughts, no half-measures, no going back. This time, come what may, let us see it through”.

The full text of UNSG BAN’s comments to the Annapolis conference is here.

The Quartet — of which UNSG BAN is a member — issued its own statement in support of the Annapolis event: “It welcomed the commitment of the Israeli and Palestinians leaders to launch bilateral negotiations towards the establishment of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza, and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace. This reflects the results of months of work by the parties and by the Quartet, including the Quartet’s engagement with members of the Arab League Follow-Up Committee to expand the circle of support for peace. The Quartet welcomed the parties’ continuing efforts to fulfil their respective commitments under Phase One of the Road Map and urged the international community to provide robust support for all the parties’ efforts. The principals took note of the broad international support for the Annapolis Conference and looked forward to the December Paris Donors’ Conference to muster international financial backing for efforts to build the foundation for a viable and prosperous Palestinian State. The Quartet agreed to remain closely involved, and to that end will meet again in December, and looks forward to inviting members of the Arab League Follow-Up Committee to attend”. The Quartet statement in support of the Annapolis meeting is here.

Nahr Al-Bared returnees find homes destroyed systematically

Nahr Al-Bared is the Palestinian refugee camp rocked by months of fighting since May, when the Lebanese Army went after members of the Fatah Al-Islam splinter group. This fighting took place just under a year after the ferocious two-month Israeli attack (June-August 2006) that targetted much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, not only in the south of the country, following Hizbollah’s attack on a group of Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area that Hizbollah says belongs to Lebanon. Hizbollah is still holding two of these soldiers captive, without any visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). After the active conflict ended (though Israeli overflights are, however, reportedly continuing — Israel says they are needed to monitor Hizbollah’s rearming), there were a number of internal attacks, including bank robberies and bus bombings, that the Lebanese government accuses Fatah Al-Islam of committing.

A number of Palestinian officials and Fatah leaders in Lebanon also denounced Fatah Al-Islam. The situation in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon was said to be explosive — many of the refugees crowded inside have not been given Lebanese documentation, and they are not allowed to work in many professions, and construction materials to improve their housing is not allowed inside the camps.

During the Lebanese Army attack, many Palestinians from Nahr Al-Bared were evacuated to other already crowded refugee camps in Lebanon.

Given a chance to return recently, a number of the Nahr Al-Bared evacuees did just that — despite the danger of unexploded ordinance throughout the camp, and reports that their homes were surely damaged if not destroyed.

But, according to this account, what they found was much worse that what they had been told — and even what they had imagined:

“Between May and September of this year, a ferocious battle took place between the Lebanese Army and a small armed group known as Fatah Al Islam. From the first the day, the Lebanese Army surrounded the camp and fired in artillery, maintaining this course for months. Most of the residents of the camp were forced to leave with the clothes on their backs within the first three days. As the number of young Lebanese soldiers killed and horribly maimed rose through the battle, Lebanon became awash with patriotism and grief, any questioning of the army taboo.

“Something terrible has been done to the residents of Nahr al Bared, and the Lebanese people are being spared the details. Over the past two weeks, since the camp was partly reopened to a few of its residents, many of us who have been there have been stunned by a powerful reality. Beyond the massive destruction of the homes from three months of bombing, room after room, house after house have been burned. Burned from the inside. Amongst the ashes on the ground, are the insides of what appear to have been car tyres. The walls have soot dripping down from what seems clearly to have been something flammable sprayed on them. Rooms, houses, shops, garages – all blackened ruins, yet having had no damage from bombing or battle. They were burned deliberately by people entering and torching them.

“How many we do not know, it is too large for a few people to comprehensively assess. But finding an un-bombed house or a business that has not been torched is very hard indeed.Why did this happen? Why have the people whose entire life’s work is to be found in ashes on the floor of these burned out homes, not been given any information about this – not a word? Each day new people return to find that this is what has happened to their homes.

“It is not just the burning of houses. Cars that residents were ordered to leave behind in the first days of the battle have been smashed up. Mopeds and TVs and all that ordinary people value, also broken up. Fridge after fridge with bullets through them. All of this clearly done from inside the houses, not from any outside battle.

“People returning to their homes sit outside alone on the ground. Stunned. When you ask them to bring you into their houses, they tell you, person after person, of how their valuables were stolen. Even where the valuables were well hidden, everything was ransacked and valuables found. Explosives were used to get through locked doors or to open safes. Items that people have had stolen include everything from clothes to cars. That which has not been burned, which was not smashed, which was of value seems to have vanished …

“On the inside walls of many, many houses, are written slogans. Everything from proud soldiers noting army units, to profoundly racist, offensive slogans against Palestinian people. Many families have found some of their belongings in nearby houses. Faeces are on some mattresses and floors.

“Every day that goes by more families return to the camp. Within hours, they have swept up and cleared away ashes and debris, so that they can try to imagine where to begin again. Mattresses with faeces are being burned. Journalists are still prohibited from the camp. Cameras are illegal there. Human rights groups have not entered …”

This report was published here on Electronic Intifada.

According to the UN spokesperson on Wednesday, UNSG BAN Ki-Moon has informed the UN Security Council that “Lebanon has continued to experience political crisis and instability in recent months. He notes the recent challenge posed by the Fatah al-Islam group, and commends the Lebanese Government and Armed Forces for successfully weathering a critical test on the road to a truly free and sovereign Lebanon“.

In this report, BAN calls Fatah al-Islam a “militant Islamist group”. Click on your preferred of the UN’s six official working languages for this report here.

A very large part of Ban’s report is devoted to Fatah al-Islam, and observes that “the emergence of Fatah al-Islam, the precarious security situation and the enduring political stalemate underline the undiminished challenges to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of Lebanon”.

Ban reported that he received a letter dated 8 October from Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora information, the Prime Minister wrote, “clearly points to a carefully drawn plot, of very serious and dangerous proportions, to seize control of a good part of northern Lebanon, destabilize the whole country by bombing Government and business institutions, mount attacks against UNIFIL in order to threaten participating countries and jeopardize the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, particularly 1701 (2006)”.

There was an oblique reference to an attack on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on 24 June that killed six peacekeepers.

Continue reading Nahr Al-Bared returnees find homes destroyed systematically

UNSG BAN Ki-Moon: Punitive measures against Gaza are unacceptable

Yesterday, as Israeli sanctions went into effect against the Gaza Strip, the UNSG issued this statement:

“The Secretary-General reiterates his call for the cessation of indiscriminate rocket attacks by Palestinian militants targeting Israel, and strongly condemns these actions.  However, he also believes strongly that punitive measures taken by Israel, which harm the well-being of the entire population of the Gaza Strip, are unacceptable.  The limitation of fuel and electricity supplies deepens the humanitarian distress of the 1.4 million residents of Gaza, as does the reduction of the supply of essential commodities and the tightening of restrictions on movement and access.  The Secretary-General calls upon Israel to reconsider its actions and for all concerned to protect civilians and to meet their obligations under international law”.