Monday, March 30, 2009

Ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem

Ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem
Dr. Marcy Newman writing from occupied East Jerusalem, Live from Palestine, 10 March 2009

An Israeli flag hangs from a Palestinian home in Silwan taken over by Israeli settlers.

Last week when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a press conference in Ramallah with Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as Palestinian Authority president officially expired on 9 January, a Washington Post reporter questioned her about the 143 Palestinian homes in Jerusalem that Israel intends to demolish in the coming weeks. She responded: "clearly, this kind of activity is unhelpful and not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the roadmap." While some hailed this remark as a condemnation of Israel's ongoing ethnic cleansing project, it appeared to many on the ground as callous and flippant.

Since the press conference, the number of Palestinian homes Israeli occupation forces intend to level has increased from 143 to 179. It seems that the number of homes and families who will be forced from their homes, and many from their villages entirely, increases every day. Just this past week in the East Jerusalem area, 88 homes in al-Bustan, 55 homes in Shufat refugee camp, 35 Bedouin homes on the Jerusalem-Jericho Road, and 66 homes in al-Isawiyya were slated for destruction, affecting more than 2,000 Palestinians, most of whom have lived there for generations. Ras al-Amoud, al-Abasiyya, Sheikh Jarrah and Ras Khamis appear to be next on the list of targeted areas. The affected families see this method of adding new neighborhoods to the demolition list every day as a means of making it more difficult to challenge and protest these eviction orders.

I recently visited the al-Bustan neighborhood of Silwan, one of the many slated for demolition any day now. The roads into the valley where al-Bustan lies were all closed to Palestinian cars with border police blocking off almost every street. Like many neighborhoods in Jerusalem, the homes reflect a mixture of architectural styles from the Ottoman era to the present, although the Israeli government contends that these homes have been built "illegally" because they have not been granted permission to be built in the first place, a permission that is next to impossible for Palestinians regardless of whether they have an Israeli residency ID or citizenship. Such is the logic of colonialism and ethnic cleansing in Palestine over the last 61 years. And accordingly, a number of Israeli colonists have been confiscating and taking over homes and buildings to pave the way for the wholesale seizure of Palestinian neighborhoods.

It is this history of ethnic cleansing, particularly that of the catastrophe of 1948 when three-quarters of the indigenous Palestinian population were forced from their land and property, an event termed the Nakba, that fuels the solidarity work among Palestinians in Jerusalem. Following the lead of Umm Kamel al-Kurd who put up a tent near her home in Sheikh Jarrah after she was forcibly removed from her home four months ago, other neighborhoods in Jerusalem facing a similar fate have set up such tents as spaces for organizing and encouraging others to stand in solidarity with each neighborhood. Such tents exist now on the Mount of Olives and in Ras Khamis. One of the organizers of the solidarity tent in al-Bustan, Ahmed Siam, told me "We will not let history repeat itself. We learned from history. We will not leave our land like we did in 1948. If they come and kill my son, I will not leave. This is our land. Even if they kill me and only my blood remains, it will remain on this land." The 7,000 residents of the area intend to fight for their right to stay on their land rather than see it turned into a new, illegal Israeli colony.

The Silwan community is resisting this widespread confiscation of their land -- for the purposes of a tourist destination called "the city of David" as well as Jewish-only colonies already surrounding it -- by remaining steadfast and staying on their land as member of the al-Bustan Neighborhood Committee Fakhre Abu Diab stated in a letter written to Clinton: "If the Israeli eviction and demolition orders are implanted it will be a catastrophe for our families, children and elders who will suffer the most. In the face of this destruction we are refusing the municipality's plans and we will not leave our lands and houses nor our community under any circumstances."

The al-Qadi family outside their home in the al-Bustan neighborhood of Silwan.

Already the elders and children, in particular, are bearing the brunt of the trauma from the news of this latest catastrophe or Nakba. In the heart of al-Bustan the winding, narrow alleyways with homes tightly packed inside remind one of Palestinian refugee camps. The al-Qadi family who has lived down one of these alleys for 25 years, and in this neighborhood for generations, includes seven children, none of whom have attended school since the orders for their home's demolition were issued by the Israeli occupation authorities. This is indicative of most families in al-Bustan. They explained to me that they are afraid to send their children to school because at any time they could be forcibly removed from our homes while the children are gone. Ironically, they told me, that two days ago the municipality opened a new school in their neighborhood, but they see this as part of the plan by the Israeli occupation authorities.

As the children suffer without their ability to go to school, so do the elderly. Like many families in al-Bustan, the Bedran family has lived here for centuries. Indeed, many of the houses lining the valley were built in the 1870s. Abed and Fatima Bedran built their home in 1980 on land their family has lived on for centuries; like most Palestinian families they built a new home to accommodate their expanding family. Abed, who is 82 years old, suffered from a stroke and is now bedridden after hearing the news of their eviction and house demolition orders for their neighborhood. They, too, refuse to flee their home.

These are just two of the families resisting the latest Nakba in Palestine, individuals who refuse to become Palestine's latest refugees. But the latest ethnic cleansing and colonization plans are not limited to Jerusalem. The number of homes scheduled for demolition in all of Palestine is growing every day. While the focus is on East Jerusalem in much of the international media, this week Palestinians in villages near Nablus and Hebron have also received orders to evacuate their homes. In al-Aqraba and Burin near Nablus, Palestinians are being forced to abandon 20 homes and barns by 26 March. As with the homes in East Jerusalem, some of these pre-date the 1967 colonization of the West Bank. Likewise, in al-Baqaa, near Hebron, eight homes are scheduled to be destroyed in a village whose lands have already been stolen for the purposes of illegal colonies and Jewish-only roads. Dozens of Palestinians will become homeless once their homes are confiscated. And in the village of Nilin near Ramallah, Israeli occupation authorities are in the process of expropriating 35.5 acres of land.

Although most of these families are separated by hundreds of checkpoints and established colonies, what the residents of these villages have in common is their steadfast determination to remain in their homes. From Nablus to Jerusalem to Hebron to Nilin they see their most potent means of resistance as remaining in their homes, refusing to live in a constant state of catastrophe, always on the brink of becoming the next refugees. Jawad Abu Ramoz, the son of a refugee from Hebron who fled to Silwan in 1948, is one of the thousands of Palestinians in al-Bustan who rejects a return to the fate of their parents and grandparents, literally and metaphorically.

All images by Marcy Newman.

Dr. Marcy Newman is Associate Professor of English at An Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine. Her writing may be found at

French company runs Israeli bus services to settlements

Adri Nieuwhof and Daniel Machover, The Electronic Intifada, 11 March 2009

A Veolia-run bus operates in the occupied West Bank. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

The international Derail Veolia and Alstom campaign is gaining momentum by coordinating efforts to pressure French transportation giants Veolia and Alstom to withdraw from the Israeli tramway project in Jerusalem that runs illegally on Palestinian land. With its involvement in this project, Veolia is directly implicated in maintaining illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the company is playing a key role in Israel's attempt to make its annexation of Palestinian East Jerusalem irreversible.

Veolia, for example, is heavily involved in the project with a five percent stake in the City Pass Consortium that holds the contract with the State of Israel for the construction of the tramway. The French company also has a 30-year contract as operator of the tramway. Activists and lawyers from Israel, Palestine, Australia, France, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom share information and work together to inform the public, influence local governments and politicians, and take legal action on this issue.

Veolia's activities in the light rail in Jerusalem are not only in violation of international law, but also contravene the company's commitments with respect to codes of conduct and conventions which regulate the activities of multinational corporations, some of which the company has itself pledged to uphold. As a transnational corporation, Veolia must comply with international rules governing corporate responsibility with respect to human rights. These include, but are not limited to, the Tripartite Declaration of Principles Concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (2000), UN Norms on the responsibilities of transnational corporations (2003), OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (2000), including guidance in respect of Weak Governance Zones, and the UN Global Compact (2000). It is notable that Veolia is not only a participant in the UN Global Compact but has also contributed to the Foundation for the United Global Compact. Its first two principles state that businesses should support and respect the protection of international human rights within their spheres of influence, and make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses. Yet, by participating in the construction and maintenance of the Jerusalem tramway, Veolia flagrantly violates both of these provisions.

Veolia's painful loss of a $4.5 billion contract in Stockholm has resonated in Scandinavia. At the end of February 2009 the financial committee of Oslo city council adopted a policy to stop doing business with companies involved in violations of international law. This proposed policy has to be ratified by the city council. The parties in favor of the policy -- the Labor Party, Socialist Left Party and the Left Party -- hold the majority in the city council. The driving force behind the policy is longstanding city council member Erling Folkvord of the Red Party. In an interview with the electronic magazine Frontlinjer, Folkvord said "this apartheid-like transport system strengthens the occupation and annexation of Palestinian land. In this way the project contributes to the colonization of the Palestinian territory." Veolia has a substantial contract for collecting waste in Oslo. According to Folkvord the new policy will have consequences for Veolia in Oslo.

Veolia is not only involved in the illegal tramway in Jerusalem. In December 2008 The Electronic Intifada reported the findings of the Who Profits from the Occupation? project that Veolia is also involved in illegally dumping waste from Israel and the settlements in Tovlan landfill in the Jordan Valley. Veolia turns out to be a loyal partner for Israel in the colonization of Palestine. After receiving a tip from someone participating in the Derail Veolia campaign, research undertaken by Who Profits confirmed that Veolia is running bus services 109 and 110 from West Jerusalem to settlements in the West Bank. For instance, Connex bus 110 goes through road 443 in the West Bank to Mevo Horon and Givat Zeev settlements.

Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and the annexation of East Jerusalem are illegal under international law. Numerous UN resolutions and the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on Israel's wall in the West Bank have confirmed that settlements violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention -- which states "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." By running bus services Veolia is directly implicated in maintaining illegal settlements in the OPT.

In December 2005, Amnesty International in France invited Veolia to discuss its concerns about the illegality of the tramway. The company refused the invitation and informed Amnesty it had appointed an independent legal expert to study the file. Three years later one can conclude Veolia has not backed out of illegal activities that facilitate Israel's occupation of Palestine. Campaigners believe that a fair public debate on these issues would be illuminated by Veolia's publication of the advice it received: after all, what has Veolia got to hide if it is proud of its economic activities in the OPT?

Adri Nieuwhof is consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland. Daniel Machover is attorney and co-founder of Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights based in Great Britain.

Israeli War on Palestinian Olive

Israeli War on Palestinian Olive

By Khalid Amayreh, IOL Correspondent

Palestinians say hundreds of thousands of grown olive trees were destroyed and uprooted by Israel in the past few years.

Palestinians say hundreds of thousands of grown olive trees were destroyed and uprooted by Israel in the past few years.

RAMALLAH — Israeli occupation forces and protected Jewish settlers are waging war on Palestinian olive orchards throughout the occupied West Bank, especially in areas contiguous to Jewish settlements.
"Imagine watching the trees you planted and nurtured all your life being suddenly uprooted and destroyed by the callous blades of a huge caterpillar bulldozer," weeps Abdullah al-Hurub, an elderly farmer from the village of Dir Samet, near the southern town of al-Khalil (Hebron).
He has lost hundreds of olive trees to the Israeli separation wall, a mix of electronic fences and concrete walls Israel is building across the West bank.
"One raises the tree like he does his own child," says an emotional al-Hurub.
Thousands of farmers have to struggle, nearly on a daily basis, with Israeli army troops and Jewish settlers who are pursuing a relentless campaign to destroy Palestinian olive orchards throughout the West Bank.
Olive trees, some a century old or older, are extirpated by heavy machinery and replanted at a neighboring Jewish settlement or kibbutz.
Al-Hurub, like other Palestinian farmers, are left completely helpless to stop the theft which takes place in broad daylight.
"You can imagine the anguish and the mental pain we suffer watching our life-long labor reduced to zero in a matter of a few minutes."
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, there are as many as 10 million grown olive trees in the West Bank, covering more than 45 percent of arable land in the occupied territory.
The Israeli army has been targeting Palestinian olive orchards for many years.
However, the last two years saw a phenomenal increase in the destruction and bulldozing of olive fields.
Palestinian officials estimated that "hundreds of thousands of grown olive trees" were destroyed and uprooted by Israel in the past few years.
Most of these trees were destroyed by Israeli army bulldozers for the purpose of the construction the separation wall, which Israel claims is aimed at preventing Palestinian fighters from sneaking into Israel.
Israel is annexing large swathes of Palestinian land to build the wall.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice branded the 900 kilometers steel and concrete wall illegal.
The UN General Assembly has asked Israel to tear it down and compensate the Palestinians affected.
Declared War
The Israeli army has been targeting Palestinian olive orchards for many years.
Because of the Israeli wall, hundreds of Palestinian farmers were simply cut off from their olive orchards and other farms on the western side of the barrier.
Initially, the Israeli occupation army granted the farmers special permits to plough and harvest their orchards.
However, in recent years, Israeli security officials have been turning back farmers and owners, telling them that their property was confiscated.
In some instances, security guards would tell the frustrated farmers that the person responsible for granting them permits had died and that the land was simply expropriated by the government.
When Mohammad Shawamreh, a farmer from the village of Dir al-Asal, 22 kilometers west of Al-Khalil, tried to access his olive orchard through a small opening in the wall, the Israeli guard trained his gun toward him.
"He said 'if you walk another step, I’ll fire.' I told him that I possessed a permit to enter my orchard but he wouldn’t listen," Shawamreh told IOL.
"He said the man dealing with permits had died and that he didn’t know when a substitute would be hired in his place."
Shawamreh described the Israeli measure of denying him and other farmers access to their land as "a scandalous act of theft."
"First they told us this was a security barrier, not a border, then they told us that we would have constant access to our land, and now they are telling us the land has been confiscated," he fumed.
"I don’t really know if we are dealing with a state or with a gang of criminals and liars?"
Asked why he doesn’t take his case to Israeli courts, Shawamreh dismissed the suggestion as "irrelevant and ridiculous."
"Are you kidding? What courts are you talking about? In Israel, non-Jews can’t really dream of receiving justice. Besides, everyone knows that the Israeli justice system is effectively a rubber stamp in the hand of the Israeli army."
Olive trees have an immense economic, nutritional as well as symbolic importance for the basically agrarian Palestinian society.
Olive oil has always been and continues to be a basic and healthy food component for the average Palestinian family.
Moreover, the Olive Tree is considered somewhat "sacred" in the Palestinian culture as it is mentioned in Holy Scriptures, especially the Qur'an.
Palestinians often liken their continued survival as a people with the olive tree which can live for hundreds of years.
Similarly, the extirpation and destruction of a Palestinian olive orchard, especially by the Israeli occupation army and Jewish settlers, is viewed metaphorically as symbolizing the uprooting of the community itself.
Armed settlers, including students of Talmudic schools, known as Yishivot, often attack Palestinian olive farmers to drive them away and take over their land.
When farmers try to defend their crops, settlers attack them with firearms or call up the Israeli army which arrests the Palestinians for "entering a closed military zone.
Some influential rabbis, especially those affiliated with the religious-Zionist camp, teach that Jews may steal Palestinian olive crops because "this is a Jewish land that had been usurped by the Arabs."
NOTE: In Islam, it is forbidden to cut down trees when making war.

IDF in Gaza: Killing civilians, vandalism, and lax rules of engagement

Last update - 12:40 19/03/2009

By Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: Israel News, IDF, Hamas, Gaza

During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property, say soldiers who fought in the offensive.

The soldiers are graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon. Some of their statements made on Feb. 13 will appear Thursday and Friday in Haaretz. Dozens of graduates of the course who took part in the discussion fought in the Gaza operation.

The speakers included combat pilots and infantry soldiers. Their testimony runs counter to the Israel Defense Forces' claims that Israeli troops observed a high level of moral behavior during the operation. The session's transcript was published this week in the newsletter for the course's graduates.

The testimonies include a description by an infantry squad leader of an incident where an IDF sharpshooter mistakenly shot a Palestinian mother and her two children. "There was a house with a family inside .... We put them in a room. Later we left the house and another platoon entered it, and a few days after that there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sniper position on the roof," the soldier said.

"The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn't understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go and it was okay, and he should hold his fire and he ... he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders."

According to the squad leader: "The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away. In any case, what happened is that in the end he killed them.

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

Another squad leader from the same brigade told of an incident where the company commander ordered that an elderly Palestinian woman be shot and killed; she was walking on a road about 100 meters from a house the company had commandeered.

The squad leader said he argued with his commander over the permissive rules of engagement that allowed the clearing out of houses by shooting without warning the residents beforehand. After the orders were changed, the squad leader's soldiers complained that "we should kill everyone there [in the center of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist."

The squad leader said: "You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won't say anything. To write 'death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It's what I'll remember the most."

More soldiers' testimonies will be published in Haaretz over the coming days.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gaza survivors search for justice

Three months after the start of Israel's 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip, Al Jazeera has returned to see how one family is recovering from their ordeal.

Forty-eight members of the Samouni family were killed in an Israeli bombardment and the survivors spent days trapped in the ruins of a house.

Now the survivors are looking for justice.

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reports from Zeitoun

Friday, March 27, 2009

UK to Israel: War crimes law unchangeable now

Sun, 22 Mar 2009 07:48:06 GMT
In 2005, Doron Almog managed to avoid arrest in Britain by remaining on board a plane at Heathrow airport
The British government says it cannot change for now a law that allows for the arrest of Israel's visiting authorities over war crimes.

In an unofficial message to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Britain said that due to Israel's public image in the country following its massive strike against the Gaza Strip, London believes it will be unable to pass an amendment to the legislation before next year's elections, Haaretz reported.

The Israeli offensive, namely Operation Cast Lead, triggered a wave of outrage worldwide as it left more than 1,434 Palestinians, including 960 civilians, killed and thousands more injured.

Suspected use of forbidden ammunitions, such as white phosphorus and depleted uranium, testimonies by Israeli officers on racist and religious motifs among their comrades, and UN reports of wanton killings of civilians raised protests to Israeli war crimes and 'even crimes against humanity' during the 23-day-long onslaught.

Under British law, UK citizens can press war crime charges against foreigners, who could be arrested upon entry into Britain once an indictment has been issued.

In 2005, Maj. Gen. Doron Almog flew to London but decided not to leave the plane when he was informed British police were waiting to arrest him.

An arrest warrant had been issued against him for his role in the controversial demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah.

Almog remained on the aircraft and returned to Israel but his case has caused senior Israeli army officers in both active and reserve service, including former chiefs of staff and cabinet ministers (Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz), to avoid traveling to Britain ever since.

Britain's government, first under former premier Tony Blair and recently under his successor Gordon Brown, had promised to pass changes in the legislation so that private citizens would first have to obtain the approval of the chief prosecutor to be able to press war crimes charges.

While Israeli diplomats are seeking support for such an amendment from Conservative lawmakers, Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor on Saturday urged London to find a way to fulfill its promise.

But the British Foreign Office described the measure as "a complex legal issue".


'IDF troops used 11-year-old boy as human shield in Gaza'

Last update - 23:23 23/03/2009
By Natasha Mozgovaya, Haaretz Correspondent, and News Agencies

Israel Defense Forces soldiers used an 11-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield during the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a group of UN human rights experts said Monday.

IDF troops ordered the boy to walk in front of soldiers being fired on in the Gaza neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa and enter buildings before them, said the UN secretary-general's envoy for protecting children in armed conflict.

Radhika Coomaraswamy said the incident on Jan. 15, after Israeli tanks had rolled into the neighborhood, was a violation of Israeli and international law.
It was included in a 43-page report published Monday, and was just one of many verified human rights atrocities during the three-week war between Israel and Hamas that ended Jan. 18, she said.

Coomaraswamy accused Israeli soldiers of shooting Palestinian children, bulldozing a home with a woman and child still inside, and shelling a building they had ordered civilians into a day earlier.

Israel's diplomatic mission in Geneva said it would respond to the allegations later Monday at a session of the UN Human Rights Council.

There also have been allegations that the militant group Hamas used human shields, but UN human rights experts have yet to verify those, said Coomaraswamy.

"Violations were reported on a daily basis, too numerous to list," said Coomaraswamy.

Coomaraswamy, who visited Gaza and Israel for five days in February, said her list constituted "just a few examples of the hundreds of incidents that have been documented and verified" by UN officials who were in the territory.

She was the only one of the nine UN experts who compiled the report that was allowed into Gaza following the war. The experts covered issues ranging from health and hunger to women's rights and arbitrary executions.

The experts also noted reports that Hamas had committed other abuses. They said Hamas had been unwilling to investigate the allegations.

The report called for Israel to end its blockade of the impoverished territory, where they said more than 90 percent of people are dependent on food aid; allow Palestinians to move between Gaza and the West Bank; and investigate human rights abuses that occurred during the conflict.

Coomaraswamy has been a UN undersecretary-general since April 2006. She formerly headed the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission and reported as a UN special investigator on violence against women.

Coomaraswamy's comments formed part of a much longer report from nine UN investigators including specialists on the right to health, to food, to adequate housing and education and on summary executions and violence against women.

All cited violations by Israel - and in some cases by the Hamas Islamic movement that controls Gaza - during the invasion from December 27 until January 17 which Israeli leaders say was launched to stop rocket attacks by Hamas from the territory.

Palestinian officials say 1,434 people in Gaza - 960 of them civilians - were killed in the fighting, a figure Israel contests. The report from the nine gave the total as 1,440, saying of these 431 were children and 114 women.

The overall report was criticized in the 47-nation Council by Israel's ambassador Aharon Leshno Yar, who said it "wilfully ignores and downplays the terrorist and other threats we face," and the use by Hamas of human shields.

Leshno Yar said the 43-page document was part of a pattern of "demonizing Israel" in the Council - where an informal bloc of Islamic and African nations usually backed by Russia, China and Cuba has a built-in majority.

Another report presented to the Council on Monday came from Robert Falk, a U.S. academic and the body's special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Falk, whom Israel barred from entry last year after accusing him of bias and prejudice, said Israel had subjected civilians in Gaza to "an inhuman form of warfare that kills, maims and inflicts mental harm."

His report, in which he called for an independent experts group to probe possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas and also suggested that the UN Security Council set up an ad hoc criminal tribunal, was issued late last week.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood was asked whether the U.S. supports Falk's call for an independent inquiry into possible war crimes in Gaza by both Israel and Hamas.

"We've expressed our concern many times about the special rapporteur's views on dealing with that question, and we've found the rapporteur's views to be anything but fair. We find them to be biased. We've made that very clear," said Wood.‬

The Testimony from Gaza

The Testimony from Gaza

The soldier had served as a squad commander during the Israeli army's invasion of the Gaza Strip last winter. His unit was assigned to advance into Gaza City. His initial orders, he recalled, were that after an armored vehicle broke down the door of a building, his men were to enter, spraying fire: "I call it murdering ... going up one floor after another, and anyone we spot, shoot him." The word from his higher-ups was that anyone who hadn't fled the neighborhood could be assumed to be a terrorist. The orders fit a pattern: In Gaza, "as you know, they used lots and lots of force and killed lots and lots of people on the way so that we wouldn't be hurt," he said.

Before the operation began, he recounted, the orders were softened. The building's occupants would be given five minutes to leave and be searched on their way out. When he told his squad, some soldiers objected. "Anyone there is a terrorist; that's a fact," one said. The squad commander was upset. "It's pretty frustrating that inside Gaza you're allowed to do what you want," he explained at a discussion in February among graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin Academy, a pre-army training course.

A transcript from that gathering, published in an academy newsletter, reached the Israeli media late last week. (The full Hebrew text is here; a Ha'aretz report in English is here.) Predictably, it set off a storm. In contrast to earlier criticism of the Gaza campaign, this time charges of disregard for civilians' lives came not from Palestinians or the foreign media but from Israeli soldiers. Their testimony challenged the story of the war that is widely accepted in Israel and indicated a change, apparently dictated from above, in the Israel Defense Forces' rules for fighting.

The soldiers who spoke at the academy hadn't served together and weren't talking about a breakdown in a single unit. Instead, they described an atmosphere in which "the lives of Palestinians were, let's say much less important than the lives of our soldiers," as one put it. Every civilian was presumed dangerous, a potential suicide bomber. In one segment of the testimony that received wide media attention, a soldier told of marksmen shooting a mother and her two children after they took a wrong turn as they fled their home. (In response, the army hastily announced that the brigade commander had investigated and that the marksmen had only fired warning shots, without harming the mother and children.)

There were counter-instances. A soldier identified as Binyamin (not his real name) described leading a patrol along the fence between Israel and Gaza. If the soldiers saw a Palestinian come within 300 meters of the fence, the orders were to treat him as a potential terrorist: Shoot in the air; if the "suspect" didn't flee, shoot at his legs; then, if necessary, shoot to kill. But the 300-meter zone included farm land. Binyamin spotted an old man working in the fields. At first, the patrol's marksman fired over the farmer's head. The old man, apparently inured to gunfire, didn't respond. Binyamin and the marksman looked at each other. "We simply understood that neither of us ... wanted a farmer on our conscience." The patrol drove on. Telling the story, Binyamin added, "Anyone who thinks I hurt Israeli security can come talk to me afterward." His defensive tone suggested that his restraint was an exception to the wider atmosphere during the Gaza fighting.

Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" in Gaza began with an air campaign in late December, followed by the ground invasion in early January. The immediate catalyst was heavy rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Strip at southern Israeli communities, after a six-month ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ran out. (The actual chain reaction leading to war was more complex, as I wrote at the time.) From the start, Israel deflected charges of causing excessive civilian casualties with several arguments: Palestinian casualty figures were inflated; many of the supposed civilians were really combatants; and by fighting from within urban areas, Hamas had turned the civilian population into human shields. The Israeli army also feared that nearly anyone in Gaza could be a suicide bomber. None of those arguments should be dismissed out of hand. The Palestinians were also engaged in a public-relations battle. Hamas did base itself in urban areas, and it is infamous for its use of suicide bombers.

Most Israelis regarded the war as defensive, and the reports from Gaza have gained little traction in the Israeli domestic arena. The soldiers' accounts may boost domestic criticism. As one of the soldiers commented, their experience reflected "a change in the rules for 'purity of arms'" -- meaning military ethics -- compared to previous Israeli wars. Another soldier explained massive use of firepower as a response to Israel's heavy casualties in the Second Lebanon War of 2006. "The intent was ... to protect soldiers' lives," he said.

Any army will seek to minimize its losses. That said, the Israeli army does have a code of ethics that demands a balance between protecting its own forces and avoiding harm to noncombatants. If the code were not simply violated but superseded by new orders this time, a critical question is, who gave the orders -- mid-level commanders, the top brass, or the country's political leaders?

One lesson that generals and politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, may have learned from Lebanon, and from wars elsewhere, is that public support for a war can turn to opposition when the number of fallen soldiers increases. Similarly, direct media coverage from the battlefield can spur political debate. During the Gaza fighting, the Israeli army prevented both local and foreign journalists from entering the Strip.

There is at least one more reason that domestic support for a war can evaporate: failing to achieve the war's goals. At the outset of the Gaza campaign, Olmert said its purpose was to "change the situation in the south part of our country" -- a deliberately modest and ambiguous goal. Other officials spoke of weakening Hamas and restoring Israeli deterrence. While Israel decided to stop the fighting unilaterally in January -- just before Barack Obama's inauguration -- it sought a new ceasefire arrangement with Hamas, negotiated indirectly via Egypt. Olmert then injected the additional goal of a prisoner exchange to free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza since 2006.

There's still no agreed ceasefire in place. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in January, over 180 rockets have been fired from there at southern Israel, according to the Israel Defense Forces. That's less than the rate last November and December, as the ceasefire unraveled and expired. But it's much more than the sporadic launchings when the truce was in place. Arguably, Gaza's rulers have not been deterred from launching -- or from allowing other groups to launch -- missiles at Israel. Meanwhile, the talks on a prisoner exchange broke down last week, just before the soldiers' testimony was published nationally.

This is the familiar arc of a poorly conceived war. At first, it looks like necessary defense. The public rallies around in the adrenaline rush of solving an intolerable problem by force. The critics are few, or foreign, and easily dismissed. As time passes, it becomes more difficult to name what has been gained amid the horror. The moral price reveals itself. Criticism becomes mainstream and respectable and is entirely too late.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Time to believe Gaza war crimes allegations

By Amira Hass

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has difficulty believing the soldiers' testimonies that they intentionally harmed Palestinian civilians, because the Israel Defense Forces is a moral army, he said on Sunday.
On the other hand, he believes the soldiers because they "have no reason to lie." Then again,

Ashkenazi is convinced that if what they said is true, these are isolated incidents.
Ashkenazi reacted like most Israelis - as though the reports, including those in Haaretz and Maariv, were the first about the Gaza offensive that were issued by someone other than the military spokesman or the military reporters, who rely on him for their information.

But ample information was available from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, based on statements collected from hundreds of people in the Gaza Strip in January and February.

Ashkenazi, like other Israelis, could have read the Red Cross' protest during the offensive, that the IDF prevented medical teams from reaching wounded Palestinians by shooting at them. He or his aides could have gone to the Web site set up by Israeli human rights organizations, which was full of reports and testimonies.

His aides, had they wanted to, could have found the many questions foreign reporters sent to the IDF spokesman, seeking Ashkenazi's comments before they filed their stories. They had details about families killed by IDF shells and bombs in their homes, about the lethal white phosphorus shells and about the shooting of civilians waving white flags. The had cataloged the massive destruction of plants, orchards, fields, cowsheds and apartment buildings. Much evidence of these outrages was also published inside Haaretz.

The IDF's legal advisers must have read it all. Including, perhaps, that judges who participated in investigation committees into crimes in Darfur, the former Yugoslavia and East Timor want to set up a similar international committee to investigate "all the parties" in the IDF offensive on Gaza. These people have concluded that the events go beyond isolated incidents and that the problem is not only in the soldiers' conduct, but the instructions from the senior military ranks and the ministers in charge.

It's hard to believe that the chief of staff, defense minister and their aides haven't read at least some reports that were not issued by the IDF. But even if they did, why should they let on? After all, they are the ones who gave the orders.

Ashkenazi chose to look surprised, as though he were an ordinary Israeli citizen disregarding reports from parties other than the IDF, because they were based on Palestinian testimonies. Most Israelis "know" Palestinians lie, so their statements should not be taken seriously.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gaza family tells of Israeli shooting & Israeli soldiers say killing of civilians 'allowed'

Gaza family tells of Israeli shooting
A family in Zeitoun in the north of the Gaza Strip have come forward to tell how Israeli snipers shot at them as they were marshalled from a building during the war on Gaza.
Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid has their story.

Israeli soldiers say killing civilians 'allowed'
Israel's army is accused of war crimes after more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the war on Gaza.
In interviews published by a leading Israeli newspaper, Israeli soldiers say killing Palestinian civilians and destroying their homes was allowed in Israel’s rules of engagement during the war.
Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reports from Jerusalem.

UN: Gaza assault was 'inhumane'

UN: Gaza assault was 'inhumane'

Israel disputes Falk's allegations and says Hamas used civilians as human shields [EPA]
The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories has said Israel's military offensive on Gaza "would seem to constitute a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law".
Richard Falk called the 22-day bombardment a "massive assault on a densely populated urbanised setting", with the civilian population subjected to "an inhumane form of warfare that kills, maims and inflicts mental harm".
His findings were written in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday.
Islamic and African countries backed by China, Cuba and Russia have a majority in the 47-member forum.
Neither Israel nor US, its principal ally, are members.
Falk said the Geneva Convention required forces at war to be able to distinguish between military targets and civilians.
If that is not possible, then "launching the attacks is inherently unlawful".
Israel launched its offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in December saying it aimed to stop rocket fire by Hamas into southern Israel.
A ceasefire was declared on January 18 after the offensive left about 1,400 Palestinians dead, many of them women and children.
Three Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers were killed during the offensive.
Blockade 'a crime'
Falk said that the Gaza border blockade also was not legally justified and may represent a "crime against peace", a principle established at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

In video

Gaza family tells of Israeli shooting

Sealing the border, denying people the right to flee the war zone as refugees, may also be a crime against humanity, his report said. He said Israel's violations included alleged "targeting of schools, mosques and ambulances" during the offensive, and its use of weapons including white phosphorus.
He also condemned the firing of rockets at civilian targets in southern Israel by Hamas.
Falk called for an independent experts group to investigate possible war crimes committed by both the Israeli military and Hamas.
He recommended witness testimonies as well as explanations from Israeli and Palestinian military commanders.
Falk gave the same death toll from Israel's offensive in December and January - 1,434 Palestinians, 960 of those civilians - as the Palestinian Human Rights Centre.
Israel disputes the figures and accuses Hamas fighters in Gaza of using civilians as human shields.
Falk said Israel's allegation should be investigated.

Israeli rejection
Daniel Seaman, a spokesman for the Israeli government, rejected Falk's assertions, saying that his report contained no truth or legitimacy.
"The soldiers, questioned by our military authorities, are saying these [in the report] are not first-person eyewitness accounts ... these are stories they heard second hand," Seaman said.
He said every military in the world "at times makes mistakes".

Israel said its offensive was to halt Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel [EPA]
But "if we find our soldiers violated the code of conduct [in war], they will be dealt with, with the utmost severity of our laws", Seaman said. "We do not need a Richard Falk, who is notorious for his anti-Israeli position, to tell us how to conduct ourselves."
Falk said the UN Security Council might set up an ad hoc tribunal to establish accountability for war crimes in Gaza, noting Israel has not signed the Rome statutes establishing the International Criminal Court.
He was refused entry into Israel two weeks before the offensive started, preventing him from a planned mission to Gaza. In the report, he said the refusal had set an "unfortunate precedent" for treatment of a special rapporteur.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Santa Barbara, California, Falk said he is not optimistic that his report will lead to concrete action.
"There is a lack of political will on the part of several major governments," he said.
"There has all along been a pervasive double standard with respect to the implementation of international criminal law.
"It has been applied to non-Western countries in the south and has exempted actors associated with Europe, North America and, generally, the north."

Rules of engagement
Falk's criticism came as reports surfaced in the Israeli media suggesting that Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under what may have been lax rules of engagement during the Gaza offensive.
Quoting Israeli soldiers who fought in the offensive, the Haaretz newspaper reported on Thursday that soldiers had ransacked and destroyed civilian property.
The soldiers' testimony, made at a course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon, runs counter to the Israeli army's claims that troops observed a high level of moral behaviour during the operation.

The testimonies include a description by an infantry squad leader in which he relates an incident where an Israeli sharpshooter shot a Palestinian mother and her two children, Haaretz reported.

If proved, the soldiers' testimonies could contribute to war crimes charges against Israel.
Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel Hamid, reporting from Gaza, said that there was no doubt in the minds of Gazans that Israel committed war crimes during the assault.
"There is a certain level of satisfaction that these stories are coming out and that a body like the UN is saying the same things that they are saying," she said.
 Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Gaza deaths dog Israeli military

Gaza deaths dog Israeli military

The Israeli offensive destroyed many buildings and left 1,300 Palestinians dead [AFP]
Reports have surfaced in the Israeli media suggesting that Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under what may have been lax rules of engagement during the Gaza offensive.

Quoting Israeli soldiers who fought in the offensive, the Haaretz newspaper reported on Thursday that soldiers had also ransacked and destroyed civilian property.
The soldiers' testimony, made at a course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon, runs counter to the Israeli army's claims that troops observed a high level of moral behaviour during the operation.

The testimonies include a description by an infantry squad leader in which he relates an incident where an Israeli sharpshooter shot a Palestinian mother and her two children, Haaretz reported.
If proved, the soldiers' testimonies could lead to war crimes charges against Israel.

The Israeli army issued a statement in response to the Haaretz article saying it would look into the veracity of the allegations and investigate them if necessary.

'Damaging testimonies'

Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin,  reporting from Jerusalem, said: "Throughout the 22-day war the Israeli military had the position that it was not targeting civilians ... but now, for the first time since the end of the war, Israeli soldiers are coming forward with first-hand accounts of the types of military operations they were engaged in.

In video

Gaza family tells of Israeli shooting

"These are very damaging testimonies coming in from the soldiers ... it could be a very problematic issue for the Israeli military. "Now the Israeli military is saying it will thoroughly investigate and is now encouraging the discussion by officers about any incident or incidents that may have been a violation to the rules of engagement.
"The important point to remember is that the Israeli military does not publish its rule of engagement, so it will be very difficult for the public to juxtapose the soldiers' testimonies with what is actually allowed by the Israeli military, in terms of operations and conduct during the war."

Mikhael Manekin, from Breaking the Silence, an organisation of veteran Israeli soldiers gathering evidence on the Gaza war, said the testimonies in Haaretz corroborate the group's findings.

"We should kill everyone there [in the centre of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist"
Israeli soldiers
"The testimonies are very similar to what we have been collecting ...  when soldiers are usually talking about incriminating themselves, I don't find any reason to doubt their stories," he told Al Jazeera.

Haaretz quoted one soldier as saying: "There was a house with a family inside ... We put them in a room. Later we left the house and another platoon entered it, and a few days after that there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sniper position on the roof."

Shooting without warning "The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn't understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go and it was OK, and he should hold his fire and he ... he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders," it said.

Israel dropped bombs on Gaza saying it wanted to halt rocket fire from Hamas [EPA]
The paper said that the squad leader argued with his commander over the rules of engagement, which he said allowed the clearing of houses by shooting without warning residents beforehand. Israel launched its offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in December saying it aimed to stop rocket fire by Hamas into southern Israel.
A ceasefire was declared on January 18 after the offensive left 1,300 Palestinians dead, many of them women and children. Three Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers were killed during the offensive.

Haaretz reported that after the orders were changed, the squad soldiers complained that "we should kill everyone there [in the centre of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist".
Legal protection
Danny Zamir, the head of the pre-military course, said on Wednesday that he did not know in advance what the soldiers would say, and what they said "shocked us".
He said that after hearing the soldiers, he told Gabi Ashkenazi, Israeli's chief-of-staff, about his fears of a serious moral failure in the army.
The chief-of-staff's bureau requested a copy of the transcript of the discussion, and Zamir provided it, Haaretz reported.
Israel has said it will give legal protection to soldiers who fought in the offensive, according to Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister.
Olmert said recently that he had appointed Daniel Friedman, the justice minister, to chair an inter-ministerial committee "to co-ordinate Israel's efforts to offer legal defence for anyone who took part in the operation".

Focus on Gaza - Faction Fighting

In this week's Focus On Gaza we look at two blows suffered by the Israeli army. Firstly a UN report which brands the recent Israeli war on Gaza as illegal.

Secondly the chilling accounts of a disregard for civilian safety from its own soldiers involved in the operation, published this week in a leading Israeli newspaper.

We also look at internal dischord among the Palestinian movement and the numerous factions involved.

In a special report our correspondent Hoda Abdel Hamid brings together two Gazan students one from each of the two opposing groups - living very different lives and separated by factional rivalry.

Our senior political analyst Marwan Bishara reveals the real chances of a unity government being negociated by the leaders of these factions in talks in Cairo.

Soldier says rabbis pushed "religious war" in Gaza

Soldier says rabbis pushed "religious war" in Gaza

Fri Mar 20, 2009 10:54am EDT

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January's Gaza offensive they were fighting a "religious war" against gentiles, according to one army commander's account published Friday.
"Their message was very clear: we are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land," he said.
The account by Ram, a pseudonym to shield the soldier's identity, was published by the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper in the second day of revelations that have rocked the Israeli military. ( "Shooting and Crying, 2009").
They were leaked from a Feb 13 meeting of armed forces members to share their Gaza experiences.
Some veterans, alumni of an Israel Defense Force (IDF) military academy, told of the killing of civilians and their impression that deep contempt for Palestinians pervaded the ranks of the Israeli forces.
Haaretz and the daily Maariv, which also published the accounts, quoted over half a dozen soldiers and airmen. The institution's director, Danny Zamir, confirmed that Thursday's published accounts were authentic.
In longer excerpts in its Friday "Week's End" edition, the daily quoted 'Ram' as saying his impression of the 22-day operation was "the feeling of an almost religious mission."
There was a "huge gap between what the Education Corps sent out and what the IDF rabbinate sent out," he said. The corps's pamphlets told the history of Israel's fighting in Gaza from 1948 to the present, but the rabbinate's message imparted the sense that "this operation was a religious war."
The rabbinate of the IDF provides religious services, including overseeing preparation of kosher food, providing prayerbooks and prayer sessions and religious counseling to any soldier wants to participate. Involvement is not obligatory.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) has put the Palestinian death toll during the war at 1,417 -- 926 civilians, 236 fighters and 255 police officers. Israeli officials have disputed those figures. Thirteen Israelis were killed.
Israel faced global criticism over its assaults in densely populated areas of Gaza in the campaign, launched with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks from Hamas and other Islamist militant groups in Gaza aimed at its southern towns.
Hamas clerics have often called for "Zionist" blood to be spilled. The Islamists carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel before and during a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000, blowing up buses and cafes.
The Jewish state tries to balance the needs of its non-observant majority with religious tradition. While the military does not provide data on the disposition of personnel, observers report a disproportionately high number of soldiers and officers wearing skullcaps -- a symbol of Jewish faith.
One week after the Gaza offensive ended on January18 Israeli human rights group Yesh Din called on Defense Minister Ehud Barak to dismiss the chief chaplain, Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, who holds the rank of brigadier general.
It said he had distributed a booklet to soldiers fighting in the Gaza conflict quoting an ultra-nationalist Israeli rabbi as saying that showing mercy toward a "cruel enemy" was "terribly immoral" and advising soldiers they were fighting "murderers."
Barak responded to the IDF revelations Thursday by repeating Israel's description of its armed forces as the most moral in the world. The IDF said its judge advocate-general had ordered an investigation.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams)
(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Philippa Fletcher)