The Israeli government is vowing to give legal protection to soldiers accused of committing war crimes during the twenty-two-day attack on Gaza which left over 1,300 Palestinians dead and more than 5,000 wounded. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet the Israeli military would be safe from any war crime charges brought against them by the international community.
Ehud Olmert: "The commanders and soldiers sent to Gaza should know they are safe from various tribunals, and the state of Israel will assist them on this front and will protect them as they protected us with their bodies during the military operation in Gaza."
Amnesty International has accused Israel of war crimes, including the use of white phosphorus in crowded civilian areas. For weeks, Israel has denied using white phosphorus, but over the weekend a Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed its use but claimed it was not used in an illegal manner. Eight Israeli human rights groups have called on the Israeli government to investigate the scale of the casualties, describing the number of dead Palestinian women and children as "terrifying." UN humanitarian chief John Holmes called the casualty toll "shocking."
John Holmes: "What I saw on the ground was even more shocking than I had expected in the extent and the nature of the destruction that there was there. Of course, it’s not universal, and it’s not the same in some areas as in others. There are some areas, for example, of Gaza City which are relatively — I say relatively — spared, with only the odd building destroyed or hit. But there are other areas I visited where most or all buildings had been destroyed and leveled."
President Barack Obama has lifted the Global Gag Rule that banned US funding for any international healthcare organizations that perform abortions or advocates for the legalization of abortion, even if those activities are funded by non-US money. The Global Gag Rule was seen by many as a major global barrier to access to crucial women’s health services. Gill Greer of the International Planned Parenthood Federation praised Obama’s decision. She said, "For eight long years, the Global Gag Rule has been used by the Bush administration to play politics with the lives of poor women across the world.”
In another break from the Bush administration, President Obama is expected to direct federal regulators today to allow California and thirteen other states to set strict automobile emissions and fuel efficiency standards. Obama will also order the Department of Transportation to draft new automobile fuel economy regulations and for federal agencies to make all government buildings more energy efficient.
Thousands of Afghans protested against the United States on Sunday over reports that a US air raid killed sixteen Afghan civilians on the previous day. Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the US operation, saying the killing of innocent Afghans "is strengthening the terrorists." The US military claims the air strike killed fifteen militants. This comes as USA Today reports the number of roadside bomb attacks against US and coalition forces in Afghanistan increased by 45 percent last year. The number of troops in the US-led coalition killed by bombs more than doubled.
The US military has carried out its first strikes in Pakistan since President Barack Obama took office. At least twenty were killed on Friday after US Predator drones carried out two separate missile strikes. The Guardian newspaper says Barack Obama gave the go-ahead for the attacks inside Pakistan.
In Iraq, US soldiers killed an Iraqi couple and wounded their eight-year-old daughter during a house raid in the northern city of Kirkuk. The raid targeted the home of a former general in Saddam Hussein’s army. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has announced plans to reopen the infamous Abu Ghraib prison under a new name: Baghdad’s Central Prison.
Bolivian President Evo Morales has claimed victory after voters approved a new constitution that would advance indigenous rights and reaffirm state control over Bolivia’s natural gas reserves.
Evo Morales: "The colonial state ends here. Internal colonialism and external colonialism end here. Sisters and brothers, neoliberalism ends here, too."
About 60 percent of voters approved the referendum. The new constitution will give the indigenous majority more seats in Congress and greater clout in the justice system. It also officially recognizes their pre-Columbian spiritual traditions and promotes indigenous languages.
In economic news, the Wall Street Journal reports lending at many of the nation’s largest banks fell in recent months, even after the government gave them $148 billion that was intended to help make loans more readily available. Both Bank of America and Citigroup reduced their lending despite receiving $45 billion from the government. Duke University Professor Campbell Harvey said the government’s efforts to jumpstart lending has failed. Harvey said, "Basically we have dropped a huge amount of money...and we have nothing to show for what we actually wanted to happen." Most banks have refused to say how they have spent the billions of dollars in handouts. When Congress approved the massive bailout, it attached nearly no strings to the money, and the Treasury Department never asked the banks how it would be spent.
In other economic news, the number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits has risen to a twenty-six-year high. Nearly 600,000 people filed for jobless benefits during the second week of January. The last time jobless claims were this high was in November 1982. The number of people collecting unemployment insurance has jumped by nearly two million over the past year. In California, the nation’s largest state, the unemployment rate has risen to 9.3 percent. Michigan has the nation’s highest unemployment rate at 10.6 percent — the highest it has been since 1984.
The Washington Post reports Congress is moving to create strong new oversight of the financial sector that would likely give the Federal Reserve authority to examine the workings of a wide range of companies. Under legislation proposed by Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, the Fed would likely be given the power to gather information about the inner workings of banks, investment firms, insurance companies, hedge funds and any other entity big enough or so intertwined with other companies that it creates the risk of a systemic collapse.
Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga has pleaded not guilty to war crimes charges in the first case to be tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Lubanga is accused of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of fifteen to fight in the Congo. The trial is the first since the court came into operation in July 2002.
In religious news. Pope Benedict has revoked the excommunication of four conservative bishops who were removed from the church two decades ago for opposing the modernization of the church. All four bishops are members of the Society of Saint Pius X, a deeply conservative and traditional group that was founded to protest the changes spurred by Vatican II. Jewish groups condemned the Pope’s decision because one of the Bishops, Richard Williamson, is a well known Holocaust denier.
Robert Rozett of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum: "We believe the question of excommunicating or not excommunicating a member of the Church is an internal matter for the Church. Nevertheless, we find it scandalous that a member of the Church at this high level, a bishop, has views of denying the Holocaust. Such views are an insult to the memory of the Holocaust, to the victims and to the survivors, to those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and, more than anything else, to truth, to historical truth. We continue to hope that the Vatican will take concerted efforts to condemn these views and the people that hold such views."
Senator Russell Feingold has announced plans to introduce an amendment to the US Constitution to require special elections in the event of a Senate seat vacancy, taking the power away from governors. Feingold said, "The controversies surrounding some of the recent gubernatorial appointments to vacant Senate seats make it painfully clear that such appointments are an anachronism that must end.” Feingold cited the spectacle of seeing Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich appoint a successor to fill President Barack Obama’s seat weeks after he was arrested for trying to sell the seat. Blagojevich’s impeachment hearing begins today, but the governor won’t be attending. Instead, he will be on a national media blitz, appearing on Good Morning America, The View and Larry King. New York Governor David Paterson has also come under criticism for selecting conservative Democrat Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat.
And in Britain, Sky News has joined the BBC in refusing to broadcast an emergency humanitarian appeal for victims of the war in Gaza. The appeal was organized by Oxfam, Save the Children, the Red Cross and other charities. The networks claim the two-minute appeal would compromise their impartiality. More than fifty British MPs have called on the BBC to reverse its decision. Critics of the BBC have included former parliamentarian Tony Benn.
Tony Benn: "If the BBC doesn’t broadcast it, people will die in Gaza, because they haven’t got the aid that would have come from an appeal...And the BBC will change. I have no doubt that will happen. And that’s what public pressure can do. Never, ever underestimate the power of determined people, if their cause is right."