Bin Laden, On Tape, Urges Holy War, Over Gaza, Israel
Jan 14 2009, 05:44 PM
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JERUSALEM — Nine Israeli human rights groups called on Wednesday for an investigation into whether Israeli officials had committed war crimes in Gaza since tens of thousands of civilians there have nowhere to flee, the health system has collapsed, many are without electricity and running water, and some are beyond the reach of rescue teams.
“This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask be investigated, of the commission of war crimes,” the groups said in their first news conference on the 19-day-old war.
The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, who spent Tuesday in Gaza City, agreed that the situation with civilians was dire but said the principal hospital was making do with medical supplies, and doctors, working around the clock, were mostly coping with the flow of injured.
“In general they did not complain about the lack of equipment or material,” he said at separate a news conference in Jerusalem.
As the Gaza death toll passed 1,000, Hamas militants fired off more than a dozen rockets into Israel, including four longer-range ones near the cities of Beersheva and Ashdod, sending a message of menace but causing no injuries. Three rockets were also fired from Lebanon into northern Israel and Israel returned fire to the source.
Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, spoke up from hiding and in a taped audio message called on Muslims everywhere to fight Israel in holy war.
Efforts to reach a cease-fire made progress with some officials predicting a deal could be five to six days away. Hamas leaders met with Egyptian officials in Cairo and agreed in principle to a monitoring force composed of Europeans on Gazan soil to prevent smuggling of weapons, according to a senior Egyptian official. A senior Israeli was due in Cairo on Thursday to discuss the plan.
Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his generals favor a temporary cease-fire of several days to a week — partly so that when Barack Obama is inaugurated as president next week it would be in the middle of a lull rather than battle and his administration could offer views on the next step, Israeli officials said. Mr. Barak has been in close touch with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates who will hold the same position after the inauguration that he holds now.
The short-term cease-fire would, if successful, be followed by a negotiated year-long truce, something which Egypt says Hamas also favors if it includes an opening of commercial traffic into Gaza. There remain, however, splits in Hamas between those who are Syria-based and those in Gaza. The Gazans are more open to a week-long break while the Damascus officials want something from Israel in return for holding fire then.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo early in the day as part of a regional tour to help press for implementation of a Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire. He met with President Hosni Mubarak and then issued a plea for peace.
“I repeat my call for an immediate and durable ceasefire,” he said at a press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit. “Hamas rocket attacks must stop and at the same time I have been condemning the excessive military operation by the Israelis.”
The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, also called for a cease-fire, saying in an interview with the BBC, “The effect of war is more dangerous than war sowing seeds of extremism and terror around the region.”
The Israeli human rights groups that called for an investigation said that while they believed it was legitimate for Israel to bomb military installations, it was a violation of international law for it to hit civilian sites like government buildings that contained no weapons or missiles.
The group included the Israel section of Amnesty International, B’Tselem, Gisha and Physicians for Human Rights — Israel.
Mr. Kellenberger of the Red Cross said Israel had facilitated his trip to Gaza and added that he had seen no evidence of the use of white phosphorous, an obscurant used in military conflicts that can be dangerous for civilians under certain circumstances and that Palestinians say Israel is firing.
Last week, the Red Cross issued an unusually harsh condemnation of Israel for failing to allow its personnel into Gaza to rescue people trapped in battle. On Wednesday, Mr. Kellenberger said that although the situation remains critical, rescue missions had not been entirely shut down. The organization rescued 100 people trapped in Jabalya, north of Gaza City, on Tuesday.
The Red Cross representative in Israel, Pierre Wettach, added that he now believed Israel was trying hard to facilitate his group’s access to the wounded.
“At this stage, they want as far as possible that these things work,” he said, referring to rescue missions.
The military operations continued apace in southern Gaza with the Israeli military reporting that its warplanes carried out three dozen bombing raids, striking rocket launchers and smuggler tunnels. Still, with the cease-fire talks gaining ground and Israeli leaders concerned about sending their troops into the heart of Gaza City, Israel held off on expanding its war to the next phase.
Meanwhile, Egypt found itself dragged into a conflict with Arab states. Egypt had been resisting calls by the small oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar for an emergency meeting of the Arab League.
The call for a meeting in Qatar seemed to be an effort to upstage a meeting already planned for Monday in Kuwait and to give critics of Egyptian and Saudi Arabian mediation efforts a public forum to embarrass and berate them, officials in Cairo said.
The league is supposed to represent the interests of its 22 member states, but many of those states have been openly feuding with each other over the war in Gaza.
“It is a hideous state for the Arabs,” said Mahmoud Shokry, Egypt’s former ambassador to Syria. “The Arabs are split. If we talk about Arabs, we’re talking about 22 countries but do these 22 countries represent one will?
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken heat from other Arab countries for pressing Hamas to stop its rocket attacks on Israel and for not doing more to help Hamas. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah are both planning to attend the Kuwait conference which has been organized to discuss economic issues but has been reoriented to deal with the war. The meeting in Qatar, if it is held, would involve only foreign ministers.
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