Israel continues its relentless attack on Gaza with more bombings of civilian targets, including a crowded hospital. The past hours have seen some of the most intensive Israeli bombing of the twenty-day assault. The Al-Quds hospital was hit by Israeli shells, setting it ablaze. Around 500 patients were being treated inside. The attack followed an earlier Israeli strike that hit the main United Nations aid compound in Gaza City. More than 700 Palestinians had taken shelter there.
United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesperson Christopher Gunness said the compound is burning with flames from white phosphorus shells.
UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness: “There have been three hits on the UNRWA headquarters, the UNRWA compound in Gaza, including, I’m told by [UNRWA head] John Ging, white phosphorus. Three of our staff members have been injured. The workshop in our compound is in flames, and nearby are loaded fuel tankers. So the situation is extremely dangerous and extremely serious. We have been on the phone to the Israeli authorities, asking them to call off their fire from around the compound of a neutral international organization. We have not had the answer we want.”
The UN says the fire will burn down an entire warehouse storing thousands of tons of food, medical supplies and other aid.
A nearby Israeli shelling hit an office building housing several media organizations. A journalist for the Abu Dhabi television channel was injured. Reuters bureau chief Alastair Macdonald said the attack came despite contact with the Israeli military.
Alastair Macdonald: “We were, in fact, at that time in contact with the Israeli army, checking with them that they knew where our staff were and where they were working. We were assured that they were. Shortly after that, an explosion hit the floor just above us. Shrapnel entered the office. It also struck the offices of another media company two floors above ours. One person, at least, there was wounded, we understand. We have evacuated our office.”
Thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes today, as Israel escalates its assault on densely populated residential areas. Gaza resident Nasser Mohammed said his family was forced to relocate twice after coming under Israeli attack.
Nasser Mohammed: “We were inside a house with the children, and then the Israeli army started to shoot at us with bullets, so we moved to another house with the children. Then the second house came down on top of us.”
The Palestinian death toll now stands at at least 1,045 — at least half of them civilian. Another 4,860 have been injured. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, including four by friendly fire.
The latest attacks came after a coalition of nine Israeli human rights groups called for an investigation into whether Israel is committing war crimes. In a statement, the groups, including the Israeli sections of Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, condemned what they call the “wanton use of lethal force” against Palestinian civilians. They continue, “This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion…of the commission of war crimes.” There are worldwide calls for prosecuting Israeli leaders. On Wednesday, hundreds gathered outside the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Sobhi Khansa of the International Coalition Against Impunity said Israeli leaders should be tried for crimes against humanity.
Sobhi Khansa: “The crimes of Israel against Gaza increase day after day. And now it’s terrorist crimes, you know? They are using terrorist weapons, murder, crimes against humanity, war crimes. So, for this, we came to the Hague to ICC Court. We want the court to go and start investigation about these crimes.”
The Guardian of London reported this week diplomats are considering asking the United Nations General Assembly to refer Israel’s actions in Gaza to the World Court. The UN’s special rapporteur to the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, has said Israel’s attack on Gaza could be in violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, international law and international humanitarian law.
Bolivia and Venezuela, meanwhile, have cut diplomatic ties with Israel in protest of the Gaza assault. Bolivian President Evo Morales also backed calls for investigating Israeli leaders.
Bolivian President Evo Morales: “The most serious international crimes should not go unpunished. Any government can back the investigation and punishment of these crimes. Bolivia, a sovereign state that shows it is against violence and respects life, will work with other governments and humanitarian organizations to ask for an investigation in international court for the crimes committed in the Gaza Strip by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other members of the Israeli cabinet.”
A ship trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza says it has aborted its mission after the Israeli navy threatened the civilian passengers on board. The Free Gaza movement boat left Cyprus on Wednesday seeking to deliver doctors and medical supplies. It was the group’s first attempt to reach Gaza since an Israeli navy vessel deliberately rammed another humanitarian boat last month, almost forcing it to sink. According to a Free Gaza statement, five Israeli gunboats surrounded the Spirit of Humanity ship in international waters 100 miles off the Gaza coast. In a radio transmission, the Israeli navy threatened to open fire on the ship unless it immediately turned around. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has intercepted an Iranian ship headed to Gaza for the second time. The ship is carrying food and medicine and had planned to arrive in Gaza this past weekend. It tried to reach Gaza again on Wednesday, but was intercepted by the Israeli navy.
Meanwhile, the US has been forced to cancel a weapons shipment to Israel after the Greek government refused to allow it to pass through its ports. The US says it will seek an alternative site.
Osama bin Laden has resurfaced in a new audiotape calling for a holy war over the Israeli attack on Gaza. The undated recording condemns Israel and the United States.
Osama bin Laden: “We are with you, and we will not let you down. Our fate is tied to yours in fighting the Crusader-Zionist coalition, in fighting until victory or martyrdom. God has bestowed us with the patience to continue the path of jihad for another seven years, and seven and seven… The question is, can America continue its war with us for several more decades to come? Reports and evidence would suggest otherwise.”
In Iraq news, Pentagon commanders are reportedly drafting contingencies for a speedier withdrawal of US troops than currently planned. The Washington Post reports military officials ordered the new withdrawal plan in case President-elect Obama rejects current proposals as too slow.
A federal judge has ruled the Pentagon must release a Guantanamo Bay prisoner over a lack of evidence to justify continued imprisonment. US District Judge Richard Leon says the Pentagon has failed to prove Mohammed El-Gharani is a so-called enemy combatant. A Chad national, Gharani was arrested in Pakistan in 2002. He has been held at Guantanamo for more than six years.
On Capitol Hill, the House has passed a measure expanding government health insurance for low-income children. President Bush has vetoed previous votes expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP. But President-elect Obama says it will be one of the first measures he hopes to sign into law when he takes office next week. The $33 billion bill would be funded in part by a tax increase on cigarette packs. A Senate vote is expected next week.
The Supreme Court has ruled evidence obtained through illegal searches or mistaken arrests can still be used to prosecute criminal cases. In a five-to-four ruling, the court voted to impose new limits on the so-called exclusionary rule, which dismisses evidence obtained from unreasonable searches or seizure. In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the ruling leaves suspects in exclusionary cases with “no remedy for violations of their constitutional rights.”
The Bush administration is claiming it will meet a legal requirement to hand over millions of emails it’s long claimed to have lost. A government lawyer made the announcement at a hearing in a suit brought by civil liberties groups seeking the emails’ public release. The announcement came hours after a District Court judge ordered White House employees to search their hard drives for the missing emails, dated from 2003 to 2005. One of the plaintiffs, the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says the government’s claim to have recovered the emails should be verified independently. Another ruling is expected soon in a suit seeking to force Vice President Dick Cheney to hand over his personal records. Cheney says he should decide what gets publicly disclosed.
And the Treasury Department is reportedly finalizing a new plan to give Bank of America billions of additional dollars on top of the $25 billion infusion it’s already received in the taxpayer bailout. Bank of America says it needs the funds to complete the acquisition of the troubled firms Merrill Lynch and Countrywide. $10 billion of the $25 billion Bank of America received last year was earmarked for its purchase of Merrill Lynch.