In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the UN has been forced to suspend aid deliveries to the Gaza Strip. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency says it’s run out of fuel because of Israel’s blockade. The UN delivers aid to two-thirds of Gaza’s 1.4 million people. The top UN official in Gaza, John Ging, said Israel had ignored the agency’s warnings.
UNRWA Director John Ging: "There is a crisis here, and it will not be solved with one truck. We need over nine million liters of diesel for Gaza per month. There has been no diesel supply to Gaza at all, not one drop of diesel, since the 9th of April."
Israel has intensified its stranglehold over the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control last June. Gaza resident Abu Muhammad appealed for international intervention.
Abu Muhammad: "This is the world’s responsibility, the civilized and free world. This UN aid is the only source for this victim nation. If they stop the aid, it means we will die."
The aid halt comes as Israel has rejected Hamas’s offer for a six-month truce in the Gaza Strip. On Thursday, Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar said the deal could also extend to the West Bank.
Mahmoud Zahar: "We declare that the movement agrees to a truce in the Gaza Strip in the framework of a national consensus, such that it later extends to the West Bank and is fixed at six months, during which Egypt will work to extend the truce to the West Bank."
Egyptian officials helped broker the offer. The Israeli government called it a ruse to allow Hamas to recover from recent military losses. Israel has previously rejected similar Hamas overtures.
Meanwhile, at the White House, President Bush hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Thursday. Bush said he assured Abbas he wants to see the creation of a Palestinian state.
President Bush: "I assured the president that a Palestinian state is a high priority for me and my administration, a viable state, a state that doesn’t look like Swiss cheese, a state that provides hope. It’s in — I believe it’s in Israel’s interest and the Palestinian people’s interest to have leaders willing to work toward the achievement of that state.”
The meeting came hours after the Washington Post reported the Bush administration may have secretly authorized Israel’s expansion of Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land. This week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said President Bush had OKed settlement expansion even though his so-called peace plan officially calls for a freeze. Ariel Sharon’s former chief of staff, Dov Weissglas, also said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secretly reaffirmed White House approval of West Bank settlement expansion in the spring of 2005, right before Israel dismantled its settlements in the Gaza Strip. On Thursday, the State Department denied reaching a secret agreement with Israel.
Meanwhile, an Israeli official has leveled Israel’s harshest criticism to date of former President Jimmy Carter’s peace efforts in the Middle East. On Thursday, Israel’s UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman said Carter has “[turned] into what I believe to be a bigot.” Gillmeran’s comments follow Carter’s meeting with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Syria earlier this week. The two discussed a ceasefire with Israel and a long-term peace deal. Carter has accused Israel of undermining any hopes for a viable peace through its expansion of settlements and ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Iraq, at least seven people are dead following overnight clashes between US forces and Shia fighters in the Baghdad district of Sadr City. Another forty-five people were injured. US helicopter gunships reportedly fired on several areas.
The top US oversight official in Iraq is questioning the Pentagon’s information on the readiness of Iraqi troops. In a new report, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen says the Pentagon’s figure of around 530,000 Iraqi forces is unreliable. Bowen says the Pentagon may be including Iraqi soldiers who have been killed, wounded, or who have deserted the Iraqi army.
The Pakistani government says it’s close to reaching a truce with militants in the volatile region along the Afghanistan border. Pakistan would withdraw from South Waziristan and exchange prisoners in return for an end to militant activity. The deal would come over heavy objection from the US, which has opposed Pakistani negotiations with militant groups. Militant leader Baitullah Mehsud has already ordered followers to halt armed activities as the deal nears completion.
The World Food Program is warning it will need to cut services unless donors can cover a 40 percent rise in operational costs. The price of rice has hit record highs in Asia at $1,000 a ton, nearly triple over the start of the year. Here in the US, two major food chains stoked panic this week when they announced they would ration rice sales at their supermarkets. On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson downplayed worries of a domestic food shortage.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson: "In the US, I don’t see food shortages. We have plenty of food in the US. The price of food has gone up, but again that won’t be as significant for the average American as the price of gasoline. But in the world, it is a significant issue, and the United States is focused on getting food to those who need it the most and getting it there quickly, emergency food relief. And we provide about half of that for the world.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting a record number of American families face energy shut-offs because of record-high heating costs this year. State officials say millions of Americans behind on heating and gas bills could see their power cut over the next two months. Costs for staple items such as energy and food have skyrocketed at a time when wages for lower-income Americans are stagnant. States including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and New York have seen record applicants for heating aid. Rhode Island is expected to shut off power to 30,000 families, topping a record set last year. The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association says federal energy subsidies reached nearly six million homes this year, the highest in sixteen years. The figure would have been higher, if not for rules forcing states to reduce the number of eligible recipients.
In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has postponed a controversial plan to spray pesticides over several northern counties. The spraying would come as part of efforts to eradicate the light brown apple moth. But opponents have rallied against the plan over concerns the pesticides threaten public health and safety. The spraying will be delayed nearly three months to allow further testing.
In media news, the Senate Commerce Committee has passed a “resolution of disapproval” on the FCC’s attempts to undo limits on media ownership. If approved by Congress and President Bush, the move would veto the FCC’s repeal of rules barring companies from owning a broadcast station and major daily newspaper in the same market.
On the campaign trail, Republican candidate John McCain was in New Orleans Thursday, where he criticized the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. Speaking from the Lower Ninth Ward, McCain called the government’s response “terrible and disgraceful” and vowed “never again.” McCain in fact spent the first hours of Hurricane Katrina with President Bush. On August 29th, 2005, hours after Katrina struck, Bush presented McCain with a cake to honor his sixty-ninth birthday.
Barack Obama’s former pastor has spoken out in his first broadcast interview since his criticism of US government policies became a major issue in the 2008 Democratic presidential race. The Reverend Jeremiah Wright has come under heavy criticism from political pundits for linking the attacks of September 11 to US foreign policy in the Middle East and for saying the United States was founded on racism. In an interview with PBS journalist Bill Moyers airing tonight, Wright says his comments have been misused.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright: “The persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly. A failure to communicate is when something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public. That’s not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or, as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a ‘wackadoodle.’ It’s to paint me as something — something’s wrong with me. ’There’s nothing wrong with this country or its policies. We’re perfect. Our hands are free. Our hands have no blood on them.’ That’s not a failure to communicate. The message that is being communicated by the sound bites is exactly what those pushing those sound bites want to communicate.”
Bill Moyers: “What do you think they wanted to communicate?”
Rev. Wright: “I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ. And, by the way, guess who goes to his church, hint, hint, hint? That’s what they wanted to communicate. They know nothing about the church. They know nothing about our prison ministry. They know nothing about our food ministry. They know nothing about our senior citizens home. They know nothing about all we try to do as a church and have tried to do and still continue to do as a church that believes what Martin Marty said, that the two worlds have to be together and that the gospel of Jesus Christ has to speak to those worlds, not only in terms of the preached message on a Sunday morning but in terms of the lived-out ministry throughout the week.”
Moyers: “What did you think when you began to see those very brief sound bites circulating as they did?”
Rev. Wright: “I felt it was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue. I felt those who were doing that were doing it for some very devious reasons.”
The Bill Moyers interview with Reverend Wright airs tonight at 9:00 on PBS.
And here in New York, a verdict is expected today in the trial of three police officers accused of killing Sean Bell. The unarmed Bell died in a hail of fifty police bullets on the morning of what would have been his wedding day. A judge is trying the case rather than a jury.