Tuesday 30 December 2008

Prime Minister Olmert dismisses talk of ceasefire with Hamas

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York

A compound of Hamas ministry buildings destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Hopes for an early end to the bloodshed looked dim as both sides continued to strike on day four of the recent violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert batted away calls for a ceasefire in the Gaza bombardment, even as the diplomatic window began to close on his bid to crush Hamas.

"The Gaza offensive will not end until our goals are reached," Olmert said last night amid reports that defense officials intended to recommend a 48-hour lull in air strikes.

The idea was to see if Hamas would stop firing rockets into Israel - and avoid a bloody ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner proposed a truce on humanitarian grounds to let aid reach the blockaded civilians in Gaza.

Secretary of State Rice echoed the call, as did leaders of Russia, the UN and the European Union.

Olmert's spokesman said the government wasn't opposed to helping Palestinian civilians but would keep pounding their Hamas government.

"We want to see convoy after convoy of humanitarian support, and we are willing to work closely with all relevant international parties to facilitate that goal," spokesman Mark Regev said.

"At the same time, it is important to keep the pressure up on Hamas, not give them a respite."

International aid is flooding in: Washington announced an $85million donation for Palestinians to the UN refugee agency - although diplomats say it's impossible to distribute supplies as long as the air strikes continue.

All signs continued to point to escalation, not lull.

Troops and tanks were massed on the border, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked for the authority to call up 2,510 more reservists on top of the 6,500 mobilized Sunday.

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, said the aim of the operation was to "completely destroy" Hamas.

Israeli jets pounded Gaza for a fourth day, leveling workshops used to manufacture rockets, more buildings at the Islamic University and a soccer field. Two girls riding in a donkey cart were among the victims.

Hamas rockets kept landing in Israeli towns and hit an empty kindergarten in Beersheba. No injuries were reported.

Egypt came to the end of its patience with Israel's assault. President Hosni Mubarak, whose ministers had earlier blamed Hamas for the crisis and traded insults with Iran and Hezbollah over Egypt's failure to condemn Israel, called for an immediate ceasefire.

"We say to Israel: We condemn your belligerency," Mubarak said in a televised address. "You are responsible for your barbaric violence against the Palestinians, no matter what excuses you use to justify it."

Mubarak also refused to reopen the Rafah border crossing into Gaza until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regains control.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since last year, after winning an election and seizing control from Fatah forces loyal to Abbas.

That split within the Palestinians has meant the West Bank has been relatively calm. Residents are torn between anger at the Israeli strikes and their growing enmity for Hamas.

"People here are confused because Fatah and Hamas are accusing each other," said one community leader in the West Bank city of Jenin. "In the middle of the bloodshed, they are still fighting each other."

President Bush called Abbas for the first time since the air strikes began but offered little beyond concern for the residents of Gaza and the need for an end to Hamas firing rockets.

Israel calls Gaza assault against Hamas, a 'war to the bitter end'

Tuesday, December 30th 2008



Smoke billows from a targeted location inside the northern Gaza Strip during an Israeli air raid Monday.

JERUSALEM - Israeli forces readied a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip Monday as military leaders declared an "all-out war" against Palestinian militants that would not soon end.

"We are just at the beginning of the battle," said Gen. Dan Harel, deputy chief of the Israel Defense Forces.

"The worst is not behind us - it is still ahead of us - and we should be prepared."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset that the Jewish state was in "a war to the bitter end against Hamas and its kind."

In a third day of the deadliest offensive against Palestinians in decades, Israeli jets targeted weapons caches and leveled symbols of Hamas government power, including the seaport, the Interior and Culture Ministry and the presidential palace.

By nightfall, the Palestinian death toll stood at 360.

Most were Hamas officers, but at least 62 civilians, some of them children, were among the Palestinian dead.

Hamas sources told The Jerusalem Post that most of the dead were "ordinary" cops and traffic officers, not the armed militiamen now preparing to fight off a ground invasion.

Hamas claimed the movement's paramilitary wing had been largely unaffected so far.

The human cost of bombarding a territory crowded with 1.5 million people was illustrated in the deaths of five Palestinian sisters, the youngest just 2 years old, in a refugee camp near Gaza City. Israeli jets pounding a mosque next door vaporized their house, burying the girls in rubble.

"It is a tragic illustration of what happens when you use massive means against a densely populated part of the world," said Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency.

The Bush administration blamed Hamas for the violence, saying it has "once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization" by attacking Israel.

Israel launched the apparently long-planned operation Saturday in response to a steady stream of deadly rockets Hamas has fired into Israeli border towns over the years. The almost daily attacks have sent the local population constantly running into bomb shelters.

Israel says it does not plan to reoccupy the land it quit in 2005. Instead, it aims to topple Hamas by destroying the infrastructure the militant group has built after it won a surprise 2006 electoral victory and took over Gaza last year.

"After this operation, there will not be one Hamas building left standing in Gaza," Harel said. "We are hitting not only terrorists and launchers, but also the whole Hamas government and all its departments."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate ceasefire.

Apparently stunned by the ferocity of Israel's strikes, Hamas responded by launching about 60 rockets at Israeli towns up to 20 miles away. They killed three Israelis, including a Bedouin construction worker and a woman waiting for a bus.

Gaza's strained hospitals were unable to cope with the 1,400 wounded, both because of the numbers of injured and because medical supplies have been cut off by Israel's border blockade.

Dr. Medhat Abbas of the Gaza Health Ministry said, "Hospital staff is using bed linens to stop the bleeding. Many patients were lost because of the lack of supplies and equipment."

Egypt briefly opened the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt to allow nine trucks of emergency medical aid from the Egyptian Red Crescent to enter Gaza.

Officials in Israel distributed thousands of mattresses and ordered residents in the Jewish state into bomb shelters.

Hamas warned that a ground invasion would cost Israel dearly.

The roads into the Gaza Strip are riddled with explosives waiting to be detonated against oncoming tanks. The Islamists have also warned they could resume suicide attacks against Israel for the first time since January 2005 to retaliate for the blitz.

Mideast wary of Israel's Gaza attack strategy

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - Following the bloodiest attack on the Gaza Strip since it was captured by Israel from Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967, people across the Middle East are waiting warily to learn just how far Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will press his campaign against Hamas.

Is he trying to destroy the militant group and topple its leadership, or is he trying to neutralize Hamas by obliterating its weapons, infrastructure and supply routes?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said today the campaign was intended to strike "a hard enough blow to change the rules of the game so there won't be any action from within the Gaza Strip against Israeli citizens or soldiers."

That suggests the Israelis are pursuing the more modest goal of neutralizing Hamas. But both Arab and Israeli observers say the ferocity of the bombing risks inciting widespread and protracted reprisals against Israel from across the Palestinian territories.

"The attack on Gaza could, particularly if prolonged over weeks, as Minister of Defense Barak threatens, inflame anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiments throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds," said Yossi Alpher, a former officer in the spy agency Mossad. "Rioting could spread across the West Bank and among Palestinian citizens of Israel."

Olmert said Israel simply had no choice but to target the source of missile attacks on its people.

"We were compelled to take action in order to halt the aggression against our citizens," Olmert told reporters Saturday night when he announced the launch of "Operation Cast Lead" against Hamas. According to a poll for Israel's Channel 10 TV on Sunday, 81 percent of Israelis agreed with him.

But as thousands of Israeli troops huddled in the pouring rain on the Gaza border tonight, poised to begin a ground invasion, many Israelis fear becoming mired in a drawn-out battle in the Gaza Strip.

Olmert had little to gain personally from launching the attack. He will retire in disgrace after February's general election, the most unpopular leader in Israel's history, his reputation sullied by a string of corruption allegations and possible criminal charges. He is still reeling from the 2006 Lebanon War, when he led Israel's forces against Hezbollah, only to be ridiculed abroad and denounced at home for what was widely regarded as a strategic failure.

Some have suggested Israel's general election on Feb. 10 may have influenced the decision to attack. Polls showed Barak, chairman of the Labor Party, running third to the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, in the race for prime minister. The Channel 10 poll taken Sunday already showed that Barak's standing had improved after the attack.

Notwithstanding the political speculation, Olmert must have been reluctant to go to war again. But from an Israeli perspective, he had to act.

Since 2001, 3,984 rockets and 3,943 mortar shells have been launched at Israel from Gaza, many of them at the sleepy lower-middle-class suburb of Sderot, now reduced to a ghost town.

Egypt brokered a truce that took effect in June, but since then Palestinians still fired 223 rockets and 139 mortar shells from the Hamas-controlled enclave. Last week, as the cease-fire expired, Palestinian militants launched 80 rockets and shells in a single day and attacked the two border crossings where Israeli supply trucks were carrying desperately needed food and medicine.

The Palestinian death toll continued to climb higher today, yet Hamas still managed to pound Israeli cities like Ashdod more than 20 miles to the north with rocket fire, bringing a million Israelis within range of the fighting.

Observers are questioning the Israeli strategy.

"If the aim is to stop the attacks from Gaza, then Israel should have said, immediately after the attacks on Saturday, that we are ready for a cease-fire. There are no other targets," said Yossi Beilin, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator.

The more than 400 carefully chosen targets bombed since Saturday appear to include all of the Hamas command, control and communications infrastructure, their weapons-manufacturing factories, arms and rockets stockpiles, missile silos, smuggling tunnels and more than 250 personnel, including key military commanders.

Many analysts believe Israel must resist the temptation to re-invade the territory it quit amid much fanfare in 2005, when it removed an entire garrison and more than 5,000 stubborn settlers.

"Israelis want to see this operation as decisive, but they know that Gaza is a horror film for them with many dreadful sequels," said Matt Beynon Rees, the former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine. "Ultimately, there'll be no peace - either in Gaza or for the Israelis living nearby - until a real peace deal is done between the two sides."

Another reason for Israel to call an early halt to the fighting is the fissure that has opened up in the Arab world, with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah supporting Hamas, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia tacitly blame Hamas for inciting the Israelis.

Olmert could try to exploit the split to create a new diplomatic momentum in which Hamas is marginalized, allowing the renewal of peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Fatah movement in the West Bank and the chief rival to Hamas among the Palestinian people.

Olmert can't risk the total destruction of Hamas in Gaza, lest Abbas be seen as politically profiting from the suffering in Gaza. Or, as Ramadan Shallah, secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, warned: Any Palestinian "who dares to return to the Gaza Strip aboard an Israeli tank would be condemned as a traitor."

It's a difficult balancing act, and one that will only become trickier as civilian casualties rise.

"The longer the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) stays, the more it will be subject to popular resistance and international pressure to withdraw," Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute, argued in a policy paper. "A protracted invasion would also strain Israel's relationship with the United States, other Western nations, moderate Arab states, and the Palestinian Authority.

"Military action in Gaza is not likely to be surgical or final. Hamas' entrenched position, literally and figuratively, rules out quick and easy military solutions, while large operations carry serious complications and risks, with no guarantee of success."

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Support, fear on the ground in Israel

Tuesday, December 30th 2008


JERUSALEM - The fear factor in Israel depends on where you live. In vulnerable towns just outside Gaza, it's high; in Jerusalem, some50 miles away, not so much.

Israelis are going about their day-to-day lives as if there were no war and most - 80%, the most recent poll found - support the operation to crush Hamas.

We live under the possibility of a terror attack at any time, so really the only place where the fears are heightened are the close-to-Gaza cities where rockets have rained down for years.

For many, "Operation Cast Lead" is long overdue.

The residents of Sderot, the most-bombed place on Earth for the last two years, are sick of running for cover every half-hour as Hamas and its fanatical allies lob another Qassam rocket into their sleepy suburb.

"Many people have left, but we have nowhere to run to," said Odelia Ben-Porat, a 32-year-old mother of three small children who watched from her window recently as a rocket landed in the parking lot of her building.

"Now we feel that someone cares about us, that they are finally doing something. It couldn't continue the way it was."

Since 2001, 3,984 rockets and 3,943 mortar shells have been launched at Israel from Gaza, many of them at Sderot.

Egypt brokered a truce last June, but in the six months of the supposed lull, Palestinians fired 223 rockets and 139 mortars from Gaza.

Last week, the day the ceasefire ended, they launched 80 rockets and shells in one day.

In Ashkelon, 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip, grandmother and kindergarten teacher Geula Levy felt a massive boom Monday morning and emerged to find a Hamas rocket had landed directly opposite her home, killing a construction worker.

"I have been shaking since the morning. It's terrifying," Levy said. "I won't let any of my children into the street. I'm scared even to go out to the shops."

Still, she supports the Israeli military operation in Gaza.

"It's enough already. We warned them; we begged them to stop. We gave them every opportunity," she said. "Hamas just doesn't care. ... I really feel for the mother in Gaza who lost her five children. I wish we didn't have to do this."

Monday 29 December 2008

Israeli Airstrikes in Gaza Destroy 2 University Buildings

December 29, 2008

Jerusalem — As Israeli airstrikes on Hamas installations in Gaza entered a third day, two buildings at the Islamic University of Gaza were destroyed in at least six direct hits early this morning.

An Israeli army spokeswoman told The Chronicle that the buildings were used as “a research and development center for Hamas weapons, including Qassam rockets,” which are steel missiles filled with explosives. Israel has defended its attacks as designed to protect its citizens from rockets fired from Gaza, The New York Times and other news sources have reported.

Witnesses said the two university structures hit today were the science-laboratory block and the Ladies’ Building, where women studied in classrooms separate from those for male students. There were no casualties, as the university was evacuated when the Israeli assault began on Saturday.

“One of the structures struck housed explosives laboratories that were an inseparable part of Hamas’ research and development program, as well as places that served as storage facilities for the organization,” the army spokeswoman said. “The development of these weapons took place under the auspices of senior lecturers who are activists in Hamas.”

The spokeswoman said Qassam rockets were among the weapons developed and manufactured at the university. “Hamas has been working tirelessly to extend the range of the rockets, as has been shown during the past few days,” the spokeswoman said.

The Islamic University was established by the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and has emerged as a training ground for the political and spiritual leadership of Hamas. Many Hamas leaders who are also academics have taught at the university, but students do not have to swear affiliation to the organization.

This is not the first time that the university has been accused of hiding weapons. In February 2007, at the height of tension between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his presidential guard stormed the university and confiscated weapons and ammunition. Palestinian TV aired footage of dozens of rocket-propelled grenade launchers, rockets, and assault rifles, as well as thousands of bullets, that Abbas’s officials said were found inside the university.

But today’s bombardment appears to have inflicted much more damage, leaving the two buildings little more than smoking shells.

University officials denied the Israeli allegations. In remarks quoted by the International Middle East Media Center, Nihad al-Sheikh Khalil, a lecturer at the university, told Al-Jazeera TV that the Israeli army shells universities, mosques, and other civilian facilities and then claims “victory.” —Matthew Kalman

Posted on Monday December 29, 2008

Sunday 28 December 2008

Israel strikes Gaza in 2nd day of attacks; troops mass at Palestinian border

Monday, December 29


Israel began massing troops and tanks near the Gaza Strip on Sunday as it pounded the Palestinian territory with a second day of "shock and awe" air strikes aimed at wiping out the militant Hamas government.

Israeli warplanes demolished a network of tunnels used to smuggle weapons, fuel and food into the blockaded territory of 1.5 million people. They also flattened a major prison and hit the campus of Islamic University in Gaza City.

About 300 Gazans, many of them Hamas cops and security forces, were killed in the two days of bombings, and an estimated 900 were wounded.

It was the bloodiest weekend for Palestinians since the 1967 Six-Day War. Hospitals and morgues couldn't keep up with the carnage, and bodies piled up as devastated relatives wailed in gore-slick corridors.

All signs pointed to the situation escalating.

Israel called up 6,500 reservists and began moving armored units to the Gaza border, paving the way for a ground invasion that could last several weeks.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is running for prime minister in Israel's Feb. 10 election, said Israel wanted to stop Hamas rockets - not reconquer the territory it quit in 2005.

"Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The air strikes aimed to destroy the infrastructure Hamas built since it won a surprise 2006 electoral victory over the moderate Fatah Party and took over Gaza last year.

It appeared to be a replay of the 2006 Israeli war on Hezbollah in Lebanon, where a minor border ambush triggered a devastating air assault, followed by an ill-fated ground battle.

In Sunday's air strikes, the high-rises of Gaza City shook and glass showered into the streets. Terrified prisoners fled the rubble of the Gaza City jail, their faces streaked white with dust and red with blood.

People brought wounded relatives and blankets filled with body parts to the hospital.

"I have a head here!" a man yelled as he rushed into Shifa Hospital, where the floors were slippery with blood.

Among the dead were seven teenage students at a UN-run school killed in an air strike while waiting for a bus, said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

"Death is everywhere this morning," he said.

Crowds of Palestinians using bulldozers knocked down parts of a border wall with Egypt to escape the bombardment.

Egyptian border guards opened fire on some of the Palestinians, witnesses said.

Hamas threatened to mobilize a new wave of suicide bombers and vowed to target Livni and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as the Fatah leadership.

"These strikes fuel our popular support, our military power and the firmness of our positions," said Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri. "We will survive. We will move forward. We will not surrender. We will not be shaken."

Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" began Saturday, a week after a six-month ceasefire expired. Hamas had been steadily firing rockets into Israel, doing little damage but spreading daily fear.

With an election coming up, the Israeli government decided to abandon restraint.

"The Palestinians asked for a ceasefire, and we agreed. They themselves have violated the ceasefire. We didn't know why," said Israeli President Shimon Peres. "We were left without a choice but to bring an end to it."

Saturday 20 December 2008

Bethlehem's very secret Santa

Each year, an anonymous Christian businessman brings peace and goodwill (and presents) to Palestinian children. But his helpers are far from ordinary elves ...

Words Matthew Kalman
Photographs David Blumenfeld
December 21, 2008

Star of Bethlehem: Abu Christmas announces his presence by ringing a bell

Dusk is falling as a bearded man slips out of a doorway near the bustling main street of Bethlehem and melts into the darkness. Outside, the streets are thronged with residents, pilgrims and tourists making last-minute preparations for Christmas.

As they hurry towards the Church of the Nativity, in Manger Square, which marks the site of Jesus’s birthplace, they hardly notice the man slipping into one of the hundreds of yellow Palestinian taxis that roam the streets of this ancient town.

The taxi stops at an apartment in Beit Jala, on the western outskirts of Bethlehem. As the man slowly makes his way up the staircase, a shy young girl stands at the door expectantly and then lets out a piercing scream, as she stares straight into the face of Father Christmas.

'Ahlan W’sahlan! – Welcome!’ shrieks 12-year-old Nasreen, running to fetch her brothers and sisters.

Father Christmas brings clothing coupons for Nasreen, her sisters, Gianna, 18, and Jihan, 17, Jolene, 14, along with toys for their younger brothers, Nicolas, six, and five-year-old Fahdi.

Watching in quiet elation, as the two young boys tear off the shiny wrapping paper, is their mother, Marlene. She lost her husband, a truck driver, nearly two years ago in a car accident. To make ends meet, the 36-year-old mother of six has been baking cakes at home and selling them to cafes in town.

As Christmas approaches, along with the anniversary of her husband’s death, she has been dreading the holiday. 'We don’t have a Christmas tree or decorations this year, since with the children missing their father, it was all too hard,’ she says quietly.

Earlier in the week, Marlene received a mysterious call, asking what her six children wanted from Father Christmas. She was told to expect a special visitor after 4pm. 'At first, I thought it was a joke,’ she says.

'We’ve had so many calls from people promising this or that, and then nothing would happen.

'I refused to believe it. Until now,’ she says, tears welling.

It is a scene repeated in dozens of the poorest homes across Bethlehem every year in the days before Christmas.

Few people know the identity of the man in the Santa Claus outfit.

It’s the closely guarded secret of a Christian businessman who, in the past eight years of acute economic distress, has given away tens of thousands of pounds to the most impoverished families in the town.

They have been hard hit by a growing economic crisis that has sent unemployment soaring to more than 25 per cent and pushed 20 per cent of families below the poverty line. The Israeli security barrier, built to deter suicide bombers, has cut them off from Jerusalem and surrounding villages. The Intifada and the barrier have reduced the 100 tourist buses that used to throng the streets each day to a trickle, all but destroying the town’s economy.

In the week before Christmas, the Secret Santa spends hours on the phone finalising the list of Bethlehem’s neediest youngsters, both Christian and Muslim, and then phones each child to ask what gift they would like. Then he trawls the streets of Bethlehem and Hebron – a half-hour’s drive away – scouring local shops for the best deals. The shopkeepers are sworn to secrecy, under threat of not getting his business in future.

Then, in a cigarette-smoke-filled lair the businessman and his elves – a small retinue of carefully chosen accomplices – wrap the presents and plan how they will go about delivering them. The operation – which I was allowed to witness only after agreeing not to reveal the location of the team’s headquarters or the identity of the men involved – is carried out with military precision.

The fact that some of the men have day jobs as officers in the Palestinian security services, and wear walkie-talkies, sub-machine guns and paramilitary uniforms, is a reminder of more sinister plots, and of other men, also operating under a veil of secrecy, who have carried bombs rather than bags of gifts.

The presents – delivered to more than 100 children – include Barbie dolls, Superman and Spider-Man costumes, stuffed toys, wireless remote-controlled trucks and guns, doll’s houses, shotguns and 'Fulah,’ a 2½ ft doll which sings Arabic songs.

The recipients are mostly content to squeal with delight and rip open their packages, revealing gifts they could never hope to receive from their own families. Some give the red-suited stranger a shy kiss or a sweet. Others stand in shocked and delighted silence.

After each delivery, Santa’s yellow taxi takes off at full speed. In the back seat, his helpers take turns in ringing a bell, attracting bemused attention from passers-by and mingling with the haunting chant of the minarets as the sound of the muezzin’s call for evening prayers drifts across the town.

In a twisting alley in the poverty-stricken backstreets near Manger Square, the Abdul family are waiting patiently at the door for the arrival of 'Baba Noel’, as Father Christmas is called here in Arabic.

A tiny kerosene heater is the only thing to warm the freezing apartment, home to Saliba, 10, Liandra, seven, five-year-old Giovanni and their mother Maryam.

'If there were more Santas in this world, there would be peace ... even here in Palestine,’ says Maryam as she watches the expressions of joy and wonder on the faces of her children.

Around the corner, 10-year-old Riham Endonya and her widowed mother, Carol, are waiting for their special visitor. 'He called and said he was coming today,’ says Riham, barely able to contain her excitement. 'I asked him to bring me a baby doll. My sister, Natalie, is 15. He is bringing her a voucher to buy clothes. We have dressed in our best clothes to greet him when he comes today.’

Nearby, Mary Jabriya says her five children have been up since dawn. Her four daughters, aged 11 to 17, all asked Santa for clothes. Her nine-year-old son, Tony, requested a wireless remote-controlled Jeep.

'The children love Santa Claus,’ says Mary. 'He promised to come and bring the gifts. The children could hardly sleep they were so excited. They have been awake since early morning, counting the hours until he comes.’

'The conditions in Bethlehem are very difficult. People don’t have enough money. You work, work, work and you get less and less,’ she says.

That goes for the man in the red suit himself. Maintaining his anonymity behind the code name Abu Christmas, he tells me that his own business has fared badly in recent years. 'I would like to do more, much more,’ he says.

Nevertheless, he helps as many as he can. 'I try to go to the poorest families, those in real need where the father is unable to work or perhaps isn’t there any more,’ says Abu Christmas.

'I ask people I trust to provide lists of the children who need help, on condition they do not tell anyone where the gifts have come from. They are only allowed to say that we are a secret Christian group that works under cover to make these families happy.’

The young children choose toys and dolls. The teenagers usually want clothes, so Abu Christmas gives them vouchers to spend at a clothing store. 'One girl said to me: “You can’t be Father Christmas. He isn’t in Palestine and he doesn’t speak Arabic.” I told her to test me and tell me what she wanted anyway. I hope she’ll get a pleasant surprise.’

In addition to his Christmas operations, the same anonymous benefactor has stepped in many times in recent years to help neighbours who have fallen on hard times.

'I believe that if a man needs food you don’t give him fish, you give him a fishing-rod and teach him how to use it,’ he says.

One man who received his help says Abu Christmas could have bought 'one or two houses’ with the money he has given away in recent years.

'I don’t know how much the total is,’ says Abu Christmas. 'I don’t keep a notebook. I do this every day. If I started to calculate the amount, it could be a problem, so I’d rather forget. I’m sure that God will give me back much more than I have given away.’

Thursday 11 December 2008

New approach counters diabetes in mice trials


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Beersheba, Israel -- When he was just 7 years old, Sacramento native Nate DeFelice was told he had Type 1 diabetes. So when he joined a diabetes research project at Ben-Gurion University here two years ago, he hoped it would be a meaningful experience.

As it turns out, the project could change his life and those of millions of other diabetics.

DeFelice, 27, never dreamed that he would help discover a potential cure for his disease, see the beginning of a Federal Drug Administration-approved clinical trial in the United States and co-author a scientific paper along with seven other researchers published in October by the National Academy of Sciences.

"It's exciting," said DeFelice, who studies pediatric medicine at the university's international health program run and must inject himself with insulin six times a day and check his blood sugar levels 10 times a day. "Managing diabetes is a full-time job."

Type 1 diabetes, usually diagnosed in childhood, is caused by a failure of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas called "islets." They require daily injections of insulin, which helps break down glucose in the blood. As glucose levels rise, diabetics can suffer blindness and even death.

In Type 2 diabetes, sufferers cannot use insulin effectively but can sometimes manage their condition with lifestyle changes. Oral drugs, however, are often required - and less frequently insulin - to achieve metabolic control. Most people with diabetes have Type 2.

Welcome opportunity

When Ben-Gurion University biochemistry Professor Dr. Eli Lewis asked for volunteers to participate in new research on diabetes, DeFelice jumped at the chance.

Diabetes "is something I'm constantly aware of and constantly taking care of," said DeFelice. "It's a part of me, but I'd be happy to get rid of it."

Lewis, DeFelice and the other researchers have focused their investigations on islet transplantation. In 2000, doctors at more than 50 research sites in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan transplanted healthy islets into diabetes patients, hoping the newly grafted cells would secrete insulin and effectively cure the disease.

But the cells were rejected, and patients resumed insulin injections after a few months.

The Israeli team then opted for a new approach, ignoring the rejection of the grafted cells and focusing instead on inflammation caused by the transplant itself. Lewis grafted healthy islets into diabetic mice and treated them with an anti-inflammatory drug called alpha-1-antitrypsin, or AAT. Within months, they discovered three encouraging results:

-- AAT enabled the newly grafted islets to survive indefinitely, successfully secreting insulin to control glucose levels like healthy pancreas cells.

-- The researchers stopped administering AAT and the islets continued to function. "We withdrew the therapy. That is something that is unique in transplant today," Lewis explained. "There is no approach today that is able to provide a limited amount of therapy. If a patient stops the current protocol therapy, any graft will be rejected: kidney, heart, lungs - including islets."

-- The third result surprised even the scientists. They found that even after transplant and halting therapies, the mice's immune systems remained intact and were able to reject additional grafts while the original transplant continued to function. Doctors call this state "tolerance," which means the immune system remains intact and able to attack foreign bodies while protecting the inserted graft.

"We were able to cure a mouse from diabetes by supplying the healthy cells and the mouse's immune system still functioned," Lewis said. "This is the closest thing that we can consider to cure diabetes."

If healthy islets that secrete insulin and control the body's glucose levels can be successfully transplanted, diabetics would be cured of diabetes, Lewis said. By using AAT, the researchers cured diabetes in mice and are hopeful they can do the same for humans. It is not yet clear what the transplant procedure would mean for sufferers of Type 2 diabetes.

'Impressive' results

The Israeli team's findings have caused much excitement among medical experts.

"The results of this study are really impressive," said Marc Donath of the Clinic of Endocrinology and Diabetes at the University Hospital in Zurich. "This study is a realistic hope not only for islet transplantation, but also for other organ transplantation."

Thomas Mandrup-Poulsen, chief physician of the Steno Diabetes Center and Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, says the Israeli team is "at the frontier of islet research."

In the next year or so, the Israeli team will work with colleagues at Harvard University and other U.S. centers in FDA-approved clinical trials.

"Our study is ongoing," said Lewis.

Meanwhile, DeFelice says he prefers to wait for the results before breaking out the bubbly.

"Mice models are very different to human models," said DeFelice. "It's a black box."

This article appeared on page A - 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday 4 December 2008

Israel preparing a 'go it alone' air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities without consulting the U.S.

By Matthew Kalman

4th December 2008

Israel is preparing to go it alone in a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, it was reported yesterday.

Officials in the Israeli Defence Ministry told the Jerusalem Post that while they prefer to act in consultation with the U.S., they were preparing plans that would allow them to act in isolation.

'It is always better to coordinate,' a senior Defence Ministry official told the newspaper. 'But we are also preparing options that do not include coordination.'


X-band radars, installed by the US at a military facility in Israel to counter a perceived missile threat from Iran, go operational this month

His comments came after President Bush refused to promise U.S. assistance in an attack, which would need to cross Iraqi airspace that is currently controlled by America.

According to the newspaper, Israeli military strategists are drawing up plans for an air strike against the emerging nuclear weapons programme in Iran, which experts believe is just three years away from becoming operational.

Israeli leaders fear that an Iranian regime armed with nuclear weapons will carry out Tehran's cold-blooded threat to destroy the Jewish state and destabilise the West.

At a military parade in Tehran in the summer, banners adorning six Shehab-3 missiles declared: 'Israel must be wiped off the map' and 'We will crush America under our feet.'

'While its preference is to co-ordinate with the U.S., defence officials have said Israel is preparing a wide range of options for such an operation,' the Post reported.

'Israeli officials have said it would be difficult, but not impossible, to launch a strike against Iran without receiving codes from the U.S. Air Force, which controls Iraqi airspace,' the report added.


Iran's atomic chief Gholam Reza Aghazadeh says thousands of uranium enrichment centrifuges are already in operation

Earlier this year, there were reports that Israel was holding major exercises along the length of the Mediterranean – about the same distance as the 1,000-mile flight to Iran – in what was seen as a dry-run for a possible attack.

But many experts believe a military strike against Iran is impossible without U.S. assistance, since many of the Iranian facilities are underground. Without American permission to fly over Iraq, and access to advanced U.S. intelligence, an Israeli strike is unlikely to succeed.

Last week, Iran's nuclear chief Gholam Reza Aghazadeh revealed that thousands of uranium enrichment centrifuges were already in operation at its nuclear plant in Natanz.

'At this point, more than 5,000 centrifuges are operating in Natanz,' said Mr Aghazadeh.

There were only 4,000 in operation in August.

Iran has been testing its upgraded Shehab-3 inter-continental ballistic missile, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead 1,242 miles – more than enough to hit Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile western diplomats said that UN sanctions and other diplomatic pressure were proving ineffective in persuading Iran to give up its Russian-backed nuclear programme.

'I do not belong to the optimistic camp which believes there is a solution for the Iranian nuclear issue,' NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters in Brussels today.

In September, US troops deployed an advanced radar system in Israel designed to help protect the country against a ballistic missile attack from Iran.

The Forward Based X-Band Transportable Radar system can detect an Iranian ballistic missile half-way into its 11-minute flight to Israel.

The X-Band radar is being linked to US satellite tracking stations and Israel's own Arrow II defensive rocket system, enabling them to detect and destroy an incoming Iranian missile before it enters Israeli airspace.

Japan deployed the same system two years ago to detect potential missiles launched from North Korea.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

'You are the child of all of Israel,' rabbi tells orphan at funeral for Jews killed in Mumbai

By MATTHEW KALMAN in Ramle, Israel, and CORKY SIEMASZKO in New York

Tuesday, December 2nd 2008

Little Moshe Holtzberg's parents were murdered in Mumbai, but he will not be an orphan.

While Israel's leaders and a sea of mourners looked on, a New York rabbi pledged Tuesday that the Brooklyn couple's 2-year-old son would have thousands of new parents.

"You don't have a mother who will hug you and kiss you," Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky said in an anguished eulogy. "You are the child of all of Israel."

Before Kotlarsky were the bodies of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and his 28-year-old wife, Rivkah. He was wrapped in a prayer shawl, and she in a shroud.

The bodies were resting on chairs set outside a building that is a replica of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch movement's center in Crown Heights.

Rivkah's weeping father sent a fresh wave of grief spilling over the black-clad throng with the revelation that his daughter was five months pregnant when she was murdered by militants last week.

"They killed three people, not two," Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg said.

Moshe, whose Indian nanny rescued him from the Jewish center, was not at the funeral.

Israeli President Shimon Peres called on the world to unite in the fight against terrorism, using the moment to single out Iran for criticism.

"If the entire world doesn't join together as one man and say, 'Enough,' then the world is in danger," he said.

The Holtzbergs' killers are believed to be members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Kashmiri separatist group linked to Al Qaeda and based in a lawless corner of Pakistan.

When the service was done, the young couple was laid to rest in the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives near the grave of a child they lost to Tay-Sachs disease.

In Brooklyn, where the Holtzbergs lived until 2003, thousands more Lubavitchers watched the service at their main headquarters on Eastern Parkway.

Nearly 200 people were killed in the 60-hour terror rampage staged by just 10 militants in Mumbai, a megalopolis that's often referred to as the New York of India.

One of the dead was another former New Yorker, Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum, 37, who was also buried in Jerusalem Tuesday.

Two other Americans, a Virginia dad and his 13-year-old daughter, were slaughtered in the killing spree.

Secretary of State Rice arrived in India Tuesday on a mission to cool off the Indians. The Mumbai police chief claims the killers were directed to their targets by a controller based in Pakistan. The Pakistani government denies any involvement in the Mumbai massacre.

India and Pakistan are neighbors with nukes that have fought several wars - and the U.S. doesn't want to alienate either ally.

Monday 1 December 2008

Laser skin welding the suture of future for surgery

Scientists at Tel Aviv University are testing use of laser beams to seal surgical incisions, allowing skin and internal tissue to heal more quickly after operations and accidents.

"The technique of sewing the human body with needle and thread is an old one that has existed for thousand of years," said Prof. Abraham Katzir.

Ambulance medics may be able to use the new technique to close wounds quickly and safely at the scene of accidents.

The new method leaves less scarring than traditional stitches and helps give the wound better protection against infection.

"Sutures or stitches are not watertight, and blood or urine can pass through cuts, causing severe infection," Katzir said.

The use of lasers to heal surgical wounds was first proposed decades ago, but the early prototypes burned the skin and the tests were abandoned.

Katzir's new technique of skin welding avoids that problem because it uses a smart laser that corrects its own temperature as it works.

The new device has already been tested successfully in clinical trials on patients undergoing gall bladder operations in Israel.

Researchers believe it could be especially useful for plastic surgery and for sealing battlefield wounds on contact.

"It could allow soldiers to heal each other on contact with a laser wand," Katzir said.

The laser skin welding uses a special biological glue smeared on the two sides of the incision.

A laser warms it to the correct temperature to make the glue thicken and create a hard shell that protects the wound and allows it to heal while blocking germs.