14 January, 2009

Gaza: Running Out of Places to Bury the Dead

The tiny Gaza Strip confronts a new crisis as its living try to bury their dead:

One family buried a slain son over his grandfather. Another bundled up the tiny bodies of three young cousins and lowered them into the grave of a long-dead aunt. A man was laid to rest with his brother.

More than two weeks into the Israeli offensive that has killed more than 940 Palestinians, Gazans are struggling to find places to bury their dead. Cemeteries throughout Gaza City that were closed for new burials have now reopened.

The Israeli assault continues to tear Gaza's cities apart, ensuring those overflowing cemeteries will continue to fill:

A row of houses in Gaza City was demolished by a powerful air strike. The street was filled with rubble and furniture, severed electricity wires and telephone cables lay on the ground, and windows of nearby houses were shattered.

Four Palestinians, including at least two militants, were killed and 32 people were wounded in overnight fighting, Gaza hospital officials said.

Palestinians said aircraft also struck the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, destroying tombs and unearthing dozens of bodies. Gaza City residents, too terrified to venture out to the only area graveyard that has space for new graves, have reopened the Sheikh Radwan burial ground to bury their dead. The military had no immediate comment.

Early Wednesday, Israeli tanks resumed firing at civilian areas, using shells that ignited small fires before dissolving into clouds of white smoke that hung above the city center, witnesses said.

Those shells would be white phosphorus:

White Phosphorous is legal for use as a smoke bomb but the use of WP as a weapon targeting civilian areas is a violation of international treaties. The US and Israel however have refused to sign those treaties – and Israel is now claiming innocence by comparing its munitions to those used by … well, us.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that Israel was only using legal weapons of the type used by other Western armies. “Israel military forces only use munitions that are acceptable under international law and international convention,” he said.

“The type of munitions used by Israel are similar, if not identical, to munitions used by other Western democracies, including Nato members.” His comments came a day after Dr Yusef Abu Rish, a doctor at Gaza City’s Nasser hospital, said he had treated at least 55 people suffering burns caused by controversial white phosphorus shells.

It’s not a stretch to assume that Regev is referring to the admitted use of White Phosphorous by the United States forces against Fallujah.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman in Paris, Eric Chevalier, recalled that "from a strictly legal point of view" the use of this weapon as a smokescreen "would be tolerated in principle according to international humanitarian law," although he pointed out the HRWs warning to the "dangerous effects" on the population. "France joins the demand made by HRW to the Israeli authorities not to use these weapons, given their toxicity and the density of the population in Gaza, " Chevalier affirmed.

In the open, those weapons may be "acceptable under international law." In an area densely packed with civilians with nowhere to go, their acceptability becomes extremely questionable.

As does the insistence of Israel and its allies that they're fighting a humane war:

Max Blumenthal reports from a pro-war rally staged by New York politicians and some local Jewish groups:

Sen. Chuck Schumer highlighted Israel’s supposed humanitarian methods of warfare by pointing to its text messaging of certain Gaza Strip residents urging them to vacate their homes before Israeli forces bombed them. “What other country would do that?”

Todd Gitlin observes that this is pretty ignorant and solipsistic:

The U. S., for one. According to the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force, the U. S. dropped millions of leaflets over North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder of 1965-68.... [T]he U. S. also dropped such leaflets over Iraq during 2002-03.

Russia, for another, during the first Chechen war. Leaflets, that is, not text messages.

So they're raining down leaflets along with the bombs, and sending text messages to people who likely don't have electricity to charge a cell phone battery with. Even if they get the message, where are Gazans supposed to go? There's nowhere for them to run:

According to the United Nations, about 30,000 people are living in schools it sponsors and an estimated 60,000 have fled to the houses of relatives. The figures still represent a small part of Gaza’s 1.5 million population but have doubled in the past four days, United Nations officials said, raising concerns about the humanitarian impact of a broader war.

“What began as very small, isolated numbers is now turning into a torrent,” said Aidan O’Leary, deputy director for the United Nations agency that deals with Palestinian refugees.

Maj. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli military spokesman, said units used leaflets to warn families to leave areas where they planned to operate. Aid officials say that with Gaza’s borders closed, choices for shelters in the 140-square-mile strip are slim and the shelters are not completely safe. Last week, as many as 43 people were killed near a United Nations school by an Israeli mortar strike that the military said was in response to a Hamas attack. The Israeli military disputes the death toll.

I'm sure they do. And I'm sure that when all is said and done, the cemeteries will speak louder than Israel's military as to that death toll.

Egypt is trying to ensure the bombs will stop falling, but the signs aren't good:

On the diplomatic front, Egyptian mediators pushed Hamas to accept a truce proposal and, in a hopeful sign, Israel sent its lead negotiator to Cairo for "decisive" talks on a cease-fire. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also headed for the region to join diplomatic efforts.

Israeli military officials say that depending on what happens with what they described as "decisive" talks in Cairo, Israel will move closer to a cease-fire or widen its offensive.

I have a feeling we'll be seeing the latter. After all, the calculus here is impossible:

When Israel invaded Lebanon, it set its victory conditions "destroying" Hezbollah. Since that was impossible, day one it was clear that Israel could not and would not win the war. The scope of the loss was not yet clear, but that it would be a loss was not in question. Things aren't quite as clear in the Israeli attack on Gaza. Still, Israel has set is victory conditions. To win it needs to either:

a) destroy Hamas and have Fatah take over; or,
b) stop the rocket attacks permanently.

To win Hamas needs to:

a) not be destroyed; and,
b) not stop the missile attacks unless they get the border crossings opened. Note that if they start the attacks up a month after the end of
the war, that's good enough to show it wasn't a victory.

We all know who those odds favor. And we know that Hamas has very little incentive to bow to Israel. Not after what happened the last time they agreed to a ceasefire, and then watched Israel choke the lifeblood out of Gaza before violating it.

A few lonely voices of reason are rising amidst the bombs. Perhaps as the killing continues, there will be more:
An Israeli soldier has been jailed for refusing to take part in the army's offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The unnamed soldier refused because of the civilian deaths resulting from the 17-day incursion.

He has been jailed for fourteen days after being charged with, and convicted for, refusing to obey orders.

A number of reservists are believed to be considering not participating in the war after being called up in recent days.


Meantime Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday demanded Hamas and Israel end the violence, and observe the recently passed UN resolution calling for a ceasefire.

"The fighting must stop. To both sides, I say, just stop now. Too many people have died," he said.

"We have a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate and enduring ceasefire. This resolution must be observed," he said.
I hope Israel and Hamas listen to those voices, before the cemeteries can hold no more.

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