Five Palestinians have been killed over the last two days by Israeli airstrikes, including attacks Wednesday against a sports club and a tunnel at the Gaza-Egypt border, security and medical sources said.
The airstrikes came as a fragile two-day cease-fire appeared to be breaking between Israel and Gaza militants.
Early Tuesday a top Islamic Jihad member and another man were killed in an Israeli airstrike. After the killing, the militant group took credit for several of the rocket and mortar attacks against Israel over the last week.
Gaza militants responded with a volley of rocket attacks against southern Israel, causing some injuries and damage.
Another Israeli airstrike hit a sports club in the town of Biet Lahiya , where two people killed and 15 others were injured.
A tunnel worker was killed in a separate strike and other workers are missing, security sources said.
Dr. Ghazi Hamad, the deputy minister of foreign affairs for Hamas, warned that Hamas -- which controls Gaza -- "cannot stand idle as Israel violates the truce."
Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets over the Gaza Strip for the first time since the end of a 22-day assault more than two years ago.
The leaflets, dropped late Sunday and early Monday, written in Arabic and signed by the "Israel Defense Forces," warned residents not to come near the border with Israel in the northern part of the territory, witnesses said.
The leaflets warned citizens against approaching within 300 yards of the border. "Anyone approaching the buffer zone will put himself in danger," one leaflet read.
The step by Israel came after an escalation in violence along the border over the last two weeks, with militants -- believed to be from an extremist group known as Tawhid and Jihad --firing about a dozen rockets into Israel and Israel responding with airstrikes that have killed three people and wounded 10 others.
It marked the first leaflet drop by Israel since Operation Cast Lead in early 2009, heightening fears among Gaza residents about another military assault. In an attempt to calm the situation, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on the militants in Gaza to accept an immediate halt in rocket attacks against Israel. So far, the call by Hamas, which controls Gaza, has not been heeded.
-- Rushdi Abu Alouf in Gaza City
Photo: One of the leaflets dropped by Israeli aircraft over the Gaza Strip.
At the conclusion of a 16-month-long trial concerning the 2003 death of their daughter, the parents of American activist Rachel Corrie accused Israel's military of failing to turn over key surveillance video taken at the Gaza Strip field where Corrie was run over by an Israeli military bulldozer.
At a news conference Monday in Jerusalem, the Corrie family -- which is pursuing a civil lawsuit against Israel -- said the military has only provided the court with one black-and-white video, depicting events before and after Corrie was killed.
But the family says other video exists, including color images that were released by an Israel Defense Forces official and used in an Israeli television documentary. The family also obtained a third video.
"There's more video out there that needs to be turned over," said Sarah Corrie Simpson, Rachel's sister.
A year and a bit after the ill-fated interception of the Mavi Marmara that headed last year's flotilla to Gaza, Israel is bracing for another one. This time around, say authorities, they are more prepared, having learned the lessons from operations to public relations and media. (We'll get back to that second point later.)
Israel launched a diplomatic, legal and bureaucratic offensive to prevent the flotilla well in advance and for months has been appealing to governments to block their citizens' efforts to participate, with a certain degree of success. Easing restrictions on goods entering Gaza certainly helped, as has the recent Egyptian decision to open the Raffah crossing, which Israel did not like but quickly recognized as advantageous in this context.
The ships are supposed to rendevous in the Mediterranean and then sail to Gaza but some of the likely candidates in the region are dropping out. Cyprus has announced it will not let the ships in, Greece will let them in but is stalling them with red tape at Israel's request, activists complain. Greece has its own issues this week and will have limited energy to spend on this, one way or the other.
Elsewhere in Europe, delegations met with problems as insurance companies were reluctant to issue policies for the ships and their passengers, after an Israeli legal group, Shurat Hadin, sent letters to the world's leading marine insurance companies advising them they could be held accountable for damages and complicit to violating the law. Other initiatives seek to block satellite communications services to the ships.
The Turkey-based IHH was to be the biggest contingent of the flotilla, its massive passenger ship the largest by far of the dozens of vessels originally slated to sail. Last week the organization announced the ship was staying home.
With Syria's troubles spilling into its backyard, Turkey may have bigger fish to fry at this time -- and both countries seem keen to work things out in advance of the United Nations report on the 2010 flotilla. Turkey was not impressed with the early draft and Israeli media suggest the final report, currently due early July, is still pretty critical of Turkey. And Israel, for its part, always needs all the friends it can get.
In recent weeks, the military completed a series of comprehensive drills for intercepting the next flotilla. Netanyahu is determined to uphold the naval blockade, which Israel says aims only to prevent gunrunning to Hamas-ruled Gaza and not against Palestinian civilians. On Monday, the security cabinet approved the operational plan presented by the army.
Israel has reached understandings with Egypt about the ships docking in El Arish and inspecting the cargo before transfer to Gaza by land in case participants decline Israel's invitation to dock at its Ashdod port -- as expected. There's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, repeat Israeli spokespeople, who call the flotilla a provocation.
The organizers and activists are equally determined to sail for Gaza and are undeterred by the difficulties. And if Israel has eased up some on Gaza, well, if anything, this just proves flotillas work, says the Free Gaza movement . At a news conference in Athens on Monday, organizers said the 10 ships taking part in the voyage would gather at sea toward the weekend before heading to Gaza.
Meanwhile, until any encounter at sea, the skirmish is being waged on YouTube and all sides are uploading fast and furious -- some straightforward, others kind of clever.
And back to that media lesson learned. One of the main problems Israel had getting its message across last time (besides the message) was the long delay in releasing timely visual images and information from the scene while the operation was still ongoing, leaving the media stage to activists and semi-professionals and an anti-Israeli angle. For weeks, Israeli officials have been stressing the importance of the media battlefield and assuring outlets that professional and credible material will be much more timely.
That's good. Less good was the letter from Government Press Office director Oren Helman on Sunday, warning foreign press they could be deported and banned from working in Israel for 10 years if they participated in the flotilla. Besides infuriating both local and international media, the move seems to have embarassed Netanyahu, who ordered the directive be rethought.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem
Video, from top: An Israeli Defense Forces video explains the Gaza naval blockade from the official Israeli perspective; activist Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli combat pilot who has become an outspoken critic of his county's policies, discusses his reasons for joining the flotilla. Credit: YouTube
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement was quick Sunday to ease fears regarding a decision to postpone a meeting between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal that had been planned for Tuesday in Cairo.
Fatah officials said the decision had to do with Abbas’ busy schedule and did not necessarily mean the reconciliation process between the two rival factions is faltering.
Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement early in May after four years of bitter and sometimes violent rivalry. The agreement called for establishing a unity government with the goal of holding general elections within a year and to rebuild the Gaza Strip, devastated after five years of the Israeli blockade and military assaults.
Forming the unity government has become a stumbling block in the reconciliation effort. Fatah wants current Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to run the new government because it believes the Western-backed Fayyad will be able to prevent an international blockade against the new government because of Hamas involvement. Hamas, however, does not trust Fayyad.
When the two sides failed to agree on a prime minister during their meeting last week, they called on Abbas and Meshaal to sit together to resolve the issue.
Azzam Ahmad, who heads Fatah's delegation to the reconciliation talks and who announced the postponement after meeting Abbas in Ramallah, insisted that it was Abbas’ busy schedule that had led to the delay.
Abbas is going to be in Turkey on Wednesday and then in Strasbourg, France, on Thursday to address the European Parliament. Ahmad said it was better to give the two leaders time to discuss the complex issue without any interruptions. For this reason, it was believed better to postpone the meeting rather than risk having to end it before an agreement is reached.
Hamas did not seem too thrilled with the postponement. Hamas' leader in Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said Sunday that "we were ready for this meeting and we wanted it to tackle all issues in order to have a government of conciliation."
Damascus-based Hamas official, Izzat Rishk, a hard-liner, said Fatah postponed the meeting because it could not get Hamas to agree to Fayyad as prime minister.
Abbas has a lot to risk if the new government is run by a prime minister who is not acceptable to the United States and Europe. Israel is already threatening to again stop transfer of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. It collects over $100 million in customs duties and taxes on Palestinian-imported goods coming through it ports. These funds account for two-thirds of the monthly salaries of Palestinian public employees, and 150,000 employees will go unpaid if Israel halts remittance.
In a news conference Sunday with the president of the Dominican Republic in Ramallah, Abbas reiterated that the new government would follow his policies, which is based on reaching a solution to the Middle East conflict based on peaceful negotiations with Israel and that will continue the policies of Fayyad’s West Bank-based government.
Hamas does not seem to object, but it does not want Fayyad to be the key person in the new government.
Unable to agree on who will run the new Palestinian national unity government, the secular Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas, two bitter rivals for years, decided Tuesday to call their top leaders to the rescue.
After a meeting in Cairo to discuss government formation, the two main Palestinian political factions decided that it was time to have the Fatah leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Hamas leader, Khaled Mishal, to join the next “final and decisive” meeting planned for next Tuesday in Cairo.
Azzam al-Ahmad, who heads the Fatah delegation to the talks with Hamas, told a news conference in Cairo that the two sides have decided to ask their leaders to join the next session of talks in order to resolve the issue of government, which the two sides were not able to reach an agreement on.
Just a week after Egypt reopened its border crossing to Gaza Strip, Palestinians found Saturday that the checkpoint was temporarily closed without warning and they complained that leaving the enclave is not as simple as they expected it would be.
Egyptian officials at the Rafah crossing said the terminal was closed for technical problems and maintenance. By the afternoon, they said Gazans could cross to the Egyptian side, but only on foot rather than using the usual buses. They did not say when the border would reopen fully.
Officials for Hamas, which controls Gaza, rejected the new terms and called upon Egypt to open the crossing as promised.
On Saturday, hundreds of frustrated Palestinian travelers stormed the Egyptian gate of Rafah crossing after learning about the restrictions.
"I have completed my documents at the Palestinian side and have got my passport stamped. But I was surprised that the Egyptians closed the borders," said Nasser Bayed, who wants to go to Egypt for bone marrow surgery.
"My husband is so sick. He needs an urgent surgery in the heart and he may die here if he is not allowed to cross today," said Abla Farra, from inside an ambulance that carried her husband at the Egyptian gate of the crossing.
Hamas blamed Egypt for hindering the traffic of Palestinian travelers, saying Egyptian authorities have sent back scores of passengers over the last week for security reasons.
About 5,000 Palestinians, most of them members of Hamas, are reportedly on a blacklist used by Egyptian security officials to prevent extremists or terrorists from crossing the border.
Israel has voiced concerns that Hamas will take advantage of the border opening to bring fighters and weapons to Gaza.
Editor’s note: This post is by Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor Babylon & Beyond endorses the positions of Carnegie's analysts, nor does Carnegie endorse the positions of The Times or its blog.
Despite their sweeping repercussions for both domestic and international players, the Arab uprisings have not led to a dramatically new regional order or a new balance of power. This could change, particularly if developments in Syria continue to escalate.
While Iran has welcomed uprisings against Western-backed regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, it dealt harshly with its own protesters and has been worried about recent events in Syria. Moreover, countries that threw out pro-Western dictators are not moving closer to Iran.
Egypt's and Tunisia’s future foreign policies are more likely to resemble Turkey's in becoming more independent while remaining allied with the West. And Iran's soft power has decreased as its regime looks increasingly repressive and new models of revolutionary success have emerged in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Arab world.
Turkey, for its part, bungled the opportunity to take advantage of this historic shift to bolster its influence in the Arab world. The Arab uprisings are effectively calling for the Arab world to be more like Turkey: democratic, with a vibrant civil society, political pluralism, secularism alongside Islam, and a productive and fairly balanced economy. However, after expressing clear support for Egyptian protesters, Turkey has hedged its bets in Libya and Syria.
Hamas officials on Saturday denied reports that its top leaders are planning to move from Syria and relocate to Qatar or another Arab country.
“The leadership will remain there," said Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan. "As far as I know, we were not told to move to any other country.”
The London-based Alhayat newspaper reported Saturday that the Syrian government demanded Hamas leaders, who have been based in Damascus for about a decade, leave. The newspaper said that Qatar had agreed to receive the movement’s politburo leader, Khaled Mashaal.
According to the report, the Syrian decision came out of anger because of Hamas' neutral stance on the current turmoil in Syria.
Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip said Tuesday that a man suspected of killing an Italian pro-Palestinian activist in the territory committed suicide during a tense police standoff.
The suspect, a Jordanian citizen, shot himself after he hurled a grenade at two of his partners, critically injuring one of them, the Hamas-run Interior Ministry said in a statement published on its website.
Three policemen were injured during an exchange of fire, the statement added.
Hours after an Islamist extremist group announced it had kidnapped an Italian peace activist in the Gaza Strip, the man's body was discovered in the restive seaside territory. It was the first kidnapping of a Westerner in four years and one of the few times such an abduction has ended fatally.
The hostage, Vittorio Arrigoni, a pro-Palestinian activist for the advocacy group the International Solidarity Movement, had appeared blindfolded in an Internet video released by the Tawhid and Jihad group, which threatened to kill him unless its imprisoned leader and two other members of radical groups were freed by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.
The group set a deadline of Friday evening, but Arrigoni’s body was found by Hamas police well short of that, Hamas officials said. They said they had arrested two suspects and were searching for a third. Hamas said it "condemns the heinous crime that does not reflect our values, our religion or our custom and tradition," according to an Interior Ministry statement released to Palestinian news media.
But the kidnapping raised questions about Hamas' control over Gaza, and it represents the latest example of how smaller, more radical groups in the territory -– some with alleged ties to Al Qaeda -– are challenging the rule of Hamas, which itself is viewed by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organization.Those groups complain that Hamas has become too moderate.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, has been cracking down on Islamist Salafists over the last 18 months, arresting their members and killing one of their spiritual leaders during an armed clash in August 2009.
Gaza residents said Arrigoni arrived in 2009 aboard a ship challenging the Israeli naval blockade after the 2008-09 Israeli offensive in Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. His abduction was the first of a foreigner since Hamas took control of the territory. The last foreigner kidnapped here was BBC reporter Alan Johnston, who was abducted in March 2007 and released three months later.
Several Israeli tank shells landed Tuesday at a playground in Gaza City, killing three children and their grandfather and injuring 12 other children and women, hospital sources and witnesses said.
Eyewitnesses said that seven tank shells slammed a playground where children were playing soccer, adding two other shells crashed through the ceiling of a nearby house, injuring six women.
Relatives of those killed said they prevented a group of Palestinian militants from firing mortars into Israel from an area that is adjacent to their houses just half an hour before Israeli tanks fired the shells.
But militants waited until people went for prayers at the neighborhood’s mosque and sent a round of mortar shells beyond the Israel-Gaza borderline, which is a little less than half a mile away from the bombed area.
“I was going out of the mosque when the shells hit the kids,” said Mohammed Helo 42, the children's uncle, at the morgue of Shifa hospital in Gaza, where the bodies were taken. “I did not know what was going on. All I heard was thunderous explosions then the moans of people who were just walking by. Limbless bodies were scattered all around.”
Adham Abu Selmiya, head of the emergency department in the Hamas Ministry of Health, said three children and a man from the same family were killed in the attack. He said the children ranged in age from 9 years old to 13 years old.
Hamas rulers of Gaza said what happened was a war crime, stressing that Israeli attacks will not keep the Palestinian people to from defending themselves.
“We are doing our best to avoid violence with Israel, but the Israelis continue to escalate their aggressions against us,” Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters in Gaza.
The Israeli army confirmed the shelling and apologized for the killing of civilians, ordering an investigation into the incident.
The new escalation at the Gaza-Israel borders threaten an informal cease-fire that Hamas kept since the 22-day Israeli offensive on Gaza ended early 2009.
Hamas and other Gaza militants have fired at least 60 homemade missiles and mortar shells at Israel since Saturday.