Thursday, January 24, 2008
By SARAH EL DEEB and OMAR SINAN – 1 hour ago
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Egyptian border guards took measures to control huge crowds of Palestinians streaming from Gaza to Egypt across a breached border for a second day Thursday, but they did not try to halt the flow.
On Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen used land mines to blast down the border partition so Gazans could escape an Israeli closure imposed last week that was making food, fuel and other goods scarce. Tens of thousands of Gazans have rushed into Egypt without any border controls.
On the frontier, guards were patrolling access roads while helmeted police with sniffer dogs used batons to beat the hoods of private cars and pickup trucks that massed at the border, trying to stop them from carrying Palestinians further into Egyptian territory.
Egyptian officials said the border would eventually "return to normal."
In the past two days, Gazans stocked up on supplies in Egypt, including cement, fuel, cigarettes and other staples.
In response to continuing Palestinian rocket attacks, Israel stopped emergency shipments of industrial diesel fuel, arguing that Gazans could now get those supplies from Egypt. However, Palestinian officials said Gaza's power plant would shut down Sunday for the second time in a week if fuel shipments do not resume.
The border breach effectively ended Israel's tight blockade of Gaza imposed in response to a spike in the attacks on Israeli border towns.
Some Palestinian travelers in the Egyptian town of El Arish, about 15 miles from the border, said they were told by local police they should start making their way back if they had no urgent business in the city, signaling that authorities were trying to start resealing of the border.
Gazans had hoped the temporary border opening would become permanent. Both Egypt and Israel had restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006, and further tightened the closure after Hamas seized control of the area from moderates by force.
"The Egyptians started doing good deeds by letting us in. For God's sake, why don't they keep allowing us to pass through?" said Mohammed Abu Amra, a Palestinian walking across the border on crutches. "Everyone is rushing into Egypt before they seal it off."
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, meanwhile, caused a stir when he said Israel gradually wants to relinquish responsibility for Gaza now that a border fence with Egypt has been blown open.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel struck a similar tone, saying that once Gazans are getting supplies from elsewhere, there is less need for Israel to provide for them.
Privately, Israeli officials said the border breach could pave the way for increasingly disconnecting from the territory.
However, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking to The Associated Press on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, did not echo Vilnai's remarks.
"I don't go too far in my interpretation of this," Barak said.
Egypt angrily rejected the Israeli ideas, and said it would not change border arrangements.
"The border will go back as normal," said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, adding that Egypt had not been approached by Israel about a possible change in the status of Gaza.
Egypt has not yet indicated how it plans to reseal the border, but it would not be that difficult for it to rebuild some type of physical barrier fairly quickly. Egypt is highly unlikely to leave the border town of Rafah united, instead probably aiming to re-create some type of partition in roughly the same position as the old one.
For now, it appeared Egypt was moving slowly, putting its forces in the area as a first step toward later pushing Gazans back and then re-erecting a barrier.
In a previous major breach, after the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005, Egypt closed the border after four days and issued a deadline for Gazans to return home. Troops searched for, detained and fined stragglers who were then sent to their side of the border. Egypt also lined up armored personnel carriers and riot police as a makeshift border barrier, and eventually rebuilt a small border fence.
The border breach has boosted the popularity of Gaza's Hamas rulers, who in recent months had struggled to govern because of border closures.
The sanctions have led to severe shortages of cement, cigarettes and other basic goods, deepened poverty and drove up unemployment.
Hamas has used the breach — carefully planned with militants weakening the metal wall with blow torches about a month ago — to push its demand for reopening the border passages, this time with Hamas involvement. Such an arrangement would in effect end the international sanctions that have isolated the Islamic militants.
Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu suggested Thursday that Hamas would seek a future role on the Gaza-Egypt border.
"An open border like this has no logic," he said. "We are studying the mechanism of having an official crossing point."
However, it was not clear whether Egypt will acquiesce. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been under intense public pressure at home in recent days to alleviate the suffering of Gazans under blockade. However, Egypt would likely be reluctant to have an open border with a territory ruled by Islamic militants.
In Tel Aviv, visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said that while Hamas itself was to blame for the shortages in the Gaza Strip, it was Egypt's responsibility to restore order at its border.
"Obviously it is going to be up to the Egyptian government to bring under control the situation along the border," he said at the start of a meeting with Israeli Cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz.
Cargo shipments across the border picked up. Trucks and donkey carts pulled up to the Egyptian side, the goods were unloaded and carried across to the Gazan side where they were put in waiting trucks.
Gaza businessman Abu Omar Shurafa received a shipment of 100 tons of cement, seizing an opportunity to stock up before the border closes again.
"Everyone is exerting all efforts to stock the reserves for six to seven months. We have to find a way to continue living," he said.
Still, he was also hopeful that this could be the beginning of a new arrangement. "A solution has to be like this," he said, referring to the flow of goods from Egypt.
Some Gazans just wanted to get out, even for a few hours.
"We just want freedom," said Adel Tildani, who was bringing his mother-in-law from Egypt into Gaza to meet grandchildren she had never seen before. "I don't need to buy anything. Freedom is more important."
AP reporters Omar Sinan, Salah Nasrawi and Dan Perry contributed to this report from Rafah, Egypt, Cairo and Davos, Switzerland, respectively.
By DAN PERRY and BRADLEY S. KLAPPER – 2 hours ago
DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — Israel's defense minister said Thursday his government has not ruled out a large-scale military operation to counter continuing rocket attacks from Gaza. He added that Israel would not rush "to reconquer" the teeming, impoverished seaside strip.
"Probably we will find ourselves there," Ehud Barak said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We are not rushing to reconquer Gaza, but we will not remove any option from the table when it comes to the security of our citizens."
Barak, who holds the key to Israel's tenuous coalition government, also hinted that he would not step down — as promised to his Labor party's voters in last year's leadership primary — even if next week's much-anticipated report into the conduct of the 2006 Lebanon war is damning. Barak became defense minister after the war.
He said "accountability" on his part must be weighed against political stability at a critical time for Israel's security, and the quiet but possibly critical peace talks with the Palestinians. "How exactly to balance between those two elements, that's what I will have to bear in mind when making my decision," he said.
Barak was interviewed at the World Economic Forum at Davos, which he attended as part of a high-level delegation that included Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres — all former or aspiring prime ministers.
Notably absent from the Alpine gathering of political and business leaders was the current holder of the post, Ehud Olmert — who awaits an inquiry commission's report next week on his handling of the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah, a campaign widely judged as a costly misadventure.
The big question in Israel — and for Barak as well as Olmert — is whether the report will blame the prime minister directly and harshly. That would spark calls for Olmert to resign and for Barak to do the same if his senior coalition partner instead tries to hang on.
A world away from the idealism and buzz of Davos, tumult reined in the Middle East as Palestinians this week breached their border with Egypt and streamed into the neighboring country by the thousands. Israeli sanctions imposed on the strip in an attempt to force the end of the rocket attacks have led to severe shortages there.
Barak refused to echo a statement by his deputy, who was quoted as saying Thursday that the border breach meant Israel could now relinquish all responsibility for the strip, including the supply of electricity and water.
Israel pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but the strip is sealed off from the world and still dependent on the Jewish state.
In comments confirmed by his office, deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai said that "when Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it."
"I don't go too far in my interpretation of this," Barak gruffly offered.
Complicating the picture are ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians that began after the U.S.-sponsored November peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
President Bush has expressed optimism that a deal can be reached by the end of the year, and low-key but high-level talks between Israelis and Palestinians grind on behind a certain cloak of mystery.
"I hope that he's right and we clearly will do all possible efforts to make it happen," Barak said, but he added: "Having some experience in the Middle East ... I cannot tell you for sure there will be a peace agreement in 2008."
Most Israelis and Palestinians probably share that skepticism, given the weakness of both Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who last year lost control of the Gaza Strip — where about a third of his people live — to the militant group Hamas.
Barak, who led Israel from 1999 to 2001, was voted out when peace talks collapsed amid the outburst of a new Palestinian uprising that lasted some four years and in some ways continues. Given his clear interest in returning to his old job, the former military chief was careful in his responses, mindful of the political storm that may be coming and could either propel him back to the top or sink his aspirations.
He said 80 percent of Israelis now agreed with the idea of a Palestinian state and a withdrawal from the Palestinian-populated lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
But are they ready to pay the price? Will Olmert's government offer at least what Barak himself did, as prime minister, some seven years ago — a near total-pullout and a division of sorts of the holy city of Jerusalem?
"Not these terms necessarily to the last detail," Barak said. The key, he said, was that "most Israelis now understand that two states for two nations is a compelling imperative."
"If there is no two-state solution, if there is only one entity called Israel reigning over the whole area, it will become inevitably either non-Jewish or non-democratic."
1/24/2008 6:08:52 AM Israel has said that the blockade imposed on the coastal Gaza Strip will continue Thursday but it will allow the passage of diesel fuel for the Gaza power station, petrol for ambulances, cooking gas and other humanitarian supplies need by the beleaguered Gazans.
The decision was taken at a situation assessment meeting conducted by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i on Wednesday night.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
22 Jan 2008 17:59:33 GMT
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
A Palestinian man joins international activists in a candlelight vigil
Palestinian medics carry a woman who fainted at the Rafah crossing point
A truck carrying fuel arrives at the main power plant in Gaza City
13 hours ago
GAZA CITY (AFP) — The lights went back on in parts of Gaza City Tuesday as Israel eased a blockade and allowed some fuel in to the impoverished Hamas-run territory, as the UN Security Council considered calls for a complete end to the lockdown.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas called on the Jewish state to lift the lockdown, now in its fifth day, amid mounting international fears of a humanitarian crisis in a territory where most people depend on foreign aid.
The United States, while also expressing concern about the impact of the blockade on the people, said Israel was defending itself against rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.
At least five people were wounded when a protest turned violent at the Rafah crossing into Egypt -- Gaza's sole crossing bypassing Israel -- with an exchange of gunfire between the Palestinian protesters and Egyptian security forces.
Trucks carrying cooking gas, industrial diesel and fuel oil entered Gaza early Tuesday for the first time since Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the strip sealed off late Thursday in response to persistent rocket fire.
Hours later the territory's sole power plant went back online and electricity returned to blocks in Gaza City that had been without power since the plant shut down on Sunday.
Several trucks carrying food also entered the territory, aid officials said, and others with medicine and humanitarian aid are expected in on Wednesday.
Israel warned that Tuesday's fuel deliveries were a "one-off shipment" that would be reassessed based on rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.
"We want to send a clear message to Hamas but at the same time, we do not wish to get into clashes with the international community," foreign ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said.
The blockade had sparked an international outcry on Monday, with the European Union accusing Israel of a collective punishment of Gaza's 1.5-million civilian population.
On Tuesday, international aid agencies warned that Gaza was at risk of a "total collapse" of its infrastructure if Israeli blockade measures continued.
"The blockade measures have an enormous human cost and we have asked Israel to immediately lift all retaliatory measures," Dorothea Krimitsas, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in Geneva.
And in New York, the Security Council met in emergency session to consider the matter.
Its ambassadors were discussing a draft submitted by Libya, the council chair this month, that would call on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and ensure "unhindered access for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people," according to a copy of the text obtained by AFP.
The statement would also urge Israel "to abide by its obligation under international law, including humanitarian and human rights law, and immediately to cease all its illegal measures and practices against the Palestinian civilian population in the Gaza Strip."
Western diplomats said they would push for language that would also call for an end to rocket firing into Israel.
Israel's main ally Washington on Tuesday reiterated that Hamas bore responsibility for the lockdown because of the continuing rocket fire, but said it had warned Israel about not allowing a humanitarian crisis to develop.
"Ultimately, Hamas is to blame for this circumstance because if they were more responsible toward the international community, then Gaza would be connected to the outside world rather than cut off," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
"But that said, nobody wants innocent Gazans to suffer so we have spoken to the Israelis about the importance of not allowing a humanitarian crisis to unfold there," she said.
White House spokeswoman Daana Perino added that "the Palestinians are clearly seeing there is a choice that they can make, which is to live under the near-humanitarian crisis that they have in Gaza, or the possibility of a Palestinian state."
Abbas called on Israel to fully lift the lockdown of the territory from which his forces were ousted by Hamas in June.
"This is insufficient and we will continue our efforts to get a total lifting of the blockade," Abbas told reporters.
In London, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad described the situation in Gaza as intolerable but said it would not stop the renewed peace process revived in late November under US stewardship.
"Life has become completely unbearable; that should not be allowed to continue," Fayyad said. "Negotiations clearly can proceed even under the very difficult situation that we have right now."
At the Rafah crossing, four Palestinians and an Egyptian policeman were wounded after gunfire erupted as security forces tried to prevent the demonstrators from breaking through to the Egyptian side.
Militants fired 17 rockets at Israel early on Tuesday, and five hit Israeli territory without causing casualties, the army said. The number of rockets fired from Gaza has fallen markedly in recent days.
Over the past week, Israeli strikes against militants in Gaza killed 38 people, most of them gunmen, while militants fired more than 200 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel, lightly wounding at least 10 people.