Posts Tagged ‘ Gaza ’

Israel keeps pounding Gaza by air, says it intercepted missile fired by Hamas at Tel Aviv

By Karin Brulliard and Abigail Hauslohner for The Washington Post

Israel’s four-day-old air offensive in the Gaza Strip expanded to target Hamas government buildings on Saturday and Palestinian militants continued firing a torrent of rockets at civilian areas in southern Israel as both sides stepped up diplomatic efforts to win support.

Israeli airstrikes over Gaza accelerated to nearly 200 early in the day, including one hit that reduced the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to a smoldering concrete heap. That strike, along with others on a police headquarters and smuggling tunnels along the strip’s southern border with Egypt, raised questions about whether Israel had broadened its mission to including toppling the Hamas government that rules the coastal strip.

Just before sundown, Hamas said it had fired an Iranian-made Fajr-5 rocket at Tel Aviv, and air raid sirens sounded in that city for the third day in a row. The Israeli military said its newly deployed missile defense battery intercepted the rocket before it landed in the populous coastal city.

Even as airstrikes pounded the area Saturday morning, the foreign minister of Tunisia’s Islamist-led government, Rafik Abdessalem, arrived in Gaza with a delegation, underscoring Hamas’s newfound credibility in a region dramatically altered by the Arab Spring. Abdessalem expressed outrage at what he called Israeli “aggression” and pledged to unite with other Arab countries to end the conflict.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whose prime minister visited Gaza on Friday, held meetings with Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani — both Hamas supporters — to discuss what Morsi and other regional leaders have promised will be a more robust response to Israel’s actions than during past conflicts. By Saturday night, rumors of Morsi, Erdogan and Hamas chairman Khaled Meshal hashing out a cease-fire plan were swirling but unconfirmed.

Also in Cairo, the Arab League held an emergency meeting of foreign ministers to discuss a response to the conflict. Many participants called for Arab assistance to the Palestinians and a “reconsideration” of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. But it was unclear if the usually ineffectual league would deliver decisive action by the end of its summit.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, took his country’s case to European leaders. In conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic, Netanyahu argued that “no country in the world would agree to a situation in which its population lives under a constant missile threat,” according to an Israeli government statement. The government announced that it was launching a special operations center for public diplomacy, centered on “the unified message that Israel is under fire.”

The White House reiterated its support for the Israeli operation, which the military says is intended to stop rocket fire that has escalated in the four years since Israel last invaded Gaza to stunt attacks by Hamas, an Islamist movement that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist group.

“Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rockets for far too long,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy U.S. national security adviser, told reporters traveling with President Obama to Asia. Rhodes declined to comment on the Israelis’ choice of targets, but he said White House officials “always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.”

The death toll in Gaza rose to 45 by Saturday evening, Health Ministry officials said. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since the operation began. An Israeli military spokesman said about 130 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel on Saturday, 30 of which were intercepted by a missile defense system known as Iron Dome.

Israel made preparations this week for a possible ground invasion, but there were no further signs of one coming on Saturday.

Israel: No shift in mission

The Israeli airstrikes, which continued to target rocket-launching sites and weapons depots, slowed throughout the day, even as Israel appeared to be channeling new efforts toward Hamas civilian institutions. Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman, said the strikes were “part of our overarching goal of toppling Hamas’s command and control capabilities” and did not mark a shift in mission.

Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, was apparently not at his office when it was hit.

According to the newspaper Haaretz, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the “goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”

That is how it felt to Hossam and Sanaa al-Dadah, two teachers who had the misfortune of living next door to a house the Israeli military said belonged to a Hamas commander.

At 6 a.m., the family’s windows shattered and their walls burst open. The adjacent house, in the Jabaliya refugee camp, had been demolished in an airstrike, and suddenly theirs was ruined, too.

In the terrifying moments that followed, Hossam al-Dadah, 50, frantically dug his five children out of the rubble, and a few hours later, they had been taken away to their grandparents’ home. But a dust-caked Sanaa, 40, rushed from room to room, crying and gathering her children’s clothing, school bags and dolls and placing them on a sheet.

Israel says Hamas operates in populated areas to use civilians as human shields, and it has dropped thousands of leaflets over Gaza warning civilians to stay away from Hamas operatives. Sanaa said she never got the message.

“Where are we going to go?” she said again and again. “The Israelis are responsible. They are the enemy of God. What did we do? Did we carry any missiles? Did we launch any rockets?”

Outside the house, children played insouciantly in rubble and scorched cars. Rami Mukayed, a 12-year-old in gray trousers, said he reserved his fear for darkness.

“At night, come see me, I’m panicked,” he said. “I play in the morning. I hide in the evening.”

Effect on peace process

In a speech in Cairo, Erdogan said the Gaza conflict called for a new era of Egyptian-Turkish cooperation.

“If Turkey and Egypt unite, everybody will be singing of peace in the region,” he said. “And if we stick together, the region will no longer be dominated by crying and weeping.”

Speakers at the Arab League meeting made the same argument.

“We can no longer accept empty meetings and meaningless resolutions,” said Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, addressing the assembly at the start of the meeting. He urged Arab states to adopt a “strict stance” on the conflict.

Issandr El Amrani, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who heads a blog called the Arabist, said the Gaza standoff has presented the new Arab Spring governments and other regional heavyweights an opportunity to reconsider their position on Israel and the peace process in a series of talks that could have long-term regional implications.

For years, the Arab League has floated a proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that Israel never took seriously, Amrani said. Arab states might now choose to drop that proposal and adopt more aggressive approaches — Egypt could revise the terms of its peace treaty with Israel; Arab states might consider providing covert aid to Hamas; and others will amplify the pressure on Israel through diplomatic corridors, he said.

By Saturday night, despite mounting rhetorical and symbolic support to Gaza’s Hamas leadership, the Arab ministers’ meeting had announced plans to send a delegation to Gaza but had stopped short of pledging immediate material support to Hamas.

“I’ve seen a lot of talk about doing something and how there’s a collective Arab responsibility to act,” Amrani said, “but no one has suggested anything concrete.”

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Israel Fears Unrest in Egypt Could Jeopardize Peace Treaty

By Robert Berger for The Voice of America

The unrest in Egypt is sending shock waves throughout the Middle East, including in neighboring Israel.

Israel is extremely concerned about the situation in Egypt because President Hosni Mubarak has preserved the peace treaty between the two countries for 30 years. Israel considers the treaty a strategic asset, and it fears that a regime change in Egypt could put the peace agreement in danger.

Israeli analyst Yoni Ben-Menachem says an Egyptian government led by opposition groups or the Muslim Brotherhood would take a harder line on Israel.

“It might be a hostile regime to Israel that will not respect the peace treaty with Israel and will cancel it, abolish this agreement, and we will go back to a situation of hostility between Israel and Egypt,” said Ben-Menachem.

That would complicate Israel’s situation strategically, because it already shares two borders with hostile elements: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.  And Ben-Menachem believes neighboring Jordan could be next.

“This can create the domino effect, and this fall of the regime in Egypt can also continue to Jordan, and also with Jordan we have another peace treaty,” added Ben-Menachem.  “And if this will happen, if there will be a strategic change in the Middle East, that will not be for the benefit of the State of Israel.”

While the treaty between Egypt and Israel is often described as a “cold peace,” Ben-Menachem says Israel values its relationship with President Mubarak and sees him as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world.

Give White House Credit for Mideast Peace Efforts

By Peter A Joseph for The Huffington Post

Skeptics have had a field day criticizing the direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to be launched this week in Washington. To be sure, the obstacles to concluding an agreement are significant, the stakes are high and expectations are low.

But it is time to give the Obama Administration some credit. The White House is launching direct talks on Thursday with tools that previous administrations did not have or were unwilling to employ in past negotiation efforts. Despite the rampant skepticism, there are indeed reasons to be hopeful without being naïve.

The Obama Administration has come a long way to get to this point. The year-long tussle with Israel over West Bank settlement construction, a botched photo-op between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership in New York one year ago, and painstaking attempts to bring the parties to direct talks in recent months have eroded the optimism and expectations that came with the election of President Obama.

However, there are a number of essential ingredients that the Administration has got right as it launches direct talks. Martin Indyk mentioned four of them last week in the New York Times: 1) there is very little violence between the parties today; 2) settlement activity has been limited; 3) the majority on both sides support a two-state solution; and 4) the contours of an agreement are largely already known. Here are four more:

First, violence is down because security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians is at an all-time high. Palestinian security forces trained with the direct support and supervision of the United States, Israel and Jordan have significantly secured the West Bank and created an atmosphere conducive to economic growth. The success of the burgeoning Palestinian security force is providing Israelis with much needed confidence. Security is – and always has been – Israel’s number one concern. With such cooperation already in place, these talks will have a distinct advantage over all other previous efforts.

Second, the Arab states have endorsed President Mahmoud Abbas’ negotiating with Israel and pledged to be part of the effort. The inclusion of Egypt and Jordan in the launch next week is vital. As co-chairs of the Arab League’s Arab Peace Initiative follow-up committee, Egypt and Jordan bring with them the promise of normal relations for Israel with 22 Arab states following a successfully negotiated agreement on the final status issues.

Regardless of whether Yasser Arafat truly intended to achieve peace with Israel, he never enjoyed the mobilized support of the Arab states, let alone the United States and Israel. Mahmoud Abbas does. The Arab states are providing Abbas with the kind of backing and legitimacy to negotiate with Israel on all of the sensitive final status issues that he will need in order to conclude a historic agreement. This is particularly significant given the political split of the Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza.

Third, the Palestinians are invested in building the foundation for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians have been plagued in previous negotiation efforts by poor governance and widespread corruption. While concerning issues remain, the progress of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad to establish the infrastructure for a future state – like the aforementioned security advancements – distinguishes these negotiations from previous ones. The success of the state-building effort to this point and the growth of the West Bank economy lends credibility to the moderate leadership of Abbas and Fayyad and their ability to govern a viable, contiguous state, should the political process enable one to be established. Their efforts should also give Israelis added confidence that they would be establishing a conflict-ending agreement with a responsible neighbor.

Fourth, the Netanyahu government has been calling for negotiations for months, repeatedly stating that an agreement could be reached quickly if negotiated in good faith. The Administration now has a chance to test them on their word.

The make-up of the Israeli government presents both a challenge and an advantage to the renewed talks. The fact that this is a largely right-wing government intended to provide Israel with essential guarantees on security could bolster confidence among the Israeli public for an agreement, should one be achieved. This would remain true even if the government were at some point to replace Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party with Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party. Just as the Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin secured a peace agreement with Egypt, so too might the current Likud Prime Minister secure the elusive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Finally, the White House has pledged to be actively engaged and bridge the gaps when necessary. The failed Annapolis process proved that Israelis and Palestinians need the United States to be at the negotiating table in order to help the parties bridge the gaps.

Active engagement by the United States does not just require bridging proposals, but also reminding the parties of the interests at stake. To Israelis, concluding an agreement with the Palestinians would certainly help amplify efforts to mobilize the international community to counter the threat from Iran. To Palestinians, a viable and secure state can only come about through negotiations.

However, even with these various important ingredients in place, there remains a missing one that is vital to the success of direct talks: trust. Without trust between the parties – or in the United States’ leadership – the current effort will undoubtedly fail. Building this trust, beginning with navigating the parties past the September 26th deadline of Israel’s settlement moratorium, is clearly the United States’ most pressing challenge in the weeks ahead. But the foundation to succeed in doing so is beginning to be put into place. The Administration deserves some credit for laying it.

– Peter A Joseph is the president of the Israel Policy Forum

Analysis: Turkey Looks East, Snarling Key US Goals

By Steven R Hurst for The Associated Press                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    President Barack Obama scored two key foreign policy victories this week _ a new round of U.N. sanctions on Iran even as he kept Israeli-Palestinian talks on life support after the Israeli attack on Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza.  The unintended costs may be heavy.

Both issues threaten key alliances with Muslim Turkey. And both test the ability of the U.S. and Israeli to cope with Ankara’s move out of the Western and NATO orbit toward largely Islamic regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. That matters because the United States is losing sway with its longtime NATO anchor, a democracy that bridges Europe to Asia and the Middle East.

Israel too is struggling to avoid Turkey’s threatened estrangement _ a break that would cost the Jewish state its only Muslim military ally. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Israel after its establishment more than six decades ago. The widening fissures in both alliances likely carry heavier psychological than strategic implications for the time being, particularly for Israel.

Here’s why. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “suddenly is the most popular politician in the Arab world and he doesn’t speak a word of Arabic,” asserts Henri Barkey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Erdogan’s popularity grew exponentially after the Israeli commando raid on a Turkish-sanction flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza. Muslims across the Middle East are holding him up as a hero for his tough talk against the Jewish state in their midst. That’s a stunning reversal. Turks, who migrated into modern day Turkey from Central Asia centuries ago, had always been seen in the Arab world as heirs to the Ottoman empire that had oppressed Arabs for 400 years.

Erdogan received a thunderous reception from fellow Muslim leaders Thursday at the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum that opened with calls for an international investigation of the May 31 Israeli raid that killed eight Turkish activists and a Turkish-American teenager. Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 in a landslide victory, a clear shift away from Turkey’s secular traditions that were established in the modern state, the post World War I and shrunken remnant of the Ottoman Empire.

The political shift was a clear precursor of Turkey’s move toward a more comfortable and powerful place in the Muslim world, despite continued efforts for membership in the European Union. Erdogan has since taken to championing the Palestinians’ cause, often more loudly than their fellow Arabs. That had badly strained Israeli-Turkish relations even before the crisis that blew up around the Gaza aid flotilla.

Then there was Turkey’s insertion of itself into the effort to move Iran away from uranium enrichment and its alleged program to build a nuclear weapon. After Iran rejected a deal to swap nuclear fuel last fall, the United States was determined to impose a fourth round of U.N. sanctions on Tehran. Washington had the backing of fellow U.N. Security Council members France and Britain all along and was on the verge of announcing that Russia and China also were on board.

Turkey, with help from Brazil, suddenly announced that it had revived the swap deal and that Iran had agreed. That agreement, more than a half year after initially rejected by Iran, was deeply flawed.

And the next day the United States said a new sanctions package had unanimous support from all five permanent Security Council members. It thanked Turkey for its efforts but said the train had already left the station. When the council voted earlier this week, only Turkey and Brazil cast no votes. Those did little but register protest since neither country holds a veto.

In spite of its rhetoric and obstructionism, Turkey does not appear ready any time soon the break fully from the West. It has vast interests intricately woven into NATO and the European Union. Turkey has a customs union agreement with its top trading partner, Europe, and wants to become part of the EU. But there is no doubt that the tone in Turkey’s foreign policy is changing.

Although the United States has been its chief ally since the Cold War, Turkey opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq through Turkish soil, triggering tensions with Washington. Until the late 1990s, Turkish relations with Iran were tense, with its secular, westernized government accusing Tehran of trying to export its radical Islamic regime to this predominantly Muslim but secular country. Today, Turkey wants to build deeper trade ties with Iran.

Erdogan also is building support for next year’s election by playing the Islam card _ one that appeals heavily to traditionalist, rural and Muslim voters who make up the vast majority of the electorate. “This is not being driven by foreign affairs,” said Jonathan Adelman, professor at the University of Denver. “Erdogan is winning points at home _ going back to the country’s Muslim roots.”

Deaths as Israeli Forces Storm Gaza Aid Ship

As reported on BBC

More than 10 people have been killed after Israeli commandos stormed a convoy of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army says. Armed forces boarded the largest vessel overnight, clashing with some of the 500 people on board. It happened about 40 miles (64 km) out to sea, in international waters.

Israel says its soldiers were shot at and attacked with weapons; the activists say Israeli troops came on board shooting. The activists were attempting to defy a blockade imposed by Israel after the Islamist movement Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007. There has been widespread condemnation of the violence, with several countries summoning the Israeli ambassadors serving there.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was “shocked by reports of killings and injuries” and called for a “full investigation” into what happened.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Canada, has cancelled a scheduled visit to Washington on Tuesday to return to Israel, officials said.

Earlier, he expressed his “full backing” for the military involved in the raid, his office said. The White House said the US “deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained” in the storming of the aid ship.

A spokesman said US officials were “currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy”.

‘Guns and knives’The six-ship flotilla, carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid, left the coast of Cyprus on Sunday and had been due to arrive in Gaza on Monday. Israel had repeatedly said the boats would not be allowed to reach Gaza.

Israel says its soldiers boarded the lead ship in the early hours but were attacked with axes, knives, bars and at least two guns.

“Unfortunately this group were dead-set on confrontation,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told the BBC.

“Live fire was used against our forces. They initiated the violence, that’s 100% clear,” he said.

Organisers of the flotilla said at least 30 people were wounded in the incident. Israel says 10 of its soldiers were injured, one seriously. A leader of Israel’s Islamic Movement, Raed Salah, who was on board, was among those hurt.

Audrey Bomse, a spokesperson for the Free Gaza Movement, which is behind the convoy, told the BBC Israel’s actions were disproportionate.

“We were not going to pose any violent resistance. The only resistance that there might be would be passive resistance such as physically blocking the steering room, or blocking the engine room downstairs, so that they couldn’t get taken over. But that was just symbolic resistance.”

The footage showed a number of people, apparently injured, lying on the ground. A woman was seen holding a blood-stained stretcher.

Al-Jazeera TV reported from the same ship that Israeli navy forces had opened fire and boarded the vessel, wounding the captain. The Al-Jazeera broadcast ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, saying: “Everybody shut up!” Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said his country “regrets any loss of life and did everything to avoid this outcome”.

He accused the convoy of a “premeditated and outrageous provocation”, describing the flotilla as an “armada of hate”. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel’s actions, saying it had committed a massacre, while Hamas said Israel had committed a “great crime and a huge violation of international law”.

Turkey, whose nationals comprised the majority of those on board, accused Israel of “targeting innocent civilians”. “We strongly denounce Israel’s inhumane interception,” it said, warning of “irreparable consequences” to the two countries’ relations

She said there was “absolutely no evidence of live fire”. Israel is towing the boats to the port of Ashdod and says it will deport the passengers from there.

Turkish TV pictures taken on board the Turkish ship leading the flotilla appeared to show Israeli soldiers fighting to control passengers.

The footage showed a number of people, apparently injured, lying on the ground. A woman was seen holding a blood-stained stretcher.

Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said his country “regrets any loss of life and did everything to avoid this outcome”. He accused the convoy of a “premeditated and outrageous provocation”, describing the flotilla as an “armada of hate”.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel’s actions, saying it had committed a massacre, while Hamas said Israel had committed a “great crime and a huge violation of international law”.

“We strongly denounce Israel’s inhumane interception,” it said, warning of “irreparable consequences” to the two countries’ relations. Turkey was Israel’s closest Muslim ally but relations have deteriorated over the past few years.

In Turkey, thousands of protesters demonstrated against Israel in Istanbul, while several countries have summoned Israeli ambassadors to seek an explanation as to what happened.

Greece has withdrawn from joint military exercises with Israel in protest at the raid on the flotilla. Israel had repeatedly said it would stop the boats, calling the campaign a “provocation intended to delegitimise Israel”.

Israel says it allows about 15,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid into Gaza every week. But the UN says this is less than a quarter of what is needed.

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