Friday, December 26, 2008

Palestine News Bulletin: Israel Briefly Opens Gaza Crossings; Plight of Political Prisoners Examined

Friday, December 26, 2008
22:41 Mecca time, 19:41 GMT

Israel briefly opens Gaza crossings

Israel said it ordered the crossings to be opened in response to numerous international requests

Israel has temporarily opened three crossings into Gaza, allowing a limited amount of food and fuel to reach blockaded Gazans.

The Israelis allowed 40 lorries loaded with grain and bird feed to pass through the Karem Abu Salem crossing on Friday.

Another 40 lorries carrying food supplies are expected to reach Gaza via the Karni crossing later on Friday, with 400,000 litres of industrial fuel destined to reach Gaza's only power station via Nahal Oz.

About 120 tonnes of cooking gas is also expected to reach the Strip via Nahal Oz.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said he ordered the crossings opened for essential humanitarian supplies in response to numerous requests from the international community.

Woefully inadequate

Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza, said while the move would be welcomed, the amount of supplies allowed through was nowhere near enough to genuinely ease conditions.

Karen Abu Zayd, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or Unrwa, in the territory, told Al Jazeera: "It's just a steady downward spiral here, getting worse all the time. What we had last year, we have less of this year.

"What we all hope for is that people will get together, speak together and negotiate and find a truce.

"We have made a rule to ourselves not to call it a crisis or a catastrophe or a disaster, because the situation is getting worse and worse, and what are we going to call it tomorrow?"

Sisters killed

Against this backdrop of humanitarian suffering, about a dozen rockets and mortar shells were fired from the coastal territory at Israel on Friday.

One shell accidentally struck a Gaza house, killing two Palestinian sisters, medics said.

Moawiya Hassanein, who heads Gaza's emergency services, said the mortar shell hit a house in Beit Lahia, killing Sabah, 12, and Hanin, five. Other family members were injured.

No Palestinian group has claimed responsibility for the fatal incident.

An Israeli military spokesman said the Erez border crossing, the main passage for people between Israel and Gaza, was closed after two mortar bombs fell in the area.

Israel's cabinet planned on Sunday to debate a decison by a security panel to hit back at fighters, beginning with air raids on Hamas targets, political sources said.

Israel withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005. A military offensive could involve ground combat likely to result in high casualties.

Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, discussed the crisis on Thursday with Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, which borders Gaza to the west and which brokered the truce in June.

Mubarak urged restraint on both sides.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, has said he does not wish to reoccupy the coastal strip.

At the same time, he appeared on an Arabic television channel, urging Gazans to reject Hamas and stop the rocket attacks.

Olmert said it was a last-minute appeal and said he would not hesitate to use Israel's military might if they did not.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

World Bank: Gaza near collapse as Israel tightens grip

By Toni O'Loughlin

Dec. 22- Israel's blockade of Gaza is pushing the territory to the brink of collapse and fueling the growth of a black money market controlled by Hamas, the World Bank warned yesterday.

As tit-for-tat attacks across the Gaza border began to intensify following the end of a six-month truce on Friday, the World Bank said that an acute cash shortage in Gaza was playing into Hamas's hands. The militant Islamists, who took control of Gaza in June 2007 following violent street clashes with their more secular rival, Fatah, have large stashes of shekels which they have been selling on the black market at a premium because of the cash shortage.

There is also a worry that Hamas, with its dominant militant and bureaucratic control of Gaza, will begin to replace the shekel with US dollars, which are more easily obtained, to smuggle through the tunnels from Egypt in the south.

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Quartet - the US, the EU, Russia and the United Nations - warned Israel of the crisis in a letter to the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, more than a week ago, to no avail. Instead, Israel continued to tighten its 18-month blockade of the tiny coastal territory, forcing banks and businesses to shut their doors, water, sanitation and electricity services to cease, medical clinics to turn away patients, and bread queues to form in the streets. Since the end of the truce, daily clashes have resumed, with Israel launching air strikes on Palestinian rocket-launching teams and Palestinian fighters firing makeshift rockets and mortars at neighboring Israeli towns.

Yesterday, Israel's air force attacked a rocket-launching site and Palestinians launched 18 Qassam rockets, one of which struck a house and another a factory, while a third exploded near farm laborers, injuring one. Most landed in open fields. In the afternoon gunmen also shot at workers near the perimeter.

The two main rivals in Israel's February elections both vowed yesterday to remove Hamas from power, using military means if need be. "The state of Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza," said Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister who will lead the ruling centrist party, Kadima, in the polls. "The means for doing this should be military, economic and diplomatic."

Later, Binyamin Netanyahu, who leads the hard-right Likud party and who has been ahead in the polls for months, said: "In the long term, we will have to topple the Hamas regime. In the short term ... there are a wide range of possibilities, from doing nothing to doing everything, meaning to conquer Gaza."

Israel has been unable to find a lasting military solution to years of rocket fire from Gaza, and a series of reports from the World Bank suggests its policy of blockading the coastal area to break Hamas's control has not only failed but is now jeopardizing the US-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Source: Guardian (UK)

UNRWA suspends food distribution in Gaza

Dec. 19- The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) was forced to suspend its emergency and regular food distribution services in the Gaza Strip without warning on December 18, due to the continued closure of all commercial and passenger border crossings.

Wheat supplies scheduled to arrive in Gaza on December 9-10 were unable to enter, and UNRWA had exhausted all stocks of flour in its warehouses due to the crisis.

"The food distribution programs are suspended until further notice," said UNRWA spokesperson Jamal Hamed in Gaza. "As soon as Israel allows us to import food we will resume."

Some 750,000 refugees out of a population of 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza depend on food aid from UNRWA.

On average, the UN agency distributes food to about 20,000 refugees per day, including rice, cooking oil, flour, tinned meat and milk.

"UNRWA was able to import an average of 20 trucks of humanitarian assistance per day into Gaza last month, while a minimum of 50 are required to cover their basic assistance," said Hamed.

Israel sealed commercial and passenger border crossings to Gaza on 4 November, when an Israeli military incursion into Gaza prompted Palestinian militants to resume daily rocket-fire into neighboring Israeli towns. A five-month Egyptian-brokered ceasefire had been largely holding.

Israel has restricted imports into Gaza, including food, fuel, medical supplies and other basic necessities despite the truce, which calls on militants to halt rocket attacks in return for Israel easing its embargo on the territory.

"The ceasefire between Hamas and Israel officially ends on December 19," said Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum, adding: "We [Hamas] bear the responsibility of defending our people if Israel attacks".

"Thousands in Gaza depend on the UN for basic assistance in Gaza. This will increase the burden on the Hamas government to provide for people," said Hamas political leader Ghazi Hamad - though the government has no alternatives while the crossings are closed.

At a speech at Hamas's 21st anniversary rally in Gaza City on 14 December, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh noted the US$55 million in emergency assistance the Hamas government had provided to 10,000 families, fishermen and students in 2008. However, "there is no official budget for 2009, and it will not be enough," said Hamad.

The alternatives for the civilian population living in Gaza are grim.

It has been almost a month since greengrocer Mohammed Abu Amra received fruit and vegetables from Israel. He gets fruit via the tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border but the deliveries are sporadic and "the goods from Egypt cost double," said Abu Amra.

Apples are shipped from China to Egypt, and then make their way to Gaza via tunnel.

"Vegetables are available in Gaza, but there is not enough and they lack preservatives," said Abu Amra. He is making less than half the profit he was two years ago, before Hamas won the legislative council elections.

Source: UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

Former US admiral says to Israel: Don't fear Iran

By Yaakov Katz

Dec. 18- Israel is one of the strongest countries in the Middle East and needs to stop giving in to a "fear factor" with regard to the prospect of a nuclear Iran, Adm. (ret.) William Fallon, the former commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

In Israel for a regional security conference at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, Fallon told the Post that he could not understand why Iran would even contemplate using nuclear weapons against Israel unless the country wanted to be destroyed.

"Do they wish to go away?" he asked, insinuating that a nuclear attack on Israel would elicit a devastating response.

"They are not nearly as strong as their rhetoric indicates," Fallon said of Iran. "They are not particularly strong militarily outside their own internal entity, and they have huge economic issues and political instability. Their nuclear capability might give them something to feel consolation in."

Fallon abruptly stepped down from the command of CENTCOM in March after Esquire magazine portrayed him as being opposed to President George W. Bush's Iran policy, describing him as a lone voice against military action aimed at halting the Iranian nuclear program. Today, he is a fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies.

Israel, Fallon said, needed to come up with a strategic plan with regard to Iran and other threats. The military was just one tool among many that countries had at their disposal when dealing with a challenge, he said.

"The first order is to get our house in order, for sure in the US, and it seems here as well," he said. "This has to do with tasking. If the readiness is good, then you can be tasked. Therefore, you need to have your house in order and then you can take on other challenges."

He said the war Israel fought against Hizbullah in 2006 was an example of operating without a plan.

"Where was the plan in Lebanon?" he asked. "I didn't see one."

He also dismissed Iran's calls to destroy Israel as nothing more than rhetoric.

"The Iranians say there is no place for the US in the Gulf and we are here. We are not leaving and Israel is not going away. This is rhetoric and this goes on all the time," he said.

Source: Jerusalem Post

Israelis continue to abuse Palestinian prisoners

By Mel Frykberg

Dec. 17- Israel released over 200 Palestinians from Israeli jails in a "goodwill gesture" Monday. This followed the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha and was an attempt to boost the waning popularity of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Several prisoners spoke to the assembled local and international media about their time in detention. They accused the Israelis of maltreating and physically abusing detainees despite Israeli claims that torture and the abuse of prisoners have been outlawed and no longer occur.

Most of the detainees were Fatah members, the movement associated with Abbas and the ruling Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.

Some belonged to smaller Palestinian resistance groups such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

While Israel's "goodwill gesture" was much touted by the Israeli media, the majority of the prisoners were mostly small-time political detainees, who were due for release fairly shortly, having already served most of their sentences.

Many were teenagers when imprisoned and none were convicted of injuring or killing Israelis.

As negotiations were under way for the release of the 227 prisoners, hundreds more Palestinians were arrested by Israeli security forces.

The move was widely seen as an effort to boost Abbas's floundering PA. The PA is currently engaged in a political battle against the rival Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip.

Hostility between the two main Palestinian political factions is rising as the end of Abbas's term nears.

Abbas stated he would not step down, while Hamas said it would no longer recognise his authority after Jan. 9, when his term ends.

The released detainees were greeted by tearful family members, friends and hundreds of supporters who crowded into Ramallah's presidential headquarters in the central West Bank.

Scenes of jubilation erupted against a sea of Fatah and Palestinian flags as patriotic music boomed into the winter air.

Muhammed Abdul Razik, 22, from the town of Qabatia in the northern West Bank, served two of his four-and-a-half-year sentence.

He was convicted in an Israeli court of weapons possession and being a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades, an armed offshoot of Fatah.

"I was beaten very badly when I was arrested by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers. I was kept in the back of a jeep for over four hours in the freezing cold," Razik told IPS.

"During detention my head was covered with a foul-smelling dirty sack as I was shackled to a chair with my hands handcuffed behind my back in a stressful position.

"Periodically, between punches and slaps, the interrogator would suddenly pull me forward causing extreme pain to my wrists and back," he said.

Razik added that beatings, insufficient medicine, poor food and lack of family visits were routine while he was incarcerated.

The Israeli Landau Committee into torture in 1987 ruled that Israel's domestic intelligence agency, the Shabak, or Shin Bet, could use "moderate physical pressure and psychological pressure during the interrogation of detainees."

The committee did not elaborate on its definition of physical pressure in its report, nor did it outline the circumstances in which it could be used. The details were kept confidential and the full report was never published.

Following petitions by several human rights organisations against the ubiquitous use of torture in the country, the Israeli High Court prohibited the use of certain forms of torture during its 1999 ruling.

However, it authorised the use of "physical means" against detainees including "pressure and a measure of discomfort."

Rights groups B'Tselem and Hamoked released a report last year 'Absolute Prohibition: The Torture and Ill-Treatment of Palestinian Detainees' in which they accused the court ruling of "legitimising severe acts, contrary to international law, which does not acknowledge any exceptions to the prohibition on torture and ill-treatment."

The organisation added that the beatings, painful binding, humiliation and denial of basic needs appeared to be designed to "soften up the detainees" prior to interrogation.

B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli told IPS, "There has been an improvement, but there are still many cases of ill-treatment occurring."

B'Tselem and Hamoked interviewed 73 former detainees for their report and found roughly two-thirds had been subject to some kind of mistreatment.

Rabie Al-Latifah from Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq used stronger terms. "Ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons is both widespread and systematic," Rabie told IPS.

"The United Coalition Against Torture, of which Al-Haq is a member, has observed and recorded evidence of acts, omissions, and complicity by agents of the State at all levels, including the army, the intelligence service, the police, the judiciary and other branches of government," he added.

The Addameer Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association says that more than 800 Palestinians are currently in administrative detention.

Detainees are held for six months at a time without being brought to trial on the basis of "secret evidence".

This six-month period can be renewed repeatedly with some administrative detainees being jailed for up to six years without being convicted of any crime.

"Confidential material" denied to the detainee's lawyer determines the period of detention.

Since 2001, the Israeli State Attorney's Office received over 500 complaints of ill-treatment by Shin Bet interrogators, but not a single criminal investigation was carried out.

These decisions were based on the findings of an investigation conducted by an inspector who was himself a member of the Shin Bet.

Even in cases were interrogators were found guilty of abusing a detainee the State Attorney's Office closed the case on the basis that the abuse was carried out in the "necessity of defence".

Source: Inter Press Service

Israel kicks off global PR campaign to recruit support for Gaza raids

By Jack Khoury and Barak Ravid

Dec. 22- Israel is kicking off a public relations campaign with the intention of widening a basis for international support of a military offensive on the Gaza Strip.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has instructed Israeli representatives abroad to begin diplomatic efforts focused on members of the United Nations Security Council and Europeans states.

The foreign minister told Israeli delegates to the UN to file an official complaint with Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the Security Council stating that Israel would not remain apathetic to the continued firing of rockets from Gaza, adding that it will do everything necessary to protect its citizens.

The statement was relayed Sunday night, a move that is considered highly irregular as it is the UN officials' day of rest. Livni, however, instructed delegates not to wait until Monday.

Livni is also planning a series of telephone conferences with her counterparts across the world, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ban, and the foreign ministers of Russia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Simultaneously, Israeli envoys across the world have been instructed to stress Israel's opposition to the rocket fire and to emphasize that it was Hamas who stood in violation of the six-month cease-fire which ended on Friday.

Earlier Sunday, Livni vowed to end Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip if she was elected prime minister in a February election.

"The state of Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza," Livni told members of her centrist Kadima party. "The means for doing this should be military, economic and diplomatic."

Also Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that he ordered the IDF and the defense establishment to begin preparing for an offensive in Gaza, in light of the escalating rocket fire.

"Questions of place, time and method in which we will act will be approved at the professional levels," he said. It was not a matter of "who likes Hamas and who does not," he added. "We all want to see Hamas struck down."

Meanwhile, Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas's government in Gaza, brushed aside Israeli threats: "Nothing can finish off our people."

Hamas official: Israel 'playing with fire' over Gaza

A leading Hamas official said on Sunday that the militant group, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since June 2007, was undeterred by Israel's threats of a major military incursion into the coastal territory.

"For three years we've been hearing about big military operations and nothing has happened," official Mahmoud Zahar told the Nazareth-based Radio A-Shams.

"Israel is playing with fire like a child going out to smoke his first cigarette, coughing and choking, and then quitting on his own," he added.

Zahar also said that Israel was "lying" in claiming that its economic blockade on Gaza was in response to continuing rocket and mortar shell fire.

"The blockade on Gaza began when Hamas won the elections," he said, blaming Israel for violating the six-month truce, which came to an end on Friday.

"The calm agreed upon under Egyptian mediation stipulated very clearly that the siege must be lifted, but even during the calm, Israel prevented the entry of basic goods into the Strip, and as far as we're concerned, that is a harsh violation," he said.

Earlier Sunday, Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin told cabinet ministers that Hamas is capable of firing rockets that can strike targets as distant from Gaza as the outskirts of the Negev capital of Be'er Sheva.

IDF girding for Gaza border escalation

Security sources had said Saturday that the Israel Defense Forces is preparing to escalate its activities at the Gaza Strip border in response to continuing Qassam rocket and mortar fire into the western Negev.

Nineteen rockets struck the western Negev on Sunday, wounding one person.

On Saturday alone 13 rockets and 20 mortar rounds were fired into Israel. No one was injured, but one rocket damaged a kibbutz building. The violence came after Hamas' official announcement that it would not extend its six-month cease-fire with Israel.

The Israel Air Force has staged a number of operations over the Strip in the past two days in an effort to weaken the rocket launchers.

An air force strike in Beit Lahia Saturday killed Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militant Ali Hijazi, 25, while he was trying to launch rockets. Two others were wounded. Though affiliated with Fatah, the organization's branch in Gaza does not operate under the instruction of the movement's leadership in the West Bank.

Security sources on Saturday told Haaretz that a new policy would be drafted in the coming days for dealing with rocket fire from the Strip. Israel will ratchet up air force strikes, which will no longer be limited to rocket-launching cells themselves. They will also target weapons stores and workshops, as well as the heads of networks involved in rocket launching.

"We will have to take an aggressive line," a security official said. "Israel gave Hamas an opportunity to gradually pull back the rocket strikes, but it didn't respond. This level of violence, with close to 10 rockets fired a day, is unacceptable."

Israel is taking into account that a military escalation could lead militants firing the Qassams from Gaza to expand their range of targets. Sources at Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service believe rockets launched from the Strip can now reach Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malakhi and the suburbs of Ashdod and Be'er Sheva.

Until now, Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the majority of rockets fired into Israel, and a number of smaller militant groups have claimed the rest.

Source: Haaretz (Israel)

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