The Palestinian death toll is nearing 1,000 as Israel continues its attack on the Gaza Strip. As Israeli troops massed around Gaza City, heavy bombing continued overnight, destroying Gaza’s old city hall and several shops in a market. At least 971 Palestinians have been killed, with more than 4,400 injured. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Around two-thirds of Gaza’s 1.5 million people have no electricity, and 500,000 have no access to running water. The World Food Programme says it’s providing aid to 80 percent of Gaza’s residents.
The UN’s top relief official in Gaza, John Ging, urged Israel to end its attack.
UNRWA Director John Ging: “Please, we have to get an end to the fighting. Nowhere in Gaza is safe. The situation here is horrific for everybody. And, of course, it starts with the guns falling silent. By whatever agreement, the guns must fall silent first, and then we can start to proceed and move forward. But without that, it’s going to be more death, more injury and more destruction.”
Ging also described the extent of damage to Gaza’s infrastructure.
UNRWA Director John Ging: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, the president’s compound and even the presidential guest house, which was the former Egyptian governor’s residence prior to 1967, are all reduced to rubble. So, in addition to the death toll and the injury toll, which is now deaths above — the Ministry of Health report above 900, they report the injury figure is above 4,000, there is this massive destruction of the infrastructure of the state, the future state that we were all working to build.”
Meanwhile, the head of International Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, addressed Israel’s attacks on medical workers and its restrictions on evacuating wounded civilians.
International Red Cross Director Jakob Kellenberger: “It is absolutely indispensable and it is not negotiable that a medical mission in such a conflict has to be protected. The medical mission has to be protected. And it is important. I mean, wounded people, they cannot wait for days or even many hours to be evacuated and cared for. Wounded people — it must be possible that wounded people can be collected, cared for and evacuated as rapidly as possible.”
Meanwhile, rockets have been fired from southern Lebanon into northern Israel for the second time since Israel attacked Gaza. There were no damages or injuries. The Israeli military says it responded with artillery fire into Lebanon.
As the death toll rises, Gaza residents are now reporting local cemeteries are running out of space to bury the dead. Gaza resident Mahmoud al-Zinati said his sixteen-year-old cousin has been buried on top of a twelve-year-old cousin killed by Israel two years ago.
Mahmoud al-Zinati: “When my cousin became a martyr, we came to this graveyard and other graveyards to find a place to bury my cousin in, but found no place. But thank God, one of our cousins became a martyr two years ago. So we said we should dig up his grave so we can bury my cousin next to him.”
The United Nations is reportedly preparing to consider referring Israel’s actions in Gaza to the World Court for possible prosecution. The Guardian newspaper reports the UN General Assembly will consider asking the International Court of Justice to rule on whether Israel is violating international law. The UN’s special rapporteur to the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, says Israel’s attack could be in violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, international law and international humanitarian law.
Iran is claiming the Israeli navy has intercepted an Iranian ship carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza. According to Iranian state radio, the ship was stopped twenty miles off Gaza’s coast after leaving Iran two weeks ago. The ship was carrying food and medicine and had planned to arrive in Gaza this past weekend. Israel has blocked several humanitarian ships trying to reach Gaza, and even rammed a boat of peace activists in international waters last month.
The Israeli government’s treatment of journalists is under growing scrutiny. The International Federation of Journalists is calling on media workers worldwide to protest Israel’s conduct towards journalists during the Gaza attack. Israeli forces have killed at least four Palestinian media workers. At least two journalists with the network Al-Alam have been arrested — a correspondent and a producer. Israel meanwhile continues to ban foreign journalists from entering Gaza. International Federation of Journalists Secretary-General Aidan White called the media crackdown “intolerable,” saying, “The systematic manipulation and control of media trying to report on Gaza and the casualties being sustained inside the territory require a concerted response from the world’s media.” BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet also criticized the media ban.
Lyse Doucet: “There’s a great concern, of course, of the humanitarian price. There’s also a great desire to know exactly what the military operation is all about. And aside from very limited trips by journalists, we simply haven’t been allowed to get a closer look at what is a world story. It’s absolutely crucial that we should be given access to what’s been happening on the ground.”
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is trying to downplay controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s claim he successfully lobbied President Bush not to support a UN Security Council ceasefire resolution last week. Olmert said his phone call to Bush led to the US abstention. He also claimed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was left “shamed” because she had taken part in the ceasefire talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “He gave an order to the Secretary of State, and she did not vote in favor of it — a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organized and maneuvered for. She was left pretty shamed, abstaining from voting on the resolution.”
On Wednesday, White House spokesperson Tony Fratto rejected Olmert’s claim, but didn’t offer specifics.
White House spokesperson Tony Fratto: “I’m not going to get into discuss — I know the State Department has done that and as Secretary Rice was asked about it last night, and I don’t really have more to add to it, but there is —”
Reporter: “When you say reporting on this, I mean, these are actually Olmert’s words. I mean, he actually said this, so —”
Fratto: “Yeah, there are inaccuracies.”
Reporter: “In what Olmert said?”
Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, a fifteen-year-old Palestinian has been killed by armed Jewish settlers. The victim was among a group of youths throwing stones at the settlers. The boy’s father, Abu Mustafah Odeh, described when he heard of his son’s death.
Abu Mustafah Odeh: “People came and told me that a settler shot dead someone. I went to see down there, and the guys told me it was my son. God bless his soul.”
In news from inside Israel, the Israeli Election Commission has banned two Arab parties from next month’s parliamentary elections. Israeli election officials accuse both the United Arab List-Ta’al and Balad can’t run because they practice incitement, support terror groups and refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The parties have denounced the ban as an act of racism and an attack on democracy. Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi said, “It was a political trial led by a group of fascists and racists who are willing to see the [parliament] without Arabs and want to see the country without Arabs.”
The top Bush administration official overseeing prosecutions at Guantanamo Bay has concluded the US military tortured a Saudi national accused in the 9/11 attacks. Speaking to the Washington Post, the acting head of military commissions, Susan Crawford, says the suspect, Mohammed al-Qahtani, was subjected to isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and “life-threatening” prolonged exposure to cold. Crawford says the methods were authorized but amounted to torture in their application. She said, “This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive.” Qahtani’s interrogation plan was approved by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Crawford says she won’t authorize a military prosecutor’s request to refile charges against Qahtani.
Meanwhile, a former military prosecutor has again spoken out against the handling of cases against Guantanamo’s prisoners. In a federal court filing, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld says the handling of evidence is so chaotic, it’s impossible to prepare a fair prosecution. Vandeveld made the statement in a brief supporting a petition to release Guantanamo prisoner Mohammed Jawad. Vandeveld was the lead prosecutor in Jawad’s case until he resigned last year, saying the military had deliberately withheld evidence that could have helped clear Jawad and other prisoners.
On Capitol Hill, confirmation hearings have begun for several of President-elect Obama’s cabinet nominees. Senator Hillary Clinton appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she faced questions over her husband former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation. Clinton also ruled out talks with Hamas, contradicting reports that have said the Obama administration would be open to negotiations. Clinton also repeated her campaign trail insistence that the US could use nuclear weapons against Iran.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: “We are not taking any option off the table at all. But we will pursue a new, perhaps different approach that will become a cornerstone of what the Obama administration believes is an attitude toward engagement that might bear fruit.”
Also testifying Tuesday, Energy Secretary nominee Steven Chu, Education nominee Arne Duncan and Housing and Urban Development nominee Shaun Donovan. The Veterans Administration nominee, former General Eric Shinseki, is set to testify today. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is meanwhile facing a possible roadblock to his confirmation. Geithner has admitted he once initially failed pay some $43,000 in personal taxes. Geithner would oversee the IRS as head of the Treasury. And he’s also facing questions over the immigration status of a housekeeper who worked in his home.
The Senate has advanced a measure billed as the largest expansion of wilderness protection in twenty-five years. The bill would designate more than two million acres across nine states as wilderness. A final vote is expected by the end of the week.
Here in New York, four white males have been charged for a string of hate crimes in the hours after Barack Obama won the presidency. According to police, the four men drove around Staten Island black neighborhoods on election night looking for victims to attack. A black Muslim teenager was beaten with a baseball bat, sending him to the hospital. They also attacked another black man, a Hispanic man, and drove down a white man they thought was an African American. The man spent more than a month in a coma. Police say they nabbed the suspects after a mammoth search involving fifteen investigators.
And in California, Oakland city officials have confirmed a white former transit officer has been arrested in the New Year’s shooting of an unarmed African American passenger. The former officer, Johannes Mehserle, resigned last week and fled the state. He was arrested as a fugitive in Nevada. Cell phone videos show Mehserle pulling out a gun and shooting twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant in the back while he was lying face down on the ground on a subway platform. Grant worked as a butcher at an Oakland grocery store and was the father of a four-year-old daughter.