News & Current Affairs

January 15, 2009

Gaza pounded amid push for truce

Gaza pounded amid push for truce

Israeli tanks have pushed deep into Gaza City, prompting fierce exchanges of gunfire with fighters of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The UN’s relief agency, Unrwa, says part of its HQ in Gaza caught fire after being hit by Israeli shells.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon expressed outrage. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert apologised but said troops returned fire after coming under attack from the UN’s compound.

The Hamas interior minister, Said Siyam was reported killed in an air strike.

Both Hamas and Israeli officials said Siyam was killed at his brother’s home in Gaza City.

Meanwhile, Hamas and Israeli negotiators were said to be making progress towards a ceasefire agreement as they held separate meetings with Egyptian mediators in Cairo.

Olmert apology

Speaking to reporters on the Israel-Gaza border, Unrwa spokesman Christopher Gunness said three of the agency’s employees were hurt in the attack on its compound in Gaza City.

About 700 people were still sheltering in the compound, he said, and the fire had been burning close to five full fuel tanks.

Mr Gunness added that Unrwa would not be able to distribute food or medical supplies on Thursday as its trucks were unable to leave the compound.

Mr Olmert met Mr Ban and apologised for the attack, but blamed it on Palestinian fighters firing from the UN site.

“It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place, but the consequences are very sad and we apologise for it,” he said.

“I don’t think it should have happened and I’m very sorry.”

Escalation

The coastal enclave came under heavy fire from the east in the early morning as soldiers and tanks pushed into Gaza City.

Witnesses said they saw soldiers on foot marching behind bulldozers and tanks.

The advancing troops came under fire from fighters from Hamas and other Palestinian factions positioned on rooftops and balconies.

The building where he lives in the Gaza City suburb of Tel al-Hawa was surrounded by Israeli tanks at one point, he said, and several shells hit the lower floors.

Columns of thick smoke rose into the sky over Gaza from fires touched off by the fighting.

About 70 people have been killed in the fighting on Thursday, Gaza’s Ministry of Health said.

Reports said at least 15 rockets had been fired from Gaza into Israel since the early morning, injuring eight people in Beersheba.

Nearly 1,100 Gazans and 13 Israelis have reportedly died so far in the conflict.

Speaking to the press after meeting Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv, Mr Ban repeated previous calls for an immediate ceasefire, and said the suffering in Gaza was a “dire humanitarian crisis” that had reached an “unbearable point”.

In other developments:

  • The UK Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown says the British government “utterly” condemns the attack on the UN headquarters in Gaza. Fierce criticism also came from the French foreign ministry
  • Two hospitals in Gaza City are hit by shellfire: the al-Quds hospital in Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood, scene of heavy fighting, and a Red Crescent hospital, the UK Red Cross says
  • The Shurouq tower block in Gaza City, which houses the offices of the Reuters news agency and several other media organisations, is hit by an explosion, injuring a journalist for the Abu Dhabi television channel
  • Leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council are to meet in Saudi Arabia to discuss the crisis. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, said the meeting was convened because of what he called Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people
  • A boat carrying medical supplies to Gaza is surrounded by Israeli warships in international waters off Lebanon’s southern coast and forced to return to Cyprus, according to charity Free Gaza
  • Palestinian deaths in the Gaza Strip reach 1,083 according to Gaza medical sources. Nearly a third of the dead are said to be children

‘Detailed vision’

Israeli and Hamas envoys have been in Cairo, holding separate meetings with Egyptian negotiators.

Egypt has been leading efforts to broker a ceasefire that could include a peacekeeping force being deployed along its border with Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons.

GAZA CRISIS BACKGROUND
Destroyed building in Gaza City

On Wednesday, Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil said his movement had presented Egyptian negotiators with a “detailed vision” of how to bring about a ceasefire.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, has said any ceasefire agreement would have to include a halt to Israeli attacks, the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and the opening of border crossings to end the blockade of Gaza.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said there was “momentum” to the talks.

“Ultimately we want to see a long-term sustainable quiet in the south, a quiet that’s going to be based on the total absence of all hostile fire from Gaza into Israel, and an internationally supported mechanism that will prevent Hamas from rearming,” Mr Regev said.

Israel launched its offensive on the Gaza Strip on 27 December and has refused to allow international journalists to enter Gaza without supervision, making it to independently confirm casualty figures.

The offensive has provoked widespread international condemnation at the cost in civilian casualties and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the coastal enclave.

Map
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January 12, 2009

Israeli reservists sent to Gaza

Israeli reservists sent to Gaza

Soldier in APC on Israel-Gaza border

Israel says its military pressure on Hamas is proving effective

Israel has confirmed that reserve units have been sent to the Gaza Strip, as its campaign there enters a 17th day.

But military officials denied this heralded a new phase in Israel’s offensive against Hamas militants.

Earlier, PM Ehud Olmert said Israel was nearing its military goals and operations would go on.

Israel says it carried out 12 overnight airstrikes. One rocket attack was reported from Gaza on Monday morning but there were none overnight.

Previous nights have seen as many as 60 pre-dawn Israeli strikes.

I think we could sum it by saying that it’s been a living hell for the Palestinians
Dr Mads Gilbert


“We’re keeping the military pressure up on Hamas, we think our pressure has been effective and continues to be effective in taking apart their military machine,” he said. The Israeli military said some reservists were being used to refresh troops currently in action in Gaza, but that this did not yet constitute an escalation of the campaign.

Brig Gen Avi Benayahu, Israel’s chief military spokesman, said thousands more – who are to comprise a new, expanded phase in the ground operation – were still in training and had not been deployed.

On Sunday Israel dropped new leaflets into Gaza and left phone messages warning Gazans to stay away from areas used by Hamas, saying its operation would soon enter “phase three”, the Associated Press reported.

In Cairo, talks between Hamas and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman were described by an unnamed intelligence official as “positive”, the state news agency reported, without providing details.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, now Middle East envoy for the Quartet – the US, EU, UN and Russia – is due to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Monday morning.


On Sunday, after an Israeli cabinet meeting in Jerusalem to consider the country’s next move, Mr Olmert praised the military’s “impressive gains” in Gaza and said it was time to “translate our achievements into the goals we have set”.

“Israel is nearing the goals which it set itself, but more patience, determination and effort is still demanded.”

Referring to last week’s UN Security Council call for an immediate ceasefire, Mr Olmert said “nobody should be allowed to decide for us if we are allowed to strike”.

Both Hamas and Israel have rejected the UN resolution.

Civilian patients

In Gaza the main hospital is close to collapse, according to two Norwegian doctors who have been working there during the conflict.

They said patients at al-Shifa hospital are dying because of a lack of specialist doctors and basic medical equipment.

Doctors Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse said half of their patients were civilians, some of them young children with shrapnel and blast wounds.

They told the BBC that 12 ambulance staff had been killed in shelling, despite their clearly-marked vehicles.

Frequent power cuts mean surgeons are having to perform some operations by torchlight, they said.

“I think we could sum it by saying that it’s been a living hell for the Palestinians,” said Dr Gilbert.

Aid agencies say Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are in urgent need of food and medical aid.

Meanwhile, Israel’s army denied deploying white phosphorus bombs in Gaza, after Palestinian medics said they had treated patients for burns caused by the munitions.

Israel began Operation Cast Lead just weeks before parliamentary elections in the country, as a six-month truce with Hamas unravelled.

A Palestinian boy near a burning car hit by Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip near the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, 11 January 2009

December 30, 2008

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Israel’s air assault on Gaza is “the first in several stages” of operations aimed at ending militant rocket fire, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said.

As bombing continued for a fourth day, another top official said Israel was ready for “long weeks of action”.

Palestinian officials say more than 360 people have been killed since Saturday. Four Israelis have died in rocket fire.

As EU officials prepared to discuss the crisis, some reports from Israel said it was considering a temporary truce.

Mr Olmert was set to discuss the idea of a 48-hour suspension, suggested by France, with his officials later in the day, the French news agency AFP said.

But Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned a truce would allow militant group Hamas – which controls Gaza – “to regain strength… and prepare an even stronger attack against Israel”.

US President Bush agreed in a telephone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that for any ceasefire to be effective it had to respected by Hamas, the White House said.

A BBC reporter says Israeli tanks and troops are massed along Gaza’s border.

Correspondents say this could be a prelude to ground operations, but could also be intended to build pressure on Hamas.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of crossings to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, as EU foreign ministers prepared to discuss the crisis in Paris.

‘Defenseless population’

On Tuesday, Israeli jets attacked more targets linked to Hamas, hitting a number of government buildings and security installations.

At least 10 people were killed and 40 said to have been wounded in the raids.

One air strike killed two sisters, the eldest aged 11, riding in a donkey cart in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, Palestinian medical sources said.

Palestinian children search the ruins of a destroyed house following an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip, 29 December 2008

The UN has called for an investigation into the attacks, which are causing heavy civilian casualties. It says at least 62 of the Palestinians killed so far were women and children.

Richard Falk – the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories – said the international community must put more pressure on Israel to end its assault.

“Israel is committing a shocking series of atrocities by using modern weaponry against a defenceless population – attacking a population that has been enduring a severe blockade for many months,” Mr Falk said in a BBC interview.

But Israeli officials said there was more to come.

The Israeli military “has made preparations for long weeks of action”, deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai said.

Mr Olmert’s statement that the bombardment was “the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet” was quoted from a briefing he gave to President Shimon Peres on Tuesday.

Separately, Israeli naval vessels confronted pro-Palestinian activists seeking to break the Gaza blockade by boat. The activists said one vessel rammed them; their boat made port in Lebanon with heavy damage on one side.

Rocket fire

The Egyptian-Gaza border was due to be opened to permit more trucks carrying aid to enter the territory, and for wounded Palestinians to be transported to Egyptian hospitals.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, under popular pressure to open the crossing fully, said that could not happen while Hamas, rather than the Palestinian Authority, led by its rival Fatah, controlled the border.

Demonstrators in Yemen, angered by Egypt’s co-operation with the blockade on Gaza, briefly stormed the country’s consulate in Aden, where they burned an Egyptian flag and hoisted a Palestinian one.

There have been angry protests against the Israeli offensive in many other cities across the Arab world and in several European capitals.

Hamas has pressed on with rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier in areas that have not previously suffered such fatalities.

Israeli military officials said rocket attacks landing more than 25 miles (40km) from Gaza put nearly 10% of Israel’s population of seven million within range.

Israeli political leaders have been under pressure to act against rocket fire with a general election looming in early February.

Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu has backed the offensive, telling the BBC that “Israel is using a fraction of its power to try to target surgically the terrorists”.

The strikes began less than a week after the expiry of a six-month-long ceasefire deal with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Correspondents say short of a full-scale invasion of Gaza, it is unlikely Israel will be able to prevent rocket fire permanently.

Israel dismantled its strategic settlements and military bases in Gaza in 2005 but has kept tight control over access in and out of the narrow coastal strip and its airspace.

GAZA VIOLENCE 27-30 DECEMBER
Map of attacks in and around Gaza

1. Ashdod: First attack so far north, Sunday. Woman killed in second rocket attack, Tuesday
2. Ashkelon: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Monday
3. Sderot: rocket attacks
4. Nevitot: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Saturday
5. Civilian family reported killed in attack on Yabna refugee camp, Sunday
6.
Israeli warplanes strike tunnels under Gaza/Egypt border, Sunday
7. Three brothers reported killed in attack on Rafah, Sunday
8. Khan Younis: Four members of Islamic Jihad and a child reported killed, Sunday. Security officer killed in air strike on Hamas police station, Tuesday
9. Deir al-Balah: Palestinians injured, houses and buildings destroyed, Sunday
10. Tel al-Hawa – Interior ministry and Islamic University badly damaged, Monday. At least three buildings in ministry compound hit, Tuesday
11. Gaza City port: naval vessels targeted, Sunday
12. Shati refugee camp: Home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya targeted, Monday
13. Intelligence building attacked, Sunday
14. Jebaliya refugee camp: several people killed in attack on mosque, Sunday 15. Beit Hanoun – two girls killed in air strike, Tuesday
16. Israeli soldier killed at unspecified military base near Nahal Oz border crossing – five other soldiers wounded in same rocket attack, Monday night.

December 27, 2008

Massive Israeli air raids on Gaza

Massive Israeli air raids on Gaza

Israeli F-16 bombers have pounded key targets across the Gaza Strip, killing more than 200 people, local medics say.

Most of those killed were policemen in the Hamas militant movement, which controls Gaza, but women and children also died, the Gaza officials said.

About 700 others were wounded, as missiles struck security compounds and militant bases, the officials said.

Israel said it was responding to an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza and would bomb “as long as necessary”.

They were the heaviest Israeli attacks on Gaza for decades. More air raids were launched as night fell.

Map

The operation came days after a truce with Hamas expired.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said “it won’t be easy and it won’t be short”.

“There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight,” he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the violence, condemning what he called Israel’s “excessive use of force leading to the killing and injuring of civilians” and “the ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants”.

Middle East envoy Tony Blair and the French EU presidency also urged an immediate ceasefire.

Palestinian militants frequently fire rockets against Israeli towns from inside the Gaza Strip; large numbers of rocket and mortar shells have been fired at Israel in recent days.

In a statement, Israel’s military said it targeted “Hamas terror operatives” as well as training camps and weapons storage warehouses.

Hamas bases destroyed

A Hamas police spokesman, Islam Shahwan, said one of the raids targeted a police compound in Gaza City where a graduation ceremony for new personnel was taking place.

At least a dozen bodies of men in black uniforms were photographed at the Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City.

Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood
Fawzi Barhoum
Hamas spokesman

Israel said operations “will continue, will be expanded, and will deepen if necessary”.

It is the worst attack in Gaza since 1967 in terms of the number of Palestinian casualties, a senior analyst told the BBC in Jerusalem.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni defended the air raids, saying Israel had “no choice”. “We’re doing what we need to do to defend our citizens,” she said in a television broadcast.

Israel hit targets across Gaza, striking in the territory’s main population centres, including Gaza City in the north and the southern towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.

Hamas said all of its security compounds in Gaza were destroyed by the air strikes, which Israel said hit some 40 targets.

Mosques issued urgent appeals for people to donate blood and Hamas sources told the BBC’s Rushdi Abou Alouf in Gaza that hospitals were soon full.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – whose Fatah faction was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 – condemned the attacks and called for restraint.

But Hamas quickly vowed to carry out revenge attacks on Israel in response to the air strikes, firing Qassam rockets into Israeli territory as an immediate reply.

One Israeli was killed by a rocket strike on the town of Netivot, 20 kilometres (12 miles) east of Gaza, doctors said.

“Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood,” spokesman Fawzi Barhoum was reported as saying.

The air strikes come amid rumours that an Israeli ground operation is imminent.

Calls for ceasefire

World leaders urged both sides to halt the violence.

Palestinians flee the scene of an air strike in Rafah

Civilians were caught up in the air strikes in heavily-populated Gaza

A White House spokesman said the United States “urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza”.

“Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop,” the spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, added.

The UK Foreign Office said: “We urge maximum restraint to avoid further civilian casualties.”

At least 30 missiles were fired by F-16 fighter bombers. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that about 60 warplanes took part in the first wave of air strikes.

Egypt opened its border crossing to the Gaza Strip at Rafah to absorb and treat some of those injured in the south of the territory.

Most of the dead and injured were said to be in Gaza City, where Hamas’s main security compound was destroyed. The head of Gaza’s police forces, Tawfik Jaber, was reportedly among those killed.

Residents spoke of children heading to and from school at the time of the attacks, and there were fears of civilian casualties.

Israeli security officials have been briefing about the possibility of a new offensive into Gaza for some days now.

But most reports centred on the possibility of a ground offensive, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not expected to authorise any operation until Sunday at the earliest.

Although a six-month truce between Hamas and Israel was agreed earlier this year, it was regularly under strain and was allowed to lapse when it expired this month.

Hamas blamed Israel for the end of the ceasefire, saying it had not respected its terms, including the lifting of the blockade under which little more than humanitarian aid has been allowed into Gaza.

Israel said it initially began a staged easing of the blockade, but this was halted when Hamas failed to fulfil what Israel says were agreed conditions, including ending all rocket fire and halting weapons smuggling.

Israel says the blockade – in place since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 – is needed to isolate Hamas and stop it and other militants from firing rockets across the border at Israeli towns.

September 18, 2008

Livni wins Israel party primary

Livni wins Israel party primary

Tzipi Livni after casting her vote on Wednesday

Critics have accused Tzipi Livni of lacking political experience

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has won the leadership of the governing Kadima party, putting her on track to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister.

Ms Livni beat Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz by just 431 votes, or 1.1%, the central electoral commission said.

In a victory speech, Ms Livni announced that she wanted to form a new cabinet “as quickly as possible in the face of the serious threats” facing Israel.

She has 42 days to do so, during which time Mr Olmert remains prime minister.

He announced he would step down in July after facing growing pressure over multiple corruption investigations.

The senior Palestinian Authority negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said he hoped the result would lead to a return to stability.

‘Great reverence’

Correspondent in Jerusalem says that for much of Wednesday night, Ms Livni’s supporters in the Kadima party cheered at what they believed had been an emphatic victory, predicted by a series of exit polls on Israeli TV.

KADIMA PRIMARY RESULTS
Tzipi Livni: 43.1% (16,936 votes)
Shaul Mofaz: 42% (16,505)
Meir Sheetrit: 8.4% (3,327)
Avi Dichter: 6.5% (2,563)

Mr Olmert phoned his foreign minister to congratulate her and promise his full co-operation after she appeared on track to win with about 48% of the vote. Then the balloon slowly deflated as the results rolled in, our correspondent says.

According to the final results released by Kadima, Ms Livni won the election with 43.1%, or 16,936 votes. Mr Mofaz, a former defence minister and chief of staff of the Israeli military, came in a close second with 42%, or 16,505 votes.

The two other candidates, cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit and former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter, lagged far behind with 8.4% and 6.5% respectively.

Mr Mofaz’s supporters have warned that they may lodge an appeal against the result. His campaign headquarters has reportedly already demanded the ballot in the southern town of Ashkelon be disqualified.

Supporter of Shaul Mofaz (17 September 2008)

Supporters of Shaul Mofaz said they might appeal against the result

In a victory speech early on Thursday morning, Ms Livni said that she would seek to form a new coalition government “as quickly as possible” and called for party unity.

“All the people who came to vote today expressed what they wish to happen in this country,” she said. “The national responsibility [bestowed] by the public brings me to approach this job with great reverence.”

If she can form a fresh governing coalition within the next six weeks, Ms Livni will become Israel’s first woman prime minister since Golda Meir stepped down in 1974.

Our correspondent says that will be no easy task, and if it were to end in failure, general elections will follow in a further three months.

‘Mrs Clean’

Ms Livni is seen as less hawkish than Mr Mofaz when it comes to the Palestinians and to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Ehud Olmert formally resigns as prime minister and his cabinet resigns with him
President consults parties to pick a Knesset member to form a new cabinet – expected to be the Kadima leader
The MK has 42 days to form a coalition acceptable to parliament
If no coalition is formed, another MK may be asked to try to form a government, or a general election may be called
If a general election is called, it must be held within 90 days
Mr Olmert remains caretaker prime minister until the Knesset approves a new government

Critics say Ms Livni, a former lawyer and Mossad agent, also lacks political experience.

Her supporters say she represents a break with the past. Ms Livni is untainted by the kind of allegations of corruption and bribery that led to Mr Olmert’s resignation and have damaged the reputation of Israeli politics.

“[She] is a good choice as far as Israel’s foreign relations are concerned, but there is still the tension with Iran. I am not so sure how much experience she has for such matters and if she will be able to take the right decisions,” said Shmuel Sandler, professor at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

“She looks like ‘Mrs Clean’… but she will still have to form a coalition,” he told the Reuters news agency. “It is very difficult to predict whether she will be a strong prime minister.”

Kadima was formed three years ago when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split from the centre-right opposition party, Likud, to draw together support from left and right for his policy of unilateral withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

But its poll ratings fell after a stroke left Mr Sharon in a coma.

His successor, Mr Olmert, faced strong criticism of his handling of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war and he was investigated in several corruption scandals.

Polls now suggest Likud could win a potential general election, which would take place if a coalition government cannot be formed in the wake of the Kadima leadership vote.

The Kadima election comes as the US government is continuing its push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before President George W Bush leaves office in January.

Mr Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held talks on Tuesday. An Israeli spokesman said the two would continue to meet until a new government was sworn in.


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September 8, 2008

Israeli PM ‘should be indicted’

Israeli PM ‘should be indicted’

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert (03/08)

Mr Olmert has been PM since he succeeded Ariel Sharon in March 2006

Israeli police have formally recommended to prosecutors that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert be indicted in a corruption investigation.

The decision about whether to indict Mr Olmert now rests with Attorney General Meni Mazuz.

Mr Olmert has already announced that he will resign later this month because of the multiple corruption investigations he is facing.

He has consistently denied all the accusations against him.

The ruling Kadima party is to hold a leadership vote on 17 September.

EHUD OLMERT’S POLITICAL LIFE
1993: Begins 10-year stint as mayor of Jerusalem
2005: Leaves right-wing Likud party with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form Kadima
2006: Takes over as leader when Ariel Sharon suffers a stroke
2007: Helps re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after seven-year hiatus
2008: Announces plans to resign

The police said they had evidence showing Mr Olmert allegedly accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from American businessman Morris Talansky.

Mr Olmert is also accused of filing duplicate claims to government agencies for travel expenses.

The accusations date back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem and minister of trade and industry before he became prime minister in 2006.

Mr Olmert’s lawyers said the police recommendation to indict the prime minister was meaningless.

“The only person authorized by the law to decide whether to indict a prime minister is the attorney general. He has the authority and he bears the responsibility over the issue,” his lawyers said in a statement.

Mr Mazuz is expected to make his decision in the next few weeks.

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