U.S. accuses Israel of targeting relatives of kidnapped and murdered Palestinian 16-year-old
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, August 21, 2014 5:26 EDT
The United States on Wednesday charged Israel had targeted members of a Palestinian family whose teenaged son was kidnapped and killed in July along with two cousins, who are US citizens.
Tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in annexed east Jerusalem plunged to a new low on July 2 when 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khder was snatched from an east Jerusalem street and later found burned alive.
Israeli police arrested six alleged Jewish extremists as suspects and on July 17 charged three, freeing the others.
The death of the Palestinian teen — thought likely in retaliation for the abduction and killing of three Israeli Students in late June — sparked rioting and helped unleash the conflict under way in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.
Three days after his death, on July 5, the United States slammed Israel’s arrest of a 15-year-old cousin, Tarek Abu Khder, 15, a US citizen. He was beaten in detention and has since been freed and returned to Florida.
On July 28, another cousin of Abu Khder, also American, was arrested in Israel as well, the State Department said Wednesday.
Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf identified him as “Mohammed Abou Khdeir,” which would mean his name is the same as his murdered cousin’s.
“We can confirm that Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a US citizen, was arrested on July 28. The US consulate general in Jerusalem is providing consular assistance. A consular official visited him on August 14th. The consulate is also in contact with Mr. Khdeir’s family and his lawyer,” Harf said.
Yet “we are concerned that the US consulate general in Jerusalem was not notified of his arrest by the government of Israel.
And “we are also concerned about the fact that members of the Khdeir family appeared to be singled out for arrest by the Israeli authorities,” Harf added.
08/21/2014 10:02 AM
The Unprotected: A Gaza Family Destroyed by Israeli Bombs
By Julia Amalia Heyer and Juliane von Mittelstaedt
For an entire week, eight people -- women, children and an elderly man -- were trapped in their house in Gaza. They couldn't leave and nobody could help. An hour before the cease-fire, the family was wiped out by Israeli bombs.
Zaki Wahdan is looking for a head. Or a body. The remains of eight people that have to be here. The two small brothers, the grandparents, the mother, the two sisters and the little niece. So far he has found only 13 legs, with small and large feet. But how can he identify them with these feet, blackened as they are with dirt and blood?
He is standing on the rubble of his parents' house and walks around the perimeter of what was once the living room. They have to be here beneath him, underneath shredded mattresses, clothing, a child's bicycle and tons of concrete. They are so close, yet Zaki can't get to them. Had he not been detained by the Israeli military, he too would have ended up in this concrete tomb.
Zaki and his older brothers come to this mountain of concrete and rubble every day. According to Islamic tradition, the bodies must be buried as quickly as possible. But now they've been here almost two weeks; the site smells of death and there are flies buzzing around. Zaki walks across the rubble and doesn't know what to do. With a broad, good-natured face, he seems like an overgrown child. At 19, he is now the youngest son once again. But what does it mean to be a son when you no longer have any parents or grandparents?
Zaki pulls on iron bars and shakes chunks of concrete. Should he dig with his hands? A hopeless prospect. They really need a backhoe, but they are all being used elsewhere. Entire blocks have disappeared in Beit Hanoun, in the far northeastern corner of the Gaza Strip. Everything was leveled where the Wahdan family lived. The extended family owned 14 buildings, with 200 people living in them four weeks ago. Now there is nothing left but a single pile of rubble. Behind it is wasteland and the border with Israel is only a kilometer away. Beit Hanoun juts into Israel like a finger, and the Al-Burrah neighborhood, where the Wahdan family lived, is the fingertip.
Beit Hanoun's 50,000 residents have long been accustomed to Israeli tanks driving through their town. But now it has become one of the worst battlefields of this war. Some 91 people have died here, including 23 children and 22 women. And eight members of the Wahdan family.
According to the United Nations, 85 percent of the dead in the Gaza Strip are civilians, while Israel puts the number at no more than 60 percent. But what do such numbers really tell us?
The case of the Wahdan family is only a footnote in this war, in which more than 2,000 people have died. But it also exemplifies how innocent civilians became victims of the conflict. The fate of the Wahdan family helps provide answers to the question many are talking about, over whether this war was commensurate.
SPIEGEL spoke with family members, with the family's friends and neighbors, with Palestinian human rights activists and with a colonel in the Israeli army. They all confirmed many details; only the army was unwilling to comment specifically on the case. Based on these statements, and with the help of chat histories, it is possible to reconstruct the last days of the eight people who died in Beit Hanoun.
The resulting image reveals that the Israeli army -- apparently knowingly -- accepted that the Wahdan family would die in this war. The family's house was bombed, even though the Israeli military must have known that an old man, three children and four women were inside. They died because they were unable to flee -- because they were prisoners in their own home.
Mistakes happen in war, and civilian deaths are often unintentional. Perhaps someone made a mistake when he dropped the bomb. But can eight deaths simply be nothing but a mistake? At what point do such incidents become acts of negligence? And when do they become war crimes?
July 8 -- THE WAR BEGINS
Most members of the Wahdan family left their houses before the operation, known in Israel as "Protective Edge," began. The situation had become turbulent, and the army was firing from the border. But Zaki's grandparents, like many Palestinians, were unwilling to leave the home where they had lived for decades. It was their most important asset, a white, three-story dwelling with plenty of room for an extended family. Behind it was a garden with olive trees and beehives.
Besides, nothing had ever happened before; the Wahdans had remained in their house during the two previous wars in Gaza. They felt safe, precisely because they were so close to the border. They were constantly under observation from the Israeli side, and drones circled in the air above them. No missiles were being fired from the Al-Burrah neighborhood where they lived. The Wahdans believed that the soldiers knew that they were peaceful people, that they were more interested in their orange trees than politics, and that they were beekeepers and construction workers, most of them unemployed. They were a family of men for whom even the small Gaza Strip was too big, which is why they rarely left Beit Hanoun.
But everything changed when the war began on July 8. On the first day, Hamas fired at least 158 rockets at Israel, and the Israelis attacked 223 targets in Gaza. Bombs were falling on Beit Hanoun every day and the neighborhood was also under artillery fire. The Wahdan family members who had stayed realized that it was now too dangerous to leave the house. Besides, they had nowhere else to go. All of Gaza was being bombed, and no place was safe.
There were 15 people in the house at the time: grandfather Zaki and his wife Suad, both in their mid-60s; father Hatim, 51, mother Bagdat, 50, and six of their sons: the two youngest children, Hussein, 10, and Ahmed, 14, as well as Zaki, 19, Mohammed, 20, Bahjat, 29, Rami, 30. And the daughter Sumoud, 22 with her one-and-a-half-year-old Ghina. Two of the father's brothers were also there.
The last family member to enter the house was Zaki's sister Zeinab, 27. She worked as a medical technologist at the nearby hospital in Beit Hanoun, where she had spent three days caring for the wounded and testing blood samples. Now she had come home to shower and get some rest. As one of the few family members with a steady income, Zeinab was paying for her father's cancer drugs. She dreamed of leaving Gaza and going to Egypt to earn a master's degree. She loved Arab pop music and Turkish TV series. She also loved her brother Zaki, who lived at home, occasionally working in construction and sometimes receiving money from their father.
Zaki and Zeinab, the two siblings, were similar -- both unmarried, happy and with a zest for life. They had grown up in Gaza and lived through two wars, and yet nothing had prepared them for what happened next.
July 17-- THE GROUND OFFENSIVE
On the evening of July 17, Zaki and his brother Ahmed were watching Al Aqsa TV, the Hamas station. Although the brothers were not Hamas followers, Al Aqsa was the only station that aired 24-hour reports on the fighting, funerals and destroyed buildings. Little Ahmed, as his brother would later remember, said: At some point, you'll be pulling me out of the rubble. And then he started crying. Soon afterwards, Israel announced that the ground offensive had begun. A Hamas spokesman went on Al Aqsa TV to declare that the soldiers would not set foot in Gaza.
The tanks rolled toward Al-Burrah the next evening, where the army suspected there were tunnels leading underneath the border. The soldiers had dropped flyers in advance and now they were using loudspeakers to order residents to leave. People quickly ran away, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But the fighting had already begun around the Wahdans' house. It was too late. They had missed their last chance to flee.
The family called the International Committee of the Red Cross, says Zaki. The Red Cross, they knew, could help coordinate their evacuation with the Israeli army. The family was unaware that their neighborhood was now in a closed military zone. Dozens of Hamas fighters would be killed there in the next few days, as would three Israeli soldiers. This likely explains why the Wahdans could not be evacuated, surviving family members believe. The Red Cross has a policy of not commenting on individual cases.
At 10:34 p.m., Zeinab Wahdan, the eldest daughter, received the following text message from her best friend, Doha Atala, 26: Are you okay? Where are you now?
Zeinab replied: I'm in the shit. They've come in now.
Doha: Why didn't you leave the house? Is it true that tanks are shooting nearby? Zeinab responded immediately. It would be her last response for the next six days: Yes, it's close. We didn't leave the house. How could we? They're bombing like crazy. I've had enough. They should stop. How are you?
'Must We Begin to Pray?'
Doha wrote: We're in better shape. I heard that all of Beit Hanoun has taken refuge in the schools.
In that same night, just before dawn, Israeli soldiers blew a hole into the garden wall and then broke down the front door. They shouted in Arabic: Everyone come here! Anyone hiding in the house will be shot!
When questioned by SPIEGEL, the Israeli army colonel in command at Beit Hanoun confirmed that the soldiers had taken control of buildings in various neighborhoods. "From the moment we entered Al-Burrah, we also went into houses." The soldiers used the houses as their base, often staying there for several days. According to the Israeli colonel, they are not supposed to occupy houses with civilians in them, especially for longer periods of time. "But it can happen," he added.
Two weeks later, 19-year-old Zaki recounted what happened in the house on that first day. His brothers corrected him, sometimes adding details to his story.
The soldiers grabbed the grandfather and used him as a human shield, pushing him from room to room, resting their M-16 assault rifles on his shoulder as they searched for fighters and weapons. They found nothing, Zaki and his brothers say. The men in the family were searched, bound and blindfolded and their mobile phones were confiscated. Only Zeinab, the sister, managed to hide her phone, which would be the family's only connection to the outside world over the next six days. The Wahdans were now prisoners in their own home, and there was shooting all around them.
According to Zaki, the family was ordered to remain in the entrance hall, where there was nothing but an old carpet on the floor. Verse 255 from the second Sura of the Koran, meant to protect the house and its occupants, was hanging on the wall. The soldiers slept on mattresses in the living room, their M-16s by their sides. Snipers were positioned on the roof. The men smashed windows and doors and broke holes through the walls so that they could move from one house to the next.
On that same afternoon, all the adult men except the grandfather were taken to Israel for interrogation. According to Zaki, the seven blindfolded men were loaded into an armored vehicle at 2 p.m. They were taken to the prison in Ashkelon, 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of Gaza. The Israeli army confirms that dozens of men from Al-Burrah were questioned in Israel, but it is unwilling to comment on individual cases.
The others remained behind. Zaki and Zeinab had now been separated. They didn't know they would never see each other again.
Zeinab wrote on her Facebook page: God have mercy!
July 20 -- IMPRISONMENT
Zaki was questioned for eight hours in Ashkelon. Was he a member of Hamas? Did he know where the tunnels were? The Israeli who interrogated him called himself Abu Daoud. He spoke Arabic, knew a lot about Islam and treated Zaki well, although the handcuffs were painful. The prisoners were given sandwiches and water. On the third day, having found nothing incriminating, the soldiers sent the Wahdans back to Gaza. Zaki, his brother, his father and his uncles returned to Gaza through the Erez border crossing. They wanted to return to their home, but Palestinians they met in Erez said: Are you crazy? No one reaches Beit Hanoun alive.
They went to stay with relatives in Gaza City instead. Zaki tried to reach his sister Zeinab, who had stayed in the house, but she had switched off her mobile phone. When she contacted her brother the next day, she said that the soldiers were still there, and that the family members had nothing left to drink because their water tank had been destroyed.
Zeinab called whenever she could, from the bathroom, or when she was cooking, which the soldiers only allowed in the first few days. She was afraid that they would confiscate her mobile phone, or that the battery would die, since the electricity had gone out. She kept their conversations to less than a minute, and then she would immediately switch off the phone.
On July 24, 16 people died when the army fired mortar shells at the United Nations school in Beit Hanoun. Tanks advanced into the center of the town, where soldiers searched the town hall, destroyed computers, ripped out the hard drives and took them along.
What happened in the Wahdan house during those days can only be reconstructed through Zeinab's calls and her posts on Facebook.
On the day the UN school was hit, Zeinab wrote on Facebook: We have been locked in with the Israeli army for the last five days. Pray to God that it will end soon.
Her friend Doha asked: Why didn't you leave, like everyone else?
Zeinab replied: We couldn't leave. We are the only ones here.
Doha wrote: Don't let them see they you have a mobile phone. Take care of yourself, and try to reach the Red Cross.
Zeinab was distraught, says Zaki. Her voice sounded weaker each time he spoke with her. Once, she said to him: "We are waiting until it's our turn to die."
At 1:46 p.m., Doha wrote: Zeinab, where are you? Everyone is looking for you! I'm worried. Please turn on your phone!
'No One Is Helping Us'
A little over an hour later, Zeinab replied: We're locked in. It's terrible. I can't leave the phone on. I can't have the phone with me anymore.
Doha replied: Be careful and watch yourself! Don't be afraid!
At 4:32 the next day, Doha wrote: Zeinab, where are you?
Her friend replied an hour-and-a-half later: Don't worry, I'm still alive. We have now been locked in for a week. It's exasperating. Not even the Red Cross is helping us.
Doha asked: Do you have food and something to drink? I'm so worried.
Zeinab replied: No water, no electricity. No one is helping us.
The soldiers left the house on the morning of the sixth day, July 25. Soon afterwards, the grandfather called the mayor of Beit Hanoun, Mohammed Nasiq al-Kafarna. He is a professor of Arabic and a member of Hamas, but he is popular, even among those who oppose the Islamists. Kafarna remembers that the grandfather said to him: "Please get us out of here. We are desperate." The mayor promised to help, but he also said that coordinating with the Israeli army could take some time. His assistant called the UN office in Gaza, which promised to contact the Israelis, he says. In the end, says Kafarna, the UN worker promised that they would evacuate the Wahdans by the breaking of the fast that evening. The UN is not commenting on the case. It had thousands of similar inquiries within just a few days.
But nothing happened. When the time to break the fast began, Zaki's mother called the mayor from the house and asked: "Must we abandon all hope and begin to pray?"
At 7 p.m., Zeinab called her eldest brother Rami for the last time. He remembers that she told him that the soldiers had instructed the family to remain in the house, and had assured them they would be safe there. But then, says the brother, Zeinab added: It's even more dangerous, now that the soldiers are gone. This is the brothers' account. There is no one left who was witness to his words.
July 26 -- THE BOMBARDMENT
A 12-hour cease-fire was to begin the next morning at 8 a.m. The brothers say that they started for the house early in the morning and that they called Zeinab for the last time at shortly after 7 a.m. to say that they were on their way.
When they got to Al-Burrah, it was very quiet and they were the only ones there. There was a burnt smell in the air and dust was settling. When they reached the spot where the house had been, there was nothing left.
But where were the eight people who had been inside?
They had hoped that the soldiers had taken Zeinab and the others to Israel with them, says Zaki. They knew that it was a naïve hope, and yet it was the only one they had. The soldiers couldn't possibly have left them in the house, they thought.
That was when they found the feet.
It wasn't until later that they saw what had happened in the one hour between 7 and 8 a.m. During the war, Beit Hanoun was filmed more than any other place with many broadcasters having set up their cameras on a hill near Sderot, a town on the Israeli side of the border. From there, the Wahdans' houses could easily be made out two kilometers away. The Al-Arabiya network also had a camera set up on the hill that morning.
The brothers keep playing one of Al-Arabiya's videos on their mobile phone as they tell the story. There is a time stamp in the upper corner of the video. The first aerial attack on the Wahdan houses began at 7:02 a.m., and the last explosion could be seen at 7:53, creating a giant cloud of smoke and dust. The entire group of houses was destroyed in less than an hour. The cease-fire began seven minutes later.
The video shows what happened, but it doesn't explain why the Israeli air force bombed the Wahdans nor does it say why Zaki lost half his family. He has no answers, which is perhaps the worst feeling of all.
But there could be an explanation. It has to do with the location of the house, in the northeastern corner of Gaza, an area that now looks as if it had been struck by an earthquake. The devastation stretches from the house into the center of Beit Hanoun, where three quarters of the buildings are uninhabitable and 30,000 people are now homeless. Satellite images show that entire communities along the border were systematically flattened.
Three weeks later, the colonel says that he is sad that the neighborhood was destroyed. "But we had no choice," he adds, noting that there were tunnels, booby traps and arms caches everywhere. Of course, he points out, the Israelis would not intentionally bomb civilians. And yet mistakes can happen, he admits.
Four More Graves
Still, it would have taken Hamas decades to build tunnels underneath all of the blocks of houses that were destroyed. It seems more likely that one reason Israel unleashed such a massive bombardment on Beit Hanoun before the cease-fire was to make it permanently uninhabitable -- and to expand its security zone.
It looks as though the eight people died simply because they were in the way.
In her last note to her friend Zeinab, at 7 p.m. on July 27, Doha Atala wrote: Is the army in your house? I'm so worried. Where are you?
When there was no response from Zeinab, Atala called her friend's father. He told her that the house was gone, and that they had found Zeinab's leg, which they had recognized by a birthmark on her instep.
The brothers took the legs to the cemetery in Beit Lahia, a sandy strip of wasteland lined with dozens of fresh graves and mountains of garbage. They dug just one grave for eight people, placed the legs inside and marked the spot with a piece of concrete and a plastic bottle. In the days following, they returned to the cemetery several times, bringing more limbs, skin and flesh.
But that doesn't mark the end of the story of the Wahdans. Four more graves had to be dug.
August 3 -- THE SECOND ATTACK
After the brothers had been in Gaza City for several days, they moved to a UN school in Jabalia. But it was too crowded there, so the family rented a house nearby. It was little more than a shack, but 35 to 40 people, mostly women and some 13 children, stayed there.
Zaki says that he woke up shortly after midnight on Aug. 3. There was electricity again, and he wanted to turn on the fan and charge his mobile phone. A rocket struck the building at that very moment. The explosion ripped his father to shreds, and his uncle's legs were so severely damaged that they had to be amputated. A second rocket struck the room where the women were sleeping. Zaki's sister-in-law Jamila and her three-year-old daughter Nour were killed, as was another sister-in-law, Sanoura. Twelve people were injured, including five children.
Zaki had survived a second time.
Israel withdrew its ground troops from the Gaza Strip on the same day, Aug. 3. The war wasn't over yet, but it was subsiding.
The seriously injured children were taken to the Al-Shifa Hospital: 14-month-old Raiqa, 18-month-old Mohammed and Omar, 3. The boys each have a huge scar from their chest to their hip. Mohammed's face is burned, he receives infusions through a catheter in his arm, and his legs are bandaged. The children lie there rigidly, and occasionally they suddenly start screaming.
The army is unable to comment on the case, but the Israeli colonel confirms that Hamas did not fire any rockets from the refugee camp where the house was. Why was the family suddenly attacked?
There is nothing but speculation at the moment. Perhaps militants had been hiding there a few days earlier? Or perhaps the drone pilots had mistaken the sacks of rice and flour and canisters of oil and water that the Wahdans had carried into the house for bomb-making materials? But shouldn't the drone pilot have noticed that there were children in the house?
Perhaps someone merely made a mistake when he fired the rocket at the house in Jabalia. Perhaps the second attack was nothing but bad luck. But what about the first attack, on the house in Al-Burrah?
Can the bombing of a house in which there were eight people even be called a mistake, eight people that the army must have known about, because soldiers had stayed in the house for several days?
Life in the Staircase
"The army made no effort to protect the Wahdan family," says Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. He has documented the family's case. Abu Rahma criticizes both Israel and Hamas, and although, as a Palestinian, he is not neutral in this conflict, he is politically independent. "There were hundreds of such cases in this war," he says, "but the deaths of these eight people in Beit Hanoun is one of the clearest cases. It may amount to a war crime."
He now intends to collect further evidence, but he already knows that it won't be much use. After the war five-and-a-half years ago, the Palestinians filed hundreds of criminal complaints and the UN also found evidence that the Israeli army had committed war crimes. But no one was truly held accountable. Only one soldier was sentenced to a prison term, of seven months, for stealing a credit card and using it to withdraw cash.
The Wahdans are now living on the staircase landing of a UN school in Jabalia, where 1,500 people are housed. There are foam mattresses on the floor and they have hung up a sheet to provide some privacy.
Before their father was killed by the rocket, the brothers relate, he said that he wouldn't rebuild the house in Al-Burrah because it was too dangerous there now. Zaki doesn't know what will happen next. He says that he can still see the image of his dead father in front of his eyes. He has trouble sleeping, and he is apathetic and furious at the same time. "This war did nothing for us. All this destruction here, and we're supposed to be the winners? No, perhaps Hamas won, but our family has been destroyed."
At the top of Zeinab's Facebook timeline, there is now a message from a friend. It hurts so much that you're gone, he writes. Enjoy paradise!
Gaza counts cost of war as more than 360 factories destroyed or damaged
Thousands of acres of farmland and cattle also wiped out with damage estimated at three times that of 2008-9 conflict
Harriet Sherwood in Gaza
theguardian.com, Friday 22 August 2014 10.17 BST
Gaza's economy will take years to recover from the devastating impact of the war, in which more than 360 factories have been destroyed or badly damaged and thousands of acres of farmland ruined by tanks, shelling and air strikes, according to analysts.
Israeli air strikes on Gaza have resumed since a temporary ceasefire brokedown on Tuesday after rockets were fired from Gaza. The Israeli Defence Force said it launched air stikes on 20 sites on Friday morning and Gaza health officials said two Palestinians were killed in an attack on a farm.
Almost 10% of Gaza's factories have been put out of action, said the Palestinian Federation of Industries. Most other industrial plants have halted production during the conflict, causing losses estimated at more than $70m (£42m), said the union of Palestinian industries. The UN's food and agriculture organisation (FAO) said about 42,000 acres of croplands had sustained substantial direct damage and half of Gaza's poultry stock has been lost due to direct hits or lack of care as access to farmlands along the border with Israel became impossible.
More than 9% of the annual fishing catch was lost between 9 July and 10 August, it added.
"The initial indications are that economic damage caused by the war is three times that of the 2008-9 conflict," said Gaza-based economist Omar Shaban, referring to the Israeli military operation, codenamed Cast Lead. "It's huge."
Unemployment would increase from the prewar rate of 40%, a result of factory destruction, he said. "Recovery will depend on the terms of the ceasefire agreement – whether the siege is lifted, and how quickly. But it will take a minimum of two to three years even if it is lifted."
Gaza's biggest factory, al Awda in Deir al-Balah, which made biscuits, juice and ice-cream, was destroyed after days of air strikes and shelling last month, which caused a massive fire. Its entire stock of raw ingredients was lost and valuable hi-tech machinery damaged beyond repair. The factory employed 450 people.
"This is a war on our economy," said owner Mohammed al-Telbani. "I started at ground zero, spent 45 years building this business and now it's gone."
Manal Hassan, the factory's manager, estimated the losses at $30m. "We kept a very large stock because of the difficulties of getting raw materials and spare parts into Gaza, so we had enough to keep production going for a year," she said. "This was a factory for making biscuits and ice-cream, not guns. There were no rockets fired in this area."
At the Nadi family farm in Beit Hanoun, Mahmoud Nadi said almost half the stock of 370 dairy cows had been killed in shelling from tanks positioned inside the border and air strikes. The family, which has farmed in the area for 15 years, fled to UN shelters in Jabaliya when the Israeli ground invasion started.
"When we came back, there were dead cows everywhere. We could hardly reach them because of the smell," he said. The milk yield from the remaining stock had plummeted due to the animals' trauma, he added.
In Beit Lahiya, camel farmer Zaid Hamad Ermelat returned to his land last week to find 20 animals – worth $2,800 a head – had been shot by ground forces. Their decomposing carcasses remained on the ground amid spent bullet casings from M16 rifles.
"This is our only income, supporting 17 members of the family," said the 71-year-old Bedouin, who came to Gaza as a refugee during the 1948 war. Asked what he would do to earn a living, he shrugged he would try to find work as a farm labourer.
In a nearby field, peppers were shrivelled on plants as farmers have been unable to harvest crops during the war.
At a cluster of farms in Juha Deek, nearly a mile from the border, almost every house, store and animal pen was wrecked, fruit and olive trees snapped or uprooted and cattle, sheep and goats killed by shrapnel, bullets or starvation as families fled for safety.
"How do I feel? Look at this," said Ahmed Abu Sayed, 22, gesturing at a view of destroyed buildings and tank-churned land. "This tells you how I feel."
The FAO said it would distribute enough fodder to feed 55,000 sheep and goats for 45 days once a permanent ceasefire had been established.
Hamas declares support for Palestinian bid to join international criminal court
Hamas says it will support proposal that could expose both the Islamist group and Israel to war crimes investigations
Staff and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 23 August 2014 12.31 BST
Hamas has signed a pledge to back any Palestinian bid to join the international criminal court, a move which could expose both the Islamist group and Israel to war crimes investigations.
The decision revealed by two senior Hamas officials on Saturday would help a bid led by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to join the court, a step that would transform his relations with Israel from tense to openly hostile and could also strain his ties with the United States.
Abbas has said he will not make any decision on a bid without the written backing of all Palestinian factions. Last month, he obtained such support from all factions in the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
The move by Hamas, which is not a PLO member, came after almost seven weeks of a cross-border war with Israel and several failed ceasefire efforts.
More than 2,090 Palestinians have been killed since fighting began on 8 July, including around 500 children, and about 100,000 Gazans have been left homeless, according to United Nations figures and Palestinian officials. Israel has lost 64 soldiers and four civilians, including a four-year-old boy killed by a mortar shell on Friday.
During the war, Gaza militants have fired more than 3,800 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, while Israel has launched about 5,000 air strikes at Gaza, the military said. Israel has said it has targeted sites linked to militants. UN and Palestinian officials say three-quarters of those killed in Gaza have been civilians.
On Saturday, an air strike on a house in central Gaza killed two women, two children and a man, according to medics at the Red Crescent. Six strikes also hit a house in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza, causing severe damage and wounding at least five people, Gaza police said.
Since the start of the Gaza war, Abbas has come under growing domestic pressure to pave the way for a possible war crimes investigation of Israel. Last month, he told senior PLO officials and leaders of smaller political groups he would only go ahead if Hamas supported the bid.
If Abbas were to turn to the court, Hamas could be investigated for indiscriminate rocket fire at Israel since 2000. Israel could come under scrutiny for its actions in the current Gaza war as well as decades of settlement building on war-won lands the Palestinians seek for a state.
Izzat Rishq, a senior Hamas official, said on Saturday that Hamas was not concerned about becoming a target of a war crimes investigation and urged Abbas to act "as soon as possible".
"We are under occupation, under daily attack and our fighters are defending their people," he said in a phone interview from Qatar. "These rockets are meant to stop Israeli attacks and it is well known that Israel initiated this war and previous wars."
But it is uncertain whether such arguments would hold up in court. After the last major round of Israel-Hamas fighting more than five years ago, a UN fact-finding team said both Israel and Hamas violated the rules of war by targeting civilians.
The Hamas decision to back a court bid came after meetings on Thursday and Friday in Qatar between Abbas and the top Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas leader who participated in the meetings, wrote on his Facebook page early on Saturday that "Hamas has signed the paper" of support that Abbas had requested. Abu Marzouk's post was also reported on Hamas news websites.
There was no comment from Abbas aides.
A senior Palestinian official has said Abbas was expected to wait for the findings of a UN-appointed commission of inquiry into possible Gaza war crimes due by March before turning to the court.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations with reporters.
The office of Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, declined to comment. Israel opposes involving the court, arguing that Israel and the Palestinians should deal with any issues directly.
Israeli Fire on Gaza Town Raises War Crimes Claim
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
AUG. 31, 2014, 8:01 A.M. E.D.T.
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The first of August dawned as a day of promise for the Mahmoum clan and thousands of other Palestinians stuck in United Nations shelters in Rafah — thanks to a temporary cease-fire with Israel they could go home for three days.
But the expected respite quickly turned into one of the deadliest and most controversial episodes in the recent war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. After just two hours, amid fear that Hamas had captured an Israeli soldier, the Israeli military sealed off the Rafah area and began shelling. By the end of the next day, 190 Palestinians were dead, according to a list of names compiled by two Gaza human rights groups, including 14 members of the Mahmoum family.
The Rafah operation is almost certain to be a focus of U.N. investigators and rights groups looking into possible war crimes because it highlights a key concern: The treatment of civilians.
A Palestinian rights group argues that the Israeli army violated the rules of war, which include giving adequate warning to civilians, using proportionate force and distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Unlike in many other Gaza battles, civilians were caught by surprise by the sudden fire and sealed exits.
"None of the rules of international humanitarian law was observed," said Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the Al Mezan rights group.
The Israeli military confirmed that Rafah residents were barred from leaving the area on Aug. 1, but declined comment on the war crime allegations. It denied firing into a densely populated area without regard for civilians, saying precise airstrikes hit targets linked to militants and artillery — though inherently inaccurate — was only aimed at open fields.
Late on Aug. 2, the suspected capture of the soldier turned out to be a false alarm, and the Rafah episode is one of several under internal military review.
"If we accidentally or mistakenly targeted a civilian situation, it was a mistake, and we are very sorry about that," an officer from the army's Southern Command said on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
The following account is from interviews with Palestinian survivors and the Israeli military, along with events witnessed by The Associated Press.
The cease-fire took effect at 8 a.m. Friday. Mustafa Mahmoum, a municipal bulldozer operator, was at work clearing rubble from previous Israeli strikes. But after weeks in a shelter, his wife Iqzayer, 34, and their seven children returned to the family home in Tannour in east Rafah, about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the Israeli border.
A few houses down Ouroba Street, the main thoroughfare, Azizeh, 47, the wife of one of Mustafa's cousins, and her nine children also moved back home into their two-room shack with a roof of corrugated metal.
At 9 a.m., the commander of Israel's Givati Brigade, Col. Ofer Winter, had just dozed off after a sleepless night when he received an alert from the field.
Givati soldiers searching for Hamas' network of military tunnels had been ambushed by Hamas gunmen, he was told. Over the next half hour, it became apparent that Maj. Benaya Sarel, a recon officer, and Liel Gidoni, his radio operator, had been killed, and 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin was missing.
At 9:36 a.m., Winter announced over the field radio the word nobody wanted to hear: "Hannibal."
Hannibal is the name for the military protocol to be followed if a soldier falls into enemy hands. The aim is to stop the capture, even if it means loosening open-fire regulations.
Winter ordered all forces to take territory so that the kidnappers couldn't move, he told Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
The officer in the Southern Command, which oversaw the Gaza fighting, told the AP the brigade tried to seal off an area with a radius of 2-3 kilometers (1.5 miles) around the suspected capture point, a mile from the border. Over the next eight hours, soldiers fired about 500 artillery shells, he said. The military said it also launched about 100 airstrikes against targets in Rafah on Aug. 1 and 2, but did not provide a breakdown for each day.
The priority was to rescue Goldin.
"That's why we used all this force," Winter told the newspaper. "Those who kidnap need to know they will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade."
The assault began sometime before 10 a.m., sending Azizeh Mahmoum and her children fleeing from their shack to Mustafa's sturdier brick home. Within minutes relatives gathered. As the fire became more intense, they no longer felt safe. So they ran across Ouroba Street in groups, trying to reach a small, narrow alley for cover. The alley lay next to a supermarket owned by the Bilbesis, a relatively wealthy family, and led toward a hospital.
As they ran, Azizeh's son Hani, 23, was struck by a projectile.
"I saw his body flying into the air in front of me," said his brother, Sami, 20.
That was just the start. His mother and three siblings — Wafa, 25, Asma, 16, and Yehiyeh, 13 — all died.
A cousin, Anam Mahmoum Hamad, had just entered the alley when the wall of a house collapsed from a drone strike. It killed Mustafa's wife, she said, and another four children — Bissan, 10, Hiba, 7, Duaa, 3 and Obada, 2.
Others kept running, including Mustafa's 24-year-old sister, Halima, barefoot over the scorching asphalt. The shells rained all over, in front of her and behind, she said.
By noon, an AP videojournalist saw at least 20 bodies along Ouroba Street.
The Bilbesis administered first aid to the wounded who made it to the basement of their building on Ouroba Street. An ambulance eventually evacuated some of them.
In the meantime, Abu Yousef al-Najar Hospital was filling up with hundreds of people running from the fire or searching for the missing. By the day's end, 63 bodies were squeezed into the morgue, said Dr. Abdullah Shehadeh, the hospital director. At one point he heard shells falling every 10 seconds, he said.
Hamad, the Mahmoum cousin, had been at the hospital for about two hours when medics brought in the lower body of her 4-year-old son, Anas. She said she recognized his clothes.
That evening, with concerns that the Israeli soldier could be smuggled out, the military warned in automated calls to residents that any vehicle trying to leave Rafah would be shot.
The next day, Mustafa returned to Ouroba Street to search for the bodies of his wife and four dead children. He found them near the Bilbesi supermarket amid the debris.
"It was hard," he said, struggling to keep his composure.
The heavy Israeli fire continued Saturday, including airstrikes on homes that killed several dozen people, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
By late that day, it had become clear that Goldin, the 23-year-old soldier, had been not captured but killed in a firefight. After forensic analysis of remains found in the tunnel, he was declared dead.
It was not until Sunday that some bodies on Ouroba Street could be retrieved.
"It was a horrible scene," said Ghassan Bilbesi, son of the supermarket owner. "People had lost their hands, their arms."
Mustafa's wife and children were buried on Monday, Aug. 4, in the sandy soil of a new cemetery on the edge of Rafah, in a row of 14 still unmarked, cinder block-lined graves. Hamad has no idea where her son's remains lie.
In all, 121 Palestinians were killed in Rafah on Aug. 1 and 69 on Aug. 2, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan rights group, which compiled the names. The dead included 55 children, 36 women and five men over the age of 60.
In the Tannour and adjacent Jneineh neighborhoods alone, 37 people were killed on Aug. 1, the rights groups say. The Mahmoum clan lost seven children, six women and a young man.
The losses played into a bigger debate over the uneven death toll in the war. More than 2,140 Palestinians were killed, three-fourths civilians, according to the U.N. On the Israeli side, 72 people were killed, all but six soldiers.
Israel said it warned civilians to leave targeted areas through automated calls and leaflets, and accused Hamas of putting civilians at risk by using them as human shields in crowded neighborhoods. The military said the events in Rafah, along with others, are under review by officers who were not part of the chain of command. The conclusion will be handed to the army's advocate general.
Even if the findings of U.N. investigators are months away, Mustafa Mahmoum is determined to demand justice for his family and trial for Israeli officials who ordered the Rafah attack. Trying to rescue a soldier does not justify killing civilians, he said.
"Even in war," he said, "children are protected."
Associated Press writer Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Israel Claims Nearly 1,000 Acres of West Bank Land Near Bethlehem
By ISABEL KERSHNER
AUG. 31, 2014
JERUSALEM — Israel laid claim on Sunday to nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank land in a Jewish settlement bloc near Bethlehem — a step that could herald significant Israeli construction in the area — defying Palestinian demands for a halt in settlement expansion.
Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes the construction of settlements in the West Bank, said that the action on Sunday might be the largest single appropriation of West Bank land in decades and that it could “dramatically change the reality” in the area.
Palestinians aspire to form a state in the lands that Israel conquered in 1967.
Israeli officials said the political directive to expedite a survey of the status of the land came after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in June while hitchhiking in that area. In July, the Israeli authorities arrested a Palestinian who was accused of being the prime mover in the kidnapping and killing of the teenagers. The timing of the land appropriation suggested that it was meant as a kind of compensation for the settlers and punishment for the Palestinians.
The land, which is near the small Jewish settlement of Gvaot in the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, has now officially been declared “state land,” as opposed to land privately owned by Palestinians, clearing the way for the potential approval of Israeli building plans there.
But the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Surif, Ahmad Lafi, said the land belonged to Palestinian families. He told the official Palestinian news agency Wafa that Israeli Army forces and personnel posted orders early Sunday announcing the seizure of land that was planted with olive and forest trees in Surif and the nearby villages of Al-Jaba’a and Wadi Fukin.
Interested parties have 45 days in which to register objections.
The kidnapping of the teenagers prompted an Israeli military clampdown in the West Bank against Hamas, the Islamic group that dominates Gaza and that Israel said was behind the abductions. The subsequent tensions along the Israel-Gaza border erupted into a 50-day war that ended last week with an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire.
The land appropriation has quickly turned attention back to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and exposed the contradictory visions in the Israeli government that hamper the prospects of any broader Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, condemned the announcement and called for a reversal of the land claim, saying that it would “further deteriorate the situation.”
Though Israel says that it intends to keep the Etzion settlement bloc under any permanent agreement with the Palestinians and that most recent peace plans have involved land swaps, most countries consider Israeli settlements to be a violation of international law. The continued construction has also been a constant source of tension between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its most important Western allies.
A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the United States urged Israel to reverse its decision, calling it “counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.”
The last round of American-brokered peace talks broke down in April. Israel suspended the troubled talks after Mr. Abbas forged a reconciliation pact with the Palestinian Authority’s rival, Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist. American officials also said that Israel’s repeated announcements of new settlement construction contributed to the collapse of the talks.
Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister, who has spoken out in favor of a new diplomatic process, told reporters on Sunday that he “was not aware of the decision” about the land around Gvaot and had instructed his team to look into it. “We are against any swift changes in the West Bank right now because we need to go back to some kind of process there,” he said.
But Yariv Oppenheimer, general director of Peace Now, said that instead of strengthening the Palestinian moderates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel “turns his back on the Palestinian Authority and sticks a political knife in the back” of Mr. Abbas, referring to the latest land appropriation.
“Since the 1980s, we don’t remember a declaration of such dimensions,” Mr. Oppenheimer told Israel Radio.
US urges Israel to reverse appropriation of land for West Bank settlement
Israel has claimed almost 1,000 acres near Bethlehem, in a move Palestinians say will only increase tension
Reuters in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Monday 1 September 2014 00.43 BST
The United States has criticised Israel’s announcement of a land appropriation for possible settlement construction in the occupied West Bank as “counterproductive” to peace efforts, and urged the Israeli government to reverse the decision.
Israel laid claim to nearly 1,000 acres (400 hectares) in the Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem, a move which an anti-settlement group termed the biggest appropriation in 30 years and a Palestinian official said would cause only more friction after the Gaza war.
“We have long made clear our opposition to continued settlement activity,” a State Department official said. “This announcement, like every other settlement announcement Israel makes, planning step they approve and construction tender they issue is counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.”
“We urge the government of Israel to reverse this decision,” the official said in Washington.
Israel Radio said the step was taken in response to the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas militants in the area in June, one of the sparks for the seven-week war in Gaza that left more than 2,000 people dead.
The notice published on Sunday by the Israeli military gave no reason for the land appropriation decision.
Peace Now, which opposes Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank, said the appropriation was meant to turn a site where 10 families now live adjacent to a Jewish seminary into a permanent settlement.
Construction of a major settlement at the location, known as Gevaot, has been mooted by Israel since 2000. Last year the government invited bids for the building of 1,000 housing units at the site.
A local Palestinian mayor said Palestinians owned the tracts and harvested olive trees on them.
Israel has come under intense international criticism over its settlement activities, which most countries regard as illegal under international law and a major obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state in any future peace deal.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, called on Israel to cancel the appropriation. “This decision will lead to more instability. This will only inflame the situation after the war in Gaza,” Abu Rdainah said.
The Obama administration has been at odds with Netanyahu over settlements since taking office in 2009.
After the collapse of the last round of US-brokered peace talks, US officials cited settlement construction as one of the main reasons for the breakdown, while also faulting the Palestinians for signing a series of international treaties and conventions.
Israel has said construction at Gevaot would not constitute the establishment of a new settlement because the site is officially designated a neighbourhood of an existing one, Alon Shvut, several kilometres down the road.
Some 500,000 Israelis live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territory the Jewish state captured in the 1967 war.
Israeli leaders are rarely popular once the fighting ends. Binyamin Netanyahu is no exception
The aftermath of a conflict often cuts the careers of prime ministers short. In Netanyahu’s case, though, there is no alternative
theguardian.com, Thursday 28 August 2014 16.33 BST
At the height of Israel’s first Lebanon war in 1982, Amiram Nir, the Israeli officer and journalist who went on to serve as the prime minister’s counter-terrorism adviser and later died in a mysterious plane crash, coined the phrase: “Quiet, we’re shooting.” Nearly all of Israel’s normally feisty and irreverent media observe this rule at times of war or during a major military operation. While soldiers are falling on the battlefield, criticism of the government is largely muted. Public opinion likewise falls in line and the prime minister and other civilian and military leaders receive levels of approval in the polls they could only dream of during peacetime.
It all ends come the ceasefire or when an operation gets bogged down into a lengthy war of attrition. Israelis have extremely high expectations, bordering on the unrealistic, from their army and intelligence services and for more than four decades have punished the politicians for any perceived shortcomings – as prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is learning now. He has taken a nose dive in the latest polls and received a bashing from the Israeli media over the past couple of days.
Only three weeks ago, 77% of Israelis responded to a poll commissioned by Haaretz saying they were satisfied with the way Netanyahu was conducting the Gaza offensive. A day after Tuesday night’s ceasefire he had already lost a third of that and was down to 50%. In another poll carried out for Channel 2 Netanyahu’s fall was even more dramatic, his approval rating descending in the space of a month from a high of 82% to only 32% this week. He is not the first Israeli leader to suffer such a reversal.
Israel successfully fought off a surprise attack on two fronts from Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, but public anger over the intelligence failure forced both Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan to resign and set the scene for the end of the labour movement’s 29 years in power. In 1982 the army dislodged the Palestine Liberation Organisation from its bases but the continued blood-letting led to Menachem Begin’s resignation and total withdrawal from public life, as well as an end to the first period of the Likud party’s dominance in Israeli politics. During both these wars the leadership enjoyed wide support from media and public, only to plunge into a trough in the aftermath.
Military setbacks were never the sole reason for changes in political fortunes; financial crises and corruption scandals played a major part as well. But the anticlimax, following the euphorically high ratings while the guns are blazing, sets in motion an immediate and steep decline. Israel’s previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was ultimately brought down by allegations of bribe-taking, but it was the second Lebanon war, perceived by most Israelis as ending in a stalemate with Hezbollah, which cast a permanent pall over the rest of his term.
It isn’t a phenomenon unique to Israel. Winston Churchill’s landslide defeat in the 1945 general election, less than two months after VE Day remains the prime historical example of the way a wartime leader can swiftly lose public support. George Bush also failed to win a second term in 1992 despite the success of the first Gulf war. In Israel, however, with its frequent bouts of warfare, it has become a pattern.
In addition to the dire polls, the Israeli media, largely supportive of Netanyahu throughout the 50-day military operation, have also piled in, with commentators on just about every channel and newspaper (with the exception of the Israel Hayom freesheet owned by Netanyahu’s American backer and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson) excoriating the prime minister for having lost the initiative throughout, allowing Hamas to dictate nearly every stage of the crisis and finally accepting a ceasefire agreement which contains no assurances against future rocket launches from Gaza or mention of a demilitarisation of the Palestinian organisations – a demand repeatedly raised by Netanyahu throughout the crisis.
Westerners viewing the conflict through the prism of international media may be surprised that the heavy toll in Palestinian casualties and destruction of thousands of buildings in Gaza barely features in local criticism of the government. Many observers have also noted quite correctly that if any side has come off worse in the confrontation, it was Hamas, which for all the devastation in Gaza has achieved none of its demands save for a return to the agreements achieved in 2012 and a vague commitment to address its demands in a further round of talks next month. But that is not the Israeli perspective.
The majority of Israelis feel their army acted with restraint and that the blame for civilian casualties lies squarely with Hamas which launched its rockets from heavily built-up areas. They do blame Netanyahu, however, for not using the military might at his disposal to achieve either the toppling of the Hamas government in Gaza or extracting firm commitments to dismantle its rocket arsenal. As Israelis see it, life in much of their country was brought to a standstill for seven weeks, residents of the kibbutzim around Gaza were forced to flee and 71 soldiers and civilians were killed for no gain. Now they’re back where it all started, with no guarantee that another round won’t take place very soon. They see no one else to blame for that except the prime minister. He had their support while the fighting was ongoing – now that he failed to deliver any tangible result, he has lost it.
This doesn’t spell political demise for him quite yet. The ray of light for Netanyahu in the polls is that there is still no alternative on the horizon to his premiership. In the Haaretz poll 42% of Israelis still see him as the most suitable candidate for the job. His closest rival, Labor’s lacklustre leader Yitzhak Herzog, polled only 12%, while his challengers from the far-right, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, each received 11% and are deemed as too extreme by three-quarters of the electorate.
Most Israelis don’t love or revere Netanyahu and are deeply disappointed with the outcome of his war. If there was on the horizon a leader they felt was competent enough to replace him, he or she would have a good chance in the next elections. But for now there is no one.
Steve Bell on Binyamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin – cartoon
The Guardian, Monday 1 September 2014 23.44 BST
Israel to build 283 homes on West Bank
Publication of tenders for new settlement follows announcement of Israel's biggest land grab in West Bank since 1980s
Agence France-Presse in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Friday 5 September 2014 12.01 BST
Israel has published tenders to build 283 homes in a West Bank settlement, days after announcing its biggest land grab on occupied Palestinian territory for three decades.
The expansion of the Elkana settlement, in the north-west of the West Bank, was approved in January and the tenders were published on Thursday, Israel's land authority said.
It came after Israel announced its biggest land grab in the West Bank since the 1980s, saying it planned to expropriate 400 hectares (988 acres) of land in the south of the territory, between Bethlehem and Hebron.
That move drew international condemnation, even from its staunch ally, the US, and some Israeli cabinet ministers.
The US state department urged Israel to reverse its decision while the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said he was alarmed by Israel's plans.
Israel's settlement-building, which is illegal under international law, is seen as an obstacle to any lasting peace with the Palestinians, who want their future state to be on land, much of which Israel has annexed or built settlements on.
Revert green light for new West Bank settlement, Kerry tells Netanyahu
US secretary of state calls Israel's prime minister amid mounting international and internal criticism of land appropriation
Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Wednesday 3 September 2014 15.21 BST
John Kerry has called the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, amid a US effort to persuade Israel to reverse the go-ahead for the largest appropriation of land on the occupied West Bank since the 1980s.
The secretary of state's call followed the disclosure that the US had officially requested Israel to reverse the decision, amid mounting criticism of the move both internationally and within Netanyahu's own cabinet.
Kerry is preparing to meet Palestinian negotiators seeking a firm deadline for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories to the pre-1967 borders. Failing that, Palestinian officials have warned they will seek a UN resolution setting a three-year deadline for the end of the occupation.
The talks will be Kerry's first face-to-face discussions with Palestinian negotiators since Washington found itself sidelined from ceasefire talks in July when Kerry – the top US diplomat – failed to broker a truce in the war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The announcement on Sunday that the land in the Gush Etzion settlement block near Bethlehem would be expropriated – the first step towards building a significant new settlement there – has seen strong protests from the UK and European governments including France and Spain, and from Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini, who was just appointed the EU's next foreign minister.
The move has been widely interpreted by Israeli analysts as a political gesture designed to shore up support for Netanyahu on the right wing, which has criticised him for his handling of the war in Gaza.
For his part, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has said if there is no progress on peace negotiations to settle the borders of a future Palestinian state, Palestinians will push forward with unilateral steps towards recognition and have threatened to pursue Israel for war crimes in the international criminal court – both moves opposed by the US.
Huge new Israeli settlement in West Bank condemned by US and UK
British foreign secretary urges Israel to reverse decision to seize 990 acres of Palestinian land near Gvaot to create new city
Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Monday 1 September 2014 16.30 BST
The UK and US governments have criticised, in unusually strong language, Israel's decision to approve one of the largest appropriations of Palestinian land for settlement in recent decades.
The UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said he deplored the move as "particularly ill-judged".
However, Israel's economics minister, Naftali Bennett, who visited the Gush Etzion settlement in the occupied West Bank on Monday, applauded Sunday's decision as an "appropriate Zionist response to murder". Bennett said: "What we did yesterday was a display of Zionism. Building is our answer to murder."
The settlement affects nearly 400 hectares (1,000 acres) at Gvaot near Bethlehem, which have been designated as state land, as opposed to land privately owned by Palestinians, clearing the way for the potential Israeli building.
Israel's announcement comes after an apparently concerted effort by some of its officials and politicians to use the kidnap and murder of three religious students earlier this summer to justify the expropriation.
The direct link between the murder of the three students, which shocked Israeli society, and the announcement suggests the move was designed in part as a punitive measure.
Israel's decision has been condemned by senior Palestinian government figures and Israel's chief negotiator in the stalled peace process, the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, who said the decision would damage Israel's security in the long run. "The decision was incorrect," Livni told Israel Radio News. "It was a decision that weakens Israel and damages its security."
Settler representatives said they hoped to expand around Gush Etzion to create a contiguous new city for thousands.
Explaining the decision on Sunday, the Co-ordination of Government Activities in the Territories said there was no Palestinian claim on the area but that protesters could register their opposition within 45 days. Local Palestinians, including the mayor of nearby Surif, Ahmad Lafi, insist the land belongs to Palestinian families.
According to a report released by the PLO's negotiations affairs department: "The illegal settlement of Gvaot was established in 1984 as a military base. It was later transferred to a Yeshiva (Jewish religious school) and currently is inhabited by 16 families. The recent Israeli confiscation would allow for the illegal settlements to grow to the size of a city. It aims at linking the illegal settlement with the green line, grabbing more Palestinian land so as to facilitate future annexation."
Settlers and their supporters in the Israeli government have long sought to build on the land around Gvaot, currently the site of a small settlement. They claim there is an Israeli consensus that in any future peace deal, the settlements around Gush Etzion would be annexed to Israel.
That position is rejected by Palestinians and many in the international community, including the US. "We have long made clear our opposition to continued settlement activity," the US official told Reuters on Sunday night.
"This announcement, like every other settlement announcement Israel makes, is counterproductive to Israel's stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians. "We urge the government of Israel to reverse this decision," the official said.
Hammond used even stronger language on Monday, saying the decision threatened to damage Israel's standing in the international community. "Our position on settlements is clear," Hammond said. "They are illegal under international law, present an obstacle to peace and take us further away from a two-state solution at a time when negotiations to achieve this objective urgently need to be resumed."
The kidnap and murder of the three teenagers, blamed by the Israeli government on Hamas, has now been used to justify mass arrests on the West Bank, as a contributory cause to the recent 50-day war in Gaza, and now one of the largest appropriations of land for settlement building in recent memory. Some Israeli critics of Binyamin Netanyahu's government have suggested the announcement was a response to the significant pressure applied to Netanyahu from the extreme rightwing elements of his coalition.
Netanyahu has faced strong criticism from within his own cabinet – not least from Bennett – and the Israeli media for agreeing a ceasefire with Hamas, they have argued, without enough gains.
New Emblem of an Elemental Conflict: Seized West Bank Land
By ISABEL KERSHNER
SEPT. 9, 2014
WADI FUKIN, West Bank — At the edge of this small Palestinian village, an asphalt road turns into a dirt path that winds through a fertile valley where natural springs irrigate lush plots planted with a rich ratatouille of vegetables, as well as orchards and vines. Goats graze on the steep, rocky slopes, some bare and rugged, others planted with olive and almond trees and pines.
The veneer of pastoral serenity was shattered just over a week ago when a new crop suddenly dotted the hillsides: dozens of bright yellow plastic boards tied to metal stakes, printed with the logo of the Israeli military’s Civil Administration and in large, red Hebrew letters the words “State Lands — No Trespassing.”
The same warning appeared less prominently in small, black Arabic letters, as if to minimize the potential impact of a move that local Jewish settler leaders said could herald a new Jewish city in the area. Palestinians and anti-settlement groups like Peace Now described the action as possibly the biggest land grab in the occupied West Bank in 30 years.
The signs accompanied Israel’s formal declaration that it was laying claim to nearly 1,000 acres of territory in this area of the West Bank, prompting a storm of international criticism and a blunt call from the United States to reverse the decision. Wadi Fukin and four other villages directly affected by the announcement — Surif, Hussan, Jaba’a and Nahalin — instantly became the latest symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pared down to the elemental struggle over the land.
Ahmad Sokar, the head of Wadi Fukin’s village council, said the signs appeared “to the north, south, east and west” of the village of 1,300 residents, who, he added, fear that they will find their community surrounded “like an island.”
It may be years before any settlement construction can take place. Palestinians with claims to the land were given 45 days to register objections. Village leaders and farmers are now poring over maps, meeting with lawyers and gathering documents for what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process in the Israeli courts.
But the episode has again illustrated the distance between the Israelis and the Palestinians months after the breakdown of American-brokered talks meant to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and after a bloody war between Hamas, the militant Islamist faction that rules Gaza, and Israel.
When it comes to the basic question of who owns the land, the sides lack any common language.
“The concept of land for the Palestinians is not like in the West,” said Ata Munasra, a local tour guide. “It is part of your culture, your heritage, your existence. You can’t just move from here to there.” He added that when it came to the laws governing the land, “Israel picks and chooses what suits it.”
And villagers said the international condemnations had not yet influenced anything on the ground.
“It’s like cat and mouse,” said Abdel Hakim Munasra, a relative of Ata Munasra and the secretary of the village council. “The settlements creep across the land gradually. They start small and expand.”
The Palestinians and most of the world consider all Jewish settlement in the occupied territories illegal. Israelis said the choice of the 1,000 acres seemed to have been calibrated to cause the least physical damage to the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state, though Palestinians point out that it was made unilaterally.
The newly declared state land lies in what the Israelis call Gush Etzion, or the Etzion settlement bloc, south of Jerusalem. Israel says it intends to keep the bloc, which is part of the 60 percent of the West Bank that has remained under full Israeli control, under any permanent agreement with the Palestinians — though negotiations for a state would require the Palestinians to agree and Israel to offer a land swap in return.
The pre-1967 armistice line between the West Bank and Israel runs just to the west of Wadi Fukin. To the east is Beitar Illit, an ultra-Orthodox, urban Jewish settlement of up to 50,000 residents that Israel expects to include within its eventual borders.
But precisely as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is demanding a definition of the borders of his future state, the Israeli move blurs the boundary. While Palestinian negotiators have agreed in principle to minor adjustments and land swaps along the 1967 lines, Xavier Abu Eid of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiation Affairs Department said the Palestinians “have never accepted the idea of settlement blocs” as unilaterally defined by Israel.
Most of the elongated tracts of newly appropriated land run adjacent to the 1967 line, stretching between the Palestinian villages, with a finger extending inward toward Gvaot, a tiny Israeli settlement of a few families in temporary homes. Dror Etkes, an Israeli expert on West Bank land issues who advocates on behalf of the Palestinians, said the intention was “to fill in the gap,” consolidating the connection between Gush Etzion and Israel.
Defenders of the Israeli policy say that the newly declared state land was never privately owned, and that it was land whose status was to be determined.
They also say that Gush Etzion has historic value for Israelis: Jews lived there until 1948 and returned after Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war. It is also the area where Palestinian militants kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in June. The land declaration came as compensation for the settlers and was a punishment for the Palestinians at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was under political pressure over the war in Gaza.
When Israel took over the West Bank in 1967, only one-third of the territory was recorded in the area’s land registry, adding to the legal ambiguity, Israelis said. Israel froze the registration process, and in the 1980s it began appropriating plots that had not been cultivated in three years, or were less than half cultivated, based on what Mr. Etkes described as “a manipulative interpretation of Ottoman law.”
Mr. Etkes said that only small parts of the newly declared state lands were cultivated, though he cautioned that construction in the area would be likely to choke the intensively cultivated parts.
In Wadi Fukin, villagers said that a large part of the appropriated land was owned by five extended families, and that some of it was planted with cereals for grazing.
Proving ownership will be difficult for most, unless they can produce Turkish land deeds, experts said. Mr. Munasra, the council secretary, said he owned an acre of land planted with olive saplings that was included in the appropriation. He said that he had tax receipts from the period of the British Mandate, and that the land was in the name of his grandfather, who died in 1970.
On a recent weekday, only an insistent drill from a distant construction site broke the silence in the valley. The apartment blocks of Beitar Illit spilled down a ridge above the farmland.
Maher Taher Sokar, a farmer, was sitting barefoot under an old mulberry tree, his work pants rolled up. He said he had fought in the Israeli courts to prove his ownership of more than 85 acres of land on a nearby mountain that is planted with wheat and olive trees. Once, he said, he waited two years for a signature from an Israeli official at the Civil Administration headquarters. He won the case in 2011, he said, after a 16-year legal battle.
Thousands of Migrants Forced to Leave Israel, Rights Group Says
By ISABEL KERSHNER
SEPT. 9, 2014
JERUSALEM — Thousands of Sudanese migrants to Israel and hundreds of Eritreans have returned to their home countries this year as a result of an Israeli policy that amounts to “unlawful coercion,” Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. The group said the migrants had been left few other options even though they were at risk of imprisonment or abuse at the hands of repressive governments back home, and despite protections Israel is obligated to provide under international treaties.
The New York-based group said in its report that it had documented seven cases in which citizens of Sudan were detained and interrogated in the capital, Khartoum, on their return.
While four of the seven were released after short periods, the report said, one was tortured, a second was put in solitary confinement and a third was charged with treason for visiting Israel, which does not maintain diplomatic relations with Sudan. The group said that under Sudanese law it is a crime to visit Israel, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and that at least 6,400 Sudanese had returned between January 2013 and the end of June 2014.
The report also said 367 Eritreans had returned home after reaching Israel, but neither Human Rights Watch nor the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel had any confirmed information about them.
Human Rights Watch said the decision by asylum seekers to leave Israel could not be considered voluntary because of the circumstances surrounding their departures. In many cases, migrants were offered a choice between going home — or in some cases, to a third country — or facing the threat of “indefinite detention” in a semi-open but remote facility in the Negev Desert that does not allow them to work.
“International law is clear that when Israel threatens Eritreans and Sudanese with lifelong detention, they aren’t freely deciding to leave Israel and risk harm back home,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report.
Israeli human rights groups have been raising similar concerns in recent months.
Mr. Simpson said it was not possible to determine whether any of the 6,700 migrants had left for other, personal reasons, as they were not interviewed on departure. But he said the more likely explanation was that they were coerced into leaving because of the pressure created by Israel’s policies.
Israel strongly contested that assessment, saying it encourages repatriation or departure to a third country but does not compel asylum seekers to do so.
“There are very many baseless accusations against the state, just as these organizations criticize every one of the Western countries because of the way they deal with illegal infiltration,” Gideon Saar, Israel’s interior minister, told Israel Radio. “As a country, we first of all act according to the law and with every step we act in consultation with the attorney general and according to his opinion.”
The Interior Ministry said the Human Rights Watch report was an attempt to influence Israel’s Supreme Court, which is expected to rule soon on a petition against a recent amendment to Israel’s law guiding illegal entry to the country.
Israel’s perception of the African migrants, whom it routinely refers to as “infiltrators” or economic migrants, sharply differs from that held by many nongovernmental organizations and refugee advocacy groups, who view them as asylum seekers fleeing conflict zones or persecution.
“Israel does not forcibly deport these people,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister’s office. “They have the possibility to be in Israel safely and to have all their humanitarian needs met.”
He added, “The overwhelming majority of these people are illegal job seekers and are not coming here for refugee reasons.”
Israeli officials say the government offers refugees willing to leave $3,500.
Walpurga Englbrecht, the representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, said Israel might be breaching international conventions that prohibit the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to an environment in which they are at risk of persecution or degrading treatment.
The conditions in the Holot facility in the Negev Desert, she added, “restrict the freedom of movement of Eritrean and Sudanese residents to a substantial degree, not necessarily in line with international human rights law.”
Alarmed by an influx of about 60,000 Africans since 2005, the vast majority of them Sudanese or Eritreans who crossed the border from Egypt, and after protests by the residents of south Tel Aviv, where the new arrivals were concentrated, Israel announced in 2012 that it was stepping up efforts to deter, detain and deport the migrants. Measures that include the construction of a steel barrier along Israel’s border with Egypt have since cut the flow of African migrants to almost zero.
Gove says boycott of Israeli goods is sign of 'resurgent antisemitism'
Tory chief whip attacks protesters response to Gaza conflict and comparisons between Israel's actions and Nazi war crimes
Rowena Mason, political correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 9 September 2014 21.00 BST
Protesters who are boycotting Israeli goods over Gaza need to be reminded that the Nazi campaign against Jewish goods ended with a campaign against Jewish lives, senior Tory Michael Gove has said.
Warning of a "resurgent, mutating, lethal virus of antisemitism", the Conservative chief whip also claimed those who compare Israel's actions to Nazi war crimes are engaging in a form of Holocaust denial.
Gove made his intervention in a speech at the Holocaust Education Trust on Tuesday night, in response to findings that there had been a fivefold increase in antisemitic incidents in the wake of Israel's latest conflict with Hamas.
Israel's actions in Gaza provoked an international outcry, with the UN condemning the shelling of a school as "a moral outrage" and the US calling it disgraceful. There are several campaigns that urge people to shun Israeli produce, including Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
But Gove criticised the boycotts of Israeli goods and warned too many people are now conflating legitimate criticism of Israel's general policies with straightforward antisemitism.
He said a line has been crossed when banners at pro-Palestinian rallies carry slogans such as "Stop Doing What Hitler Did To You" or "Gaza is a Concentration Camp". Lord Prescott, the Labour peer and former deputy prime minister, is among those who have previously been criticised for comparing Gaza to a concentration camp.
Citing a historian, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, Gove said there appeared among some opponents of Israel's actions to be a "deliberate attempt to devalue the unique significance of the Holocaust, and so remove the stigma from antisemitism".
"And even as this relativisation, trivialisation and perversion of the Holocaust goes on so prejudice towards the Jewish people grows," Gove said.
"The Tricycle theatre attempts to turn away donations which support the Jewish Film Festival because the money is Israeli and therefore tainted. In our supermarkets our citizens mount boycotts of Israeli produce, some going so far as to ransack the shelves, scatter goods and render them unsaleable. In some supermarkets the conflation of anti-Israeli agitation and straightforward antisemitism has resulted in kosher goods being withdrawn.
"We need to speak out against this prejudice. We need to remind people that what began with a campaign against Jewish goods in the past ended with a campaign against Jewish lives. We need to spell out that this sort of prejudice starts with the Jews but never ends with the Jews. We need to stand united against hate. Now more than ever."
Gove listed a number of antisemitic incidents that have occurred across Europe over the past few months, calling on people to "remember where this leads". There has been "insufficient indignation" about growing anti-Jewish prejudice, he argued.
"In France, in July of this year more than 100 Jewish citizens had to be rescued from one synagogue and another was firebombed. The leader of an antisemitic party – the Front National – is France's most popular politician. Heroes of popular culture, like the comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, try to make hatred of Jews a badge of radical chic," he said.
"The virus is spreading across other European nations. In Germany, Molotov cocktails were lobbed at one synagogue. In Belgium, a cafe displays a sign saying 'dogs are allowed but Jews are not', while a doctor refuses to treat Jewish patients. And in May of this year four people visiting the Jewish museum in Brussels were killed by a jihadist terrorist."
Arguing that the UK and Israel have a common cause, Gove said: "We know that the jihadist terrorists responsible for horrific violence across the Middle East are targeting not just Jews and Israelis but all of us in the west.
"They hate Israel, and they wish to wipe out the Jewish people's home, not because of what Israel does but because of what Israel is – free, democratic, liberal and western. We need to remind ourselves that defending Israel's right to exist is defending our common humanity. Now more than ever."
On Monday, David Cameron spoke out in parliament about his deep concerns about "growing reports of antisemitism on our streets in Britain".
The prime minister said: "Let me be clear, we must not tolerate this in our country. There can never be any excuse for antisemitism, and no disagreements on politics or policy should ever be allowed to justify racism, prejudice or extremism in any form."
Cameron has always said his belief in Israel is unbreakable and he has strongly supported the state's right to defend itself against the rocket attacks of Hamas. However, he said the UN was right to speak out against Israel's school strike and last week condemned the country's appropriation of 1,000 acres of Palestinian territory as "utterly deplorable".
Israel, Facing Criticism, to Investigate Possible Military Misconduct in Gaza
By ISABEL KERSHNER
SEPT. 10, 2014
TEL AVIV — Israel on Wednesday announced it had begun criminal investigations into five instances of possible military misconduct in the 50-day Gaza war, an implicit acknowledgment of sensitivity to the widespread criticism, even among allies like the United States, that Israeli forces had used excessive firepower in a number of highly publicized assaults in the Palestinian territory.
The announcement, conveyed at a briefing by the Israeli military, came only two weeks after a cease-fire in the conflict, an unusually speedy response. But critics, including human rights advocates in Israel, said it remained to be seen whether the investigations would yield significant criminal indictments and punishments.
Some said the timing of the inquiries appeared to be an attempt by the Israeli government to pre-empt the impact of international investigations into allegations of possible Israeli war crimes committed in Gaza. They also pointed out that the cases, opened by Israel’s Military Advocate General Corps, included obvious episodes that had already drawn condemnation.
One prominent Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, refused to participate in the investigations and said history showed that the Israeli military could not possibly conduct a credible prosecution of itself.
“Based on past experience, we can only regretfully say that Israeli law enforcement authorities are unable and unwilling to investigate allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law committed during fighting in Gaza,” the organization said in a statement. “Should the existing whitewashing mechanism be replaced with an independent investigative body, we would gladly cooperate with it.”
Even so, Israel’s inquiries into possible criminal misconduct by its own soldiers stood in sharp contrast to what has happened in Gaza, where Hamas, the dominant militant force, has no such judicial process and has been widely criticized for summarily executing suspected Palestinian collaborators with Israel.
The most prominent of the five military cases have already been the subject of international censure: an Israeli strike that resulted in the death of 16 civilians sheltering at a United Nations school in Beit Hanoun and the killing of four boys on a Gaza beach.
The three other cases, as conveyed by an Israeli military official giving the briefing, involve a Palestinian teenager, Ahmed Abu Raida, who said he was mistreated while in detention and forced to guide Israeli soldiers, with the decision to investigate largely based on the youth’s allegations as reported in The New York Times; a Palestinian woman who was shot to death after she had informed Israeli forces of her movements and received their consent; and a soldier who is alleged to have stolen money from a private home.
Of 44 cases initially referred to army fact-finding teams for preliminary examination, seven have been closed, including one involving the death of eight members of a family when their home was struck on July 8, the first day of the Israeli air campaign, and others are pending.
A further 55 episodes are to be referred to the fact-finding teams next week, according to a senior Israeli official, who briefed reporters at military headquarters here and spoke on the condition of anonymity under the Israeli military protocol.
The swiftness of the self-investigation by the military and the publicity about it appeared partly intended to get ahead of an investigation commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council into allegations of possible war crimes. The Israeli government has said it will not cooperate with the United Nations mission, asserting that its mandate is biased against Israel.
The investigation process may also be intended to counter threats by the Palestinian leadership to join the International Criminal Court for the purpose of holding Israel accountable for its actions as an occupying power. The court generally only investigates cases where the country involved is unwilling or unable to investigate itself.
More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli air and ground operation, up to three-quarters of them civilians, according to the United Nations and other monitoring groups.
The Israeli authorities assert that up to half the casualties were probably combatants. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and six civilians were killed.
Israel said its campaign was aimed at halting rocket fire from the Palestinian coastal territory, which is dominated by Hamas, and at destroying a network of tunnels, more than a dozen of them leading into Israeli territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has rejected criticism of its military’s self-accountability and asserted that justice and due process are built into Israel’s democratic system. He has repeatedly accused Hamas of committing a “double war crime” for indiscriminately firing thousands of rockets against Israeli towns and cities, and for operating from within heavily populated areas of Gaza, using its own civilians, in Mr. Netanyahu’s words, as a “human shield.”
Still, the Israeli Army’s legal counselors have acknowledged the international scrutiny on Israel’s military behavior. They say they have become more involved in recent years in operational activity before and during military attacks on Gaza, as well as in the aftermath. The counselors have trained commanders, reviewed planned targets and deployed to the Gaza border to work with commanders at the division level during the recent conflict.
The recently established military committee of fact-finding teams, independent of the military’s chain of command and made up largely of reservists, began investigating certain “exceptional” cases.
Previous experience appears to have shown, in Israel’s view, the importance of speedy investigations. A Human Rights Council inquiry into the 2008-9 war in Gaza led to the Goldstone Report. Named for Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who led that inquiry, the report found evidence of potential war crimes committed by both Israel and Hamas. It accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilians in Gaza as a matter of policy.
Mr. Goldstone later sought to retract that accusation, writing in The Washington Post, after Israeli investigators presented contradictory evidence, “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” Other members of the Goldstone panel stood by the report.
An Israeli public commission that examined the mechanisms for dealing with claims of violations of the laws of armed conflict, led by a retired Supreme Court judge, concluded last year that the Israeli military’s system generally complied with international law. But it recommended expediting the process of deciding when to open criminal investigations.
Some circumstances, like the mistreatment of detainees, “requires immediate examination,” the military official told reporters on Wednesday.
Critics have called into question the military’s ability to investigate itself. B’Tselem and another Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din, described the military law enforcement system as “a complete failure” in a statement this week.
After the 2008-9 war in Gaza, in which up to 1,400 Palestinians were killed, more than 50 cases out of 400 that were examined were referred to the military police for criminal investigation. Three investigations ended with indictments, according to the military. B’Tselem noted that the harshest sentence was given to a soldier who had stolen a credit card.
******************Israeli Officer Charged in Assault
By ISABEL KERSHNER
SEPT. 10, 2014
JERUSALEM — A border police officer has been charged with assault after he was filmed beating a Palestinian-American teenager on the edges of a violent riot in East Jerusalem in July, the Israeli Ministry of Justice said Wednesday in a statement.
Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, from Tampa, Fla., was spending the summer with relatives in Shuafat. He got caught up in violence that broke out after the grisly killing of his cousin Muhammad Abu Khdeir, 16, by Jewish extremists in revenge for the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youths by Palestinian militants in the West Bank.
The footage of Tariq’s beating spread worldwide, prompting international outrage and a call by the State Department for a speedy and credible inquiry.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Aaj0YM45t4
The officer, who was not named, chased Tariq, who was “masked, with a kaffiyeh wrapped around his head, and holding a wooden slingshot,” according to the statement. After the youth was on the ground, and was not resisting arrest, the officer kicked and punched him in the head, face and upper body, the statement added.
Tariq, who was hospitalized and has since returned to the United States, said that he had only been watching the clashes. Several other members of the Abu Khdeir clan have since been detained by the Israeli authorities.
Israeli intelligence veterans refuse to serve in Palestinian territories
Innocent people under military rule exposed to surveillance by Israel, say 43 ex-members of Unit 8200, including reservists
Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Friday 12 September 2014 10.44 BST
Forty-three veterans of one of Israel’s most secretive military intelligence units – many of them still active reservists – have signed a public letter refusing to serve in operations involving the occupied Palestinian territories because of the widespread surveillance of innocent residents.
The signatories include officers, former instructors and senior NCOs from the country’s equivalent of America’s NSA or Britain’s GCHQ, known as Unit 8200 – or in Hebrew as Yehida Shmoneh-Matayim.
They allege that the “all-encompassing” intelligence the unit gathers on Palestinians – much of it concerning innocent people – is used for “political persecution” and to create divisions in Palestinian society.
The largest intelligence unit in the Israeli military, Unit 8200 intercepts electronic communications including email, phone calls and social media in addition to targeting military and diplomatic traffic.
The signatories say, however, that a large part of their work was unrelated to Israel’s security or defence, but appeared designed to perpetuate the occupation by “infiltrating” and “controlling” all aspects of Palestinian life.
Written in uncompromising language the letter states: “We, veterans of Unit 8200, reserve soldiers both past and present, declare that we refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as tools in deepening the military control over the Occupied Territories.”
They add: “The Palestinian population under military rule is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself. In many cases, intelligence prevents defendants from receiving a fair trial in military courts, as the evidence against them is not revealed.”
Accompanying the letter – published in the Israeli media on Friday, and organised several months before the recent Gaza war – are a series of testimonies provided by the signatories to Yedioth Ahronoth and shared with the Guardian.
A common complaint, made in both the testimonies and in interviews given by some of the signatories, including to the Guardian this week, is that some of the activities the soldiers were asked to engage in had more in common with the intelligence services of oppressive regimes than of a democracy.
Among allegations made in the statements are that:
• A significant proportion of the unit’s Palestinian objectives “are innocent people unconnected to any military activity. They interest the unit for other reasons, usually without having the slightest idea that they’re intelligence targets.” According to the testimonies those targets were not treated any differently from terrorists.
• Personnel were instructed to keep any damaging details of Palestinians’ lives they came across, including information on sexual preferences, infidelities, financial problems or family illnesses that could be “used to extort/blackmail the person and turn them into a collaborator”.
• Former members claim some intelligence gathered by the unit was not collected in the service of the Israeli state but in pursuit of the “agendas” of individual Israeli politicians. In one incident, for which no details have been provided, one signatory recalls: “Regarding one project in particular, many of us were shocked as we were exposed to it. Clearly it was not something we as soldiers were supposed to do. The information was almost directly transferred to political players and not to other sections of the security system.”
• Unit members swapped intercepts they gathered involving “sex talk” for their own entertainment.
The letter has been sent to the chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces and also the head of military intelligence.
Unit 8200 is one of the most prestigious in the Israeli public’s mind, with many who serve in it going on to high-flying jobs after their military service, many in Israel’s hi-tech sector.
According to an article this year in Haaretz, former unit members include a supreme court justice, the director general of the finance ministry, an internationally successful author, the chief executive of one of Israel’s largest accountancy firms and the economy ministry’s chief scientist.
Operating a signals interception base, the unit is also at the front of Israel’s cyberwar capabilities. According to some reports – never confirmed – it was involved in developing the Stuxnet virus used to attack Iran’s nuclear programme.
Most of those who signed the letter have served in the unit in the last decade – as recently as three years ago in full-time military service – with the majority still on the active reserve list, meaning they can be called up at any time.
All of those who spoke to the Guardian said they were “highly motivated” to join the unit and had volunteered to serve extra time in it beyond their national service.
Although there have been “refusenik” letters before – most famously more than a decade ago when a group of reserve pilots refused to participate in targeted assassinations – such detailed complaints from within Israel’s intelligence services are highly unusual.
Three of those involved, two sergeants and a captain who gave interviews to the Guardian and a handful of other foreign media before the letter was released this week, were at pains to make clear they were not interested in disclosing state secrets. They had engaged a high-profile lawyer to avoid breaking Israeli law – including by identifying themselves in public. Copies of the letter sent to their unit commander, however, use their full names.
Those involved told the Guardian they were proud of some of the work they had done, which they believed had contributed to Israel’s security.
In their interviews, they described a culture of impunity where soldiers were actively discouraged in training lessons from questioning the legality of orders, and of being deliberately misled by commanders about the circumstances of a case in which one member of their unit refused to cooperate in the bombing of a building with civilians in it in retaliation for an attack in Israel.
They added that there were in effect “no rules” governing which Palestinians could be targeted and that the only restraint on their intelligence gathering in the occupied territories was “resources”.
“In intelligence – in Israel intelligence regarding Palestinians – they don’t really have rights,” said Nadav, 26, a sergeant, who is now a philosophy and literature student in Tel Aviv. “Nobody asks that question. It’s not [like] Israeli citizens, where if you want to gather information about them you need to go to court.”
He said: “The intelligence gathering about Palestinians is not clean. When you rule a population that does not have political rights, laws like we have, [then] the nature of this regime of ruling over people, especially when you do it for many years, [is that] it forces you to take control or infiltrate every aspect of their life.”
“D”, a 29-year-old captain who served for eight years, added: there] in the long term. We can’t talk about specifics … [but] intelligence is used to apply pressure to people to make them cooperate with Israel.
“It’s important to say, the reason I decided to refuse – and I decided to refuse long before the recent [Gaza] operation. It was when I realised that what I was doing was the same job that the intelligence services of every undemocratic regime are doing.
“This realisation was what made me [realise] personally that I’m part of this large mechanism that is trying to defend or perpetuate its presence in the occupied territories.”
The last major refusenik episode in Israel to grab the public’s attention was in 2002 when 27 reserve pilots published a letter refusing to fly assassination sorties over Gaza after 14 civilians, including children, were killed alongside Salah Shehade, the leader of Hamas’s military wing, in a bombing.
Nadav made a reference to the killing – and the outcry that surrounded it. “When you look at what happened this summer, when building after building were destroyed and the inhabitants and hundreds of innocent people were killed and no one raised an eyebrow, as opposed to just one decade ago when the killing of a family of a commander of Hamas shocked people. It was a huge story in Israel.”
Replying to the refusenik letter and the allegations, a spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces criticised the soldiers for making their complaints public, and attempted to cast doubt on the claims.
“The intelligence corps has no record that the specific violations in the letter ever took place. Immediately turning to the press instead of to their officers or relevant authorities is suspicious and raises doubts as to the seriousness of the claims.
“Regarding claims of harm caused to civilians, the IDF maintains a rigorous process which takes into account civilian presence before authorising strikes against targets.”
‘Any Palestinian is exposed to monitoring by the Israeli Big Brother’
Testimonies from people who worked in the Israeli Intelligence Corps tell of a system where there were no boundaries
The Guardian, Friday 12 September 2014 10.01 BST
‘Our work has serious impact on the lives of many people’
I enlisted into the Intelligence Corps with a clear understanding that regarding anything that involves the Palestinian arena, I will engage in self-defence. Throughout my service in my unit I did and encountered things that seemed irrelevant from a security standpoint, and I did not have a clear conscience participating in such activities. Contrary to my expectations, our database included not only security-related intelligence but also personal and political information. That is to say, on a personal level, there is no respect for Palestinian privacy.
From a political standpoint, information is collected that can serve to manipulate Israeli, Palestinian and international politics.
Although ours is not actual field work, it has serious impact on the lives of many people, and this is something that I think soldiers in the unit forget when everyone just does their part. Since we’re so focused on not missing any important developments, we always prefer to assume the worst. For example, if anyone is suspected, even very faintly, it is possible that the stain will never fade, and that person will suffer sanctions as a result.
Our daily service dulls everyone’s sensitivity and this is reflected, for example, in running jokes about very personal things that come up in our intelligence material. Or, for instance, in the expression “blood on the headset”, or X’s marked on our headsets after assassinations.
‘I realised the job I had done was that of the oppressor’
After my discharge from the Intelligence Corps, I had a moment of shock while watching the film The Lives of Others, about the secret police in East Germany.
On the one hand, I felt solidarity with the victims, with the oppressed people who were denied such basic rights as I take for granted to be mine. On the other hand, I realised that the job I had done during my military service was that of the oppressor.
My first reaction as a discharged soldier was that we do the same things, only much more efficiently.
‘The attitude was “Why not? We can, so let’s do it.”’
I knew people in the unit and I heard good things about it, but I didn’t do anything special to enlist into this particular unit. I knew it was a good job with high-quality people, bearing a lot of responsibility, and it sounded good. From the first day of the course one is made to feel really important, and that you’re going to be exposed to interesting classified things, and to have a lot of responsibility.
I assumed a role in which people are called “targets”, and those people who really interest us are in no sense terrorists, but rather generally normative people – who interest us because of their roles, so that we can obtain more intelligence and achieve greater access. We take advantage of the capabilities that we have over these people in order to put ourselves at ease. We take advantage of the impact that we have on their lives. Sometimes it involves truly harming a person’s life, or their soul. I mean extortion whereby they must hide things from people around them. It can really screw up their lives. It made me feel omnipotent.
When I began this job I was surprised by the extent of my responsibility. I felt I had a say about important things. I could initiate things that would impact the lives of Palestinians – I could urge my unit to take all kinds of measures. The attitude was “Why not? We can, so let’s do it.” I thought that what I was able to do was crazy. We were the bosses.
They really relied on our judgment calls. I had access to many systems and capabilities, and I felt it was too much. No boundaries were set for us, for both passive activities such as gathering intelligence, and for active initiatives that had an impact on people’s lives.
If anyone interests us, we’d collect information on his or her economic situation and mental state. Then we would plan how we can perform an operation around this individual, in order to turn them into a collaborator or something of the sort.
But I was uncomfortable with this, so I chose to disconnect from it. To clock in my hours, and check out.
There are always two unit representatives in the field, one at the West Bank division HQ and one in Gaza. We would take turns, and what I recall most about this are the assassination missions. We would collect intelligence for the operation, incriminate the person, and pass on the information to the Israeli Air Force.
Once when I was the unit representative, there was someone suspicious next to a weapons warehouse in Gaza and we thought he was our target. It had taken us a long time to find him. Judging by his location, the time and similar data, we concluded it was him. After we assassinated him it turned out that he was a kid. My job there was supposedly technical. The atmosphere was that of an office job. In real time you can see maps and images from the helicopter, but you’re sitting in an office so it’s very easy to feel detached and distance yourself. Nor was it my job to ask questions. I was told what was needed and that’s what I did. I remember an image on the screen of him in an orchard, and the explosion on the screen, the smoke clearing and his mother running to him, at which point we could see he was a child. The body was small. We realised we had screwed up. It got quiet and uncomfortable. Then we needed to carry on as there were other things to do, though the mood was grim. I don’t know of any investigation of what had happened, or if it was reviewed at a later date.
‘We knew the medical conditions of our targets’
When I enlisted into the intelligence unit, I thought I would deal with prevention of terrorism and do whatever was necessary to protect national security. Throughout my service, I discovered that many Israeli initiatives within the Palestinian arena are directed at things that are not related to intelligence. I worked a lot on gathering information on political issues. Some could be seen as related to objectives that serve security needs, such as the suppression of Hamas institutions, while others could not. Some were political objectives that did not even fall within the Israeli consensus, such as strengthening Israel’s stance at the expense of the Palestinian position. Such objectives do not serve the security system but rather agendas of certain politicians.
I had a really hard time with some of the things we did, as did the people who were with me in my section. Regarding one project in particular, many of us were shocked as we were exposed to it. Clearly it was not something we as soldiers were supposed to do. The information was almost directly transferred to political players and not to other sections of the security system. This made it clear to me that we were dealing with information that was hardly connected to security needs.
We knew the detailed medical conditions of some of our targets, and our goals developed around them. I’m not sure what was done with this information. I felt bad knowing each of their precise problems, and that we would talk and laugh about this information freely. Or, for instance, that we knew exactly who was cheating on their wife, with whom, and how often.
‘I collected information on people who were completely innocent’
As a soldier in Unit 8200, I collected information on people accused of either attacking Israelis, trying to attack Israelis, desiring to harm Israelis, and considering attacking Israelis. I also collected information on people who were completely innocent, and whose only crime was that they interested the Israeli security system for various reasons. For reasons they had absolutely no way of knowing. All Palestinians are exposed to non-stop monitoring without any legal protection. Junior soldiers can decide when someone is a target for the collection of information. There is no procedure in place to determine whether the violation of the individual’s rights is necessarily justifiable. The notion of rights for Palestinians does not exist at all. Not even as an idea to be disregarded.
Any Palestinian may be targeted and may suffer from sanctions such as the denial of permits, harassment, extortion, or even direct physical injury. Such instances might occur if the individual is of any interest to the system for any reason. Be it indirect relations with hostile individuals, physical proximity to intelligence targets, or connections to topics that interest 8200 as a technological unit. Any information that might enable extortion of an individual is considered relevant information. Whether said individual is of a certain sexual orientation, cheating on his wife, or in need of treatment in Israel or the West Bank – he is a target for blackmail.
Throughout the duration of my service no one in my unit ever asked, at least not out loud, if there is anything wrong with this well-oiled system – whether the transformation of any individual into a target is a legitimate act.
When I joined Unit 8200 I was highly motivated. I passed a course and became an Arabic translator. There were things that I felt uncomfortable with in the work framework, though the importance of my role and our missions within the unit in which I served overshadowed these feelings.
One of those moments in which things began to change occurred during the first war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. I was then at the peak of my service, as an experienced translator in a base which was responsible for the Palestinian arena.
Upon the start of the operation something seemed wrong to me. Instead of attacking rocket and weapons caches in the Gaza Strip, as a preparatory defence measure for the campaign against Hamas, the Israeli Air Force attacked a parade of police officers. The assault killed 89 policemen. I was a simple soldier, but I wanted to pass my opinion up the chain of command that this action was morally unsound and problematic. Not only as regards the attack on the police officers. Those were precious hours in which we should have been doing our jobs preventing the launching of rockets against Israeli civilians, and this did not serve that purpose. The home front was exposed to volleys of rockets without taking care of them in advance, as should have been done, and as we were told that should happen. The officer in charge agreed to pass on my remarks, but I never received an answer.
Throughout the operation I accompanied different teams engaged in collecting and translating intelligence on targets in the Gaza Strip – on both weapons and humans. I remember the overwhelming silence in the rooms from which we worked, seconds after the air force bombed those targets. A tense silence, hopeful of causing harm. When an attack was identified or executed, cheering and applause filled the room. X’s were marked on headsets. X’s were marked on the facial composite sketches that adorned the walls of the rooms. No one asked about “collateral damage.” I felt bad – it was very difficult to realise that no one was interested in who else had been hit. Throughout the campaign, hundreds of civilians were killed – men, women, and children, collateral damage. No one stopped to ask whether the targets we collect for the air force justify the destruction of the lives of about one and a half million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.
On 1 January, the air force attacked the home of Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader in Gaza. Eighteen civilians were killed in the assault on his home, most of whom were members of his family. The following day senior leaders of Hamas’ military wing were targeted. When the air force reported the people harmed, tension filled the room in anticipation of finding out whether the people injured were the targeted objectives of the attack. When it became clear that they were other unrelated persons, cries of disappointment were heard. Not because people had been killed arbitrarily, but because they weren’t the people we were looking for.
It’s hard for me to imagine what my base would have looked like during the recent Operation Protective Edge. Probably just as it had in the past, only much more pronounced.
That was the peak of my service within the Israeli army. The period during which I collected information on people who were accused of attacking Israelis, trying to attack Israelis, the desire to harm Israelis, thinking of attacking Israelis, in addition to collecting information on completely innocent people, whose only crime was that they interested the Israeli defence establishment for various reasons. Reasons they have no way of knowing. If you’re homosexual and know someone who knows a wanted person – and we need to know about it – Israel will make your life miserable. If you need emergency medical treatment in Israel, the West Bank or abroad – we searched for you. The state of Israel will allow you to die before we let you leave for treatment without giving information on your wanted cousin. If you interest Unit 8200 as a technological unit, and don’t have anything to do with any hostile activity, you’re an objective.
Any such case, in which you “fish out” an innocent person from whom information might be squeezed, or who could be recruited as a collaborator, was like striking gold for us and for Israel’s entire intelligence community. As such, Palestinians who are not related to or involved in fighting Israel are objectives. Thus, in terms of intelligence (aside from the physical blockade of the Gaza Strip), Gazan citizens are no different from their brethren in the West Bank – despite the “disengagement”, so to speak. During my training course in preparation for my service in this assigned role, we actually learned to memorise and filter different words for “gay”, in Arabic.
Any Palestinian is exposed to non-stop monitoring by the Israeli Big Brother, without legal protection, and with no way of knowing when they too would become an objective – targeted for harassment, extortion, or physical injury. Junior soldiers can decide anyone is a target for the collection of information. There is no procedure in place to determine whether the violation of the individual’s rights is necessarily justifiable. The notion of rights for Palestinians does not exist at all. Throughout the duration of my service no one in my unit ever asked, at least not out loud, if there is anything wrong with this well-oiled system – whether the transformation of any individual into a target is a legitimate act.
At the conclusion of my service in the army I was a commander and instructor for several months, teaching youth who had graduated from high school and were being prepared to serve as translators for the Intelligence Corps. I repeatedly tried to raise these questions with them: is it legitimate to deem as a target any person who interests the Israeli security system, for whatever reason? The answer I received, time and again, was yes. Today I believe the answer is no.
‘The fact people were innocent was not all relevant’
I was a course instructor for soldiers assigned to the Palestinian arena. As the course was being organised we would go to some storeroom full of “booty” and receive uniforms, weapon parts, exploded grenades, flags of Palestine, Fatah and Hamas. Personal family items like photos of children, watches, family photos, medals, football trophies, books, Qurans, jewellery – Palestinian “memorabilia.” I don’t know for sure, but I realised that all these things came from arrest missions, either from people’s homes or from people who were killed. It is all just piled up. We were taken to this storeroom and told to take whatever we pleased, signing the stuff out afterwards. I took some flags and uniforms. At the end of the course we didn’t even return them. I still have them signed out.
We took all the stuff to the classrooms and hung it up on the walls for display. The idea was to “poison” the students. At the beginning of the course they have no idea to which arena they’ll be assigned. So on the morning when they receive their assignments they enter the class and we motivate them with the items hanging on the walls, among other things. We didn’t exactly explain what they were; we just said “booty.” There is not much talk about it. It arouses their curiosity and amuses them.
Towards the end of the course one of the participants dressed as a Hamas fighter, in uniform, to entertain everyone. There is also something called a “demonstration.” Everyone puts on those uniforms and headbands, takes up the flags and stages a demonstration. It’s done in the auditorium for the all the other course participants. It’s the entertainment event of the entire course. Everyone is seated and the class gets on stage and begins to shout all sorts of stuff. The highlight of the Palestinian-arena track was to put on a demonstration. When I was a course participant we yelled: “Enough with Palestine, we want to relocate to Australia!” When I was an instructor a talk show was staged, with characters, I don’t recall exactly.
Along with the weekly quiz there is something called “bonus” – all sorts of funny stuff. Sometimes funny conversations are played that we heard by mistake and kept. These are unimportant things, useless intelligence-wise, but they are kept because they are funny, and held on to for years. For example “women talk.” These are women’s conversations, 99% private nonsense. Or all sorts of conversations about very private matters, including yelling, crying, fighting and cursing.
As an instructor I gave a class called Morality and Intelligence, which I had also participated in as a student. The Lieutenant A affair was a major part of this class. As an instructor I had access to the army’s inquiry into this affair. In hindsight I discovered that it had been a fake inquiry. The report said the objective of that operation was to demolish a building empty of people, and that Lieutenant A’s job was to make sure the building was indeed empty – when in fact the contrary was true. The objective was to bomb a building containing innocent people, and the lieutenant was supposed to inform the unit when they were inside.
We discussed this affair in class. Everyone said what they would have done in A’s stead. The conclusion was that he meant well but did not do the right thing. He should have clearly stated his fears. Now I know what really went on, and that in hindsight this whole discussion was ridiculous. Anyway, the only conclusion reached was that in this unit there is no such thing as an illegal order. It is not we who decide what is moral and what isn’t. Nowadays I realise that this is what the bombing pilot says too: “It’s not for me to say what is moral and what isn’t.” Everyone passes the responsibility on to others.
After deliberating a bit, as that was the method of the class, the final message was: “Do what you’re told.” We also talked about what is done with information on a target’s sexual preferences. Here, too, there was some would-be deliberation, but the message was that there is no problem with this issue. As an instructor I said that one should apply one’s own judgment and not always pass on such information. I did not feel I could express a stronger message. Anyway, class consensus was that this did not pose a problem.
I was once made to listen to a talk that an Israeli security officer had with a Palestinian who he tried to recruit. It’s an excellent talk for instruction and learning. It was used by the unit for some years. There’s a point where he says, “Your wife’s brother has cancer.” The Palestinian answers, “So?” And he says, “Well, you know …” and they go on to speak about something else, and the Israeli keeps going back to the cancer issue. He said something like “Our hospitals are good” and he was clearly offering something to the Palestinian, or threatening him.
Palestinians’ sex talks were always a hot item to pass on from one person in the unit to the other, for a good laugh. One person would call over another to come listen. Or some other entertaining talks. For example, “funny” medical conditions like haemorrhoids. It’s part of the unit’s morale. You also pass on photos for laughs that belong to targets, or just to Palestinians. Just photos, family photos, and the guys have a laugh when the children are ugly. There are also private photos, for example, that couples took for one another. At some point I distanced myself from this stuff. I told my friends this was wrong, but they all said it wouldn’t hurt anyone. Our superiors knew about it, no question about that. I would not even say they looked away, because it was obvious that it was OK and that there was no problem. If there was a problem it would only be for wasting work time, focusing on nonsense.
The Israeli public thinks that intelligence work is only against terrorism, but a significant part of our objectives are innocent people, not at all connected to any military activity. They interest the unit for other reasons, usually without having the slightest idea that they’re intelligence targets. They cannot begin to guess for what reasons they interest the unit. We did not treat those targets any differently than we did terrorists. The fact that they were innocent was not at all relevant as far as we were concerned with regard to how we treated them.
Something I had a really hard time with was that all kinds of personal data was stored in the unit, such that could be used to extort/blackmail the person and turn them into a collaborator. At the base we were told that if we find out some “juicy” detail about them, that it’s important to document it. Examples of this were a difficult financial situation, sexual preferences, a person’s chronic illness or that of a relative, and necessary medical treatment.
Israel’s Unit 8200 refuseniks: ‘you can’t run from responsibility’
Transcript of interview with three members of Unit 8200 in which they explain why they refuse to work in Palestinian territories
Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Friday 12 September 2014 10.01 BST
Three signatories of the Israeli military intelligence refusenik letter agreed to be interviewed by the Guardian to discuss what motivated their concerns. They are all members of Unit 8200 – known in Hebrew as Yehida Shmoneh-Matayim – Israel’s largest signals intelligence gathering unit, active both abroad and in the Palestinian territories.
All three are now on the active reserve list and have said they will not do reserve service relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. Of the three, “A”, aged 32, and Nadav, 26, are sergeants, while “D”, 29, is a captain.
By agreement with the letter’s signatories, material relating to specific claims regarding the unit was provided in statements that they chose to disclose to the Israeli military censor. In face-to-face interviews they agreed to discuss what motivated them to sign the letter, declining to discuss specifics.
Below is a transcript of the Guardian’s interview conducted earlier this week in collaboration with several other media outlets. It has been lightly edited for repetition, brevity and sense. Two minor amendments were made at the request of the soldiers to clarify meaning.
How did you organise the letter?
D: For a couple of months friends [have been] joining and [it’s been] growing slowly … most of them are still active. We’ve been thinking about it for maybe a year.
It was a difficult dilemma. We were worried that this action would be seen only as a response to the war in Gaza and it is important to us to make it clear this is about the ‘normal’ situation [of the occupation].
A: We didn’t want it to be interpreted only in this context. We decided before the recent war to do this. For me there wasn’t any particular trigger. It was a long process of realising …
When people talk about the role that intelligence services play in non-democratic regimes usually their hair stands on their back a bit and they shudder.
And that’s not the way I thought about the military service that I did [at first]. It was a gradual realisation that this was me [as well]. That I was playing that role. That made me see in a different light what I’ve done and take this action.
I still feel very committed to how I was raised, and that’s what makes it so difficult. I still feel part of [Israeli] society.
N: I think because we are part of [Israeli] society is the reason [that] we are doing it. It is not an act against everything that is done …
A: We feel it as an act of taking responsibility for the things we take part in. But we also see it as part of a deep concern for the society we live in. We’re not trying to break away from it or anything like that.
Maybe you can say something about yourselves?
D: I currently live in Jerusalem. I’m a student. I’m doing a master’s in computers. I joined the military in 2003. I stayed until 2011. I was an officer. An intelligence officer. And I stayed for a couple of years extra. I was a team leader, then a section leader. A captain.
A: I was enlisted in 2001 after half a year of pre-military courses which I volunteered for. Afterwards I also stayed on for an extra period. I volunteered to become an instructor and then a team leader. Full time I was [there] five years. Since then I’ve been a student also in the Hebrew University. Now I live in Tel Aviv and my wife and I are expecting our first daughter. I’m studying maths.
N: I enlisted in 2007. I was in the army for almost four years. I was also an instructor. I finished the military in 2010. Now I live in Tel Aviv. I’m a student in the Open University and I’m studying literature and philosophy.
When you think about intelligence work, people think about it as “clean” because it’s not about running after people in alleys of refugee camps and shooting at protesters. What’s not “clean” about intelligence work that you wouldn’t want to be involved in?
N: The intelligence gathering on Palestinians is not clean in that sense. When you rule a population … they don’t have political rights, laws like we have. The nature of this regime of ruling over people, especially when you do it for many years, it forces you to take control, infiltrate every aspect of their life.
D: [This is] one of the messages we feel it is very important to get across mostly to the Israeli public because that is a very common misconception about what’s intelligence and I can say for myself and for many of the participants – refuseniks in our letter – that this is something [we also felt] when we were enlisting in the military. Not being aware of the conflict as much as we are aware of it today … [believing] our job was going to be minimising violence, minimising loss of lives. That made the moral side of it feel – be – much easier.
A: I distinctly remember before I was recruited, I felt very fortunate that I had this job that was so clean of moral dilemmas. [Because] our job was to make the work smarter. We were supposed to minimise the casualties both fighting terrorism. And when Israel is forced to strike back, we would be able to make sure only the bad guys get killed. And I think recent events … but this is not just about the recent war [in Gaza] … our experience after the past 10 years have made us see this is simplistic.
N: In the last month there were two occasions of this in newspapers that reflect this [point] exactly. There was a [Palestinian] parliament member in Ramallah. The army told her she had to move to Jericho because she was supporting demonstrations. That’s just one example of the things intelligence does that is not really to do with terrorism or anything like that.
D: A significant part of what the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] does is not the “title” [ie defence]. The “title” of what the IDF does in the occupied territories is ruling another people. One of the things you need to do is defend yourself from them, but you also need to oppress the population. You need to weaken the politics, you need to strengthen and deepen your control of Palestinian society so that the [Israeli] state can remain [there] in the long term … We realised that that’s the job of the intelligence.
Was there work they did not object to?
D: I think a lot of what the unit does, doesn’t have anything to do with Palestinians, we’re not only not against that, we’re all in favour, we think it is the right and duty of the state of Israel to defend its citizens. We took that very seriously while we were in the unit and we still take it seriously. That’s what makes this decision much more difficult because it’s not a black and white situation.
Did you feel your were violating people’s rights?
N: Definitely. In Israeli intelligence regarding Palestinians, they don’t really have rights. Nobody asks that question. It’s not [like] Israeli citizens, where if you want to gather information about them you need to go to court.
A: The only limitation is the limitation of resources. There’s no procedural questions regarding who can and cannot be surveilled. Everybody is fair game.
N: An 18-year-old soldier who thinks: “We need to gather information on this or that person” – that 18-year-old kid [in Unit 8200] is the one that decides.
A: It is well known that the intelligence is used. People are arrested in the Palestinian territories. Sometimes without trial. And even when they are taken to trial it’s often with evidence that can’t be exposed [in court] because it is classified. And the intelligence is used to apply pressure to people, to make them cooperate with Israel. These are all things that are known.
It’s no secret that Israeli intelligence is producing the target database that is used in the air strikes …
There was a big media outcry after [Hamas military leader] Salah Shehade was assassinated [in 2002] and 14 members of his family were killed. There was a big story around that and the commander of the air force then – Dan Halutz – said to the pilots: “You did well.” You’re not responsible. Your job is to deliver the ammunition to the target in the most professional and accurate way you can, and you did that and your hands are clean.
D: And you don’t see the big picture …
A: The question [is] who does see the big picture? Who does provide this information to these pilots? And the answer is clear [ie Unit 8200]. [There was] a famous incident. It was when “Lieutenant Alif” [Lieutenant A, a former member of their unit] refused to pass on information regarding the capacity of a building. The idea was to destroy a building and its inhabitants – and what I’m telling is not the story we were told in the unit – it was a story that was exposed by journalists in Israel years later.
D: In 2003 [during the second intifada] there was this general routine for the IDF to bomb buildings at night as a response to terrorist attacks or to pass a message or … whatever you like. After an especially bad terrorist attack in south Tel Aviv by the old bus station there was a decision that the response had to be more harsh this time.
The action that was decided upon was to destroy from the air a building belonging to Fatah, which wasn’t the organisation that was responsible for the terrorist attack. And the building wasn’t related in any way to military activity. It was some kind of welfare centre where they were giving out pay cheques.
Unlike previous times, an essential part [of the operation] was that building wouldn’t be empty and there would be people there, no matter who. Someone had to be there in order to die. The role of our unit was to give the green light for this attack. To say when the building isn’t empty. So this lieutenant – whose name wasn’t published – refused.
At first he tried to get the action cancelled. And then he spoke with his commanders but still found himself in real time being asked for that information. And even when he knew that now the building is not empty and was supposed to give the green light he said: “I’m refusing, I’m not doing it.” He got the operation cancelled.
The response of all the senior commanders – in the unit and in the military – was to be shocked by him daring to refuse a direct order that he had received. That was the only kind of inquiry that was taken into the matter. There were some reports – just days after the incident, in the Israeli media – but they were wrong. They changed the goal of the operation and said the goal was a targeted killing of …
A: I remember that it was the talk of the unit because it was in the news and we all had briefings about it. We were told he was “confused”. He didn’t understand what was asked of him. And the general message was there’s no such thing as a manifestly illegal order in the unit.
D: What’s important is that it wasn’t only the interpretation … the media and soldiers inside the unit were told a lie about what was the target of the operation. … The [fact that] the ultimate goal was to kill innocent people was hidden. I joined the unit several months after. The response was to kick [the lieutenant] out of his job – not the unit – until he finished his military service.
I received a lesson in the course where we discussed this [case]. As a person who spent many years in the unit, who took my job there very seriously, I was very motivated to be a part of this unit and to do our job and I feel very betrayed by this lie. I feel the worst thing about it is, it isn’t the momentary decision of a completely illegal, immoral operation, but the fact that for more than a decade later the unit still prefers not to deal with it …
N: To deny what really happened …
D: … to say that according to senior officers this operation was looked into before the order was given. Legal officers checked the order to make sure it was an OK operation to carry out. So according to these senior officers this was all OK. There was no problem. When they were asked in [this article] in 2011 they could not even understand what was the issue. They say “Leave us alone” to the reporter.
A: But you talked to the people who were there …
D: I did speak with people who were there. I don’t want to say exactly who. People who were in the room …
A: The reason I brought up the whole Lieutenant Alif case was to emphasise that on the one hand the pilots are not responsible and on the other hand we – who are providing the information – are not responsible. The feeling is that it’s never possible to point any fingers. There is no one who is responsible.
N: And when you look at what happened this summer when building after building was destroyed on the inhabitants and hundreds of innocent people were killed. No one raised an eyebrow as opposed to just one decade ago when a killing of a family of a commander of Hamas [Salah Shahade] – then people were shocked. It was a huge story in Israel.
D: The story [of Lieutenant Alif] is very important and representative of the response of senior commanders of the unit to this incident I was referring to. [The fact] that the incident is used to give soldiers in the unit the message: “You’re not responsible.” There’s no such thing as a definite illegal order.
And we think this message has been well understood in the unit, which we think is a part of the fact that in the recent decade we’ve seen a decline in how much the soldiers and the Israeli public cares that innocent people are dying.
A: It’s important to say, the reason I decided to refuse. I decided to refuse long before the recent [Gaza] operation. It was when I realised that what I was doing was the same job that the intelligence services of every undemocratic regime are doing. That I’m part of this large mechanism that is trying to defend or perpetuate its presence in the [occupied territories] …
N: … it is part of the effort to save the status quo.
A: To preserve and hold and deepen our hold on the Palestinian population. And I think for most of us this was the main reason for doing this. And of course the operations and the wars – the ongoing periodic wars are part of this.
How did the letter come about?
D: At first it was just a small group of people meeting and discussing both our political opinions and also going through a process of realising what we’ve been involved with. You have to understand that being in the unit is very, very secret. It is not only that we keep secrets from the outside but we keep secrets from each other. The whole culture is very secretive. It is very difficult to just be in a situation where you meet with each other to reach a position of productive discussion. So for all of us just coming out with our thoughts was in itself very difficult.
Slowly we discussed it with more friends – with friends from the unit we thought would be interested – and just expanded it.
A: You sort of feel around to see how people feel about doing reserve service.
D: First when we approached people we didn’t say: “Look this is our plan, what’s your opinion?”
A: I should say there are a lot of people who, when they leave the military service they start seeing Palestinians as people not just as sources of information, and getting a bigger picture of what’s happening and a lot of people … there’s very different levels of commitment and enthusiasm in doing the reserve service and a lot of people taper off.
D: It was clear from the beginning we wanted to do everything legally. We went to a lawyer and said we don’t want to commit an offence or say anything not allowed to can you help us figure out what we would be allowed to say.
N: We’re not telling secrets about what we did or the way the unit works. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to hurt national security, we just want to say what is wrong with the things we did and the unit does.
We want people to know that being in intelligence is not clean, and to control a population of millions you can’t just do counter-terrorism and hurt the people who want to hurt you.
D: I think another aspect is the personal aspect. Our decision as individuals that we morally can’t continue to participate in these actions in military service. In theory there is the option of just avoiding the service, not going public but that brings me to – if I had to answer the question what are we doing this for – for me, it is to take responsibility.
I am very acutely aware that I was a part of the cycle of violence, in perpetuating it. I feel like in many moments in this long process I felt maybe just drop it. Maybe just forget about it. You can be leftist, you can go to demonstrations if you want. But I realised that is running away from responsibility because I am already a part. I’ve been a part for almost eight years of these actions that I disagree with.
What at the personal level influenced each of you?
D: During my military service, especially during my last years, I advanced through the ranks and I understood more about what is happening. About the unit’s role in the occupied territories. That was one stage. After I left in 2011 it the summer of the famous social protests, and I think that was a moment of political awakening for a lot of people despite quite a lot of cynicism in Israel about the impact of that. I felt it put me in a more responsible and involved mindset.
I had questions from my military service I couldn’t really deal with. But it was my whole life. My friends, my daily job. I wasn’t in a position where I could question then properly … Then I went back to things I was involved in. Thought about it. That was a bit of a Pandora’s box to open because I felt the moment I asked myself these questions I couldn’t run away from responsibility.
Another important realisation for me was that our unit was the intelligence side of an oppressive military regime [in the occupied territories]. Realising it in those terms also brought it much closer to me because my dad was Argentinian, and he was imprisoned by the military dictatorship in 1977.
I think this comparison – and that’s not at all to say the actions of this Argentinian dictatorship is at all similar [to Israel] – but it’s this realisation that we were imagining Palestinians as just plain enemies.
We didn’t realise there was a difference between [the Palestinians we rule over] and citizens of any other country that is the enemy of Israel. My hard realisation was when I realised our function is both to be the regime and also to gather this intelligence … It isn’t like a military issue where you need to know how many airplanes the enemy has. The targets of this intelligence are specific people and the consequences that this intelligence have are very, very serious and encompass many different areas of their life, because it is also [gathered] by the same regime that controls their lives.
And in this aspect it is the same thing as the dictatorship in Argentina that imprisoned my dad.
A: I identify with a lot of what D said. We are told, and we like to think about Palestinians as enemies in a symmetrical conflict. I started going on tours in Hebron and around Jerusalem and I started to see the reality of the people living there. And you are basically providing them with water and electricity. And you give them job permits. On the one hand, you decide whether they can work their land or not. And on the other hand, they don’t want you there.
And in this complicated situation you are bound to be drawn to do the all-encompassing surveillance that D has talked about. I’m the person who is doing it … [and I came to] see myself in the light of other oppressive regimes and the role that intelligence plays in these regimes was the turning point.
N: I have to say I was very proud when I first enlisted. I thought it was a very important unit. I am still proud of some things that I did there. I’m not saying that everything done is wrong. The thing that led me to take this decision is that during my service I started realising that we don’t only do things meant to ensure the security of Israel in the sense that these people want to hurt us, but more and more to do with innocent people.
There were times when I raised the question with my fellow soldiers in the unit, with the commanders, that maybe some things were wrong. The answer I was given all the time was: “No, it’s OK.” These questions kept arising in my head. Now as the years go by, and I see it from the outside, I realise that there are some things that are really problematic.
Intelligence can be gathered about everyone.
A: It’s not just a procedural objection that we have. It is the deeper issue that we are part of a regime that is denying Palestinians their rights. It’s been going on for almost 50 years.
D: The problem is that we realised what the actual role of the unit is, that’s what we are bothered about. We don’t think fixing the legal procedures a bit or caring a bit more about Palestinians would be a solution. We think it is a cause of the unit of the job.
A: I think we have said that some of the things that the IDF does really does deserve the title defence forces, but there is a significant proportion of what it is doing that does not deserve this title. It’s in the interests of perpetuating a regime that is oppressive. That is not democratic. It is these things we are trying to bring to the attention of Israeli public first and foremost. To create a discussion and think critically about it.
So you won’t serve across the Green Line in the occupied territories?
D: That is the exact parallel. It’s important to us, if it was up to us, our full names would be on the [published] letter. We are not allowed to reveal it because of secrecy laws.
When you look at [things] in terms of intelligence you can broadly say that there are two types of intelligence in the world. One is gathered – say in a democracy – that a regime collects against its citizens. For example, as an Israeli the government might collect intelligence on me but it has severe limitations on how to do that, and the way that it can use it against me is very limited. Even if it is taken to court in the end if there is a punishment it is only a punishment directly related to the offence I committed. So that you can, if you like, call civil intelligence.
Then there is military intelligence, which a country collects on another country. Then there’s no laws governing that, only diplomacy and international relations. That’s intelligence. It’s pretty dirty. But that’s the inherent rules of the game. The other country can defend itself to some extent. In most cases this kind of intelligence won’t have direct consequences for the actual civilian citizens in the other country that might be the target of this intelligence.
[But] in this situation, what’s common to the Palestinian situation – and the situation in Argentina [under the military dictatorship] – is that people get the worst of the two types of intelligence. On the one hand, there are no rules about collecting the intelligence, but at the same time this intelligence might have severe consequences regarding all areas of their life.
You realise that this might have consequences for you – socially and for future employment? You might pay a price for this?
N: This is a price I’m willing to pay. This is very important. You can’t run from responsibility.
D: It’s a serious dilemma for a lot of people I know who decided not to sign the letter. One of the main reasons was this: everyone of us sees the risk a bit differently. I think we are all worried about it but I feel like there is no other choice.
Israeli refuseniks will be treated as criminals, says defence minister
Moshe Ya'alon joins political and military leadership in attack on reservists who refuse to serve in Palestinian territories
Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Monday 15 September 2014 10.43 BST
Forty-three Israeli military intelligence reservists who signed a letter refusing to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories have been denounced as "criminal" by defence minister Moshe Ya'alon, as the country's political and military leadership turned its fire on the refuseniks.
The ferocity of the response was not unexpected by those involved. One signatory told the Guardian before publication that he feared being portrayed as an enemy of the state after the letter was made public.
Among those who have criticised the reservists' actions are Israel's prime minister, the president, opposition leaders and a former intelligence head. In addition, the Israeli military revealed that 200 other members of the unit had signed a counter-letter defending its work.
The reservists' letter had alleged the unit undertook "all encompassing" surveillance of the Palestinians – whether involved in terrorism or not – and used information, including of sexual orientation, to blackmail individuals into becoming informants.
The threat of criminal sanctions would break the pattern of the treatment of reservists, including pilots, who signed previous refusenik letters who have tended to be discharged.
It is not clear, however, what charges the men and women could face. The 43 took legal advice from a prominent lawyer to ensure their letter and testimonies did not break the law, including by revealing their identities.
The text of the letter and most serious allegations were also submitted to the Israeli authorities before publication on Friday.
The letter, published with testimonies from reservists of Unit 8200, claimed much of its electronic interception work was being used to support the "political persecution" of Palestinians and the continued occupation.
As a deluge of criticism of the protesters poured from senior Israeli politicians and officials, it was disclosed that the current commander of 8200 had sent a letter to members of the unit – that does interception work analogous with the US NSA or the UK's GCHQ – warning them against rising complaints with the media, saying that any ethical concerns could be dealt with adequately by commanders within the unit.
Leading the charge against the refusniks on Sunday was the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Speaking at a cyber-security conference in Tel Aviv, he accused the soldiers of "baseless slander" adding: "This is an act that should be condemned … and that constitutes political exploitation of the Israel Defence Forces [IDF].
"The IDF is the most moral army in the world and it carries out the missions that we give it to safeguard our security. From my long years of acquaintance with the members of Unit 8200, the baseless slander levelled against them will not harm the vitally important work they do for the nation's security. And I say to them – continue."
Netanyahu's comments came as an IDF spokesman, Brigadier General Motti Almoz, wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday that the refuseniks would face "the disciplinary treatment [that] would be sharp and clear". He added: "There is no place for refusal in the IDF. There are arguments and there are political stances. Celebration of democracy. ... What happened here, in my eyes? Exploitation of military service to express a political stance."
The most furious condemnation, came from Ya'alon, who described the letter as a "foolish and obscene attempt to support the international false delegitimisation campaign against the State of Israel and the soldiers of the IDF."
By Monday, Ya'alon, speaking at the same cyber-security conference as Netanyahu, was also hinting that the reserve soldiers could face criminal prosecution. "Their refusal is politically, not morally, motivated. Soldiers should go to their commanders when they have a problem. Our officers and soldiers are doing sacred work which saves many lives and they deserve our gratitude. I will not allow a political abuse of this and those who signed this [refusal document] will be treated as criminals," he said.
Other political figures who have joined criticism of the letter include several prominent members of Israel's opposition.
Lost Homes and Dreams at Tower Israel Leveled
By JODI RUDOREN and FARES AKRAM
SEPT. 14, 2014
GAZA CITY — The men of Zafer Tower No. 4 sit in the shade across the street from the wreckage.
Somewhere in there is Dr. Mohammad Abu Rayya’s stethoscope. Buried, too, is a hard drive filled with 15 years of articles, photos and notes by Hisham Saqalla, a journalist and blogger. And a three-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower that Faraj Shorafa, a 72-year-old lawyer, brought from Paris in 1999.
Nobody was killed in Israel’s destruction of the tower, the first of three high-rises felled in the finale of this summer’s fighting with Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement that dominates the Gaza Strip. But about 500 people lost more than their homes. “They have destroyed our dreams,” said Dr. Abu Rayya, 38.
Zafer 4 was erased by two powerful explosions around 7 p.m. on Aug. 23, 17 years to the day after it opened with two penthouses and 40 three-bedroom apartments of 1,615 square feet that originally sold for $60,000. Filled by high-ranking government officials and private-sector professionals, the 11-story tower was an alternative to the Gaza way of extended families living in compounds. It was part of a construction empire whose founder quit school after ninth grade to pick tomatoes in Israel and now lives in a four-story villa with its own elevator and a mosaic-tiled pool in the basement, where Zafer 4’s evacuees waited out the attack.
The Israeli military said the building was “a command and control center” where “multiple floors” were “used regularly by Hamas for operational activities” throughout the seven-week battle. Military officials refused to say what types of activities, why the entire tower was targeted or what type of bombs were used.
In interviews, more than half the tower’s occupants said that Hamas had taken over one of the penthouse apartments in 2007 for what several said was a “media office” filled with computers and communications equipment. Residents said the unit was abandoned during the war, and that teenagers passed many nights on that floor using PlayStation as bombers buzzed overhead.
Atef Adwan, one of 28 Hamas lawmakers elected in 2006, bought a first-floor apartment five years ago for his second wife, and spent much of the summer there with her and their two young sons, fearing the Israelis would target his home in the border town of Beit Hanoun. (They did not.)
“There was concern and people are still concerned” about Hamas presence in the building, said Wael Abu Najja, 47, who lived on the ninth floor, “but they can’t talk about this publicly.”
Most of the tower was taken by leaders of Hamas’s rival, Fatah, men who continued to receive salaries but had not actually worked in the security services or the president’s office since 2007, when Hamas routed Fatah from power in Gaza.
So when residents received mobile-phone evacuation orders that Saturday from an Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier named Mousa, they never expected the entire tower to be destroyed. Many fled without the emergency bags that Gazans keep packed with cash, documents and mementos.
“Hamas is everywhere — in every building, they have an apartment,” said Mohammed Owda H. Abu Mathkour, the wealthy mogul who runs the Zafer contracting company and lives in the villa across Safed Street from the fallen tower. “Israel has no right to destroy the whole building because of one apartment.”
Mr. Mathkour said he could rebuild the tower in eight months for $3 million, a fraction of the $7 billion the Palestinian leadership estimates is required to reconstruct some 11,000 demolished and more than 50,000 damaged structures across Gaza. Besides the money, the massive effort depends on a new arrangement for the import of cement and steel, which Israel has restricted for fear it would be used to manufacture rockets or build tunnels like those militants used to repeatedly penetrate Israeli territory this summer.
First, though, there is the rubble — 2.5 million tons of it. Removal alone could cost $10 million, and the minister of public works said his five bulldozers are not enough to tackle the task.
The pile that was Zafer 4 is perhaps three stories high, topped by a Palestinian flag that Mr. Saqalla’s 17-year-old son, Shafiq, planted with pride. Mattresses and bedclothes peek out between the sandwiches of concrete floors — or ceilings?
There is an Angry Birds notebook and papers from an engineering course explaining “probability theory” and “The Normal Distribution.” A flower pot. A green suitcase, a mangled bathtub, a cracked microwave. Protruding from the back is a crushed white Kia Sportage that belonged to Mr. Adwan, the Hamas lawmaker.
Zafer was the name of a cousin of Mr. Mathkour’s who died of cancer in an Israeli prison in 1993, the year the company was founded.
Mr. Mathkour said three of his 14 Zafer towers were hit by Israel this summer, including the curved glass No. 9, an office building where Gaza’s first rooftop restaurant opened June 13 (his wife’s birthday). On July 17, he said, a missile hit an interior-ministry antenna on Zafer 9’s roof; over the next two weeks, tank shells sprayed the tower three times.
The Israeli military, in an emailed statement, called Zafer 9 “a hub of Hamas terror activity” that had “been ‘on the radar’ for years” and housed “several senior Hamas members.” The statement said the tower was “struck with precise Air Force fire,” though Mr. Mathkour has the tank shells in his office, and walls on several floors were clearly pockmarked by them.
“They broke my heart when they hit the tower, so I’m trying to break them when I am rebuilding,” said Mr. Mathkour, who reopened the restaurant Sept. 4.
Zafer 4 was a workmanlike tower of two-toned stucco, whose apartments had L-shaped living/dining areas around ample kitchens and larger-than-usual bathrooms. In the early years, security guards and drivers were often stationed outside; so many Palestinian Authority bigwigs lived there that it was nicknamed “Fatah Tower.”
Ghazi al-Jabali, the former Gaza police chief who once challenged Yasir Arafat for the Palestinian presidency, used to own the penthouse where Hamas later set up shop. Abdel Rahman Mustafa Yasin, a major general in the security service, had two linked units on the fourth floor. Mr. Abu Najja’s father, the former deputy Parliament speaker, lived on the first.
Ahmad and Rihad Ibrahim, a young couple with a 5-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter, paid $50,00 for a seventh-floor unit June 25, bought a beige-and-rose sectional sofa and new curtains, and moved in July 5, their sixth wedding anniversary.
“It was the first time it was written under my name for a property,” said Mr. Ibrahim, 31, who did marketing for an insurance company whose offices were also hit during the war. “The lifetime dream of the Palestinian is to own a home. Now I’m looking for an apartment to rent.”
The summer’s fighting brought residents closer, as most spent day after day inside. With potable water scarce, residents ponied up $140 per apartment to dig a 170-foot well during a temporary cease-fire in August. It was two days later that Mousa, the Arabic speaker from Israel, called to tell them to get out.
Dr. Abu Rayya, on crutches, took the elevator up to the ninth floor, where his mother and brother lived in separate apartments, only to learn they had already left. Ms. Ibrahim, 26, said she almost forgot her baby as she shepherded her husband’s 75-year-old mother and 80-year-old aunt.
In Mr. Mathkour’s beautiful basement, Mousa called again, asking if everyone had evacuated. Residents realized an old woman who could not walk was still inside. Mousa gave them five minutes, and five young men ran back in and carried her out on a plastic chair.
A drone-fired warning missile hit the roof. Mousa called again, and Mr. Mathkour’s wife, Aisha, took the phone.
“She asked him which floor or which apartment are you going to hit,” recalled Mr. Mathkour, who is known as Abu Rani. “He said we’re going to hit the whole building. She said that’s haram — forbidden — she was appealing to him. He said yala yala — let’s go, let’s go — goodbye. She came to me, hey, Abu Rani, they are going to bring down the whole building. I told her he is joking. He wants to terrify you.”
Mr. Ibrahim said he needled Mr. Mathkour about how many bombs it would take to topple the tower. The proud builder said 10. Turned out two did the job.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights considers the attack on Zafer 4 a war crime, and has filed complaints with Israel seeking both compensation for residents and a military-police investigation. The site has become a focal point: A group recently adorned it with 101 children’s artworks — 101 because that is the number Gazans dial in emergencies.
The men sit across the street, in the shade of the “umbrella” of Zafer 1, which was one of Gaza’s first high-rises when it opened in 1994. They are scattered now, at relatives’ homes or in apartments rented for up to double the normal rates.
One afternoon, a teenager told Ramadan Helmi El Saqqa, 58, a retired brigadier general, that there was a unit available in Zafer 1. It was on the 10th floor, just like Mr. El Saqqa’s old place in Zafer 4, which he shared with 10 relatives from three generations.
The unit had windows broken from the blast across the street, and glass littered the floors. He stood on the balcony overlooking the rubble pile. The rent was $600, up from $400 before the war, but it was furnished. “We’re not looking for something to like,” he sighed. “We’re looking for something to contain us.”
Gaza war set to reverse Palestinian economic growth
World Bank says economy expected to shrink by nearly 4% this year but could rebound in 2015 if Gaza reconstruction begins
Reuters in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Tuesday 16 September 2014 15.26 BST
The recent war in Gaza will result in a reversal of seven years of growth in the Palestinian economy, which is now expected to shrink by nearly 4% this year, the World Bank has said.
It said Gaza would see a contraction of as much as 15%, while a slight recovery in the fourth quarter could push West Bank growth to about 0.5%.
The bank's report said the downturn was a result of the 50-day war between Israeli forces and militants in Gaza, restrictions on the flow of goods into the enclave by Israel and Egypt and a drop in foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA).
"The conflict and humanitarian tragedy in Gaza has made an already struggling Palestinian economy worse and put further stress on the fiscal situation of the Palestinian Authority," the report said.
This month the PA estimated that rebuilding Gaza after the conflict would cost $7.8bn (£4.8bn).
Egypt will host a donors' conference on 12 October with the aim of raising reconstruction funds, and donor nations are due to convene on the sidelines of the UN general assembly next week.
"The lack of a comprehensive peace agreement leads to a vicious cycle of economic decline and conflict," the report said of efforts to clinch a deal on Palestinian statehood, which collapsed in April.
Growth, spurred largely by international donor funds, has been decelerating since 2012 and slowed to less than 2% in 2013, but could rebound strongly in 2015 if Gaza reconstruction gets under way, the bank said.
A strong response to rebuilding needs could help growth top 4% in 2015, with Gaza growing by 11% if goods flow into the territory.
Even without additional spending resulting from the war, the PA would face a financing gap, due in part to a fall in donor aid of about $350m this year, the World Bank said.
It said a sustainable Palestinian economic future depended on international budget support for the PA and "sincere efforts" by Israel "to allow better and faster movement of people of goods", while taking into account its "legitimate security concerns".
While restrictions on Palestinians' mobility in the West Bank had been eased, Israel still effectively blocked exports from Gaza the bank said, and Egypt's destruction of smuggling tunnels under the border that had been a conduit for commercial goods as well as weapons had also hit the enclave hard.