Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Palestine News Update: Obama Sworn In As US President; Israel Accused of War Crimes in Gaza

Wednesday, January 21, 2009
00:18 Mecca time, 21:18 GMT

Obama sworn in as US president

Obama acknolwedged in his inauguration speech that the US faces challenges at home and abroad

Barack Obama has become the 44th president of the United States, during an inauguration ceremony witnessed by at least one million people in Washington DC.

Obama was sworn in as the US commander-in-chief just after noon local time (1700 GMT) on Tuesday, becoming the first African-American to hold the post.

"I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors," Obama said, minutes after taking the oath of presidential office from John Roberts, the US chief justice.

"Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace.

"Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents."

Hours after his inauguration, Obama addressed members of the US congress at a special lunch event, which was overshadowed by the collapse of a senator.

The American news channel CNN and other networks identified the victim as Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator who is battling a life-threatening brain tumour.

Television networks reported that Kennedy required medical attention after Robert Byrd, 91, a West Virginia Democratic senator, also took ill.

"It looked like a seizure and it was painful to him [Kennedy]," Orin Hatch, a Utah Republican senator, said.

"But ... as he got into the ambulance he kind of looked over at me and smiled that old Irish smile that I know [meant] that things are going to be all right."

After the lunch, at which Obama paid tribute to Kennedy, the new president walked with his wife along Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue as part of an inauguration parade.

US challenges

Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, said after Obama's inauguration: "We are eager for him to get to work so that with him we can change the world".

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown, Britain's prime minister, said Obama's ascendancy to the US presidency marked a "new chapter in both American history and the world's history."

Obama acknowledged that the US faces several challenges, from military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to economic concerns at home.

"That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age," he said.

"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

Rob Reynolds, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Washington, said: "Some of the things I thought were stand-out moments included his [Obama's] call for an era of responsibility, which was a theme in the speech.

"He also said, very specifically, in something of a rebuke to the outgoing president, George Bush, that America is ready to lead again.

"Clearly the implication is that America failed to show leadership in the last few years."

'Different track'

Obama's speech was aimed at convincing Americans that he will take a different course from Bush, said Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst.

"This speech was not about what he is - a political operator - but who he is. He said it is not about big or small government, but about government that works,"

"Obama didn't say anything about a War on Terror, which we've been hearing about for the last eight years, but he did say we are at war against a network which is far different to what we have heard before."

At least a million people witnessed the inauguration [AFP]
But Robert Fisk, a Beirut-based journalist for the London-based Independent newspaper, said Obama's speech did not highlight any wholesale shift in US strategy.

"I do not think there was a great difference from the rhetoric of Bush but we didn't get taken through 9/11 again," he said.

Fisk also described the speech as "very long, almost a sermon" and as being "meagre on the Middle East" because it did not reference the Palestinian issue.

"Many people in this region [the Middle East] are going to say 'didn't he see the pictures on TV in the last few days'... it's the Middle East that will come back again and again and I don't think he chose to address it," he said.

Obama and his wife Michelle began inauguration day by attending a service at St John's Episcopal church, which lies a short distance from the White House.

Obama then went to the White House to share coffee with George Bush, the outgoing US president, and Dick Cheney, the outgoing vice-president.

Bush and Cheney later left the White House for the last time, with Bush joining Obama in a motorcade heading to the Capitol for the inauguration ceremony.

After Obama's inauguration, Bush and his wife Laura boarded a helicopter waiting next to the US Capitol, to begin their journey to Midland, Texas.

'Destinies shared'

Central Washington DC was inundated by hundreds of thousands of people keen to witness Obama's inauguration.

"This crowd was hanging on every word Obama was saying. At some moments, he was solemn and the crowd listened carefully. Then he talked about the US becoming strong again, and there was a lot of flag waving," Cath Turner, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Washington DC, said.

Grace Clark, a spectator who had travelled from California, said she had been inspired by Obama's speech.

"It was a new beginning for me, which I was able to share with my daughter here. It gave me the sense that we allhave responsibilities of trying to make changes in the future," she told Al Jazeera.

Torrey Pocock, a self-confessed Republican voter, said he was in Washington to witness a festival of democracy.

"For the country, given its past history [of racism], to put its trust in an African-American president is an incredible thing," he said.

"This is an opportunity to see a bloodless revolution, a opportunity to completely change regimes."

Obama's inauguration came a day after he called on Americans to unite in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr, the murdered civil rights leader.

"Tomorrow, we will come together as one people on the same mall where Dr King's dream echoes still. As we do, we recognise that here in America, our destinies are inextricably linked," he said in a statement on Monday.

"We resolve that as we walk, we must walk together. And as we go forward in the work of renewing the promise of this nation, let's remember King's lesson - that our separate dreams are really one."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Wednesday, January 21, 2009
02:28 Mecca time, 23:28 GMT

Ban demands probe into Gaza attacks

Ban said he was 'appalled' after witnessing the aftermath of the attack on the UN complex

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has demanded a "full investigation" into Israel's bombing of a UN compound in Gaza City.

Speaking during an official visit to the devastated territory on Tuesday, he condemned the attack on the UN complex as "outrageous" and "totally unacceptable".

"It is particularly significant for a secretary-general of the UN to stand in front of this bomb site of the UN compound," he said.

"I am just appalled and not able to describe how I am feeling having seen this ... it's an outrageous and totally unacceptable attack against the UN. I have protested many times, and I protest again in the strongest terms."

Ban called for a "full investigation" into the incident to make those responsible for the attack "accountable".

He also announced he was sending a high-level delegation to oversee humanitarian support for Gazans and assist with the rebuilding effort following Israel's three-week offensive.

Ban is the highest-ranking official to visit Gaza since Israel and Hamas declared separate, unilateral ceasefires on Sunday.

'Shocking' devastation

Ban stressed "the UN and the international community will support and help you [Gazans] to overcome" the devastation, which he described as "shocking and alarming".

While Ban reiterated his condemnation of Israel's "excessive use of force", he was careful to underline that he believes rocket attacks on Israel by Gazan fighters are also "unacceptable".

Israel had said the aim of its operations in Gaza was to cripple Hamas's ability to launch rockets into the south of the country.

Ban urged Palestinians factions to unite to allow the international community, including the UN, to help broker a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

However, while offering to do "all [he] can as secretary-general of the UN to help in this time of need", Ban is not expected to meet Hamas officials during this visit.

Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza, said because much of the international community, including the US and the European Union, regard Hamas as a "terrorist organisation", it would be political difficult for the UN chief to hold direct talks with Hamas officials.

Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006 which were internationally recognised as being both fair and free.

Rebuilding Gaza's devastated infrastructure is expected to cost billions of US dollars.

Without supplies

John Holmes, the UN humanitarian chief, says hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid supplies will be needed for the people of Gaza.

Although water supplies were restored to many Gazan homes as of Sunday, 400,000 were still without running water, Holmes said.


-At least 1,300 people killed, including more than 400 children and more than 100 women
-At least 5,300 Palestinians injured, including nearly 1,900 children and 800 women
-At least 100,000 people forced from their homes
-At least 13 Israelis killed, including three civilians

Electricity in Gaza is available for less than half the day and around 100,000 people have been left homeless by the war.

Scores of bodies have been discovered in the rubble of destroyed buildings since both sides declared unilateral ceasefires on Sunday.

Palestinians returning to their neighbourhoods have begun to unearth the true scale of destruction.

Mohyeldin reported that the World Health Organisation had issued a warning of an outbreak of disease as weeks-old bodies remain unburied and sewage continues to flow in many areas because of the destruction of Gaza's infrastructure.

The deposed Hamas-led government in Gaza estimates that more than 5,000 buildings were completely destroyed and another 20,000 damaged or partially destroyed in the fighting.

Despite the three-week Israeli onslaught that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and destroyed thousands of buildings, Hamas and other Palestinian factions have claimed victory in the fighting.

Following his visit to Gaza, the UN chief also visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot - one of the main targets for Palestinian rocket-launching squads based in Gaza.

Ban said he was "totally committed to Israel securing its rightful place as a nation within secure and recognised borders" and called for the current ceasefires to be turned into a durable truce "respected fully by all parties concerned".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Tuesday, January 20, 2009
12:34 Mecca time, 09:34 GMT

Israel accused of war crimes

Israel insists all weapons used complied with international law

Human rights group Amnesty International has accused Israel of war crimes, saying its use of white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip was indiscriminate and illegal.

The accusations from the London-based organisation came as the scale of the destruction caused by the Israeli assault on the Palestinian territory overwhelmed Gazans.

Amnesty is not the first group to accuse Israel of using white phosphorus.

Human Rights Watch made the accusation on January 10 and the UN has also said Israel used the munition during its offensive in Gaza.

Donatella Rovera, a researcher with Amnesty, said: "Such extensive use of this weapon in Gaza's densely populated residential neighbourhoods is inherently indiscriminate."

"Its repeated use in this manner, despite evidence of its indiscriminate effects and its toll on civilians, is a war crime," she said.

Ample evidence

The use of white phosphorus is not prohibited under international law, but the indiscriminate use of any weapon in an area crowded with civilians could be used as the basis to make war crimes charges, legal experts have said.

Israel said last week that all weapons used during its three-week campaign in Gaza complied with international law, but said it would carry out an internal investigation following Amnesty's accusations.

"In response to the claims ... relating to the use of phosphorus weapons, and in order to remove any ambiguity, an investigative team has been established in southern command to look into the issue," the Israeli army said.

Amnesty's accusations are made on the basis of an on-the-ground study by Chris Cobb-Smith, a British weapons expert who visited Gaza as part of a four-person Amnesty team following the start of a ceasefire on Sunday.

Cobb-Smith said he had found widespread evidence of the use of the incendiary material.

"We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still-burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army," he said in a statement.

"White phosphorus is a weapon intended to provide a smokescreen for troop movements on the battlefield. It is highly incendiary, air burst and its spread effect is such that it should never be used on civilian areas."

'War crimes'

When white phosphorous lands on skin it burns through muscle and into the bone, continuing to burn unless deprived of oxygen.

Amnesty said that one of the places worst-affected by the use of white phosphorous munitions was the UN Relief and Works Agency compound in Gaza, which Israel shelled on January 15.

In another incident on the same day, a white phosphorus shell landed in the al-Quds hospital in Gaza City, causing a fire and forcing hospital staff to evacuate patients.

At the time, the UN had accused Israel of using white phosphorus, but the Israeli army refused to comment.

Israel faces potential claims in international courts for its actions in Gaza, where it launched an offensive against Hamas on December 27 with the stated aim of stopping the Palestinian group from firing rockets into Israel.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, said on Monday that she was "at peace" with the actions Israel had taken during the conflict.

Source: Agencies

Monday, January 19, 2009
22:44 Mecca time, 19:44 GMT

Outcry over weapons used in Gaza

One doctor described the injuries as 'new' and 'much more dramatic' than landmine wounds

Medics working in the Gaza Strip have condemned Israel's use of suspected "new weapons" that inflict horrific injuries they say most surgeons will not have seen before.

Dr Jan Brommundt, a German doctor working for Medecins du Monde in the south Gazan city of Khan Younis, described the injuries he had seen as "absolutely gruesome".

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Tuesday, Brommundt said surgeons had reported many cases where casualties had lost both legs rather than one, prompting suspicions that the Israelis were using some form of Dense Inert Metal Explosives (Dime).

When detonated, a Dime device expels a blade of charged tungsten dust that burns and destroys everything within a four-metre radius.

Brommundt also described widespread but previously unseen abdominal injuries that appear minor at first but degenerate within hours causing multi-organ failure.

"Initially everything seems in order... but they will present within one to five hours with an acute abdomen which looks like appendicitus but it turns out on operation that dozens of miniature particles can be found in all of their organs," he said.

"It seems to be some sort of explosive or shell that disperses tiny particles at around 1x1 or 2x1 millimetres that penetrate all organs, these miniature injuries, you are not able to attack them surgically."

The doctors said many patients succomb to septicaemia and die within 24 hours.

Dr Erik Fosse, a Norwegian surgeon who worked at the Al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza during the Israeli offensive in Gaza, also told Al Jazeera there was a significant increase in double amputations.

"We suspect they [Israel] used Dime weapons because we saw cases of huge amputations or flesh torn off the lower parts of the body," he said.

"The pressure wave [from a Dime device] moves from the ground upwards and that's why the majority of patients have huge injuries to the lower part of the body and abdomen."

Cancer fears

Fosse described the injuries as "extreme" and "much more dramatic" than those inflicted by landmines as "legs are blown off to the groin, it's like they have been cut to pieces".

He described them as "new injuries" that most doctors will not have come across, although he noted similar wounds were reported in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Noting that Dime explosives are precision weapons that are supposed to minimise civilian casualties, Fosse said: "The problem is that most of the patients I saw were children. If they [the Israelis] are trying to be accurate, it seems obvious these weapons were aimed at children."

Fosse called on the UN to establish a body in Gaza to monitor survivors to see if they developed cancer, following claims Dime devices contain radioactive material.

Medics and observers have also accused the Israelis of using white phosphorus - banned from use near civilians under international law - in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International (AI) said on Monday that delegates it sent to Gaza had found "indisputable evidence of widespread use of white phosphorus in densely populated residential areas in Gaza City and in the north".

"We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phoshorus, including still burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army," Christopher Cobb-Smith, a weapons expert touring Gaza as part of AI's four-person delegation, said.

White phosphorus is a toxic chemical that causes severe burns and sparks fires that are difficult to extinguish.

It is dispersed in artillery shells, bombs and rockets and burns on contact with oxygen and is used to create a smokescreen to hide the movement of troops.

War crimes?

Israel fiercely denies using weapons in such a way as to contravene international law.

Major Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military, reiterated Israel was using "munitions that other militaries in the world are using" and that weapons were deployed "according to international law" .

Pressed on the number of civilian and child casualties in Gaza, she accused Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls the territory, of hiding fighters within civilian areas and using ordinary Gazans as "human shields".

Leibovich also said the international community needed to ask itself whether Hamas and other Palestinian factions had committed war crimes by firing rockets at Israeli citizens for eight years.

More than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the 22-day offensive, many of them woman and children, and 5,340 injured. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers and three civilians, have been killed in the same period.

The number of civilian deaths has provoked an international outcry, with senior UN officials demanding an independent investigation into whether Israel has committed war crimes.

The likelihood of either side being subject to a war-crimes action seems remote as the International Criminal Court (ICC) has no jurisdiction to investigate because the Gaza Strip is not a state.

In addition, Israel has not signed the Rome Statute that enshrined the ICC so any investigation would require a UN Security mandate - likely to be vetoed by Israel's ally, the US.

However, Mark Taylor, an international law expert, told Al Jazeera that individual commanders and politicians on both sides could be subject to legal actions lodged abroad.

"I think that Israelis in responsible positions, as well as Palestinians in responsible positions, are going to be looking over their shoulders in the days and weeks to come," he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

No comments: