News & Current Affairs

July 15, 2009

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israeli soldiers deployed on the Israel-Gaza border 28 Decmeber 2008

Soldier testimonies appear to contradict official Israeli statements

A group of soldiers who took part in Israel’s assault in Gaza say widespread abuses were committed against civilians under “permissive” rules of engagement.

The troops said they had been urged to fire on any building or person that seemed suspicious and said Palestinians were sometimes used as human shields.

Breaking the Silence, a campaign group made up of Israeli soldiers, gathered anonymous accounts from 26 soldiers.

Israel denies breaking the laws of war and dismissed the report as hearsay.

The report says testimonies show “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians” was a result of Israeli military policy, articulated by the rules of engagement, and encouraged by a belief “the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions”.

One soldier is quoted saying: “The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt.”

Paul Wood
From Paul Wood,Courtesy
BBC Middle East correspondent:

Until now, Israel always had a ready answer to allegations of war crimes in Gaza. Claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

The common thread in the testimonies is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

The Israeli military says past allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza were the result of soldiers recycling rumours.

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

Another says: “People were not instructed to shoot at everyone they see, but they were told that from a certain distance when they approach a house, no matter who it is – even an old woman – take them down.”

Many of the testimonies are in line with claims made by human rights organisations that Israeli military action in Gaza was indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Amnesty International has accused both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in charge in Gaza, of committing war crimes during the 22-day conflict which ended on 18 January.

Israeli officials insist troops went to great lengths to protect civilians, that Hamas endangered non-combatants by firing from civilian areas and that homes and buildings were destroyed only when there was a specific military need to do so.

‘Ill discipline’

Other allegations in the testimonies of the 14 conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers include:

• Civilians were used as human shields, entering buildings ahead of soldiers

You can’t identify too much at night and anything that moves you engage in order not to take risks. It was not defined this way officially, but it was obvious
Anonymous Israeli soldier

• Large swathes of homes and buildings were demolished as a precaution or to secure clear lines of fire for the future.

• Some of the troops had a generally aggressive, ill-disciplined attitude

• There was incidents of vandalism of property of Palestinians

• Soldiers fired at water tanks because they were bored, at a time of severe water shortages for Gazans

• White phosphorus was used in civilian areas in a way some soldiers saw as gratuitous and reckless

• Many of the soldiers said there had been very little direct engagement with Palestinian militants.

The report says Israeli troops and the people who justify their actions are “slid[ing] together down the moral slippery slope”.

“This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions,” Breaking the Silence says.

Israel said the purpose of Operation Cast Lead had been to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its southern towns.

Palestinian rights groups say about 1,400 Palestinians died during the operation. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict, including 10 soldiers serving in Gaza.

According to the UN, the campaign damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches.

Investigations

Reacting to the report, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich said:

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] regrets the fact that another human rights organisation has come out with a report based on anonymous and general testimony – without investigating their credibility.”

She dismissed the document as “hearsay and word of mouth”.

“The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation,” Lt Col Leibovich added. “This is even more important where the harm is to non-combatants. The IDF has uncompromising ethical values which continue to guide us in every mission.”

There have been several investigations into the conduct of Israel’s operation in Gaza, and both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the territory, have faced accusations of war crimes.

An internal investigations by the Israeli military said troops fought lawfully, although errors did take place, such as the deaths of 21 people in a house that had been wrongly targeted.

A fact-finding team commissioned by the Arab League concluded there was enough evidence to prosecute the Israeli military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that “the Israeli political leadership was also responsible for such crimes”.

It also said Palestinian militants were guilty of war crimes in their use of indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians.

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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 25, 2008

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope Benedict XVI has used his traditional Christmas Midnight Mass to call for an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East.

Addressing a huge congregation at the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica, he appealed for a new understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands of pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, amid tight security.

The Pope will deliver his Christmas Day message from St Peter’s later.

Appealing for new efforts to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East, Pope Benedict urged people to pray that “hearts will be opened, so borders will be opened”.

The 81-year-old pontiff plans to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories next May, although final details of his trip have yet to be worked out.

Also in his homily, Pope Benedict appealed for an end to child abuse.

“Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace,” he said.

“Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised to the depths of their soul.

Children being blessed by Pope Benedict during Midnight Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Vatican

The Pope blessed a number of children in his congregation

As Midnight Mass began, Pope Benedict, dressed in white and gold-coloured vestments, walked up the main aisle of the flood-lit St Peter’s Basilica, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.

For those unable to enter, giant screens were set up in St Peter’s Square.

Most of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians mark Christmas this week.

Others, chiefly from among the 200 million Orthodox Christians who use the Julian Calendar for their feast days, celebrate the Nativity on 7 January.

Across the world, believers have been attending Christmas church services and, in some countries, families gathered for a traditional festive dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve.

‘Explosion of love’

There was a heavy security presence in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as thousands of Christian pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas.

Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe
Stefano Croce
Italian fashion photographer

Among those who attended the service in Bethlehem, which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, were about 200 worshippers from the Gaza Strip whom Israel granted special permission to make the journey.

Extra Palestinian security personnel were deployed to Bethlehem from the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Jericho to safeguard visitors.

Correspondents in the town met elated pilgrims, gathering around nightfall outside the Church of the Nativity, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A dozen believers from India, Canada, Britain, the US and other countries sung impromptu renditions of Christmas carols, the Associated Press reported.

US citizen David Bogenrief, 57, played the trumpet, telling a gaggle of local children who were listening: “Jesus was the prince of peace, and he can bring that peace to you. We pray for you.”

In Manger Square, vendors sold roasted peanuts and Santa Claus hats to the crowds, among whom were some local Muslims out enjoying the annual international fuss over their town.

Correspondents say a relative lull in violence in the Middle East seems to have encouraged pilgrims to return to the “Holy Land”.

“Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe, and it’s like an explosion of love here,” said Italian fashion photographer Stefano Croce, 46.

In his traditional Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” speech – Latin for “to the city and to the world” – from the balcony of St Peter’s, Pope Benedict is expected to touch on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican.

He will then issue Christmas greetings to the faithful in more than 60 languages.

August 13, 2008

Palestinians say farewell to poet

Palestinians say farewell to poet

Palestinians are lining the streets of Ramallah, on the West Bank, for the funeral of poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Leading mourners, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described the poet and author as a hero for all Palestinians.

Darwish was one of the most influential cultural figures in recent Arab history, encapsulating the Palestinian longing for independence.

He died after open-heart surgery in Houston, Texas, on Saturday at the age of 67.

The ceremonies in Ramallah are expected to be the biggest funeral in the West Bank since that of Yasser Arafat in 2004.

Darwish’s body was flown back from the US to Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday where an honor guard saluted as Palestinian Liberation Army officers carried the flag-draped coffin from the plane.

Military helicopter

Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Nayef attended the ceremony on behalf of King Abdullah.

The coffin was then taken by military helicopter to the government compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah.

Mr Abbas led mourners and read a eulogy to the poet.

Afterwards, the coffin was to be taken in procession to Darwish’s grave near the Palace of Culture about 4km (2.5 miles) away.

Mahmoud Darwish

Darwish won many international prizes for his work

People of all backgrounds in the West Bank feel they had a personal connection to the poet and take pride in a man who told their story in a way they could not.

Darwish was a national icon, whose work was often based on his experiences of life in exile and under occupation.

“He symbolizes the Palestinian memory,” one Palestinian mourner.

“He intended to convey a message: in the end we are all human beings and we have to work collectively for the sake of humanity.”

Thousands would flock to his recitals. His poems were transformed into popular songs and used in political speeches, and the words he wrote now form part of Palestinian daily life, our correspondent says.

Fierce criticism

Nor was he shy of talking of his people’s shortcomings.

Darwish penned fierce criticism of the divisions among Palestinians, believing, in some ways, what they were doing to themselves was worse than anything others had done to them.

He also penned the famous speech Arafat delivered at the United Nations in 1974: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

There is little doubt his work, not just on the Palestinian cause, but on love and hope and death, will endure across the Arab world, our correspondent says.


How will you remember Mahmoud Darwish? Will you attend a commemoration service?

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