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17 Thursday

Israel versus the U.N. press corps

The Israeli government butted heads Thursday with the U.N. Correspondent's Association, protesting the group's decision to organize a press viewing of a film shot by a passenger on the aid ship Mavi Marmara as it was raided by Israeli commandos. Israel claimed it was prohibited from showing its own film version of events and making a statement at the press conference.

But the U.N. press club's president, Giampaolo Pioli, shot back hours later with a letter saying that Israel's spokeswoman, Mirit Cohen, turned down an offer to show Israel's film, presumably because she did not want to answer questions from the press attending the event.  "Allow us to remind you that it was you who turned down our offer to present your Israeli film," Pioli wrote. The press club also released an email exchange between Pioli and Cohen as corroborating evidence; the exchange is posted below.

The disagreement stems from last week, when the U.N. press club arranged to screen an "exclusive preview" of a film by Iara Lee, a Brazilian-American filmmaker who was on-board the Mavi Marmara when Israeli navy commandos boarded the ship on May 31 in an effort to prevent it from breaking the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israeli troops came under attack by passengers wielding pipes. Israel subsequently opened fire on the passengers, killing nine people. The film was shown on June 10.

Lee's hand-held film shows an Israeli helicopter hovering over the Mavi Marmara as Israeli commandos rappel down onto the ship's deck. A small group of passengers, wearing orange safety vests and wielding wooden slingshots, are seen firing rocks at the Israelis. The sound of pops, possibly gunfire, is heard in the background as wounded passengers are carried below deck. One man is shown unsuccessfully trying to revive a fellow passenger.

The Israeli film opens with a passenger vowing to make his third attempt at becoming a Martyr, then segues to images of men gathering on the ships' deck wearing gasmasks and wielding pipes, a broken bottle and slingshots. The group throws objects at Israeli boats approaching the Mavi Marmara. The scene then switches to an Israel night-vision film showing passengers attacking the Israeli troops with pipes as they board the ship from a helicopter.

Cohen approached the press club on June 8, after the event was announced, to seek an opportunity to make Israel's case at the press briefing and to show its own film version of the incident. One week after their talks, which took place over the next two days, Cohen wrote a formal complaint to Pioli, saying Israel had been denied an opportunity to show its five-minute film and to make some comments. Cohen also said that she had negotiated an agreement to appear after Lee's showing but that the press association reneged on the agreement two hours before the press event.

"After we already had an agreement the day before to show the Israeli film right after hers, the president of UNCA called me two hours before the start of the event to tell me that my presentation is canceled and that I can do it on another day," Cohen said.  "When I mentioned writing a letter of complaint, he decided less than an hour before the event to call me again and invite me to show the film half an hour before the journalists would arrive to see the original film, meaning half an hour before the start of the event. For that, I of course didn't agree."

The Israeli delegation released its formal complaint on Thursday, June 17:

28 Monday

As Israel eases Gaza siege, Palestinian militants ban local children from having fun

Last night, 25 armed, masked men set fire to a U.N. summer camp at a beach in Nuseirat, Gaza, destroying inflatable pools and tents and roughing up a group of guards protecting the facility. It was the second attack on a U.N. recreation facility in just over a month. On May 23, a group of 30 masked, armed men set fire to another U.N. summer camp facility under construction in Gaza City. They also threatened to kill the U.N.'s top relief official in Gaza.

U.N. officials told Turtle Bay they don't know who attacked the recreation facilities but they suspect the vandals are Islamic extremists who object to programs that allow boys and girls to jointly swim, play volleyball, and learn about the arts, theater and other cultural activities.

"This is another example of the growing levels of extremism in Gaza," John Ging, the director of operations for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said in a statement. "The overwhelming use of UNRWA's Summer Games has once again obviously frustrated those that are intolerant."

The U.N. established the Summer Games program four years ago. The U.N.'s 1,200 camps provide a rare distraction from the hardships endured by more than 250,000 Palestinian refugees that live in the Gaza Strip. The program runs from June 12 through August 5. In last night's raid, the assailants tied up the guards, set fire to tables and easels, and slashed inflatable pools and tents.

In response, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office issued a statement condemning the act of "vandalism," and saying such attacks are "an assault upon the well-being of Gaza's children." The statement called on the "de facto authorities" -- a reference to Hamas, the Islamic movement that came to power through elections in 2007 and whose legitimacy the U.N. does not fully recognize -- to "combat any incitement" against U.N. activities, and to ensure the safety of U.N. personnel and facilities.

Ging said that the U.N. will rebuild the Nuseirat summer camp immediately, and that the United Nations remains committed to continuing the summer program, "which is so important for the physical and psychological well-being of Gaza's children, so many of whom are stressed and traumatized by their circumstances and experiences."

Ging said the attacks on U.N. summer camps provided "further evidence, if that were needed, of the urgency to change the circumstances on the ground that are generating such extremism." Gaza has been the target of an Egyptian and Israeli blockade, which has banned many goods from entering the Palestinian territory. Facing mounting international pressure, Israel has agreed to ease the blockade by increasing the number of items that can be imported to Gaza.

Israel's deputy U.N. ambassador, Daniel Carmon, told Turtle Bay the camp attacks are "another reflection of what Israeli has been saying for years: that the territory is literally occupied by a terrorist organization, Hamas," that promotes and permits "extremism, terrorism, rockets over Israel and now, attacks against summer camps managed by the international community."

The U.N. summer camps compete with Hamas-run programs for the hearts of the more than 700,000 children under the age of 15 that live in the Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported. About 100,000 kids reportedly attend Hamas camps.

"Hamas camps teach an anti-Israeli doctrine and military-style marching, along with horseback riding, swimming and Islam," according to the U.S. news agency. "The U.N. says its hopes to help shield Gaza's children against the lure of militancy, a task that is getting harder in this impoverished territory."

U.N. officials say that Hamas has permitted the U.N. summer camps to function since coming to power in 2007. And Hamas's interior ministry condemned last night's attack, attributing it to "groups led by those with a misguided idea who want to distort the situation in Gaza." Hamas said it would investigate the attacks, and provide additional security at the U.N. camps.

08 Friday

They shoot migrants, don\'t they?

Egypt, a state that over the past four years has allegedly shot and killed more than 80 African migrants trying to cross into Israel over the Sinai Desert border, became chair on Friday of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees executive committee, sparking criticism by human rights groups of Egypt's refugee policies.

Egypt's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Hisham Badr, denied that Egyptian security forces had a shoot-to-kill policy with African refugees on the border, saying Egypt's border guards operate under clear instructions not to shoot until fired upon. In an interview with Turtle Bay, Badr insisted that his government's critics have failed to take account of Egypt's legitimate security concerns along a highly volatile border region that has been infiltrated by terrorists carrying out attacks against Egyptians and foreign tourists.

Still, the election of Egypt showed more evidence that the U.N.'s system of appointments is driven more by political weight of countries than by their record of achievement. Egypt, which served as the committee's vice chairman, automatically ascended without a formal election campaign. Its bid was supported by consensus by the committee's 79 members, including the United States.

Egypt -- a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention -- is host to more than 42,000 refugees from 38 countries, including Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. But its policies towards some of its refugees have growing increasingly harsh in recent years, according to Human Rights Watch

Egyptian border guards have killed at least 85 migrants since July, 2007, according to Human Rights Watch. Many of those who were only wounded or detained were tried by military courts and sent to their countries of original, often in violation of international treaties prohibiting such returns when there is a reasonable fear they will face persecution.

Alone in one week in June, 2008, Egypt deported 1,200 Eritreans to Eritrea, where more than 740 were detained and were likely to have endured ill treatment, according to Human Rights Watch.  Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division, said Egypt's election threatens to compromise the refugee agencies reputation.  

"Egypt today becomes chair of the UNHCR's governing body, while back home it shoots unarmed migrants and blocks UNHCR's access to detainees seeking the agency's protection," said Stork. "To be consistent with its position as the executive committee's new chair, Egypt needs to put its own house in order."

Badr, who will serve as chair of the UNHCR executive committee, told Turtle Bay that Egypt's border with Israel is a highly dangerous strip of territory that is used by arms smugglers, human traffickers and terrorists, entering or leaving Egypt. "Fourteen Egyptian border guards have been killed in recent years monitoring it," he said. 

"We are very keen on protecting and monitoring the border," he said, but Egyptian border guards have "clear instructions not to shoot" unless they are fired upon. Badr said that many of those who seek to cross the border do it in the middle of the night, making it difficult for border guards to determine whether they are confronting a refugee or a terrorist.

Badr also denied allegations that Egypt is endangering refugees and asylum seekers by sending them back to their countries without a formal review of their case for political asylum. But a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch said most of those killed near the border by Egyptian security forces were African migrants and refugees with no connection to arms trafficking.

UN officials say that Egypt has been generous on refugee issues, offering a haven for hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees that have fled that country's wars. But once in Egypt, the Sudanese refugees have found it exceedingly difficult to secure political asylum in a third country, particularly the United States, which has shrunk its resettlement program, according to the rights group.