Gaza border protests resume as UN calls for inquiry

Ismail Haniyeh, the Head of the Palestinian movement Hamas, gestures to demonstrators at a a protest camp during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza strip east of Gaza city. (AFP)
Updated 18 May 2018

Gaza border protests resume as UN calls for inquiry

  • Hundreds joined by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at protest on Gaza-Israel border on the first Friday of the month of Ramadan
  • Haniyeh said the marches will not stop until the siege is lifted completely from the Gaza Strip

GAZA CITY: Palestinians resumed their fiery protests at Gaza's border with Israel on Friday as a U.N. human rights body criticized Israel for the "disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force" that killed at least 59 Palestinians earlier this week.
Friday's Gaza protests — the eighth in as many weeks — drew Israeli gunfire and tear gas, with at least 23 people wounded, the Gaza Health Ministry said. Israel's military said they were transferred to Jordan for medical treatment.
The leader of Gaza's ruling movement Hamas attended the fresh protest held on the first Friday of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, taking part in prayers along the border before sunset and then participating in a demonstration.
Ismail Haniyeh gave the V-for-victory salute and waved the Palestinian flag a few hundred metres (yards) from the fence along the border with Israel.
The Israeli army said around 1,000 "rioters" gathered in five spots along the border.
Speaking at a Gaza City mosque earlier on Friday, Haniyeh denied a deal had been made to end seven weeks of border protests, vowing they would continue.
"The marches will not stop until the siege is lifted completely from the Gaza Strip."
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced late Thursday at the start of Ramadan that his country's border with Gaza would be open throughout the holy month of fasting to "alleviate the suffering" of Gazans.
Palestinian media have speculated a deal has been struck for Egypt, which has a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, to open the border in exchange for Hamas ending the protests.
Haniyeh welcomed Sisi's decision but denied any such agreement.
"There is a rumour that Hamas made a deal with Egypt to end the marches. This is baseless," he said.
Organizers of the protests say they are meant in large part to break the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt and to pressure Israel to ease its restrictions. Since the demonstrations began March 30, more than 110 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 wounded by live fire, according to the Health Ministry. Palestinian officials say most of the casualties have been unarmed protesters. One Israeli soldier has been wounded.
The weekly protests peaked Monday when about 40,000 Gazans descended on the border. As in previous demonstrations, the protesters burned tires and hurled firebombs and stones toward Israeli troops, and tried to attack the border fence. Israeli snipers opened fire in response, killing 59 Palestinians and wounding hundreds in the deadliest day of cross-border violence in Gaza since a 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
Friday's protests began later than in recent weeks and drew a smaller turnout, apparently due to the Ramadan fast. Most of participants gathered in tent camps a safe distance from the border, but dozens still got close to the fence.
In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to set up a commission of inquiry to look into the Israeli actions.
Meeting in a special session, the council voted 29-2 with 14 abstentions to back a resolution that also condemned "the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by the Israeli occupying forces against Palestinian civilians."
The "independent, international commission of inquiry" mandated by the council will be asked to produce a final report in March 2019.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein backed calls for an international inquiry and questioned Israel's assertion that its security forces tried to minimize casualties.
"There is little evidence of any attempt to minimize casualties on Monday," he said.
Some demonstrators threw firebombs, used slingshots, flew burning kites into Israel to set fields ablaze and tried to use wire-cutters on the border fences, but "these actions alone do not appear to constitute the imminent threat to life or deadly injury which could justify the use of lethal force," said Zeid, a Jordanian prince.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the resolution, which was put forward by countries including Pakistan, as "nothing new under the sun."
"An organization that calls itself the Human Rights Council once again proves that it is hypocritical and biased and that its purpose is to harm Israel and support terror. But mostly it has proven that it is irrelevant," Netanyahu said.
"Israel completely rejects the resolution that was adopted by an automatic anti-Israel majority whose results were known from the start," he said. "Israel will continue to defend its citizens and soldiers as it has the right to defend itself."
Israeli ambassador Aviva Raz Schechter said "the unfortunate outcome of Monday's riots can only be attributed to Hamas' cynical exploitation of its own population in a violent campaign against Israel."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a statement that "the U.N.'s so-called Human Rights Council has decided to launch an investigation into a democratic country's legitimate defense of its own border against terrorist attacks. It is another shameful day for human rights."
In an apparent attempt to ease the crisis, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi announced the opening of the Rafah crossing on Thursday night for what would be the longest uninterrupted period since 2013. He wrote on his official Twitter account that it would "alleviate the burdens of the brothers in the Gaza Strip."
Egypt and Israel have imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007, heavily restricting movement in and out of the densely populated and impoverished territory.
Over the years, Egypt has opened the crossing for a few days every two to three months, the only way for most Gazans to reach the outside world.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the opening was the result of talks Sunday in Cairo with Egyptian officials.
"We are witnessing the outcome through steps Egypt has taken, and we hope they continue, develop and increase," he said at a Friday prayer sermon in Gaza City. But he added that the weekly Hamas-led protests will continue.
The crossing has been open since May 12, so el-Sissi's announcement was technically an extension. Egyptian authorities said 510 people crossed Wednesday, with most going from Gaza to Egypt. On Thursday, 541 people passed into Gaza along with dozens of trucks carrying cement, steel, power engines and medical and food aid from the Red Crescent, the officials said.
Last month, Hamas' Interior Ministry said more than 20,000 people were on waiting lists to exit. An average of 500 travelers a day moved through the border this week, mostly leaving.
The Rafah crossing has only been open sporadically since the 2013 ouster of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, a high-ranking member of Hamas' parent group, The Muslim Brotherhood. While Egypt has been struggling with an Islamic insurgency for decades, militant attacks increased after Morsi's ouster, leading Egyptian authorities to tighten movement to and from Gaza.
Travel through Rafah has mostly been restricted to humanitarian cases, with priority given to medical patients, students admitted to outside universities and Palestinians with residency permits in third countries about to expire. Palestinian-Egyptians and dual nationals are also eligible to apply.
Travelers moved slowly toward the border Friday. A bus arrived about every hour with people whose names appeared on lists provided by Hamas officials.
Hamas forcibly wrested control of Gaza in 2007 after winning legislative elections, triggering the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has severely restricted the movement of most of Gaza's 2 million inhabitants.
After more than a decade of Hamas rule, conditions for most inhabitants are dire. Unemployment is over 40 percent, tap water is undrinkable and Gazans receive only a few hours of electricity a day. Hospitals face constant shortages from the blockade, and parts of the territory are still waiting to be rebuilt after a 2014 war with Israel. 
The measures were meant to create a buffer zone as part of Egypt's efforts to purge northeastern Sinai of Islamic militants following the 2014 bombings by an Islamic State group affiliate that killed dozens of soldiers.
Egypt imposed a state of emergency and curfew in northeastern Sinai, including Rafah, which means travelers arriving at the crossing after 7 p.m. must wait until the next morning to leave.


Rockets hit Iraq base hosting US troops, stoking concerns

Updated 5 min 47 sec ago

Rockets hit Iraq base hosting US troops, stoking concerns

  • Security sources said they believed Kataib Hezbollah was responsible
  • More than a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah airbase in northern Iraq last month

BAGHDAD: Two rockets hit the Al-Balad air base, north of Baghdad, late Thursday, Iraqi security forces said, the latest in a flurry of attacks on bases hosting US troops that has alarmed US officials.
It came as Washington considers deploying between 5,000 and 7,000 fresh troops to the Middle East to counter its arch-foe Iran, a US official told AFP.
Thursday’s attack with Katyusha rockets did not cause any casualties or material damage but “came close,” a US official told AFP.
Washington has been concerned by a recent spate of attacks on Iraqi bases where some 5,200 US troops are deployed to help Iraqi forces ensure militants do not regroup.
The attacks, targeting either bases or the US embassy in Baghdad, have averaged more than one per week over the past six weeks.
“There is a spike in rocket attacks,” a second US official said, adding that although they had caused no US casualties and little damage, they were increasingly worrying.
Five rockets hit Al-Asad airbase on December 3, just four days after Vice President Mike Pence visited troops there.
Security sources said they believed Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite faction close to Tehran and blacklisted by Washington, was responsible.
More than a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah airbase in northern Iraq last month, one of the largest attacks in recent months to hit an area where US troops are based.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the attacks and Washington has not blamed any particular faction.
But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed similar attacks on Iran-aligned groups.
Iran holds vast sway in Iraq, especially among the more hard-line elements of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force largely made up of Shiite militias backed by Tehran.
Asked whether the repeated rocket attacks made the Hashed a bigger threat to US troops than the Daesh group, the official agreed.
“It is. The question is, when is someone going to call BS?” he said.
Multiple US diplomatic and military sources have told AFP of their growing frustration with such attacks.
They say they are relying on their Iraqi partners to play a “de-conflicting” role between them and the Hashed to prevent any clashes.
That is a complicated task, as the Hashed has been ordered to integrate with the regular security forces but many of its fighters continue to operate with some independence.
“We all recognize the danger out here. Sometimes our Iraqi partners say, well what can I do?” the official said.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have soared since the Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran last year and reimposed crippling sanctions.
Baghdad — which is close to both countries and whose many security forces have been trained by either the US or Iran — is worried about being caught in the middle.