Uri Avnery on Liquidations

This week’s article by Uri Avnery denounces its “targetted assassinations”:

“If a person in the street were asked to name the area of enterprise in which we Israelis excel, his answer would probably be: Hi-Tech. And indeed, in this area we have recorded some impressive achievements. It seems as if hardly a day passes without an Israeli start-up company that was born in a garage being sold for hundreds of millions. Little Israel is one of the major hi-tech powers in the world.

But the profession in which Israel is not only one of the biggest, but the unchallenged Numero Uno is: liquidations.

This week this was proven once again. The Hebrew verb ‘lekhassel’ – liquidate – in all its grammatical forms, currently dominates our public discourse. Respected professors debate with academic solemnity when to ‘liquidate’ and whom. Used generals discuss with professional zeal the technicalities of ‘liquidation’, its rules and methods. Shrewd politicians compete with each other about the number and status of the candidates for ‘liquidation’.

INDEED, FOR a long time now there has not been such an orgy of jubilation and self-congratulation in the Israeli media as there was this week. Every reporter, every commentator, every political hack, every transient celeb interviewed on TV, on the radio and in the newspapers, was radiant with pride. We have done it! We have succeeded! We have ‘liquidated’ Imad Mughniyeh!

He was a ‘terrorist’. And not just a terrorist, a master terrorist! An arch-terrorist! The very king of terrorists! From hour to hour his stature grew, reaching gigantic proportions. Compared to him, Osama Bin-Laden is a mere beginner. The list of his exploits grew from news report to news report, from headline to headline.

There is and never has been anyone like him. For years he has kept out of sight. But our good boys – many, many good boys – have not neglected him for a moment. They worked day and night, weeks and months, years and decades, in order to trace him. They ‘knew him better than his friends, better than he knew himself’ (verbatim quote from a respected Haaretz commentator, gloating like all his colleagues) … Mughniyeh-the-person has disappeared, and Mughniyeh-the-legend has taken his place, a world-embracing mythological terrorist, who has long been marked as ‘a Son of Death’ (i.e. a person to be killed) as declared on TV by another out-of-use general. His ‘liquidation’ was a huge, almost supra-natural, achievement, much more important than Lebanon War II, in which we were not so very successful. The ‘liquidation’ equals at least the glorious Entebbe exploit, if not more.

True, the Holy Book enjoins us: ‘Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth / Lest the Lord see it and it displeases him’. (Proverbs 24:17) But this was not just any enemy, it was a super-super-enemy, and therefore the Lord will certainly excuse us for dancing with joy from talk-show to talk-show, from issue to issue, from speech to speech, as long as we do not distribute candies in the street – even if the Israeli government denies feebly that we were the ones who ‘liquidated’ the man. AS CHANCE would have it, the ‘liquidation’ was carried out only a few days after I wrote an article about the inability of occupying powers to understand the inner logic of resistance organizations. Mughniyeh’s ‘liquidation’ is an outstanding example of this. (Of course, Israel gave up its occupation of South Lebanon some years ago, but the relationship between the parties has remained as it was.)

In the eyes of the Israeli leadership, the ‘liquidation’ was a huge success. We have ‘cut off the head of the serpent’ (another headline from Haaretz). We have inflicted on Hizbullah immense damage, so much that it cannot be repaired. ‘This is not revenge but prevention’, as another of the guided reporters (Haaretz again) declared. This is such an important achievement, that it outweighs the inevitable revenge, whatever the number of victims-to-be.

In the eyes of Hizbullah, thing look quite different. The organization has acquired another precious asset: a national hero, whose name fills the air from Iran to Morocco. The ‘liquidated’ Mughniyeh is worth more than the live Mughniyeh, irrespective of what his real status may have been at the end of his life.

Enough to remember what happened here in 1942, when the British ‘liquidated’ Abraham Stern (a.k.a. Ya’ir): from his blood the Lehi organization (a.k.a. Stern Gang) was born and became perhaps the most efficient terrorist organization of the 20th century.

Therefore, Hizbullah has no interest at all in belittling the status of the liquidatee. On the contrary, Hassan Nasrallah, exactly like Ehud Olmert, has every interest in blowing up his stature to huge proportions.

And the main thing: the anger about the murder and the pride in the martyr will inspire another generation of youngsters, who will be ready to die for Allah and Nasrallah. The more Israeli propaganda enlarges the proportions of Mughniyeh, the more young Shiites will be inspired to follow his example.

Everybody knows that there will be revenge. Nasrallah has promised this, adding that it could take place anywhere in the world. For a long time already, people in Israel believe Nasrallah much more than Olmert.

Israeli security organs are issuing dire warnings for people going abroad – to be on guard at every moment, not to be conspicuous, not to congregate with other Israelis, not to accept unusual invitations, etc. The media have magnified these warnings to the point of hysteria. In the Israeli embassies, security has been tightened. On the Northern border, too, an alert has been sounded – just a few days after Olmert boasted in the Knesset that, as a result of the war, the Northern border is now quieter than ever before.

Such worries are far from baseless. All the past ‘liquidations’ of this kind have brought with them dire consequences:

– The classic example is, of course, the ‘liquidation’ of Nasrallah’s predecessor, Abbas Mussawi. He was killed in South Lebanon in 1992 by Apache gunships. All of Israel rejoiced. Then, too, the Champagne was flowing. In revenge, Hizbullah blew up the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, as well as the Jewish community center there. The planner was, it is now alleged, Imad Mughniyeh. More than a hundred people perished. The main result: instead of the rather grey Mussawi, the sophisticated, masterly Nasrallah took over.

– Before that, Golda Meir ordered a series of ‘liquidations’ to revenge the tragedy of the Israeli athletes in Munich (most of whom were actually killed by the inept German police trying to prevent their being flown to Algeria as hostages). Not one of the ‘liquidated’ had anything to do with the outrage itself. They were PLO diplomatic representatives, sitting ducks in their offices. The matter is described at length in Stephen Spielberg’s kitschy film ‘Munich’. The result: the PLO became stronger and turned into a state-in-the-making, Yasser Arafat eventually returned to Palestine.

– The ‘liquidation’ of Yahyah Ayyash in Gaza in 1996 resembles the Mughniyeh affair. It was carried out by means of a booby-trapped cellular telephone. Ayyash’s dimensions, too, were blown up to giant proportions, so that he had become a legend already in his own lifetime. The nickname ‘the engineer’ was attached to him because he prepared the explosive devices used by Hamas. Shimon Peres, who had succeeded to the Prime Ministership after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, believed that the ‘liquidation’ would lend him huge popularity and get him re-elected. The opposite happened: Hamas reacted with a series of sensational suicide-bombings and brought Binyamin Netanyahu to power.

– Fathi Shikaki, head of Islamic Jihad, was ‘liquidated’ in 1995 by a bicyclist who shot him down in a Malta street. The small organization was not eradicated, but on the contrary grew through its revenge actions. Today it is the group which is launching the Qassams at Sderot.

– Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al was actually being ‘liquidated’ in a street in Amman by the injection of poison. The act was exposed and its perpetrators identified and a furious King Hussein compelled Israel to provide the antidote that saved his life. The ‘liquidators’ were allowed to go home in return for the release of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmad Yassin from Israeli prison. As a result, Mash’al was promoted and is now the senior political leader of Hamas.

– Sheik Yassin himself, a paraplegic, was ‘liquidated’ by attack helicopters while leaving a mosque after prayer. A previous attempt by bombing his home had failed. The sheik became a martyr in the eyes of the entire Arab world, and has served since as an inspiration for hundreds of Hamas attacks.

The decision to carry out a ‘liquidation’ resembles the decision that was taken to start the Second Lebanon War: not one of the deciders gives a damn for the suffering of the civilian population that inevitably falls victim to the revenge.

Why, then, are the ‘liquidations’ carried out?

The response of one of the generals who was asked this question: ‘There is no unequivocal answer to this’.

These words are dripping with Chutzpa: how can one decide on such an action when there is no unequivocal answer to the question of its being worth the price?

I suspect that the real reason is both political and psychological. Political, because it is always popular. After every ‘liquidation’, there is much jubilation. When the revenge arrives, the public (and the media) do not see the connection between the ‘liquidation’ and the response. Each is seen separately. Few people have the time and the inclination to think about it, when everybody is burning with fury about the latest murderous attack.

In the present situation, there is an additional political motivation: the army has no answer to the Qassams, nor has it any desire to get enmeshed in the re-occupation of the Gaza Strip, with all the expected casualties. A sensational ‘liquidation’ is a simple alternative.

… When the ‘liquidation’ ends in success, the executioners can raise glasses of champagne. A mixture of blood, champagne and folly is an intoxicating but toxic cocktail”.

Uri Avnery’s weekly article was received by email.

Palestinian party people – celebrating Valentine's Day

On a night tour of Ramallah last night, I was reminded that today is Valentine’s Day. I would have forgotten, had I not seen the big red hearts in store fronts in the streets around Manara Square, the center of town. Florist shops were open late, preparing bouquets of beautiful red roses.

On my way back home, I stopped with a friend for Arabic pastries in the famous original Eiffel bakery on the main Jerusalem-Ramallah road. Just a little ahead, it was clear that there was something going on. Garbage bins were overturned in the street. Men in the bakery said that protesters were throwing stones at cars. The target of the anger was a new rule by the Palestinian Authority (PA) requiring Palestinians to pay all their back utility bills for electricity and water — or risk not receiving driver’s licenses or any other official documents. Since the start of the Second Intifada, with increasing Israeli security restrictions, many workers lost their jobs in Israel, and unemployment rose precipitously. Then, following a Hamas victory in parliamentary elections in early 2006, a U.S. and European Union boycott of the PA meant that nearly 160,000 government employees were not paid their salaries for over a year, and had to take bank loans to tide them over. Since the Hamas rout of Fatah security forces in Gaza in mid-June 2007, the donors have relented on the Ramallah-based PA, and government employees are now receiving their salaries — but repaying last year’s bank loans with 24% of their take-home pay. In short, there are few indebted Palestinians who can pay all the back bills at once.

Suddenly, a caravan of PA security vans zipped up to the Eiffel bakery, and three or four dozen PA security men descended from their bright blue cars with weapons in their hands, and closing the visors on their white safety helmets. They briskly chased the protestors off — back to the Amari refugee camp in downtown Ramallah from where they had come.

On my way back home, I entered my neighborhood, and there I saw three Israeli military vehicles pulled up at a local grocery story that stays open late. But, it wasn’t a coffee break. A dozen or more Israeli soldiers in olive green uniforms were standing outside, with their weapons, and a few of the bored young men were pointing the rifles and looking down the gun barrels at residential apartment buildings where families live.

Today, the AP reports from Gaza that “the territory is flooded with carnations that had been grown for export to Europe [but which cannot be transported out]. After the Hamas takeover, Israel and Egypt closed Gaza’s borders, banning trade, and only a fraction of the millions of carnations grown in Gaza this season were sold to Europe under a limited arrangement with Israel. On Thursday, Gaza flower growers dumped carnations at the Sufa crossing with Israel in protest. Al-Wakid, a policeman who’s stayed off the job since the Hamas takeover, said he began buying flowers for Valentine’s Day four years ago, when he was engaged. Since then, his wife has come to expect the gesture, he said. Across the street at the Rose Flower Shop, two young women, one dressed in a black Islamic robe and head scarf, bought a bouquet of roses, a rare sight in Gaza. The shop had managed to bring in 500 roses from Israel, using Gaza medical patients treated in the Jewish state as ‘mules’, and had about 50 roses left…” This report, by AP’s Karen Laub, is posted here.

Checkpoints — the reality is unbearable

Both of Israel’s major English-language papers published photos of checkpoints today that give a bit of an idea of what they are like.

The Jerusalem Post:

AP - file photo of an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank


AP - file photo of Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah


But this is an old photo of Qalandia, because the new reality is of a concrete cattle house, and now these soldiers would be inside protective rooms, and the people would be channeled through confining turnstyles…

And the Jerusalem Post Press is reporting that Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, speaking in Washington Monday night before meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that “although is was impossible to remove all the roadblocks in one day, Israel should at least make a start”. This JPost story is here.

Clouds — and war clouds

Nahum Barnea wrote in an article published in Israel’s YNet today that “Someone has to take up the task of doing serious research regarding the part played by the clouds in the country’s military history. We know about operations that were postponed because of fear of casualties, or because of disagreement among senior officials, or because of American pressure. It is doubtful whether anyone ever counted the number of operations cancelled because of the weather. During the Sharon era, and not only then, clouds were used as an almost permanent prevention method. A terror attack would infuriate the prime minister. He would demand immediate military action, a harsh one. Sorry, the army would say: There are clouds. Until the clouds cleared, the prime minister’s anger would subside, and so forth”.

Is this like counting to ten?

Barney continues: “Therefore, we don’t have wars in winter. All the wars we initiated took place in the spring and summer (with the exception of the Sinai campaign in 1956, but in that war Israel had European partners that dictated their own timetables.) The war in Gaza will also have to wait, apparently. In addition to all the familiar dilemmas that accompany the decision on a large-scale military operation, there is also the weather problem. The situation in Sderot and Gaza-region communities is intolerable: This should be the starting point of any discussion. It is not similar to the Syrian bombardments on Galilee kibbutzim during the ‘60s or the Katyushas fired at Kiryat Shmona during the ‘70s and ‘80s. The politicians can continue to praise the perseverance of residents from morning till night, yet the sad reality is that the town is half-empty, schools and places of employment are half-empty, and those who stay live under constant fear. A government that exposes its civilians over an extended period of time to a war of attrition of this kind does not deserve to stay in place. A large-scale operation in Gaza is supposed to achieve two objectives: Block the arms smuggling path in Rafah, and paralyze the Qassam fire from Gaza City and its environs. These are two fronts that necessitate simultaneous handling: Operating on one front only won’t resolve a thing”. This article was published here.

Actually, rain is forecast for the next few days, and winter is not quite over. Nevertheless, other Israeli press reports indicate that Hamas leaders have gone underground — perhaps literally — after all the open talk recently, including in yesterday’s meeting of the Israeli cabinet, about increased “targetted assassinations”, mainly this time targetting the Hamas leadership.

Livni: Gaza is today a problem for anyone who seeks peace, and therefore can never be part of a future Palestinian state

What does this mean? Today, Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni spoke to those attending the Ministry of Foriegn A’ffairss UN Model project today (Sunday, 10 February), and referred to the events of the past few days in Sderot and the Gaza Strip, stating that “A government must first and foremost do what is right for its citizens. When an Israeli child is hit by a rocket and loses his leg, and the world relates to that as one of the casualties of the conflict – our response is no. An Israeli child who suffers error-inflicted injuries is not similar to a civilian who is injured unintentionally by defensive measures anchored in international law. I say to the world: You want to judge Israel, do it by your own criteria. Intentional murder can ever be compared to unintentional injury. Here too, terror is terror is terror, and there can be no justification for it. Gaza is today a problem for anyone who seeks peace, and therefore can never be part of a future Palestinian state.” This remark is posted here.

Olmert – Outrage is not a plan – Targetted assassinations will continue

At the weekly meeting of the Israeli cabinet, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that”…outrage is not a plan for action.  We must act in a systematic and orderly fashion over time.  This is what we are doing.  This is what we will continue to do.  We will continue to reach all the responsible terrorists including those who dispatch and operate themWe will not give anyone special consideration.  We will  do this in order to make sure that it is possible to reduce the danger and alleviate the pressure and distress that is hitting the residents of  Sderot and the communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip so severelyThis morning, Defense Minister Barak and I consulted with security and IDF elements about – inter alia – relevant issues vis-a-vis the measures we need to take regarding both assistance to the population and structural reinforcement and assigning responsibility to those who deal in terrorism.  The latter is in order to reach those who must be reached and act against those who must acted against.  This is what we will continue to do.”

Checkpoints – a personal report from Time Magazine's Palestinian Affairs correspondent

The Foreign Press Association (FPA) of Israel is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and is posting memoirs of fifty years of reporting in the Middle East written by its members.  One of the contributions is from Jamil Hamad, who lives in Bethlehem, and who has been Time’s Palestinian affairs correspondent for three decades (and an FPA Board Member until 2004):

Every day at the Israeli checkpoint going from my home in Bethlehem to visit TIME’s Jerusalem Bureau, I see a sign that makes me laugh. Written in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, it says: ‘Peace Be With You’.  It’s a pretty sentiment, suitable for the birthplace of Jesus Christ.  The sign, put up by the Israe li Tourism Ministry, may be written in Arabic script, but its message of peace is clearly not meant for Arabs — not for me, not for the hundreds of Palestinian laborers, school kids, businessmen, teachers, people going to see doctors, who must run the daily gauntlet of Israeli security checks.  A tourist who wants to go from Bethlehem to Jerusalem can make the journey by car in 15 minutes.  I must go on foot and, depending on the mood of the young Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint, the trip can take an hour, two, three.  Or sometimes, if there’s a security alert, they simply close down the checkpoint to all Palestinians.  Peace Be With You.  It’s humiliating, and hard not to interpret this as a collective punishment against Palestinians.  First, I walk into a long, wire mesh cage that runs along a 20-ft.-high concrete wall which, on the Palestinian side, is smeared with graffiti.  On the wall, someone has painted a big pair of scissors as if to say: Cut along the dotted Line.  If only it were that easy.  Then comes the Striptease, the long conveyor belt where you have to put all your belongings before going through the security check. Some days they make me take off my jacket, other days, my shoes or my belt. It’s very frustrating, especially when you get behind a woman with lots of earrings and bracelets who doesn’t know how the machine works — and there are hundreds of people pushing and shoving behind you. I’ve seen sick people desperate to reach a doctor, or people screaming because they’re going to miss their airplane or connection to Jordan. But no matter how hard they shout, it never does any good.  After that, you have to show your ID and magnetic pass. There are five windows, but only one is ever open, no matter how many Palestinians are trying to cross through.  The U.S. embassy people who perform periodic checks to make sure things are running smoothly at these checkpoints should really make surprise visits. Usually, the Israelis know beforehand that the Americans are scheduled for inspection. We can tell because that’s when the soldiers open all the gates. But most of the time, there’s only one soldier, and you have to be very patient and pretend to be sympathetic while he or she is on the cellphone for 10 minutes talking to a friend or a mother. Otherwise, if you try to hurry along the soldier in the booth, it puts him or her in a bad mood, and it can take a lot longer.  An Israeli general once told me, ‘Jamil, these checkpoints are nothing but an invitation for the terrorists to try another way’. In fact, in all the years of crossing, I’ve never seen the Israelis catch a terrorist or a suicide bomber at the Bethlehem checkpoint. So what is the security value of this exercise?  Instead, the checkpoints have turned into places of humiliation by Israeli soldiers who are always shouting, and who assume that every Arab speaks Hebrew.  We don’t.  So how can I understand it when the girl soldier is shouting at me so angrily?  Most Israeli soldiers don’t speak Arabic, so they don’t understand what the Palestinians are saying in line. I hear those voices. They think this process is a worthless humiliation. And they want to take revenge against the Israelis. How? By voting for their enemies, for the two Islamic resistance groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This is how the Arab mind works: you are stronger, and you humiliate me. I’m weak. I don’t have planes or missiles, but I do have the vote, and that’s how I take revenge. I vote for your enemy.   If the Israelis consider every Palestinian, from a child to an old woman, to be a terrorist, then the Israelis have a problem that’s not going to be solved by walls and security checks. Not all Palestinians are hostile to Israel. Most are interested in a peaceful life, in raising their children. A few believe in violence, but Israel can’t punish all Palestinians just because of a few. At the same time, Palestinians shouldn’t generalize about all Israelis based on a few settlers and extremists. But with these punishments at the checkpoints, it’s very difficult. We feel humiliated. When I see that sign ‘Peace Be With You’, I wonder: What kind of peace can this be?

Ex U.S. Ambassador Kurtzer: during Oslo process, American officials failed to understand and deal with key asymmetries in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations

The former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer has written some eyebrow-lifting statements in a article published today by the Common Ground News Service: “During the period of active negotiations, 1993 to 2000 [n.b. the years of the Oslo process], the US administration failed to exercise its role effectively in several important respects. American officials failed to understand and deal with key asymmetries in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. While the United States paid attention to Israeli security requirements, less attention was devoted to Palestinian political requirements. The United States did not find a way to compensate for Palestinian political weakness. This was the first time in history a people under occupation was expected to negotiate its own way out of occupation while at the same time creating a viable, democratic and independent state. The United States also failed to set up a monitoring system to hold the parties accountable for fulfilling their commitments and implementing agreements. American officials dedicated significant attention to keeping the process alive, even though the behaviour of the two sides – settlement activity, limitations on mobility, violence and terrorism and governance weakness – weighted the process down and destroyed mutual confidence and trust. Since 2000, the United States has been almost absent from peacemaking altogether. Rhetoric has replaced diplomacy and little has been done to create or exploit opportunities for progress…”

Kurtzer then offers some suggestions for U.S. policy makers:
“If the United States is to be more successful in supporting the peace process after Annapolis, several policy initiatives and changes need to be implemented:
First, the American president must make clear that an Arab-Israel peace settlement is a vital US national interest, not a favour Washington is doing for the parties. We must avoid the false dichotomy embodied in the statement that “we cannot want peace more than the parties.” The parties need peace, and the United States needs there to be peace.
Second, there is a critical need for effective monitoring and for holding the parties accountable with regard to whatever they have committed to do. There must be consequences for bad behaviour lest the parties accustom themselves to not carrying out their obligations.
Third, the United States can and must carry out diplomacy more effectively and make better use of its ‘diplomatic toolbox’. The United States must have an experienced peace team with a deep understanding of the region. We must rely more on our representatives in the field. A special envoy might be necessary, but our study found that, with the right policy, the question of an envoy will sort itself out—better a policy without an envoy than an envoy without a policy.
Fourth, the United States needs to do homework, to lock in the gains of previous negotiations and to be ready to do what is necessary – and what has proved beneficial in the past – to assist the parties on substance with creative ideas to bridge differences. The United States also has an array of economic tools and other incentives, which, if deployed wisely, can make a difference in the negotiating process”…

Kurtzer’s article was written in advance of the mid-February publication of a book he has co-authored with Scott Lasensky, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East. It apparently evolved out of a study group that Kurtzer directed over the past 18 months at the United States Institute of Peace “that assessed US negotiating behavior in the peace process since the end of the Cold War. Our study group—composed of professors William Quandt, Steven Spiegel and Shibley Telhami—interviewed more than 100 current and former officials and analysts from the United States and the region”. Kurtzer’s article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed here.

A dangerous legal precedent

Israel’s High Court of Justice (Supreme Court) has upheld the Israeli military’s decision to tighten fuel cuts — and to inaugurate graduated electricity cuts — to the Gaza strip, in a ruling handed down on Wednesday.

The new and deeper sanctions are to start on 7 February, the military informed the Court through the state attorney on Sunday.

The electricity that Israel’s Electric Company sells to Gaza will be reduced by 5% on three direct-feed lines that have been specially fitted with a sort of dimmer that allows controlled reductions in supply.

The military had originally proposed cutting supply on four out of the ten Israel Electric Company lines that cross between Israel and Gaza.

In a plan presented a few months ago, the military also proposed to continue reducing the electricity on these lines by an additional 5% at periodic intervals, until there is a stop to attacks by Qassam rockets and other projectiles from Gaza on Israeli territory.

The Palestinian Authority has a contract to buy 120 MW of electricity daily from the Israel Electric Company, but in recent months the supply has often been somewhat less.

In statements to the Court, the military has admitted factual errors, mistakes and “local error” which resulted in cuts of directly-supplied Israeli electricity despite the Courts previous request to hold off until it reached a decision.  There have also been recent “technical problems” on some of the lines.

The military also told the Court on Sunday that it believes 2.2 million liters of industrial diesel fuel per week is enough for Gaza’s power plant.

However, with that amount, the power plant can only operate two turbines at partial loads, generating only between 45-55 MW of electricity per day.  And, without replenishment of the plants reserves, a shortfall on any one day could mean that the power plant would again have to shut down, as it did on 20 January for two days.

Meanwhile, because of the electricity shortfall, and the lack of ordinary diesel fuel to operate back-up and stand-by generators, 40 million liters of sewage a day have been emptied directly into the Mediterranean Sea, to avoid catastrophic flooding that could endanger human lives in Gaza.

A group of ten Israel and Palestinian human rights groups petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice on 28 October to block the fuel cuts and the proposed electricity cuts on the grounds that they target and indiscriminately punish Gaza’s civilian population for acts committed by Palestinian fighters.

Sari Bashi, director of the human rights organization Gisha, which has taken a leading role in the petitioning, said that the court had been informed that Gaza currently has an electricity deficit of 24%, and rolling blackouts across the Strip are as long as 12 hours per day in some areas. The electricity shortage has increased the dependence on diesel-powered generators – just as Israel cut diesel supplies. The clean water supply has fallen by 30% to some areas in Gaza, and hospitals have reduced services and denied care to non-urgent cases.

The Court’s ruling on Wednesday was handed down just hours before the release of the final version of the Winograd Committee’s evaluation of Israel’s Second War in Lebanon (12 July -14 August 2006), and it is getting somewhat lost in the overall media coverage of the report, despite the shared assumptions.

The Winograd Committee report said in its conclusions that “Israel cannot survive in this region, and cannot live in it in peace or at least non-war, unless people in Israel itself and in its surroundings believe that Israel has the political and military leadership, military capabilities, and social robustness that will allow her to deter those of its neighbors who wish to harm her, and to prevent them – if necessary through the use of military force – from achieving their goal”.

Loud and persistent accusations that concerns about these cuts of vital supplies to Gaza are merely part of a manipulated propaganda war against Israel are causing even greater media reticence than usual.

According to an analysis by Gisha of the state’s presentation in Court on Sunday, “They argued that the fuel cuts are economic sanctions taken against Gaza as part of ‘economic warfare’, which was described as a life-saving alternative to a large-scale ground operation. They argued that Gaza is no longer occupied, but that even if it were, only minimal obligations are owed to its civilian population, obligations which they characterized as the duty to avoid a humanitarian crisis or to permit the fulfillment of minimal humanitarian needs. They argued that they were permitting enough fuel and electricity to provide for humanitarian needs, and that it was up to the leadership in Gaza to prioritize its distribution to give preference to humanitarian needs. They argued that they were monitoring the humanitarian situation in Gaza to make sure that basic needs were being met, and that the Defense Minister had broad discretion to wage a battle against militants in the way he saw fit”.

After Wednesday’s ruling, Gisha and Adalah said in a joint statement that: “This decision sets a dangerous legal precedent that allows Israel to continue to violate the rights of Palestinians in Gaza and deprive them of basic humanitarian needs, in violation of international law.

Bashi said after the ruling that ‘This is an unprecedented decision authorizing collective punishment in its most blatant form. The court ruling relies on unsubstantiated declarations by the military and ignores the indisputable and well-documented evidence of harm to civilians caused by the fuel and electricity cuts…”

Hassan Jabareen, Director of Adalah, said that: “According to the Supreme Court’s decision, it is permitted to harm Palestinian civilians and create a humanitarian crisis for political reasons. This constitutes a war crime under international criminal law”.

Sunday’s hearing in Jerusalem was conducted almost as if the dramatic events of the last week at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt had not happened.

Lawyers from Gisha and Adalah appeared in their black robes and argued earnestly about why Israel should not impose collective punishments on 1.5 million people in Gaza.

The equally black-robed state attorney was far more relaxed.  At his side, IDF Colonel Nir Press, the head at Erez crossing of the Office of (Israeli) Coordination of Government Affairs, testified that Qassams, being fired day after day from Gaza at the Israeli city of Sderot, and a missile fired recently at Ashkelon, justified the military policy.

In his testimony, Colonel Press told the court that “the Palestinian media and Hamas leadership were distorting the facts in order to create an impression of crisis”.

The three sitting judges expressed impatience with both sides — but issued an interim order, Gisha legal adviser Kenneth Mann said after the hearing adjourned, telling the state to bring all its evidence to the court in the form of affadavits with precise information, such as who were the people who said the situation inside Gaza was ok, and which equipment was being fixed, and where.

Mann said that the judges appeared to believe that there was no humanitarian crisis if there were no physical injuries and casualties

“Gazans sitting in the cold and the dark for 12 hours or more at a time is not a humanitarian crisis for them”, he said.  And what about the sewage flooding? “The judges think the Gazans can just clean it up”, he replied.
Hassan Jabareen of Adalah said after the hearing that the arguments presented by the state and the military in court “contradicts our affadavits” which contain clear and documented figures.
Fatmeh ‘Ajou of Adalah said that “the state tried to avoid the fact that they can’t refute our explanations.  They used shallow arguments, such as ‘the situation is not as the petitioners are saying’. The Court is now avoiding the fact that for the last three months civilians were used as objects, despite all the public statements [by Israeli military and government officials] about the punitive purposes of such sanctions. The whole treatment of Gaza is that there is a legal vacuum”.

‘Ajou added that the judges “didn’t want us to respond to the state argument that the opening of the crossing at Rafah meant that Israel no longer had responsibility for Gaza. Judge Beinisch told us ‘No, they are not claiming that yet, they might reconsider their legal argument”.

Bashi said after the hearing that “We let the judges know that the state violated the request” for the appearance at the hearing of two Gaza professionals who are co-petitioners in the case, and who could have explained the technical details concerning the Gaza power plant and Gaza’s electricity-distributing company.

Dr. Rafiq Maliha, project manager of the Gaza Power Plant, and Engineer Nedal Toman, project manager of GEDCO, were informed that they would be given permits to participate in the Supreme Court hearing on Sunday. They arrived at the Erez terminal at 7 am.  But, they said, they were not actually given the permits until the court session started at 10 am.

Despite their best efforts, and a frantic taxi ride from the Gaza border to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, the two Gazans arrived about 20 minutes after the hearing was concluded by the judges, who decided not to wait for their arrival.

Toman has explained in several sworn affidavits presented to the Court that it is impossible to redirect electricity in Gaza.   But, in Sunday’s hearing, the state attorney told the Court  – without the benefit of Toman’s presence for any questioning on this precise point – that some unnamed “Palestinians” had told the military that it could in fact be done, and humanitarian damage avoided.

So, the Court has decided to be convinced by the state and military assurances that it is not the intention to cause humanitarian damage in Gaza.  If there is damage anyway, it would be accidental and unintended – and therefore within the realm of legality.

The judge’s ruling noted the assurances given by Colonel Peres that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was being monitored – apparently through the military’s “regular contact with Palestinian officials and international organizations who maintain humanitarian needs in Gaza”.  And, the judges suggested, any future concerns should be addressed directly “to the military officials in charge of monitoring the humanitarian situation in Gaza”.

Throughout the process, Gisha said in a post-ruling analysis, they were cut off every time they tried to argue that Gaza was still under occupation: “The judges curtailed argument on the question of what law is applicable, pressing the petitioners to address only the factual question of whether the reduction in supply of fuel and electricity planned by the military could in fact cause a humanitarian crisis”.

Gisha said that was reflected in Wednesdays ruling by the panel of judges, headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish, who “instead adopted, without comment, the ‘minimum humanitarian standard’ proffered by the state, saying ‘in light of the conclusions we have reached as outlined below, and considering the state’s declaration concerning its commitment to fulfill the essential humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip, we did not see fit, at this stage, to address the principled legal questions raised by the parties before us’.”  But, Gisha believes, this “is a conclusion devoid of law”.

In an excerpt from the ruling translated from Hebrew by Gisha, the judges wrote:
“we note that since September 2005 Israel no longer has effective control over what takes place within the territory of the Gaza Strip. The military government that previously existed in that territory was abolished by decision of the government, and Israeli soldiers are not present in that area on an ongoing basis and do not direct what goes on there. Under these circumstances, the State of Israel bears no general obligation to concern itself with the welfare of the residents of the Strip or to maintain public order within the Gaza Strip, according to the international law of occupation. Israel also has no effective ability, in its current status, to instill order and manage civilian life in Gaza. Under the current circumstances, the primary obligations borne by the State of Israel with regards to the residents of the Gaza Strip are derived from the state of armed conflict that prevails between it and the Hamas organization which controls the Gaza Strip; its obligations also stem from the degree of control that the State of Israel has over the border crossings between it and the Gaza Strip; and also from the situation that was created between the State of Israel and the Gaza Strip territory due to years of Israeli military control in the area, as a result of which the Gaza Strip is at this time almost totally dependent on Israel for its supply of electricity”.

This, Gisha said, “is a dramatic departure from the court’s precedent applying the laws of occupation to Gaza and the West Bank”.

Meanwhile, this ruling also keeps pressure on Hamas, as PA President Mahmoud Abbas is in Egypt to discuss the breach in the border at Rafah.  Abbas says he will not talk to Hamas until they give back Gaza.  And Abbas says he wants to go back to the exact same November 2005 agreement that previously governed the Rafah crossing – an agreement  brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who has recently seemed more flexible than Abbas on what to do about the Rafah crossing now.

On the 25th of January, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told journalists that “We are confident that the Egyptians are capable of handling their own sovereign responsibilities along the border…From our perspective, it’s up to the Egyptians to determine how they would like to proceed. They’re a sovereign nation and this is their border with Gaza and ultimately it’s their responsibility”.