In Israel and the Occupied Territories, Israel has ordered the closure of all crossings into the Gaza Strip. The border had already been heavily restricted, but now all goods have been blocked, including humanitarian supplies from the UN. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees condemned the move, saying it will only worsen an already dire situation. Israel says its trying to thwart rocket attacks on the nearby Israeli town of Sderot. Palestinians have fired some 150 rockets since Tuesday, causing several injuries. Israeli defense ministry spokesperson Shlomo Dror said: “It’s unacceptable that people in Sderot are living in fear every day and people in the Gaza Strip are living life as usual.” The closure comes as Israel continues daily attacks on Gaza that have killed more than thirty-two Palestinians in the past week, including nineteen on Tuesday alone. In the latest Israeli attack, one Palestinian was killed and four others were wounded today in an airstrike in north Gaza. A Gaza resident said the situation there is catastrophic.
Resident: “The situation in Gaza is dire with the Israeli escalation on the Strip and the incursions that take place. As well as the situation — the crossing, the closing of the crossings, and the humanitarian situation is catastrophic on the residents and the people.”
Hamas has taken part in the rocket attacks for the first time since seizing control of Gaza last June. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports today Hamas appears to have settled on a policy of launching the rockets to force Israel into a ceasefire. Israel rejected a truce offer from Hamas last month. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised a continued “war” on Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “A war is going on in the south, every day, every night. The most daring and boldest of our soldiers and members of the security services are taking part in it. This war will not stop. The moment will come when the scales will tip in this war and cause the firing in the south to be different from what it is today.”
In Iraq, at least two Iraqi women have been killed and two others injured in a U.S. raid in Diyala province. The Pentagon says U.S. forces opened fire after two militant suspects refused to leave a building that the victims were in.
Meanwhile, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq is predicting U.S. forces will remain there for many years. On Thursday, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno told a Pentagon news conference he foresees a U.S. presence of “five to ten years” and possibly longer.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying to quash a row over his criticism of U.S. allies in Afghanistan. Gates told the Los Angeles Times this week he believes some NATO countries are not up to fighting Taliban insurgents. On Thursday, Gates backtracked on his remarks.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “There have been several recent media reports of discontent in the United States and among other NATO members about operations in Afghanistan. This does not reflect reality or, I believe, the views of our governments. As I said before the House Armed Services Committee last month, allied forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark and other nations have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan.”
Gates’s initial comments appeared one day after he ordered an additional 3,200 U.S. Marines to Afghanistan.
The Canadian government has put the United States on a watch list of countries that could practice torture. The mention is made on a secret Canadian government document not intended for public release. The document cites the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and lists U.S. interrogation techniques including “forced nudity, isolation, and sleep deprivation.” Other countries on the list include Israel, Syria, China, Iran and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to the intelligence firm Missions Solutions Group just two months after the company hired a former aide to ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The aide, Stephen Cambone, is a former undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Cambone established the Pentagon’s Counter-Intelligence Field Activity office — CIFA — the very same office that awarded his firm the contract. CIFA was previously involved in a Pentagon spy program that monitored the activities of peace activists.
On the campaign trail, a federal judge has rejected a lawsuit seeking to ban caucus sites in nine Las Vegas hotels for Saturday’s Democratic vote in Nevada. The sites were established last March to accommodate workers who can’t attend caucuses in their neighborhoods. The largely Latino and female workforce in almost every casino on the Strip is organized by the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, which has endorsed Senate Barack Obama. Days after the endorsement the Nevada State Teachers Union and individuals backing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton filed a lawsuit alleging the casino sites create a "preferred class of voters.” But on Thursday U.S. District Judge James Mahan rejected the case and said the caucus sites can proceed as planned.
In other campaign news, Obama has picked up an endorsement from Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. On Thursday, Leahy compared Obama’s campaign to Robert Kennedy’s campaign in 1968.
Obama meanwhile is coming under criticism for his comments praising former President Ronald Reagan. In an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal this week, Obama appeared to express admiration for what he called Reagan’s "clarity" and "optimism" in overcoming the “excesses” of the 1960s and ‘70s. In response, rival candidate John Edwards said, “[Reagan] did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day… I can promise you this: [I] will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change.”
The exclusion of Democratic hopeful Dennis Kucinich from the Democratic debate in Las Vegas received some uninvited attention this week on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Kucinich has accused NBC and its parent company General Electric of political censorship after it disinvited him from taking part in Tuesday’s debate. As Jay Leno interviewed guest Bill Maher, two audience members spoke out.
Polls in Nevada show Hillary Clinton with a nine-point lead ahead of Saturday’s caucus. Aboard her campaign plane this week, Clinton joked with reporters by posing as a flight attendant.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: "If you look out from the right, you will see an America saddled with tax cuts for the wealthiest and a war without end. If you look out from the left, you will see an America with a strong middle class at home and a strong reputation in the world. Once we’ve reached cruising altitude, we’ll be offering in flight entertainment: my stump speech in its many variations.”
On the Republican side, the focus is on South Carolina, where on Saturday voters also go to polls. On Thursday, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee refused to say whether he finds it offensive that South Carolina displays the Confederate flag on its state Capitol grounds.
Meanwhile, Michigan winner Mitt Romney got into a heated exchanged with an Associated Press reporter after Romney claimed he doesn’t have lobbyists running his campaign.
Mitt Romney: "I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign. I don’t have lobbyists that are tied to my ..."
Reporter: “That’s not true governor. That is not true. Ron Kaufman is a lobbyist.”
Romney: “Did you hear what I said? Did you hear what I said, Glen? I said I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign, and he’s not running my campaign.”
Reporter: “He’s a senior adviser.”
Romney: “He’s an adviser. And the person who runs my campaign is [campaign manager] Beth Myers, and I have a whole staff of deputy campaign managers.”
Reporter: “Has Beth Myers been on the plane with you?”
Romney: “Beth Myers has been the plane with me, and Beth Myers is running my campaign… Ron is a wonderful friend and adviser. He’s not paid — he’s an adviser, like many others. But I do not have lobbyists running my campaign.”
The Romney adviser is Ron Kaufman, a senior strategist who often travels in Romney’s entourage. He is a lobbyist with the firm Dutko Worldwide.
And in other news from Washington, the Bush administration’s stance on polar bears came under fire Thursday at a hearing on Capitol Hill. The administration has approved oil exploration in Alaska despite an ongoing dispute over whether the bears should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall said the White House believes the bears won’t be affected.
Dale Hall: "The service determined that these activities do not threaten polar bears throughout all or significant portion of their range after a review of factors including the mitigation measures, required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, historical information on development activities, lack of direct quantifiable impacts to habitat from these activities noted to date, the localized nature of development activities or possible events such as oil spills."
The bears’ arctic habitat has seen declining ice coverage by the year—a decline environmentalists blame on global warming. Congressmember Ed Markey criticized the White House stance.
Rep. Ed Markey: "In the end, man can adapt while the bear cannot. We can act to prevent global warming, but the bear cannot. We can develop alternatives to oil, the bear cannot. When the ice is gone, man cheers about new commercial opportunities for oil and gas drilling while the bear starves and drowns. I have been hoping for common sense from the Department of the Interior and from [Interior] Secretary [Dirk] Kempthorne, but I have heard that all-too-common abandonment of common sense here today."
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