Friday 23 January 2009

Hamas says Fatah taking revenge in West Bank

Friday, January 23, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank - Hundreds of Hamas supporters, including journalists, university students and Muslim leaders, have been beaten, arrested and tortured across the West Bank as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas takes revenge on Hamas for its crackdown on his Fatah supporters in Gaza, Hamas activists say.

The move has deepened growing divisions between Abbas' Fatah party and the Hamas movement that won parliamentary elections in Gaza before seizing total control of the territory in a 2007 bloody coup.

The reported West Bank sweep and its alarming consequences for Palestinian unity pose a sharp challenge to President Obama, who named former Sen. George Mitchell Thursday as his special envoy to the Middle East and pledged to aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hamas has admitted arresting, executing and torturing Fatah "spies" it has accused of aiding Israel during the three-week invasion of Gaza. Hamas leaders also have branded Abbas as an Israeli collaborator.

The arrests of Hamas supporters in the West Bank began during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, after Abbas imposed strict limits on pro-Hamas demonstrations, according to numerous press reports.

'Emirate of darkness'

"We won't allow Hamas to destroy our national project regardless of the price," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Abbas, who accused Hamas of seeking to establish an "emirate of darkness" in the Gaza Strip.

Khalid Amayreh, a journalist for the Palestine Information Center who has been critical of Abbas' policies, said he spent 55 hours in a rancid, dark, windowless cell in the Preventive Security Force headquarters in Hebron after being invited for coffee Sunday with a local security chief.

"I was arrested for saying things that should not have been said in an interview with a local satellite TV station," Amayreh said. "They thought I was vilifying the Palestinian Authority, distorting its image and inciting people against it."

Although he was not physically mistreated, Amayreh said he heard screams of another prisoner in a nearby cell and saw 10 men being led away with hoods over their heads.

"In Hebron alone they have arrested 56 people," Amayreh said, estimating that between 500 and 600 people had been arrested during the police crackdown. "The Palestinian Authority is very nervous these days."

In Tulkarem, Islamboli Badir, the son of a slain extremist leader named Riad Badir, required medical treatment after electric shock torture by Palestinian General Intelligence, according to Hamas sources.

Sheikh Omar Manna, the imam of the largest mosque in Tulkarem and Sheikh Fayad al-Aghbar, a prominent Hamas figure in Nablus, were arrested on charges of financial crimes.

Schoolteacher Hussein Dib and university students Hani Barabrah and Ala al-Aaraj were arrested immediately after being released from an Israeli jail.

A call for unity

Despite the tit-for-tat arrests and beatings, both sides called for unity Thursday.

Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, told the Associated Press that the alternative is a permanent rift that will destroy Palestinians' dreams for a state of their own.

In Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called for reconciliation, but insisted on pursuing resistance against Israel and having sole control over all international donations to rebuild Gaza, saying Fatah cannot be trusted to handle the aid.

"My impression from Mashaal's speech is that he just closed the door for a national unity government and dialogue," said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian minister and member of the Palestinian People's Party who edits the Israeli-Palestinian debate Web site "He put conditions of the kind that cannot be met, practically speaking, by the Palestinian Authority. ... It was not the language of a person who wants dialogue."

Khatib said Fatah and Hamas are so deeply divided that they could only be united by international pressure from Syria, Iran and Qatar on Hamas and the United States on Fatah.

'An irreversible situation'

"I think we have reached an irreversible situation," Khatib said. "This new U.S. administration ... could have a major impact on the internal Palestinian situation. Washington very much has a role to play."

Palestinian political analyst Khaled Abu Toameh says Obama could start by pressuring Abbas to rein in security forces trained and financed by the United States and the European Union in a program led by U.S. Gen. Keith Dayton.

The United States and EU are "the same people who are demanding that the Palestinian Authority promote democracy and freedom," said Abu Toameh.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Hamas executes suspected Fatah traitors in Gaza

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank - As Israel's last troops left the Gaza Strip Wednesday, Hamas officials conceded that they are executing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel during the three-week invasion.

In the West Bank, Fatah officials said at least 19 of its members have been executed and many more brutally tortured. Gaza residents say Hamas is using schools and other public buildings in Gaza City, and the towns of Khan Yunis and Rafah as detention centers to interrogate members of Fatah, their political rivals. They said three men have been blinded during questioning and more than 60 have been shot in the legs as punishment.

"They are committing human rights violations in a very brutal manner," Mahmoud Habbash, Palestinian Authority minister of social welfare said in Ramallah. "Not only did Israel perpetrate war crimes, but Hamas also has been targeting innocent Palestinians."

'Kisses to Israeli warplanes'

A leaflet distributed by the Fatah military wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, pleaded with Hamas to "respect the blood of the Palestinian martyrs" and urged them to stop pursuing Fatah members in Gaza. The leaflet said Hamas has arrested hundreds of Fatah members since the cease-fire and has threatened to shoot anyone who refuses to surrender.

While Fatah leaders in the West Bank also accused Hamas of stealing U.N. aid convoys, Hamas officials denounced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement for collaborating with Israel and said they no longer recognized his authority since his term officially ended on Jan. 9.

In Damascus, Moussa Abu Marzook, the Hamas deputy political leader, told reporters that senior Fatah officials had "distributed candy celebrating the Gaza offensive, sent kisses to Israeli warplanes" and "guided these planes to their targets." Admitting that suspected collaborators were being executed in Gaza, Abu Marzook said "many people from the former Palestinian Authority viewed the Israeli offensive as an opportunity to rise to power again" in Gaza.

Bitter rivals

Hamas and Fatah have been bitter rivals since June 2007, when Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza after launching a bloody coup against the Abbas government. About 400 Fatah supporters were killed and many others badly maimed.

Since the 23-day Israeli assault on Gaza ended in a cease-fire Sunday, Hamas has repeatedly accused Abbas of backing Israel and has branded him a traitor and collaborator. On the first day of the invasion on Dec. 27, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called on Palestinians in the West Bank to overthrow the Abbas government in a "quiet intifada." More recently, Mohammed Al-Ghoul, Hamas justice minister, said Abbas should be put on trial for conspiring against the Palestinian people "in full coordination with the Israeli occupation."

Ihab Ghissin, a spokesman for the Hamas Ministry of Interior in Gaza, confirmed the arrest of Fatah activists. "We have managed to capture a number of collaborators who are now being questioned for their role in aiding the Zionist aggression," he told reporters in Gaza City.

Fatah officials have dismissed the accusations of spying for Israel, pointing out that Abbas has described Israel's three-week offensive as "barbaric and criminal." On Tuesday, Abbas backed an Arab League statement that accused Israel of war crimes. On Wednesday, a Fatah flyer calling West Bank residents to attend mass rallies today to condemn the invasion said "Israeli aggression did not distinguish between Palestinian factions."

David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process, says Hamas has been hurling spy accusations at Fatah since the takeover of Gaza.

"It's clearly more palatable to Hamas to accuse Fatah of collaborating with Israel than to openly admit their desire for raw power over Gaza," said Makovsky.

Hamas proof

But Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel said he has proof that Fatah helped Israel assassinate security chief Said Siam, commander of the 15,000-strong Hamas Executive Force militia. Siam was killed along with his brother and another senior security official in an air strike last week. Bardaweel said Fatah informants reported directly to Abbas officials in the West Bank.

"We had arrested a number of them prior to the Israeli assault, and we found them with plans showing homes of Hamas' leaders, and places where Hamas stores its weapons. They have admitted their guilt and told us names of their masters, who would, in turn, inform the Israeli intelligence ... to facilitate the Israeli mission," said Bardaweel.

In Gaza City, Fatah activists told spine-chilling stories of retribution.

Relatives of Abed al-Gharabli, a former Fatah security officer who spent 12 years in an Israeli prison, said he was kidnapped by a group of Hamas militiamen who shot him in both legs after severely torturing him.

Ziad Abu Hayeh, a Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade commander, is reported to have been blinded after being abducted from his home in Khan Yunis by Hamas gunmen.

In other cases, Fatah supporters were simply shot in the legs - a favored Hamas tactic during the 2007 coup that drove Fatah out of Gaza.

The crackdown suggests it will not be easy to bring Hamas and Fatah together in a national unity government that many observers believe is the only way to lift international sanctions against Gaza and ensure the speedy flow of goods to a population in desperate need of aid. The European Union has said it will not give reconstruction funds to Hamas, only to the Abbas government.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

As Cease-Fire Takes Hold, Palestinian Universities Regroup and Israeli Colleges Reopen

DAILY NEWS BLOG: January 20, 2009

Jerusalem — Israeli and Palestinian colleges affected by the three-week Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip are resuming studies after Sunday’s cease-fire. But some Gaza campuses have been so badly damaged it could take many weeks to return to normal.

Many university buildings in Gaza suffered serious collateral damage from Israeli air strikes and a ground invasion. University officials said it was too early to say how many students and academics were among the 1,300 Palestinian dead and more than 4,000 wounded.

The most affected college was the Islamic University in Gaza City, which Israel made a specific target and accused of being a center for weapons development by Hamas. The university, with 20,000 students, is the largest in the Gaza Strip.

“We have two buildings completely destroyed — the science-laboratory block and the engineering-laboratory block — and 10 other buildings are partially damaged,” Islamic University’s president, Kamalain Shaath, told The Chronicle. “Our maintenance people are trying to make basic preparations and fix things up. The water connections, electricity, Internet, and phone are all damaged. The e-mail is down.”

Mr. Shaath estimated it would cost $10-million to repair the damage to buildings and equipment.

He said he hoped that faculty members would be able to return to the campus on Saturday. Students were supposed to take their fall-semester examinations when the war broke out. The exams will probably resume in about two weeks.

Officials at other universities, which suffered indirect damage, hope to resume exams on the weekend. Yahya Sarraj, dean of the University College of Applied Sciences, said he was planning how to accommodate his 6,000 students while the damage was being repaired.

“There is indirect damage from shells which destroyed some classrooms, laboratories, and computer equipment,” Mr. Sarraj said. “We might resume the exams on Saturday, but we will have to find other rooms. We might use the cafeteria and whatever space is available.”

Across the border, Israeli colleges have already resumed full activity. Staff members at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, worked through the emergency even as rockets fell near the campus, causing some damage to buildings. A business-studies lecturer was badly wounded in a rocket attack last Thursday as she drove home. The university’s 17,000 students returned to classes today.

At Sapir College, in Sderot, which was the target of most Hamas rocket attacks for the past eight years, classes resumed more than a week ago. In the past, rockets fell directly on the college, killing one student, but the campus suffered only minor damage during the most recent violence.

“We decided to add one week to the semester, and we have shortened the exam period by a week,” said a college spokesman, Simon Tamir. “A handful of students have left because of the situation — maybe 10 out of 6,000,” he said. —Matthew Kalman

Posted on Tuesday January 20, 2009

Hamas makes revenge bid against Fatah members, suspected collaborators

Tuesday, January 20th

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem, ERICA SILVERMAN in Ramallah, West Bank, and HELEN KENNEDY in New York

Israeli troops marched home Monday but there was no end to the bloodshed in Gaza as Hamas began carrying out vicious reprisals against suspected collaborators.

Members of the rival Fatah party said dozens of their men were executed by Hamas, allegedly for helping Israel target Hamas, and several were being tortured.

Three Fatah men had their eyes put out during "interrogation" by Hamas thugs and as many as 80 Fatah members were either shot in the legs or had their hands broken for defying Hamas' house-arrest orders.

"What's happening in the Gaza Strip is a new massacre that is being carried out by Hamas against Fatah," said a Fatah activist in Gaza City. "Where were these cowards when the Israeli Army was here?"

Israeli troops and tanks that poured into Gaza Jan. 3 were in full retreat. Officials told the Haaretz newspaper that they aimed to have every soldier out by Barack Obama's inauguration at noon Tuesday.

Obama and incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have signaled they plan a hands-on Middle East policy. The Bush administration, until recent years, has been largely hands off.

Internal Palestinian schisms are certain to complicate matters for the new administration.

Hamas and Fatah have been bitter rivals since June 2007, when Hamas launched a bloody coup against the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, killing about 400 Fatah supporters and maiming many others.

The issue of collaboration is urgent in Gaza because Israel was able to pinpoint the secret locations of many Hamas homes and offices - suggesting the use of high-level informants.

Hamas repeatedly accused Abbas and his men of backing the three-week Israeli assault on Gaza that ended Sunday.

Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel said Fatah "spies" helped Israel to assassinate Hamas security chief Said Siam, who was killed in a missile strike on his brother's home last week.

Bardaweel said informants reported directly to Abbas' office in the West Bank.

Fatah's paramilitary wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, distributed leaflets begging Hamas to "respect the blood of the Palestinian martyrs" and leave Fatah members alone.

A Fatah official told the Jerusalem Post that Hamas' failure to stand up to Israel's assault on Gaza is fueling their intramural fury.

"They were afraid to confront the Israeli Army and many Hamas militiamen even ran away during the fighting," he said. "Hamas is now venting its anger and frustration against our Fatah members there."

Gaza residents said Hamas had commandeered schools and other public buildings as temporary detention centers, where prisoners were being systematically tortured.

At the start of the Israeli bombing campaign, several Fatah prisoners taken to the Shifa Hospital in Gaza were executed as they lay in their beds.

Relatives of Abed al-Gharabli, a Fatah security officer who spent 12 years in an Israeli prison, said he was kidnapped by a group of Hamas militiamen who shot him in both legs after severely torturing him.

Monday 19 January 2009

Palestinians emerge on cease-fire's first day

Monday, January 19, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - Thousands of Palestinians emerged onto the streets of Gaza on Sunday for the first time in days, after Israel suspended its aerial bombardment and heavy street fighting. But for many who had fled from homes in the areas worst affected by the three-week Israeli military onslaught, there was no homecoming.

Houses, mosques and entire apartment blocks have been reduced to rubble by a combination of Israeli bombing and Hamas' own explosive booby-traps.

Although Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh hailed the cease-fire as wise and responsible, many Gazans had only one question on Sunday: How long will the cease-fire hold? There was a palpable fear that this truce is so fragile it could collapse at the slightest provocation.

In fact, there isn't one cease-fire, but two parallel processes in which each side is studiously refusing to engage the other directly, while making demands that are so tough it is hard to see how they will be kept.

The Israelis stepped up to the plate first, unilaterally announcing they would halt all offensive measures at 2 a.m. Sunday. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would return fire if attacked - as it was repeatedly on Sunday morning - and called for a long-term cease-fire conditioned on an end to rocket attacks from the coastal strip and a halt to weapons smuggling, which it hopes to achieve with the help of Egypt, the United States and other international guarantors.

After dismissing the Israeli move, Hamas announced its own separate truce about 12 hours later, in its turn conditioned on Israeli forces leaving the Gaza Strip within a week and the opening of all border crossings into Israel and Egypt.

Israel said its soldiers could stay longer and has linked opening the crossings to the return of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in June 2006.

Palestinian analyst Khaled Abu Toameh said Hamas was forced to end this round of fighting through sheer exhaustion.

"They had no other choice," said Abu Toameh. "They have been hit hard. Both sides now have an interest in maintaining the cease-fire. Hamas will be too busy reorganizing and rebuilding what was destroyed. They won't have time to fight. They now have an interest in preserving the lull as long as possible."

A six-month cease-fire last year was honored more in the breach, with Israel refusing to open the border crossing and sporadic Hamas rocket attacks - often directed against those same crossings.

Matt Beynon Rees, author of "A Grave in Gaza," said he expects this truce to play out similarly, but he does not expect Hamas will risk another round too soon.

"The cease-fire won't actually mean that the fighting stops, but it'll mean that both sides will overlook small outbursts of violence because they are both desperate to end the big battle that we've seen," said Rees.

"How long it will last depends on how desperate Hamas is to give the people of Gaza some breathing space."

Rees said Hamas is unlikely to survive another Israeli onslaught and therefore will be careful not push the Israelis too far.

"Hamas has to pose as the resistance that refuses to back down, but it's been pummeled as hard as the buildings in Gaza City and it needs some time to rebuild," he said.

Israel and the West would prefer the Fatah-led government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to be in charge, but Fatah has yet to recover from losing the 2006 election to Hamas and then being ousted from Gaza by a Hamas-led effort in June 2007.

Abbas' term as president expired Jan. 9, but he refused to call a new election for fear he would lose that as well. Israel and Egypt are trying to bring Abbas' forces back to supervise the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border, but his return under their protection would only fuel suspicions that he is acting as an agent of the Israeli government.

Replacing Hamas with Abbas' Fatah-led government is no longer a stated aim of the Israeli government, but many Israelis are divided on the question of whether the military operation should have continued with the aim of destroying Haniyeh and his colleagues.

"We cannot eliminate such terror organizations in Gaza unless we stay there for more than a year, go from house to house, from backyard to backyard, and from sewage pit to attic - and even then, we will not see elimination," said Eitan Haber, a former adviser to assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "Those who speak about 'elimination' understand nothing and are just part of the useless chatter. A unilateral cease-fire is the best we can achieve."

But Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who polls suggest will be Israel's next prime minister, thinks differently.

"The Israel Defense Forces have dealt Hamas a severe blow, but unfortunately the job has not been completed," Netanyahu said Sunday.

"Hamas still controls Gaza and will continue to smuggle improved rockets through the Philadelphi route," he said, referring to Gaza's border with Egypt by its Israeli military codename. "We cannot show any weakness in the face of the Iranian-backed Hamas terror and must act with an iron fist to defeat the enemy."

Friday 16 January 2009

Israelis kill Hamas interior minister Said Siam

Friday, January 16th 2009


JERUSALEM - Israel notched a huge psychological victory Thursday by assassinating the Hamas interior minister - the most senior terror leader to die since the Gaza blitz began three weeks ago.

Israel also shelled the main United Nations compound in Gaza, setting fire to its fuel depot and sparking an inferno that sent huge plumes of black smoke billowing over Gaza City and destroyed millions of dollars of humanitarian supplies.

About 700 Palestinian civilians were taking shelter in the building, but there were only a handful of injuries.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who was in Jerusalem to meet with Israeli officials, called it an "outrage," and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the strike "indefensible."

Ban later told reporters that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had apologized, calling the attack on the UN "a grave mistake" that was being taken "very seriously."

Even as truce talks were progressing in Cairo, Hamas vowed revenge for the death of Hamas No. 3 Said Siam, killed in a missile strike on his brother's house.

"The blood of Said Siam will be a curse on the Zionist entity," Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal told Al Jazeera.

Siam, a former science professor, became one of Hamas' most hard-line ideologues.

He was the commander of the feared Hamas Executive Force, the black-uniformed paramilitary service that led the Hamas coup against Fatah in June 2007, killing 400 Palestinians in the rival faction.

Israeli officials were confident Siam's death would be a stunning blow to Hamas morale. That's because the strike was based on precise intelligence of Siam's movements, showing that the highest levels of Hamas have been penetrated by Israeli intelligence.

In Cairo, Hamas appeared more isolated than ever after Syrian leader Bashar Assad - its protector and host in Damascus - threw his weight behind a ceasefire plan that would include ending Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Israel denies using bombs that cause deep burns

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - Sabah Abu Halimah's tears trickled down her discolored cheeks. The skin on her upper chest and neck were pockmarked with black spots and fingers poking out from between heavy bandages looked raw.

As Abu Halimah lay in a bed at Gaza's Shifa Hospital on Tuesday, she described how a "ball of fire" engulfed her house in the northern Gaza village of Beit Lahiya. Abu Halimah said her extended family of 18 people were cowering in the living room when rockets fell.

"I was breastfeeding my baby girl when suddenly something exploded, and I heard my son calling 'Mom, fire!' I tried to stand up but the blast seemed to hit my head, which felt like it was on fire. I think I must have fainted," she said. "When I woke up and looked across the room, I saw the blackened bodies of my husband and my teenage son like pieces of charcoal. Both their heads were severed completely from their bodies. Even their blood wasn't red, it was black. And my baby daughter was dead."

Down the corridor, Basel El-Assali was comforting his 16-year-old son, Mahmoud, who had severe burns to his face and chest, caused when a fire bomb with "yellow light and white smoke" hit their home in Jebaliya north of Gaza.

"I saw a huge ball of fire falling from the sky which became other smaller balls with the white smoke," he said. "My other son was outside the house. He couldn't get close to help his brother because the fire was burning him and the smoke was choking him."

Doctors at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City said they had never seen such burn cases before.

"These are very strange types of injuries and burns. We don't know the type of weapons used which cause these injuries," said Nafaz Abu Shaaban, the hospital's head of plastic surgery for the past 20 years. "The cases we received in the last few days are not usual burns. It's severe, massive burns, very deep burns. The site of the injury continues to produce smoke and burning for a long time, even after dressing," he said.

Shaaban said a visiting doctor who knows about such burn injuries "told us that this might be from the use of white phosphorous bombs."

"From my experience, these are deep burns as a result of the white phosphorous, which causes damage to the skin, muscles and the blood vessels," said Mohammed El-Abbade, a plastic surgery specialist from Jordan.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch accused Israel of illegally using white phosphorus shells in its conflict with Hamas.

"Human Rights Watch has analyzed photographs taken by the media on the Israel-Gaza border showing Israeli artillery units handling fused WP artillery shells, as well as video of air bursts over Gaza followed by tendrils of smoke and flame that are highly indicative of WP use," the organization said in a statement. "The potential for harm to civilians is magnified by Gaza's high population density, among the highest in the world."

But Israel has rejected such charges.

On Tuesday, Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi denied the Israeli military is doing anything illegal.

"The Israel Defense Forces act only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorous," Ashkenazi told the Israeli Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Tel Aviv.

Israeli officials also point out that it is Hamas fighters who are acting illegally by launching rocket attacks on Israeli towns rather than specific military targets.

The controversy over white phosphorous shells

Under international law, white phosphorous shells can be legally used to illuminate large areas at night or provide cover for advancing ground troops by creating a smokescreen.

When fired, fragments of phosphorous, sometimes known as "shake and bake," burst into flames on contact with air, causing fires, destroying buildings and burning those who come in contact with its napalm-like agents.

According to Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, such incendiary weapons are prohibited against "any military objective located within a concentration of civilians." Some human rights groups are pushing to ban the shells by re-classifying them as a chemical weapon.

Neither the United States nor Israel is a signatory to Protocol III.

Israel has admitted using white phosphorus during its 34-day war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, while the United States reportedly used the shells in Iraq during the battle for the city of Fallujah in 2004.

Chronicle Foreign Service correspondent Matthew Kalman reported from Jerusalem and freelance reporter Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed from Gaza City.

U.S., Israel in ceasefire spat

Wednesday, January 14th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York


An Israeli airstrike as seen in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.

The friendship between Jerusalem and Washington came under unusual strain Tuesday after Israel's prime minister bragged of ordering President Bush around - and a red-faced State Department slapped him down.

As Israeli troops tightened their hold on Gaza City, fighting block by block amid signs Hamas might be closer to surrender, a behind-the-scenes battle was raging in diplomatic corridors.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bragged Monday that he made Bush order Secretary of State Rice to abstain from a UN ceasefire resolution she had worked hard to help draft.

"I said, 'Get me President Bush on the phone,'" Olmert said. "They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care: 'I need to talk to him now.' They got him off the podium ... I told him, 'You can't vote in favor.'"

Olmert crowed that Rice was "left pretty shamed."

Rice spokesman Sean McCormack said that Olmert's account was "just 100% totally completely not true" and suggested the Israeli government might want to correct the record.

McCormack said Rice never supported the resolution.

When reporters asked why she spent three days working on a resolution she didn't support, McCormack accused them of "flagellum equus mortuus" - Latin for beating a dead horse.

A transcript of Bush's 27-minute speech at a Philadelphia school Thursday shows no interruption.

Meanwhile in Gaza, there were signs that Hamas was begining to cave.

At talks in Cairo, there were reports that Hamas would agree to Turkish troops patrolling the Hamas smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border - a key condition set by Israel for a ceasefire.

Much was made of the "frightened" demeanor of Ismail Haniya, Hamas' Gaza political leader, in a video where he said, "Hamas will cooperate with any initiative that will bring about an end to the aggression ... We will react to any such initiative positively."

More than 950 Palestinians have been killed since Operation Cast Lead began Dec. 27. The Israeli Defense Forces says about half were known Hamas operatives.

"Hamas has been badly hit, in terms of losses in manpower including some top commanders, and also in terms of property, infrastructure, weapons caches and staging areas," said Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF's top general.

He also said Hamas suicide bombers were dressing in IDF uniforms and that Hamas was forcing Palestinian civilians to act as human shields.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Two fathers separated by war, united in grief

(Blog: January 13, 2009)

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM - Ella Abukasis was a popular, fun-loving, 17-year-old schoolgirl from Sderot in southern Israel who doted on her 10-year-old brother Tamir. On January 15, 2005, she was walking Tamir home from the local youth club when the "Colour Red" sirens began began booming across the town, giving them 15 seconds to take cover from an incoming Qassam rocket fired from Gaza.

Ever since the Hamas reign of terror began, Ella had looked after the little boy, sleeping alongside him and taking him everywhere. But on this Saturday afternoon there was nowhere to hide. Ella lay her brother down next to a wall and shielded his body with her own.

Seconds later, a Qassam rocket slammed into the street beside them, sending shards of jagged metal and debris scorching through the air.

Tamir escaped with relatively minor injuries, shielded by his guardian angel, but Ella took the full force of the blast.

She was rushed to hospital in a coma. Three days later, doctors declared Ella brain-dead and she was disconnected from life-support. She never regained consciousness.

Tamir was released from hospital the day his sister died, but neither he nor his parents have recovered from the senseless loss of their wonderful girl.

"He still has shrapnel lodged in his head and psychologically he has been scarred for life," said their father Yonatan, 50, the only member of the family who can bring himself to talk about the tragedy.

"Every time there is a boom of another rocket, he can't take it. He can't sleep. His childhood has been stolen from him. Only when he goes away from Sderot can he relax. At home every sudden noise makes him re-live that terrible nightmare," said Abukasis.

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 town of Sderot just across the border. It has now reduced to a ghost town.

Egypt brokered a truce that took effect last June, but the Palestinians still fired 223 rockets and 139 mortar shells from the Hamas-controlled enclave.

"I wish people around the world would understand that people have been dying in this town while Hamas fires without restraint. I don't think they get it. If all those people in London went out to demonstrate support for Hamas, they just don't understand the hell we have been going through for eight years. I'd like to invite all those demonstrators to come here and see the conditions we are living under," said Abukasis.

"It's a nightmare. There is nothing worse than feeling unsafe in your own home. All the time we sit and wait for the next rocket. We cannot lead a normal life. We cannot take the kids out to play. We can hardly leave the house at all. Every day, we are living on the edge," he said.

Abukasis and his surviving family still live in the same house, where the memory of Ella hangs heavy in the air. They have opened a youth center in the town dedicated to her memory.

"We will stay here. Hamas has only one thought – to drive us out, but they won't succeed," he said.

Abukasis believes that Israel had no choice but to invade Gaza, after Hamas refused to renew the six-month truce.

"I support it," he said. "You cannot allow this quasi-state to subject its neighbours to the point where we are living in fear every day. We cannot let a bunch of terrorists control our lives and tell us when we can go to school or work, or when we can go out.

"It's a shame the Israeli army didn't act sooner. It would have saved many lives on both sides.

"I hope we don't stop half way and withdraw based on some promise from Hamas. These people cannot be trusted. If they still have their missiles at the end of this, they will only attack us again. We must see this through to the end. We must put an end to Hamas and destroy all their weapons," he said.

At a house in Gaza City, Mohammed Darabeh was mourning the death of his wife Mojod and wondering about the fate of his five young daughters. She was killed and the girls aged 4 to 12 were injured when an Israeli shell exploded next to their ramshackle house in Beit Lahiya, scene of intense fighting all week.

"We had taken cover in one room of our house. I went to the next room to bring some water and there was a huge explosion. I think a bomb fell next to the house and shrapnel ripped through the walls. They are only thin. Mojod was killed instantly and the girls were all taken to hospital," Darabeh said, his mood switching between disbelief and fury as relatives came to offer their condolences.

"Why did this happen? What did she do? What did we do? There were no fighters. No-one was shooting from there. I received no warning, and even if I did, how could I leave with my family through the middle of the fighting? We have nowhere to go," he said.

"The Israelis want to drive us out of our house, to drive us from our homeland," he said. "They took our land, now they want more. They want to throw us into the sea. But we will never leave. We will stay and our resistance will win. We will not move from here even if they kill us."

But a few miles away in Sderot, Yonatan Abukasis said the people of Gaza had no-one to blame but themselves.

"I know they are suffering now on the other side, but they brought this on themselves. They have to take responsibility. I didn't elect Hamas, they did. They attacked us. They killed my daughter and no-one paid them back. Now, finally, we have to defend ourselves. They must understand that anyone who threatens us, who kills our children, is in danger.

"If they want to live normal lives, good lives, all they have to do is stop firing. We don't want to fight them," he said.

Monday 12 January 2009

Israel threatens Gaza with "iron fist" as Hamas rejects truce

Tuesday, January 13th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York

Israel massed more troops Monday and threatened to pound Gaza with an "iron fist" if its security demands are not met, but Hamas rejected any truce and declared, "Gaza will not break."

Palestinian civilians caught in the middle continued to suffer and die. The latest death toll was 911 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

"We want to end this," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. "If [Hamas stops firing rockets and closes its smuggling tunnels] we will end our military operation. Anything else will be met with the iron fist of the Israeli people."

As fresh Israeli reservists began pouring into Gaza, along with reports of tough urban warfare in Gaza City, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh vowed to continue fighting.

"Gaza will not break - our victory over the Zionists is near," he said in a videotaped statement.

Israel charged that the Hamas leadership had holed up in a bomb-proof basement under the central Shifa Hospital - a facility, ironically, fortified by Israel when it was refurbished during the occupation of the 1980s.

"Shifa Hospital has long ago ceased to be just a hospital," Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said on Army radio.

"It is somewhat of an open secret that Hamas commanders walk around the hospital, in some instances wearing doctor's robes," Dichter said.

The charge, which has not been substantiated by the foreign reporters crowding the hospital, raised fears that the most crucial facility in Gaza City might become a target.

Hamas fired at least 14 rockets into Israel, including 10 during the three-hour daily ceasefire Israel called to allow aid to be distributed. There were no injuries.

Ezzadin Abu El-Aish, a Palestinian doctor who used to work in Israel, cowered in his house on the outskirts of Gaza City listening to heavy street fighting.

"After all the shooting we heard last night, I thought I wouldn't be getting up this morning," he said.

Israel hints at end of Gaza operations

Monday, January 12th 2009


Israeli leaders hinted Sunday the Gaza assault might soon wind down, even as thousands of fresh reservists joined the battle and infantry units pushed toward the crowded heart of Gaza City.

"It would seem that we are close to ending the ground operation - and ending the operation altogether," Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said.

"Israel is nearing the goals that it set for itself," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

"However, further patience, determination and effort are necessary."

Olmert has said the aim of Operation Cast Lead, which has killed 878 Palestinians and 12 Israelis in 16 days, was to halt the shower of Hamas rockets fired into Israel.

Officials have said they do not plan to reoccupy Gaza or wipe out Hamas, but have contingency plans ready to do just that.

At least two dozen Hamas rockets fell on Israeli towns Sunday, including one that landed near a kindergarten in Ashdod and another that landed in the backyard of a house in Sderot.

There were no injuries.

The Gaza City skyline was blotted with plumes of black smoke as Israeli soldiers, backed by hovering helicopter gunships, advanced toward the city center from the southwest, the east and the north.

Thousands of reservists were massing on the border, including commandos versed in close-quarter urban combat.

Israeli war planes continued to bombard targets up and down the 20-mile-long strip. They said they were hitting explosives tunnels, underground missile launchers and hidden weapons caches.

Israel's military intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, said a split was emerging between Hamas leaders in Damascus, who want to keep fighting, and Hamas leaders in Gaza, who were considering compromise.

"Hamas is crying, 'Stop.' They are dying to respond to the blow they received and recover from their lack of operative successes in the field. On the other hand, they don't want to wave the white flag," Yadlin said.

"The Hamas leadership in Damascus is isolated. Their leadership in Gaza is paralyzed. Their military wing is evasive," he added.

Meanwhile, the United Nations resumed food deliveries after receiving assurances from the Israeli Army there would be no repeat of two attacks on UN trucks last week.

Filippo Grandi, an official with the UN refugee agency, said most ordinary Palestinians in Gaza didn't have a political agenda but they were becoming "terrified, starving, thirsty and traumatized, more desperate and more angry."

Sunday 11 January 2009

Analysis: Indirect talks for Gaza cease-fire

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian representatives are meeting in Cairo this weekend to explore an Egyptian-French cease-fire proposal to end Israel's invasion of Gaza.

As the Palestinian death toll spiraled beyond 800 and Israeli leaflets dropped on Gaza warned of an escalation in attacks that have now entered a third week, the two sides seemed far apart on ending the violence. Both sides continued to ignore a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Operation Cast Lead "will stop when the conditions that are essential for Israel's security are met. First and foremost, all terrorist operations against us must stop. The strengthening of the terrorist organizations via the smuggling of war materiel from Egypt into Gaza must also stop."

In the Syrian city of Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said Israel should "pull out first, let the aggression stop first, let the crossings open and then people can look into the issue of calm."

As negotiators attempt to bridge the wide gulf, the two sides are hampered by their refusal to talk to each other directly. Hamas does not recognize the existence of Israel, usually referring to it as "the Zionist entity," and has called for the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel refuses to recognize or address the group directly. Instead of meeting face to face to hammer out their differences, past negotiations have been conducted through Egyptian intermediaries.

Hamas official Ayman Taha was expected to sit in a downtown Cairo hotel this weekend while Israeli official Amos Gilad sat in the office of Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, according to an Israeli negotiator with knowledge of previous Israel-Hamas talks. Egyptian officials presented proposals to each side, then shuttled between the two locations with their answers. "There is no negotiating table, no meeting space. There are no direct negotiations whatsoever," said Moty Cristal of NEST Consulting, an Israeli expert in crisis management.

It may be a cumbersome way of stopping the fighting, but there seems to be little choice.

Israel's current negotiating partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is no longer recognized by Hamas since his term formally ended Friday. Abbas, who participated in the Cairo talks Saturday, has been without much influence over Gaza since his Fatah forces were ousted from the territory by Hamas in 2007.

"Those with whom Israel talk cannot deliver, and those who can deliver, Israel doesn't want to talk with," said Cristal.

Hamas-Israeli relations have not always been so distant. In fact, Israel played a key role in the formation of Hamas by encouraging Sheikh Ahmed Yassin - the group's co-founder - to establish Hamas as a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza in the late 1980s as a rival to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization.

"It was exactly the same mistake that the U.S. made when they encouraged the development of the Taliban to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan," said Reuven Berko, a former adviser on Arab affairs to the Israeli military in Gaza."

While Israel has made its cease-fire conditions clear - no more attacks, no more arms smuggling - Hamas' demands seem shortsighted at best. They seek the opening of all border crossings, the continuation of arms shipments and the right to continue their resistance by launching rocket attacks at Israel. For some, the Hamas refusal to compromise even at the cost of mass death and destruction for their people has transformed them into heroes; for others, it has made them objects of contempt.

"Regardless of the outcome of Israel's barbaric Operation Cast Lead, one thing is certain: It is high time for Hamas to step down as keeper of Gaza," wrote commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi in the Beirut Daily Star. "By any standards, Hamas has failed. It has failed in peace, it has failed in governance, and it is failing in war."

Central to the success of the cease-fire talks is Egypt. While deploring the Israeli campaign, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak has said that Hamas must share the burden for the Gaza catastrophe. Israel hopes Egyptian pressure will modify Hamas' hard-line stance.

Worst may be yet to come, Israel warns Gazans in leaflets as it pummels rocket launch sites

Sunday, January 11th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and TRACY CONNOR in New York


Smoke billows following an air strike by the Israeli air force against a target in Gaza.

Renewed calls for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip were drowned out Saturday by heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas - and warnings of a "new phase" in the offensive.

As the battle entered its third week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged both sides to immediately end the violence or face a "waterfall of blood."

But Khaled Mashaal, a top Hamas leader, suggested there would never be peace in Gaza, calling Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip a "holocaust" in a fiery speech broadcast on the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera.

Israel and Hamas observed a three-hour lull in fighting Saturday so United Nations workers could deliver humanitarian aid. During the break, Israeli warplanes dropped thousands of leaflets on the Gaza Strip, informing residents that the offensive was far from over.

"In the near future, the [Israeli Defense Force] will continue to attack tunnels, arms caches and terror activities with greater intensity all across the strip," the flyers said in Arabic.

The ominous flyers instructed residents to stay away from targets during this "new phase in the war on terror."

Israeli tanks were heard moving near the central Gaza border early today as Israeli artillery pounded the area, indicating the possibility of a larger operation.

Hamas security officials said fierce battles were in progress in eastern Gaza City and northern Gaza. More than 800 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began bombing on Dec. 27 to end Hamas' rocket launches across the border. Troops invaded a week later.

Hamas and its allied fighters claim 45 Israel soldiers have been killed - 10 of them Saturday - but Israel denied the report.

As Hamas fired 15 rockets Saturday, the Israeli army claimed it had hit 70 targets - including missile launchers, booby-trapped tunnels and "armed terror operatives."

One of the dead was Amir Mansi, described by Israel as the commander of Hamas' rocket-launching program in Gaza City.

"Mansi was spotted firing a rocket in the Jabel Rise area during a ground force operation today," an army spokesman said.

"The forces opened fire, killing Mansi and injuring two additional terror operatives."

International efforts to end the violence have been frustrated. Representatives of Hamas and Israel have gone to Egypt for talks.

After a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Abbas called for them to accept a truce.

"If any party does not accept it [the truce], regrettably it will be the one bearing the responsibility," he said.

"And if Israel doesn't want to accept, it will take the responsibility of perpetuating a waterfall of blood."

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah Party 18 months ago, had rejected a French-Egyptian plan for peace - but seemed to crack open the door Saturday.

The "priority is the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza and the removal of the siege" - conditions already rejected by Israel, said Ayman Taha, a member of the Hamas delegation.

Saturday 10 January 2009

Israel proceeds with Gaza offensive despite U.N. vote; Hamas continues rocket attacks

Saturday, January 10th

By MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and CORKY SIEMASZKO in New York

Israeli Defence Forces, courtesy of Getty

Israeli paratroopers operate against Hamas militants in the Gaza strip on Jan. 8, 2009. Israel is intensifying its wide-scale ground assault despite a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Butt out!

That was the terse response from Israel's prime minister Friday to United Nations demands that he end the Gaza invasion.

"The State of Israel has never agreed that any outside body would determine its right to defend the security of its citizens," Ehud Olmert said in a statement.

The Israeli Defense Force "will continue operations in order to defend Israeli citizens and will carry out the missions with which it has been assigned in the operation," Olmert said.

He capped his statement by saying Hamas' renewed rocket attacks against Israel were proof that a UN Security Council resolution aimed at securing a ceasefire "is not practical and will not be honored in actual fact by the Palestinian murder organizations."

That tough talk was cheered in New York, where Assemblyman Dov Hikind urged the Israelis to keep on fighting.

"A ceasefire at this point would prove disastrous," the Brooklyn Democrat said. "All of Israel's efforts to eradicate Hamas strongholds and achieve security for its citizens would be for naught."

No casualties were reported from Hamas' latest aerial assaults, but its leaders vowed to keep launching rockets.

"We stress that the military wing, with the help of Allah, has not been damaged," declared Abu Obaida, the masked spokesman for the Hamas Qassam Brigades.

Still, the Palestinian death toll from the 14-day old invasion was 788 and climbing fast with more than 3,000 wounded.

Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have also been killed since the invasion began Dec.27.

The Security Council resolution that Olmert rejected called for a "full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza."

It also expressed "grave concern" at the growing humanitarian crisis and heavy civilian casualties. And it called for the opening of safe corridors to allow badly needed aid into Gaza.

Secretary of State Rice supported the resolution but abstained from the 14-0 vote on Thursday "to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation."

The Egyptians have been trying to work out a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, a radical Palestinian organization bent on destroying the Jewish state.

Hamas' top honchos managed to slip across the border into Egypt Friday, most likely via the underground tunnels that the terrorists use to smuggle in weapons - a network Israeli bombers have been trying to smash.

Meanwhile, the Israelis continued to bomb Gaza, killing 23 more Palestinians and reducing a five-story building in northern Gaza to rubble.

Hamas said seven people, including a baby, were killed in that attack - a claim that could not be immediately corroborated.

Meanwhile, UN aid deliveries to Gaza were put on hold for a second straight day because of safety concerns.

Deliveries were halted after Israeli tank fire killed a UN driver, and a Red Cross worker was wounded by Israeli soldiers. More than half of the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza rely on the UN for food and water.

The Israelis insist they are doing everything they can to make sure Palestinian civilians don't starve. They have also accused Hamas of using their own people as human shields.

Thursday 8 January 2009

Gaza truce collapses; UN cuts off aid to beleagured area as rockets from Lebanon hit Israel

Friday, January 9th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York


Italian U.N. peacekeepers search an area in Southern Lebanon where rockets attacks are believed to have orginated...

...and which hit this retirement home in Northern Israel Thursday. Kaminsky/AP

...and which hit this retirement home in Northern Israel Thursday.

The Gaza war escalated today when Hamas rejected truce talks, someone started firing rockets at Israel from Lebanon and the Red Cross took an unusual slap at the Jewish state for leaving starving children clinging to their mother's corpses.

The United Nations halted all aid deliveries to the besieged Palestinians, after its staff came under fire from the Israel Defense Forces. The driver of a marked UN truck was killed by tank fire at the Erez Border Crossing a day after a UN shelter was bombarded in the bloodiest incident of the war.

"We've been coordinating with them and yet our staff continue to be hit and killed," said UN spokesman spokesman Chris Gunness.

Three rockets were fired into Israel from Lebanon, sparking fears that Hezbollah had opened a second war front. But Hezbollah denied it was responsible, Israel seemed to agree, based on the type of rocket fired, and the Lebanese government quickly condemned the strikes.

Israeli Minister Rafi Eitan played down the strikes.

"I think these are isolated incidents. We expected this," he said.

One hit a nursing home but the elderly residents escaped because they were having breakfast on the ground floor.

The IDF shelled the areas in southern Lebanon from which Katyusha rockets were fired.

In Damascus, Hamas flatly rejected a Franco-Egyptian truce proposal that was backed by Washington and "welcomed" but not yet endorsed by Israel.

Hamas said it had the right to "resist" Israel and rejected calls for it to disarm.

Senior Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal told Syrian TV that the militant group would never surrender and vowed to fight house to house against the Israeli military in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Operation Cast Lead will continue until Israel had wiped out Hamas' ability to threaten a million residents of southern Israel with rocket fire and terror attacks.

"We are not there yet and the Israel Defence Forces haven't been asked yet to do whatever it takes get to this point. This decision is still ahead of us,"Olmert told army officers near the front line.

Moawya Hasanin, head of the emergency department in the Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza, said the Palestinian death toll had reached 763 since the start of the Israeli assault.

He said there were more than 3,000 injured, including 375 critical cases in urgent need of specialist medical care.

Israeli military sources said at least 130 of the dead were armed Hamas fighters killed in battles with the invading forces, and many more of the victims were Hamas operatives.

As many as 200 children are among the dead.

One Israeli soldier was killed as Israeli troops, aircraft and tanks continued their push towards the main population centres of Gaza.

More than 30 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel. One hit an evacuated school in Ashkelon.

Along the Egyptian border, Israeli warplanes destroyed a dozen houses which they said served as cover for tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives into Gaza under the border.

The bombardment was halted again today for a three-hour period to allow people to go out for to look for food and medicine.

During the lull, three dozen bodies were found in the rubble of city buildings.

The Red Cross, which usually takes great pains to remain neutral in conflicts, lambasted Israel for breaching humanitarian law after discovering four emaciated children who had spent four days trapped in the rubble of three shelled Gaza City homes with dead bodies.

Pierre Wettach of the International Committee of the Red Cross called it "shocking."

"The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded," he said, adding that soldiers barred medics from going to the site to help the wounded.

Rescuers found "four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own," the Red Cross said. "In all, there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses."

Israel's ambassador in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, denied his country was failing in its humanitarian obligations.

"Once the military activity was over, then it was possible for humanitarian teams to evacuate the wounded," he told The Associated Press.

In al-Atatra, north of Gaza City, Israeli paratroopers discovered what they said was a color-coded map of Hamas booby-traps in the area.

Chief IDF Intelligence Officer Brigadier-General Yuval Halamish said Hamas had divided the neighborhood into a number of areas distinguished by landmarks such as mosques, gas stations, and fuel depots.

"You can see that the neighborhood was divided into three areas of fighting, according to colour, and inside the terrorists spread out a number of posts, planted explosive devices, and posted sharpshooters," he said.

"Hamas makes cynical use of civilian homes, the entrances of which were booby-trapped in order to hurt IDF soldiers."

Explosive devices were also planted near gas stations despite the immediate danger to civilians, Halamish added.

He said the layout had been thoroughly planned in preparation for a ground operation.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Palestinians get 3-hour reprieve from war hell

Thursday, January 8th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York


Israeli armored personnel carriers resume fire on the border with Gaza.

Ties to Hamas Raise Questions About the Role of Bombed University in Gaza

Wednesday, January 7, 2009



Israel's bombing last week of three buildings at the Islamic University of Gaza has provoked outrage among many academics.

Israeli officials and security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insist that the university, which makes no secret of its close ties to Hamas, also serves as an operational center for the Hamas terrorist wing, the Qassam Brigades, making it a legitimate military target. (Mr. Abbas leads the Fatah movement, which has had its own struggles with Hamas in recent years.)

But students and lecturers flatly deny that the university is involved in military activities, arguing that it turns out 3,000 graduates each year from its 10 schools, including those in engineering and Islamic law.

While the university has acquired an international reputation in some fields and even produced Fulbright scholars, its close ties with Hamas complicate its pure academic status. Some faculty members, including one who was killed by Israeli forces last week, publicly acknowledge their activities in the Qassam Brigades. Attacks by Israel on other civilian targets last week in Gaza, including mosques, were based on intelligence linking them to weapons—reports that proved to be accurate.

On December 29, Israeli aircraft attacked the university's campus in Gaza City with at least six bombs, destroying a science-laboratory block and severely damaging a classroom building for women (The Chronicle, December 29, 2008). There were no casualties because the campus had already been evacuated. Early the following day, warplanes returned and destroyed another classroom building.

Buildings on the nearby campuses of Al-Quds University and Al-Aqsa University were also damaged in airstrikes last week, but those damages appeared to have resulted from attacks on adjacent targets, not from direct strikes.

Israel has defended its attacks as designed to protect its citizens from rockets fired from Gaza. An Israeli army spokeswoman said last week the Islamic University housed laboratories that were used to develop weapons for Hamas, as well as weapons-storage facilities. "The development of these weapons took place under the auspices of senior lecturers who are activists in Hamas," the spokeswoman said.

But lecturers on the campus disputed those allegations.

Zohair Abu Shaban, an engineering graduate and a junior lecturer at the university, said that in his five years as a student there, he had "never, ever witnessed anything from the mentioned accusation."

Mr. Abu Shaban, whose Fulbright scholarship was suspended last year, in part because of his affiliation with the university, said he had never even heard of a weapons-research center there.

Close Ties to Hamas Leadership

The Islamic University was established in 1978 by the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004. It has emerged as a training ground for the political and spiritual leadership of Hamas.

Many Hamas leaders who are also academics have taught or worked at the university. They include the group's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and the late Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, also assassinated by Israel in 2004. Sixteen of the Hamas members who were elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 teach at the university.

Neither faculty members nor students, some of whom are Christian, are required to swear affiliation to Hamas. But one journalism graduate told the Arab-media Web site last June that she felt discriminated against because she had refused to join an Islamic association that offered certain academic "incentives" to its members.

"They have a better share of everything, including the scholarships and loans granted to students who are unable to afford their tuition fees," she said. The university's affiliation with Hamas is "a known fact," she said, adding that "many Hamas leaders teach or are employed there."

But others say the university's affiliation with Hamas does not mean that it is directly involved in military activities.

Ahmad Albur'y, who teaches English at the university, said he was "shocked" by last week's bombing.

"Where are the corpses of Hamas people at the shelled university?" he demanded. "Where are the weapons that Israel claims have been stockpiled in the university? If Israel is right about its claims, why does it prevent foreign journalists from entering Gaza under this situation?"

"It seems to me that what Israel is doing is systematic war that aims at destroying the Palestinian people and all their institutions," he said.

Reporters in Gaza who tried to enter the campus's wrecked buildings on behalf of The Chronicle were turned back by armed Hamas guards posted there to prevent looting.

Targeted Before

This is not the first time that the Islamic University has been accused of aiding Hamas militarily.

In February 2007, at the height of tension between Hamas and Fatah, troops loyal to Mr. Abbas stormed the university and confiscated weapons and ammunition. Palestinian TV showed footage of dozens of grenade launchers, rockets, and assault rifles, as well as thousands of bullets, that Fatah officials said were found inside the university (The Chronicle, February 5, 2007).

In May 2007, the university became a key military stronghold as Hamas prepared to seize power from Mr. Abbas in Gaza. Hamas militiamen fired rockets and automatic weapons from the campus at forces loyal to Mr. Abbas.

In 2007, Abu Abdullah, described as a Hamas military leader, told the WorldNetDaily, a conservative Web site, that the Islamic University was regularly used by Hamas to support "resistance activities."

"It is no secret that we utilize all tools at our disposal, including our fighters at Islamic University, in preparations to fight the Zionists," he said.

At least one prominent member of the university's faculty was a Hamas terrorist. Last week an Israeli bombing raid killed Nizar Rayyan, an Islamic-law professor, along with his four wives and seven of his children. Sheikh Rayyan was a senior commander of the Qassam Brigades who served as a mentor to suicide bombers and sent his own son on a suicide mission in 2001.

Gaza attack could prompt Israel to pull out

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - Middle East observers felt a sense of deja vu Tuesday as Israeli tank shells slammed into a U.N. school near Gaza City, killing at least 30 Palestinians who had taken refuge there from the war raging around their homes.

In 1982, a massacre carried out by a Christian militia group at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps killed hundreds of Palestinians; the camps had been under Israeli control. In 1996, there were 118 people killed at a U.N. compound by Israeli artillery in the town of Qana, and in 2006, an Israeli air strike killed 56 in an apartment complex in the same town. All three events spelled the beginning of the end of Israeli campaigns into Lebanon.

Until now, the international community - including Egypt - has given Israel a long leash to strike a heavy blow against Hamas. But with the shelling of the U.N. school in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya on Tuesday, the clock might start ticking for Israel to withdraw its troops.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry, which branded the deaths "a heartrending tragedy," said it would continue with the offensive until Hamas stopped launching rockets on its southern towns and agreed not to restock its weapons. At least 15 rockets were fired into Israel on Tuesday, including one that injured a baby in the town of Gedera, about 25 miles northeast of Gaza, the farthest north a Hamas rocket has reached.

The Foreign Ministry also said it had good reason for targeting the school.

"Initial investigations indicate that Hamas terrorists fired mortar bombs from the area of the school towards Israeli forces, who returned fire towards the source of the shooting. The Israeli return fire landed outside the school, yet a series of explosions followed, indicating the probable presence of munitions and explosives in the building."

The Israeli army also accused Hamas of "cynically" using civilians as human shields. Intelligence reports indicated the dead included Imad Abu Askar and Hasan Abu Askar, "two known Hamas mortar crewmen," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Two neighborhood residents who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety, confirmed the Israeli account, telling the Associated Press that a group of militants fired mortar rounds from a street near the school, then fled into a crowd of people in the streets.

But such justification might not be enough to silence the growing chorus of international disapproval as civilian deaths rise.

Dr. Bassam Abu Warda, director of Kamal Adwan Hospital, told reporters that 36 people were killed in the strike on the school. The United Nations confirmed that 30 were killed and 55 injured by tank shells.

At least 70 Palestinians were killed Tuesday, and more than 600 have died since Israel sent ground forces into Gaza on Saturday, according to U.N. and Palestinian officials. The United Nations says about 25 percent of the victims were civilians. Ten Israelis have died, including a soldier who was shot Tuesday.

A predictable clash

In Jerusalem, Western diplomats said privately Tuesday it was predictable that Hamas would draw Israeli army fire toward civilian targets and that Israel would oblige them.

"A ground invasion was expected and, in some Hamas quarters, hoped for," said the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization engaged in conflict resolution, in a position paper published this week. "The Islamist movement hopes to reap political benefit from material losses. It knows it is no military match for Israel, but it can claim victory by withstanding the unprecedented onslaught."

Shlomo Brom, the former head of the strategic planning division of the Israeli army, said minimizing civilian casualties requires "a combination of excellent intelligence, very accurate weapons systems and very good planning that takes into account collateral damage. Mistakes are bound to happen, and they will happen in this war."

Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said the strike against the U.N. school and ensuing diplomatic pressure it could create were not only foreseen but discussed in advance by Israeli policymakers.

"There were many meetings on how to deal with this before the fighting started. It happens every time. The effect this time very much depends on how the story plays out in the next 24 hours," said Steinberg. "If organizations like Amnesty (International) and Human Rights Watch give this issue much greater visibility as they have in the past, the pressure on Israel will build and it will have some impact, but if it's strictly Palestinian claims it won't have much effect."

But international pressure is mounting.

Egyptian proposal

A cease-fire initiative won support from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on rival sides to follow up.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Tuesday the initiative seeks an immediate cease-fire by Israel and Palestinian factions for a specific period to allow secure corridors for delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza and to give Egypt time to continue efforts to reach a permanent cease-fire.

Egypt is inviting Israeli and Palestinian sides for urgent meetings to resolve issues underlying the fighting, including securing Gaza's borders and reopening all crossings, Mubarak said.

The deaths at the school could shake Israel's broad national consensus in favor of the war, as did the Qana air strike in 2006, which included 32 children among the 56 killed.

"It is clear that should a misfired bomb kill and injure dozens of civilians, including women and children, the U.N. would be the first to condemn Israel and accuse it of committing war crimes," Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai said last week. "This could also end the operation prematurely."

Meanwhile, some other observers fear both sides will continue to make the same errors as in past conflicts.

"Because this drama has played out before, there are lessons that ought to have been learned," said James Zogby, a pollster and president of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute. "But, sadly, have not."

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Israeli airstrikes hit schools in Gaza City

Updated Tuesday, January 6th 2009, 9:30 PM

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York

Israeli tanks on a United Nations-run school in Gaza where Palestinian refugees were taking cover on Tuesday, killing at least 42 civilians and adding urgency to a new U.S.-backed effort to end the war.

It was one of four Israeli attacks on UN facilities and the deadliest single attack of the 12-day-old offensive.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called it "the darkest moment yet for the Middle East."

The Israeli Army said the strike on the Fakhoura School in the Jabalya refugee camp was justified because Hamas terrorists were firing rockets from inside the school.

Israel is considering "submitting an official complaint" to the UN against Hamas for using the school as cover, said David Saranga of the Israeli Consulate in New York.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called attacking a UN-sponsored place of refuge "totally unacceptable." He said it was "equally unacceptable" for militants to endanger civilians.

John Ging, an Irishman who is the top UN official in Gaza, said 350 people had taken shelter in the school, which was clearly marked with a UN flag. He said its coordinates were given to the Israeli Army to avoid just such a tragedy.

"There's nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized," Ging said.

Shrapnel ripped into the crowd and demolished the building.

More than 630 Palestinians have been killed in the current conflict, nearly a third of them children, Gaza health officials said.

Five Israeli soldiers were killed Tuesday, bringing the Israeli toll to 10.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak emerged from talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy with a truce proposal that received a quick thumbs up from Ban, Secretary of State Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mubarak proposed an immediate halt to Israeli attacks and Hamas rocket fire, to be followed by talks on long-term border arrangements.

Hamas has said it would consider a ceasefire if Israel lifts the blockade strangling the Gaza Strip, but Israel says it cannot allow smuggled weapons to keep flowing into the territory.

Israel announced it would allow a temporary "humanitarian corridor" into the Gaza Strip to distribute badly needed food and medicine.

As ferocious fighting was reported across the Gaza Strip, Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri emerged from hiding to score some propaganda points off the dead.

He told Gazans to blame President-elect Barack Obama for their pain. "These air strikes are a gift from Obama before he takes office," Zawahiri said in a Web video.

Obama, who has been silent on Gaza because he says America has only one President at a time, promised that "after Jan. 20, I am going to have plenty to say about the issue."

Analysis: Fatah, Hamas face internal divisions

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - The Israeli assault on Gaza has deepened the tensions between Hamas and the ruling Fatah party of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. But the attack also has revealed fractures within each party, divisions that complicate efforts to negotiate a cease-fire.

On Monday, Hamas' political leadership in Damascus, Syria, dispatched delegates to talks in Cairo - even as its leaders in Gaza goaded Israeli forces deeper into their territory and vowed victory and vengeance.

Inside Fatah, Abbas headed for the U.N. Security Council to urge a cease-fire resolution - even as his likely replacement, imprisoned Fatah firebrand Marwan Barghouti, urged Palestinians to join Hamas in its resistance.

Some observers believe that the military assault will make Hamas more amenable to a long-term cease-fire while a weakened Fatah will have no choice but to accept a peace deal more favorable to Israel.

The hatred between Fatah and Hamas boiled over as the first Israeli jets began their bombardment of Gaza on Dec. 27. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called for a "third intifada" - a military one against the Israeli occupation and a peaceful one to overthrow Fatah in the West Bank. Hamas leaders branded Abbas a "collaborator" and accused him of feeding intelligence to the Israeli army.

Abbas hit back by blaming Hamas for inviting the Israeli assault by unilaterally ending a fragile six-month cease-fire.

"We have warned of this grave danger," Abbas said last week. "We talked to them and we told them, 'Please, we ask you, do not end the truce. Let the truce continue and not stop.' "

Many West Bank Palestinians, while still hating Israel, have developed a special loathing for Hamas. They recall the 400 Fatah supporters murdered in Hamas' bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip in summer 2007. At a rehabilitation center in Ramallah, dozens of young men are trying to rebuild their lives after being brutally tortured and maimed by Hamas fighters.

But the Fatah distaste for Hamas has been tempered by the scenes from Gaza. While Abbas has denounced Israel's "barbaric aggression" and called for a cease-fire, increasing numbers of Fatah leaders have broken ranks and given their support to Hamas. Barghouti - Abbas' most likely replacement as president when his term expires on Friday - on Sunday threw his considerable moral weight behind Hamas.

"Fatah and its men are an integral part of this battle and in confronting the aggression," Barghouti said in a message from an Israeli prison where he is serving five life terms for murder arising from terror attacks during the recent intifada.

Barghouti urged all Palestinian factions to put aside their differences and unite in resisting the Israelis in Gaza.

"The Israeli aggression is directed against all the Palestinians and their cause," he said. "This is the time to join forces in combatting the Israeli occupation."

Ziyad Abu Ein, the Fatah deputy minister of prisoners' affairs, called on Hamas to return all the weapons they seized in the June 2007 Gaza coup so Fatah supporters - including U.S.-trained security personnel - could join the fight. "We have over 70,000 men in Gaza, including the former security forces, who can help repel the Israeli aggression," he said.

Mohammad Yaghi, a fellow of the Washington Institute focusing on Palestinian politics, said Hamas "seeks to drive a wedge into an already divided Fatah. It has urged Fatah radicals to join the battle against Israel, insisting that its problems with Fatah are limited to Abbas and his authority, not the general movement. Some members of Fatah are clearly sympathetic to Hamas and any confrontation with Israel."

But Hamas leaders, clearly surprised by the ferocity of the Israeli assault, have their own problems. There have been tensions for some time between the Damascus-based leadership under political chief Mashaal and the hard-line Gaza leadership headed by Mahmoud Zahar, who has long sought the replacement of Mashaal's protege, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. In late 2007, supporters of Haniyeh and Zahar clashed in the Shati refugee camp and in Dir El Balah.

Two weeks ago, Zahar pointedly rebuked Mashaal for announcing the end of the cease-fire before the move was approved by leaders in Gaza.

Internal Hamas documents published by the Haaretz newspaper in October revealed deep divisions between Gaza and Damascus over policy toward Egypt and the make-up of Hamas' secret governing shura council, where the Gazans want to increase their representation from 34 to 51 percent.

"We have certain indications that the political level of Hamas headquartered in Damascus realizes that the more the fighting goes on, the more the risk for them of losing everything they have created over 21 years of their existence," said former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, pointing to the Hamas decision to join talks in Egypt today as a sign that they were becoming weakened and split.

Monday 5 January 2009

Israel tightens grip on Gaza City

Tuesday, January 6th

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem, ERICA SILVERMAN in Ramallah, West Bank and HELEN KENNEDY in New York


President Shimon Peres visits a wounded Israeli soldier on Monday.

Sunday 4 January 2009

Thousands of Israeli troops move deeper into Gaza, surrounding biggest city in close combat

Monday, January 5th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York


Israeli soldiers clean their cannon as they keep their position in the Israeli side of Israel-Gaza border on Sunday.

Thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships began to surround Gaza City on Sunday in the first full day of the ground war against Hamas militants.

"Hamas needs a real and serious lesson. They are now getting it," said Israeli President Shimon Peres. "They are now beginning to feel the weight of their mistakes."

As the ground invasion got underway, Israeli forces effectively split the narrow Gaza Strip in two, halting any north-south flow of refugees or weapons.

One Israeli soldier was killed in a firefight and up to 70 Palestinians died, officials said.

At least 512 Palestinians have been killed since Operation Cast Lead began Dec. 27 - more than 100 of them civilians. Three Israeli civilians and two soldiers have died.

As Hamas fired 30 rockets into southern Israel and nearly 1 million Israelis stayed near bomb shelters, witnesses said Israeli armored columns were advancing on Gaza City from the north, south and east.

In the city, families cowered in their apartments, the buildings shaking from explosions that sent booms and flashes ripping across the sky.

In northern Gaza, there were reports of heavy street fighting as Israeli forces captured positions in Beit Hanoun, Zeitoun and Beit Lahiya and advanced into the crowded alleyways of the Jabalya refugee camp just north of Gaza City. "Most of the resistance that we faced was from mortar shells - not from serious Hamas fighters face to face," a senior Israeli officer told reporters.

Another armed column moved into position near Rafah on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, leveling a disused airport.

Israeli Navy gunships pounded targets along the shoreline, and three senior Hamas commanders were reported killed when Israeli helicopter gunships targeted their vehicles with missiles.

Abu Obaida, a spokesman for Hamas' paramilitary Qassem Brigades, denied reports that 30 of the dead were Hamas fighters, branding it an example of "the enemy's psychological warfare."

Israel also denied Hamas claims it captured two soldiers. The reports could not be verified because journalists were denied access to Gaza despite an Israeli High Court order.

Israel confiscated all its soldiers' cell phones so they couldn't divulge their movements.

Israeli soldiers captured the Hamas-run Al Aqsa TV channel and broadcast messages telling Hamas leaders to surrender.

Other Arab TV channels broadcast gruesome photos of dead Palestinian children, fueling pro-Palestinian protests in New York; Athens; London; Kabul, Afghanistan, and the West Bank.

U.S. Secretary of State Rice canceled a visit to China to monitor the Mideast. Her designated successor, Hillary Clinton, kept a low profile.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas headed to New York to beg the UN Security Council for help. The United States is blocking a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to arrive in Israel today to try to broker a truce.

Appearing on ABC, Peres rejected the idea, saying Israel won't cease fire while Hamas keeps firing rockets into Israel.

"We don't intend neither to occupy Gaza nor to crush Hamas, but to crush terror," Peres said.

Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erakat said military crackdowns never bring peace.

"It does not work in south Lebanon. It does not work in Iraq. It does not work in Afghanistan. It will not work in Gaza," he said, predicting instead the result will be "weakening moderates and strengthening extremists."