Monday, May 31, 2010

Gaza Aid Flotilla fired on by commandos, at least ten dead, many wounded

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. [The deaths now number 15, later reports said; official death toll is 9. Names need to be released.]

Armed forces boarded the vessels overnight, clashing with some of the 600 protesters on board.

The exact location of the interception is unclear. Israel had warned the ships not to enter its territorial waters.

The ships are carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid to try to break a long-standing Israeli-led blockade.

Israel says its forces were attacked by activists when they got on board. Tweeters aboard the ships indicated that the troops were dropped by chopper and started firing as soon as their feet hit the decks -- including at sleeping activists.

Read more on the BBC. Video footage available; Turks are stoning the Israeli consulate in Istanbul in protest against the attack on civilian activists, who included an 85 year old Holocaust survivor and Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, the 1976 Nobel Peace laureate from Northern Ireland. Most of the dead are reported to be from Turkey.

Addendum: Death count has risen now to 15, and 41 people were treated in hospital for wounds. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after expressing his "full backing" for the raid, has returned to Israel and skipped a Washington meeting with US president Barack Obama, according to latest reports. Surviving activists deny that the sleeping activists had clubbed or knifed the raiding commandoes; speculation is that friendly fire amongst the Israeli forces may have set off the fighting. Six Israeli soldiers were injured during the botched raid. Unlike previous flotillas, this one had included people aboard who Israel identified as Hamas and pro-Al Qaeda. The attack happened in international waters - 60 miles offshore. See NY Times piece here and (rather tentative) Foreign Policy analysis here. Because Sheikh Raed Salah, an Israeli-Arab, is rumored to be among the casualties, analysts fear the incident may "lead to a third intifada." Organizers of the peace flotilla included Muslim Brotherhood volunteers, which alarmed some observers and irritated others. See this blogpost from Jacky Rowland, about the Monty Pyythonesque quality of the event--at least until the big guns came out.
And here's an odd report from a hack imbedded with the Israeli commandos, who reports that the naval commandoes had pistols and paint-ball rifles for sidearms, expecting "activists like at Bilin; instead, they got Bangkok!" Compare it with this file on Truthout. Will we ever know the answers?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Short-range Guided Missiles for Israel - Obama's $200m sop to Likud

An advanced guided missile program, called the Iron Dome (a natural follow-up to Operation Cast Lead?), has passed all tests and will be installed later this year with US military aid. President Obama is pressing congress to come up with the extra funding. These short-range missiles will defend against assaults from Gaza and southern Lebanon, according to a BBC report. A U.S. State Department figures show that direct military aid to Israel was $2.55bn in 2009. This is set to increase to $3.15bn in 2018, which does not indicate much trust in the ongoing Middle East Peace Process. Analysts say Washington may be acting now to ease the recent tensions in its relations with Israel.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pop goes the Wiesel - 'letter to Obama' disputed by 100 Jerusalemites

Not all Jerusalemites agree with the confrontational tactics of settlers and have come out against the sentiments of Elie Wiesel, expressed in a full page ad "letter to Obama" that extolled a united Jerusalem. A hundred well-heeled Israeli Jews published their own open letter. An excerpt:

"Our Jerusalem is populated with people, young and old, women and men, who wish their city to be a symbol of dignity – not of hubris, inequality and discrimination. You speak of the celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one."
Veteran correspondent Chris McGreal of the Guardian reports here. Renowned for comparing Israeli policies to Apartheid in South Africa, where he was formerly based, the journalist takes an even-handed look at the latest Jerusalem controversy.
Hat tip to the Beeb for the photo of a Jerusalem Day matron who is so mistrustful that she hides her face during a gathering in the eastern part of the city.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

How Will Disclosing Whether Coriander Is or Isn't Allowed into the Gaza Strip Harm Israel's National Security?

· In a court submission, the State of Israel admits that, contrary to its previous claims, it does indeed possess documents related to its policy on the transfer of goods into the Gaza Strip, including a list of "permitted" goods.
· However, the State claims for the first time that it can not reveal the documents, out of concern that allowing the public to review them would harm Israel's national security and foreign relations.
· Israel admits the existence of a "Red Lines" document that establishes the minimum nutritional requirements for residents of Gaza, but refuses to reveal it.

After 12 months of unsuccessful attempts by Gisha - Legal Center for Freedom of Movement to obtain documentation from the Israeli authorities about Israel's policy concerning the entry of food and other goods into the Gaza Strip, and after claiming for many months that no such documents exist, Israel has finally admitted that it does indeed possess the information requested by Gisha, including a list of goods whose admission into the Gaza Strip is permitted. Following a petition submitted by Gisha under the Freedom of Information Act, and as a result of the Tel Aviv District Court's rejection of the State's claim that it had already provided all relevant information, the State last week submitted its response to the court. In this response the State apologized for "inaccurate statements made to the court", that it claimed were the result of a misunderstanding and admitted to the existence of four primary documents. Following this admission, however, the State refused to disclose the contents of the documents. It argued that, despite not previously raising such an objection, disclosure of the documents "…would harm national security and foreign relations". Gisha today filed its response to the court.

The documents whose existence the State now confirms are: (1) "The procedure for admitting goods into the Gaza Strip," which regulates the processing of requests for transfer of goods to Gaza and updates of the list of products allowed into the Gaza Strip, (2) "The procedure for monitoring and assessing supply in the Gaza Strip" a document which regulates the monitoring of the level of supply of goods in Gaza to prevent shortages, (3) "A list of humanitarian products approved for admission into the Gaza Strip" which outlines the products which may be transferred to Gaza, and (4) a presentation called "Food Needs in Gaza – Red Lines," a document that reportedly establishes the minimal nutritional requirements for the subsistence of the residents of the Gaza Strip. This document purportedly contains detailed tables of the number of grams and calories of each kind of food each resident should be permitted to consume, broken down by age and sex, apparently in order to establish a minimal threshold for restrictions on the admission of goods.

Regarding the first three documents, the State relied on an exception in the Freedom of Information Act to argue that it is concerned that harm would be done to Israel's national security or its foreign relations if these working documents are revealed. The State refused to explain why revealing the documents would harm national security, arguing that the facts and reasons are so confidential that it could only present them to the court on an ex parte basis, i.e. in a closed hearing without the presence of Gisha's lawyers. In relation to the "Red Lines" document, the State argued that it is not required to disclose it under the Freedom of Information Act because it is a draft document that does not serve as the basis for policy. However, this argument does not provide an answer to the question of how Israel manages to "provide effective warning of expected shortages" of goods in Gaza while continuing to insist that there is no working document that defines the minimum required quantities?

"It is not clear why Israel, instead of promoting transparency, chooses to invest so many resources in the attempt to conceal information", said Adv. Tamar Feldman of Gisha, who wrote the petition. "How is the disclosure that Israel forbids the entry of sage and ginger, yet allows in cinnamon, related to security needs? It is also hard to imagine how disclosing this information would harm Israel's foreign relations, unless the State is equating fear of harm to Israel's image with fear of harm to its foreign relations".

In the petition submitted by Gisha, the Ministry of Defense and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories were asked to answer very basic questions about Israel's policy concerning the entry of food and other vital goods into the Gaza Strip, a policy that is shrouded in thick haze that obscures the State's procedures. So, for example, it is not clear why Israel refuses to allow into Gaza products such as cans, which would allow farmers in Gaza to preserve and market their tomatoes, yet permits the transfer of packaged tomato paste manufactured in Israel. Nor is it clear how the decision to ban the import of other raw materials for industry such as industrial salt or large blocks of margarine are related to the security needs which are supposed to inform the policy for the crossings into the Gaza Strip.

For a partial list of the permitted and prohibited goods, click on the Gisha website.

For the position paper about the haze surrounding the transfer of goods into the Gaza Strip, click here.

Hat tip to Sari Bashi and her tireless advocacy team at Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, for this timely post about obstruction and obfuscation.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

'Redeeming Jerusalem by truth, not hollow slogans': Seidemann refutes Wiesel words

In recent full page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, renowned author and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel argued that Jerusalem is "above politics." But the portrait of the city Wiesel painted is so factually inaccurate and so morally specious as to leave no room for doubt: Wiesel's false innocence and moral posturing over Jerusalem is an example of politics par excellence, with Wiesel willingly becoming a tool of Israel's extreme right in its desperate efforts to block Obama's peace efforts.

A review of the facts is in order.

93 percent of Israel - including most of West Jerusalem and the 35 percent of privately-owned land in East Jerusalem expropriated by Israel since 1967 - is categorized by Israel as "State Land." Only Israeli citizens and those entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return may acquire properties on this land. Palestinians of East Jerusalem, with rare exception, are in neither of these categories. So while Wiesel may purchase a home in anywhere in East or West Jerusalem, a Palestinian cannot.

Since 1967, Israel has built more than 50,000 dwellings for Israelis in East Jerusalem, but has built fewer than 600 for Palestinians (the last was built 35 years ago). And from 1967 until today, as East Jerusalem's Palestinian population increased from 70,000 to 280,000, Israel has issued only 4,000 permits for private Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem. Barred from building legally, the Palestinians built without permits - leaving them subject to Israeli demolition of their "illegal" homes.

Today extreme settler groups have launched a campaign to evict Palestinian families - refugees of Israel's War of Independence - from densely-populated Palestinian neighborhoods in the heart of East Jerusalem. They are doing so based on the "right" of Jews to recover properties lost in the 1948 war. But under Israeli law Palestinians have no such right. So while Israel insists that Palestinians renounce any "right of return" - something understood as necessary for the two-state solution - it is implementing a Jewish right of return to Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and turning 1948 refugees into 2010 refugees.

And then there is the question of Israel's respect for other religions.

In recent years the Israeli Government has transferred virtually all of the most sensitive religious, archeological and cultural sites in East Jerusalem to the de facto control of extreme settler groups. These groups are abusing archeology and public planning to highlight the Jewish past, while marginalizing the Christian, Muslim and Palestinian dimensions of the city, past and present.

Due to Israeli restrictions, today it is easier for a Palestinian Christian living just south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem to worship in Washington's National Cathedral than to pray in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Today a Muslim living in Turkey has a better chance of getting to Jerusalem to pray at the Old City's al-Aqsa mosque than a Muslim living a few miles away in Ramallah.

Before our eyes, Jerusalem is becoming the arena where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is morphing from a resolvable national conflict into a religious war - a transformation that, if it continues, poses an existential threat to Israel. And what starts in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem: conflict in Jerusalem resonates throughout the region and beyond, wind in the sails of every jihadist.

By asserting the Jewish people's exclusive "ownership" of Jerusalem, Wiesel embraces the policies that are accelerating this metamorphosis.

Wiesel ignores these facts. He ignores the fact that the policies he is defending will soon turn Jerusalem into a city so balkanized, geographically and demographically, that the two-state solution will no longer be possible. And the demise of the two-state solution portends the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, to be replaced by either an apartheid-like reality with a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority, or by a bi-national Arab-Jewish state.

Israel is at an existential crossroads with Jerusalem. Current policies cannot be justified - even by Elie Wiesel, even to Israel's staunchest allies. These policies consistently derail the resumption of negotiations towards a conflict-ending agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The cumulative impact of these policies will be the destruction of the two-state solution, the radicalization of the conflict and the de-legitimization of Israel. With these policies, Jerusalem is becoming the place where Israel slides down the slippery slope into pariah status.

By agreeing to carry the water for Israel's extreme right, Wiesel has not only undermined his own moral authority, but has done so in the service of a political agenda that is a grave threat to Israel's most vital interests. If Wiesel loves Jerusalem as much as he claims, he should indeed put Jerusalem above politics and join President Obama in his insistence that these dangerous policies cease, and support Obama's efforts to achieve a final status agreement that resolves all the issues, not the least of which being Jerusalem.

Guest poster Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.Cross-posted on Foreign Policy