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The Other Middle East Occupation: Israel Launches Largest Offensive in Gaza Since 1967

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As Israel launches what may be the largest offensive in Gaza since the 1967 Middle East war, Democracy Now! hosts a roundtable discussion on the Israeli occupation. We go to Gaza City to speak with veteran Palestinian activist and political leader, Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi as well as the head of a Gaza community mental health services provider, Dr. Manal Awad. In Tel Aviv, we hear from renowned Israeli writer and Gush Shalom peace activist Uri Avnery. And in Rafah we speak with one of Israel’s leading journalists, Amira Hass, where Israeli forces have sealed off the city from the rest of Gaza and have demolished over 100 homes in the last week leaving thousands of Palestinians homeless. [includes rush transcript]

At least 12 Palestinians have died overnight in what may be the largest Israeli offensive in Gaza since the 1967 war. Thousands of Palestinians fled Rafah Monday before Israel sealed off the city cutting it off from the rest of Gaza.

Civilians bundled away belongings on donkey carts, fearing their houses would be destroyed. Many slept in the streets.

Last week Israel demolished over 100 homes in Rafah leaving 1,000 Palestinian homeless and the army has threatened to demolish hundreds of more homes.

Amnesty International called on Israel today to immediately stop the home demolitions and two members of Israel’s parliament have denounced the destruction as a war crime. Since the beginning of the Intifada more than three years ago, Israel’s armored bulldozers have destroyed 1,200 houses in Rafah and, according to the UN, made more than 12,000 people homeless: one in 10 of the population.

Israeli gunships bombed targets in the city of 90,000 overnight including the Tel Sultan mosque. Israel claims the attack in Rafah is justified and needed to secure the Gaza-Egyptian border where they say weapons are being smuggled through underground tunnels. Last week 5 Israeli soldiers were killed in Rafah, a day after 6 were killed in Gaza City.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn first to Uri Avnery, a former member of the Knesset, and was a member of the right wing Irgun Underground in the 1940 before Israeli independence. We welcome you to Democracy Now!.

URI AVNERY: Shalom. Good day.

AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us. Can you share your reaction to what’s happening right now in Rafah?

URI AVNERY: Well, it’s a terrible situation. It’s an operation which is completely unjustified. It is more in the nature of revenge for the guerrilla attack which five Israeli soldiers died. I think it’s the kind of punishment or collective punishment. I don’t see the military justification for such an action when Mr. Sharon himself has dechraned that we don’t need the Gaza strip and should get out. When the Minister of Defense and Former Chief of Staff says that the Gaza strip is nominal value to Israel and should be abandoned. In spite of all of these declarations, now the army has practically declared a war on this town, Rafah. People are dying, and people are — soldiers are fighting and their lives are being jeopardized. For what?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about these polls that show Israelis in favor of pulling out of Gaza?

URI AVNERY: The vast majority of Israelis are against the settlements in general and especially against the settlements in the Gaza strip because there, 7,500 settlers are living in the middle of 1 million and a quarter Palestinians who hate them. They take away their land and their water. No one sees any justification for their being there, so when Sharon proposed maybe — maybe pretended to propose to evacuate the Gaza Strip and take out the settlements, this enjoyed overwhelming public support. Unfortunately, it is very questionable if Sharon actually meant to do it, because he said that he’s going to do it next year. If he really wanted to do it, they should have done it within days. But the — his own party has voted against it, so now we are left with Sharon without a plan with fighting in the Gaza strip. People dying on both sides in the Gaza Strip and no one knows exactly what for.

AMY GOODMAN: Uri Avnery, we are joined by Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, a veteran Palestinian politician has led several Palestinian delegations to peace talks, most prominently, the 1991 Madrid conference and subsequent Washington talks. Also, a physician and head of the Red Crescent in the Gaza strip. Can you describe what is happening now in Gaza? Dr. Ashafi.

DR. HAIDAR ABDEL SHAFI: Yes. Hi. Well, actually it’s — what’s going on not only today, but since the beginning, it’s frank aggression against the Palestinian people. I think in spite of the declared opposition of the Palestinians, which is very modest and very conciliatory, I don’t see any reason for all of this protracted suffering and aggression on the Palestinian people. Of course, I know very well the historical aspect that the first Zionist conference, Zionism claimed all of Palestine except the Gaza Strip. They did not — I mean, they — it was specified initiatively that Zionism is not interested in the Gaza Strip. Anyhow, in the context of the conflict, the Israelis settled in Gaza, and according to the original claims, as I say, Zionism was not interested in Gaza, and I understand this because it was not-did not come up in the first Zionist Congress they didn’t claim Gaza, but I see now that — and Sharon, of course, he acts on this principle, but now some of the settlers like Gaza, they don’t want to leave it. I assume that the Israeli government will make out of this issue a bargaining position with respect to the — to the final settlement. Really, I don’t see any reason why this should be so. Our declared position is very conciliatory when we are asking for a Palestinian state. Less than one-fourth of Palestine, I don’t know what more concessions Israel wants from us. Of course, I mean, I know that Israel since right after the occupation in 1967 that started this activity so that it would not be committed to our declared conciliatory position. This is all that is going on.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, a Palestinian physician, head of the Red Crescent in Gaza Strip, speaking to him in Gaza. Also lead — is a political leader from Gaza. We’re speaking with Uri Avenery, with the peace activist group, Gush Shalom. Back in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman as we continue our discussion on what is happening right now in Gaza. We’re speaking with Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, a veteran Palestinian physician and politician, head of the Red Crescent in the Gaza strip. And peace activist Uri Avnery, and head of Gush Shalom. We have also been joined by Dr. Manal Awad. Can you talk about the pressure that Gazans are under right now?

DR. MANAL AWAD: Hello, everybody. I’m speaking to you from, and I can’t really be with my family who is leaving now Rafah. I’m trying to talk to you about the area which is under curfew since this morning, and until now, we have 17 Palestinians who have, were killed. I don’t know exactly what is the reason to do this. But let me tell you something, I’m a woman. I’m working as a director for woman’s programs in Gaza community. With this situation, we tried, you know, just to find any way to reach the people who are available here to give them any kind of help. But unfortunately, during this very bad circumstance and it’s not easy for anyone. Also for the help to reach the people. We could do that until now, and we will put our counseling line on the TV and radio stations to be easy for anyone, for the Palestinians who need it, and who want to have any psychological help and they can find help. I don’t know about these crimes in Rafah, and they can just reach us. The people there don’t have electricity and also without water. So, we are trying, but it’s not easy. Rafah is since yet now isolated from the other parts of Gaza strip, and this was not easy for anyone to try to enter. This is not new, because citizens from Rafah are living there, and until this intifada started, this is continuous destroying of the houses. It was continuous, and it started with groups of families and now they’re working, and it’s a very large scale. Really, I want to ask what is the justification to do this? All the time the they try to destroy the families on the borders, also but also it means that you have to call hundreds or thousands of Palestinians, you know, just to say that you are trying to find the security for the — you and your people. I’m talking about Sharon. So, the situation there is a kind of catastrophe that’s really — we can’t do anything about it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dr. Manal Awad, joining us from the Gaza strip. Her family is in Rafah unable to get there for the last few weeks. Uri Avnery, Amnesty International has called the destruction of thousands of Palestinians’ homes war crimes. Your response as an Israeli peace activist.

URI AVNERY: Well, I think it is a war crime, and it’s completely unjustified because the official reason is that the Israeli army is keeping a very narrow strip of about 100, 200 yards wide, but seven kilometers, five miles long between the Gaza strip and the Egyptian territory in order to cut off the Gaza strip from the world. I think if we are going to leave the Gaza strip, we should leave this strip, too, because we don’t need it. It’s not our business to cut off the Gaza strip from Egypt. It doesn’t make sense in the long run. If you want peace, we should get out of there.

AMY GOODMAN: We have just been joined by Amira Hass, a correspondent from the Israeli newspaper, one of Israel’s leading journalists. Just came out of Rafah, welcome to Democracy Now!, Amira.

AMIRA HASS: I didn’t come — I’m in Rafah now.

AMY GOODMAN: You are in Rafah.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what’s happening there?

AMIRA HASS: The army has actually occupied one major neighborhood of Rafah. It’s full of refgees, about 25,000 in the north of Rafah, not far from the Israeli settlements. It is in the meanwhile, it was there they killed 14 people. Most of them are civilians, a few were armed people, but a few — it also killed unarmed people earlier this morning in another neighborhood of Rafah, which was not taken over by the army. The city is all disconnected from the rest of the world, the rest of the Gaza Strip. It is difficult to move — to chance — to get wounded people to other hospitals which have better services than the hospital in Rafah. But there is not even medical help in the hospital for all of the injured people. They’re not allowed to move around and to take some of the wounded — the killed and wounded. I know that there are two children who were also killed in the town who went up on the roof to give food for the doves, pigeons, and they were killed there. The army is — the soldiers are going up to the roofs of the — of neighborhood and put the sharp shooters who control the area, and Rafah has closed schools. The students did not go to the schools, of course. Everything is on an emergency situation. The streets are empty. There is all the time shooting, mostly by the army. There is very little resistance to the army. Everybody was taken by surprise because people expected that the army would enter into the border neighborhoods. The neighborhoods at the border with Egypt and the neighborhood where many of the people have left in the last, three, four days feeling that the army is going to demolish their houses. The army says they are going off to wanted people, and people — and people who are merchants who are supposed to smuggle goods and arms from Egypt to the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, can you describe how this situation now compares to what you what you have been covering. You have been living in the occupied territories very unusual for Jewish journalists, for an Israeli journalist for years now. How does this compare with what you are seeing in Rafah?

AMIRA HASS: Rafah since the beginning of the intifada has been the worst place, worse than two years ago. The number of houses — the economic deterioration, physical and emotional deterioration, sense of no hope and nobody cares is the strongest in Rafah of all of the other places in the West Bank and Gaza. Still, I must say during the last 320 — until today, today there are 18, but until today, 320 people in Rafah who were killed, out of 160,000 people, it is — it is even Israel which has 6 million people, 12,000 people has been killed in a matter of three years in the house. So, it’s a terrible number. At least 200 of those who were killed are children. 27 are women, so we’re talking about the great majority of those killed were civilians. And I must say that during the last — I mean, the thing that I have been seeing in the last two or three days of people just dismantling their homes, taking everything which is possible, starting from there — starting with the rice bags and ending with their windows and the wood of the windows and doors, and taking them out to other places in Rafah. Not finding anyplace to actually live in now. This was the worst sight that I have experienced in the last three years in the house. Hundreds of people just using every possible means to move the things from their house, which they feel would be destroyed, demolished by the Israeli army for any pretext it might have, and going with it to unknown places. And people are destroying now their furniture and very poor furniture, and mattresses on the sand from other houses. I have seen people going into their neighbors and relatives and stuffing everything inside. There are no new rooms to rent in Rafah. It’s all filled. By the way, now the army is occupying, and I don’t know what they’re doing now, but a neighborhood which was built in some blocks which the city built at the beginning of the intifada, I must say this was really the worst that I have been seeing — the most — how would they say —- -— total lack of hope of anyone. In spite of the pride they have, fighting against the huge Israeli army, but the people are completely at a loss.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the Gazans’ refugees in the Rafah camp response you to as an Israeli journalist?

AMIRA HASS: Look, I have been here for — I started coming to Gaza almost 12 or 13 years ago, so I’m not — many people know me. Those who don’t know me, it’s — they start talking in generalities, you, the Jews, and then I’m kidding about this, and then we continue, and it becomes — I mean, slow slowly, slowly, they treat me as a person, not as a representative of any — of anybody, and then friends of mine or their friends are very — they quickly learn how not to say the Jews. They say the army — they say the army when they mean the army. They say the Israelis, and the Jews. They make a distinction between the three, because they know me.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Manal Awad, the psychological conditions now since that’s what you deal with, the issue of mental health for Gazans. Dr. Manal Awad? Let’s see if Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi is on the line. Are you still there? DR. HAIDAR ABDEL SHAFI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Right now, what you are calling for. I’m sure you have heard these descriptions before that Amira Hass is describing that you are living in Gaza. What do you want now?

DR. HAIDAR ABDEL SHAFI: Well, I say again, I mean, our declared position that we accepted a state and the borders in 1967, it is, I think — it proves that we are conciliatory. We want peace. We don’t want this confrontation that entails suffering on both sides. I think they’re position is very realistic. — I think our position is very realistic. I don’t see why Israel comes up and makes — I know that — I mean, I know that Israel is acting on the basis of the Zionist claims that were voiced in the first Zionist conference. But it is time to realize that what was said in the Zionist First Congress is not workable. It entails the sacrifice of the whole population, the Palestinians, and it’s time that everybody sobers up and sees the end of this, a terrible conflict that’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Uri Avnery, finally, what does President Bush’s support for Ariel Sharon mean for you in Israel? Do you follow U.S. politics? Do you see John Kerry’s position as any different?

URI AVNERY: Well, looking at it from afar there doesn’t seem to be any difference at all between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry. But I suppose that Mr. Kerry is saying what he is saying because he’s — he needs the votes of the Jewish people over there who support Israel. It’s Mr. Bush who is partly or very much responsible for this present disaster. He has given him totally free hand to Mr. Sharon. He supports Mr. Sharon unconditionally, and Mr. Sharon believes that he can do whatever he wants to do, and enjoys the support of Mr. Bush whatever happens. Then he — they are defending — sending Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell to meet the Palestinian prime minister and give him empty words by mean nothing at all. The thing is that Mr. Sharon wants to crush the Palestinian resistance to his occupation. Everything has to be seen in this context. The basic fact is to end the occupation and the resistance to the occupation, which now in Gaza has the character of a classic guerilla war. The Israeli army is trying to crush — to use its overwhelming force to crush this guerrilla resistance, and this is something which has never succeeded anywhere in the world. In a regular army with tanks and artillery and air force cannot crush local resistance, local guerrilla war which enjoys the support — the total support of the whole population.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Uri Avnery, of the Israeli peace activist group, Gush Salome. Amira Hass, in Rafah, won the World Press Freedom Prize, among many others, and Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, veteran politician, physician, head of the Red Crescent in Gaza Strip. This is Democracy Now!.

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