Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Palestine News Bulletin: Israel Pushes Further Into Gaza; Nearly 1,000 Palestinians Killed in Air and Ground Assault

Tuesday, January 13, 2009
21:23 Mecca time, 18:23 GMT

Israel pushes further into Gaza

The Israeli military appears to be intensifying its assault on Gaza City after dark

Israeli troops have made their deepest push yet into Gaza since the beginning of the 18-day-old conflict, as Palestinians prepare for another night of heavy shelling.

The Israeli military said on Tuesday its air force had hit what it described as 60 Hamas targets overnight, while 19 rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel in the same period.

Israeli jets have continued to pound the city of Rafah in southern Gaza near the border with Egypt.

Israel is using "bunker-busting" bombs in an attempt to destroy underground tunnels it says have been used to smuggle weapons and goods into the blockaded Gaza Strip.

Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza, said tens of thousands of Palestinians had fled their homes after the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning them of intensive air strikes.

"A large part of Rafah has been completely reduced to rubble... it has been described as hell on earth by some of the witnesses we have met," he said.

Moyheldin said Israeli troops were also closing in on Gaza City, which is now surrounded by both tanks and navy vessels along the coast.

He said the Israelis appeared to be intensifying their assault on Gaza City after dark.

"The pattern [that is emerging is] the Israeli military engaging overnight in fierce fighting and then by early morning the military returns to its position.

"As the sun sets around us that's what many Palestinians are bracing themselves for - another night of deadly and intense firing," Mohyeldin said.

Israelis 'softening up' targets

Mohyeldin said there was speculation that Israeli soldiers were limiting their operation during the day because of stiff resistance from Palestinian fighters on the ground during daylight hours.

Many also suggest that the Israelis might also be looking to "soften up" what they believe to be Hamas targets - such as booby-trapped homes and weapons stores.

Al Jazeera - the only international broadcaster with journalists based both inside Gaza and Israel - reported on Tuesday that the heaviest fighting between Israeli and Palestinian fighters was in Tal al-Hawa, in the south of Gaza City.

Serious clashes were also reported in Beit Lahiya, to the north of the city, and east of Khan Younis.

The AFP news agency reported Israeli tanks, supported by warplanes, had moved into several southern neighbourhoods of Gaza City and that Palestinian fighters were responding with mortar fire.

A spokesman for the Palestinian health ministry said dozens of calls for ambulances had been received, but none could be dispatched because of the fighting.

Combat continued despite another day of pleas from both the United Nations and the European Union to stop the violence, which has so far killed around 970 Palestinians and wounded 4,300 others.

Civilians make up about 40 per cent of casualties, with the majority of those being women and children.

Diplomatic frustration

Expressing frustration at the failure of both sides to adhere to a legally binding UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said he planned to visit the region in a bid to help end Israel's air and ground offensive in Gaza, as well as Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel.

"To both sides, I say: just stop, now," the UN chief told a news conference on Monday. "Too many people have died. There has been too much civilian suffering. Too many people, Israelis and Palestinians, live in daily fear of their lives."

But Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, said the offensive which includes the latest deployment of reservists into Palestinian neighbourhoods, must continue until Hamas is completely disarmed.

He said the military operation would end once Hamas's military wing halted its rocket attacks.

"We want to end the operation when the two conditions we have demanded are met: ending the rocket fire and stopping Hamas's rearmament. If these two conditions are met, we will end our operation in Gaza," he said in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon.

The Israeli military said air raids were carried out on at least 25 targets across the Gaza Strip and Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, said on Monday that the army had "achieved in 16 days what no other country in the world fighting terror has done in 16 years".

Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader and ousted Palestinian prime minister, said that Israel would not emerge victorious from Gaza City.

"This holy blood that has been spilt will never be in vain, it will make the victory. The children's and women's blood and bodies will be a curse which will haunt this occupation," he said.

Meanwhile, Christer Zettergren, the secretary-general of the Swedish Red Cross, said seven ambulances operated by the Red Crescent were damaged last week in Gaza.

Zettergren on Tuesday accused Israeli soldiers of firing at emergency crews and described the shootings as "very deliberate".

He is due to travel to the region on Wednesday to donate 10 ambulances to the Red Crescent.

Also on Tuesday, the AFP news agency reported that the US military had been forced to cancel a shipment of munitions from a Greek port to a US warehouse in Israel because of objections from Athens.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Tuesday, January 13, 2009
18:29 Mecca time, 15:29 GMT

In Lebanon 'we are all Gaza'

By Christian Porth in Lebanon

Lebanese protest against the Israeli offensive in Gaza

As the Israeli army continues to expand its ground war inside Gaza, and despite the distance, Palestinians in Lebanon remain almost, if not equally, as concerned as those in their native land.

Although there have been historical tensions between Lebanese and Palestinians in Lebanon, both groups have been united by the latest outburst of violence in Gaza.

Throughout Beirut there have been daily protests and "we are all Gaza" is an almost ubiquitous slogan that can be seen on cars, buildings and faux coffins across the country.

This unity has even carried over into the political realm.

While Lebanese politicians squabble endlessly over the minutiae of internal politics there is now at least some sign that they are capable of brooking agreement: since the Israeli assault began the three highest public officials Michel Sleiman, the president, Fouad Sinoria, the prime minister, and Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, have all publicly condemned the offensive.

The Lebanese government has also offered aid and supplies to help relieve the suffering in Gaza.

'One people'

Lebanon's often-tumultuous social and political fabric, comprised of eighteen officially recognised sects, is also home to a significant number of Palestinian refugees.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) there are 416,608 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon - all of whom are either from what now geographically constitutes Israel and Palestine or are direct descendents of those that are.

So the question of what happens to Palestinians in Gaza is equally prescient for Palestinians in Lebanon.

"We are one people so what is happening in Gaza is something we all share," said Kassam Aina, the general director of Beit Atfal Assumoud, a non-governmental organisation that works among the Palestinian community in Lebanon.

For Aina, who was born near the Galilee, Israeli aggression towards Palestinians is nothing new. Beit Atfal Assumoud's offices are located in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in the south of west Beirut.

In 1982 the camps were the site of an infamous massacre by Lebanese militiamen as Israeli soldiers and tanks encircled the camps, allowing it to happen.

Communicating with family

In the normally bustling Sabra and Shatila, it is apparent that the residents are concerned. The streets are empty and many shops are closed.

"We are glued to the television sets 24 hours a day. Everyone is worried. Some families haven't been able to get in touch with their families in Gaza. So it's very difficult on all of us," says Mahmoud, a 24-year-old who has lived in Shatila his entire life.

Despite exorbitant mobile phone rates, poor coverage inside the camps and the difficulties of making calls from Lebanon to Israeli phone exchanges - technically it is illegal - some families have been able to get in touch with their relatives in Gaza.

Ahmad Abou Rayya, a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Gaza but now works as a dentist in the Sabra camp, has not been so lucky.

"I don't know how my family is doing anymore," he says.

"I spoke to them when the fighting began but I cannot any longer."

Abou Rayya is the only member of his family living outside Gaza. When he was still able to get in touch with his family, he learned that his niece had been killed during the first day of air strikes and that his nephew was a member of the graduating police class killed in a later air raid.

"I know what it's like there. I know the roads and areas and where the Israeli tanks are near Jabilya. I can see in my mind where they are. It keeps me awake at night," he says.


In Ain el Helwe, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, the mood is similarly somber.

Khalil Aly, a refugee who lives in the camp, says: "Every night people are getting together to talk and to pray. Both parties, different religions but we're all together and that helps us."

He acknowledges, however, that other than donating money, there is little the Palestinians outside of Gaza can do.

"As Palestinians, what can we do?

"We can't speak out politically because there is no Palestinian state with a government we can speak to, so we have no voice. All we can do is stand in solidarity with each other."

Peace through strength

For Hani, a Lebanese-Palestinian who is originally from Jaffa but now works as a lawyer in a prestigious Beirut law firm, there is no easy solution to the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"I am worried. I feel unsafe. I feel like I have been unjustly treated and cannot build a vision of my own future," he says.

"Objectivity cannot be applied over blood and crimes," he adds.

In Lebanon, Palestinians of all stripes, agree that the only lesson they have learned from Israel in 60 years of conflict, is that strength is the only way to gain political concessions.

Aina explains: "If you are not strong, you cannot reach peace."

"We've learned the a-b-c's of resistance: have rockets, throw rockets, negotiate and then have more rockets to throw again," Hani says.

While there are divisions among Palestinians, including those now living in Lebanon, Hani says that support for Hamas has grown stronger as a result of Israel's assault.

This is a point that he does not feel in conveyed well in the media. He explains that you do not have to be with Hamas to be opposed to Israel's actions.

"I don't believe in God, I don't believe in any holy books. I just want justice in this region. We are not Muslims fighting for any ideology, we are people suffering and all we ask for is justice," he explains.


For Palestinians in Lebanon, the issue is not one of Hamas versus Israel or the Palestinians versus the Israelis; it is centred on the notion of identity and citizenship.

"I've been a refugee my whole life," Abou Rayya says.

"I lived in Gaza but ... was born outside of Gaza and have never been able to return to my birthplace.

"How have I been around for 60 years without an identity?"

He goes on: "All I have is a piece of paper from the United Nations that says I am a refugee. I have a right to have an identity. I have a right to have a country, to be from somewhere."

For Hani, if the West truly believed in the nation-state and the sense of identity provided by citizenship, then "Israel should not be defined as a Jewish country. Palestine should not be defined as a Muslim country. A country has no religion and a country should not have a religion".

"If I want to dream, I will go to bed and wake up one morning and Israel will call itself a democracy, not a 'Jewish democracy'," he says, arguing that there is no place in international law for such a narrowly defined state.

Refugee rights

Another issue of importance to Palestinians in Lebanon revolves around the civil rights of Palestinian refugees inside Lebanon, where their right to work and own property is severely limited.

"I hope that the new parliament that will come after the elections will make the changes that are needed. We aren't asking for citizenship or for nationality, we are simply asking for simple human and civil rights," Aina says.

Given that the definitions of Palestinian legal and civil rights are 60 years old (UN resolution 194), Hani feels that the time to reassess them, and in particular the contentious 'right of return' issue, is long overdue.

"Israel joined the UN on three conditions. One was to apply resolution 194 - the right of return. So, if the international community can redefine it, Arab countries can redefine it in their states.

"A referendum is needed on the right of return but it is unacceptable at this point since we are without a country," he says.

Lebanese fears

Of course, for Lebanese generally, there are fears that the situation in Gaza may have wider repercussions.

In 2006, Israel fought a ground war with the Lebanese Shia group, Hezbollah, inflicting massive damage on Lebanon and Lebanese infrastructure.

While Hezbollah, thus far, has limited its support for Hamas to rhetoric, a still unknown group launched three katyusha rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon last Thursday.

Both Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon have denied firing the rockets and Israel blamed an unnamed Palestinian organisation. However, no group has yet claimed responsibility. The pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) also gave a vaguely worded statement neither confirming nor denying responsibility.

While Palestinians worry about their brethren in Gaza, the Lebanese are also worried. Israel has played down the rocket attacks, but Israeli military officials have made threats that a similar, if not greater, response to that seen in Gaza, will be applied against Lebanon if hostilities were to start.

Source: Al Jazeera

Human Rights: Is Gaza a testing ground for experimental weapons?

Jonathan Cook, The Electronic Intifada, 13 January 2009

Concerns about Israel's use of non-conventional and experimental weapons in the Gaza Strip are growing, with evasive comments from spokesmen and reluctance to allow independent journalists inside the tiny enclave only fueling speculation.

The most prominent controversy is over the use of shells containing white phosphorus, which causes horrific burns when it comes into contact with skin. Under international law, phosphorus is allowed as a smokescreen to protect soldiers but treated as a chemical weapon when used against civilians.

The Israeli army maintains that it is using only weapons authorized in international law, though human rights groups have severely criticized Israel for firing phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza.

But there might be other unconventional weapons Israel is using out of sight of the watching world.

One such munition may be DIME, or dense inert metal explosive, a weapon recently developed by the United States army to create a powerful and lethal blast over a small area.

The munition is supposed to still be in the development stage and is not yet regulated. There are fears, however, that Israel may have received a green light from the US military to treat Gaza as a testing ground.

"We have seen Gaza used as a laboratory for testing what I call weapons from hell," said David Halpin, a retired British surgeon and trauma specialist who has visited Gaza on several occasions to investigate unusual injuries suffered by Gazans.

"I fear the thinking in Israel is that it is in its interests to create as much mutilation as possible to terrorize the civilian population in the hope they will turn against Hamas."

Gaza's doctors, including one of the few foreigners there, Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian specialist in emergency medicine working at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, report that many of the injuries they see are consistent with the use of DIME.

Wounds from the weapon are said to be distinctive. Those exposed to the blast have severed or melted limbs, or internal ruptures, especially to soft tissue such as the abdomen, that often lead to death.

There is said to be no shrapnel apart from a fine "dusting" of minute metal particles on damaged organs visible when autopsies are carried out. Survivors of a DIME blast are at increased risk of developing cancer, according to research carried out in the United States.

Traditional munitions, by contrast, cause large wounds wherever shrapnel penetrates the body.

"The power of the explosion dissipates very quickly and the strength does not travel long, maybe 10 meters, but those humans who are hit by this explosion, this pressure wave, are cut in pieces," Dr Gilbert said in a recent interview.

This is not the first time concerns about Israel's use of DIME have surfaced in Gaza. Doctors there reported strange injuries they could not treat, and from which patients died unexpectedly days later, during a prolonged wave of Israeli air strikes in 2006.

A subsequent Italian investigation found Israel was using a prototype weapon similar to DIME. Samples from victims in Gaza showed concentrations of unusual metals in their bodies.

Yitzhak Ben-Israel, the former head of the Israeli military's weapons development program, appeared familiar with the weapon, telling Italian TV that the short radius of the explosion helped avoid injuries to bystanders, allowing "the striking of very small targets."

Israeli denials about using weapons banned by international law would not cover DIME because it is not yet officially licensed.

It will be difficult to investigate claims that non-conventional weapons have been used in Gaza until a ceasefire is agreed, but previous inquiries have shown that Israel resorts to such munitions.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has recorded numerous occasions when the Israeli army has fired flechette shells, both in Lebanon and Gaza. The shell releases thousands of tiny metal darts that cause horrible injuries to anyone out in the open.

A Reuters cameraman, Fadel Shana, filmed the firing of such a shell from an Israeli tank in Gaza in April, moments before its flechettes killed him.

Miri Weingarten, a spokeswoman for Physicians for Human Rights, said they were watching out for use of a new flechette-type weapon the Israeli army has developed called kalanit (anemone). An anti-personnel munition, the shell sends out hundreds of small discs.

Israel appears to have used a range of controversial weapons during its attack on Lebanon in 2006. After initial denials, an Israeli government minister admitted that the army had fired phosphorus shells, and the Israeli media widely reported millions of cluster bombs being dropped over south Lebanon.

There are also suspicions that Israel may have used uranium-based warheads. A subsequent inquiry by a British newspaper found elevated levels of radiation at two Israeli missile craters.

Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B'Tselem, said her organization had not yet been able to confirm which weapons were being used in Gaza in the current attacks. She added, however, that Israel's denials about using non-conventional munitions should not be relied on.

"It is true, as the army spokespeople say, that weapons such as phosphorus and flechette shells are not expressly prohibited. But our view is that such weapons, which do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, cannot be used legally in a densely populated area like Gaza."

Reports this month revealed that the US has been organizing massive shipments of arms to Israel, though a Pentagon spokesman denied they were for use in Gaza.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jkcook.net .

This article originally appeared in The National published in Abu Dhabi and is republished with permission.

Human Rights: Israelis rain phosphorous bombs over Gaza

Mel Frykberg, The Electronic Intifada, 12 January 2009

RAMALLAH (IPS) - "There is no doubt that Israel is using phosphorous bombs over Gaza. Israel is flagrantly violating the Fourth Geneva Convention," says Raji Sourani, head of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza.

"This is not the first time we have documented Israel using this kind of prohibited weapon against Gaza's civilian population," Sourani told IPS on phone from Gaza.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed Sourani's assessment in a statement it released on Friday. Its researchers said they had seen "multiple air-bursts of artillery-fired white phosphorous over Gaza City."

"I've been on the border for the last few days watching the Israeli artillery firing white phosphorus shells into refugee camps," Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at HRW told France TV channel 24.

Ann Sophie Bonefeld from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Jerusalem was more cautious. "We haven't been able to confirm if Israel is using phosphorous bombs in Gaza," she told IPS.

Chiara Stefanini, Health and Human Rights Officer of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Jerusalem told IPS, "We have no evidence of phosphorous being used at this point in time. It is still too early to comment."

Terrifying pictures released by Israeli military planes of white clouds blanketing the skies of Gaza have filled the screens of Al-Jazeera television every night.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev was unable to tell Al-Jazeera whether the Israeli army were using this controversial weapon, and referred the network to Israeli army spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovitch during an interview Sunday.

"We don't discuss what weapons we use," Leibovitch told Al-Jazeera. "But I can assure you we do not use any weapons that are prohibited by international law. There are other nations that use phosphorous bombs, and we have the right not to comment on this," she added.

Britain and the United States used phosphorous bombs in Iraq, particularly during the Fallujah campaign.

The Geneva Treaty of 1980 stipulates that white phosphorus should not be used as a weapon of war in civilian areas, but there is no blanket ban under international law on its use as a smokescreen or for illumination.

This is not the first time Israel has been accused of using phosphorous bombs in crowded civilian areas in Gaza. Several years ago, doctors in Gaza reported seeing strange wounds on those injured during attacks by Israeli drones, which constantly monitor Gaza from the air.

The wounds consisted of many small holes, often invisible to X-rays, and burns caused by heat so intense that many required amputation because of the extensive burning.

Habas al-Wahid, head of emergency at the Shuhada al-Aqsa Hospital in Gaza City told journalists then that in several cases the legs of the injured were sliced from their bodies "as if a saw was used to cut through the bone." But there was no evidence of ordinary metal shrapnel in or near the wounds.

At al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, spokesman Juma Saka said that on examination of the wounds, the doctors had found a powder on the victims' bodies and in their internal organs. The microscopic particles turned out to be carbon and tungsten.

"The powder was like microscopic shrapnel, and this is likely what caused the injuries," Saka said.

Following the claims of the Gaza doctors, an investigating team of Italian journalists from the television channel Rai News 24 took samples of the soil back to Italy.

Carmela Vaccaio, a doctor at the University of Parma, examined the samples and found a high concentration of carbon, as well as copper, aluminum and tungsten, whose presence she considered unusual.

She said in her report that "these findings could be in line with the hypothesis that the weapon in question was a dense inert metal explosive or DIME."

According to military experts, DIME is a carbon-encased missile that shatters on impact into minuscule splinters. On impact it sets off an explosive that shoots blades of energy-charged, heavy metal tungsten alloy (HMTA) powder, such as cobalt and nickel or iron, with a carbon fiber casing.

This turns to dust on impact, as it loses inertia very quickly due to air resistance, burning and destroying everything within a four-meter range, as opposed to shrapnel which results from the fragmentation of a metal casing.

The metal is designated "inert" because it is not involved in the blast, and not because it is chemically or biologically inert.

Israel was also accused of using phosphorous against civilian targets in Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. It initially denied the charge, but finally confirmed it following investigation by the same team of Italian journalists, and in the face of overwhelming evidence.

"While the international community might be horrified by the use of phosphorous, this is overlooking the issue that hundreds of half-ton bombs are being dropped on Gaza on civilian targets on a daily basis," Sourani told IPS.

Gaza's death toll has risen to over 900, while nearly 4,000 Palestinians have been wounded. The UN reports that half of the deaths are civilian, and half of the civilian casualties are women and children.

One million Gazans are currently living without electricity, and some 750,000 without water, according to UN estimates. Gaza has a population of about 1.5 million.

Thirteen Israelis have been killed, three of them civilian.

Editor's note: The article originally misidentified Chiara Stefanini as a World Health Organization spokesperson. She is Health and Human Rights Officer of the WHO in Jerusalem, and this article has been updated to reflect that.

Jim Lobe in Washington contributed to this article.

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