News & Current Affairs

February 20, 2010

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

CCTV footage of alleged assassination team
Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s

Jeremy Bowen assesses the fall-out in the Middle East from the alleged assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by Mossad agents in a luxury Dubai hotel.

“Shame you are not filming on a Friday,” said a local resident.

Jimmy, the BBC cameraman, was trying to get some decent pictures of the Dubai skyline, but there was a haze that was not helping.

“Why Friday?” we asked.

“Well, there is less building on a Friday,” he said, “so the air is not so dusty.”

Even with Dubai’s well-advertised economic problems there is still a lot of construction going on, by the standards of most places.

This is my first proper trip to Dubai since the late 90s and it is unrecognisable.

Back in the 1960s, according to my uncle who was here with the British army, the runway lights at Dubai airport were barrels of burning tar.

Burj Khalifa
The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers

When I was here first, on my way to Afghanistan in the late 80s, a fairly compact city was surrounded by a sweep of open desert, which just is not there any more.

They must have poured tens of millions of tonnes of concrete to build this sprawling city state.

As I write, I can see a burnt orange sun setting behind the Burj Khalifa, the new skyscraper that is the world’s highest building. It is extraordinarily tall.

Acres of gardens and golf courses in Dubai are green and lush, in a place with almost no rain, thanks to hugely expensive desalination plants.

The climate is wonderful right now, but in the summer it is appallingly hot and humid.

Never mind, everywhere is air-conditioned, especially the indoor ski slope, where they make real indoor snow and have a black run for experts.

‘Unobtainable dream’

Love it or hate it, they have tamed nature to build an incredible city.

Perhaps they never thought they could tame the Middle East too, though minds that could conceive the Burj Khalifa are not short of ambition.

But if not tame it, they were hoping to insulate this place from its dark, violent ways.

The assassination of the Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh proves that was one unobtainable dream.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

It is assumed Mossad is behind Mr Mabhouh’s death

The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers.

Its capacity to generate and export violence is unparalleled in today’s world.

Was Mr Mabhouh killed by Mossad, the Israeli secret service?

I do not know. But there is circumstantial evidence that he was.

Bloody hands

And he was an enemy of Israel, according to the press there, involved with arms shipments into Gaza.

In the kind of phrase Israelis use, he had Jewish blood on his hands.

Hamas gave him a hero’s funeral.

Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s.

If Israel was behind the assassination, then its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might well be troubled by the ghosts of assassinations past.

In 1997, during his first stint as prime minister, he authorised a Mossad hit on an up-and-coming man in Hamas, a Palestinian called Khaled Meshaal.

Two Mossad agents approached Mr Meshaal as he was walking down a street in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Map of United Arab Emirates

They sprayed poison into his ear, but they bungled their escape and were found to be carrying false Canadian passports.

King Hussein, who hadn’t long since signed a peace treaty with Israel, was outraged. For him, it wasn’t just a breach of trust.

Rumours started that he was somehow complicit in the attack. With Mr Meshaal close to death, King Hussein demanded that Israel gave his doctors the formula for the poison and the antidote.

To get their two captured agents back, the Israelis was forced to release dozens of Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners.

They included the spiritual leader of Hamas sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He was a thorn in Israel’s side until he too was assassinated in an air strike in Gaza in 2003

Khaled Meshaal survived and is now the most senior political figure in Hamas, living behind heavy security in Damascus.

Netanyahu’s ‘fiasco’

So it was not a good time for Mr Netanyahu.

King Hussein refused to see him when he went to Amman to apologise and the then head of Mossad was forced to resign.

Israelis viewed the affair as a costly fiasco. It was one of the factors that contributed to a comprehensive defeat of Mr Netanyahu in an election two years later.

Benjamin Netanyahu [File pic]

Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election after a Mossad killing

There is one very significant difference between then and now.

In Amman in 1997 the would-be assassins were apprehended, along with their false Canadian papers.

This time round the alleged assassins’ faces have been published, along with their assumed names.

If they are Israeli agents, or freelance killers, then their identities have been blown.

But they are not in custody and that makes it much harder to prove that Israel did it.

If Israel had nothing to do with the killing, or with the theft of the identities of six British-Israelis for the alleged assassins’ passports, then Mr Netanyahu, now in his second term, has nothing to worry about.

But if Mossad is responsible, and that is the assumption in Israel as well as here in Dubai, then he has some sweating to do in the next few weeks.

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

January 12, 2009

Gaza survivors’ four days without water

Gaza survivors’ four days without water

A Palestinian man carries an injured child into al-Shifa hospital 8 January 2009

The ICRC has accused the Israeli army of failing to evacuate and care for the wounded

Sameh, aged three, and Ahmad, 18 months, cry all the time.

As she sits on the bed in al-Quds hospital in Gaza City, their mother Fatima al-Shamouny, 36, tries to comfort them.

But as she tells their – and her own – story, she sobs too.

The boys were found on Wednesday, with their dead father and unconscious mother nearby, four days after the emergency services said they began trying to reach the neighbourhood.

They were among 30 people Palestinian Red Crescent workers said they evacuated from Zeitoun, a south-eastern suburb of Gaza City, on Wednesday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the paramedics found “shocking” scenes of wounded people huddled together in houses among dead bodies, weak after having had no food or water for several days.

Map

In one home, the agency said, four small children were found sitting close to their dead mothers, “too weak to stand on their own”.

It is not clear if Sameh and Ahmad were in that particular house – it may be that the unconscious Fatima was initially thought to be dead – but she says she and her toddlers were among those who had a long wait for help.

Survivors’ accounts

The ICRC has accused the Israeli military of failing to live up to its obligations under international law to facilitate the evacuation or to care for the wounded.

The agency said it had been requesting safe passage for its ambulances to access the neighbourhood since 3 January, but only received permission to do so from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) four days later.

The details of exactly what happened at the Shamouny family compound are still sketchy.

Survivors have told the News that 26 of the extended family’s 65 members died in Israeli military operations.

We spent days without food, without water – the wounded were bleeding for four days
Wael Faris al-Shamouny

Their accounts of shelling, and then ground troops surrounding their homes, cannot be independently verified.Fatima, who was wounded in the chest, says two of her sons, her husband, her aunt, her uncle and her brother-in-law were all killed.

“One of my sons crawled to our neighbour’s house – he was injured – and he called some of the local radio stations to ask for help. But the help arrived late. Everybody had died,” she said.

“On the third day, I passed out. I don’t know what happened until I found myself here in the hospital,” she said.

Wael Faris al-Shamouny, 39, another member of the extended family, smoked and sipped black coffee as he sat on the floor in the hospital corridor.

He says he lost five sons and his wife, and believes some of the dead may have survived if given medical treatment earlier.

“We tried to help them, but we didn’t have first aid things in our house. We spent days without food, without water – the wounded were bleeding for four days,” he said.

“The ambulances came and they saved who they saved. There are still pieces of my wife, my sons and my cousins’ bodies in the house.”

ICRC criticism

The ICRC said the wounded had to be transported about a kilometre on a hand-pulled donkey cart because large earth walls erected by the Israeli army had made it impossible to bring ambulances into the neighbourhood.

Katarina Ritz, the ICRC’s head of mission in Jerusalem, said experienced Palestinian emergency workers wept at the scenes they were confronted with.

She said Israeli troops were within about 100m of the houses in question, and that the ICRC believes the soldiers “must have been aware” of the presence of the wounded people, because of repeated requests from aid agencies for access.

Under international law, she said, even if there are security concerns meaning the injured cannot be evacuated, “the minimum is to treat these people, to feed these people, give them water, and keep them in a safe place”.

The Israeli military said it was investigating the case. It said it is “engaged in a battle with the Hamas terrorist organisation that has deliberately used Palestinian civilians as human shields”.

And it stressed it works in “close co-operation with international aid organisations during the fighting, so that civilians can be provided with assistance”.

‘Difficult’ co-operation

Earlier in the week, an ICRC spokeswoman told the BBC attempts to co-ordinate safe passage for ambulances were so slow that people were dying as they waited.

Not all ambulance drivers in Gaza have been waiting for co-ordination with the Israeli military, and health officials in Gaza say 10 paramedics have been killed trying to rescue the wounded since the Israeli operation began.

Israeli Defence Ministry Spokesman Peter Lerner said that co-ordinating the movements of ambulances has been “extremely difficult because of heavy gunfire”.

He said that even during the three-hour lull Israel declared to allow humanitarian operations, Hamas militants continued to shoot at Israeli forces.

Outside the hospital, as Fatima Shamouny told her story, dozens of people gathered as Thursday’s ICRC-led convoy of ambulances prepared to leave.

They came with addresses where they believed injured people were trapped.

One man’s hands shook so much with fear that he had to ask for help writing the directions down.

Finally, the convoy received clearance, and drove away.

It was headed back to Zeitoun, where the ICRC said there were reports of more injured people stranded, and another area in northern Gaza, which ICRC workers had not even reached yet.

The minimum is to treat these [injured] people, to feed these people, give them water, and keep them in a safe place
Katarina Ritz
ICRC’s head of mission in Jerusalem

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 9, 2009

Bombs hit Gaza as UN urges truce

Bombs hit Gaza as UN urges truce

The ruins of the Al-Noor Mosque in Gaza City, hit by an Israeli air strike on 8 January 2009

Israeli forces have been striking targets in Gaza for almost two weeks

Israeli warplanes continued to bomb Gaza on the night when the UN called for an immediate end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas militants.

The UN Security Council called for a ceasefire, access for aid workers and a lasting solution to the conflict, as Israel made at least 30 air strikes.

Six Palestinians were reportedly killed in one attack.

Almost two weeks after the conflict erupted, an estimated 770 Palestinians and 14 Israelis are dead.

Reports from the Israel-Gaza border that explosions can still be heard on Friday morning and smoke can be seen drifting over the Strip.

A prominent Egyptian cleric has called on Muslims across the world to stage rallies on Friday to demonstrate anger at the violence.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who heads the Union of Islamic Scholars, said Friday prayers should be dedicated to expressing solidarity with the Palestinians.

‘Durable ceasefire’

Early on Friday, Israeli planes launched fresh strikes on targets in Gaza. Six members of one family were killed in one attack, witnesses said.

In a report which could not be verified independently, Hamas said a bomb had flattened a five-storey apartment block in northern Gaza.

Map

Reports of new attacks came as 14 out of 15 Security Council members backed a resolution on the crisis.

The resolution called for an “immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire” leading to the “full withdrawal” of Israeli forces from Gaza.

It also called for “the unimpeded provision and distribution throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance”, measures to prevent arms smuggling to Palestinian militants and the opening of border crossings into Gaza.

It is the first time the Security Council has acted since the Israeli offensive in Gaza began on 27 December.

But, in a surprise move, the US chose to abstain.

America “thought it important to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation efforts, in order to see what this resolution might have been supporting”, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained.

Israeli officials visited Cairo on Thursday to hear details of a plan put forward by Egypt and France.

A Hamas delegation is also expected in the Egyptian capital at some stage for parallel “technical” talks, Egyptian diplomats said.

Israel wants to stop rocket attacks on southern Israel and to stop Hamas smuggling weapons into Gaza via Egypt, while Hamas says any ceasefire deal must include an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

The Security Council’s near-unanimous vote represents an important diplomatic punctuation mark in this crisis, correspondents say.

But the US abstention weakened the impact of the vote because Washington’s support would have placed more pressure on Israel to halt its offensive, they add.

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

January 6, 2009

Strike on Gaza school ‘kills 40’

Strike on Gaza school ‘kills 40’

An injured boy is carried away from the school (6 January 2009)

The ICRC said much more needed to be done to protect civilians in Gaza

At least 40 people have been killed in an Israeli air strike on a United Nations-run school in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical sources have said.

A number of children were among those who died when the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp took a direct hit, doctors at nearby hospitals said.

People inside had been taking refuge from the Israeli ground offensive.

Earlier, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned of a “full-blown humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.

Speaking on the 11th day of the Israeli assault, a senior ICRC official, Pierre Kraehenbuhl, said life in Gaza had become intolerable.

Palestinian medical sources say up to 600 people have been killed since the attacks began, and Mr Kraehenbuhl said much more needed to be done to protect civilians.

At least 70 Palestinians were killed on Tuesday, while five Israeli soldiers were killed.

One soldier was killed in an exchange of fire with militants in Gaza City, while four others were killed by shellfire from their own tanks earlier in the day, Israeli military officials said.

‘Horrific’

Witnesses said at least one Israeli missile had struck the al-Fakhura school on Tuesday afternoon, causing a large explosion and spraying shrapnel on people both inside and outside the building.

GAZA CRISIS BACKGROUND
Smoke rises over the Gaza Strip (6 January 2009)

Hundreds of people had sought refuge inside the UN-run school in effort to escape the fighting between Israeli soldiers and militants on the outskirts of the refugee camp, to the east of Gaza City.

Television footage showed bodies scattered on the ground amid pools of blood.

Casualties were taken to two hospitals. Doctors at the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya said 30 people had died there. A further 10 people died at the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, doctors said.

The number of casualties is expected to rise.

The Israeli military has not yet commented on the incident, but it has in the past accused militants of using schools, mosques and residential areas for cover.

This is the second Israeli air strike on a UN-run school in a day. Earlier, at least three Palestinians were killed when a school was hit in the Bureij camp, UN officials said.

After the first attack, the director of the UN aid agency Unrwa, John Ging, said the conditions in Gaza were “horrific”.

“Nowhere is safe for civilians here in Gaza at the moment. They are fleeing their homes and they are right to do it when you look at the casualty numbers.”

“It’s very, very dangerous, and even the 14,000 who have sought refuge in our schools and shelters, they are not safe either.”

Mr Ging said international leaders had a responsibility to act to protect civilians.

“You cannot conduct huge military operations in such densely-populated places without killing hundreds and injuring thousands of civilians,” he added.

Information about what is happening inside Gaza is limited as Israel has barred foreign reporters from entering.

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.

November 18, 2008

UK minister in Damascus meeting

UK minister in Damascus meeting

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks to reporters on arrival in Damascus

Mr Miliband wants Syria to play a role in Middle East peace-building

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is holding talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit, the first to Damascus by a top-level British official since 2001, is part of a tour that includes Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon.

Mr Miliband told that Syria had a role to play as a force for stability in the Middle East.

The visit is the latest in a run of exchanges between Syria and European nations aimed at easing tense ties.

It comes a month after Mr Miliband met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in London for talks.

‘Understanding’

Building mutual understanding between the UK and Syria was important, Mr Miliband told .

“Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East – it can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months I’ve been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about her (Syria’s) responsibilities in the region, in respect of terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process, and we’ve got the chance now to take those discussions further forward.”

Mr Miliband will meet the Syrian president and other top officials on Tuesday morning, before flying on to Lebanon.

Syria has faced diplomatic isolation since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, even though it denies any role in the killing.

It has also been shunned by the US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But European nations, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now initiating steps to bring Syria back into the international fold, arguing that engagement is the way forward.

On Monday David Milliband visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with top leaders.

He called on both Israelis and Palestinians to maintain the five-month-old ceasefire in Gaza, following recent outbreaks of violence that have triggered an Israeli blockade of the territory.

August 23, 2008

Protest boats sail for Gaza Strip

Protest boats sail for Gaza Strip

Gaza protest boat

The boats are carrying 40 activists, 200 hearing aids and 5,000 balloons

Two boats carrying members of a US-based pro-Palestinian group have left Cyprus in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The boats left the Cypriot port of Larnaca on Friday morning. The journey is expected to take about 30 hours.

The Free Gaza protest group said about 40 activists from 14 countries were on board the boats.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in June 2007 when the militant group Hamas took control of the territory by force.

Since then, Israel has allowed in little more than basic humanitarian aid as a means of isolating Hamas and persuading militant groups to stop firing rockets into Israel.

The closure of Gaza’s borders by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities has also meant that very few Gazans have been able to leave.

‘Supporting Hamas’

Before Free Gaza’s boats set sail on Friday, the Israeli foreign ministry warned them to steer clear of the Gazan coastline, which it said was “the subject of an [Israeli Navy] advisory notice” that warns off foreign vessels from the “designated maritime zone”.

Gaza/Cyprus map

“We assume that your intentions are good but, in fact, the result of your action is that you are supporting the regime of a terrorist organization in Gaza,” the ministry wrote in an open letter.

The two vessels – named Liberty and Free Gaza – are carrying 200 hearing aids for children and 5,000 balloons.

“No matter what happens we have already achieved our goal by proving that ordinary citizens with ordinary means can mobilize a defense of human rights for Palestinians,” organizer Paul Larudee told the AFP news agency.

“We want people to see the Palestinian problem as one of human rights, not feeding them rice,” he added.

The activists include Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British PM Tony Blair, who is now an international Middle East peace envoy. Also on board is left-wing Greek MP Tasos Kourakis.

Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza in 2005, but it still controls its coast, airspace and borders, and, until a ceasefire with Hamas was agreed in June, carried out regular military operations in the territory.

However, correspondents say the truce has not improved the situation for Gaza’s population, except to reduce the number of Israeli incursions and the number of rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

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