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Huge rise in birth defects in Falluja November 15, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Health, Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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fallujahdeform_300

Fatima Ahmed, born after the assault in Fallujah, has deformities that include two heads.

 

Iraqi former battle zone sees abnormal clusters of infant tumours and deformities

Fallujah, an Iraqi city forever marked by the U.S. assault there, is dealing with another claim to infamy—infant deformities running up to 15 times higher than normal and a spike in cases of early-life cancers that may be linked to toxic materials from the fighting.  —JCL

 

Doctors in Iraq‘s war-ravaged enclave of Falluja are dealing with up to 15 times as many chronic deformities in infants and a spike in early life cancers that may be linked to toxic materials left over from the fighting.

The extraordinary rise in birth defects has crystallised over recent months as specialists working in Falluja’s over-stretched health system have started compiling detailed clinical records of all babies born.

Neurologists and obstetricians in the city interviewed by the Guardian say the rise in birth defects – which include a baby born with two heads, babies with multiple tumours, and others with nervous system problems – are unprecedented and at present unexplainable.

A group of Iraqi and British officials, including the former Iraqi minister for women’s affairs, Dr Nawal Majeed a-Sammarai, and the British doctors David Halpin and Chris Burns-Cox, have petitioned the UN general assembly to ask that an independent committee fully investigate the defects and help clean up toxic materials left over decades of war – including the six years since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

“We are seeing a very significant increase in central nervous system anomalies,” said Falluja general hospital’s director and senior specialist, Dr Ayman Qais. “Before 2003 [the start of the war] I was seeing sporadic numbers of deformities in babies. Now the frequency of deformities has increased dramatically.”

The rise in frequency is stark – from two admissions a fortnight a year ago to two a day now. “Most are in the head and spinal cord, but there are also many deficiencies in lower limbs,” he said. “There is also a very marked increase in the number of cases of less than two years [old] with brain tumours. This is now a focus area of multiple tumours.”

After several years of speculation and anecdotal evidence, a picture of a highly disturbing phenomenon in one of Iraq’s most battered areas has now taken shape. Previously all miscarried babies, including those with birth defects or infants who were not given ongoing care, were not listed as abnormal cases.

The Guardian asked a paediatrician, Samira Abdul Ghani, to keep precise records over a three-week period. Her records reveal that 37 babies with anomalies, many of them neural tube defects, were born during that period at Falluja general hospital alone.

Dr Bassam Allah, the head of the hospital’s children’s ward, this week urged international experts to take soil samples across Falluja and for scientists to mount an investigation into the causes of so many ailments, most of which he said had been “acquired” by mothers before or during pregnancy.

Other health officials are also starting to focus on possible reasons, chief among them potential chemical or radiation poisonings. Abnormal clusters of infant tumours have also been repeatedly cited in Basra and Najaf – areas that have in the past also been intense battle zones where modern munitions have been heavily used.

Falluja’s frontline doctors are reluctant to draw a direct link with the fighting. They instead cite multiple factors that could be contributors.

“These include air pollution, radiation, chemicals, drug use during pregnancy, malnutrition, or the psychological status of the mother,” said Dr Qais. “We simply don’t have the answers yet.”

The anomalies are evident all through Falluja’s newly opened general hospital and in centres for disabled people across the city. On 2 November alone, there were four cases of neuro-tube defects in the neo-natal ward and several more were in the intensive care ward and an outpatient clinic.

Falluja was the scene of the only two setpiece battles that followed the US-led invasion. Twice in 2004, US marines and infantry units were engaged in heavy fighting with Sunni militia groups who had aligned with former Ba’athists and Iraqi army elements.

The first battle was fought to find those responsible for the deaths of four Blackwater private security contractors working for the US. The city was bombarded heavily by American artillery and fighter jets. Controversial weaponry was used, including white phosphorus, which the US government admitted deploying.

Statistics on infant tumours are not considered as reliable as new data about nervous system anomalies, which are usually evident immediately after birth. Dr Abdul Wahid Salah, a neurosurgeon, said: “With neuro-tube defects, their heads are often larger than normal, they can have deficiencies in hearts and eyes and their lower limbs are often listless. There has been no orderly registration here in the period after the war and we have suffered from that. But [in relation to the rise in tumours] I can say with certainty that we have noticed a sharp rise in malignancy of the blood and this is not a congenital anomaly – it is an acquired disease.”

Despite fully funding the construction of the new hospital, a well-equipped facility that opened in August, Iraq’s health ministry remains largely disfunctional and unable to co-ordinate a response to the city’s pressing needs.

The government’s lack of capacity has led Falluja officials, who have historically been wary of foreign intervention, to ask for help from the international community. “Even in the scientific field, there has been a reluctance to reach out to the exterior countries,” said Dr Salah. “But we have passed that point now. I am doing multiple surgeries every day. I have one assistant and I am obliged to do everything myself.”

Additional reporting: Enas Ibrahim.

(Roger’s Note: We read about Falluja [Fallujah] when it was big news, we read about the US military destroying a city and terrorizing its residents in order to bring them Democracy.  Then we forgot about Falluja.  Now it comes back to haunt, not to haunt us but rather the ungrateful Iraqi residents of Falluja, sort of a gift that keeps on giving.  The amount of human suffering and damage caused by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq is probably beyond our comprehension, we think about it when it is brought to attention in articles like that I have posted above.   My point: make no mistake about it, the Iraq holocuast was not a “mistake” or a political miscalculation; it is a criminal act of the highest order, and if there were justice the entire Bush neo-Fascist cabal would be tried and convicted.)


Defending Israeli War Crimes May 29, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights, Israel, Gaza & Middle East, War.
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Published on Friday, May 29, 2009 by Foreign Policy In Focus by Stephen Zunes

In response to a series of reports by human rights organizations and international legal scholars documenting serious large-scale violations of international humanitarian law by Israeli armed forces in its recent war on the Gaza Strip, 10 U.S. state attorneys general sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defending the Israeli action. It is virtually unprecedented for state attorneys general – whose mandates focus on enforcement of state law – to weigh in on questions regarding the laws of war, particularly in a conflict on the far side of the world. More significantly, their statement runs directly counter to a broad consensus of international legal opinion that recognizes that Israel, as well as Hamas, engaged in war crimes.

The wording of the letter closely parallels arguments by Bush administration officials in support for Israel’s devastating offensive during their final days in office. Having been signed nearly 11 weeks after the end of the fighting and made public only late last month, it may have been part of an effort to undermine tentative efforts by the Obama administration to take a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A statement by state attorneys general putting forth a legal rationale for the large-scale killings of civilians is particularly distressing as concerns about civilian casualties from U.S. air and missile strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan has grown.

The attorneys general signing on to the letter included Republicans Rob McKenna of Washington, Mike Cox of Michigan, John Suthers of Colorado, Bill McCollum of Florida, Jon Bruning of Nebraska, and Mark Shurtleff of Utah. Signatories also included such prominent Democrats as Richard Cordray of Ohio, Patrick Lynch of Rhode Island, Jack Conway of Kentucky, and Buddy Caldwell of Louisiana.

Facile Legal Reasoning

The legal rationale put forward in the March 30 letter is extraordinarily facile. For example, they claim that the war waged on the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip was taken in furtherance of Israel’s “right to self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter.” In reality, however, while Article 51 does allow countries the right to resist an armed attack, it doesn’t grant any nation the right to engage in such a disproportionate response. 

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak admitted that the Israeli invasion had been planned for months, back when a six-month cease fire was still in effect. Even when Hamas resumed firing rockets into Israel in December, following a deadly Israeli raid into Gaza the previous month, there were few casualties. Indeed, not a single Israeli had been killed by Hamas rocket attacks for more than half a year prior to Israel launching its war on December 27. During the subsequent three weeks of fighting, Palestinians killed 10 Israelis, three of whom were civilians, while Israeli forces killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, the vast majority of whom were civilians. 

Incredibly, these attorneys general insist that these mass killings by Israeli forces were “justified and, in our view, met the international legal standards.”

The attorneys general also ignored the fact that Article 33 of the UN Charter explicitly prohibits nations going to war unless they “first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.”  However, Israel – with strong bipartisan U.S. support – had refused to even meet with Hamas to negotiate a long-term ceasefire, which Hamas had offered prior to the breakdown of the six-month lull in return for a lift in the Israeli siege of the enclave.

The letter correctly accuses Hamas, which had lobbed rockets into civilian-populated areas in southwestern Israel, of violating Article 48 of Protocol I to the Geneva Convention of 1948, which states: “Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”

However, the attorneys general refused to acknowledge that Israel had also violated that same provision on a far grander scale. While virtually every human rights organization, intergovernmental organization, and international legal authority that researched this recent conflict recognizes both Hamas and Israel were guilty of war crimes, these attorneys general still insist that Hamas alone was to blame and that Israel’s actions were perfectly legal.

Ignoring the Facts

Human Rights Watch (HRW) – which has been highly critical of Hamas attacks on civilian areas of Israel as well as repression by the Islamist group of Palestinian opponents within the Gaza Strip – reported during the fighting that in using heavy shelling against heavily-populated civilian areas, “Israel is committing indiscriminate attacks in violation of the laws of war.” In a comprehensive report published in March, HRW noted that “Israel’s repeated firing of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza during its recent military campaign was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes.”

Similarly, while Amnesty International also “found evidence of war crimes and other serious violations of international law by all parties to the conflict” and attacks by both sides against civilian areas in which no fighters were present, the attorneys general insisted that the Palestinian side alone was guilty of such illegal actions.

An independent United Nations inquiry documented six major Israeli attacks against UN buildings, including schools in which children were killed, noting that actions by Israeli forces “involved varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and to the safety of United Nations staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries and extensive physical damage and loss of property.” The report concluded that “no military activity was carried out from within the United Nations premises in any of the incidents.”

Without presenting any evidence to the contrary, the attorneys general categorically rejected such findings, insisting that Israel was engaged only in “a limited and directed action against the source of Hamas’s military acts.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) focused on other war crimes, noting how the “Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded,” citing instances in which Israeli forces prevented Red Cross or other medics safe access to assist seriously wounded civilians. The Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights reported with “certainty” that Israel violated international humanitarian law by attacking medics, damaging medical buildings, engaging in indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and delaying medical treatment for the injured. The ICRC declared Israel’s “delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable.” In addition, Israel rejected pleas by international humanitarian agencies by closing border crossings days at a time, denying access to food, medical supplies, fuel, and water sanitation equipment. Despite this, the attorneys general instead praised Israel for “allowing the entrance of humanitarian aid into Gaza.”

A report by a delegation of prominent U.S. attorneys which visited Gaza Strip soon after the fighting reported that “that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians during the Gaza offensive.” The Israeli press has reported testimony of Israeli soldiers who killed Palestinian civilians under highly permissive rules of engagement that allowed soldiers to kill any Palestinian in certain areas regardless of whether they were armed, and were ordered to intentionally destroy civilian property. An investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian revealed a series of Israeli missile attacks against clearly distinguishable civilian targets.

United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories Richard Falk, noting Israel’s “unlawful uses of force on a large scale” against Gazan society as a whole, referred to the operation as a “flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, as set forth in the Geneva Conventions.” Falk, an American Jew and emeritus professor at Princeton University who is arguably the country’s preeminent international legal scholar, also noted the illegality of Hamas rocket attacks into Israel, but stressed that Israeli airstrikes “were aimed at civilian areas in one of the most crowded stretches of land in the world.”

Ignoring such evidence, the attorneys general insisted that Israel was directing its artillery, bombings and missile attacks only towards “the source of Hamas’s military attacks” and the Israeli government should therefore not be held responsible for any military action which harmed Palestinian civilians because they did so “unintentionally.”

Defending Mass Killings of Civilians

These attorneys general try to absolve Israel of any responsibility of the hundreds of civilian deaths by accusing Hamas of “using these civilians as human shields.” They provide no evidence for this charge, however, save for a quote from the notoriously right-wing editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

Independent human rights groups have accused Hamas of less-severe violations of international humanitarian law, such as not taking all necessary steps it should to prevent civilian casualties when it positioned fighters and armaments too close to concentrations of civilians. However, this isn’t the same thing as deliberately using civilians as shields. Furthermore, the nature of urban warfare, particularly in a territory as densely populated as the Gaza Strip, makes the proximity of retreating fighters and their equipment to civilians unavoidable in many cases.

Even if Hamas were using human shields in the legal definition of the term, it still does not absolve Israel from its obligation to avoid civilian casualties. Amnesty International has noted that the Geneva Conventions make it clear that even if one side is shielding itself behind civilians, such a violation “shall not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians.”

To argue otherwise, as do these attorneys general, is a dangerous legal position for the chief law enforcement official of a state to take, such as ordering their state police to kill innocent people in a hostage situation. By this logic, if a botched bank robbery led the would-be robbers to hold bank employees and customers at gunpoint, these attorneys general could then order state patrolmen to kill the gunmen and hostages alike, defending their action on the grounds that the bad guys were using “human shields.”

Denying Political Reality

It’s not just this flawed legal reasoning that underscores how this initiative by these attorneys general was based not upon a legitimate interpretation of law but for narrow ideological purposes. They reveal their political prejudices in their insistence in the letter to Clinton in claiming that “Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005″ but that the Palestinians failed to establish “a flourishing independent state.” In reality, despite the removal of illegal Israeli settlements and the withdrawal of occupation forces from that crowded urban enclave, Israel has maintained sole control over Gaza Strip’s airspace and territorial waters, thereby prohibiting movement of people and goods by land and sea, as well as largely controlling the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt. Effectively preventing any exports or imports, except for occasional humanitarian aid, the economy has collapsed and, even prior to the war, the territory was experiencing a serious humanitarian crisis. Since Israel’s “withdrawal,” the Israeli government has also controlled the Gaza Strip’s electricity, water and telecommunications and has periodically engaged in air strikes and armed incursions into the enclave, murdering and kidnapping suspected militants. No people could reasonably be expected to establish “a flourishing independent state” under such circumstances. Furthermore, in maintaining their siege on the enclave, Israel legally remains the occupying power.

The attorneys general go on to accuse Hamas of taking advantage of Israel’s “withdrawal” to “cause a civil war with the Palestinian Authority, leading to a coup d’etat in 2007.” However, while Hamas is indeed guilty of innumerable political intrigues and inexcusable violence towards its Palestinian opponents, this is a gross misrepresentation of recent history: Rather than making war against the Palestinian Authority, Hamas was part of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, they controlled the legislative branch of government as well as the post of prime minister and most other ministries as a result of winning the plurality of the vote in parliamentary elections in January 2006. The following year, Saudi officials negotiated a power-sharing agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which still controlled the presidency. U.S. officials, however, unsuccessfully encouraged President Mahmoud Abbas to renounce the agreement, dismiss the entire government and abolish parliament.

The Bush administration then began secretly arming Fatah groups to enable them to fight Hamas and pushing Fatah to stage a coup. This is what led Hamas to launch a countercoup by overrunning Fatah offices and taking full control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Alvaro de Soto, former UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, stated in his confidential final report leaked to the press a few weeks before the Hamas takeover that “the Americans clearly encouraged a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas” and “worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry.” De Soto also recalled how in the midst of Egyptian efforts to arrange a cease-fire following a flare-up in factional fighting earlier that year, a U.S. official told him that “I like this violence…[I]t means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”

Though all this has been well-documented and is widely known in both Israel and Palestine, this bipartisan group of attorneys general has instead sought to defend the Bush administration’s provocative and illegal intervention by putting the entire blame on Hamas.

This letter to the Secretary of State was put together by a right-wing group calling itself the American-Israel Friendship League (AIFL), which boasts that the organization has sent 42 states attorney general to Israel in the past 21 years.  It refers to the letter as “a strong rejoinder to those who have castigated Israel over its role in Gaza and used it in an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish State.”

Dangerous Precedent

The Bush administration strongly supported Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip as an extension of its “war on terror.” It was in the name of this “war on terror” that President George W. Bush shamelessly politicized the U.S. Justice Department to justify spying on nonviolent dissidents at home and the torture of suspects abroad. Now we have a bipartisan group of state attorneys general who have shown themselves similarly willing to politicize their offices by putting forward twisted and perverse interpretations of the law in the name of fighting terrorism. Unless these rogue attorneys general are challenged by elected officials and ordinary citizens in their respective states for their signing on to such a reckless statement, it could mark a dangerous precedent regarding respect for human rights and the rule of law.
© 2009 Foreign Policy In Focus

Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy In Focus. He is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003.)

Caught in a Lie: US is Using White Phosphorus in Afghanistan as a Weapon May 16, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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by Dave Lindorff

When doctors started reporting that some of the victims of the US bombing of several villages in Farah Province last week—an attack that left between 117 and 147 civilians dead, most of them women and children—were turning up with deep, sharp burns on their body that “looked like” they’d been caused by white phosphorus, the US military was quick to deny responsibility.

US officials—who initially denied that the US had even bombed any civilians in Farah despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including massive craters where houses had once stood—insisted that “no white phosphorus” was used in the attacks on several villages in Farah.

Official military policy on the use of white phosphorus is to only use the high-intensity, self-igniting material as a smoke screen during battles or to illuminate targets, not as a weapon against human beings—even enemy troops.

Now that policy, and the military’s blanket denial that phosphorus was used in Farah, have to be challenged, thanks to a recent report filed from a remote area of Afghanistan by a New York Times reporter.

C.J. Chivers, writing in the May 14 edition of the NY Times, in an article headlined “Korangal Memo: In Bleak Afghan Outpost, Troops Slog On,” wrote of how an embattled US Army unit in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan, had come under attack following a morning memorial service for one of its members, Pfc. Richard Demeter, who had been killed the day before by a mine.

Chivers wrote:

“After the ceremony, the violence resumed. The soldiers detected a Taliban spotter on a ridge, which was pounded by mortars and then white phosphorus rounds from a 155 millimeter howitzer.

“What did the insurgents do? When the smoldering subsided, they attacked from exactly the same spot, shelling the outpost with 30-millimeter grenades and putting the soldiers on notice that the last display of firepower had little effect. The Americans escalated. An A-10 aircraft made several gun runs, then dropped a 500-pound bomb.”

It is clear from this passage that the military’s use of the phosphorus shells had not been for the officially sanctioned purpose of providing cover. The soldiers had no intention of climbing that hill to attack the spotter on the ridge themselves. They were trying to destroy him with shells and bombs. In fact, the last thing they would have wanted to do was provide the enemy spotter with a smoke cover, which would have helped him escape, and which also would have hidden him from the A-10 ground attack planes which had been called in to make gun runs at his position. Nor was this a case of illuminating the target. The incident, as Chivers reports, took place in broad daylight.

Clearly then, this article demonstrates that it is routine for US soldiers to call in phosphorus rounds to attack enemy soldiers, which is supposed to be against US military policy for this material. Whoever was manning the howitzer had a stock of the weapons on hand, and was ready to fire them.

The US initially flatly denied using white phosphorus weapons in Iraq, when reports first began to come out, including from US troops themselves, that they had been used extensively against insurgents defending the city of Fallujah against US Marines in November 2004. Under mounting pressure, the Pentagon first admitted that it had used the chemical in Fallujah but only “for illumination.” Later, the Pentagon added that it had used phosphorus as a “screen” to hide troops. But finally, in 2005, the Pentagon was forced to admit that it had also used white phosphorus directly as a weapon against enemy Iraqi troops in the assault on Fallujah, a city of 300,000 that still held many civilians.

The same pattern of denial and eventual admission regarding the use of this controversial and deadly weapon by US forces now seems to be repeating itself in Afghanistan.

It is odd that given the controversy over the use of white phosphorus weapons, which result in terrible wounds and eventual death as phosphorus particles burn their way down through flesh to the bone and sometimes straight onward through a body, leaving a charred channel of destruction, the New York Times’ Chivers—or more likely his editors back in New York?—ignored any mention of the issue while reporting on the use of the chemical rounds to attack a lone spotter on the ridge.

Given the current controversy over whether the US used white phosphorus shells or bombs in Falah Province only days before, it is hard to understand why the issue wasn’t mentioned in this particular article. Indeed, in the online version of the story, the word phosphorus is set as a hotlink to an article on the controversy over the battlefield use of phosphorus, indicating that at least someone at the Times has integrity and a good news sense.

As for the US government and the Pentagon, it is clear that they know the weapon is a vicious and controversial one, and that besides causing horrific and painful wounds, it is profoundly dangerous for innocent civilians, particularly when used in town or village settings.

It is bad enough that the US is using this weapon. It is even worse that it is forced to lie about it.

Surely if the goal of US policy is to win the hearts and minds of Afghanistan’s people, it shouldn’t be using a weapon that causes such terrible and indiscriminate wounds. Then again, maybe winning those hearts and minds isn’t really the goal. Maybe, as in the so-called “Pacification Program” applied by US forces in rural South Vietnam, the goal is to terrorize Afghan villagers in Taliban-dominated regions into rejecting the Taliban in their midst.

Requests for answers from the press office at the Pentagon, and at military headquarters in Afghanistan, regarding US policy on the use of white phosphorus, and on the specific use of the shells mentioned in the New York Times article were ignored.

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is author of Marketplace Medicine: The Rise of the For-Profit Hospital Chains (BantamBooks, 1992), and his latest book “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net

White Phosphorus? Concern Over Burns on Afghans Caught in Battle May 10, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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by Jason Straziuso and Rahim Faiez

KABUL — Afghanistan’s leading human rights organization said Sunday it was investigating the possibility that white phosphorus was used in a U.S.-Taliban battle that killed scores of Afghans. The U.S. military rejected speculation it had used the weapon but left open the possibility Taliban militants did.White phosphorus can be employed legitimately in battle, but rights groups say its use over populated areas can indiscriminately burn civilians and constitutes a war crime.

 

[Frishta, 7, an Afghan girl who was badly burned in a US air strike on Monday night in Bala Baluk district of Farah province, cries in a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan, Saturday, May 9, 2009. Afghanistan's leading human rights organization said Sunday it was investigating the possibility that white phosphorus was used. (AP Photo/Fraidoon Pooyaa)]Frishta, 7, an Afghan girl who was badly burned in a US air strike on Monday night in Bala Baluk district of Farah province, cries in a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan, Saturday, May 9, 2009. Afghanistan’s leading human rights organization said Sunday it was investigating the possibility that white phosphorus was used. (AP Photo/Fraidoon Pooyaa)

Afghan doctors are concerned over what they are calling “unusual” burns on Afghans wounded in last Monday’s battle in Farah province, which President Hamid Karzai has said may have killed 125 to 130 civilians. 

Allegations that white phosphorus or another chemical may have been used threatens to deepen the controversy over what Afghan officials say could be the worst case of civilian deaths since the 2001 U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban regime. The incident in Farah drew the condemnation of Karzai who called for an end to airstrikes.

Nader Nadery, a commissioner for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said officials were concerned white phosphorus may have been used, but he said more investigation was needed.

“Our teams have met with patients,” Nadery told The Associated Press. “They are investigating the cause of the injuries and the use of white phosphorus.”

White phosphorus is a spontaneously flammable material that can cause painful chemical burns. It is used to mark targets, create smoke screens or as a weapon, and can be delivered by shells, flares or hand grenades, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

Human rights groups denounce its use for the severe burns it causes, though it is not banned by any treaty to which the United States is a signatory.

The U.S. military used white phosphorus in the battle of Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004. Israel’s military used it in January against Hamas targets in Gaza.

Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said the U.S. did not use white phosphorus as a weapon in last week’s battle. The U.S. does use white phosphorous to illuminate the night sky, he said.

Julian noted that military officials believe that Taliban militants have used white phosphorus at least four times in Afghanistan in the past two years. “I don’t know if they (militants) had it out there or not, but it’s not out of the question,” he said.

A spokesman for the Taliban could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The U.S. military on Saturday said that Afghan doctors in Farah told American officials that the injuries seen in wounded Afghans from two villages in the province’s Bala Baluk district could have resulted from hand grenades or exploding propane tanks.

Dr. Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head of the burn unit at the Herat Regional Hospital in western Afghanistan who has treated five patients wounded in the battle, described the burns as “unusual.”

“I think it’s the result of a chemical used in a bomb, but I’m not sure what kind of chemical. But if it was a result of a burning house – from petrol or gas cylinders – that kind of burn would look different,” he said.

Gul Ahmad Ayubi, the deputy head of Farah’s health department, said the province’s main hospital had received 14 patients after the battle, all with burn wounds.

“There has been other airstrikes in Farah in the past. We had injuries from those battles, but this is the first time we have seen such burns on the bodies. I’m not sure what kind of bomb it was,” he said.

U.N. human rights investigators have also seen “extensive” burn wounds on victims and have raised questions about how the injuries were caused, said a U.N. official who asked not to be identified talking about internal deliberations. The U.N. has reached no conclusions about whether any chemical weapons may have been used, the official said.

Afghan officials say up to 147 people may have died in the battle in Farah, though the U.S. says that number is exaggerated.

The U.S. on Saturday blamed Taliban militants for causing the deaths by using villagers as human shields in the hopes they would be killed. A preliminary U.S. report did not say how many people died in the battle.

The investigation into the Farah battle coincides with an appeal by Human Rights Watch for NATO forces to release results of an investigation into a March 14 incident in which an 8-year-old Afghan girl was burned by white phosphorus munitions in Kapisa province.

The New York-based group said Saturday white phosphorus “causes horrendous burns and should not be used in civilian areas.”

Israel on Trial April 5, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights, Israel, Gaza & Middle East, War.
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by George Bisharat

SAN FRANCISCO – Chilling testimony by Israeli soldiers substantiates charges that Israel’s Gaza Strip assault entailed grave violations of international law. The emergence of a predominantly right-wing, nationalist government in Israel suggests that there may be more violations to come. Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians also constituted war crimes, but do not excuse Israel’s transgressions. While Israel disputes some of the soldiers’ accounts, the evidence suggests that Israel committed the following six offenses:

  • Violating its duty to protect the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. Despite Israel’s 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza, the territory remains occupied. Israel unleashed military firepower against a people it is legally bound to protect.
  • Imposing collective punishment in the form of a blockade, in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In June 2007, after Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip, Israel imposed suffocating restrictions on trade and movement. The blockade — an act of war in customary international law — has helped plunge families into poverty, children into malnutrition, and patients denied access to medical treatment into their graves. People in Gaza thus faced Israel’s winter onslaught in particularly weakened conditions.
  • Deliberately attacking civilian targets. The laws of war permit attacking a civilian object only when it is making an effective contribution to military action and a definite military advantage is gained by its destruction. Yet an Israeli general, Dan Harel, said, “We are hitting not only terrorists and launchers, but also the whole Hamas government and all its wings.” An Israeli military spokeswoman, Maj. Avital Leibovich, avowed that “anything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target.”
    Israeli fire destroyed or damaged mosques, hospitals, factories, schools, a key sewage plant, institutions like the parliament, the main ministries, the central prison and police stations, and thousands of houses.
  • Willfully killing civilians without military justification. When civilian institutions are struck, civilians — persons who are not members of the armed forces of a warring party, and are not taking direct part in hostilities — are killed.

    International law authorizes killings of civilians if the objective of the attack is military, and the means are proportional to the advantage gained. Yet proportionality is irrelevant if the targets of attack were not military to begin with. Gaza government employees — traffic policemen, court clerks, secretaries and others — are not combatants merely because Israel considers Hamas, the governing party, a terrorist organization. Many countries do not regard violence against foreign military occupation as terrorism.

    Of 1,434 Palestinians killed in the Gaza invasion, 960 were civilians, including 121 women and 288 children, according to a United Nations special rapporteur, Richard Falk. Israeli military lawyers instructed army commanders that Palestinians who remained in a targeted building after having been warned to leave were “voluntary human shields,” and thus combatants. Israeli gunners “knocked on roofs” — that is, fired first at corners of buildings, before hitting more vulnerable points — to “warn” Palestinian residents to flee.

    With nearly all exits from the densely populated Gaza Strip blocked by Israel, and chaos reigning within it, this was a particularly cruel flaunting of international law. Willful killings of civilians that are not required by military necessity are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and are considered war crimes under the Nuremberg principles.

  • Deliberately employing disproportionate force. Last year, Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, head of Israel’s northern command, speaking on possible future conflicts with neighbors, stated, “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction.” Such a frank admission of illegal intent can constitute evidence in a criminal prosecution.
  • Illegal use of weapons, including white phosphorus. Israel was finally forced to admit, after initial denials, that it employed white phosphorous in the Gaza Strip, though Israel defended its use as legal. White phosphorous may be legally used as an obscurant, not as a weapon, as it burns deeply and is extremely difficult to extinguish.

Israeli political and military personnel who planned, ordered or executed these possible offenses should face criminal prosecution. The appointment of Richard Goldstone, the former war crimes prosecutor from South Africa, to head a fact-finding team into possible war crimes by both parties to the Gaza conflict is an important step in the right direction. The stature of international law is diminished when a nation violates it with impunity.

George Bisharat is a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Israel’s dilemma: How to calculate the risks of getting un-Chosen March 23, 2009

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 Jane Stillwater, www.opednews.com, March 22, 2009 

Israel’s current hard-liner government is now being forced to face a very real dilemma. At what point does its behavior become so outrageous that it risks pissing God off?

How far can the current government in Tel Aviv go before the Chosen People of Israel start running the risk getting un-Chosen?


If the Promised Land keeps getting trashed with too many high-rise condos soaking up all the natural resources in Eden, too much use of questionable eminent domain over the olive groves where Christ walked, too much depleted uranium used too liberally, too many obnoxious settlers committing hate crimes in the Holy Land, too much saber-rattling intimidation of the meek, too many more false-flag operations than even Samson ever dreamed of and too frequent massacres of Arab and Christian Palestinians in a land where Moses preached that “Thou shalt not Kill” seemed like a pretty good idea — might God begin to start reconsidering His choice?

According to a BBC News report, “The spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has provoked outrage with a sermon calling for the annihilation of Arabs.” When one of the most powerful rabbis in Israel is openly calling for wholesale genocide, perhaps it’s time for Israel to start worrying that it might be pushing too many of God’s buttons?

According to one of Britain’s leading newspapers, The Independent, the latest casualty figures in Gaza “list the names of 1,434 dead of whom they say 926 were civilians….” 926 of the 1,434 dead in the recent invasion of Gaza were simply “collateral damage”? How is God gonna feel about that?

According to a recent AFP report, soldiers invading Gaza were told that they were fighting a holy war. “Many Israeli troops had the sense of fighting a ‘religious war’ against Gentiles during the 22-day offensive in Gaza, according to a soldier who has highlighted the martial role of military rabbis during the operation. The soldier testified that the ‘clear’ message of literature distributed to troops by the rabbinate was: ‘We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the Gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land.’ The [journal of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military academy], which quoted graduates of the college, also cited the case of an elderly Palestinian woman killed as she was walking 100 metres (yards) from her home. Soldiers also spoke of civilians being abused, acts of vandalism and destruction of homes. ‘Those were very harsh testimonies about unjustified shooting of civilians and destruction of property that conveyed an atmosphere in which one feels entitled to use unrestricted force against Palestinians,’ academy director Dany Zamir told public radio.”

I really don’t think that God is gonna be pleased with Israel using His name as an excuse to gun down and/or barbecue innocent women and children.

And then there’s that sticky matter of home demolitions. How is God gonna feel about that one? Is it really wise for the Israeli government to use their illegal eminent domain powers and then claim that these illegal powers are used only according to explicit operating instructions from Him?

According to the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, “In 1948 and for years after, Israeli governments systematically demolished more than 500 entire [Muslim and Christian] villages, towns, urban centers and neighborhoods, both to prevent the return of the Palestinian refugees and to take their lands and properties. Since the Occupation began in 1967, another 24,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished, including 4000 in the latest attack on Gaza. And in 2004, the Israeli government announced the establishment of a Demolition Administration within the Ministry of Interior; targeted for destruction are 20-40,000 homes of Israeli (Arab) citizens….”

Are the Chosen People being foolish to risk God’s wrath by continuing to tear down historic Palestine, the birthright that He granted to His only Son? It might be a good idea for the Israelites to remember what happened when God got pissed off at the Egyptians….

Israel’s YnetNews just reported that “research by an Arab human rights group shows a ten-fold increase in Jewish attacks on the Arab population in Israel over the last year.” Are those pesky settlers at it again? Someone over in Israel seriously needs to ask God what He thinks about hate crimes.
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Like a young child constantly testing the limits of its parents’ toleration, the current government of Israel seems to be constantly skating on the edge of invoking Divine disapproval. Just exactly how far can God be pushed? And at exactly what point is God gonna have to tell the Israelites, “Go to your room!” And if He doesn’t, will He then start to lose respect in Israelis’ eyes — for being too weak? Maybe God should start demanding an eye for an eye — just to show His children that He’s not gonna be manipulated by no uppity kids!

The big debate in the Israeli Knesset right now — or at least should be — is this: “Just exactly how much Ugly can we get away with before God starts to notice?” And another big question the Knesset should be considering is whether or not, once Israelis are Chosen, they will remain Chosen forever — just because they were born lucky? Or do they gotta constantly keep working at obtaining Parental approval?

How far does Israel need to go in order to keep the Promised Land from getting un-Promised? This is a very real dilemma now facing Israel’s government.

Guys, might I suggest that you consider re-reading your Talmud?

PS: “But why do you always just keep attacking the United States and Israel?” asked a friend of mine recently. “Why not Somalia, Sudan or Zimbabwe? Or Rwanda? They’re just as bad — or even far worse.” Why? Because America and Israel are supposed to be CIVILIZED countries, above and beyond such medieval nonsense as torture, genocide, assassination squads, land-grabs, political prisons and major “collateral damage”. We sort of expect that kind of behavior from countries just barely out of the Dark Ages — but not from so-called western democracies with a tradition of encouraging civilized behavior.

Recently the Berkeley Daily Planet printed the following information about Israel: “An Israeli company has developed a simple blood test that distinguishes between mild and more severe cases of multiple sclerosis…. An Israeli-made device helps restore the use of paralyzed hands. This device electrically stimulates the muscles, providing hope to millions of stroke sufferers and victims of spinal injuries…. Young children with breathing problems will soon be sleeping more soundly, thanks to a new Israeli device called the Child Hood. This innovation replaces the inhalation mask with an improved drug delivery system that provides relief for child and parent…. Israel has the highest ratio of university degrees to the population in the world. Israel produces more scientific papers per capita-109 per 10,000-than any other nation. Israel has the highest number of start-up companies per rata. In absolute terms, the highest numbers, except the U.S., are in Israel, which has a ratio of patents filed. Israel has the highest concentration of hi-tech companies outside of Silicon Valley in the U.S.A. Israel is ranked no. 2 in the world for venture capital funds, behind the U.S.A. Israel has more museums per capita than any other country. Israel has the second highest rate of publication of new books per capita.”

Does this description of Israel sound like it is a primitive country run by blood-thirsty dictators? No. This description sounds like Israel is a civilized country that has no business dropping white phosphorus bombs on women and children, destroying thousands of homes solely on the basis of religious intolerance, running what appears to be a medieval Inquisition, and intimidating and terrorizing any of its citizens who do not agree with it.

This description of Israel sounds like it is a country whose citizens should know better than that.

Jane Stillwater is a freelance writer who hates injustice and corruption in any form but especially injustice and corruption paid for by American taxpayers. She has recently published a book entitled, “Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips For Touring Today’s Middle East”.

Israeli Soldiers Say Army Rabbis Framed Gaza as Religious War March 21, 2009

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by Cliff Churgin

JERUSALEM — Rabbis affiliated with the Israeli army urged troops heading into Gaza to reclaim what they said was God-given land and “get rid of the gentiles” – effectively turning the 22-day Israeli intervention into a religious war, according to the testimony of a soldier who fought in Gaza.

 

[Soldier says rabbis pushed "religious war" in Gaza. An Israeli soldier gestures atop a mobile artillery unit as the sun sets over the central Gaza Strip in this January 5, 2009 photo. (REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)]Soldier says rabbis pushed “religious war” in Gaza. An Israeli soldier gestures atop a mobile artillery unit as the sun sets over the central Gaza Strip in this January 5, 2009 photo.(REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)

Literature passed out to soldiers by the army’s rabbinate “had a clear message – we are the people of Israel, we came by a miracle to the land of Israel, God returned us to the land, now we need to struggle to get rid of the gentiles that are interfering with our conquest of the land,” the soldier told a forum of Gaza veterans in mid-February, just weeks after the conflict ended. 

A transcript of the testimony given at an Israeli military academy at the Oranim college on Feb. 13 was obtained on Friday by McClatchy and also published in Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading dailies. The soldier, identified as “Ram,” a pseudonym to protect his identity, gave a scathing description of the atmosphere as the Israeli army went to war.

“The general atmosphere among people I spoke to was . . . the lives of Palestinians are . . . let’s say far, far less important from the lives of our soldiers,” Ram said. The religious literature gave “the feeling of almost a religious mission,” he said.

Jonathan Peled, the Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington, said that Israel “absolutely” had no intention of expelling Palestinians from Gaza and has no territorial or other claims there. While he hadn’t seen the religious literature mentioned by the soldier, he said the Israeli army “is a secular army and is not run by any religious institution but by army commanders answering to the democratically elected government of the State of Israel.”

Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, the Israeli army’s chief prosecutor, on Thursday announced the first criminal investigation into the killing of Palestinian civilians during Israel’s military incursion. He issued the order after the Haaretz and Maariv newspapers published an account from the Oranim forum of how an Israeli sharpshooter killed a Palestinian woman and her two children when they inadvertently took a wrong turn after being released from detention in their own home.

There are growing questions about the Israeli Defense Force’s commitment to prosecute war crimes and burgeoning criticism of the operation itself. According to Haaretz, the army first learned on Feb. 23 of the Oranim forum allegations and obtained a full transcript on March 5. The army told McClatchy on Thursday it had received the transcript that day, but on Friday a representative said it had received the document “a few days ago.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington said the army “holds itself to the highest moral and ethical standards, and as such is investigating the claims with the diligence one would expect in order to determine their accuracy, should further action be required.”

Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the operation, more than half of them civilians, according to Palestinian human rights groups.

Danny Zamir, the head of the Yitzhak Rabin military academy, which organized the soldiers’ the forum, said the Gaza operation was “an unusual military action in the IDF’s history which established new, unknown, norm in the IDF’s ethical code.”

The testimonies indicated that the army, despite repeated claims that it was protecting civilian lives, was not instructing its troops to that effect.

One soldier, identified only as “Aviv,” said he was bothered by open fire orders given to his unit for an operation that was later canceled.

“We were supposed to go in with an armored vehicle called an Ahzarit, break into the door and start to shoot inside and simply go up floor by floor. . . . I call this murder . . . to go up floor by floor and every person that we see we were to shoot,” he said. “Aviv” served as a squad leader with the Givati unit in the Gaza neighborhood of Zeitoun.

“At first I said to myself how is this logical? Higher authorities said this was permissible because everyone left in the area and in the city of Gaza is condemned, is a terrorist, because they didn’t run away.”

When the orders were changed, Aviv said that another soldier protested: “Everyone in there is a terrorist, that’s known.” His comrades joined in, “We need to kill every person found there; everyone in Gaza is a terrorist.”

Another soldier, indentified as “Gilad,” said his battalion commander made clear that the army was going to use its overwhelming firepower as its protection in entering densely populated Gaza City.

“He made clear to everyone that one of the most important lessons and one of the big differences with the Second Lebanon War (in 2006) is the way in which we, the army . . . went in with a lot of fire. The surprise wouldn’t be the time, or the way or the place, nothing but a lot of firepower. The goal actually was to protect solders’ lives with firepower.”

McClatchy reported that scores of Palestinians were treated at Gaza hospitals for burns that may have come from shells containing white phosphorus, which is illegal to use in heavily populated areas. The issue came up only briefly at the Oranim conference, when a sergeant in the paratroops, identified as Yossi, said, “There was a lot of use of white phosphorous.”

Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem thinks that the public release of the testimony helped spur the investigation. “There have been many cases where we have asked the advocate general to look into cases, and they drag their feet until it gets into the media.”

Michaeli said the testimonies showed the need for an independent investigation into Israel’s action in Gaza, “The army and (State Attorney Menahem) Mazuz has claimed all along that the internal investigations and debriefings are the correct way. This clearly demonstrates that the soldiers didn’t reveal what they did or that they didn’t consider it a problem,” Michaeli told McClatchy.

Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.

With The Women of Gaza On International Women’s Day: We Will Not Be Silent! March 9, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Israel, Gaza & Middle East, Women.
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by Ann Wright

Would women in Gaza really celebrate International Women’s Day?” was the question members of our 58 person delegation from United States, Canada, Pakistan, France, Australia, Egypt, Dubai and Turkey asked as we travelled from Cairo to the Gaza border.

In less than three weeks, the delegates had responded to an appeal by Codepink: Women for Peace to join an international delegation to try to go into Gaza at the invitation of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency of Gaza (UNWRA).

Women of Gaza have so little to celebrate.

Women of Gaza were subjected to the 22 day Israeli military attack on Gaza that killed over 1400, including 192 women and over 400 children, and wounded more than 5,000 Palestinians. Women of Gaza waving white flags were killed by Israeli snipers.  Women of Gaza standing at kitchen windows were blown apart by Israeli bombs made in the United States.  Women of Gaza died in the streets when Israeli soldiers refused to allow emergency medical personnel to help them to hospitals.  Women of Gaza watched the bodies of their children melt from white phosphorus wounds. Women of Gaza held their dying children in their arms.  Women of Gaza found the bodies of the husbands and children in the rubble of their homes.  Women of Gaza now wait for their wounded children to return from hospitals in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Women of Gaza live in tents because their homes were destroyed in the bombings. Women of Gaza hold children who have nightmares about the bombings they have endured.  Women of Gaza wake up from their nightmares about their lives in Gaza.

Women of Gaza have endured 18 months of the blockade of Gaza.  Because of the blockade, women of Gaza are prevented from leaving Gaza.  Because of the blockade, women of Gaza feed their families from food smuggled through tunnels.  Because of the blockade, women of Gaza wait for glass to repair the windows in their homes.  Because of the blockade, women of Gaza live with minimum electricity in the home because damaged power plants cannot be repaired.  Because of the blockade, women of Gaza cook cannot get cooking gas and cook with wood.  Because of the blockade, communication with the rest of the world is difficult.

Our delegation on March 8, International Women’s Day, while visiting with over 1000 women in 13 different community development centers throughout Gaza, found that women of Gaza do celebrate.

The women of Gaza celebrate – their determination to survive.

But the women of Gaza wonder why women of the world are silent about the Israeli military attacks on them and the 18 month blockade of their country.

And that is why we were there– in Gaza, on International Women’s Day, to stand in solidarity with the women of Gaza. 

We Will Not Be Silent!

Ann Wright is a 29 year US Army/Army Reserves veteran who retired as a Colonel and a former US diplomat who resigned in March, 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq.  She served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia.  In December, 2001 she was on the small team that reopened the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.  She is the co-author of the book “Dissent: Voices of Conscience.”  (www.voicesofconscience.com

Obama and Israel’s Military: Still Arm-in-Arm March 5, 2009

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 Stephen Zunes | March 4, 2009

Foreign Policy in Focus, http://www.fpif.org

 

In the wake of Israel’s massive assault on heavily populated civilian areas of the Gaza Strip earlier this year, Amnesty International called for the United States to suspend military aid to Israel on human rights grounds. Amnesty has also called for the United Nations to impose a mandatory arms embargo on both Hamas and the Israeli government. Unfortunately, it appears that President Barack Obama won’t be heeding Amnesty’s call.

During the fighting in January, Amnesty documented Israeli forces engaging in “direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Gaza, and attacks which were disproportionate or indiscriminate.” The leader of Amnesty International’s fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip and southern Israel noted how “Israeli forces used white phosphorus and other weapons supplied by the USA to carry out serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes.” Amnesty also reported finding fragments of U.S.-made munitions “littering school playgrounds, in hospitals and in people’s homes.”

Malcolm Smart, who serves as Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East, observed in a press release that “to a large extent, Israel’s military offensive in Gaza was carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment supplied by the USA and paid for with U.S. taxpayers’ money.” The release also noted how before the conflict, which raged for three weeks from late December into January, the United States had “been aware of the pattern of repeated misuse of [its] weapons.”

Amnesty has similarly condemned Hamas rocket attacks into civilian-populated areas of southern Israel as war crimes. And while acknowledging that aid to Hamas was substantially smaller, far less sophisticated, and far less lethal — and appeared to have been procured through clandestine sources — Amnesty called on Iran and other countries to take concrete steps to insure that weapons and weapon components not get into the hands of Palestinian militias.

During the fighting in early January, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization initially called for a suspension of U.S. military aid until there was no longer a substantial risk of additional human rights violations. The Bush administration summarily rejected this proposal. Amnesty subsequently appealed to the Obama administration. “As the major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and of human rights,” said Malcolm Smart. “The Obama administration should immediately suspend U.S. military aid to Israel.”

Obama’s refusal to accept Amnesty’s call for the suspension of military assistance was a blow to human rights activists. The most Obama might do to express his displeasure toward controversial Israeli policies like the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories would be to reject a planned increase in military aid for the next fiscal year and slightly reduce economic aid and/or loan guarantees. However, in a notable departure from previous administrations, Obama made no mention of any military aid to Israel in his outline of the FY 2010 budget, announced last week. This notable absence may indicate that pressure from human rights activists and others concerned about massive U.S. military aid to Israel is now strong enough that the White House feels a need to downplay the assistance rather than emphasize it.

Obama Tilts Right

Currently, Obama is on record supporting sending up to $30 billion in unconditional military aid to Israel over the next 10 years. Such a total would represent a 25% increase in the already large-scale arms shipments to Israeli forces under the Bush administration.

Obama has thus far failed to realize that the problem in the Middle East is that there are too many deadly weapons in the region, not too few. Instead of simply wanting Israel to have an adequate deterrent against potential military threats, Obama insists the United States should guarantee that Israel maintain a qualitative military advantage. Thanks to this overwhelming advantage over its neighbors, Israeli forces were able to launch devastating wars against Israel’s Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors in recent years.

If Israel were in a strategically vulnerable situation, Obama’s hard-line position might be understandable. But Israel already has vastly superior conventional military capabilities relative to any combination of armed forces in the region, not to mention a nuclear deterrent.

However, Obama has failed to even acknowledge Israel’s nuclear arsenal of at least 200-300 weapons, which has been documented for decades. When Hearst reporter Helen Thomas asked at his first press conference if he could name any Middle Eastern countries that possess nuclear weapons, he didn’t even try to answer the question. Presumably, Obama knows Israel has these weapons and is located in the Middle East. However, acknowledging Israel’s arsenal could complicate his planned arms transfers since it would place Israel in violation of the 1976 Symington Amendment, which restricts U.S. military support for governments which develop nuclear weapons.

Another major obstacle to Amnesty’s calls for suspending military assistance is Congress. Republican leaders like Representatives John Boehner (OH) and Eric Cantor (VA) have long rejected calls by human rights groups to link U.S. military aid to adherence to internationally recognized human rights standards. But so have such Democratic leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who are outspoken supporters of unconditional military aid to Israel. Even progressive Democratic Representative Barney Frank (MA), at a press conference on February 24 pushing his proposal to reduce military spending by 25%, dismissed a question regarding conditioning Israel’s military aid package to human rights concerns.

Indeed, in an apparent effort to support their militaristic agenda and to discredit reputable human rights groups that documented systematic Israeli attacks against non-military targets, these congressional leaders and an overwhelming bipartisan majority of their colleagues have gone on record praising “Israel’s longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss and…efforts to prevent civilian casualties.” Although Obama remained silent while Israel was engaged in war crimes against the civilian population of Gaza, Pelosi and other congressional leaders rushed to Israel’s defense in the face of international condemnation.

Obama’s Defense of Israeli Attacks on Civilians

Following the 2006 conflict between Israeli armed forces and the Hezbollah militia, in which both sides committed war crimes by engaging in attacks against populated civilian areas, then-Senator Obama defended Israel’s actions and criticized Hezbollah, even though Israel was actually responsible for far more civilian deaths. In an apparent attempt to justify Israeli bombing of civilian population centers, Obama claimed Hezbollah had used “innocent people as shields.”

This charge directly challenged a series of reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These reports found that while Hezbollah did have some military equipment close to some civilian areas, the Lebanese Islamist militia had not forced civilians to remain in or around military targets in order to deter Israel from attacking those targets. I sent Obama spokesperson Ben LaBolt a copy of an exhaustive 249-page Human Rights Watch report that didn’t find a single case — out of 600 civilian deaths investigated — of Hezbollah using human shields. I asked him if Obama had any empirical evidence that countered these findings.

In response, LaBolt provided me with a copy of a short report from a right-wing Israeli think tank with close ties to the Israeli government headed by the former head of the Israeli intelligence service. The report appeared to use exclusively Israeli government sources, in contrast to the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, which were based upon forensic evidence as well as multiple verified eyewitness accounts by both Lebanese living in the areas under attack as well as experienced monitors (unaffiliated with any government or political organization) on the ground. Despite several follow-up emails asking for more credible sources, LaBolt never got back to me.

Not Good for Israel

The militaristic stance by Congress and the Obama administration is hardly doing Israel a favor. Indeed, U.S. military assistance to Israel has nothing to do with Israel’s legitimate security needs. Rather than commencing during the country’s first 20 years of existence, when Israel was most vulnerable strategically, major U.S. military and economic aid didn’t even begin until after the 1967 War, when Israel proved itself to be far stronger than any combination of Arab armies and after Israeli occupation forces became the rulers of a large Palestinian population.

If all U.S. aid to Israel were immediately halted, Israel wouldn’t be under a significantly greater military threat than it is today for many years. Israel has both a major domestic arms industry and an existing military force far more capable and powerful than any conceivable combination of opposing forces.

Under Obama, U.S. military aid to Israel will likely continue be higher than it was back in the 1970s, when Egypt’s massive and well-equipped armed forces threatened war, Syria’s military rapidly expanded with advanced Soviet weaponry, armed factions of the PLO launched terrorist attacks into Israel, Jordan still claimed the West Bank and stationed large numbers of troops along its border and demarcation line with Israel, and Iraq embarked on a vast program of militarization. Why does the Obama administration believe that Israel needs more military aid today than it did back then? Since that time, Israel has maintained a longstanding peace treaty with Egypt and a large demilitarized and internationally monitored buffer zone. Syria’s armed forces were weakened by the collapse of their former Soviet patron and its government has been calling for a resumption of peace talks. The PLO is cooperating closely with Israeli security. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel with full normalized relations. And two major wars and a decade of strict international sanctions have devastated Iraq’s armed forces, which is in any case now under close U.S. supervision.

Obama has pledged continued military aid to Israel a full decade into the future not in terms of how that country’s strategic situation may evolve, but in terms of a fixed-dollar amount. If his real interest were to provide adequate support for Israeli defense, he wouldn’t promise $30 billion in additional military aid. He would simply pledge to maintain adequate military assistance to maintain Israel’s security needs, which would presumably decline if the peace process moves forward. However, Israel’s actual defense needs don’t appear to be the issue.

According to late Israeli major general and Knesset member Matti Peled, — who once served as the IDF’s chief procurement officer, such fixed amounts are arrived at “out of thin air.” In addition, every major arms transfer to Israel creates a new demand by Arab states — most of which can pay hard currency through petrodollars — for additional U.S. weapons to challenge Israel. Indeed, Israel announced its acceptance of a proposed Middle Eastern arms freeze in 1991, but the U.S. government, eager to defend the profits of U.S. arms merchants, effectively blocked it. Prior to the breakdown in the peace process in 2001, 78 senators wrote President Bill Clinton insisting that the United States send additional military aid to Israel on the grounds of massive arms procurement by Arab states, neglecting to note that 80% of those arms transfers were of U.S. origin. Were they really concerned about Israeli security, they would have voted to block these arms transfers to the Gulf monarchies and other Arab dictatorships.

The resulting arms race has been a bonanza for U.S. arms manufacturers. The right-wing “pro-Israel” political action committees certainly wield substantial clout with their contributions to congressional candidates supportive of large-scale military and economic aid to Israel. But the Aerospace Industry Association and other influential military interests that promote massive arms transfers to the Middle East and elsewhere are even more influential, contributing several times what the “pro-Israel” PACs contribute.

The huge amount of U.S. aid to the Israeli government hasn’t been as beneficial to Israel as many would suspect. U.S. military aid to Israel is, in fact, simply a credit line to American arms manufacturers, and actually ends up costing Israel two to three times that amount in operator training, staffing, maintenance, and other related costs. The overall impact is to increase Israeli military dependency on the United States — and amass record profits for U.S. arms merchants.

The U.S. Arms Export Control Act requires a cutoff of military aid to recipient countries if they’re found to be using American weapons for purposes other than internal security or legitimate self-defense and/or their use could “increase the possibility of an outbreak or escalation of conflict.” This might explain Obama’s refusal to acknowledge Israel’s disproportionate use of force and high number of civilian casualties.

Betraying His Constituency

The $30 billion in taxpayer funds to support Israeli militarism isn’t a huge amount of money compared with what has already been wasted in the Iraq War, bailouts for big banks, and various Pentagon boondoggles. Still, this money could more profitably go toward needs at home, such as health care, education, housing, and public transportation.

It’s therefore profoundly disappointing that there has been so little public opposition to Obama’s dismissal of Amnesty International’s calls to suspend aid to Israel. Some activists I contacted appear to have fallen into a fatalistic view that the “Zionist lobby” is too powerful to challenge and that Obama is nothing but a helpless pawn of powerful Jewish interests. Not only does this simplistic perspective border on anti-Semitism, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any right-wing militaristic lobby will appear all-powerful if there isn’t a concerted effort from the left to challenge it.

Obama’s supporters must demand that he live up to his promise to change the mindset in Washington that has contributed to such death and destruction in the Middle East. The new administration must heed calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to condition military aid to Israel and all other countries that don’t adhere to basic principles of international humanitarian law.

 

Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy in Focus senior analyst, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Suspend military aid to Israel, Amnesty urges Obama after detailing US weapons used in Gaza February 23, 2009

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gaza-victimsRelatives mourn a Palestinian man killed by Israeli soldiers in Gaza, last month. Photograph: Eyad Baba/APRory McCarthy

www.guardian.co.uk, February 23, 2009

White phosphorus shells traced back to America
Activists call for arms embargoes on both sides

Detailed evidence has emerged of Israel‘s extensive use of US-made weaponry during its war in Gaza last month, including white phosphorus artillery shells, 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles.

In a report released today, Amnesty International detailed the weapons used and called for an immediate arms embargo on Israel and all Palestinian armed groups. It called on the Obama administration to suspend military aid to Israel.

The human rights group said that those arming both sides in the conflict “will have been well aware of a pattern of repeated misuse of weapons by both parties and must therefore take responsibility for the violations perpetrated”.

The US has long been the largest arms supplier to Israel; under a current 10-year agreement negotiated by the Bush administration the US will provide $30bn (£21bn) in military aid to Israel.

“As the major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and of human rights,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa programme director. “To a large extent, Israel’s military offensive in Gaza was carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment supplied by the USA and paid for with US taxpayers’ money.”

For their part, Palestinian militants in Gaza were arming themselves with “unsophisticated weapons” including rockets made in Russia, Iran and China and bought from “clandestine sources”, it said. About 1,300 Palestinians were killed and more than 4,000 injured during the three-week conflict. On the Israeli side 13 were killed, including three civilians. Amnesty said Israel’s armed forces carried out “direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Gaza, and attacks which were disproportionate or indiscriminate”. The Israeli military declined to comment yesterday.

Palestinian militants also fired “indiscriminate rockets” at civilians, Amnesty said. It called for an independent investigation into violations of international humanitarian law by both sides.

Amnesty researchers in Gaza found several weapon fragments after the fighting. One came from a 500lb (227kg) Mark-82 fin guided bomb, which had markings indicating parts were made by the US company Raytheon. They also found fragments of US-made white phosphorus artillery shells, marked M825 A1.

On 15 January, several white phosphorus shells fired by the Israeli military hit the headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City, destroying medicine, food and aid. One fragment found at the scene had markings indicating it was made by the Pine Bluff Arsenal, based in Arkansas, in October 1991.

The human rights group said the Israeli military had used white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas, which it said was an indiscriminate form of attack and a war crime. Its researchers found white phosphorus still burning in residential areas days after the ceasefire.

At the scene of an Israeli attack that killed three Palestinian paramedics and a boy in Gaza City on 4 January, Amnesty found fragments of an AGM114 Hellfire missile, made by Hellfire Systems of Orlando, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The missile is often fired from Apache helicopters.

Amnesty said it also found evidence of a new type of missile, apparently fired from unmanned drones, which exploded into many pieces of shrapnel that were “tiny sharp-edged metal cubes, each between 2 and 4mm square in size”.

“They appear designed to cause maximum injury,” Amnesty said. Many civilians were killed by this weapon, including several children, it said.

Rockets fired by Palestinian militants were either 122mm Grad missiles or short-range Qassam rockets, a locally made, improvised artillery weapon. Warheads were either smuggled in or made from fertiliser.

The arsenal of weapons was on a “very small scale compared to Israel”, it said, adding that the scale of rocket arsenal deployed by Hizbullah in the 2006 Lebanese war was “beyond the reach of Palestinian militant groups”.

Armed for war

Israelis Missiles launched from helicopters and unmanned drones, including 20mm cannon and Hellfire missiles. Larger laser-guided and other bombs dropped by F-16 warplanes. Extensive use of US-made 155mm white phosphorus artillery shells and Israeli-made 155mm illuminating shells that eject phosphorus canisters by parachute. Several deaths caused by flechettes, 4cm-long metal darts packed into 120mm tank shells, and fragments of US-made 120mm tank shells.

Palestinians Militants fired rockets into southern Israel including 122mm Grad rockets of either Russian, Chinese or Iranian manufacture, and smaller, improvised Qassam rockets often made inside Gaza and usually holding 5kg of explosives and shrapnel.

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