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Tens of thousands of Palestinians are pouring into Egypt to buy food, fuel and other supplies today after militants destroyed most of a border wall in the Gaza town of Rafah. The border crossing comes on the sixth day of an Israeli blockade that has cut off all deliveries to Gaza amidst ongoing Israeli attacks. Israel says it’s trying to stop Palestinian militants from launching rockets at nearby Israeli towns. Israel began allowing a limited amount of fuel deliveries on Tuesday following growing international pressure. UN relief official John Ging welcomed the move but warned of a deepening crisis.
John Ging: “The supplies coming into Gaza today are a welcome first step, their recognition that Gaza cannot survive for very long at all without supplies and we are teetering here for the last seven months on the brink of a catastrophe.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports the Israeli government plans to keep the border permanently closed, except in the case of a humanitarian emergency. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the U.S. is blocking a UN Security Council measure that would condemn Israel’s blockade and assault on Gaza as “illegal.” UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe warned Israel is carrying out collective punishment.
Lynn Pascoe: “Israel must reconsider and cease its policy of pressuring the civilian population of Gaza for the unacceptable actions of militants. Collective penalties, let me remind you, are prohibited by international law.”
The U.S. and Israel are also expected to boycott a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on the crisis in Gaza set for today. Israel’s envoy to the UN, Gilad Cohen, said Israel was acting as would any state.
Gilad Cohen: “I ask each member of the council, what will you do if London, Moscow, Paris or Tripoli was attacked and fired on? Would you sit back and do nothing? I’m certain that no member state on this council and certainly no country in the world would be silent, and Israel is no different.”
Speaking from Syria, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal said the Palestinian rockets are a response to ongoing Israeli attacks.
Khaled Meshaal: “The Palestinian rockets are a reaction to the occupation and aggression. Let Israel stop its aggression and end its occupation, and the resistance will stop its rockets, because the resistance is a way and not a goal.”
A new study says the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is killing around 45,000 people each month — half of them small children under the age of five. The International Rescue Committee says the war in the Congo is the deadliest conflict since the Second World War, with 5.4 million people killed over the past decade. The majority of deaths were attributed to preventable conditions worsened by the fighting, including infectious diseases, malnutrition and pregnancy-linked fatalities.
The former “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla has been sentenced to more than seventeen years in prison. Padilla and two co-defendants were found guilty last year of conspiracy to commit terrorism and providing material support toward that goal. Padilla originally made international headlines in 2002, when President Bush declared him an enemy combatant for allegedly plotting to set off a radioactive dirty bomb inside the United States. He was stripped of all rights, transferred to a Navy brig in South Carolina and held in extreme isolation for forty-three months. The Bush administration denied him access to an attorney for two years. Faced with a Supreme Court challenge, President Bush finally announced criminal charges far less serious than the public allegations made at the time of Padilla’s capture. Defense attorneys argued that Padilla was unfit to stand trial and that the indictment should be dismissed because of government mistreatment. Prosecutors had urged a sentence of life imprisonment. But on Tuesday, Judge Marcia Cooke cited what she called Padilla’s “harsh” ordeal in U.S. custody as a factor in his sentencing. Judge Cooke added, “There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere.”
A new study has provided the first count of the number of false statements made by the Bush administration in the lead-up to its invasion of Iraq. According to the Center for Public Integrity, President Bush and top White House officials made a total of 935 false statements about Iraq’s alleged national security threat in the two years following the 9/11 attacks. The study counts a total 532 times that Bush and other officials stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, was seeking to obtain them or had ties to al-Qaeda.
President Bush hosted congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday for talks on a $145 billion stimulus package for the economy.
President Bush: “I believe we can find common ground to get something done that’s big enough and effective enough so that an economy that is inherently strong gets a boost to make sure that this uncertainty doesn’t translate into, you know, more economic woes for our workers and small-business people.”
Most of the relief is said to focus on tax breaks for individuals, with some money for unemployment benefits and food stamps. On the campaign trail, Democratic hopeful John Edwards said the key to economic relief would come in addressing poverty.
John Edwards: “What has been missing in the American economy is any kind of thoughtfulness about over the long haul, we grow and strengthen the middle class and lift people out of poverty. Those two things together are absolutely crucial. And usually, by the way, when you are doing one, you are doing the other.”
Meanwhile, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said long-term recovery hinges on abolishing taxes completely.
Mike Huckabee: “The long-term economic recovery of this nation is getting rid of the IRS completely. I’d like to make it so that April 15th is just another beautiful spring day in Atlanta, as well as the rest of the country.”
In other campaign news, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson has dropped out of the Republican presidential race.
A new study is claiming to have totaled the first monetary estimate of the cost of global environmental damage caused by the world’s richest countries. According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the environmental damage wreaked on poorer countries amounts to more than the entire third world debt of $1.8 trillion dollars. The study used data from the World Bank and UN to estimate the unpaid costs of greenhouse gas emissions, ozone layer depletion, agriculture, deforestation, overfishing and shrimp farming.
And in North Carolina, seven activists are in court today to appeal their conviction for protesting outside the headquarters of the private military company Blackwater. The protesters say they were denied their constitutional right to a public trial. Six of them were tried, convicted and sentenced behind close doors after the judge took the rare step of clearing the courtroom. They received jail terms ranging from ten to forty-five days. The seven were arrested in October when they reenacted what happened in Baghdad on September 16, when Blackwater forces opened fire and shot dead seventeen Iraqi civilians. As part of the demonstration, protesters drove a small station wagon covered with simulated bullet holes and smeared with red paint onto Blackwater’s property.
MARY GRACE: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about this trial? What will happen today?
MARY GRACE: Well, hopefully, the judge will allow us to present evidence that we were upholding international law and necessity. However, that’s unlikely in our courts. We don’t seem to get justice here. So we’re just looking forward to a jury trial, so we are anticipating speaking directly to the jury about what we did and why we did it.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you do it, Mary Grace?
MARY GRACE: Well, we really — not just to call attention to the Nisoor Square massacre, which we reenacted, but to try to get people to pay attention to what Blackwater and other independent contractors are doing in Iraq and to stop the ongoing commission of illegal actions under international law.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you do? What was your participation in this protest?
MARY GRACE: I actually was watching the reenactment of a small portion of the Nisoor Square massacre as the demonstration was unfolding. They were doing this reenactment, and as I watched, I was just so strongly moved that I simply stepped over closer to where they were, knelt down and prayed.
AMY GOODMAN: This is an appeals court? This is the second trial?
MARY GRACE: Pardon me?
AMY GOODMAN: This is the second trial you’ll be facing today?
MARY GRACE: Yes, ma’am.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the sentence that you face?
MARY GRACE: I only face twenty days. My charge is simple trespass. My co-defendants have up to three charges.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you do it again?
MARY GRACE: Absolutely.
Mary Grace, speaking to us on the road on her cell phone. She is part of a group of protesters who protested outside Blackwater Worldwide in North Carolina.