Rockets, airstrikes rock Gaza cease-fire

GAZA CITY: Palestinian rockets exploded in -Israel and Israeli jets bombed the Egypt-Gaza border Monday, as talks dragged on over a long-term truce that would bring quiet to the coastal territory.

Two rockets fired from Gaza landed in Israel, the Israeli military said, a near-daily occurrence even after the devastating three-week Israeli offensive that was meant to bring a halt to the fire. No one was injured, the military said.

Several hours later, Israeli jets bombed an area of smuggling tunnels in the frontier town of Rafah, according residents and Hamas security officials. Israel’s military said the strike targeted a tunnel used to smuggle weapons in from Egypt and was retaliation for the rocket fire.

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Hamas accepts 18-month Gaza truce

CAIRO: Hamas has accepted an 18-month truce with Israel in the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian media reported on Friday.

“We agreed to the truce with the Israeli side for one year and a half,” Hamas politburo deputy chief Moussa Abu-Marzouk said in a statement, adding that Gaza’s six border crossings should be re-opened and the Jewish country must “stop military actions and aggressions in all forms”.

Marzouk also said Egypt will announce the result of the truce talks “within two days”, after contacting Israel and other Palestinian factions.

The breakthrough came Thursday after intensive talks between a Hamas delegation led by Marzouk and Egyptian intelligence chief and pointman for the truce talks, Omar Suleiman.

Egypt has been endeavoring to secure a lasting truce to replace the fragile ceasefire, declared Jan 18 separately by both Israel and Hamas movement, ending Israel’s 22-day massive assault in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Over 1,300 Palestinians were killed and 5,500 others wounded during the war, while 14 Israelis have died since the launch of the deadly offensive in Gaza Dec 27.

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UN chief to set up panel to probe Israel’s bombing in Gaza

UNITED NATIONS: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has informed the Security Council of his intention to establish a commission to look into Israel’s bombing of UN facilities in Gaza, the Council’s president said Monday.

The UN chief made the announcement in a closed-door briefing to the Security Council about his recent overseas visit to Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, Council president for February, Japan’s UN Ambassador Yukio Takasu, told reporters in New York.

Ban said that he will inform the Council of the panel’s composition in the next few days and that a report will be presented to the Council on the its findings, Takasu said.

Palestine’s UN observer Riyad Mansour told reporters that the commission will be composed of four individuals and a member of the Secretariat and will be headed by Ian Martin, a former president of Amnesty International and the current special representative of the secretary-general in Nepal for the UN Mission there.

“The fact that the secretary-general will report back to the Council is another indication that the Council will remain engaged on this phase of investigation of the crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinian people and the properties of the United Nations, and the crimes against humanity,” Mansour said, adding that Ban’s move is “a step in the right direction of investigating crimes committed by Israel.”

When the commission submits its report to the Security Council, it will be the responsibility of the Council to decide what to do with it, he said. Mansour also said that the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which had also decided to establish a commission, “may be in the final stages of putting that commission together to go and have a larger scope investigation.”

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Egypt hopes for Gaza truce deal ‘in few days’

CAIRO: Egypt is hopeful that a Gaza truce accord between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas can be reached in the next few days, foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told a foreign news agency on Sunday.

“There are positive signs that in the next few days we will reach an understanding on a truce and and a partial reopening of crossing points (into Gaza),” Zaki said.

Egypt has been mediating indirect talks for a lasting truce since the end of Israel’s massive 22-day onslaught on the Gaza Strip, which killed at least 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The fighting ended when both Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Islamist rulers called separate ceasefires on January 18.

However, the fragile calm has been tested by Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel and retaliatory air strikes.

On Saturday, a spokesman for Hamas said it expected an agreement with Israel on the the reopening of border crossings into the Gaza Strip “within the next few days.”

Israeli and Palestinian officials have been shuttling to Cairo for talks with Egypt’s intelligence chief and Middle East mediator Omar Suleiman, hoping for a truce deal with just two days until Israel’s election.

A Hamas delegation from Gaza led by firebrand Mahmud Zahar was in Syria on Sunday for consultations on the truce negotiations with Damascus-based members of the group’s powerful politburo, Hamas official Mohammed Nasr said.

The delegation is due to return to the Egyptian capital on Monday, the Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman said.

Israel, which controls all border crossings except Rafah, which is managed by Egypt, has kept the densely populated strip closed to all but essential supplies since June 2007 when Hamas violently seized power, ousting forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Egypt closed Rafah on Thursday, after opening it to aid and to Palestinians who were wounded during the war. Egypt has refused to permanently open the crossing in the absence of EU monitors and Abbas’s representatives.

Hamas officials have said they are seeking clarifications on an Israeli offer to allow between 70 and 80 percent of goods through its crossings into Gaza, barring those it says could be used to make weapons.

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Gaza rocket strikes southern Israel

JERUSALEM: A rocket fired by militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip struck southern Israel on Saturday, causing no injuries, the Israeli military said.

The rocket, which landed near the Israeli city of Ashkelon, was one of a few to hit the Jewish state since a Jan. 18ceasefire with the Islamist group Hamas ended 22 days of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

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Gaza farmers hit hard by war with Israel: UN

ROME: Palestinian farmers were severely affected by the Gaza war, posing a threat to food security, the UN food agency said Friday, appealing for 6.5 million dollars (five million euros) in immediate assistance.

“Almost all of Gaza’s 13,000 families who depend on farming, herding and fishing have suffered damage to their assets during the recent conflict, and many farms have been completely destroyed,” the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a news release.

Israel’s 22-day war on Gaza to stop rocket attacks by Palestinian militants caused widespread destruction in the Palestinian territory and killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, a third of them children.

“Farmers already struggling to make a profit before the outbreak of the conflict are now facing the possible irreversible loss of their livelihoods,” said Luigi Damiani, senior project coordinator for the FAO in Jerusalem.

“Destruction caused to the agricultural sector has worsened ongoing problems of food production caused by 18 months of border closure,” the Rome-based agency said, predicting increased food insecurity.

Pre-existing problems include costly or unavailable agricultural inputs, restricted access to land and sea, and “severely curtailed” movement of goods, the FAO said.

“People in Gaza are facing an acute shortage of nutritious, locally produced and affordable food,” the agency said, adding that more and more Gazans are relying on food aid or turning to cheaper and less nutritious food.

“For many women whose husbands were killed or injured during the conflict it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide food for their families,” Damiani said.

The UN Relief and Works Agency has estimated financial needs of nearly 270 million euros to rebuild their own infrastructure and keep providing essential services to the Palestinians in Gaza.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that the United Nations was appealing for 470 million euros to provide food, water, shelter, health care and other assistance after the conflict.

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Ehud Barak cancels US trip due to Gaza tensions

JERUSALEM: Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak canceled his planned departure on Wednesday for talks in Washington due to renewed tensions in Gaza, a senior ministry official said.

“Barak decided to cancel his trip to the United States during which he planned to meet his US counterpart Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and other senior officials in the administration due to the security events in the south,” he said.

Barak was due to leave for Washington after meeting US President Barack Obama’s new Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell in Jerusalem.

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Deadly roadside bombing threatens Gaza truce

JERUSALEM – Palestinian militants detonated a bomb next to an Israeli army patrol along the border with Gaza on Tuesday, killing one soldier and wounding three others in the first serious clash since a cease-fire went into effect more than a week ago.

Israeli soldiers quickly crossed the border in search of the attackers and Israel‘s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said Israel “cannot accept” the attack.

“We will respond, but there is no point in elaborating,” Barak said in comments released by his office.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.

The incident jolted the calm that has largely prevailed since Israel ended a devastating three-week offensive on Jan. 17. Since withdrawing its troops, Israel has threatened to strike hard at any violations of the truce.

Heavy gunfire was audible along the border in central Gaza and Israeli helicopters hovered in the air firing machine gun bursts, Palestinian witnesses said. An Israeli jet broke the sound barrier and set off a loud sonic boom over Gaza City not long afterward, possibly as a warning, but there were no further reports of Israeli retaliation.

The Israeli military said the bomb targeted an Israeli patrol near the border community of Kissufim.

It was not clear if the bomb had been planted after the cease-fire took hold or whether it was an older device.

Not long after the bombing, a 27-year-old Gaza farmer was killed by Israeli gunfire along the border several miles away, said Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza’s Health Ministry. Two other Palestinians were wounded. The military had no immediate comment and it was unclear if the two incidents were related.

Israel closed its crossings into Gaza to humanitarian aid traffic after briefly opening them Tuesday morning. Gaza border official Raed Fattouh said Israeli officials informed him the closure was due to the attack.

Israel and Gaza militants have been holding their fire since Israel ended its offensive, which was aimed at halting rocket fire from the territory. Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire on Jan. 17, and that was followed by a similar announcement from Gaza militants.

In the days immediately following the cease-fire there was shelling by Israeli gunboats and some gunfire along the border — including the killing of two men Palestinian officials identified as farmers — but there were no serious clashes until Tuesday.

Although there was no claim of responsibility, Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas leader, said Israel was to blame for continuing to fire into Gaza. Al-Masri said his group had not agreed to a full cease-fire but only to a “lull” in fighting.

“The Zionists are responsible for any aggression,” he said.

Egypt is currently trying to negotiate a longer-term arrangement to allow quiet in the coastal territory of 1.4 million people, which has been ruled by the Islamic militants of Hamas since June 2007.

Israel wants an end to Hamas rocket attacks and guarantees that Hamas will be prevented from smuggling weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Hamas has demanded that Israel and Egypt reopen Gaza’s border crossings, which have been largely closed since Hamas took power. The crossings are Gaza’s economic lifeline.

The Israeli offensive killed 1,285 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, according to records kept by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were also killed during the fighting.


Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report

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Could Israelis Face War Crimes Charges Over Gaza?

Israel likes to believe that its Defense Force is the world’s most “moral” army, and it insisted throughout the recent Gaza war that great care was always taken to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. It may surprise and rile many Israelis, then, that their government is trying to protect its citizens from war crimes charges that could be filed in foreign courts over the conduct of hostilities in Gaza. Fearful that Israeli commanders could be targeted for arrest while traveling abroad as private citizens on business or vacation, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz on Tuesday ordered the Israeli media to refrain from revealing the names of any military personnel who took part in the 22-day offensive. Officers involved in the operation who want to travel abroad are now required to first check in with the office of the Judge Advocate, which will determine if the soldier is on a foreign watch list that might lead to his arrest.

Israeli military experts insist that their forces are far more careful to avoid civilian casualties than, say, the U.S. military has been in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, the high civilian casualty toll in Gaza has put the Israeli military’s conduct of operations there under scrutiny, and one senior U.N. official has suggested Israel may have committed “crimes against humanity” in the course of its campaign against Hamas militants hiding among Gaza’s civilian population. Palestinian medical sources claim that over 300 children and 100 women were among Gaza’s 1,200 fatalities. And the United Nations, Amnesty International, the International Committee for the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.), Human Right Watch, as well as Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have all been investigating allegations of conduct that violates the laws of war. (See pictures of Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza)

Among the allegations being probed are claims that Israel targeted ambulances and medical crews, improperly used incendiary bombs such as white phosphorus in dense civilian areas (a claim also being internally investigated by the Israeli military), prevented the evacuation of wounded carrying white flags, and targeted schools, hospitals, supply convoys and a U.N. compound where over 1,000 civilians had taken shelter. Although Israel dropped thousands of leaflets and made phone calls to targeted buildings warning of impending bombardments, Palestinians argue that they had no safe places in which to take refuge amid Israel’s fierce bombardment.

Legal experts doubt that Israelis could be hauled before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, because Israel, like the U.S., is not party to the treaty that created it, and also because the U.S. and European governments would likely prevent such a course of action. What worries authorities in Jerusalem is that many European countries are signatories to a Geneva Convention that allows their courts to arrest and prosecute individuals accused of committing war crimes in other countries. Such legal options, Israel fears, may be used to bring politically motivated charges against its citizens. The daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported Wednesday that Israel’s Foreign and Justice ministries have begun drawing up lists of law firms in different European countries that could be enlisted to defend Israelis in any future cases.

Another influential newspaper, the leftist Haaretz, even urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to set up an independent inquiry into accusations of war crimes by the Israeli military in Gaza. “Has the IDF (the Israeli Defense Forces) crossed the line according to international law?” the paper wrote. “Was there no other way aside from such widespread killing and destruction?” The editorial argued that Israel needed its own inquiry because “We cannot wait until the world has its say, and perhaps takes legal steps of its own.”

Any international inquiry into Israel’s wartime behavior might be more palatable to Israelis if it also probed alleged violations of the Geneva Convention by Hamas. Before and during the conflict, Hamas had fired shot rockets into Israeli towns; inside Gaza, according to the Israeli army, the militants had used civilians as “human shields,” and had stored weapons in schools, hospitals and mosques – all illegal under Geneva.

But regardless of whether any legal action follows, the probes add to the pall of bitterness hanging over an operation whose ambiguous outcome has left many Israelis questioning just what was achieved by their war in Gaza.

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