News & Current Affairs

July 15, 2009

Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

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Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

Destroyed house in Gaza

Soldiers are quoted saying they opened fire at any “suspect places”

A human rights group founded by Israeli veterans has collected what it says are damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January against Hamas fighters in Gaza. \

Standing by the ruins of his home in Gaza, Majdi Abed Rabbo explained how Israeli troops had used him as a human shield.

“The Israeli soldiers handcuffed me and pointed the gun at my neck,” he said. “They controlled every step.”

In this manner, Mr Abed Rabbo said, he was forced to go in ahead of Israeli soldiers as they cleared houses containing Palestinian gunmen.

This same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.

Majdi Abed Rabbo

Israel’s military is now looking into Majdi Abed Rabbo’s claims

“A Palestinian neighbour is brought in,” he says. “It was procedure. The soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian’s shoulder.”

If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war – which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants – and of Israeli law.

The Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the so-called “neighbour policy”, of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops, in 2005.

Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza.

Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda.

Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

Testimonies collected

The common thread in the almost 30 testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties, whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

Writing the report’s introduction, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard says: “All the witnesses agreed that they received a particular order repeatedly, in a way that did not leave much room for doubt, to do everything, everything, so that they – the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers – would not be harmed.

“The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians.”

Israeli troops return from Gaza 19.1.09

Israel denies its soldiers broke the laws of war

The lawyer adds: “Violations of the laws of war are liable to be war crimes.”

Here are just a few quotes which give a flavour of the soldiers’ testimony. The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel’s critics, damning.

“Things are happening in his battalion of which he (the commander) has no idea. There are people who deserve to go to jail…

“When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, ‘Go on, fire!’ the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands…

“Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.”

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich dismissed the testimonies as anonymous hearsay, designed to embarrass the army rather than lead to serious investigations.

She questioned why Breaking the Silence had not handed over its findings earlier, before the media were informed.

“We are investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups,” she said. “But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can’t do anything with it.”

In the past, says the Israeli military, some allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza have turned out to be second or third-hand accounts, the result of soldiers recycling rumours in the battalion rather than describing what they themselves witnessed.

Credible record

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record of getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the Army.

The group is funded by the British, Dutch and Spanish governments, as well as the EU.

It says the testimony is anonymous because of orders to Israeli soldiers not to speak out publicly.

Some of the collected testimony is highly specific.

In the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo, the Israeli military police have now opened an investigation, lending at least some credibility to the soldier who said the “neighbour policy” was in widespread use.

The military maintains it went to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilians were not harmed in Gaza.

The soldiers’ testimony does describe in detail how leaflets were distributed in areas they were about to enter – warning people to leave.

But it is what happened after that, says Breaking the Silence, which calls into question the morality of the Israeli army’s actions.

July 4, 2009

UK investigates Iran charge claim

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UK investigates Iran charge claim

Iranian hardline students burn US and British flags during a protest outside the British embassy in Tehran on 23 June 2009

Anti-British protests have been held outside the UK embassy in Tehran

The chief political analyst at the British Embassy in Iran has been charged with “acting against national security”, reports suggest.

The UK Foreign Office is investigating claims by his lawyer that he has been charged and will stand trial shortly.

A senior cleric has said some of the nine embassy staff arrested last month will be tried for inciting protests over Iran’s disputed election.

Britain denies fomenting discontent to undermine Iran’s Islamic regime.

Iranian news agencies have said all but one of the embassy staff have been released, although the UK government claims two remain in custody.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband says he is “deeply concerned” about the situation and has asked for talks with his Iranian counterpart.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman could not confirm reports that the adviser had been charged.

‘Confessions’

“We are still investigating. The situation remains extremely unclear and fluid,” she added.

News agencies have reported the lawyer as saying he has not yet been able to meet with his client or see the text of the indictment.

Protests gripped Tehran and other Iranian cities after June’s presidential election, amid claims the vote had been rigged in favour of the incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On Friday, Ahmad Jannati, leader of the Iran’s supreme legislative body the Guardian Council, said: “The British Embassy had a presence and some people were arrested.

“Well inevitably they will be put on trial. They have made confessions too.”

However, he did not say how many employees would be tried or on what charges.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported this week that one of the detainees had played a “remarkable role during the recent unrest in managing it behind the scenes”.

Nine embassy staff were held last weekend. Britain says all but two have now been freed.

Mr Miliband said Britain was urgently seeking clarification from Iran about any possible trial or charges, which have reportedly been brought against one employee at Evin prison in Tehran.

Deterioration

“We are confident that our staff have not engaged in any improper or illegal behaviour,” he added.

The Foreign Office later confirmed that Iranian envoy Rasoul Movahedian had been summoned and the same message reiterated.

IRAN UNREST
12 June presidential election saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected with 63% of vote
Main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called for result to be annulled for electoral fraud
Street protests saw at least 17 people killed and foreign media restricted

European Union governments have summoned Iranian ambassadors to protest against the detentions.

An EU official told us that, in addition, visas for Iranians holding Iranian diplomatic passports would be suspended.

The official said other measures, including the withdrawal of EU ambassadors from Iran, would be considered if the two staff members were not released.

Our diplomatic correspondent¬† says Ayatollah Jannati’s speech marks a significant deterioration in the already bad relationship between London and Tehran.

Tehran has repeatedly accused foreign powers – especially Britain and the US – of stoking unrest after the election.

In the fallout from the crisis, Tehran expelled two British diplomats and the UK responded with a similar measure.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, last month described Britain, as the “most evil” of its enemies.

The issue of how to deal with Iran is set to dominate the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised nations in Italy next week.

Some EU countries have urged caution, arguing that Europe should engage with Iran, not isolate it.

But if the embassy staff are put on trial, the EU may have few other options than to tighten the diplomatic screw, correspondents say.

July 1, 2009

Iran ‘disqualifies’ EU from talks

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Iran ‘disqualifies’ EU from talks

13 June

Britain has denied allegations of involvement in the Iranian riots

The EU is no longer qualified to take part in talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, Iran’s military chief says.

Maj Gen Hassan Firouzabadi, Iran’s chief of staff, accused the EU of “interference” in riots which followed June’s disputed presidential elections.

The EU has for the past few years been involved in talks to try to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

EU states, meanwhile, are considering withdrawing their ambassadors from Iran in a growing diplomatic row.

External pressure

Britain has proposed the step, after Iran detained nine of its embassy staff in Tehran last week. Eight have since been released.

The diplomatic correspondent says the diplomatic signalling seems to have had an effect, and EU governments will now be looking for the remaining detained staff member to be released.

He adds that the problem more generally is that any external pressure tends to be used by the Iranian government to bolster its own narrative of outside interference.

In the wake of mass street protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s relection, Iran’s Basij militia has called for the defeated opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi to be prosecuted.

‘Nine offences’

The semi-official Fars news agency said the militia – a volunteer force of Islamic government loyalists – had accused Mr Mousavi of nine offences, including propaganda against the state, and complicity in disrupting national security.

It is our historic responsibility to continue our complaint and make efforts not to give up the rights of the people
Mir Hossein Mousavi
Iranian presidential candidate

In a letter to the chief prosecutor, the militia said Mr Mousavi had been involved in the street protests, in which about 17 protesters and a number of militia members were killed.

The Iranian presidential elections, held on 12 June, returned President Ahmadinejad to power for a second term in office.

But the opposition disputed the result, saying the vote had been rigged.

Both Mr Mousavi, and another defeated opposition candidate Mehdi Karoubi, have issued statements on their websites describing any government led by President Ahmadinejad as “illegitimate”.

Mr Mousavi wrote: “It is our historic responsibility to continue our complaint, and make efforts not to give up the rights of the people.”

And he called for the release of the “children of the revolution” – a reference to the hundreds of reformist figures detained during the unrest.

‘Hostility’

In his statement, reported by Fars, army chief of staff Gen Firouzabadi accused some EU members of supporting the riots, and demonstrating their hostility to the Iranian people.

The EU has yet to comment, but earlier urged Iran to avoid conflict with the international community.

Previously, Iran had aimed its allegations at Britain in particular and at the weekend detained the local employees of its embassy. Five were released on Monday, and a further three on Wednesday.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for power plants, but some Western countries suspect it plans to build nuclear weapons.

Three EU countries – Britain, France and Germany – have led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, along with the United States, Russia and China.

‘Non-negotiable’

At their last talks, they offered Iran a package of incentives if it would stop its nuclear activities.

But Iran insists that its right to enrich uranium is non-negotiable.

In a separate development, officials in Tehran said President Ahmadinejad had cancelled his trip to an African Union summit in Libya.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s office did not give any reason for the decision.

June 21, 2009

Greece urges return of sculptures

Greece urges return of sculptures

Greek President Karolos Papoulias has renewed his country’s call for Britain to return sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens 200 years ago.

At the opening of the Acropolis Museum, Mr Papoulias said it was “time to heal the wounds” of the ancient temple.

The new museum, opened five years behind schedule, houses sculptures from the golden age of Athens.

Britain has repeatedly refused to return dozens of 2,500-year-old marble friezes housed in the British Museum.

“Today the whole world can see the most important sculptures of the Parthenon assembled, but some are missing,” said Mr Papoulias.

“It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.”

‘International context’

The sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, originally decorated the Parthenon temple and have been in London since they were sold to the museum in 1817 by Lord Elgin.

He had them removed from the temple when he was visiting Greece, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

After several adventures, obstructions and criticism, the new Acropolis Museum is ready
Antonis Samaras

The British Museum long argued that Greece had no proper place to put them – an argument the Greek government hopes the Acropolis Museum addresses.

The opening ceremony was attended by heads of state and government and cultural envoys from about 30 countries, the UN and the EU.

There were no government officials from Britain, but the most senior British guest, Bonnie Greer, the deputy head of the board of trustees of the British Museum, said she believed more strongly than ever that the marbles should remain in London.

She argued that in London they are displayed in an international cultural context.

She said a loan was possible, but that would require Greece to acknowledge British ownership, something Greece refuses.

The British Museum holds 75m of the original 160m of the frieze that ran round the inner core of the building.

‘Act of barbarism’

Their reconstruction in the Acropolis Museum is based on several elements that remain in Athens, as well as copies of the marbles in London.

The modern glass and concrete building, at the foot of the Acropolis, holds about 350 artefacts and sculptures from the golden age of Athens that were previously held in a small museum on top of the Acropolis.

The structure is Greece’s answer to the British argument that there is nowhere in their country to house the Elgin marbles
Razia Iqbal, BBC arts correspondent

The £110m ($182m; 130m euros) structure, set out over three levels, also offers panoramic views of the stone citadel where they came from.

The third floor features the reconstruction of the Parthenon Marbles.

The copies are differentiated by their white colour – because they are plaster casts, contrasting with the weathered marble of the originals.

Museum director Prof Dimitris Pandermalis said the opening of the museum provides an opportunity to correct “an act of barbarism” in the sculptures’ removal.

“Tragic fate has forced them apart but their creators meant them to be together,” he said.

Bernard Tschumi, the building’s US-based architect, said: “It is a beautiful space that shows the frieze itself as a narrative – even with the plaster copies of what is in the British Museum – in the context of the Parthenon itself.”

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

January 7, 2009

UN chief demands Gaza ceasefire

UN chief demands Gaza ceasefire

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate end to fighting in the Gaza Strip during a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.

The US and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have backed a French-Egyptian ceasefire proposal.

Israel says it has agreed to set up a humanitarian corridor to allow aid into the Gaza Strip.

On the ground in Gaza, explosions were heard through the night. Israel says it carried out more than 30 air strikes.

Mr Ban criticised both Israel for its bombardment of Gaza and Hamas for firing rockets into Israel and urged Security Council members in New York to act “swiftly and decisively to put this crisis to an end”.

Map

“We need urgently to achieve Palestinian unity and the reunification of Gaza with the West Bank within the framework of the legitimate Palestinian Authority,” he added.

More than 600 Palestinians are now believed to have been killed since Israel began its offensive 11 days ago. Palestinian health ministry officials say at least 195 children are among those killed.

An Israeli attack on Tuesday on a school building, which Israel says was sheltering militants, left at least 30 people dead and 55 injured, UN officials say.

Israel, which has vowed to reduce rocket attacks from Gaza on its territory, has lost seven soldiers on the ground. Four people within Israel have been killed by rockets.

In another development, Venezuela ordered the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador in protest at the Gaza offensive and its “flagrant violations of international law”.

Support for truce

The ceasefire plan proposed jointly by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy would bring together all the main parties and take all measures to end the conflict in Gaza.

The plan envisages the resumption of the delivery of aid to Gaza and talks with Israel on border security, a key issue for Israel as it says Hamas smuggles its rockets into Gaza via the Egyptian border.

Welcoming the proposal, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a “ceasefire that can endure and that can bring real security”.

The contours of a possible diplomatic agreement are in place, the BBC’s Laura Trevelyan reports from the UN.

GAZA CRISIS BACKGROUND
Smoke rises over Gaza (06/01/2009)

However, if Israel continues to control the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and can choose to stop it at any time this seems unlikely to command the support of Hamas, she notes.

Thus frenetic diplomacy in New York and in the Middle East is likely to continue.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, did not say whether Israel would accept the proposal but said it would take it “very, very seriously”.

Israel has proposed suspending attacks in specified parts of Gaza to allow people to stock up on essential goods.

The military will open up “areas for limited periods of time, during which the population will be able to receive the aid”, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said.

Andrew Whitley of the UN relief agency told the BBC that any relief in the conditions of the people of Gaza could only be a good thing:

“People have been weakened by 18 months of blockade and siege. They’ve been getting very little food, electricity or heat for a long time, and so they are in a very weakened condition.”

School carnage

UN officials have said that the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp was being used as a refuge for hundreds of people when it was hit by Israeli shell-fire.

The Israeli military said its soldiers had come under mortar fire from Hamas militants inside the school. A spokesman for Hamas denied there had been any hostile fire coming from the school.

In all, at least 70 Palestinians and five Israeli soldiers were killed on Tuesday.

Israel says its offensive is stopping militants firing rockets but at least five hit southern Israel on Tuesday, injuring a baby.

Casualty claims in Gaza cannot be independently verified. Israel is refusing to let international journalists into Gaza, despite a supreme court ruling to allow a limited number of reporters to enter the territory.


Are you or your friends or family in the region affected by the violence? Tell us your experiences

January 6, 2009

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

A gas storage and transit point on the main gas pipeline from Russia in the village of Boyarka near the capital Kiev, Ukraine

Turned-off taps have caused gas shortages in Europe

The latest developments in the dispute over the price Ukraine pays Russia for its gas has yet again affected deliveries to other countries.

Several countries in Europe have reported a sharp decline or even complete cessation of gas supplies from Russia via pipelines through Ukraine.

This has reinforced unease in Europe about the important role that Russia has a supplier of gas.

A quarter of the gas used in the European Union (EU) comes from Russia.

And that share will rise.

Increasingly dominant

Europe’s need for gas is likely to increase.

Europe’s gas pipeline network

Economic growth, when it resumes after the current recession, will mean more demand for electricity.

Gas accounts for about a fifth of the EU’s electricity and the share is likely to grow, partly because gas produces less by way of greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil.

The EU does have other suppliers, including Norway and Algeria by pipeline, and Qatar and Algeria, again, by ship.

But Russia, with the world’s largest gas reserves and an extensive network of pipelines to Europe, is likely to be increasingly dominant.

Soviet legacy

The EU, unless it drastically changes its energy strategy, will need Russia.

EU GAS IMPORTS FROM RUSSIA
100% dependent on Russia: Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Estonia
More than 80% dependent: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Czech Republic
More than 60% dependent: Greece, Austria, Hungary
Source: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2006 figures

But Russia in turn needs Europe to buy its gas, and also its oil.

So it is not in Russia’s interest for Europe to become more wary of using gas as an energy source.

So far the disturbances to EU supplies have been a side effect of the recurrent dispute between Russia and Ukraine, with both sides blaming the other for the reduced supplies to the west.

The quarrels are a legacy of the end of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine has been receiving relatively cheap gas.

Russia’s Gazprom wants to charge more, and the negotiations are complicated further by questions about what fees Ukraine should receive for gas crossing its territory.

Some European countries are protected with substantial stocks to cover any supply disruptions for many weeks, although some, such as Bulgaria have very little cover.

The disruptions also reinforce the attractions of developing new pipelines that avoid potential problem areas.


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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.

December 25, 2008

Gazprom to control Serbia’s oil

Gazprom to control Serbia’s oil

NIS archive)

Serbia is being offered a secure gas supply in return for its oil monopoly

Russia and Serbia have signed a controversial energy deal that will hand Russian gas giant Gazprom control of NIS, Serbia’s oil monopoly.

Under the deal, Gazprom is to build a gas pipeline through Serbia and an underground gas storage facility there.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev and his Serbian counterpart Boris Tadic signed the agreement in Moscow.

The plan is for Serbia to host part of a new pipeline called South Stream, to deliver Russian gas to southern Europe.

Gazprom is taking a 51% stake in NIS for 400m euros (£380m; $560m), officials say.

Diplomatic tensions

Both countries signed an energy co-operation agreement in January, but the details have only just been finalised. Belgrade had delayed signing because a small party in Serbia’s ruling coalition had argued that the terms on offer to Gazprom were too generous.

Critics say Russia’s pledges to build South Stream by 2015 are not firm enough, given the current economic downturn.

South Stream is designed to take Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria and then to Serbia for transit towards the lucrative markets of southern Europe.

Washington and the European Union are backing a rival pipeline project called Nabucco, to bring gas from Central Asia, which would bypass Russia.

Correspondents say the planned pipeline could undermine the European efforts, which aim to reduce European dependency on Russian gas.

Serbia’s energy diplomacy is complicated by the fact that Nabucco has EU backing – yet Serbia wants to join the EU.

Political tensions over Kosovo are also a complicating factor, with the EU supporting Kosovo’s independence, while Belgrade and Moscow insist the territory remains part of Serbia.

Graphic showing Nabucco and South Stream pipeline routes
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