Truce Over – Bloodbath Next?

The two-day truce called by the Sri Lankan government ended on Wednesday, with a Sri Lankan military spokesman saying military operations against the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers) had resumed.  But how do you carry out an offensive against an area of about 5 square miles (about twice the size of Central Park in New York) and containing at least 100,000 civilians, without causing massive civilian casualties?  John Holmes, the U.N. Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said in a press conference on Wednesday that the danger of a bloodbath was of great concern.  The French and British governments issued a joint statement urging President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka to announce a new pause in hostilities.

The civilians are being held in the war zone by the Tigers who won’t let them leave.  Holmes reported during his press conference that during the two-day pause in the fighting, actually fewer civilians had managed to flee the zone than previously and the LTTE was actively preventing them from doing so.  The Tigers must stop using the civilians as human shields and let them leave.  The Sri Lankan government must announce another pause in hostilities so the civilians can get out safely.   

Extend truce now in Sri Lanka

Last Sunday, President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka announced a two-day pause in offensive operations against the opposition Tamil Tigers, in observance of the Sinhala/Tamil New Year.  Over 150,000 Tamil civilians are trapped with the Tigers in a government-declared “safe zone” – a small pocket of coastal land in northeastern Sri Lanka which is the only remaining territory controlled by the Tigers.  The Tigers won’t let the civilians leave and have shot and killed those trying to flee the area.  Both the Sri Lankan army and the Tigers have shelled the civilians; hundreds have died since the start of this year.  The two-day truce called by President Rajapaksa is a welcome step but more is needed.  Both sides must agree to a sufficient pause to allow the civilians to leave the area safely and to allow in humanitarian aid for those unable or unwilling to leave.  The Tigers in particular must allow the civilians under their control the ability to choose to stay in the area or to leave without being harmed.

As part of AIUSA’s annual “Get on the Bus” event, AIUSA members and supporters will be gathering outside the Sri Lankan Mission to the U.N. in New York City this coming Friday, April 17.  We will be asking the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers to stop attacking civilians, to allow them to leave the conflict area safely and to allow in aid for those unable or unwilling to leave.  Please consider joining us and raising your voice for the suffering civilians trapped in the crossfire.

A Humanitarian Truce or Farce?

After thirteen days of shelling Gaza in attacks that have killed over 683 Palestinians, the Israeli government has agreed to a daily three hour truce to allow for humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza.

But is this sufficient? Consider the following:

1. Historical blockade of Gaza

Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and a former Israeli soldier, writes in his Guardian article, How Israel brought Gaza to the brink of a humanitarian crisis:  “Four decades of Israeli control did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip.  With a large population of 1948 refugees crammed into a tiny strip of land, with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza’s prospects were never bright. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development.”

Since the Hamas electoral victory in 2007, Israel has gradually blockaded humanitarian assistance from entering Gaza, creating unlivable conditions.  I blogged about the effect of this in an earlier posting called “Gaza by the Numbers.”

2. Recent Violence Wrecking Havoc on Civilians in Gaza

In the bloodiest day of fighting since the violence broke out on December 27, 2008, the Israeli government fired at a UN sponsored school, killing 40, including an entire family of seven with young children.  In an article in Time magazine, UN investigators found that no Hamas fighters were present at the school at the time of the attack.

The Israeli government has yet to apologize.

Often Israeli leaders say civilians are properly warned and that leaflets dropped by Israeli aircraft over Gaza have warned residents to leave the area.  However Gazans are physically prevented from doing so, causing panic and confusion among the population.  One Gaza resident, a supporter of the Fatah party led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Amnesty International: “My children see the leaflets and go crazy with fear, they want to leave home; but we have nowhere to go.  My family and my wife’s family live close to the border, in even more dangerous areas; and we can’t just stay outside, it is equally dangerous, children have been killed walking or playing in the street.  There is no electricity, we can’t even find food, and we are not safe even in our homes.  We have nothing to do with Hamas, I’ve been detained and harassed by Hamas, but the Israeli bombardments are indiscriminate. No one is safe.”

Speaking of the recent violence, John Ging, a UN official, said: “I want to tell the world’s leaders something: You are not to sleep, eat or drink until you stop the killing of innocent people in the Gaza Strip.  There’s nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone is terrorized and traumatized.” He added that 1 million Palestinians were without electricity and 700,000 were without water.

3. Three hour time frame for truce not enough

A statement released by Amnesty International on Friday said that “in the absence of a ceasefire, an immediate humanitarian truce is urgently needed to protect the civilian population. The fighting must stop long enough so that humanitarian assistance can reach those in need and so that those who want to leave can be evacuated.”

Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN relief agency Unwra, said given the scale of the crisis, more time is needed: “When you are trying to feed 750,000 people a day in Gaza as we are, you need a permanent ceasefire. You can’t do that in a three-hour window.”