Fears Raised over Use of Chemical Weapons [January 11 – January 17]
January 17, 2009

Israel’s assault on Gaza entered its third week today, January 17, as the death toll reached a staggering 1,200 dead. Amongst the dead, 410 were children, while some 5,300 Palestinians have been wounded. The Israeli death toll remains at 13, ten of whom were soldiers.

More fears were raised this week regarding Israel’s use of chemical weapons in Gaza. As of now, Israel has neither confirmed nor denied it is using phosphorus shells. However, on January 13, the Palestinian Network of Non Governmental Organizations (PNGO) demanded an urgent international investigation into allegations that Israel used internationally prohibited weapons against Palestinians in Gaza. Based on the reports of Palestinian and foreign doctors working in Gaza hospitals, PNGO has concluded that new Israeli weapons are causing burns that can reach to the bones of the victims. PNGO also said that another type of unidentified weapon fires smoke and noxious gases that cause breathing difficulties, particularly in children. Just days later, on January 15, Chris Gunness, an UNRWA official in Gaza, claimed that Israeli jets had fired unknown chemical weapons on an UNRWA compound in Gaza. Three Palestinians were injured. At the time, about 700 displaced Palestinians were inside the building when it was targeted by Israel's air force. Gunness explained, “[The chemical compound] looks like phosphorus, it smells like phosphorus and it burns like phosphorus.” The UN building continued to burn into the late afternoon. “I don’t know why they [Israel] would do this,” Gunness continued. “We had guarantees.”

As the UN compound was being attacked, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was arriving in Jerusalem to push for a ceasefire. He said on January 15 that the death toll from the Israeli war on Gaza had become "unbearable." He also expressed outrage to top Israeli officials when he was informed that Israeli forces had shelled the main UN relief compound in Gaza City where stockpiles of food and medicines were destroyed. "I conveyed my strong protest and outrage to the defense minister and the foreign minister and demanded a full explanation," Ban said. Clearly, Israel paid no heed to Ban’s protests, when on January 17, Israeli forces shelled another UN school in Beit Lahiya where Palestinians had taken shelter. A mother and her young son were killed.

On January 13, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported “growing pockets” of the population in Gaza are trapped in their homes. Affected areas included Siyafa, Al Atatra, Al Isra, As Salateen, east and north of Beit Hanoun, east of Jabalia (North Gaza); southeast Al Zaitoun (southeast of Gaza Governorate); and At Tuffah (east of Gaza Governorate). “Aid organizations have been unable so far to access these communities,” OCHA said. “The bodies of those killed in the As-Samouni house in Az Zaitoun on 5 January have still not been recovered, despite appeals to the Israeli army for access to the home,” they added. In addition, some 35,520 people have taken shelter in UN-run schools across Gaza after fleeing their homes. Unfortunately, the UN cannot guarantee their safety, as past attacks have shown. Most Gazans live without electricity or clean running water, as Israeli attacks have destroyed the utilities infrastructure necessary to provide those basic services.

On January 14, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Jakob Kellenberger said he had witnessed “shocking” scenes of women and children wounded in Gaza during a tour in Gaza the previous day, adding that Israeli forces were denying medical teams access to many sections of the Strip. “When I think back to the situation in the [Shifa] hospital … yes, it is shocking – it hurts when you see these wounded people, the types of wounds they have.”

Members of a French medical team arrived on January 14 to help as much as possible in Gaza’s overflowing and underequipped hospitals. Unfortunately, that same day Israeli forces closed in on the busy neighborhood of Tel El-Hawa in Gaza City, hitting hospital structures as well as buildings housing media offices such as Abu Dhabi TV, Reuters, NBC, Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. The Al-Quds Hospital went up in flames after it came under Israeli shelling, while the Palestine Red Crescent Hospital’s storehouses were hit. Thousands fled the area on foot. Twenty four hours later, the tanks withdrew, but not before they had seized many residents, according to witnesses.

On January 15, Hamas Interior Minister Sa’id Siyam was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike which also killed his son and brother, his brother’s wife and their son, as well as his assistant. A total of 10 were killed in the attack, which leveled the building Siyam was living in.

That same day, Venezuela announced it was freezing diplomatic relations with Israel, expelling the Israeli ambassador to the country. Bolivia also severed diplomatic relations with Israel while Mauritania and Qatar announced a freezing of political and economic relations in protest of Israel’s onslaught in Gaza.

On a different note, it was reported on January 12 that at least 10 Israeli soldiers have refused to accept deployment in Gaza, opting instead to serve a 14-day prison term. They now await trial for violation of their military orders. No'em Levna, a first lieutenant in Israel's army, said, "We killed 900 Palestinians in 17 days, including hundreds of children. If violence must be used, it should be used minimally, and that isn't what’s happening. Killing innocent civilians cannot be justified. Nothing justifies this kind of killing. It’s devilish." As though to affirm that opinion, the next day a marginal, right-wing Israeli politician, Avigdor Lieberman, proposed a nuclear solution to the war on Gaza, saying, "We must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II."

On January 11, protests against Israeli aggression in Gaza continued here and around the world. In Jerusalem, Palestinians and some Israelis, including members of the Israeli Knesset pushing for a ceasefire, demonstrated outside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s house. Other large demonstrations took place in locations such as London and San Francisco.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, on January 13, an Israeli settler shot a Palestinian teenager dead near the city of Qalqiliya. Israeli sources claim the boy was throwing stones at settlers’ car. On January 14, Israeli troops seized seven Hebron residents, all of whom were taken to undisclosed locations. Another 24 Palestinians were taken during overnight raids in other villages around the West Bank. They have not yet been indentified.

In Israel, Israeli radio reported on January 16 that a Cabinet meeting to take place the next day will vote on a proposed unilateral ceasefire, after 22 days of air and ground strikes on the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Hamas officials announced on January 15 that they would agree to the current Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire, but Israel rejected several of the ceasefire terms, and Israel’s actions suggest that they will not pursue negotiations with Hamas.

Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, announced on January 12 that an urgent meeting of Arab foreign ministers will take place on January 19 in Kuwait to discuss the ongoing assault on Gaza. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be in attendance. A summit has already taken place this week in Doha, Qatar, on January 16. It began without the attendance of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco. President Abbas also did not attend, though senior Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal did. At the summit, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Meshaal urged Arab states to cut ties with Israel, as Mauritania and Qatar have done.

Finally, on January 15, Israel’s Navy forced a ship carrying more than a ton of medical supplies to the Gaza Strip to turn back. The Spirit of Humanity was carrying 21 passengers, including doctors, journalists, and European members of parliament, as well as a shipment of bandages, IV bags, antibiotics and other medicines for Gaza hospitals.