The Death Tolls Rise in Israel, Eastern Ukraine and Syria, While the West Levies Heavier Sanctions on Russia

On Tuesday, Israel unleashed its heaviest attack against Hamas in the three week war striking symbols of the militant group’s control in Gaza and firing tank shells that shut down the only power plant, according to Palestinian officials. Karin Laub and Peter Enav report, Israel hits symbols of Hamas rule; scores killed, the station’s shutdown disrupted power and water to 1.7 million people in the narrow Palestinian coastal territory. On Tuesday evening, Palestinian health officials reported that 10 members of an extended family were killed and 50 others wounded in Jebaliya refugee camp in norther Gaza due to intense tank shelling. Mousa al-Mabhouh, a volunteer for Gaza’s Civil Defense, described the shelling: “It was like an earthquake. Roofs collapsed, walls cracked and wounded people everywhere.” The strikes came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned of a prolonged campaign against Hamas dealing a significant blow to plans of a sustainable truce in fighting. Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 1,175 Palestinians have been killed since July 8 including 100 on Tuesday, while Israel reports 53 soldiers and three civilians killed. Fathi Sheik Khalil of the Gaza Energy Authority said: “We need at least one year to repair the power plant, the turbines, the fuel tanks and the control room. Everything was burned.” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, did not comment on the plant explosion, but told the Associate Press that Israel’s latest strikes signal “a gradual increase in the pressure” on Hamas, while Israel is “determined to strike this organization and relieve us of this threat.” International calls for a ceasefire have increased in recent days as the extent of the destruction in Gaza becomes apparent with tens of thousands of Gazans have been displaced by fighting in the border areas. Despite appeals, both sides are holding out for bigger gains, The military said Palestinian militants fired at least 64 rockets Tuesday at Israeli cities. Since the the war began, the U.N. has found weapons hidden it its schools. Agency spokesman Chris Gunness said: “We condemn the group or groups who endangered civilians by placing these munitions in our school. This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises.”

While Israel continues unabated in its efforts to crumble Hamas, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu continues to criticize the U.S. specifically Secretary of State John Kerry on the handling of a ceasefire deal. On Monday, Netanyahu defended the Gaza air and ground offensive in a televised speech saying, “there is no war more just than this.” Karin Laub and Tia Goldenberg report, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu warns of prolonged campaign in Gaza war, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry keep pressuring Israel to accept an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire amid a torrent of criticism from Israel over Kerry’s latest bid to secure a ceasefire with Hamas. The Obama administration pushed back Monday accusing Israel of launching a misinformation campaign against Kerry. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “It’s simply not the way partners and allies treat each other.” The White House agreed by saying it was disappointed by Israeli reports that cast Kerry’s efforts to negotiate a cease fire more favorable to Hamas. Kerry’s response, according to Matthew Lee’s article Kerry shrugs off Israeli criticism, “I have taken hits before in politics, I am not worried about it. This is not about me. I am not going to worry about personal attacks,” adding that he and President Barack Obama are convinced “it is more appropriate to try to resolve the underlying issues at a negotiating table than to continue a tit-for-tat of violence that will invite more violence and perhaps a greater downward spiral which would be much more difficult to recover from.” In regards to Netanyahu and the push for a ceasefire: “Prime Minister Netanyahu himself said to me, ‘Can you try to get a humanitarian cease-fire for this period of time?’ And if it weren’t for his commitment to it, obviously the president of the United States and I would not be trying to make this effort. Now either I take his commitment at face value or someone is playing a different game here, and I hope that’s not the fact.” At the National Pres Club, House Speaker John Boehner on Monday remarked as Donna Cassata reports, Boehner urges US solidarity with Israel: “At times like this, people try to isolate Israel – but we are here to stand with Israel. Not just as a broker or observer – but as a strong partner and a trusted ally. Well, it doesn’t mean issuing vague, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand statements. No, it means backing up our words, and showing solidarity with our friend. We will not equate professional militaries with terrorist organizations that use human shields and seek to maximize civilian casualties. And we insist that the demilitarization of Gaza be not just a House goal but a shared, uncompromising U.S. and international objective.”

Examining the U.S. Israeli relationship deeper, Stephen M. Walt, professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, believes that Israel’s power over the U.S. comes in the forms of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee which holds major political clout along with other hardline elements of the Israel lobby. In his article, AIPAC Is the Only Explanation for America’s Morally Bankrupt Israel Policy, Walt explains that in every occasion where the death toll exceeds 500, Israel has used weapons provided by U.S. taxpayers to attack the captive and impoverished Palestinians in Gaza. As usual, according to Walt, the U.S. government is siding with Israel, even though most American leaders know Israel instigated the latest round of violence, is not acting with restrain, and makes Washington look callous and hypocritical in the eyes of the world. Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis groups points out that the latest round of fighting is neither vengeance for the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli hikers in the West Bank nor to protect Israel from Hamas’ rockets, Netanyahu’s real purpose is to undermine the power share agreement between Hamas and Fatah that could lead to a unified Palestinian leadership and result in a two state solution. Therefore, he want to isolate and damage Hamas and drive a wedge between the two factions. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu confirmed that he is dead set against a two state solution and will never allow it while in office. According to Walt: “Worst of all, the deaths of hundreds more Palestinians and a small number of Israelis will change almost nothing. Hamas is not going to disband. When this latest round of fighting ends, the 4.4 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza will still be Israel’s de facto prisoners and still be denied basic human rights. But they are not going to leave, mainly because Palestine is their homeland, but also because they have nowhere to go, especially given the turmoil in other parts of the Middle East. Eventually another ceasefire will be negotiated. The dead will be buried, the wounded will recover, the tunnels now being destroyed will be rebuilt, and Hamas will replenish its stockpile of missiles and rockets. The stage will then be set for another round of fighting, and Israel will have moved further down the road to becoming a full-fledged apartheid state.” Walt points out that as soon as fighting starts and even if Israel instigates it, AIPAC will demands that Washington stands with Tel Aviv and Congress will pass a resolution endorsing Israel. Even if the lobby cannot get everything it wants when it wants it, the lobby is still able to keep $3 billion in U.S. aid to Israel flowing each year, prevent U.S. presidents from pressuring Israel and can get U.S. to wield its veto power when a resolution criticizing Israel’s actions is floated in the U.N. Security Council, according to Walt. This situation has allowed Israel to ignore requests from Washington for “two states for two peoples” since Israel gets generous support no matter what it does. Walt sums up the situation best: “Historians will one day look back and ask how U.S. Middle East policy could be so ineffectual and so at odds with its professed values — not to mention its strategic interests. The answer lies in the basic nature of the American political system, which permits well-organized and well-funded special interest groups to wield significant power on Capitol Hill and in the White House. In this case, the result is a policy that is bad for all concerned: for the Palestinians most of all, but also for the U.S. and Israel as well. Until the lobby’s clout is weakened or politicians grow stiffer spines, Americans looking for better outcomes in the Middle East had better get used to disappointment and prepared for more trouble.”

While Israel contends with the world and criticizes its closest allies, fighting continues uncontrolled in Eastern Ukraine as the West agrees to wider sanctions on Russia and the U.S. accuses Russia of treaty violations. Mstyslav Chernov reports, 22 Civilian Deaths Reported After One Day Of Shelling In East Ukraine, at least one person killed after three shells hit an apartment block in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine and around 50 people took refuge in an underground car park amid the smell of household gas. Rebels accuse the government of using heavy artillery against residential neighborhoods, while Ukraine’s government accuses separatist of targeting civilians to discredit the army. On Monday U.S. and European leaders agreed to impose wider sanctions on Russia’s financial, defense and energy sectors as Ukraine said its forced move toward the crash site of Malaysian flight 17, Gabriela Baczynska and Aleksandar Vasovic report, The West Agrees To Wider Sanctions On Russia Over The Crisis In Ukraine. The new sanctions, discussed via phone with U.S. President Barack Obama, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, aim at increasing the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin after Malaysian airliner was shot down over territory held by pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Tony Blinken, a national security advisor to Obama, said: “It’s precisely because we’ve not yet seen a strategic turn from Putin that we believe it’s absolutely essential to take additional measures and that’s what the Europeans and the United States intend to do this week.” In Brussels, EU sources said diplomats reached a preliminary agreement on a new list of companies and people, including Putin associates, to be targeted by asset freezes. EU member states are expected to reach a final deal on Tuesday on measures including closing the bloc’s capital markets to Russian state banks, an embargo on future arms sales and restrictions on energy technology and technology that could be used for defense. After the leaders’ call, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “The latest information from the region suggests that even since MH17 was shot down, Russia continues to transfer weapons across the border and to provide practical support to the separatists. Leaders agreed that the international community should therefore impose further costs on Russia and specifically that ambassadors from across the EU should agree a strong package of sectoral sanctions as swiftly as possible.” Earlier in thr day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters at a news conference: “We will overcome any difficulties that may arise in certain areas of the economy, and maybe we will become more independent and more confident in our own strength.” One pro-government militia said 23 of its men has been killed in fighting in 24 hours, while a rebel commander said 30 of his soldiers had been killed. The United Nations in their report said 1,100 people have died in the three months of fighting between government forces and separatist rebels who have set up a pro-Russian republic in the east.

While Gaza continues to incur heavy fighting during a major Muslim holiday, Syrian President Bashar Assad prayed at a Damascus mosque on Monday as his own country battles Islamic extremists and reports unprecedented high death tolls. Zeina Karam reports, Syria Suffers Record Death Toll, the military causalities come as fighting intensified in the past two weeks with al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State group trying to eliminate all opponents and the government as well as the rebels deal with a series of setbacks. The Britain based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,240 soldiers and other Assad loyalists have died in the past 10 days in northern Syria. The director, Rami Abdurrahman, said they are among 1,800 deaths in the same period which is a record number since the uprising against Assad in March 2011. According to activists, Syria’s three year civil war has already killed more than 170,000 people. Despite the raging civil war, Assad was re-elected last month in a vote confined to government controlled areas which his oppositions and Western allies dismiss as a sham. He was sworn in a third term and confidently declared victory, in his inauguration speech, and praised his supporters for “defeating the dirty war” against Syria. Shortly after his speech, government losses began due to the Islamic state group fighter launching attacks against army positions in northern and central Syria. Beyond Syria, the Islamic State fighters have taken large expanses of land in northern and western Iraq in a blitz offensive beginning last month and declared a self-styled caliphate across their territory on the Iraq-Syria border.

Russia Receives New Sanctions While Embattled Rebels Continue to Fight in Eastern Ukraine

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courtesy of ABC7

On Wednesday, the United States imposed comprehensive sanctions on Russia’s economy including Gazprombank and the Rosneft Oil Co and other major banks, energy and defense companies. As Anna Yukhananov, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason report, US imposes toughest sanctions yet on Russia over Ukraine, Washington has increased its financial sanctions on Russia due to Moscow’s alleged interference in its neighbor Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Other targeted companies include Russia’s second-largest gas producer, Novatek, Vnesheconombank, or VEB, a state-owned bank that acts as payment agent for the Russian government, and eight arms firms. The U.S. Treasury Department said the measures close medium and long term dollar funding to the two banks and energy companies, however, the sanctions did not freeze these four companies’ assets. The sanctions do not target Russia’s Gazprom, which owns 36 percent of Gazprombank, the world’s largest natural gas producer and provider of most of Europe’s energy supplies. On the same day, the European Union leaders met in Brussels to expand their own sanctions on Russia. The U.S. sanctions now include Feodosiva Enterprises, a shipping facility in Crimea, and senior Russian officials including the deputy head of the State Duma, or parliament, the minister of the Crimea, a commander of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, and a Ukrainian separatist leader. On Wesdnesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, “There are some clear steps that we’ve asked Russia to take that they haven’t taken. And that is what has elevated the risk that Russia faces right now as it relates to additional economic costs that could be imposed by the international community.” In addition, Washington said that 12,000 Russian forces were back on the border with Ukraine and weapons were crossing over to pro-Russian separatists.

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday stated that the recent addition to U.S. sanctions against Russia will stalemate bilateral relations and hurt Russian and American businesses, Nataliya Vasilyeva reports, Putin Speaks Out Against New U.S. Sanctions. According to Vasilyeva: “Russia’s benchmark MICEX was down 2.9 percent in late afternoon trading Thursday upon news of the sanctions while Russia’s biggest oil company, Rosneft, was nearly 5 percent down and second-largest oil producer was trading 9 percent lower.” Putin’s comments came hours after President Barack Obama announced border sanctions against Russia. The POTUS hopes that the increased pressure will end the insurgency in eastern Ukraine which is believed to be backed by the Kremlin. The U.S. penalties stop short of the most stringent action threatened which is to cut off key sectors of Russia’s oil dependent economy, however, those steps are on the table if Russia fails to agree to the West demands to stop supporting insurgents who have destabilized eastern Ukraine. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has gone on for four months in a conflict the U.N. says has killed over 400 people and displaced tens of thousands. The conflict began shortly after Russia annexed Crimea. Putin warned Washington that the sanctions will backlash against American companies working in Russia including Rosneft and Novatek which are both barred from getting long term loans from U.S. entities. Moscow based investment bank Sberbank-CIB said in a note to investors that Russian companies cannot replace long term loans from the U.S. immediately, while Rosneft’s multimillion dollar deal with ExxonMobil may be in jeopardy. Russia’s foreign minitry dismissed the sanctions as bullying and said it will push back. In addition, Prime Minister Dimtry Medvedev in televised remarks said the sanctions are throwing Russia’s relations with the west back to the 1980s adding that Russia “will have to pay more attention to military and security spending.” Putin did not mention the additional sanctions from the European Union which urge the European Investment Bank to sign no new financing agreements with Moscow and was suspending operations in Russia financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, according to Vasilyeva. The foreign ministry did lash out at the EU’s new sanctions by accusing Europe of “giving in to the bullying of the U.S. administration.”

While Russia got hit with sanctions from more than one governmental entity, pro-Moscow separatists battle to break through government forces near the border with Russia in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday as steps toward a ceasefire failed. Fighting has intensified since Ukrainian forces pushed rebels out of their stronghold in the town of Slaviansk 10 days ago, Richard Balmforth and Anton Zverev report (As Fighting In East Ukraine Intensifies, Hundreds Of Bodies Of Rebels Found In Shallow Graves). The Ukrainian military said 11 more troops were killed in 24 hours near the frontier. Ukraine has tried to put down a revolt of heavily armed fighters since April, many of them Russian who want independence for two eastern provinces. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March after pro-Russian president was ousted in Kiev. Moscow has denied supporting the separatist fighters, but Kiev says many of them and their leaders came from Russia and brought heavy weapons with them. Ukrainian troops are concentrating their efforts on securing the frontier to prevent more fighters and weapons from coming in.

The escalation in recent days raised the prospect that Moscow could intervene in Ukraine directly, as Kiev reports, the numbers of Russian troops have risen at the border area again. In telephone conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy,  Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko provided evidence of fighters crossing into Ukraine from Russia with heavy military equipment. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk in a speech on his website said: “Everything which is happening in Ukraine has been planned by Russia since 2004. Putin has a clear plan and that is to destroy Ukraine and establish his influence over post-Soviet space.” Around 270 Ukrainian servicemen and hundreds of civilians and rebels have been killed since operations began in April to crush the rebels. Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said that in Slaviansk, the former rebel stronghold, “hundreds of bodies of…(rebel) fighters” had been found in shallow graves. Some of these graves have been mined by the terrorists. Efforts to forge a truce have failed after a planned video link up with separatists on Tuesday never materialized. Since losing Slaviansk, hundreds of rebel fighters moved to Donetsk vowing to make a stand. The city itself has seen a drop in its pre-conflict population of 1 million as many flee the city fearing a government offensive.

While fighting continued on the ground, a Malyasian Airlines passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down over eastern Ukraine Thursday, Ukrainian officials said, and both the government and pro-Russia separatists deny any responsibility. As Peter Leonard reports, Ukraine: Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 295 passengers shot down, an Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the wreckage site near rebel held Hrabove 40 kilometers from the Russian border. The village has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days. A Russian news reports said pro-Russian rebels intend to call a three day ceasefire in order to allow for investigation of the crash site and recovery efforts. The Boeing 777-200ER was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and appears to have broken up before impact spreading the wreckage over a wide area. Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters that Malaysia was unable to verify “the cause of this tragedy but we must, and we will, find out precisely what happened to this flight” and added that the plane didn’t make any distress call before it went down. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and wants an international investigation into the crash insisting that his forces did not shoot it down. According to Huib Gorter, Malaysian Airlines senior vice president in Europe, at least 154 people on the flight were Dutch citizens, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians including 15 crew and 11 Indonesians. In addition, other nationalities included six from the United Kingdom, four from Germany, four Belgians, three from the Philippines and one Canadian. Unfortunately, 47 dead passengers are still unidentified. Ukraine’s security services said they intercepted two telephone conversations that showed rebels were responsible. Earlier in the week, rebels claimed responsibility for shooting down two Ukrainian military plans. In a Kremlin statement issued early Friday, Putin said, “This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.” Britain has asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine. Within hours of Thursday’s crash, several airlines including Lufthansa, Delta and KLM released statements saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace. Poroshenko stated: “We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets. We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.” The White confirmed the call made by Putin to inform “the U.S. president of the report from air traffic controllers that the Malaysian plane had crashed on Ukrainian territory.” Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told the Associate Press he was certain that Ukrainian troops shot down the plane and that rebels forces if they owned Buk missile launchers were not capable of operating them. Around the time of the crash, Russian media quoted witnesses saying they saw what they thought was a rocket hit the plane. This is the second time a Malaysian Airlines plane was lost in less than six months.  In another article, Ukraine: Pro-Russia rebels downed Malaysian plane, Peter Leonard reports that American intelligence authorities allege a surface to air missile brought down the plane but still don’t know if Russia or Ukraine had fired it. The U.S. has the technology to detect missile launches including the identification of heat from rocket engines.