Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Palestine News Update: Israeli Jets Strike Rafah While Obama Envoy Visits Egypt

Wednesday, January 28, 2009
05:10 Mecca time, 02:10 GMT

Israeli jets strike Rafah tunnels

Israel says the Rafah tunnels are used to smuggle weapons to Hamas fighters

Israeli jets have carried out fresh air strikes on tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, reportedly sending hundreds of people fleeing their homes in panic.

Local residents and Hamas security officials said three air strikes took place before dawn on Wednesday, but no casualties have yet been reported.

The strikes came just hours before the newly-appointed US Middle East peace envoy was due to arrive in Israel.

Israel has confirmed that it carried out the raids. It says the strikes on the Rafah tunnels are aimed at stopping alleged weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip by Hamas fighters.

The tunnels are also used to smuggle food, fuel and consumer goods from Egypt and are considered a life-line for thousands of ordinary Gazans.

The latest attack came despite fragile ceasefires declared by Israel and Hamas last week, ending a 22-day Israeli military campaign on Gaza in which 1,300 people were killed.

Israeli warplanes had targetted scores of cross-border tunnels during the recent war, but many tunnels resumed work shortly after the ceasefire.

Earlier two people were wounded in an Israeli air raid elsewhere in the Gaza Strip, according to Hamas and Palestinian medical officials.

Hamas said one of its members riding a motorcycle was injured in the attack in the town of Khan Younis on Tuesday.

The raid came after an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian were reportedly killed in a clash near the Kissufim border crossing.

Neither Hamas nor any other group has claimed responsibility for what the Israeli military said was a bomb attack targeting an Israeli border patrol.

Israeli military officials said an officer and two other soldiers were also wounded in the attack.

After the incident, Israeli forces opened fire, killing a Palestinian farmer, Palestinian medical workers said.

Farmer killed

Dr Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza's health ministry confirmed that a 27-year-old farmer was killed by Israeli gunfire along the border, which also left two other Palestinians wounded.

Israel subsequently closed its border crossings to humanitarian aid traffic after briefly opening them in the morning.

Raed Fattouh, a Gaza border official, said Israeli officials informed him the closure was due to the attack.

Describing the attack on the Israeli patrol, Al Jazeera's Tamer Mishal reporting from Gaza, said an anti-armour shell was fired from inside the territory at an Israeli tank near the area of Khan Younis.

"Witnesses told Al Jazeera that the grenade directly hit an Israeli jeep," he said.

Israel and Hamas entered an uneasy ceasefire last week [AFP]
"Palestinian residents reported the sound of gunfire and Israeli helicopters in the area."

Residents of Kissufim said the Israeli army patrol and Palestinian fighters exchanged fire shortly after the blast.

Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza, said no Palestinian group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

"Immediately after a large blast of gunfire was heard in the area. There were several farmers out on their land, and we understand that one Palestinian farmer was killed," he said.

Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza last week after a three-week offensive whose stated aim was to stop Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel.

Egyptian mediation

Egyptian mediators have been talking separately to Israel and Hamas to negotiate a more permanent ceasefire.

Hamas wants the border crossings into Gaza reopened, including the Rafah crossing into Egypt, to end the Israeli blockade in the territory.

Israel wants to stop the rocket fire and prevent Hamas fighters from using smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt to rearm themselves with weapons.

Barack Obama, the US president, has despatched George Mitchell, his newly appointed Middle East envoy, to the region to discuss the ceasefire efforts.

Speaking on Monday Obama said he had instructed Mitchell, who played a prominent role in the Northern Ireland peace process, to "engage vigorously" to achieve real progress between Israel and the Palestinians.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Israeli strike hits southern Gaza

Israel has carried out an air strike in Gaza, hours after a bomb attack killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three others near the Gaza border.

The air strike in southern Gaza wounded two people, including a Hamas militant, Palestinian sources say.

It was Israel's first air strike since it ended its offensive against Hamas and both sides called a ceasefire.

Israeli troops also entered the Gaza Strip after the bomb attack, killing one Palestinian, medics said.

No group has said it carried out Tuesday's bombing on an Israeli patrol near the border crossing of Kissufim.

One Israeli officer was badly wounded in the explosion and the other soldiers were lightly wounded, an army spokesman said.

Palestinian residents of Kissufim said they could hear Israeli helicopters circling overhead and the sound of heavy gunfire.

Medics in Gaza said a Palestinian farmer was killed by gunfire.

Two people were wounded in the subsequent air strike in the town of Khan Younis near Rafah.

Hospital sources say one was a member of Hamas' Popular Resistance Committee who was on a motorbike at the time, and the other was a passer-by.

US visit

Israel has closed border crossings into Gaza because of the attack on the patrol, Israeli officials said, stopping the flow of aid supplies to Gaza's 1.5 million residents.

Aid agencies have been struggling to meet the urgent needs of tens of thousands of displaced, homeless and injured people in Gaza.

Last month Israel launched a 22-day offensive against Hamas, in a effort to stop rocket attacks on its territory.

There has been Israeli artillery and naval fire against Gaza targets since the ceasefires were announced earlier this month.

The fresh violence comes as US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, arrives in the region to seek a more permanent truce.

He will hold talks with Egyptian officials, who have been mediating between Israel and Hamas, before travelling on to Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/01/27 15:39:46 GMT

Tuesday, January 27, 2009
17:28 Mecca time, 14:28 GMT

Gaza violence mars Mitchell tour

Mitchell has been charged with making 'genuine progress' in the region

George Mitchell, the US peace envoy, has arrived in Cairo at the start of his Middle East tour as fresh violence broke out in the region.

Mitchell arrived in Egypt on Tuesday, shortly before Israel launched an air raid on the Gaza Strip and Israeli troops reportedly crossed into the territory following clashes that led to the deaths of an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian.

The envoy, who has been briefed by Barack Obama, the US president, to "engage vigorously" to achieve peace in the Middle East, is holding talks with Egyptian officials before visiting Israel, the Palestinian West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and then heading to Europe.

Upon his arrival at the airport Mitchell briefly met Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, who is in Egypt to discuss shoring-up Hamas' and Israel's ceasefires in Gaza.

'Concrete progress'

Obama has vowed to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority and described Mitchell as the man who "speaks for us" on Middle East issues.

George Bush, Obama's predecessor, had been widely criticised for neglecting the Middle East for much of his tenure.

"The charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress," Obama said.

"And when I say progress, not just photo ops, but progress that is concrete."

Mitchell's Middle East tour was launched as Obama gave his first television interview to an Arab broadcaster, pledging his administration would take a wider view of the region.

Speaking to Al Arabiya, Obama said the US remains committed to protecting its long-time ally Israel, but said he also believes there are Israelis who recognise the need for regional peace and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it.

"I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away," he said.

Commenting on Mitchell's visit to the Middle East he said: "What I told him is to start by listening ... because all too often the United States starts by dictating."

Seasoned diplomat

In 2000, Mitchell led a fact-finding committee on Middle East violence that recommended commitments by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to immediately and unconditionally end their fighting.

His report, released in April 2001, urged Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank and the Palestinians to cease rocket attacks across the border, the two issues that remain sticking points today.

Robert Wood, a spokesman for the US state department, said Mitchell might travel to the Gaza Strip, where Israel waged a 22-day war on the territory that left more than 1,300 Palestinians deadbefore declaring a ceasefire on January 18.

Thirteen Israelis, three of them civilians, were also killed in the conflict.

Wood said Mitchell will work to consolidate the Gaza ceasefire, help in preventing alleged arms smuggling by Hamas and facilitate the opening of border crossings.

Mitchell's report will also help formulate the new administration's overall policy toward the Middle East, Wood said.

Peace broker

Ziad Hafez, managing editor of the journal Contemporary Arab Affairs, told Al Jazeera that he doubts about whether Mitchell will achieve much in his new role.

"I don't think any movement is going to take place as long as the fundamental rules are not observed - which means that if you don't talk to the principal parties, nothing much will be accomplished," he said.

"Neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Egyptian government can provide any leverage over the situation in [Hamas-run] Gaza.

"Mitchell already had a previous mission in the Middle East and it did not amount to much, so I don't know what he will do now. As long as there is no political will in the United States to work seriously in promoting the Arab peace initiative [on Israeli-Palestinian relations], I don't think a lot will be accomplished."

Mitchell, 77, is credited with persuading all sides in the Northern Ireland conflict to sign up to a power-sharing deal, culminating in the landmark Good Friday peace accord in 1998.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Sunday, January 25, 2009
12:36 Mecca time, 09:36 GMT

Hamas to pay victims of Gaza war

Hamas says more than 20,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in Israel's Gaza offensive

Hamas is set to hand out money to Gazans afflicted by Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip.

The territory's government was due to start giving out the money, expected to total about $45m, on Sunday - a day after a Hamas committee was established to oversee relief efforts.

Ahmed al-Kurd, the Hamas-appointed minister of social affairs, also heads the National High Committee for Relief which will distribute the money to those who lost family members or their homes.

"It will be the only body to oversee and supervise the rescue. We will be in contact with all other bodies, whether local, national or international, to organise the relief," al-Kurd said.

Re-building Gaza

Al-Kurd did not say how Hamas had raised the funds for the Strip, which has been under a strict blockade since the group took control of Gaza in June 2007.

"We are a government that is in charge of all of Gaza," he said. "The ministries have budgets, they have funds, just like in the rest of the countries of the world."

Taher al-Nunu, a spokesman for Gaza's de facto government, said that Hamas would grant €1,000 ($1,300) for the family of each "martyr" killed in the three-week-long conflict earlier in the month and €500 ($650) to for each one of those injured.

He also said that Hamas would pay €4,000 ($5,200) for each family whose house has been completely demolished.

He said that more than 20,000 Palestinian houses have been either completely demolished or partially damaged during the war.

More than 1,330 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli offensive, which Israel says was aimed at stemming rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians were also killed.

'Death by blockade'

Both sides declared unilateral ceasefires last Sunday and Israel completed its withdrawal from the territory on Wednesday.

Al-Kurd would not specify the role the relief committee would play in rebuilding efforts in the battered territory, but demanded the lifting of Israel's blockade of the Strip and the reopening of Gaza's border crossings.

"From now on we will not accept a slow death by blockade. We sacrificed in this war ... and we did not sacrifice our youth to return to square one."

The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has said that it should lead the reconstruction efforts, which it said would require about $1.9bn in aid.

Abbas's Fatah group were pushed from Gaza in June 2007 when Hamas took control of the Strip.

Source: Agencies

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