Posts Tagged 'Gaza'

A Gaza Freedom March Participant Tells Her Story

SF Gray Panthers Newsletter, February, 2010, p 5

Our Own GP Foreign Correspondent’s Eyewitness Report from Cairo

In late December 2008, Israel embarked on its brutal assault on the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead, killing approximately 1400 Palestinians. A year later, in late December 2009, approximately 1400 international nonviolence activists from over 40 countries, converged in Cairo, Egypt, with the goal of entering the Gaza Strip to march with the people of Gaza in the Gaza Freedom March (GFM), calling for an end to the siege of Gaza.

From the time they arrived in Cairo, the international solidarity activists—including SF Gray Panther Arla S. Ertz—met with hurdles thrown up by the Egyptian government that prohibited the group not only from entering Gaza, but even from setting out on previously chartered buses to the Egyptian town of Al-Arish, near the Gazan border. Moreover, the Egyptian government revoked all permits for venues the GFM organizers had arranged for the international group’s meetings in Cairo.

Arla and co-marchers with police behind

Arla and co-marchers after police stopped a march through Cairo. See below.

GFM delegates came up with creative ways to communicate, meet, and organize to counter Egypt’s attempt to stop the march.  First, delegates headed in small groups to a bridge across the Nile, where they tied flowers and cards bearing messages memorializing the Gazans who had died a year ago, winning support from Egyptian passers-by, until the police caught on and abruptly ended the tribute, ripping the cards and flowers from the bridge’s railings. Later delegates moved on to the next action—releasing 1400 memorial candles in biodegradable cups into the Nile from dozens of feluccas, traditional open sailboats—but the police ordered the boat owners to cancel their rentals to the group. Undeterred, they conducted a candlelight procession on the sidewalk along the Nile, with much impassioned chanting and singing, lasting for hours into the evening. Egyptian motorists in the heavily traveled area witnessed the strong international support for Gaza.

Succeeding days brought increasingly intensified actions, including a highly spirited rally outside the World Trade Center building, which houses the local UN office. Three representatives, including Philippine parliament member Walden Bello, met with UN officials to persuade them to urge the Egyptian government to reverse its prohibition and allow passage to Gaza, without success. Also, many delegates approached their respective embassies. One day, Arla met with diplomats at the US Embassy, but no amount of discussion would move them to take steps on the group’s behalf. Another day, a group returned to the US Embassy, only to be held in detention by Egyptian police for five hours! Repeated calls to officials inside the US Embassy failed to garner their release. A highlight action was a rousing rally held by Egyptians on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate, with internationals present in support, especially moving because speaking out this way is highly risky for Egyptians under their repressive government.

A rally at the Syndicate of Journalists

A rally at the Syndicate of Journalists

Huge banners at rally at Syndicate of Journalists

Huge banners at the rally at the Syndicate of Journalists

In the end, delegates decided that if they couldn’t march in Gaza, they would march to Gaza, and organized the march for December 31. Small groups headed for the Egyptian Museum, posing as ordinary tourists, and gathered relatively inconspicuously in various spots nearby. On signal, they converged, whipped out banners and flags, and began to march! For some minutes, they marched for Gaza.

March under way, represetative from S. Africa

The march under way, representative from Congress of South African Trade Unions carries olive branch.

The march under way.

The march under way.

Then, the police surged on the marchers en masse, using force to stop them. Plainclothes officers dragged Arla by the arms through the street, tossing her on the sidewalk. Police dragged and beat other delegates, finally cordoning all the marchers into one area, which delegates declared “Free Gaza Square,” and held a rally with heart-felt speeches by internationals from various countries.

Police stop, contain GFM marchers

Police stop and contain the Gaza Freedom Marchers, isolating them by holding hands.

Although the GFM was fraught with difficulties and disappointments, positive outcomes rose from it. For one, the GFM closed by adopting the Cairo Declaration, a position statement developed by the South African contingent. For another, the GFM events in Cairo cast a spotlight on Egypt’s undeniable complicity in the siege of Gaza along with Israel, with the US backing both of them. We must all call attention to the underground steel wall Egypt is building, with US financial and technical support, designed to cut off Gaza’s lifeline by blocking the tunnels that provide the only way for Gazans to receive the supplies they need for daily living, such as food, pure water, construction materials, and school supplies. We need to call upon our government to investigate alleged violations of the US Arms Export Control Act by Israel in its assaults on Gaza.  JUSTICE FOR GAZA!

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Mahmoud Abbas’ chronic submissiveness

Haaretz,  October 5, 2009

Mahmoud Abbas’ chronic submissiveness

By Amira Hass

In a single phone call to his man in Geneva, Mahmoud Abbas has demonstrated his disregard for popular action, and his lack of faith in its accumulative power and the place of mass movements in processes of change.

For nine months, thousands of people – Palestinians, their supporters abroad and Israeli anti-occupation activists – toiled to ensure that the legacy of Israel’s military offensive against Gaza would not be consigned to the garbage bin of occupying nations obsessed with their feelings of superiority.

Thanks to the Goldstone report, even in Israel voices began to stammer about the need for an independent inquiry into the assault. But shortly after Abbas was visited by the American consul-general on Thursday, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization got on the phone to instruct his representative on the United Nations Human Rights Council to ask his colleagues to postpone the vote on the adoption of the report’s conclusions.

Heavy American pressure and the resumption of peace negotiations were the reasons for Abbas’ move, it was said. Palestinian spokespeople spun various versions over the weekend in an attempt to make the move kosher, explaining that it was not a cancelation but a six-month postponement that Abbas was seeking.

Will the American and European representatives in Geneva support the adoption of the report in six months’ time? Will Israel heed international law in the coming months, stop building in the settlements and announce immediate negotiations on their dismantlement and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories? Is this what adoption of the report would have endangered? Of course not.

A great deal of political folly and short-sightedness was bared by that phone call, on the eve of Hamas’s celebration of its victory in securing the release of 20 female prisoners. Precisely on that day, Abbas put Gaza in the headlines within the context of the PLO’s defeatism and of spitting in the face of the victims of the attack – that is how they felt in Gaza and elsewhere.

Abbas confirmed in fact that Hamas is the real national leadership, and gave ammunition to those who claim that its path – the path of armed struggle – yields results that negotiations do not.

This was not an isolated gaffe, but a pattern that has endured since the PLO leadership concocted, together with naive Norwegians and shrewd Israeli lawyers, the Oslo Accords. Disregard for, and lack of interest in the knowledge and experience accumulated in the inhabitants of the occupied territories’ prolonged popular struggle led to the first errors: the absence of an explicit statement that the aim was the establishment of a state within defined borders, not insisting on a construction freeze in the settlements, forgetting about the prisoners, endorsing the Area C arrangement, etc.

The chronic submissiveness is always explained by a desire to “make progress.” But for the PLO and Fatah, progress is the very continued existence of the Palestinian Authority, which is now functioning more than ever before as a subcontractor for the IDF, the Shin Bet security service and the Civil Administration.

This is a leadership that has been convinced that armed struggle – certainly in the face of Israeli military superiority – cannot bring independence. And indeed, the disastrous repercussions of the Second Intifada are proof of this position. This is a leadership that believes in negotiation as a strategic path to obtaining a state and integration in the world that the United States is shaping.

But in such a world there is personal gain that accrues from chronic submissiveness – benefits enjoyed by the leaders and their immediate circles. This personal gain shapes the tactics.

Is the choice really only between negotiations and armed-struggle theater, the way the Palestinian leadership makes it out to be? No.

The true choice is between negotiations as part of a popular struggle anchored in the language of the universal culture of equality and rights, and negotiations between business partners with the junior partner submissively expressing his gratitude to the senior partner for his generosity.

Breaking the Silence: “Israeli war crimes were daily and too numerous to count”

The recently released report of Israeli soldiers in Gaza, “Breaking the Silence,” which attested to war crimes there,  but a March 30 Palestine Monitor report, “Israeli war crimes were daily and too numerous to count,” tells the story in more detail.  It is reproduced below.

Common Dreams, Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Israeli Soldiers in Gaza Describe a ‘Moral Twilight Zone’

by Dion Nissenbaum

JERUSALEM – Israeli combat soldiers have acknowledged that they forced Palestinian civilians to serve as human shields, needlessly killed unarmed Gazans and improperly used white phosphorus shells to burn down buildings as part of Israel’s three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip last winter.

[Israeli mobile artillery fires shells towards the Gaza Strip on January 9. Israeli soldiers involved in the war on Gaza were told to shoot first and worry about the consequences later, and used Palestinian civilians as human shields, an activist group's report has said. (AFP/File/Jack Guez)]Israeli mobile artillery fires shells towards the Gaza Strip on January 9. Israeli soldiers involved in the war on Gaza were told to shoot first and worry about the consequences later, and used Palestinian civilians as human shields, an activist group’s report has said. (AFP/File/Jack Guez)

In filmed testimony and written statements released Wednesday, more than two dozen soldiers told an Israeli army veterans’ group that military commanders led the fighters into what one described as a “moral Twilight Zone” where almost every Palestinian was seen as a threat.

Soldiers described incidents in which Israeli forces killed an unarmed Palestinian carrying a white cloth, an elderly woman carrying a sack, a Gazan riding a motorcycle, and an elderly man with a flashlight, said Breaking the Silence, a group formed by army reservists in 2004.

Any Palestinian spotted near Israeli troops was considered suspect. A man talking on a cell phone on the roof of his building was viewed as a legitimate target because he could’ve been telling militants where to find Israeli forces, the group quoted soldiers as saying.

“In urban warfare, everyone is your enemy,” said one soldier. “No innocents.”

The 110-pages of testimony – along with 16 video clips – of interviews with 26 unnamed Israeli soldiers offers the most comprehensive look inside a military campaign that’s become the subject of an unfolding United Nations war crimes investigation.

The Israel Defense Forces dismissed the report.

IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said Tuesday that the IDF now is conducting dozens of investigations into troop conduct during the Gaza operation and that more than a dozen cases led to police investigations.

In April, the IDF announced it had concluded five high-level investigations, including one into the use of phosphorus to burn down buildings, and cleared itself.

Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, said the report didn’t identify the soldiers by name because at least half the men quoted were young conscripts who could be jailed for speaking to the media. He agreed, however, to name the units and where they were operating in several instances.

Two soldiers from the Givati brigade who served in Zeitoun told the story of shooting an unarmed civilian without warning him.

The elderly man was walking with a flashlight toward a building where Israeli forces were taking cover.

The Israeli officer in the house repeatedly ignored requests from other soldiers to fire warning shots as the man approached, the soldiers said. Instead, when he got within 20 yards of the soldiers, the commander ordered snipers to kill the man.

The soldiers later confirmed that the man was unarmed.

When they complained to their commander about the incident, the soldiers were rebuffed and told that anyone walking at night was immediately suspect.

Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights attorney who reviewed the testimony, said the stories reflected a “dramatic change in the ethos” of the Israeli military that portrays itself as the most moral army in the world.

“What we are seeing now is a deterioration of our moral values and red lines,” Sfard said. “This is a dramatic change in heart and values.”

Israel launched the 22-day military offensive on Dec. 27 in a bid to destabilize the Hamas-led government and deter Palestinian militants who’ve fired thousands of crude rockets and mortars at southern Israel that have killed 12 people in the past four years.

Nine Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza during the fighting, four of them by friendly fire.

By contrast, Palestinian human rights groups and Gaza medical officials said that 1,400 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, were killed by Israeli forces. The Israeli military has questioned that figure, but hasn’t made its own analysis available for review.

Breaking the Silence identified other specific instances in which Israeli forces carried out highly questionable practices.

According to the soldiers, the Israeli military fired white phosphorus mortars and artillery shells to set suspicious buildings ablaze and destroyed scores of Palestinian homes for questionable reasons. The white phosphorus supplied by the U.S. is supposed to be used to illuminate targets or provide smoke cover for advancing troops.

“Phosphorus was used as an igniter, simply make it all go up in flames,” one soldier said.

A second soldier – said by the reservists’ group to have been in a tank brigade stationed in the Atatra neighborhood – told Breaking the Silence that at least one officer fired unauthorized white phosphorus mortars because it was “cool.”

The use of white phosphorus to destroy buildings was part of a larger campaign to demolish parts of Gaza to make it more difficult for Palestinian militants to fire rockets at Israel, the soldiers said.

One soldier, who served in an infantry reserve unit of the Negev Brigade near Netzarim, said they were repeatedly told by officers to raze buildings as part of a campaign to prepare for “the day after.”

“In practical terms, this meant taking a house that is not implicated in any way, that its single sin is the fact that it is situated on top of a hill in the Gaza Strip,” said one soldier.

“In a personal talk with my battalion commander he mentioned this and said in a sort of sad half-smile, I think, that this is something that will eventually be added to ‘my war crimes,” he added.

In the Ezbt Abd Rabbo neighborhood, Israeli combatants said they forced Palestinians to search homes for militants and enter buildings ahead of soldiers in direct violation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that bars fighters from using civilians as human shields.

“Sometimes a force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian’s shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield,” said one Israeli soldier with the Golani Brigade. “Commanders said these were the instructions, and we had to do it.”

Each Palestinian forced to work with the Israeli military was given the same nickname: Johnnie.

The story was confirmed by four other Israeli soldiers who seized control of the Gaza neighborhood, but declined to speak on the record, Shaul said.

The testimony matches with that of nine Palestinian men who told McClatchy last winter that Israeli soldiers forced them into battle zones during the offensive in their northern Gaza Strip neighborhood.

One Palestinian, Castro Abed Rabbo, said Israeli soldiers ordered him to enter buildings to search for militants and booby traps before they sent in a specially trained dog with high-tech detection gear.

Two other Palestinian men told McClatchy that Israeli soldiers used them as human shields by forcing them to kneel in a field during a firefight as they exchanged fire with Gaza fighters.

“I was down on my knees and they fanned out in a ‘V’ behind me,” Sami Rashid Mohammed, a Fatah-leaning former Palestinian Authority police officer, said in an unpublished interview in February. “It wasn’t more than 10 or 15 minutes of shooting, but it was so scary.”

One of the Israeli soldiers interviewed described the offensive was necessary.

“We did what we had to do,” he said. “The actual doing was a bit thoughtless. We were allowed to do anything we wanted. Who’s to tell us not to?”

One Israeli reservist said a brigade commander gave them stark orders as they were preparing for combat.

“He said something along the line of ‘Don’t let morality become an issue; that will come later,'” the soldier said. “He had this strange language: ‘Leave the nightmares and horrors that will come up for later – now just shoot.”

“You felt like a child playing around with a magnifying glass, burning up ants,” another Israeli soldier said. “A 20-year-old kid should not be doing such things to people. . . . the guys were running a ‘Wild West’ scene: draw, cock, kill.”

(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this article from Jerusalem.)

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Palestine Monitor, March 30, 2009

“Israeli war crimes were daily and too numerous to count”

In the past few days various internationally recognized associations have heavily condemned the Israeli actions in Gaza, shedding light on the recurrent crimes. Alleged accusations are becoming more certain now and are being backed up with evidence and testimonies from both sides, including the Israeli soldiers themselves. Even war has rules and they were repeatedly breached. What is justice waiting for?

Two months after the end of the deadly Israeli assault on the Gaza strip tongues are loosened and several human rights organizations, along with journalists and UN officials, are now releasing reports gathering evidences on war crimes carried out by Israel.

Human Right Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights and many more are now seeking for inquiry with a common aim: shedding documented light on Israel’s human rights violations and war crimes during the Cast Lead operation. Their message is united and clear: an international independent investigation is needed. Time has finally come for the State to give accountability for the 23 days of continuous, barbaric actions in the Strip.

For the first time since its creation in 1948, and after 40 years of occupation of Palestinian land, the Israeli government is facing serious allegations of war crimes, issued by respected figures throughout the world. Even war has rules and they have been breached several times.

Today detailed evidence of alleged war crimes committed by Israel has been released. It includes various inhuman actions such as the use of Palestinian children as human shield, firing upon medical teams on duty and the willful use of prohibited weapons.

If these allegations have been publicized since the beginning of the aggression what has change now is that facts are now being backed up by Israeli soldiers’ narratives and irrefutable evidence.

Detailed reports now attest that it is pointless and naïve to still believe in the Israeli assumption that Cast lead aimed only at Hamas. The reality is that it left one in every 250 residents of the Strip killed or severely injured. [1]

Similarly, the Israeli claim of acting strictly within the frame of the international law sounds hollow too.

They said their snipers were moral and well trained, they said their artilleries were amongst the most sophisticated in the world, their targets were so accurate and their drones so precise that their operators can tell the color of the clothes worn by a target. They claimed this would prevent any mistake.

In Gaza, over 900 ‘mistakes’ were committed.

As time passes and reports flow, it is becoming obvious that many ‘mistakes’ were intentional and planned. By commanders consciously using weapons they shouldn’t, by firing upon harmless targets or by giving orders that bypassed the rules of war. Facts and evidence below speak for themselves. The decimated population can no longer be considered as ‘collateral damage’. It was deliberate.

We have claimed this since the very beginning of the attacks. But apparently Palestinian voices count less than international ones, so we have collected them for you. This is what they have reported:

The first obvious feature that characterized the assault since its very first hour was the disproportionate use of force against civilians as a response to the rocket attacks.

Internationally impartial human rights groups commonly attested that the majority of the offenses have been committed by Israel. In terms of victims, there were 1,400 Palestinian killed in Gaza in 23 days while since 2002, there have been 21 Israeli deaths by rockets fired from Gaza. During Cast Lead Operation three Israeli civilian deaths were reported, six Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinian fire and four by friendly fire.

The tactic used on Gaza was broadly inhuman as Israel had imposed a heavy siege on the Strip for the eighteen months that preceded the Cast Lead attack and totally severed entry in the days leading up to the operation. Besieged and closed from the rest of the world, no one could escape. Neither harmless civilians seeking safety, nor the injured, turning Gaza into an open-air jail. There was nowhere to escape further bombing for Gaza’s residents while Israel failed to differentiate between civilian and military targets.

Richard Falk, a senior UN official recently suggested that Israel should be held accountable for a “new crime against humanity” during its January assault on the Gaza strip, mentioning that Israel had confined Palestinian civilians to the combat zone in Gaza, a unique move which should be outlawed.

“Such a war policy should be treated as a distinct and new crime against humanity, and should be formally recognised as such, and explicitly prohibited,” Falk said in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva as part of a much longer report from nine UN investigators including specialists on the right to health, food, adequate housing and education, as well as on summary executions and violence against women.

1. Children as human shield

The UN special Rapporteur for Children in armed conflict reported this week that the Israeli soldiers used an 11 year-old boy as a human shield during the latest Israeli aggression against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the Cast Lead operation. According to the UN human rights experts, the Israeli soldiers forced the child to walk in front of them in the Tel Hawa neighborhood in Gaza city, using him while breaking into buildings and homes.

Later then, the Guardian reported the same inhuman tactic involving three Palestinian brothers, who gave their testimonies to the British journalist.

Al’a, Ali and Nafiz described how they were taken from their home at gunpoint, made to kneel in front of tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing and sent by Israeli soldiers into Palestinian houses to clear them.

“They would make us go first, so if any fighters shot at them the bullets would hit us, not them,” said 14-year-old Al’a al-Attar. His brothers further described how when the three of them were being led through built-up areas in their home town the soldiers would order them to suddenly stop – then fire their rifles over the brothers’ shoulders and between their legs.

The use of “human shields” is prohibited under article 28 of the fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by Israel and therefore bound by it. The use of human shields was further outlawed by Israel’s supreme court in 2005 following several clearly identified incidents. But human rights groups insist the Israeli military continues to use civilians in this way.

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13 year-old Mohammad Badwan was tied by the arm to an Israeli military jeep in Biddo in April 2004.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Rapporteur stated that several similar incidents took place during the war, with Israeli troops reported to have shot at harmless children, bulldozing homes –including a home were a woman and her child were still inside- as well as shelling a building after forcing dozens of civilians from the same family to gather into it a day earlier.

“Violations are carried out on a daily basis”, she commented, “they are too numerous to count”. But the UN experts will investigate the claims nonetheless.

The 43-page report was mostly denied by the Israeli ambassador to the UN, claiming that it “demonizes” Israel, stating that the UN is becoming “an informal bloc of African and Islamic Nations, supported by Russia and Cuba”.

2. “Fire upon rescue” – easing the rules of war

Physician for Human Rights, the Israeli human rights association, also released a report this week highlighting several attacks against medical teams on duty and medical centers in Gaza. The report also calls for an independent, unbiased international investigation into the Israeli violations of human rights in Gaza, especially violations against patients, the wounded and medical teams.

Medical teams on duty, Gaza 2009

The report detailed the work of doctors under fire, adding that attacks on medical teams were not isolated cases but recurrent actions.

According to the association the Israeli army barred medics, including the Red Cross movement, Amnesty International and UNRWA personnel from reaching wounded residents, further preventing first aid from reaching injured Palestinians. This led to a number of deaths and increased the already dramatic statistics.

The Israeli army never respected the rules of humanitarian law endorsed by 4th Geneva Convention that prohibit harming civilians and attacking medical facilities and medical personnel. Doctors and medical crew were often deliberately targeted. Soldiers killed 16 doctors and injured 25 in addition to shelling 34 medical centers, including overcrowded hospitals, and 26 first aid clinics.

Medical Human Rights groups affirm now that there was “certainty” that Israel violated the international humanitarian law during the war, with attacks on medics, damages to medical buildings and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and delaying medical treatment for the injured.

“We have noticed a stark decline in IDF morals concerning the Palestinian population of Gaza, which in reality amounts to a contempt for Palestinian lives,” said Dani Filc, chairman of Physicians for Human Rights Israel.

The Israeli army responded to those allegations, saying they were under orders to avoid harming medics, but: “However, in light of the difficult reality of warfare in the Gaza Strip carried out in urban and densely populated areas, medics who operate in the area take the risk upon themselves.”

What is this supposed to mean? That because Israel is firing upon Gaza, one of the most tiny and densely populated areas on the planet, doctors should stop carrying out their duty?

In Ha’aretz, Amira Hass backed up the human rights group’s claims by reporting that, days after the end of the hostilities a sheet of paper entitled “Situational assessment” was found in one of the Palestinian homes the IDF took over, with a handwritten notice mentioning “rules of engagement: Open fire upon rescue”, both in Hebrew. A reservist officer who did not take part in the Gaza offensive believes that the note is part of orders from a low-level commander written before giving his soldiers their daily briefing.

This week the Guardian reported that the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz discovered that the IDF’s international law division (ILD), the body responsible for advising Israeli forces on the legality of their actions, had authorised an easing of the rules of engagement in Gaza, including the targeting of medics.

A copy of the rules of engagement for Operation Cast Lead was obtained by Ha’aretz in the days before the offensive began. According to a journalist who saw the document the new, less stringent rules were approved at the highest levels of the Israeli military.

Ha’aretz was repeatedly blocked from publishing the document by the military censor.

3. White Phosphorus and unmanned drones distinguishing civilians

Several investigations into the high number of civilian deaths have found that Israel used a variety of weapons in illegal ways. Indiscriminate munitions, including shells packed with white phosphorus, were fired into densely populated areas, while precision missiles and tanks shells were fired into civilian homes.

Richard Falk, the UN special Rapporteur for the Human Rights in the oPt, made, during and after the invasion, countless declarations and statements denouncing the Israeli violations in Gaza. In his latest paper on alleged war crimes during the Cast Lead operation he describes why the 23 days of attacks in Gaza stand shockingly apart from much prior recourse to force by Israel to uphold its security and strategic interests.

In terms of battlefield practices Falk re-affirms the various allegations associated with the use of phosphorus bombs in residential areas of Gaza, as well as legal complaints about the use of a new cruel weapon, known as DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive), that explodes with such force that it rips body parts to pieces.

The controversial use of the lethal snow powder

Human Rights Watch made the news this week by providing documented evidence in its latest report entitled “rain of fire, Israel’s unlawful use of White Phosphorus in Gaza”, claiming war crimes were committed.

Since the beginning of the ground offensive in Gaza, several media sources reported the possible used of the chemical military ordnance, despite the IDF’s constant claim that no such thing has been used. “I can tell you with certainty that white phosphorus is absolutely not being used”, said an IDF spokesperson on CNN on the 7th of January, during the midst of the war.

Today HRW affirms it firmly: “Israel’s repeated firing of firing white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes.”

The 71-page report provides witness accounts of the devastating effects that the munitions have had on civilians and civilian property in Gaza. Its researchers went on the ground immediately after hostilities ended and found spent shells, canister liners and dozens of burnt felt wedges containing white phosphorus on city streets, apartment roofs, residential courtyards and at UN schools -a substance that has a significant, incidental, incendiary effect and can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire. Its principle is easy: the phosphorus burns anything it touches. The potential for harm to civilians is further magnified by Gaza’s high population density, among the highest in the world.

It is Israel’s tactical use of White Phosphorus that is controversial, as the ordnance in itself is not prohibited. Used as an “obscurant” (a chemical used to hide military operations) is permissible in principle under international humanitarian law (the laws of war). However, when used deliberately in open areas, white phosphorus munitions are illegal.

“In Gaza, the Israeli military didn’t just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops,” said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren’t in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died (…). For the needless civilian deaths caused by the white phosphorus, senior commanders should be held to account”, Abrahams said.

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White Phosphorus shells fall on a UN school converted into shelter, Jabalya/Gaza, January 2009
Picture: AP

According to HRW, in the recent Gaza operations Israeli forces frequently air-burst white phosphorus in artillery shells in and near populated areas. Each air-burst shell spreads 116 burning white phosphorus wedges in a radius extending up to 125 meters from the blast point. White phosphorus ignites and burns on contact with oxygen, and continues burning at up to 816 degrees Celsius until nothing is left or the oxygen supply is cut. When white phosphorus comes into contact with skin it creates intense and persistent burns.

Conclusion is reached that IDF repeatedly exploded it unlawfully over populated neighborhoods, killing and wounding civilians and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a hospital.

According to HRW, The IDF knew that white phosphorus posed life-threatening dangers to civilians. A medical report prepared during the recent hostilities by the Israeli ministry of health said that white phosphorus “can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed.” Burns on less than 10 percent of the body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys and heart, the ministry report says. Infection is common and the body’s absorption of the chemical can cause serious damage to internal organs, as well as death.

Israel at first denied it was using white phosphorus in Gaza but, facing mounting evidence to the contrary, said that it was using all weapons in compliance with international law. Later it announced an internal investigation into possible improper white phosphorus use.

Precise unmanned drones hitting harmless families

White phosphorus was not the only controversial weapon used: Israel’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – were also reported to have killed civilians.

The drones are operated from a remote position, usually outside the combat zone. They use optics that are able to see the details of a man’s clothing and are fitted with pinpoint accurate missiles, Israel claims. If this is so, why then has it been reported that drones have killed at least 48 civilians, as claimed earlier this week by the Guardian presenting the conclusions of its investigations in Gaza?

Mounir al-Jarah’s family was decimated by the unmanned weapon.

On the 16th of January a rocket fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle killed Mounir’s sister, her husband and four of her children, who drinking tea in their small courtyard in Gaza. All six members of the family were blown to pieces. “We found Mohammed lying there, cut in half. Ahmed was in three pieces; Wahid was totally burnt – his eyes were gone. Wahid’s father was dead. Nour had been decapitated. We couldn’t see her head anywhere”, she reported to the Guardian.

Drones are known to be extremely accurate. If Israel was effectively only aiming fighters, then why was a peaceful family drinking tea in a garden blown to pieces? Why were a group of girls walking in the street targeted too? Along with children playing in a field? These are only few cases reported by the Guardian on the use of unmanned drones killing harmless civilians.

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Israeli-made Drone, known as Hermes 450
Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Though Israel still claim their use of weapons conforms with international law and denied having used unmanned drones on Gaza, the Guardian found in the online version of an Israeli army magazine, Major Gil, the deputy commander of the first UAV squadron, describes using the drones to carry out attacks during this offensive. He describes being able clearly monitor accurately everything and to clearly distinguish fighters from women and children and other civilians.

On the drone’s use, as it is the case for the White phosphorus, teams of human rights investigators and international law experts are now building the case for war crimes charges against Israel for having killed so many civilians.

4. Home destruction ‘wanton’

During the 23-days of what should be better named an aggression than a war, UNDP estimated that 14,000 Palestinian homes were destroyed, along with 219 factories and 240 schools.

But most of them, said human right groups, were not necessary but rather deliberate destruction aimed at ruining Palestinian lives and economy.

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Over 14,000 homes have been destroyed during the Cast Lead operation, Gaza 2009
Picture: AP

Amnesty International challenges the Israeli main narrative that “buildings were destroyed because of the military operation needs”, by releasing evidences of the use of mines. Fragments of anti-tank mines have been found in the rubbles of destroyed properties, highlighting that houses were blown from below, rather than being destroyed from above in an airstrike.

“Israeli troops have to leave their vehicles to plant the mines, indicating that they faced no danger and that there was no military or operational justification. (…) Unless those operating on the ground felt not just 100% but 200% secure – that the places were not booby trapped, that they wouldn’t come under fire – they could not have got out of the vehicles,” she said. “They would not have used that method”, said Donatella Rovera, the head of the AI fact-finding mission to Southern Israel and Gaza.

This allegation is furthermore backed up by the conclusion of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group, stating that “many demolitions had been carried out when there was no immediate threat” and that “from the testimonies that we’ve gathered, lots of demolitions – buildings demolished either by bulldozers or explosives – were done after the area was under Israeli control,” said Yehuda Shaul, one of the group’s members.

Though destruction of civilian property is not illegal in itself under international law, it must be justifiable on military grounds – for example if the building was booby trapped or being used as cover for enemy fighters which was apparently not always the case.

But wanton destruction on a large scale would qualify as a war crime, emphasized Amnesty. Could 15,000 private homes constitute a ‘large scale’? It is likely so.

5. Inhumanity among the Israeli army, dehumanizing the Palestinians – the mature fruit of the occupation

Another investigation from Ha’aretz made a lot of noise this week, embarrassing strongly the Israeli commanders when the newspaper published striking testimonies from Israeli soldiers involved in the Gaza fighting, in which they described the shooting of civilians and the low regard held among the troops for Palestinians.

Over 20 documented occasions have been reported on which Israeli soldiers were seen firing at women and children carrying white flags.

Their horrendous tales includes the killing of an elderly and harmless Palestinian woman walking on a road and the willful killing of a woman and her two children, after been told they would be safe.

A young sharpshooter witnessed his colleague’s crime and testified: “I don’t think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way,” he said.

Though we had already assumed this, it has now been revealed by several testimonies from the army itself that soldiers acted in complete disregard to the Palestinian lives in Gaza.

Rules of engagement were also reported to have been eased, such as allowing the clearing out of Palestinian houses by shooting without warning the residents beforehand. An IDF squad leader is quoted in the daily newspaper Ha’aretz as saying his soldiers interpreted the rules to mean “we should kill everyone there [in the centre of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist.”

Acts of unjustified vandalism where also common such as writing ’death to the Arabs’ on the walls of a family house or to take family pictures and spit on them. “I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It’s what I’ll remember the most”, testified a squad leader, who took part in the operation.

JPG - 23.6 kb
A Palestinian man looks through a door as he stands in a home commandeered by Israeli soldiers during the recent Gaza offensive, in Gaza City, Monday, March 23, 2009. The Hebrew graffiti on the wall reads “The eternal people has no fear”, bottom, and “Shaked”, a name referring to an army battalion. In recent testimony, several Israeli soldiers confirmed they were engaged in unnecessary destruction.
Picture: AP

Those testimonies further challenge the IDF claim that “The Israeli army is the most moral army in the world”, and, as more and more emerge by the day, it is also very unlikely to believe in the argument that these are isolated incidents.

They are far from being isolated. And further away from being incidents.

If it is satisfactory that the eyes of the world have now been opened to the Israeli violations, one should never forget that they neither start nor stop with the Gaza operation. Those who have monitored the situation in Gaza and the West Bank for months or years know that everything started long before this and violations are not limited to the tiny, besieged strip.

Further from Gaza, in the towns and cities of the West Bank it isn’t much different. Illegal bombs or drones are not used, but prohibited bullets are shot at close range to peaceful demonstrators and the constant humiliation and the killing of the innocent is routine.

The dehumanization of the IDF troops is the result of a long lasting process. It is the result of dozens of years of occupation in which an entire generation of soldiers has grown into a context of impunity where demolishing Palestinian houses or killing children has become common.

Gideon Levy, a well-know Ha’aretz columnist further noted that “Most of the soldiers who took part in the assault on Gaza are youths with morals. They will escort an old woman across the street or rescue earthquake victims. But in Gaza, when faced with the inhuman Palestinians, the package will always be suspicious, the brainwashing will be stupefying and the core principles will change. That is the only way they can kill and engage in wanton destruction without deliberating or wrestling with their consciences, not even telling their friends or girlfriends what they did.”

It is an entire trend that has to be reversed. And it can only be done by challenging the impunity that the Israeli army and government had benefited from for over six decades.

We do not want the IDF to investigate their crimes. We want an impartial, independent investigation that would ask for individual accountability

Gathering these cases above, we now have what we need: facts and evidence.

During the Operation so many citizens around the world expressed their solidarity with Gazans and their tiredness of Israel being far above every rule and killing with total impunity. Thousands and thousands of world citizens, led by their conscience and beliefs in social justice, stood up in the cold to pressure their government. The message was unique: “Act to End This Now.”

The laws of war obligate states to investigate impartially allegations of war crimes. The IDF won’t be impartial. Israel has to be under independent investigation for the war crimes, along with the governments which supplied Israel with its munitions.

Though the Israeli army, now embarrassed, claimed it would investigate such violations it appears to be very unlikely that any serious steps towards justice will be taken by the army itself.

Without a proper independent investigation there will be no deterrent. We need a binding, compulsory conclusion that would finally mean something on the ground. If not, the message of the international community will remain the same, “keep on doing what we don’t like, there will be no sanctions.”

To change this we need a political will and courage. Various bodies announced their will to investigate the Israeli crimes and charged the State for war crimes.

Judges who participated in investigation committees into crimes in Darfur, the former Yugoslavia and East-Timor, decided to set up a similar international committee to investigate “all the parties” in the IDF offensive on Gaza, concluding that these events go beyond isolated incidents and that “the problem is not only soldiers’ behavior, but the instructions from the senior military ranks and the minister in charge.”

Similarly, the UK has announced unofficially this week the impossibility to hold its promise to Israel to cover up their war crimes. As the British law permits private citizens to press charges against foreigners on war crimes the legislation permits the arrest of IDF officers visiting Britain on war crimes. The UK promised the Israeli government to amend the law, protecting the State from any investigation from their side.

But the UK just stepped back under the pressure of its public opinion, claiming that “as a result of the decline in Israel’s public image following the Cast lead Operation, the government believes it will be unable to pass the amendment to the legislation before the next elections”, understanding that for its citizens, backing up Israel blindly is not synonymous with gaining voices anymore.

This is a discrete trend, but a good sign, that impunity might not last any longer.

If international NGO’s, the United Nations, and the citizens are behind us What are we waiting for? What are you waiting for?

[1] 1,450 Palestinians were killed, including at least 960 were civilians and among them 431 children and 114 women.

Israeli Journalist Amira Hass on the state of relations between Israel and Palestine

Both Israelis and Palestinians needed to exaggerate the Palestinian military threat to Israel for their own reasons. There is no way the Israeli figures about combatants among those killed are correct. And Hamas doesn’t want to break the myth that they could stand up against the Israeli army. …  About 58,800 housing units have been built with government approval in the West Bank over the [past] 40 years. An additional 46,500 have already obtained Defense Ministry approval within the existing master plans. Others say that it’s too late now to dismantle the settlements. So, actually, any solution which is based on the two states is obsolete.

Democracy Now, June 2, 2009

Israeli Journalist Amira Hass on the Start of the UN’s Probe into Possible Israeli War Crimes during Gaza War

The actions of the Israeli army during its twenty-two-day assault on the Gaza Strip earlier this year are back in the spotlight with the arrival of a United Nations delegation in Gaza this Monday. The fifteen-member team will be investigating possible war crimes and other violations of international law during Israel’s military assault. It’s headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone, who was the former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Israel opposes the investigation and denied the delegation visas, forcing them to enter Gaza through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing.

This is a conversation between Democracy Now host Amy Goodman and Amira Hass, author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land under Siege and Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land. Her latest book, out later this month from Haymarket Books, is a diary written by her mother, Hanna Levy-Hass, of surviving the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. It’s called Diary of Bergen-Belsen, 1944-1945.

AMY GOODMAN: The actions of the Israeli army during the twenty-two-day assault on the Gaza Strip earlier this year are back in the spotlight with the arrival of the UN delegation in Gaza this Monday. The fifteen-member team will be investigating whether possible war crimes and other violations of international law during Israel’s military assault. It’s headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone, who was the former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Israel opposes the investigation, denies the delegation visas, forcing them to enter Gaza through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York Monday and said the UN should investigate Hamas’s rockets and not alleged war crimes by Israel. He later told reporters Israel would not cooperate with the investigation, saying “From our experience, we well know that they will never be able to talk to the other side and to penetrate or to interrogate the series of terrorist operations along years, including thousands of rockets and missiles fell upon the heads of Israeli citizens, in order to get a unbiased conclusion. And knowing the procedures by which such operations are taken, I don’t think that Israel has to or will cooperate with this interrogation.

Human rights groups and Palestinian officials say over 1,400 Palestinians, including over 900 civilians, were killed in what Israel calls “Operation Cast Lead.” Israel disputes the figures, claiming less than 300 civilian deaths. The Israeli Defense Forces-led investigation concluded last month there was no evidence of serious misconduct by its troops.

I’m joined now by the renowned Israeli journalist Amira Hass, regular columnist for Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper. She has spent more than a decade living in and reporting from Gaza and the West Bank, the only Israeli journalist to do this, and returned to Gaza this year a few days after the official end of Israel’s assault. She spent the next four months living in Gaza, documenting accounts of the war and its aftermath.  Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. The latest news of the UN delegation, headed by the jurist Richard Goldstone of South Africa, being denied visas, so they’re going through the Rafah border controlled by Egypt.

AMIRA HASS: This is not the first delegation and the first investigation committee that has been denied Israeli cooperation. There was one by the Arab League that came in February and also did not receive any cooperation on the Israeli part. And it’s very strange. If they didn’t have anything to hide, if the Israelis didn’t have anything to hide, they would have gladly cooperated and given information to those very esteemed jurists, who have been—who have done a lot of important work dealing with other investigations all over the world. John Dugard led the other delegation, the first delegation of the Arab League. John Dugard is South African, just as Richard Goldstone is. And Richard Goldstone is also a Jew. And it is quite telling, or it is even incriminating, the Israeli refusal to cooperate with them.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think they’re hiding?

AMIRA HASS: The truth. The truth that it was not an attack against the military threat, because the military threat that Hamas poses is very minor. Israel, for years, has had the need to exaggerate the Palestinian military threat. It served not only Israeli needs, it very often served also internal Palestinian needs, to exaggerate their own threat to Israel, because that’s how they could maybe get more popularity in the Arab world, outside and inside the Palestinian community. So both—this exaggeration served both parties.

And, of course, Israel wants to hide—Israel built a presentation of the reality, not—it didn’t allow the reality to come out easily, the reality of indiscriminate attacks against civilians, mostly civilians. I was there for four months. I found it hard to find—I mean, the majority of people that I met, bereft families, people whose houses were destroyed, people whose houses were occupied by the army, people who were victims to missiles, attacks either by drones or helicopters, or bombs dropped, or being killed or wounded by bombs dropped by war jets. I found it hard to find Hamas—direct Hamas activists, let alone combatants or people who are known to be combatants. There is no way to hide this—there is no way that the Israeli figures about casualties is correct.

I mean, I asked the Israeli army to give me their list of—which they say about 700 casualties that they claim, or 1,000—I don’t remember now. They refused to give me their list. I wanted the list to check name by name and then to compare with the list that Palestinian human rights organizations compiled and to see where the differences are. And they said they could not give me the list, because this would disclose their sources. In one specific question about two women who were killed in short—by short range from a tank, I asked, “Are these two women included in your list of casualties?” I didn’t get an answer. So, the Israeli refusal to cooperate with information is very telling.

It’s true that also Hamas are not telling much. But by being there, of course, you learn a lot. They don’t tell much, because I think they don’t want to tell that—or they don’t want to break the myth that they could stand up against the Israeli army. They could not the Israeli army. And this is not shame. I mean, the discussion is whether one should—whether if you want to get to liberate the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation, whether the armed struggle or the—I call it the symbolic armed struggle, is indeed the way. This is the discussion. They have not—when you look at their abilities, when you look at their—the weapons that were smuggled in, those who sent them weapons did not send them sophisticated weapons at all. And there is no way they could stand up against the Israeli army. And this is something that the Israelis—both the Israelis and Hamas, I think, want to hide.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, meeting with Ban Ki-moon Monday, saying the UN should investigate Hamas’s rockets, not the alleged war crimes by Israel?

AMIRA HASS: I think that they have—I mean, everybody was talking about the rockets, and I think that the—let me ask you, you know the city of Sderot, right? You are familiar with this. Do you know Ben-e Have you ever mentioned in your program the village Bani Suhaila? How many people know about Beit Hanoun? How many people knew about Abasan? All these—how many people know—knew about Zeitoun? All these Palestinian neighborhoods and villages which were a victim of Israeli attacks. We only know about Sderot.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting. Journalists could get to Sderot.

AMIRA HASS: Exactly, yes, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli military let them get to Sderot, but not to Gaza.

AMIRA HASS: Exactly, and not to Abasan in order to see and not to—yeah. So it’s a chutzpah. I mean, really, it’s even tiring to discuss it. So, everybody knows about the rockets, Hamas rockets, on the country. People had the impression that the whole thing—that history started with the rockets, that the history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict started with the rockets, which is, of course—which doesn’t mean, you know—there is a lot of criticism, internal criticism, within the Palestinian society about the rockets, the use of rockets. It’s obvious that rockets did not liberate Gaza, did not liberate Palestine, and they cause more harm to the Palestinians than they even cause to the Israelis.

I asked once two activists of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, of the Hamas armed wing, I asked them, “Why do you do that?” I mean, it was back in 2003, 2004. And they told me, “We want to teach the Israelis a lesson. We want them to be afraid, just as we are, just as—not we, but just as our women and children are afraid.” This was very interesting. So it is a competition about who can instill more fear. I asked this time when I was in Gaza, I asked an activist in the Islamic jihad, I said, “So, who is more afraid? You or the Israelis?” And he admitted that in this competition over fear, also the Palestinians are the losers.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, there’s an article in the New York Times that says, “According to […] newly disclosed data, about 58,800 housing units have been built with government approval in the West Bank […] over the [past] 40 years. An additional 46,500 have already obtained Defense Ministry approval within the existing master plans, awaiting nothing more than a government decision to build.” We’re talking about a doubling almost—


AMY GOODMAN: —of the settlements in the West Bank.


AMY GOODMAN: This as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu says there will be no new Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and illegal outposts there will be dismantled.

AMIRA HASS: Look, all settlement is illegal. So when we use the term “illegal outposts,” it’s misleading. It’s unauthorized illegal settlements, while you have the authorized illegal settlements. This is the real distinction.

And the real problem is not these outposts. They are tiny. Most of them are tiny. And they just distract our attention from the real construction. Yeah, this has been Israeli success. And this is, by the way, one of the things I ask the Palestinians, and that’s a problem. Neither the Palestinian so-called armed struggle—I call it symbolic armed struggle—and suicide—and terrorist attacks, both guerrilla and—guerrilla attacks and terror attacks against civilians, both these and Palestinian negotiation strategy have not stopped the settlements. On the contrary, the settlements grew in parallel, in tandem with the Oslo process and with the process of negotiations.

So, actually, Israel—you know, I asked once a Peace Now activist, and it was in ’95 or so, I asked him, “Why did you drop the slogan that you had before ’91 or before ’93, the slogan of ‘no peace with the settlements’?” And he said, “If the Palestinians accept the settlements, actually, if Abu Mazen accepted some settlements, who are we to oppose him or to say differently?” It’s true that with the Oslo agreement, Palestinians gave the impression that they could live with the settlements. And then you had the Geneva—Geneva talks or whatever, not talks, but the convention of some groups, that accepted the existence of two major settlements: Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev. So, indeed, the Palestinians gave an impression that they will tolerate these settlements. And we—no, some Palestinians, not all, of course. Others say that it’s too late now to dismantle the settlements. So, actually, it is—any solution which is based on the two states is obsolete.

AMY GOODMAN: Your evaluation, assessment of President Obama so far on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as he heads now to the Middle East, first to Saudi Arabia, then to Egypt?


AMY GOODMAN: And then to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

AMIRA HASS: Yeah. My evaluation, it’s—so far I see more hope invested in him than I see real inclinations to pressure Israel. I mean, all the statements that were said so far are encouraging, in the sense that he understands or his administration understands that there must be a way out of this deadlock. But there must be measures taken, such as freeze of sales of arms to Israel, freeze or stoppage of all support, financial support of Israel as long as it continues to build in the settlements. So these things are yet to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, I hope this is part one of our conversation this week, that when you come back to New York City, you’ll be with us later in the week, because I particularly also want to talk about your mother’s book that’s out posthumously, Diary of Bergen-Belsen, as President Obama visits a concentration camp, as well. This is Democracy Now!, Our guest, Amira Hass, columnist for Ha’aretz newspaper, renowned Israeli journalist.

The substance of Obama’s Cairo speech shows little change is likely

For Obama, “Islam” is synonymous with overwhelming popular opposition across many Muslim-majority countries to the increasingly intrusive and violent American military, political and economic interventions, and the resistance this opposition generates.   “The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.”  He lectured Palestinians that It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus, but did Obama really imagine that such words would impress an Arab public that watched in horror as Israel slaughtered 1,400 people in Gaza last winter, including hundreds of sleeping, fleeing or terrified children, with American-supplied weapons?  And how is Palestine to be a viable state if it is dismembered by the existing Israeli settlements, which Obama says nothing about?

On the other hand, Robert Dreyfuss, in the Nation, thinks Obama hit a home run.

Guardian (UK),  June 4, 2009

A Bush in sheep’s clothing

By Ali Abunimah

Obama’s speech shows little real change. In most regards his analysis maintains flawed American policies

Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of President Obama’s speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy. It is not necessary to divine Obama’s intentions – he may be utterly sincere and I believe he is. It is his analysis and prescriptions that in most regards maintain flawed American policies intact.

Though he pledged to “speak the truth as best I can”, there was much the president left out. He spoke of tension between “America and Islam” – the former a concrete specific place, the latter a vague construct subsuming peoples, practices, histories and countries more varied than similar.

Labelling America’s “other” as a nebulous and all-encompassing “Islam” (even while professing rapprochement and respect) is a way to avoid acknowledging what does in fact unite and mobilise people across many Muslim-majority countries: overwhelming popular opposition to increasingly intrusive and violent American military, political and economic interventions in many of those countries. This opposition – and the resistance it generates – has now become for supporters of those interventions, synonymous with “Islam”.

It was disappointing that Obama recycled his predecessor’s notion that “violent extremism” exists in a vacuum, unrelated to America’s (and its proxies’) exponentially greater use of violence before and after September 11, 2001. He dwelled on the “enormous trauma” done to the US when almost 3,000 people were killed that day, but spoke not one word about the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows left in Iraq – those whom Muntazer al-Zaidi’s flying shoe forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last year. He ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week in the “necessary” war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan.

As President George Bush often did, Obama affirmed that it is only a violent minority that besmirches the name of a vast and “peaceful” Muslim majority. But he seemed once again to implicate all Muslims as suspect when he warned, “The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.”

Nowhere were these blindspots more apparent than his statements about Palestine/Israel. He gave his audience a detailed lesson on the Holocaust and explicitly used it as a justification for the creation of Israel. “It is also undeniable,” the president said, “that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.”

Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?

He lectured Palestinians that “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed”. He warned them that “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.” (Note: the last suicide attack targeting civilians by a Palestinian occurred in 2004)

Fair enough, but did Obama really imagine that such words would impress an Arab public that watched in horror as Israel slaughtered 1,400 people in Gaza last winter, including hundreds of sleeping, fleeing or terrified children, with American-supplied weapons? Did he think his listeners would not remember that the number of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians targeted and killed by Israel has always far exceeded by orders of magnitude the number of Israelis killed by Arabs precisely because of the American arms he has pledged to continue giving Israel with no accountability? Amnesty International recently confirmed what Palestinians long knew: Israel broke the negotiated ceasefire when it attacked Gaza last November 4, prompting retaliatory rockets that killed no Israelis until after Israel launched its much bigger attack on Gaza. That he continues to remain silent about what happened in Gaza, and refuses to hold Israel accountable demonstrates anything but a commitment to full truth-telling.

Some people are prepared to give Obama a pass for all this because he is at last talking tough on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In Cairo, he said: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

These carefully chosen words focus only on continued construction, not on the existence of the settlements themselves; they are entirely compatible with the peace process industry consensus that existing settlements will remain where they are for ever. This raises the question of where Obama thinks he is going. He summarised Palestinians’ “legitimate aspirations” as being the establishment of a “state”. This has become a convenient slogan to that is supposed to replace for Palestinians their pursuit of rights and justice that the proposed state actually denies. Obama is already on record opposing Palestinian refugees’ right to return home, and has never supported the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to live free from racist and religious incitement, persecution and practices fanned by Israel’s highest office holders and written into its laws.

He may have more determination than his predecessor but he remains committed to an unworkable two-state “vision” aimed not at restoring Palestinian rights, but preserving Israel as an enclave of Israeli Jewish privilege. It is a dead end.

There was one sentence in his speech I cheered for and which he should heed: “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

National Lawyers Guild Delegation: War Crimes in Gaza invasion

What We Found in Gaza

Strong Indications of Violations of the Laws of War, U.S. Law, and War Crimes Found in the Gaza Strip

NLG Delegation

GAZA CITY – We are a delegation of 8 American lawyers, members of the National Lawyers Guild in the United States, who have come here to the Gaza Strip to assess the effects of the recent attacks on the people, and to determine what, if any, violations of international law occurred and whether U.S. domestic law has been violated as a consequence. We have spent the last five days interviewing communities particularly impacted by the recent Israeli offensive, including medical personnel, humanitarian aid workers and United Nations representatives. In particular, the delegation examined three issues: 1) targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure; 2) illegal use of weapons and 3) blocking of medical and humanitarian assistance to civilians.

Targeting of Civilians and Civilian Infrastructure

Much of the debate surrounding Israel’s aerial and ground offensive against Gaza has centered on whether or not Israel observed principles of proportionality and distinction. The debate suggests that Israel targeted Hamas i.e., its military installations, its leaders, and its militants, and in the process of its discrete military exercise it inadvertently killed Palestinian civilians. While we have found evidence that Palestinian civilians were victims of excessive force and collateral damage, we have also found troubling instances of Palestinian civilians being targets themselves.

The delegation recorded numerous accounts of Israeli soldiers shooting civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, in the head, chest, and stomach. Another common narrative described Israeli forces rounding civilians into a single location i.e., homes, schools which Israeli tanks or warplanes then shelled. Israeli forces continued to shoot at civilians fleeing the targeted structures.

We spoke to Khaled Abed Rabbo, who witnessed an Israeli soldier execute his 2-year-old and 7-year-old daughters, and critically injure a third daughter, Samar, 4-years old, on a sunny afternoon outside his home. Two other Israeli soldiers were standing nearby eating chips and chocolates at the time on January 7, 2009. Abed Rabbo recounts standing in front of the Israeli soldiers with his mother, wife and daughters for 5 – 7 minutes before one of the soldiers opened fire on his family.

We spoke to Ibtisam al-Sammouni, 31, and a resident of Zaytoun neighborhood in Gaza City. On January 4th, the Israeli army forced approximately 110 of Zaytoun’s residents into Ibtisam’s home. At approximately 7 am on January 5th, the Israeli military launched two tank shells at the house without warning killing two of Ibtisam’s children: Rizka, 14 and Faris, 12. When the survivors attempted to flee Israeli forces shot at them. Her son Abdullah, 7, was injured in the shelling and remained in the home among his deceased siblings for four days before Israeli forces permitted medical personnel into Zaytoun to rescue them. After medical personnel removed the injured persons, an Israeli war plane destroyed the house and it crumbled over the lifeless bodies. The dead remained beneath the rubble for 17 days before the Israeli Army permitted medical personnel to remove their bodies for burial.

We spoke to the family of Rouhiya al-Najjar, 47, who lived in Khoza’a, Khan Younis. Israeli forces ordered her neighborhoods residents to march to the city center. Rouhiya led 20 women out of her home and into the alley. They all carried white scarves. Upon entering the alley, an Israeli sniper shot Rouhiya in her left temple killing her instantly. Israeli forces prevented medical personnel from reaching her body for twelve hours. These are only some of the accounts that we’ve collected.

Israeli forces also destroyed numerous buildings throughout the Gaza Strip during the recent incursion. Guild delegates viewed the remains of hundreds of demolished homes and businesses – in addition to the remains of the American School in Gaza, damaged medical centers, and the charred innards of UNRWA warehouses. While in situations of armed conflict, collateral damage and mistakes can occur, the circumstances surrounding the cases that the delegation investigated indicate deliberate targeting rather than collateral damage or mistake. Specifically:

The American School at Gaza, which was hit with two F-16 missiles on January 3, 2009, killing the watch guard on duty. According to Ribhi Salem, the school’s director, the Israelis gave no warnings. Mr. Salem stated that the school had come to an agreement with resistance groups not to use school grounds and there had never been resistance activity on the property.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)

John Ging, the Director of Gaza Operations for UNRWA reported that Israeli forces fired missiles at UNRWA schools in Gaza City, Jabalyia and Bet Lahiya. The United Nation compound in Gaza city was also hit with white phosphorous shells and missiles. Ging noted that al United Nations buildings and vehicles all fly UN flags, are marked in blue paint from the top, and that during hostilities the UN personnel remained in constant contact with Israeli authorities.

Misuse of Weapons

Our delegation has heard allegations of the use of DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive) weaponry, white phosphorus and other possible weapons whose use in civilian areas is prohibited. We have also heard of the use of prohibited weapons, such as flachettes. We have found our own evidence of the use of flachette shells, which we will combine with evidence collected by Amnesty International to push for further investigation. We have not found any conclusive evidence of the use of DIME, though we believe that this warrants further investigation and disclosure by the Israeli military.

Our findings overwhelmingly point to the use of conventional weapons in a prohibited manner, specifically, the use of battlefield weaponry in densely populated civilian areas. Customary international law forbids the use of weapons calculated to cause unnecessary suffering. We found evidence that Israel used white phosphorus in extensively throughout its three-week offensive in a manner that led to numerous deaths and injuries. For example, Sabah Abu Halima, 45, lived in Beit Lahiya with her husband, seven boys, and one girl. It was midday and she and her entire family was home. Within minutes she felt her home shaking and missiles fell through the rooftop. She fell to the ground upon impact. When she looked up she saw her children burning.

Preventing Access to Medical and Humanitarian Aid

Under customary international humanitarian law, the wounded are protected persons and must receive the medical care and attention required by their conditions, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay. Parties to a conflict are required to ensure the unhindered movement of medical personnel and ambulances to carry out their duties and of wounded persons to access medical care. Speaking to medical workers and the family of victims, NLG delegates documented serious violations of this provision. Among the stories documented include:

Zaytoun neighborhood, which came under attack and invasion by ground foces on January 3, 2009. The Palestinian Red Crescent received 145 calls from Zaytoun for help, but were denied entry by Israel. Bashar Ahmed Murad, Director of Emergency Medical Services for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society told us that “a lot of people could have been saved, but hey weren’t given medical care by the Israelis, nor did the Israeli army allow Palestinian medical services in.” When paramedics were finally allowed to enter on January 7, Israeli forces only gave them a 3-hour “lull” to work and prohibited ambulances into the area. Instead they forced paramedics park the ambulances 2 kilometers away and enter the area on foot. Murad told delegation members how they had to pile the wounded on donkey carts and have the medical workers pull the carts in order to help the most people possible in the short time they were given. After the 3 hours were over, the
Israeli army started shooting toward the ambulances. The Red Crescent was not able to reach that area again to evacuate the dead until January 17, 2009 when the Israeli army pulled out.

Al-Shurrab Family

On January 16th, Israeli forces shot at the jeep of Mohammed Shurrab, 64 years of age, and two of his sons, Kassab and Ibrahim, aged 28 and 18 as they were returning from their fields. Mohammad was shot in the left arm and Ibrahim was shot in the leg. The elder son, Kassab, sustained a fatal bullet wound to the chest, being shot multiple times after being ordered out of the car. Mohammad, bleeding from his wound, contacted the media, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a number of NGOs via mobile phone in order to acquire medical assistance. Israeli forces denied medical relief agencies clearance to reach them until almost 24 hours after Mohammad, Ibrahim and Kassab had been shot. Earlier that morning, Ibrahim had succumbed to his wound and died. Mohammad Shurrab and his sons were shot during a so-called “lull” in Israeli ground operations, which Israeli forces had agreed to in order to allow humanitarian relief to enter and be
distributed in the Gaza Strip. As such NLG delegates fail to see how this denial of medical access to the wounded Shurrab family could have been absolutely necessary and not simply arbitrary.

International humanitarian law also prohibits attacks on medical personnel, medical units and medical transports exclusively assigned to carry out medical functions. Delegate members saw ambulances seriously damaged and destroyed, some apparenly deliberately crushed by Israeli tanks. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society and the Palestinian Ministry of Health informed delegates that 15 Palestinian medics were killed and 21 injured in the course of Israel’s assualt.


This delegation is seriously concerned by our initial findings. We have found strong indications of violations of the laws of war and possible war crimes committed by Israel in the Gaza Strip. We are particularly concerned that most of the weapons that were found used in the December 27 assualt on Gaza are US-made and supplied. We believe that Israel’s use of these weapons may constitute a violation of US law, and particularly the Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act.

A report of our initial findings will be compiled and submitted to, among others, members of the United States Congress. We intend to push for an investigation by the United States government into possible violations by Israel of US law. We also hope to contribute our finding and efforts to other efforts by local and international lawyers to push for accountability against those found responsible for the egregious crimes that we have documented.

Members of the Legal Delegation

Huwaida Arraf (New York, Washington DC)
Palestine: 0599-130-426
USA: 1-202-294-8813

Noura Erekat (Washington DC)
USA: 1-510-847-4239

James Marc Leas (Vermont)
USA: 1-802 864-1575 and 1-802 734-8811(cell)

Linda Mansour (Ohio)
USA: 1-419-535-7100 and 1-419-283-8281 (cell)

Rose Mishaan (California)
USA: 1-917-803-2201

Thomas Nelson (Oregon)
USA: 1-503-709-6397

Radhika Sainath (California)
USA: 1-917-669-6903

Reem Salahi (California)
USA: 1-510-225-8880

Gaza doctors struggle to treat deadly burns consistent with white phosphorus

Guardian, UK, January 20, 2009

Gaza doctors struggle to treat deadly burns consistent with white phosphorus

See video accompanying this article.

Doctors in Gaza described today how they had struggled to treat dozens of patients with terrible and unusually deadly burns consistent with white phosphorus weapons, during Israel’s three-week war in Gaza.

Nafiz Abu Shabaan, head of the burns unit at Shifa hospital and the most senior burns surgeon in Gaza, said 60 to 70 patients had died in his unit during the war from severe burns that were unlike any injury he had previously seen.

Patients with only relatively small burn injuries, which ought to be survivable, were dying unexpectedly.

His account, along with evidence from survivors, corroborates mounting evidence from groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that the Israeli military fired phosphorus shells into populated areas of Gaza in direct violation of international humanitarian law. Amnesty said it believes Israel is guilty of a war crime.

White phosphorus is allowed to be used as a smokescreen on the battlefield in certain situations, but its use in civilian areas is prohibited under United Nations conventions.

The Israeli military has at times denied using white phosphorus, and at other times has said only that it uses weapons “in compliance with international law”.

Yesterday the military said it would launch an internal investigation. Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper reported yesterday that the Israeli military had now admitted using phosphorus munitions, but only in open areas.

Abu Shabaan, who was trained in Egypt, Britain and the United States and has been head of the Shifa burns unit for 15 years, said he and his staff had been stunned by the “unusual wounds” they found.

“It starts with small patches and in hours it becomes wide and deep and in some cases it reaches the point where even the general condition of the patient deteriorates rapidly and unexpectedly,” he said.

Doctors had noticed a “very bad odour from the wound,” he said. In many cases patients also suffered unexpected and severe toxicity, and had to be rushed into intensive care. In one case, a consultant anaesthetist suffered minor burns on his chest after burning material sprayed from within a patient’s wounds during an ­operation.

Small burns were causing death. “A patient with 15% burns should not die, but we are seeing cases with 15% burns where they are dying,” Abu Shabaan said. He believed, based on what he had read and what foreign doctors helping at the hospital had told him, that the wounds were consistent with phosphorus.

He described one patient, a three-year-old girl, who was sent for a scan because of a head wound: “After about two hours she came back, we opened the wound, and smoke came out from the wound,” he said. Surgeons used forceps to pull out a substance from the wound that was “like dense cotton and it started to burn,” he said. “The piece continued to burn until it disappeared.” The child, who was from Atatra, in Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, died.

In the Shifa burns unit yesterday, Sabbah Abu Halima described how her house, also in Atatra, had been hit early in the war by several shells which killed her husband, Sa’ad Allah, and four of their children: Abdul Rahim, 14, Zayid, 10, Hamza, eight, and Shahed, who was 15 months old. She herself suffered severe burns to her right arm, abdomen, left leg and her feet, burns which doctors said appeared to be consistent with white phosphorus.

There were 16 members of the family in the house when an Israeli shell landed outside, close to a bedroom. Sa’ad Allah gathered his four children around him and they ran to another part of the house. A second shell then hit their living room, killing Sa’ad Allah and the three boys immediately. Another shell then landed, knocking Sabbah to the ground. “I fell on the ground and there was a fire. The room was full of smoke and it smelt very bad. Three times I heard my daughter say ‘Mama, mama, mama’, but I couldn’t see her,” she said. The infant daughter, Shahed, collapsed and died.

Sabbah’s own clothes were burning and she rolled on the floor trying to put out the fire before she was pulled out of the house and rushed to hospital by her relatives. Her wounds were smoking for several hours.

Two others from the family were killed as they tried to retrieve the bodies. Their corpses, along with the body of Shahed, were recovered on 8 January by medics from the Red Cross and the Palestinian Red Crescent. The decomposing bodies of Sa’ad Allah and his three sons were only found a week later.

The Israeli strike on the warehouses in the main UN compound in Gaza City last Thursday was also believed to be the result of three white phosphorus shells. Small pieces of burning material were seen at the site hours after the blast. Yesterday the remains of hundreds of tonnes of food and aid in the warehouses were still smouldering. The jagged remains of 155mm artillery shell lay outside.

Doctors at the Shifa are now keeping two tissue biopsies from each patient. “We are asking for international organisations to send experts to investigate and test to know the type of weapons that have been used, and to tell us how to deal with this type of injury,” Abu Shabaan said. “I have been here since 1985 working in the burns unit and head of department for 15 years and I have never seen something like this.”

What is white phosphorus?

White phosphorus weapons are 155mm artillery shells containing 116 white phosphorus wedges. When the shell explodes it spreads the wedges over several hundred square metres. They ignite on contact with the air and burn at more than 800C. When they touch human skin they burn to the bone, causing terrible injuries and forcing doctors to excise large areas of flesh to prevent the burn spreading.

Using white phosphorous is not illegal. It can be used as an incendiary weapon, to set fire to military targets, to mark military targets, or to spread smoke. However, its use is strictly limited under UN conventions and international humanitarian law.

Fundamental rules stipulate civilians must be protected, and that attacks must not cause “disproportionate” damage to civilians and civilian objects. Particular care must be taken when using white phosphorus weapons and they cannot be used as an incendiary weapon against a military target that is not clearly separated from civilian areas.



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