Israeli military clears itself of wrongdoing over Gaza war airstrikes

The Guardian reports: The Israeli military has cleared its forces of wrongdoing in a string of deadly incidents that took place during the 2014 Gaza war – including an airstrike that killed 15 members of a single family and the bombing of a United Nations school.

Israel’s investigative process is at the heart of a Palestinian case to press for war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The Palestinians say that Israel has a poor record of prosecuting wrongdoing in its ranks.

In a statement on Wednesday, the military said it had closed a total of seven investigations without filing charges after a special team collected testimony from Gaza residents and Israeli officers. [Continue reading…]

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Israel launches up to 50 strikes on Gaza after rocket attack on Sderot

The Guardian reports: The Israeli military has launched dozens of strikes on Gaza in an unusually strong response to a rocket fired from Gaza that landed between two houses in the Israeli community of Sderot.

Responsibility for the rocket attack on Sunday was initially claimed by Ahfad al-Sahaba, one of the small Salafi groups – ultra-conservative Sunnis – that have recently become more active in Gaza, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It prompted a wave of up to 50 retaliatory attacks, according to Israeli military sources, hitting several of Gaza’s armed Palestinian factions.

A security source said raids targeted Hamas’s Izzedin Qassam Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s Quds Brigades and the PFLP. Artillery shells also hit the area of al-Bureij in central Gaza and Beit Hanoun in the north. Several Palestinians, including a 17-year-old boy, were reportedly wounded.

The raids broke the pattern of limited Israeli retaliation during periods of relative quiet, leading the Islamist group Hamas to accuse Israel of escalating tensions. According to reports, the Israeli response came in two waves, the first immediately after the rocket attack, the second during the night, involving three Israeli jets and tank fire. [Continue reading…]

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What’s really behind Israel’s attack on Christian charity World Vision?

Ali Abunimah writes: Israel grabbed global headlines on Thursday with sensational allegations that tens of millions of dollars from the Christian relief and advocacy organization World Vision had been diverted to the military wing of the resistance group Hamas in Gaza.

But a day later, the Israeli claims look more than ever like sloppy propaganda. A World Vision official says Israel’s sums don’t add up and it has also emerged that a Mossad-linked Israeli group has been stoking allegations against the charity for years.

An Israeli general has said that Israel is relying on a “confession” extracted by an intelligence agency which is notorious for using torture.

Israel has also instructed its diplomats to smear World Vision, especially among Christian communities around the world.

But if Israel’s intention was to damage international humanitarian efforts in Gaza, it can chalk up a success, at least for now. [Continue reading…]

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Turkish aid flows into besieged Gaza Strip

Al Jazeera reports: The night before Eid, Basem Abu Attia received a call from a local official with some good news: His food package was ready for pick-up.

“I was very surprised,” Abu Attia told Al Jazeera. “I wasn’t expecting anything … I had nothing to give my family, so when the aid came I was overjoyed.”

More aid from Turkey has started flowing into Gaza this week under the terms of the recent Turkey-Israel deal, after the Social Affairs Ministry spent weeks organising the material. Distribution to about 75,000 families dependent on government subsidies began on Tuesday, although delivery was previously expedited to some of the neediest families, including Abu Attia’s.

The aid package included rice, oil, olives, dates and flour – basic items that Abu Attia, who lives in the Nuseirat refugee camp, cannot afford himself. His 10 children, the youngest of whom is three, were elated, he said – “especially with the chocolates”. He hopes that later deliveries will include toys for his children.

Just a week into receiving the package, however, all that remained was a bag of rice and a can of olives.

“We need a long-term programme, and we’re hoping the Turks will help us with this,” said Talla Abu Jomaa, the Social Affairs Ministry representative in Nuseirat camp, who delivered the aid package to Abu Attia.

Uncertainty was cast over the Turkey-Israel deal after a failed coup attempt by members of the Turkish military last week. But as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged in control, Turkish officials confirmed that the agreement remains on course. [Continue reading…]

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Is another Gaza war imminent?

Shane Harris writes: Israel ended its last military operation in Gaza almost two years ago. But among some Israeli military officials, national security experts, and activists here, there is a palpable sense that another war is imminent, and that soon Hamas rockets will again be raining down on Israeli cities, prompting a crushing military response on the beleaguered, 25-mile long strip.

The signs, to hear these people tell it, are plain to see: Despite Israeli efforts to increase the flow of goods in and out of Gaza, its economic health remains desperate. Hamas militants also may be under pressure to move now to strike Israeli neighborhoods along the Gaza border before a network of tunnels that gave them free entry into Israel is sealed up. Recent Israeli intelligence suggests that Hamas fighters have closely studied Israeli tactics from the last war, possibly in preparation for another conflict. And Israel’s new defense minister, sworn in this week, has threatened to assassinate the leader of Hamas, in turn prompting him to dare Israel to enter Gaza again.

“The feeling is now we’re on a countdown. There’s going to be another war,” said Sharon Stav, with the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev, an activist group whose members live in neighborhoods along the Gaza border and have been pressuring the Israeli government to find some diplomatic or humanitarian solution to the conflict with Hamas — anything short of another war. Stav and a colleague met with a delegation of U.S. and European visitors, which I joined, in the town of Netiv HaAsara, which came under daily rocket fire during the 2014 Gaza operations. The house where we met sits just feet from a guarded security barrier — a combination of concrete barricades and barbed wire fences — that seals Gaza off from Israel, at least above ground. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli convicted of Palestinian murder that helped trigger 2014 war

AFP reports: The Israeli ringleader in the beating and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager in 2014 has been convicted of his murder.

Yosef Haim Ben David, 31, was found in November to have led the assault, but a verdict was delayed after his lawyers submitted last-minute documents saying he suffered from mental illness.

The court ruling on Tuesday said that Ben David “was not psychotic, fully understood the facts, was responsible for his actions, had no difficulty in understanding reality and had the capacity to prevent the crime”.

A sentencing hearing has been set for 3 May.

The family of the teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, welcomed the decision but said they hoped judges followed through with a life sentence for Ben David.

At the hearing Mohammed’s mother wore a heart-shaped pendant containing an image of her son wearing a baseball cap, and his father said the decision “should have been made a long time ago”.

“We knew that he wasn’t mad,” Hussein Abu Khdeir told Agence France-Presse. “It was all a big lie to get off from the crime which he carried out. Even if they sentence him for life, this will never bring Mohammed back again. Our hearts are wounded from what happened.”

In February, a court sentenced Ben David’s two young Israeli accomplices to life and 21 years in prison for the killing, which was part of a spiral of violence in the run-up to the 2014 Gaza war. [Continue reading…]

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The Syrian refugees of Gaza

Creede Newton reports: On a bustling Gaza street lined with restaurants, juice vendors and shawarma stands, one facade immediately catches the eye: A large, modernist black cube sits atop the entrance to Syriana – Arabic for ‘our Syria’.

“The rest should be here soon,” says Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo, the visibly tired chef and proprietor of the restaurant, as he sits down for his first break of the day. It is early afternoon and he has been here since early morning.

The 35-year-old Syrian left Aleppo in 2012 when the bombs of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces began falling onto the city in an attempt to stamp out the then-nascent armed resistance to his rule.

He travelled to Turkey and then to Egypt, enduring a 44-hour voyage across the Mediterranean Sea. As a seasoned chef with his own restaurant in Aleppo and a degree in mechanical engineering, Hamdeo felt confident that he would find work in Egypt.

He did. It was mostly informal employment – cooking and decorating hotels. But after two months, a Syrian who had eaten in his restaurant back in Aleppo offered him work as a chef in Cairo. A second opportunity came along to open a restaurant in Poland. Both options were tempting, but as he pondered over each one, a third emerged: a job in Gaza.

He immediately and resolutely refused. But when a Palestinian acquaintance urged him to visit, he tentatively obliged. Hamdeo fell in love with the seaside enclave. “It reminded me of Syria,” he says.

Now, three years after he first travelled through the dark, damp tunnels connecting Egypt and Gaza, which are constantly at risk of collapse or flooding by the Egyptian military, his life has changed considerably: He has survived Israel’s 2014 attack on the Gaza Strip, found love with a Palestinian journalist who had interviewed him shortly after his arrival, and successfully opened his own restaurant.

In spite of this, Hamdeo feels he has to leave, and it is now or never. He reads the news and hears that relations between Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and Egypt are deteriorating; he sees growing tensions with Israel and believes further trouble is looming. He is, simply, tired of war. [Continue reading…]

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Israel feels the heat of U.S., EU and U.N. criticism

Reuters reports: The United States, European Union and the United Nations have issued unusually stern criticism of Israel, provoking a sharp response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and raising Palestinians’ hopes of steps against their neighbor.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday described Israel’s settlements as “provocative acts” that raised questions about its commitment to a two-state solution, nearly 50 years after occupying lands the Palestinians seek for a state.

Ban also laid some of the blame for four months of stabbings and car rammings by Palestinians at Israel’s door, saying “as oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism”.

Netanyahu’s response was quick and furious. Ban’s remarks “give a tailwind to terrorism”, he said, and ignore the fact “Palestinian murderers do not want to build a state”. [Continue reading…]

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Israel spraying toxins over Palestinian crops in Gaza

Al Jazeera reports: On January 7, a low-flying agricultural aircraft sprayed herbicides on to Palestinian farmlands along the eastern border, eradicating or damaging up to 162 hectares of crops and farmland along the Israeli border fence.

“Herbicides are sprayed in high concentrations. Thus, they remain embedded in the soil, and then find their way to the water basin. This constitutes a real hazard for the population,” said Anwar Abu Assi, manager of the chemical laboratory at the Ministry of Agriculture.

The sprayed areas belong to Israel’s unilaterally imposed and poorly delineated “buffer” or “no-go zone”.

The zone, which amounts to an estimated 17 percent of the entire territory of the Gaza Strip and a third of its agricultural lands, erodes into the Strip’s most vital and fertile soils. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS in Gaza

Sarah Helm writes: In a house in Rafah, at the southern edge of Gaza, I met Sheikh Omar Hams, fifty-one years old, a slender figure dressed in a simple white robe and seated on a mattress on the floor. Hams is director of the Ibn Baz Islamic Institute, based in Rafah, where it also runs a bakery and charity outlets. His mission, he says, is to spread the word of the Prophet Muhammad and to give bread and other aid to the homeless and the poor.

Hams is a Salafist sheikh. “A Salaf means an original ancestor—one of those who lived close to the Prophet and observed his actions intimately, followed his ways and his words literally,” he explains. The sheikh teaches his students how to return to those ways, and they in turn spread the word. Unlike many Salafis, who abhor any rational argument about the literal meaning of the Koran, Hams is open to at least some debate. And though sometimes willing to support violent jihad, he accepts that violence is often not justified, preferring instead to secure a return to original Islam through the use of prayer, study, and preaching.

Pulling his legs underneath him, the sheikh prepares for questions on how the Prophet might have viewed the methods of Daesh (ISIS) — also Salafists — and on the battle to contain its influence across the world, most particularly here in Gaza.

Since 2007 Hamas has been the de facto government of Gaza, albeit under Israeli rule — a rule implemented nowadays by means of a military and naval blockade by air, land, and sea, which is described by the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, as “a collective penalty against the people of Gaza.” Hamas is itself an Islamist resistance movement, with a resistance “army” called al-Qassam, but Hamas members are seen as infidels by ISIS since they place the nationalist battle for a Palestinian state before the campaign for a caliphate. Hamas’s willingness to negotiate with Israel and to agree to a cease-fire last summer was seen by ISIS as the latest demonstration of its collaboration. ISIS supporters inside Gaza have shown their opposition and tried to break the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel, thereby angering Hamas and risking heavy Israeli retaliation. [Continue reading…]

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Gaza journalist says he was tortured in Hamas jail

The Associated Press reports: Palestinian journalist Ayman al-Aloul frequently writes about the hardships of life in the Gaza Strip, and is one of the few voices willing to publicly criticize the rule of the Islamic Hamas movement.

But after nine days in jail, al-Aloul says he won’t be writing about politics anymore. He said a painful experience that included beatings and being forced to sit uncomfortably in a tiny chair has made him a “new man” and that he will now focus on less controversial topics like sports, food, literature and fashion.

“I’ve decided not to talk about the general situation anymore,” al-Aloul said in an interview at his home Tuesday, a day after he was released. “The experience I went through was very difficult.”

Al-Aloul’s experience is part of a crackdown by Hamas at a time when the continuing miseries of life in Gaza appear to be driving its population toward more open dissent. Critics have grown bolder on social media sites, and attempts by Hamas to impose new taxes have triggered rare public protests. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey sees no normalization of Israel ties without end to Gaza blockade

Reuters reports: Turkey sees no normalization in ties with Israel unless its conditions for ending the Gaza blockade and compensation for the deaths of 10 Turkish activists in 2010 are met, a presidential spokesman said on Monday.

Relations between Turkey and Israel soured when the activists were killed in a raid by Israeli commandos on a Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, which was trying to breach the blockade.

Expectations of a breakthrough were intensified after senior officials met this month to try to repair ties. The talks have raised hopes of progress in negotiations to import Israeli natural gas, particularly since Turkey’s relationship with major energy producer Russia has worsened over Syria.

But comments from Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin suggest Turkey may be trying to play tough in the negotiations. [Continue reading…]

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Egyptian border guards gun down unarmed Palestinian man trying to escape from Gaza

The New York Times reports: Something drove Ishaq Khalil Hassan, 28, into the Mediterranean last week, to walk naked in the shallow surf, to attempt what has become all but impossible for Palestinians: an escape from the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian officials insisted that Mr. Hassan, who tried to wade across the border into Egypt on Thursday, was mentally ill. His family said he was sane, but desperate — he had been trying all year, unsuccessfully, to legally enter Egypt for medical treatment for an old injury.

“Ishaq thought that Egyptians will be like Europeans, who deal with Syrians and welcome them,” said his brother, Ibrahim Hassan.

But as soon as Mr. Hassan crossed the frontier, Egyptian border guards opened fire, spraying the sea with bullets while ignoring a Palestinian guard who whistled and frantically gestured with his hands that Mr. Hassan had mental problems. A video that captured the shooting made at least one thing clear: Mr. Hassan appeared to pose no immediate threat to anyone. [Continue reading…]

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