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#middle east

As civilian casualties mounted on Monday in the Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, Israel’s military reminded the world that it had warned people living in targeted areas to leave. The response from Palestinians here was unanimous: Where should we go?

United Nations shelters are already brimming, and some Palestinians fear they are not safe; one shelter was bombed by Israel in a previous conflict. Many Gaza residents have sought refuge with relatives, but with large extended families commonly consisting of dozens of relatives, many homes in the shrinking areas considered safe are already packed.

Perhaps most important, the vast majority of Gazans cannot leave Gaza. They live under restrictions that make this narrow coastal strip, which the United Nations considers occupied by Israel, unlike anywhere else.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in 2010 called Gaza “an open-air prison,” drawing criticism from Israel. But in reality, the vast majority of Gazans are effectively trapped, unable to seek refugee status across an international border. (Most are already refugees, those who fled from what is now Israel and their descendants.)

A 25-mile-long rectangle just a few miles wide, and one of the most densely populated places in the world, Gaza is surrounded by concrete walls and fences along its northern and eastern boundaries with Israel and its southern border with Egypt.

Even in what pass for ordinary times here, Israel permits very few Gazans to enter its territory, citing security concerns because suicide bombers and other militants from Gaza have killed Israeli civilians. The restrictions over the years have cost Palestinians jobs, scholarships and travel.

Egypt has also severely curtailed Gazans’ ability to travel, opening its border crossing with the territory for only 17 days this year. During the current fighting between Israel and the Hamas militants who control Gaza, only those with Egyptian or foreign passports or special permission were allowed to exit.

Even the Mediterranean Sea to the west provides no escape. Israel restricts boats from Gaza to three nautical miles offshore. And Gaza, its airspace controlled by Israel, has no airport.

So while three million Syrians have fled their country during the war there, more and more of Gaza’s 1.7 million people have been moving away from the edges of the strip and crowding into the already-packed center of Gaza City.

The New York Times, "Havens Are Few, If Not Far, for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip"

As Israeli troops and war planes bombarded Gaza, both sides reported death tolls that made clear Sunday was the deadliest day so far in the war. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported 87 Palestinians had died and the Israeli military said 13 soldiers were dead.

The fighting signaled that what had begun as a limited ground invasion by Israel had moved into a more extensive and costlier phase for both sides.

Most of the Palestinians were killed in an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City called Shejaiya. For the Palestinians, it was the deadliest episode since July 8, when Israel began its offensive, first from the air, which was intended to curb rocket fire against its cities and the danger of infiltration through tunnels running under the border from Gaza into Israel. The Gaza Health Ministry reported that more than 300 people were injured in Shejaiya. Tolls were not available from the refugee camps in central Gaza, where fleeing residents reported a similar Israeli advance, with artillery.

The Palestinian government, which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Western-supported Palestinian Authority and by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, in a statement described the killing of Palestinians in Shejaiya as “a heinous massacre” and a war crime.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed in combat overnight, according to that country’s military, and a spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, suggested that there would soon be an announcement about more casualties on the Israeli side. Earlier, Hamas’s military wing said it had ambushed an Israeli force after luring it into a minefield.

It was not immediately clear whether the growing death toll and increasing pressure on both sides would help or hinder international efforts to forge a cease-fire. Mr. Abbas was expected to meet on Sunday in Dohar, Qatar, with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and Qatari officials to discuss an Egyptian proposal for ending the fighting, according to Palestinian officials. Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, is also based in Qatar.

The New York Times, "Both Sides Report Deadliest Day in Gaza War"

Israel and its main militant Gaza adversary weighed an Egyptian cease-fire proposal late Monday, signaling a possible de-escalation of a week-old aerial battle that has left nearly 200 Palestinians dead from Israeli bombs and has sent hundreds of Gaza rockets deep into Israeli territory.

A senior government official in Israel, which has been preparing for the possibility of a ground invasion of Gaza, said it was seriously considering the Egyptian proposal. The initial reaction of Hamas, the dominant militant group in Gaza, was less committal, but was not an outright rejection.

The proposal envisioned a cease-fire beginning at 9 a.m. local time on Tuesday. It called for border crossings to Gaza to “be opened,” with the movement of people and goods to be “facilitated once the security situation becomes stable on the ground.” Within 48 hours of the initial cease-fire taking hold, talks are to be held in Cairo with the Israelis and the Palestinian militant factions on conditions for a longer-term truce, according to the text of the proposal.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ambassador Badr Abdelatty, said: “We hope it will be acknowledged. We are in close contact with everyone.”

Adding weight to the efforts, Secretary of State John Kerry was expected in Cairo as early as Tuesday, according to officials in the region and the Egyptian state news agency.

The New York Times, "Israel and Hamas Consider Egyptian Proposal for Cease-Fire in Air Attacks"

Palestinian deaths from Israel’s aerial attacks in Gaza rose sharply on Thursday, while militants there fired more than 180 rockets into Israel, reaching new targets spread across a vast area of the country.

The escalation appeared to increase the likelihood of a ground invasion and prompted the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to call urgently for a return to calm and a cease-fire.

“Today, we face the risk of an all-out escalation in Israel and Gaza, with the threat of a ground offensive still palpable — and preventable only if Hamas stops rocket firing,” he told an emergency meeting of the Security Council. There were no signs that a cease-fire was imminent, and no signs that diplomats representing the antagonists were heeding Mr. Ban’s call for calm.

Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, played an air-raid siren at the Council meeting to reflect what his country’s citizens hear every day. He called his Palestinian counterpart, Riyad Mansour, “a mouthpiece of Hamas.” Mr. Mansour blamed the underlying Israeli occupation, exhorting the Council to intervene and “salvage prospects for peace and security.”

The New York Times, "Gaza Deaths Spike In Third Day of Air Assault While Rockets Hit Israel"

Israel and its Palestinian adversaries in Gaza sharply escalated the latest deadly resurgence of hostilities on Tuesday, with the Israeli military conducting an intense aerial bombardment that targeted at least 50 Gazan sites, including homes, and militants in the enclave responding with a long-range missile volley aimed at Israeli population centers, including Tel Aviv. At least three of the Gaza rockets were intercepted by Israeli defenses.

Palestinian witnesses and health officials said at least 14 people had been killed in the Israeli attacks, including seven in a house that was bombed after its occupants had been warned in a cellphone call to leave. It was not immediately clear if the Gaza rockets caused any casualties or damage in Israel.

It was the deadliest day so far in the latest escalation of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fed partly by the raw rage over the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank last month and the grisly kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem last week.

In an ominous indication of further escalation, the Israeli government approved the call-up of 1,500 reservists, mainly Home Front Command and aerial defense units, and said later Tuesday that it had authorized the military to mobilize as many as 40,000 additional reservists if necessary for a possible ground invasion.

The Israeli military reported Tuesday evening, with little detail, that it had defeated an effort to attack an army base in southern Israel by “several gunmen armed with grenades” who had approached from the sea. The army said it had killed four of the gunmen and was searching for others.

Late in the day, air raid sirens wailed in Tel Aviv, warning of a Gaza rocket attack apparently aimed there and at smaller population centers. Israeli news media said at least three of the rockets had been thwarted by the military’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, including one south of Tel Aviv.

The Israeli aerial barrage followed the firing of about 80 rockets out of Gaza on Monday that reached deep into southern Israel.

The New York Times, "Israel Steps Up Offensive With Deadly Gaza Bombings."

War is coming.  

War is here.

The Israeli police have arrested a group of Israeli suspects in connection with the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian youth from East Jerusalem who was found beaten and burned in a Jerusalem forest last week, a spokesman for the Israeli Police said Sunday.

After days of near silence about the case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned what he called a “horrific crime” and pledged that the perpetrators would “face the full weight of the law.”

The police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said there was a “strong possibility” that the motive for the killing was “nationalistic,” indicating that it was a revenge attack by right-wing Jewish extremists for the recent kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.

Several East Jerusalem neighborhoods have erupted in outrage over the killing of the Palestinian teenager, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, 16, with youths clashing with Israeli security forces for several days. The unrest spread over the weekend to some Arab towns in northern Israel, and tensions remained high along the border with Gaza in the south. Israel braced for more violence with the announcement of the arrests.

After paying a condolence call to the family of one of the Israeli teenagers in the community of Nof Ayalon, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu stood before the television cameras outside the house and sent his condolences to the Abu Khdeir family, saying, “We do not differentiate between terrorists, and we will respond to all of them.”

But after weeks of taking the Palestinian leadership to task for having entered into a pact with Hamas, the Islamic group that Israel blames for the abduction and killing of the three Israeli teenagers, Mr. Netanyahu appeared unbowed.

“The murderers came from the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority; they returned to territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority,” he said of the kidnappers of the Israeli teenagers. “Therefore, the Palestinian Authority is obliged to do everything in its power to find them, just as we did, just as our security forces located the suspects in the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir within a matter of days.”

A person familiar with the case said that six suspects had been arrested, several of them minors. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a judicial order restricting public comments. Israel’s minister of public security, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, described the suspects in a statement as “youths.”

The New York Times, "Suspects Arrested in Death of Palestinian Youth, Israeli Police Say"

The abduction and killing of a Palestinian teenager whose burned body was found in a Jerusalem forest on Wednesday further poisoned relations between Israelis and Palestinians and prompted international outrage as the police investigated the death as a possible Israeli revenge killing.

The death of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, 16, came a day after the burial of three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and killed in the occupied West Bank last month. The killing of the teenager set off fierce riots in the ordinarily quiet and relatively well-to-do East Jerusalem neighborhood where he lived, threatening to ignite broader unrest and underlining deep fissures in Israeli society.

The abductions and killings of the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers raised the specter of individual vendettas within the broader conflict, making it all the more personal. Both sides, while angry and grieving, seemed stunned by the turn of events, in which each side sees itself as both victim and perpetrator.

While Israeli officials said they were still investigating the death of the teenage Palestinian, including possible criminal motives, the killing followed passionate calls for retribution on a Facebook page named “The People of Israel Demand Revenge” that quickly gathered 35,000 “likes” and included pictures of soldiers posing with their weapons. The page was taken down after two days.

The latest killing seemed to set off introspection among many Israelis who only a day earlier nursed their grievances over the killings of the three Israeli teenagers. The justice minister, Tzipi Livni, reacted harshly to the public calls for revenge and said if Muhammad was the victim of a reprisal killing it amounted to “an act of terrorism.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday vowed to hold accountable those who killed the three young men in the West Bank, pointing a finger at the Palestinian militant group Hamas. On Wednesday, after the body of the Palestinian teenager was found in the woods, the prime minister called on Israelis to obey the law, and asked investigators to quickly look into what he called “the abominable murder.”

… The two events exposed the extent to which parts of each side have dehumanized the other. After the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers last month, messages posted on social networks by Palestinians celebrated the capture of “three Shalits,” in reference to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas militants in Gaza who was eventually released in exchange for 1,027 prisoners.

A 17-year-old created the Facebook group calling for revenge for the kidnapping of the three Israelis, and an Israeli blogger, Ami Kaufman, pointed to a photograph submitted to the Facebook group by two smiling girls who held a sign reading, “Hating Arabs is not racism, it’s values!”

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority strongly condemned the killing of the Israelis. And Yoaz Hendel, a former director of communications for Mr. Netanyahu, expressed dismay after the death of Muhammad.

“It is unbelievable how a few hundred racist Jews can cause so much damage to an entire country,” Mr. Hendel wrote on his Facebook page in Hebrew. “The results of the investigation into the death of the boy are already unimportant. After pictures of the mob shouting ‘Death to Arabs,’ the damage is done.”

The New York Times, "Arab Boy’s Death Escalates Clash Over Abductions"

A senior American diplomat met with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna on Monday to explore whether the United States and Iran could work together to create a more stable Iraqi government and ease the threat from Sunni militants.

The initial meeting took place after Secretary of State John Kerry signaled that the Obama administration was open to cooperating with Iran on Iraq, raising the possibility of seeking help from a country that the United States has often described as a state sponsor of terrorism that must be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The incentive for the United States is clear. Iran also has the ability to frustrate the Obama administration’s strategy of pressuring Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and his Shiite-dominated government to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds. President Obama made clear last week that no American military aid would be forthcoming unless that effort was made.

The meetings would also provide an opportunity for American officials to compare notes with Iran over the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which last week made startling military gains, routing the Iraqi Army and even threatening Baghdad.

Mr. Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News on Monday morning that the United States was “open to discussions if there’s something constructive that can be contributed by Iran.”

“I think we need to go step by step and see what, in fact, might be a reality, but I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive,” he said.

The New York Times, "U.S. Is Exploring Talks With Iran on Crisis In Iraq"

Sunni militants consolidated and extended their control over northern Iraq on Wednesday, seizing Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, threatening the strategic oil refining town of Baiji and pushing south toward Baghdad, their ultimate target, Iraqi sources said.

As the dimensions of the assault began to become clear, it was evident that a number of militant groups had joined forces, including Baathist military commanders from the Hussein era, whose goal is to rout the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. One of the Baathists, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was a top military commander and a vice president in the Hussein government and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture by the Americans throughout the occupation.

“These groups were unified by the same goal, which is getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army and negotiating to form the Sunni Region,” said Abu Karam, a senior Baathist leader and a former high-ranking army officer, who said planning for the offensive had begun two years ago. “The decisive battle will be in northern Baghdad. These groups will not stop in Tikrit and will keep moving toward Baghdad.”

The sudden successes of the militant forces sent hundreds of thousands of people running, some literally, from the new outbursts of violence, panicked leaders in Turkey and Syria and revived memories of bloody American struggles to wrest the same places — Mosul and Tikrit — from jihadist fighters a decade ago.

By late Wednesday, the Sunni militants, many aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, were battling loyalist forces at the northern entrance to the city of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad. The city is known for a sacred Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006, during the height of the American-led occupation, touching off a sectarian civil war between the Sunni minority and Shiite majority.

Militant commanders were reportedly threatening to destroy the shrine if its defenders refused to lay down their arms, while hundreds of Shiite fighters were said to be heading north from Baghdad to confront the attackers.

As Iraqi government forces crumbled in disarray before the assault, there was speculation that they may have been ordered by their superiors to give up without a fight. One local commander in Salahuddin Province, where Tikrit is located, said in an interview Wednesday: “We received phone calls from high-ranking commanders asking us to give up. I questioned them on this, and they said, ‘This is an order.’ ”

The New York Times, "Iraq Militants, Pushing South, Aim at Capital."

George W. Bush’s legacy.  Terrifying, and sad, but not totally unexpected.

BVT News Roundup 20 January 2014.

(Photo: Robert Michael / AFP-Getty via NY Daily News)

BVT News Roundup 5 January 2014.

Evening News Wrap 17 December 2013.