Me holding what I believe is an unexploded drone's missile. This what Israel uses to warn people to evacuate. And yes, it kills: photo by Dr Bassel Abuwarda via twitter, 8 August 2014
Arma virumque cano...
Virgil, Aeneid, Book One
Gaza Crisis: Israel Outflanks the White House on Strategy: White House Now Scrutinizing Israeli Requests for Ammunition: Adam Entous, The Wall Street Journal, 14 August 2014
JERUSALEM -- White House and State Department officials who were leading U.S. efforts to rein in Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip were caught off guard last month when they learned that the Israeli military had been quietly securing supplies of ammunition from the Pentagon without their approval.
Since then the Obama administration has tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel. But Israeli and U.S. officials say that the adroit bureaucratic maneuvering made it plain how little influence the White House and State Department have with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu —and that both sides know it.
The munitions surprise and previously unreported U.S. response added to a string of slights and arguments that have bubbled behind the scenes during the Gaza conflict, according to events related by senior American, Palestinian and Israeli officials involved.
In addition, current and former American officials say, U.S.-Israel ties have been hurt by leaks that they believe were meant to undercut the administration's standing by mischaracterizing its position and delay a cease-fire. The battles have driven U.S.-Israeli relations to the lowest point since President Barack Obama took office.
Now, as Egyptian officials shuttle between representatives of Israel and Hamas seeking a long-term deal to end the fighting, U.S. officials are bystanders instead of in their historic role as mediators. The White House finds itself largely on the outside looking in.
U.S. officials said Mr. Obama had a particularly combative phone call on Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu, who they say has pushed the administration aside but wants it to provide Israel with security assurances in exchange for signing onto a long-term deal.
As a 72-hour pause in the fighting expired at midnight Wednesday, a senior Hamas official said negotiators agreed to another cease-fire, this one of five days. The cease-fire was holding on Thursday.
The frayed relations raise questions about whether Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu can effectively work together. Relations between them have long been strained over other issues, including Mr. Obama's outreach to Iran and U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians.
Today, many administration officials say the Gaza conflict -- the third between Israel and Hamas in under six years -- has persuaded them that Mr. Netanyahu and his national security team are both reckless and untrustworthy.
Israeli officials, in turn, describe the Obama administration as weak and naive, and are doing as much as they can to bypass the White House in favor of allies in Congress and elsewhere in the administration.
While Israeli officials have privately told their U.S. counterparts the poor state of relations isn't in Israel's interest long term, they also said they believed Mr. Netanyahu wasn't too worried about the tensions. The reason is that he can rely on the firmness of Israeli support in Congress, even if he doesn't have the White House's full approval for his policies. The prime minister thinks he can simply wait out the current administration, they say.
"The allegations are unfounded," said Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer. "Israel deeply appreciates the support we have received during the recent conflict in Gaza from both the Obama administration and the Congress for Israel's right to defend itself and for increased funding of Iron Dome."
A senior Obama administration official said the White House didn't intend to get into a "tit for tat" with the Israelis when the war broke out in Gaza. "We have many, many friends around the world. The United States is their strongest friend," the official said. "The notion that they are playing the United States, or that they're manipulating us publicly, completely miscalculates their place in the world."
American officials say they believe they have been able to exert at least some influence over Mr. Netanyahu during the Gaza conflict. But they admit their influence has been weakened as he has used his sway in Washington, from the Pentagon and Congress to lobby groups, to defuse U.S. diplomatic pressure on his government over the past month.
Tensions really started to flare after Israel launched Gaza ground operations July 17 and the civilian death toll started to rise sharply, prompting U.S. officials to complain that Israel wasn't showing enough restraint. Israeli officials rejected that notion, saying Hamas was using civilians as human shields.
U.S. officials say Mr. Netanyahu told them he was interested in a cease-fire from the start, but the two sides clashed over the process of achieving one and the players who would take part.
Bracing for a longer military campaign than expected, Israel approached the Defense Department within days of the start of the ground fighting to request money for more interceptors for the Iron Dome, which shoots down rockets aimed at population centers.
After consulting with the White House, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told aides to submit a proposal to Congress for $225 million.
Within the administration, the request was deemed noncontroversial because the Iron Dome was defensive and couldn't be used in Gaza ground fighting, U.S. officials said.
In meetings at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House, Israeli officials told the Americans Israel had enough Iron Dome interceptors for the current Gaza operation, but wanted to replenish its stocks, according to U.S. officials who attended. So with Israel's consent, the administration didn't seek immediate emergency funding, Pentagon officials said, adding that they expected Congress to approve the request sometime in the fall.
Unknown to many policy makers, Israel was moving on separate tracks to replenish supplies of lethal munitions being used in Gaza and to expedite approval of the Iron Dome funds on Capitol Hill.
On July 20, Israel's defense ministry asked the U.S. military for a range of munitions, including 120-mm mortar shells and 40-mm illuminating rounds, which were already kept stored at a pre-positioned weapons stockpile in Israel.
The request was approved through military channels three days later but not made public. Under the terms of the deal, the Israelis used U.S. financing to pay for $3 million in tank rounds. No presidential approval or signoff by the secretary of state was required or sought, according to officials.
A U.S. defense official said the standard review process was properly followed.
While the military-to-military relationship between Israel and the U.S. was operating normally, ties on the diplomatic front were imploding. For the Americans, they worsened dramatically on July 25, when aides to Secretary of State John Kerry sent a draft of a confidential cease-fire paper to Mr. Netanyahu's advisers for feedback.
The Americans wanted the Israelis to propose changes. The U.S. didn't intend or expect the draft paper to be presented to the Israeli cabinet, but that was what Mr. Netanyahu did. U.S. officials say Mr. Netanyahu's office breached protocol by sending back no comments and presenting the paper to the cabinet for a vote.
The paper was also leaked to the Israeli media. U.S. officials say they believe the Israeli government publicly mischaracterized Mr. Kerry's ideas with the intent of buying more time to prosecute the fight against Hamas because Israeli officials were angry over outreach by Mr. Kerry to Qatar and Turkey.
Israel and Egypt had sought to sideline Qatar and Turkey—two countries that backed Hamas—rather than increase their influence. U.S. officials say Mr. Kerry reached out to the two because they had leverage with Hamas that would be critical to getting the group to agree to another cease-fire.
From Israel's perspective, Mr. Kerry's cease-fire draft reflected an approach "completely out of sync with Israel, not just on a governmental level but on a societal level," said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. under Mr. Netanyahu.
"The best thing that Kerry can do is stay out... We need time to do the job, we need to inflict a painful and unequivocal blow on Hamas. Anything less would be a Hamas victory," Mr. Oren said.
The watershed moment came in the early morning in Gaza July 30. An Israeli shell struck a United Nations school in Jabaliya that sheltered about 3,000 people. Later that day, it was reported in the U.S. that the 120-mm and 40-mm rounds had been released to the Israeli military.
"We were blindsided," one U.S. diplomat said.
White House and State Department officials had already become increasingly disturbed by what they saw as heavy-handed battlefield tactics that they believed risked a humanitarian catastrophe capable of harming regional stability and Israel's interests.
They were especially concerned that Israel was using artillery, instead of more precision-guided munitions, in densely populated areas. The realization that munitions transfers had been made without their knowledge came as a shock.
"There was no intent to blindside anyone. The process for this transfer was followed precisely along the lines that it should have," another U.S. defense official said.
Then the officials learned that, in addition to asking for tank shells and other munitions, Israel had submitted a request through military-to-military channels for a large number of Hellfire missiles, according to Israeli and American officials.
The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, or DSCA, was about to release an initial batch of the Hellfires, according to Israeli and congressional officials. It was immediately put on hold by the Pentagon, and top officials at the White House instructed the DSCA, the U.S. military's European Command and other agencies to consult with policy makers at the White House and the State Department before approving any additional requests.
imagine the level of trauma and pain to this little boy is going through: photo by abdallahsalsadi on twitter, 8 August 2014
A senior Obama administration official said the weapons transfers shouldn't have been a routine "check-the-box approval" process, given the context. The official said the decision to scrutinize future transfers at the highest levels amounted to "the United States saying 'The buck stops here. Wait a second…It's not OK anymore.' "
White House and State Department officials were worried about public reaction.
The Palestinians, in particular, were angry, according to U.S. diplomats.
"The U.S. is a partner in this crime," Jibril Rajoub, a leader in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Western-backed Fatah party, said of the decision to provide arms to Israel during the conflict.
Even as tensions with the White House and the State Department were spilling over, Israeli officials worked to expedite the Iron Dome money on Capitol Hill.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Israeli officials told lawmakers the money was urgently needed because they were running out of interceptors and couldn't hold out for a month or more.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Congress's goal in approving the money quickly on Aug. 1 was to send a message to the administration to stop calling Israel out about civilian casualties.
A senior Republican congressional aide said Israeli officials told senators they wanted the money sooner rather than later. He said Israel's main purpose in accelerating the vote in Congress to before legislators' August recess was to provide an overwhelming "show of support" for the military operation.
The last straw for many U.S. diplomats came on Aug. 2 when they say Israeli officials leaked to the media that Mr. Netanyahu had told the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, that the Obama administration was "not to ever second-guess me again" about how to deal with Hamas.
The White House and State Department have sought to regain greater control over U.S.-Israeli policy. They decided to require White House and State Department approval for even routine munitions requests by Israel, officials say.
Instead of being handled as a military-to-military matter, each case is now subject to review -- slowing the approval process and signaling to Israel that military assistance once taken for granted is now under closer scrutiny.
A senior U.S. official said the U.S. and Israel clashed mainly because the U.S. wanted a cease-fire before Mr. Netanyahu was ready to accept one. "Now we both want one," one of the officials said.
A top Israeli official said the rift runs deeper than that. "We've been there before with a lot of tension with us and Washington. What we have now, on top of that, is mistrust and a collision of different perspectives on the Middle East," the official said. "It's become very personal."
Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama at the White House: photo by Saul Loeb / AFP, 2012
‘My wife thinks I will come home in a box’ –- and three days later Gaza bomb disposal expert was dead
Rahed Taysir al-Hom has died after a 500kg bomb he tried to defuse exploded: photo by Sean Smith for the Guardian, 8 August 2014
Rahed Taysir al-Hom headed northern Gaza’s only bomb disposal unit. He spoke to the Guardian just days before he was killed by a 500kg explosive
Jason Burke in Gaza City, The Guardian, Wednesday 13 August 2014 09.49 EDT
Rahed Taysir al-Hom was buried in the sandy soil of the cemetery of Jabaliya, the rough Gaza neighbourhood where he had grown up, at 1pm on the third day of the ceasefire.
His funeral was quick, attended by a hundred or so mourners, and accompanied by a short sermon from a white-turbaned cleric, a sobbing father and some shots fired from a Kalashnikov by a skinny teenager.
Two breeze blocks and a ripped piece of cardboard with his name scrawled on it now mark the grave of a personable man with an easy smile, hollow eyes and a quiet intensity that was entirely understandable given his job.
The 43-year-old father of seven lies next to his brother, a Hamas fighter killed in an Israeli air strike two weeks ago. But the Hom who died on Wednesday was not a warrior. He was head of the sole bomb disposal unit of Gaza’s northern governorate and his job was to protect several hundred thousand people from the unexploded ordnance that now litters the streets, fields and rubble of many homes.
Hom, who died when a 500kg bomb he was trying to defuse exploded at 10.30am on Wednesday, was an incidental casualty of a month-long war that no one seems able to stop.
Three of his colleagues and two journalists were killed with him. He was well aware of the risks he was taking but believed in his work.
One day last week, while the last tenuous ceasefire held in Gaza, Hom received 70 calls. In this conflict alone, he had dealt with 400 “objects”.
Hom made safe ordnance for five of his 20 years in the Gaza police force: photo by Sean Smith for the Guardian, 8 August 2014
“I try to do as much as I can,” he said at the weekend as he drove from site to site in the northern town of Beit Lahia, accompanied by the Guardian.
“Every time I hear that someone has been injured by a bomb on the ground I feel very sorry. This is my responsibility. But we are very limited and don’t have proper equipment. My wife thinks I will come home one day in pieces in a box.”
Hom had been defusing bombs, rockets and shells for five of his 20 years in the Gaza police. He had some training from international experts but gained most of his skills “on the job”.
He had no protective clothing and used basic tools -- screwdrivers, pliers and cutters -- as he worked to make everything safe, be it Hamas rockets which had fallen short of their mark or bombs dropped by Israeli warplanes.
Helmets, body armour and screening devices, supplied after the last conflict in 2012, had worn out or were broken.
“We have been working all the time,” he said. “There is a danger to people when there is a bomb in their house. It is risky, of course, but we have to do it.
“So far we have had no injuries in my team, praise be to God,” he added, though one of the team had been killed in an air strike at home a month ago.
Over the weekend, before the latest ceasefire came into force, Hom dealt with a dozen or so urgent incidents. His work was slowed by frequent pauses as Israeli missiles hissed overhead, sometimes exploding only a few hundred metres away.
In Beit Lahiya, he defused a 1,000kg bomb that had landed in a bike repair shop. Hossein Rabieh Salem, the 48-year-old owner, had been sleeping for several nights with his family of 18, above the storeroom and the live weapon. “Where can I go? I shut my eyes and trust in God,” Salem said.
Hom was working amid a heap of explosives –- with minimal to no protection: photo by Sean Smith for the Guardian, 8 August 2014
Unable to immediately render the bomb safe, Hom assured the worried mechanic he would return with a truck to pick it up and transport it to the football field opposite his police station where all the ordnance -- defused or live -- was dumped. There, in untidy piles, lay shells and bombs and Hamas rockets, glinting in the strong Gaza sun.
Among them was a bomb lifted, still live, from the home of the Filfils in a quiet residential neighbourhood in the north of Beit Lahiya.
Jazia Filfil, 60, remembered how, as the dust began to clear from her living room after the air strike last month, she saw a huge metal object half buried in the rubble where a three-piece suite had once been. She had no idea what it was.
“They dropped a truck on our home,” she shouted to her husband and sons. When the family worked out that the object was no truck, they called Hom.
“He is very brave but he was very slow in coming. We had the bomb in our house for weeks,” Filfil said on Sunday. Hom, listening, laughed away the complaint, joking that his “customers” were never happy.
Over a lunch of beef kebabs, snatched rapidly down a Beit Lahiya side street, Hom spoke about his worried wife, his two sons and five daughters, and his wider family.
His 33-year-old brother died in an air strike two weeks ago, he said. Abdel Jawad al-Hom had joined the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam brigades, the military wing of Hamas, after another brother had died following imprisonment in an Israeli jail in the early 1990s when Hamas had set out to derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
This is Gaza thanks to Israhell: photo bi Eddie DiFruscia on twitter, 15 August 2014
“He was very angry and joined as a teenager, maybe he was only 12 or 13, and rose up the ranks. He was a commander in the Beit Lahiya area. He was in a friend’s house on the frontlines when it was bombed and was martyred with two other fighters,” al-Hom said.
So far the conflict has killed 1,900 people in Gaza, mostly civilians. The UN has said that around 200 fighters from Hamas and other groups have been killed. Israeli officials say the total is much higher.
Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have died. Three civilians in Israel have been killed by rocket fire.
On Wednesday, as Hom set out to defuse the 500kg bomb which killed him, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were continuing indirect talks in Cairo aimed at a putting a durable ceasefire in place.
The explosion was so loud it was heard five miles away, said Maher Halewi, the chief of Hom’s police station. Doctors at the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City were working to save the lives of four men wounded in the blast who remained in a critical condition on Wednesday afternoon. The al-Shifa, like hospitals across Gaza, is chronically short of medical supplies after treating thousands of wounded during the conflict.
The funeral of Rahed Taysir al-Hom: photo by Sean Smith for the Guardian, 13 August 2014
Within two hours of his death, Hom’s remains were taken to the Beit Lahiya hospital and then to the al-Auda mosque in Jabaliya. After noon prayers and a blessing, a procession jogged through the crowded streets, past the donkey carts, the fruit stalls and the battered Mercedes taxis to the cemetery.
A crackling voice from a loudspeaker a block away called people to a Hamas rally this afternoon to show support for the Palestinian delegation in Cairo.
An Israeli drone buzzed overhead.
Relatives shovelled sand over Hom’s remains, wetted the mound with water from a plastic jerry can and stood back, forming a line to shake hands with the mourners.
The crowd carries Rahed Taysir al-Hom to be buried next to his brother in the Gaza cemetery of Jabaliya: photo by Sean Smith for The Guardian, 12 August 2014
The cleric called for “revenge on the Jews” and for the blessing of God on the deceased and on the community. Shots rang out as the skinny teenager raised his Kalashnikov once more. Then, within minutes, it was over and the mourners were gone.
Me holding what I believe is an unexploded drone's missile. This what Israel uses to warn people to evacuate. And yes, it kills: photo by Dr Bassel Abuwarda via twitter, 8 August 2014