Israel coordinates transfer of lion cubs from Gaza

Israel coordinated the transfer of a pair of lion cubs from Gaza to a wildlife sanctuary in Jordan.

The cubs, Max and Mona, were transferred to Israel from Gaza on Sunday through the Erez crossing and then taken to a sanctuary near Amman, where they arrived on Sunday evening.

They first arrived at Erez on Friday after the Israeli side of the crossing had closed, and without any prior coordination. Hours later they were allowed back into Gaza and stayed until Sunday morning in a Gaza hotel.

The cubs had been purchased when they were a month old last summer from a zoo in the border town of Rafah, that was seriously damaged during the Israel-Gaza war and was concerned it would not be able to feed them as they grew, the Associated Press reported. They were raised as family pets at a private home in Rafah.

The British charity Four Paws International convinced the al-Jamal family to give up the animals and arranged for their new home.

Egypt to deepen buffer zone with Gaza after finding longer tunnels

Egypt will double the depth of a security buffer zone it is clearing on its border with the Gaza Strip to 0.62 miles after some of the worst anti-state violence since President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown last year.

Egypt declared a state of emergency in the border area after at least 33 security personnel were killed last month in two attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, a remote but strategic region bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal.

It also accelerated plans to create a 500-metre deep buffer strip along the border by clearing houses and trees and destroying subterranean tunnels it says are used to smuggle arms from Gaza to militants in Sinai.

“A decision was taken to increase the buffer zone along the border in Rafah to one kilometre. The decision … came after the discovery of underground tunnels with a total length of 800 to 1,000 metres,” the state MENA news agency said.

Residents of Sinai, who complain they have long been neglected by the state, say they rely on smuggling trade through the tunnels for their living and the creation of the buffer zone has stoked resentment. Egyptian authorities see them as a threat and regularly destroy them.

Militant violence in Sinai has surged since the army ousted Morsi, a Brotherhood official in July 2013. Egypt has launched a crackdown on the group, jailing thousands of its members and labeling it a terrorist organisation.

The Brotherhood says it is peaceful and condemned last month's attacks.

But Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a militant group that has sworn allegiance to Islamic State, has stepped up attacks on police and soldiers in Sinai and released a video this month in which it purported to claim that it was behind the Oct. 24 attack.

Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad, editing by Lin Noueihed

Why didn’t Gazans use the IDF field hospital?

For those few Gaza hospitals not bombed or evacuated during the Gaza war, the influx of wounded and dead made for a hellish 24/7 chaos in their halls, as well as growing refugee camps on their perimeters. At the height of fighting in late July and early August, doctors and journalists reported that Gaza’s hospitals, often without electricity or water, were so packed that some patients were being treated on the floor. Dead bodies stacked up so fast that some had to be stuffed in food refrigerators.

“The hospitals are full, the capacity is full — we cannot accommodate more,” Yousef Al Sweity, a doctor at the Al Awad Hospital in northern Gaza, told the Journal in late July, in a high-pitched panic. The hospital’s maternity ward, the only one of its kind in Gaza, was overflowing with hundreds of pregnant women either miscarrying or delivering prematurely as a result of their injuries. “Also because of the fear,” he said.

Yet, just a 15-minute drive north, a spacious Israel Defense Forces (IDF) field hospital erected on July 21 at Erez crossing, the only pedestrian walkway between Gaza and Israel, remained almost entirely empty. 

On Aug. 1, when a pack of reporters visited the IDF hospital, they didn’t see a single Gazan. Twenty full-time staff wore crisp scrubs — a far cry from the blood-splattered uniforms at Al Shifa, Gaza’s central hospital. Floors were squeaky clean. Brand-new stuffed animals sat unloved on empty cots, and pyramids of gauze rolls went unused. A miniature maternity ward stood silent.

Some journalists were confused as to why the Israeli Government Press Office would bus them all the way to Erez to show off a hospital without patients. “I was surprised there were no Palestinians here,” a French reporter told the Times of Israel. “This could be very damaging to Israel’s image.”

Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the agency that manages Erez crossing, told the Journal that the IDF field hospital was prepared to accommodate as many patients as were willing to accept treatment.

However, IDF doctors only took in around 50 to 60 patients over a month of fighting — and the hospital eventually closed its doors due to inactivity.

“We heard there was no place at the Palestinian hospitals in Gaza. We heard about a lack of medical equipment,” Inbar said. “So we were prepared to have many patients … we even prepared the ability to do surgeries in that hospital. But even though we offered it, the Palestinians decided not to [come].”

Israeli officials claim Hamas prohibited ambulances from delivering Palestinian patients to the IDF field hospital.

Medhat Abbas, director general of the Gaza Ministry of Health, run by Hamas, confirmed. “We as the Ministry of Health will never, ever send a Palestinian patient to these child killers,” he said.

“These are the people who are killing our children,” Abbas said. “We don’t need their help — we need to bring them to justice, not bring our children to their hospitals.”

Because of this policy, Inbar said, the IDF field hospital’s only patients were Palestinians carried back from the battlefield by Israeli soldiers or those needing urgent care during their transfer through Erez by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).

“Of course we were aware of this hospital,” said Ran Goldstein, the spokesman for ICRC in Tel Aviv. “But when we coordinate or evacuate wounded people from Gaza, we do it according to the rules of the PRCS [Palestine Red Crescent Society].”

As of press time, a spokesperson for PRCS, Gaza’s main ambulance service, had not returned multiple calls requesting comment. However, medics working with the PRSC told the Journal that, like Hamas health officials, they never would have considered rushing patients straight into the hands of the same army that bombed them.

Mahmoud Abu Rahma, spokesman for the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, said his organization took testimony from Palestinians who refused treatment from the IDF, including patients with long-term permits to leave Gaza for existing medical conditions who were now being rerouted to the field hospital.

“The certain thing is that the Israeli army was frustrated that people didn’t want to go to their hospital,” Abu Rahma said. “I think people understood that this was a huge part of the Israeli propaganda. They were aware of how this would be used.”

Another point of confusion surrounding the field-hospital concept was how Gazans would get there when they needed emergency treatment most. During the IDF ground operation, in which hundreds of Palestinians were wounded every day and night, PRSC ambulances came under heavy fire when they even slightly breached the battle zone.

Information gathered by the Journal over weeks speaking with IDF soldiers and witnesses in Gaza indicated that Palestinian fighters sometimes used ambulances for transportation, and that as a result, the IDF often targeted ambulances during ground fighting.

The IDF field hospital “is a joke,” said Ahmad Abu Azan, a 25-year-old medic for the PRSC. Israeli tanks blew big chunks out of Abu Azan’s legs while he was trying to evacuate wounded civilians out of the hard-hit Shujaiya neighborhood on July 30. “No one will accept to come to an Israeli hospital after what they did.”

Abu Azan, now recovering in an East Jerusalem hospital, said his ambulance driver and a Palestinian photojournalist traveling with their medical team didn’t survive the rescue mission.

Aside from the contradictory nature of setting up an IDF hospital to treat IDF-inflicted wounds, said Ran Cohen with Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, “The reason it’s not succeeding is because arrival needs to be coordinated with COGAT. This is something most people can’t do.”

After struggling to draw patients to the IDF’s on-site treatment center at Erez, COGAT now mainly facilitates the transfer of Palestinian war casualties to hospitals outside of Gaza, in coordination with Palestinian health officials in the West Bank.

Inbar estimated that about 500 injured Gazans have been transferred through the Erez crossing over almost two months of war — and from there, corridors to safety have become as complex and political as the region.

The majority of evacuated Gazans are ending up at hospitals in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem (the largely Palestinian part of Israel’s capital city). “We feel safe that they’re in Palestinian hands,” said Abbas, director general of Gaza’s Ministry of Health.

Dozens have also been treated in Israel proper, and a few dozen more have reached Jordan, via long and checkpoint-heavy ambulance rides, and Turkey, via private flights out of Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. In addition, more than 200 Palestinians have been transferred through Gaza’s southern Rafah crossing and treated in Egypt, Abbas said.

Internationally, hosting Gaza patients is becoming a public-relations race: Seven-year-old Maha Khalil, paralyzed from the neck down, was swarmed by reporters on her trip through Erez crossing; once she was settled in a fresh hospital bed in Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan kissed the girl’s limp hand for the cameras.

But in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the honor of hosting Gazans is also a duty — and hospitals are creaking under the load.

East Jerusalem’s Al Makassed Hospital is well on its way to reaching the overflow state of Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, and is turning into a makeshift camp for injured and kin. Family members who accompanied more than 70 patients from Gaza were granted only one-day permits in the city and have no safe way of traveling back into Gaza. So now they’re sleeping in the halls of Al Makassed, afraid of being stopped by police outside hospital walls. 

Children’s clothes and bedding hang from the window of every room. And in the hospital’s back lot, Al Makassed staffers set up two prefab mobile homes equipped with toilets and showers, courtesy of the Bank of Palestine. They’re planning to install two more.

Wael Namel, a 26-year-old father writhing in pain at Al Makkased, was wounded in a surprise F-16 attack while walking the streets of Rafah with nine family members during a temporary cease-fire. That day, after Israeli combat soldier Hadar Goldin disappeared in Rafah — at the time a suspected captive of Hamas — Israel bombarded the civilian-filled area in an attempt to halt the abduction.

After the attack was over, Goldin was declared dead — as were at least 100 Palestinians, including Namel’s brother and sister. He and his 3-year-old daughter each lost a leg; his wife, now hospitalized in Hebron in the West Bank, lost both legs.

In the ambulance en route to East Jerusalem, Namel said he noticed a sheet with an Israeli flag pattern covering his contorted lower half. Despite his condition, he said, he “threw it off.”

“I also refused to go to Egypt” for treatment, Namel said. “I’m angry at Egypt [and Israel] because they’re just surrounding Gaza.”

Israeli hospitals have been more hesitant than Palestinian ones to invite reporters to the bedsides of their Gaza patients. At Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon on Aug. 26, two IDF soldiers guarded a Palestinian man named Mohammed whom they said had been picked up in Gaza, near the border fence, by the IDF’s all-Bedouin unit.

The hospital said that in order to interview Mohammed, the Journal would need permission from the IDF. The IDF then said the Journal would need permission from COGAT, who again said the Journal would need permission from the IDF. 

After an hour of run-around, it was clear no interview would happen.

The apparent reason: Everyone at Barzilai seemed to suspect Mohammed to be a Palestinian militant. “I think he’s from Hamas,” one woman staffer said. A Red Cross representative referred to him as a “terrorist” on a phone call with a hospital official. And two Israeli teenagers stuck their heads into his room, yelling simply, “Hamas!”

Here, at this squat ocean-view hospital in Israel’s largest city adjacent to Gaza, thin walls separate suspected Palestinian militants from Israeli soldiers and Bedouins injured by Hamas mortars. Also on Aug. 26, dozens of lightly injured and in-shock Ashkelon residents, their faces like ghosts, streamed into the emergency room after an unusually large Hamas rocket hit a residential area. 

It was also at Barzilai that a 75-year-old woman from the Khan Younis area of southeast Gaza was treated for about a week during the war, after IDF soldiers found her starved and dehydrated under a tree and brought her to the Erez field hospital.

“At the beginning she was very suspicious, but after that, she let the crew take care of her and treat her,” Inbar said.

And when a field hospital commander came to visit the woman at Barzilai, Inbar said, “She was very glad and happy to see him again. She didn’t stop hugging him and kissing him and thanking him for saving her life, and for the treatment she received from the IDF.”

Inbar said of the encounter: “Everyone was angry with me, asking why I didn’t bring journalists to see. But I think that would be kind of a propaganda thing.”

The Khan Younis woman’s stay in Israel has become something of a legend back home in Gaza, too.  

“She got tired, and she found a tree,” said Rasan Abu Jela, a friend of the woman’s son. “She was sitting in the shade when a tank arrived, and soldiers gave her some food. Then they came back after two to three days, and she was still there. So the Israeli army took her to Israel.” 

Amid multiple attacks on U.N. facilities, Israel faces mounting criticism of Gaza tactics

Shortly after dawn on July 30, a bomb hit a United Nations school sheltering thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting in Gaza, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens.

The attack on the Jabalia Elementary Girls School was the fifth attack on U.N. facilities in Gaza since fighting broke out July 8, but it wouldn’t be the last.

On Sunday, a missile hit another U.N. school in Rafah in southern Gaza, killing 10 and wounding 35.

The attacks on U.N. buildings have ratcheted up criticism of Israel, which already was under mounting international pressure to scale back its operations in Gaza in light of the mounting death toll there — now more than 1,800, 80 percent of them civilians, according to Palestinian sources.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Rafah attack a “moral outrage and a criminal act” and demanded those responsible be held accountable. The U.S. State Department implied Israeli responsibility for the attack and called it “disgraceful.”

Israel insists it does not deliberately target innocents and has blamed civilian deaths on Hamas operating in densely populated areas. But the surging death toll has intensified criticism of Israel’s tactics, with some charging that its military has been insufficiently careful in choosing its targets.

“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which ten more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Sunday following the Rafah strike. “We once again stress that Israel do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”

The Fourth Geneva Conventions Additional Protocol I requires militaries to “distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives.” But it also prohibits militants from using civilians to “shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.” The protocol says that if a building makes “an effective contribution to military action,” it may be attacked.

Israel has justified its actions in Gaza by charging that Hamas routinely uses civilian buildings for military purposes, launches rockets from densely populated areas, and stores weapons in schools and apartment buildings. The Israel Defense Forces says that when its bombs have hit civilian targets, it was either in error or aimed at a military target embedded among civilians.

In both the Jabalia and Rafah attacks, Israel claimed it was targeting militants active nearby.

“We are facing a terrorist organization that goes to all ends to carry out its terrorist activities,” Lt.-Col. Peter Lerner, the IDF spokesman, told JTA. “We don’t see that as an exemption from preventing civilian casualties, [but] civilians can get caught up in the midst of it. It is a reality of warfare.”

In some attacks on civilian targets, the IDF has explicitly denied that its ordnance was responsible. Israel denied responsibility for a July 28 strike on Shifa Hospital and Lerner said he could not confirm whether Israel had executed a July 30 strike on a Gaza power plant. Israel bombed the Al-Wafa Hospital on July 23 because, Lerner said, Hamas was using it as a “command and control center.”

But even in incidents where Israeli responsibility is not in doubt, experts say the IDF may have chosen a civilian target that did not deserve to be destroyed.

Bill Van Esveld, a senior researcher in the Middle East division for Human Rights Watch, pointed to a July 9 Israeli strike on a seaside cafe that left nine civilians dead. He also criticized Israeli strikes on homes of Hamas leaders, which an officer from the IDF’s legal department told JTA are often used as command centers or weapons storage.

“In specific cases we looked into, there was no military objective to be shot at in the first place,” Van Esveld told JTA. If the IDF attacks a house “purely because someone who lived there was a member of an armed group, whether you gave a warning or not, it’s not OK to attack the house.”

Israel has endeavored to limit civilian deaths by providing advance warning of impending bombings through phone calls and text messages, as well as by dropping leaflets. Israel also executes so-called “knocks on the roof” — dropping light bombs on buildings to warn residents still inside that a heavier strike is coming. But some say the warnings are insufficient.

“You can’t destroy a hospital because there’s a fighter there,” said Michael Sfard, a legal adviser to Yesh Din, an Israeli organization that works on behalf of Palestinian human rights. “What’s proportional or not is a gray area, but there is black and white. No one can say that to destroy a house because there was once a military meeting of Hamas is proportional.”

Determining the legitimacy of any particular strike, or even the source of fire that destroyed a particular target, is difficult while the fighting continues. A New York Times investigation of the Jabalia incident based on interviews with two dozen witnesses, and inspection of the site and a preliminary review by the United Nations, was unable to determine precisely what transpired there. But it did find evidence that the explosives to hit the school were Israeli artillery fired from several miles away.

“We really, really, really can’t know what happened,” said Amichai Cohen, a co-author of a recent paper from the Israel Democracy Institute about international law and the current conflict. “Significant things need to be investigated. Everyone hopes civilians don’t die, but was it a legitimate decision? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”

The key to judging these incidents, experts say, is a quick and transparent investigation. After Israel’s 2009 operation in Gaza, the United Nations did not consider initial Israeli investigations sufficient and commissioned its own inquiry. The result was the Goldstone Report, which was harshly critical of Israel and which the Israeli government rejected.

Following the IDF’s 2010 storming of a Turkish boat aimed at breaking Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, commonly known as the flotilla incident, Israel launched its own commission of inquiry aimed both at investigating its response to the flotilla and assessing its methods of inquiry.

The commission’s report, released last year, concluded that Israel did not break international law in its response to the flotilla, but it recommended faster and more transparent investigations. The IDF, according to the officer from the legal corps, is still assessing the recommendations.

“I hope that the education and trust [the IDF] had means they’re keeping the laws, but to determine case by case takes special investigation,” Cohen said. “Whoever says they broke the laws also doesn’t know. You can’t just say they broke laws because they killed civilians. It could be they killed civilians and the civilians were very close to a legitimate military target. But it also doesn’t mean there wasn’t a violation.”

150 Palestinians arrested in raids on southern Gaza

Israeli troops in southern Gaza arrested 150 Palestinians, dozens of whom surrendered voluntarily to the soldiers.

About 70 of the arrested Gazan Palestinians, who are suspected of carrying out terrorist attacks, were transferred for interrogation, The Times of Israel reported, citing an Israeli military spokeswoman.

Most of those who surrendered in the raids on Rafah and Khan Yunis are believed to be members of Hamas, according to the Times of Israel.

All of the detainees were later released.

Several prominent field commanders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were targeted in recent days by both the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service in a combined effort, the IDF said in a statement issued Thursday.

“All terrorists targeted were involved in many attacks against IDF soldiers in Gaza and in the firing of rockets at Israeli communities,” the statement said. “They’ve also been central figures during Operation Protective Edge.”

Amid violent clashes, Egypt closes border with Gaza

Egypt closed the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip as clashes between its government security forces and protesters backing deposed President Mohamed Morsi continued for a second day.

The Rafah crossing was closed “indefinitely,” the French news agency AFP reported Thursday, citing an unnamed Egyptian security official. The crossing was closed due to fears of terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula.

Rafah is the only border crossing out of the Gaza Strip that is not controlled by Israel.

The death toll in the clashes has risen to at least 421, and the injured at more than 3,000, according to reports.

The violence began Wednesday after government security forces raided two major sit-in protests in Cairo calling for the reinstatement of Morsi.

On Tuesday, a rocket fired by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida at the southern Israeli city of Eilat was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Last week the Eilat airport was closed for several hours due to warnings by Egyptian officials about a terror attack from the Sinai.

Egyptian Islamists attack on Gaza border

Islamists attacked Egyptian military posts in the Sinai, killing at least one on the Gaza border.

The attack on the police post at Rafah, a city on the Gaza-Egypt border with a Palestinian side and an Egyptian side, was one of several attacks Friday by Islamists on Egyptian security forces. Two other men were wounded in the Rafah attack.

Assailants also fired fired rocket-propelled grenades at army checkpoints at the El-Arish airport in the Sinai.

The attacks came as Egypt was bracing for mass protests Friday by supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president who was deposed Wednesday by the army after a year in power. Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, called the action a coup.

Egypt to move tanks into Sinai for first time since 1973

Egypt reportedly is planning to introduce tanks in the Sinai for the first time since the 1973 war with Israel.

The plans, part of the country’s attempts to shut down terrorists in the area, are being finalized by Egypt’s newly appointed defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Reuters reported.

The movement of military hardware into the Sinai comes after a deadly attack earlier this month on Egyptian border guards that left 16 dead. Part of the assault included an attempt to breach the border with Israel. Israel reportedly had warned Egypt about the attack before it happened.

Following the attack, Israel agreed to the movement of additional Egyptian troops into the region to control the terrorists.

Under the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Israel agreed to withdraw its troops and citizens from the Sinai and return it to Egypt in return for normalized relations and a restriction on the number of Egyptian troops allowed to enter the Sinai, particularly near the border with Israel.

Israel has called on Egypt to control the terrorists in the Sinai.

Israeli officials have not commented to local media on the reported plans, but have said that Israeli and Egyptian security officials are in contact with each other.

Egyptian troops move into Israeli border zone

Gunmen fired shots towards a police station in the main administrative center of Egypt’s North Sinai on Thursday, underscoring lawlessness in the desert region bordering Israel as a Egyptian military offensive there entered its second day.

Hundreds of troops in armored cars drove out of the town to hunt Islamist militants blamed for killing 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday, the biggest spike in violence which has been growing steadily since last year’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

The gunfire in Arish, the nerve center of the government’s otherwise shaky control of the North Sinai region, showed how difficult it will be for Egypt to impose order. It followed attacks on checkpoints in the town on Wednesday.

Israel has welcomed Egypt’s offensive while continuing to express worries about the deteriorating situation in Sinai, home to anti-Israel militants, Bedouin tribes angered by neglect by Cairo, gun-runners, drug smugglers and al Qaeda sympathizers.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Egypt was acting “to an extent and with a determination that I cannot previously recall”.

“Whether this ends with (their) regained control of Sinai and allows us not to worry as much as we have in the past few months, this I do not know,” he told Israel Radio.

The unidentified gunmen in Arish fled before police could respond, a security source said, denying a report by state television that police had fought back.

Hundreds of troops and dozens of military vehicles had reached the town, security sources said, part of an offensive not seen since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel.

Dozens of armored vehicles, some equipped with machine-guns, could then be seen driving out of al-Arish towards the settlement of Sheikh Zuwaid which military aircraft attacked on Wednesday. The troops saluted passers-by and flashed victory signs, or filmed their departure with video cameras.


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – whose Islamist background in the Muslim Brotherhood has been eyed with suspicion by Israel since he was elected in June – on Wednesday fired the region’s governor and country’s intelligence chief in response to public anger over Sunday’s attack.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault, in which the assailants seized two armored vehicles to storm an Israeli border crossing. One made it through before the attackers were killed by Israeli fire.

Israel says militants based in Sinai and Palestinian hardliners in neighboring Gaza pose a growing threat to its border. It says Palestinians use illegal tunnels to smuggle in guns and travel across to join those on the Egyptian side.

Israel has also been wary of Morsi’s ideological affinity with Hamas, the Islamist group ruling Gaza, fearing he would take a softer position on Palestinian militancy than Mubarak.

Morsi has brushed aside accusations that his politics would make it difficult for him to take a strong stance against violent groups sworn to Israel’s destruction.

His response to Sunday’s attack, which happened during the evening “iftar” meal which breaks the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, may also be underpinned by public anger over the deaths of the border guards.

In Egypt, there is wide respect for rank-and-file soldiers who are often poorly paid conscripts working in isolated places far from their families.

Comments suggesting outgoing intelligence chief Mourad Mwafi had been aware of a threat but took no action fueled that anger – despite suggestions he had been used as a scapegoat.

“…we never imagined that a Muslim would kill his Muslim brother at iftar,” Egypt’s state news agency MENA quoted Mwafi as telling his Turkish counterpart.

Mursi’s powers, are in any case, hemmed in by the army, which retains a strong role in setting security policy.

Residents in al-Arish, meanwhile, welcomed the security sweep, seeing it as an opportunity to curb criminality among Bedouin tribes, including those in Sheikh Zuwaid, who make their living smuggling goods and people through a network of more than 1,000 tunnels into Gaza.

“We want the army to return to the border,” said 45-year-old shopkeeper Hassan Mohamed. “The tunnels have destroyed the lives of people in Arish. We want them to hit the Bedouin hard.”

Reporting by Tamim Elyan and Yusri Mohamed in Sinai, Yasmine Saleh and Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Myra MacDonald

Israeli air strike kills chiefs of Gaza’s PRC group

An Israeli air strike killed the leader of an armed Palestinian faction, a top lieutenant and three other members in the southern Gaza Strip Thursday, the group said, hours after Israel blamed gunmen from the territory for cross-border attacks.

The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a faction that often operates independently from Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers, identified their dead leader as Kamal al-Nairab and said their military chief, Immad Hammad, had also been killed.

A sixth fatality in the attack on Rafah town was a nine-year-old boy who had been in the same house as the militants, local Palestinians said.

Hours earlier, gunmen killed seven people in a triple attack in southern Israel. Israel said the gunmen had come from Gaza through neighboring Egypt, a charge denied by Hamas.

“The Israeli military is already taking action against the head of the Committees in Gaza,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters at the site of the gun attacks.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Crispian Balmer

Hamas urges Palestinians not to jeopardize Egypt’s opening of Rafah crossing

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh urged Gazans on Tuesday to refrain from breaching Egypt’s security in order to maintain the Rafah border crossing open, French news agency AFP reported.

“Don’t do anything that could compromise the reopening of the terminal,” AFP quoted Hanieyh as saying. “We assure our Egyptian brothers: ‘Your security is ours and your stability is ours.’”

On Saturday, Egypt permanently opened the Gaza Strip’s main gateway to the outside world after four years of an Egyptian blockade of Gaza that has prevented the vast majority of Gaza’s 1.5 million people from being able to travel abroad.


Israel-Hamas truce begins and Israelis are ready if it fails

JERUSALEM (JTA) — While nowhere near coexistence, Israel and Hamas are trying out an accommodation of sorts with an Egyptian-brokered truce in the Gaza Strip.

The deal came into effect at dawn on June 19 and seemed to be holding until late Monday night, when a Palestinian mortar shell was fired into Israel. On Tuesday, several Qassam rockets landed in southern Israel, slightly injuring two people. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.

Despite the apparent violations, Hamas said it was committed to the cease-fire, and the rocket salvo elicited no immediate response from Israel.

Hamas is expecting the cease-fire to bring a letup in Israeli attacks and an easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which was designed to weaken support for Hamas among the strip’s 1.5 million, mostly aid-dependent Palestinians.

For Israel, the cease-fire is expected to bring a reprieve from Palestinian shelling and rocket attacks, though Tuesday’s rocket attack fueled speculation that the quiet would not hold for long.

Palestinian rocket attacks have killed 16 people since 2004, including three in recent weeks, and raised the pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to order an invasion of Gaza.

The Gaza problem has presented the scandal-plagued prime minister with a thorny dilemma.

If Olmert were to order a major invasion, left-wingers would go after him, and the Israel Defense Forces could end up in the same insoluble quagmire it encountered in Lebanon in 2006 with Hezbollah. But by agreeing to a truce, the right-wing opposition has slammed Olmert for dealing, albeit indirectly, with Hamas, saying it will give Hamas time to rearm and enable the terrorist group to gain legitimacy abroad.

Some Israeli strategists suggest that the Olmert government may have to do both: Try out a truce, then invade Gaza if it fails.

“My feeling is that ultimately we are destined for violent confrontation” with Hamas, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said last week during a visit to the Gaza-Israel border. “But before we send our boys to the battlefield, we have to know that we exhausted other options first.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told France’s Le Monde newspaper, “Historically, we are on a collision course with Hamas. But it still makes sense to grasp this opportunity.”

Olmert was unapologetic last week about his agreeing to a cease-fire — a decision backed by his security Cabinet — and said Israel would resort to force if the cease-fire fails.

“The terrorist organizations that control the Gaza Strip have been under continuous military and economic pressure in recent months as a result of the government’s policies. It was they who sought the calm,” Olmert said in a speech on June 18, using Israel’s more amorphous term for the truce. “I would like to emphasize and make it clear that we did not hold — and I will not hold — negotiations with any terrorist organization. We have no illusions.”

Hamas, which found itself cut off in Gaza after seizing control of the territory from the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last June, has demanded an end to Gaza’s “siege.”

Hamas’ armed wing, which lost a gunman to an Israeli airstrike just hours before the truce began, also has said it is ready to resume attacks. The terrorist group has made no secret of its plan to use the quiet of the cease-fire to stockpile weapons and train fighters.

Hamas refuses to renounce its mission to overthrow the Jewish state, but its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed P.A. prime minister, struck an unusually conciliatory note last week.

“Should Israel honor the calm, it will also provide some relief to the Israelis,” Haniyeh told reporters.

Olmert flew to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik this week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about staunching arms smuggling from the Egyptian Sinai to Gaza and stepping up efforts to secure a prisoner swap involving Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive two years ago. He would be swapped for Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel.

Shalit’s father, Noam, told Israeli media he felt “cheated” by the government’s willingness to enter a Gaza truce without a guarantee that his son would be returned.

But Israeli officials said Egypt has agreed to hold off on opening its border with Gaza — a key Hamas demand — until there is progress in talks on Shalit’s return.

The IDF is expected to be ready for a last-resort invasion of Gaza, if the cease-fire fails.