News & Current Affairs

July 21, 2009

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Total solar eclipse photographed in Egypt, 2006 (Darren Baskill)

Stargazers will travel long distances to see the eclipse

Millions of people in Asia will see the longest total solar eclipse this century on Wednesday as swaths of India and China are plunged into darkness.

Scores of amateur stargazers and scientists will travel long distances for the eclipse, which will last for about five minutes.

The eclipse will first appear in the Gulf of Khambhat just north of Mumbai.

It will move east across India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China before hitting the Pacific.

The eclipse will cross some southern Japanese islands and will last be visible from land at Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Elsewhere, a partial eclipse will be visible across much of Asia.

The previous total eclipse, in August 2008, lasted two minutes and 27 seconds. This one will last six minutes and 39 seconds at its maximum point.

Alphonse Sterling, a Nasa astrophysicist who will be following the eclipse from China, scientists are hoping data from the eclipse will help explain solar flares and other structures of the sun and why they erupt.

“We’ll have to wait a few hundred years for another opportunity to observe a solar eclipse that lasts this long, so it’s a very special opportunity,” Shao Zhenyi, an astronomer at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China told the Associated Press news agency.

Solar scientist Lucie Green, from University College London, is aboard an American cruise ship heading for that point near the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where the axis of the Moon’s shadow will pass closest to Earth.

“The [Sun’s] corona has a temperature of 2 million degrees but we don’t know why it is so hot,” she said.

“What we are going to look for are waves in the corona. … The waves might be producing the energy that heats the corona. That would mean we understand another piece of the science of the Sun.”

The next total solar eclipse will occur on 11 July next year. It will be visible in a narrow corridor over the southern hemisphere, from the southern Pacific Ocean to Argentina.

TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE
Infographic (BBC)
In the area covered by the umbra (the darkest part of the shadow), a total eclipse is seen
In the region covered by the penumbra (where only some of the light source is obscured) a partial eclipse is seen

solar

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July 19, 2009

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Russian-built Mi-8. File photo

Russian media say the aircraft was an Mi-8 similar to this

A civilian helicopter has crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 16 civilians and injuring five, Nato officials have confirmed.

The helicopter crashed at Kandahar airfield apparently as it was trying to take off, though Nato has ruled out the involvement of insurgents.

Reports from Moscow say the helicopter was a Russian-built Mi-8.

The crash is the second in a week. Six passengers died when a helicopter came down in Helmand province on Tuesday.

‘Not shot down’

Russia’s Interfax agency quoted a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency (Fata) as saying the aircraft was a Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopter.

Map

Fata said it was owned by the Russian air company Vertical-T.

The nationalities of the dead are not yet known.

A statement from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force said: “A civilian contracted helicopter crashed during take-off from Kandahar airfield.

“Emergency personnel are on the scene. There was no indication of the cause of the accident but insurgent action has been ruled out.”

Kandahar airfield is Nato’s largest air base in southern Afghanistan but the BBC’s Martin Patience in Kabul says a lot of civilian aircraft fly in and out so there is no surprise this was a civilian crash.

A Nato spokeswoman, Lt Cmdr Sam Truelove, told the AFP news agency it had been confirmed that all the dead were civilians and no military personnel were involved.

RECENT HELICOPTER CRASHES
14 Jul 2008: Six Ukrainian civilians and Afghan girl die in crash in Helmand. Suspected enemy fire
6 Jul 2008: One UK and two Canadian soldiers die in crash in Zabul province. Enemy fire not suspected
15 Jan 2008: Afghan general and 12 other soldiers die in crash in Herat province. Bad weather blamed
30 May 2007: Seven killed as Nato Chinook crashes in Helmand. Cause unclear

The condition of the injured was not known, she said.

Vertical-T was founded in 1992 and started to work abroad in 1998 in Italy. It has worked in countries including Germany, East Timor, Cyprus, Yemen and Greece, according to the company’s website.

The company’s helicopters are currently carrying out operations in the interests of the UN in Afghanistan and a number of other countries including Congo, Sudan and Pakistan.

The dead in Tuesday’s crash in Helmand were all civilians.

That helicopter crashed near the Sangin military base, with local people saying it had been shot down by insurgents.

Six Ukrainian crew members of the Mi-26 helicopter died, along with an Afghan girl on the ground.

Israeli PM defiant on Jerusalem

Israeli PM defiant on Jerusalem

Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured on 12 July 2009

The PM says Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem “is unquestionable”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected a reported US request that a building project in Jerusalem be halted.

The project involves building 20 apartments in the mainly Arab East Jerusalem area, which was captured by Israel in 1967.

Last week US officials told the Israeli ambassador that the project should be suspended, Israeli media said.

But Mr Netanyahu rejected this in comments at his weekly Cabinet meeting.

“We cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and buy (homes) anywhere in Jerusalem,” he said.

“Unified Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Our sovereignty over it is unquestionable.”

Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967. It has annexed the city and declared its east and west Israel’s eternal capital.

This undermines the efforts being exerted to revive the peace process
Saeb Erekat,
Palestinian negotiator

This is not recognised by the international community, with the east of the city considered occupied territory.

Palestinians hope to establish their capital in East Jerusalem, as part of a two-state peace deal with the Israelis.

They say Israel uses settlement and demolition orders to try to force them from the area.

‘No credibility’

The project in question concerns a block of 20 apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah district of the city.

Israeli officials said the US State Department summoned Ambassador Michael Oren last week and told him that the construction should not go ahead.

There was no immediate comment from the US.

But Israel has come under pressure from the Obama administration to freeze settlement activity on land that Palestinians want for a future state.

Palestinians say peace talks cannot proceed until settlement activity halts.

A senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Mr Netanyahu’s comments had further undermined efforts to re-start the peace process.

The decision to pursue this project, he said, reflected Israel’s defiance of international calls for a halt to settlement activity.

“This undermines the efforts being exerted to revive the peace process and this undermines the credibility of those involved in making the peace process continue,” he said.

About 268,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, alongside 200,000 Israeli Jews.

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.

June 26, 2009

Tributes paid to Michael Jackson

Tributes paid to Michael Jackson

Family, friends, colleagues and admirers have been paying tribute to Michael Jackson, following the announcement of the star’s death at the age of 50.

JERMAINE JACKSON, BROTHER

“My brother, the legendary King of Pop, Michael Jackson passed away on Thursday June 25th, 2009 at 2.26pm. It is believed he suffered cardiac arrest in his home.

“Our family requests that the media please respects our privacy at this tough time.

“And may Allah be with you Michael, always. Love you.”

MADONNA, SINGER

“I can’t stop crying over the sad news. I’ve always admired Michael Jackson – the world has lost one of its greats, but his music will live on forever.

“My heart goes out to his three children and other members of his family. God bless.”

BEYONCE KNOWLES, SINGER

“The incomparable Michael Jackson has made a bigger impact on music than any other artist in the history of music. He was magic. He was what we all strive to be. … I love you Michael.”

CELINE DION, SINGER

“I am shocked. I am overwhelmed by this tragedy. Michael Jackson has been an idol for me all my life.

“He was not only a talented person, but he was unique – a genius. It’s such a loss. It feels like when Kennedy died, when Elvis died. My sympathy goes to the family. It’s a big loss and it’s not even sinking in right now.”

URI GELLER, FRIEND

“I’m just devastated, very, very sad. I pray that his soul is up there now. I’m still trying to hold on to the glimmer that it is not true. It is too surreal for me to absorb that Michael is no longer with us.

“Michael was in good shape because he was practising, he was training, he was rehearsing for the shows. Michael was careful with what he ate, he was just fine. Last time I heard of what he was doing, he was in great shape. And this is why I’m so absolutely shocked by this news.”

CHER, SINGER

“I’m having a million different reactions I didn’t expect I would feel.

“He was a great singer – God gives you certain gifts, and this child was just an extraordinary child touched by this ability. He could sing like nobody else and he was able to connect with people.”

QUINCY JONES, MUSIC PRODUCER

“I’m absolutely devastated at this news. I just don’t have the words. Divinity brought our souls together and allowed us to do what we could do through the 80s.

“To this day that music is played in every corner of the world, and the reason is because he had it all – talent, grace and professionalism. I’ve lost my little brother today and part of my soul has gone with him.”

LISA MARIE PRESLEY, JACKSON’S EX-WIFE

“I am so very sad and confused with every emotion possible.

I am heartbroken for his children, who I know were everything to him, and for his family.

This is such a massive loss on so many levels, words fail me.”

LENNY KRAVITZ, SINGER

Lenny Kravitz

Lenny Kravitz has worked with Jackson

“There will never be another talent like Michael Jackson.

“He was the first live performer I ever saw. I got to see him at Madison Square Garden when I was eight. If not for him, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

“He gave me joy as a child and showed me the way to go. He was music. Period.

May you rest in peace sweet Michael. You gave us all you had to give.”

JOHN LANDIS, THRILLER VIDEO DIRECTOR

I was lucky enough to know and work with Michael Jackson in his prime. Michael was an extraordinary talent and a truly great international star. He had a troubled and complicated life and despite his gifts, remains a tragic figure.”

REV AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS CAMPAIGNER

“As a friend of Michael’s for the past 35 years, I call on people from around the world to pray for him and his family.”

P DIDDY, SINGER

“Michael Jackson showed me that you can actually see the beat. He made the music come to life. He made me believe in magic. I will miss him.”

JANE FONDA, ACTRESS

“I am stunned. My friend, Michael Jackson, is dead. He lived with me for a week on the ‘Golden Pond’ set after Thriller.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR

“He was one of the most influential and iconic figures in the music industry.

“Our hearts go out to the Jackson family, Michael’s children and to his fans worldwide.”

USHER, SINGER

“My heart goes out to the King of Pop and his family.”

PAUL GAMBACCINI, MUSIC JOURNALIST

“Definitely one of the greatest stars of recorded music. There is no doubt of that. He would be in the top 10 of all time, regardless of who the other nine people were.

“But you also have to remember that he went through different stages and owed some of his popularity to collaborators – Quincy Jones, with whom he did the great trilogy of albums: Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad.”

BRITNEY SPEARS, SINGER

“I was so excited to see his tour in London. We were going to be on tour in Europe at the same time and I was going to fly into see him.

“He’s been an inspiration throughout my entire life and I’m devastated that he’s gone.”

DIONNE WARWICK, SINGER

“We have lost an icon in our industry and my heartfelt condolences go out to his family and children in this hour of sorrow.

“He will live on in my memory, and most definitely through the music he shared with so many.”

WYCLEF JEAN, SINGER

“Michael Jackson was my musical god. He made me believe that all things are possible, through real and positive music.

“He can live forever. I love Michael Jackson. God bless him.”

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, SINGER

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake has been compared to Michael Jackson

“We have lost a genius and a true ambassador of not only pop music, but of all music. I can’t find the words right now to express how deeply saddened I am by Michael’s passing.

“He has been an inspiration to multiple generations, and I will always cherish the moments I shared with him onstage and all of the things I learned about music from him, and the time we spent together.

“My heart goes out to his family and loved ones.”

DONNA SUMMER, SINGER

“I’ve known Michael for many years and we’ve done many different things together over the years.

“I know his family and it’s just a total shock. I don’t even have words to say. I mean I’ll miss Michael, the world will miss Michael and I’m sure the world is in a state of grief right now.

“I will personally miss him, I will miss his light, I will miss his star, I will miss who he has caused other people to become because of his greatness. He upped the standard.”

MARIAH CAREY, SINGER

“I am heart broken. My prayers go out to the Jackson family, and my heart goes out to his children. Let us remember him for his unparalleled contribution to the world of music, his generosity of spirit in his quest to heal the world, and the joy he brought to is millions of devoted fans throughout the world.

“I feel blessed to have performed with him several times and to call him my friend. No artist will ever take his place. His star will shine forever.”

NE-YO, SINGER

“Michael Jackson will live forever through the thing that he put all of his life energy into: his music.

“Long live Michael Jackson.”

MC HAMMER, RAPPER

“I will be mourning my friend, brother, mentor and inspiration. He gave me and my family hope. I would never have been me without him.”

LL COOL J, RAPPER

“He was one of my childhood idols. I salute you King of Pop. You made the whole world moonwalk together.”

RUSSELL SIMMONS, FOUNDER OF DEF-JAM RECORDS

“Michael Jackson was my generation’s most iconic cultural hero. Courageous, unique and incredibly talented. He’ll be missed greatly.”

BERRY GORDY, US RECORD PRODUCER

“I am shocked beyond words. It’s like a dream, a bad dream. This cannot be. How can Michael Jackson not be here?

“As a kid, Michael was always beyond his years. He had a knowingness about him that was incredible.

“Michael was and will remain one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived.

“He was exceptional, artistic and original. He gave the world his heart and soul through his music.

MATT FIDDES, FORMER BODYGUARD

“He’s the most misunderstood man in world. Everyone thought he was this weird freak but when you’re with him he’s as normal as everyone else. I don’t think he felt he was as famous as everyone else thought, he didn’t know any different.

“He was a very caring guy who would go out of his way to help the sick. One night in London he wanted to see some homeless people. He sent them loads of pizzas in secret. The guy had a good heart.

“We used to dress him up and sneak out of hotel room and do normal things in shops. People wouldn’t know who he was but we wanted to give him a taste of the real life.”

Web slows after Jackson’s death

Filed under: Entertainment News, Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 11:35 am

Web slows after Jackson’s death

Google error page

The sheer number of queries concerned Google

The internet suffered a number of slowdowns as people the world over rushed to verify accounts of Michael Jackson’s death.

Search giant Google confirmed to the BBC that when the news first broke it feared it was under attack.

Millions of people who Googled the star’s name were greeted with an error page rather than a list of results.

It warned users “your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application”.

“It’s true that between approximately 2.40PM Pacific and 3.15PM Pacific, some Google News users experienced difficulty accessing search results for queries related to Michael Jackson and saw the error page,” said Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker.

It was around this time that the singer was officially pronounced dead.

Google’s trends page showed that searches for Michael Jackson had reached such a volume that in its so called “hotness” gauge the topic was rated “volcanic”.

Fail

Google was not the only company overwhelmed by the public’s clamour for information.

The microblogging service Twitter crashed with the sheer volume of people using the service.

Google user graph

Searches for topics related to Michael Jackson peaked at 3PM Pacific

Queries about the star soon rocketed to the top of its updates and searches. But the amount of traffic meant it suffered one of its well-known outages.

Before the company’s servers crashed, TweetVolume noted that “Michael Jackson” appeared in more than 66,500 Twitter updates.

According to initial data from Trendrr, a Web service that tracks activity on social media sites, the number of Twitter posts Thursday afternoon containing “Michael Jackson” totaled more than 100,000 per hour.

That put news of Jackson’s death at least on par with the Iran protests, as Twitter posts about Iran topped 100,000 per hour on June 16 and eventually climbed to 220,000 per hour.

Early reports of Mr Jackson’s death and the confusion surrounding it caused a rash of changes and corrections to be made on his Wikipedia page as editors tried to keep up with events and the number of people trying to update the page.

TMZ, the popular celebrity gossip site that broke the story following a tip-off that a paramedic had visited the singers home also crashed.

There was a domino effect as users then fled to other sites. Hollywood gossip writer Perez Hilton’s site was among those to flame out.

Keynote Systems reported that its monitoring showed performance problems for the web sites of AOL, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and Yahoo.

Beginning at 2.30PM Pacific “the average speed for downloading news sites doubled from less than four seconds to almost nine seconds,” said Shawn White, Keynote’s director of external operations.

He told Data Center Knowledge that “during the same period, the average availability of sites on the index dropped from almost 100% to 86%”.

June 24, 2009

Right ear is ‘better for hearing’

Filed under: Health and Fitness, Latest, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:50 pm

Right ear is ‘better for hearing’

Ear

The left-side of the brain processes much of what is heard in the right ear

If you want to get someone to do something, ask them in their right ear, say scientists.

Italian researchers found people were better at processing information when requests were made on that side in three separate tests.

They believe this is because the left side of the brain, which is known to be better at processing requests, deals with information from the right ear.

The findings are reported online in the journal Naturwissenschaffen.

We can also see this tendency when people use the phone, most will naturally hold it to their right ear
Professor Sophie Scott, of University College London

In the first study, 286 clubbers were observed while they were talking with loud music in the background.

In total, 72% of interactions occurred on the right side of the listener.

In the second study, researchers approached 160 clubbers and mumbled an inaudible, meaningless utterance and waited for the subjects to turn their head and offer either their left or their right ear.

They then asked them for a cigarette.

Overall, 58% offered their right ear for listening and 42% their left.

In the third study, the researchers intentionally addressed 176 clubbers in either their right or their left ear when asking for a cigarette.

The researchers obtained significantly more cigarettes when they spoke to the clubbers’ right ear compared with their left.

Brain

In conclusion, the researchers said: “Talk into the right ear you send your words into a slightly more amenable part of the brain.

“These results seem to be consistent with the hypothesised specialisation of right and left hemispheres.”

Professor Sophie Scott, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, agreed.

“Most people process speech and language on the left-hand side of the brain and while it is not cut-and-dry a lot of what goes in our right ear will be dealt with by the left-side of the brain.

“The other side of the brain is more involved in things such as interpreting emotion and that is why we have these kind of findings.

“We can also see this tendency when people use the phone, most will naturally hold it to their right ear.”

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

November 4, 2008

No apathy as US election day looms

No apathy as US election day looms

After nearly two years of digesting speeches and slogans, of being bombarded with adverts and requests for money, of coming to terms with the possibility of the first non-white or female president, Americans are nearly there.

Pedestrians walk along a pavement that is lined with dozens of election signs

One thing is certain: Americans are ready for this election

They voted in record numbers in the primary elections and now look poised to do the same in the general election. In fact, they already have been.

In more than 30 states, early voting began several weeks ago. It has not been uncommon to see large lines snaking around entrances to libraries, community centres and other voting locations.

If there is one thing that can confidently be said, it is that Americans are ready for this election.

At a time of economic crisis, with opinion polls consistently showing that large numbers of people are unhappy with the direction their country is taking, there is little sense of apathy.

‘Mind-boggling’ costs

And, after eight years of an increasingly unpopular Republican presidency, the advantage is with the Democratic Party – and the party’s candidate, Barack Obama.

Barack Obama campaigns in Ohio

Mr Obama has mustered a record-breaking fundraising operation

He has raised mind-boggling amounts of cash – far in excess of even the most generous estimates – enabling him to compete across the country and to afford extravagant amounts of advertising in these final few weeks, culminating in the half hour “infomercial” which aired at prime time on several US networks last week.

Of course, it’s not just the money. Throughout the months that I’ve covered this election, the levels of excitement and enthusiasm at Obama rallies have consistently outstripped those of his opponents, both Democratic and Republican.

Only Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin – both historic candidates, in their differing ways, have managed to inspire crowds, in a similar fashion.

Transformational

But the question is: Will this enthusiasm, enhanced voter registration and substantial financial advantage be carried over into the polling stations?

If it is, Sen Obama has a real chance of winning many of the states, which have crossed from safe Republican territory into the “toss up” column; places like Indiana and Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate when the current one was just three years old.

The election could be transformational, not just in terms of bringing a non-white president to the White House, but in re-drawing the electoral map, at the same time.

John McCain campaigns in Florida

Behind in the polls, Mr McCain insists will be the comeback kid

There are plenty of potential obstacles, though. Some are visceral.

When it comes down to it, how many Americans will find it hard to put a cross next to a man with an exotic name and mixed-race background?

Will Mr Obama, for all his inspiring rhetoric and calm demeanour be seen as too aloof and professorial?

Will Americans prefer the earthier, more “familiar-looking”, Mr McCain; a feature of public life for several decades, with an inspiring story of war time heroism – and reputation for bridging partisan divides?

And what of the polls, which have shown a fairly consistent Obama lead for the past few weeks? Will that keep Democratic voters away, through a sense of complacency, or, perhaps, discourage Republicans?

Palin effect

Certainly, the McCain campaign has made much of the tightening numbers in recent days and in places, such as Pennsylvania – a must win state for the Republican candidate.

There, the Arizona senator’s argument that Mr Obama is too inexperienced in foreign affairs and too left-wing in his economic views is gaining traction.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Higher than usual number of voters leads to long queues
First-time voters are confused by the process, adding to delays
Voters are challenged over their registration or identity at the polls
Polling stations experience problems with voting machines
High turn-out leads to shortage of ballot papers
Householders with a repossession notice denied right to vote

Another big unknown is the Palin effect. Mr McCain’s running mate has inspired and disappointed in equal measure. She is likely to be a reason for many on both sides to turn out.

So, will the pro or anti forces be the most energised?

And whose get out the vote efforts will be the most successful? The Republicans have a good track record in this and the McCain camp seems to have kept cash aside for the final push, but the Obama campaign has broken new ground in its organisational powers.

The experience of the long primary campaign is likely to come in very handy.

Undecided voters

And what of those undecided voters? The sense I get, is that many are people who voted for President Bush four years ago, but are still unconvinced by Mr McCain – either for reasons of ideology or temperament.

If that’s the case, Mr Obama doesn’t need to win them over. He’d be happy if they simply stayed at home.

At this point, the odds remain in favour of an Obama win. But it’s not the bookmakers who will decide the result of the election; it’s the American people.

And after the longest, most expensive – and, according to many veteran observers – most inspiring election campaign in living memory, they are about to make that decision.

Rarely can their choice have seemed so consequential for the country, or the world.

Alaska ethics probe clears Palin

Alaska ethics probe clears Palin

Sarah Palin campaigns in Dubuque, Iowa, 3 Nov

Sarah Palin has always denied any wrongdoing over the affair

Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been cleared by a new report of abuse of power in firing Alaska’s top law enforcement official.

An independent investigator appointed by the Alaska Personnel Board said she had violated no ethics law.

Mrs Palin, governor of Alaska, was accused of sacking Walt Monegan because he failed to dismiss her ex-brother-in-law, state trooper Michael Wooten.

An earlier report for Alaska’s congress found that she had abused her office.

Mrs Palin has always denied any wrongdoing, and her supporters say the charges were motivated by her political opponents.

The Alaska Personnel Board report, led by investigator Timothy Petumenos, said there was “no probable cause to believe that the governor, or any other state official, violated the Alaska Executive Ethics Act in connection with these matters”.

Walt Monegan, pictured on 28 Jan 2008

Walter Monegan says Mr Wooten did nothing to warrant his dismissal

According to a copy of the report posted on the Anchorage Daily News website, the board concluded that there was no need to hold a hearing on “reputational harm”, as Mr Monegan had requested.

The report did say that the use of “private e-mails for government work” needed to be addressed, an apparent reference to Mrs Palin’s use at times of her personal e-mail account for state business.

Mrs Palin referred the matter to the personnel board herself.

The earlier report for the state legislature, released last month, said Mr Monegan’s refusal to fire Mr Wooten was not the sole reason for his dismissal, but a contributing factor.

However, it added that the actual sacking of Mr Monegan was a “proper and lawful” exercise of Mrs Palin’s rights as governor of Alaska.

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