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Atrocities in Gaza: Piecing Together the Story

As Europe calls for a ceasefire, Israel is accused of cruel tactics and use of deadly white phosphorous in its blood-soaked assault on Gaza.

A week ago, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that "Operation Cast Lead," as the current bombing of Gaza has been dubbed, "will continue until all its goals are met."

Whatever those goals are, exactly, they are clearly incomplete; Barak told Israel's Army Radio, the strikes would intensify "as much as needed to meet the goals we set for ourselves, to bring quiet to the south."

Over a week after the start of this blood-soaked chapter in the Israel/Palestine saga, there is no quiet but the silence of the dead -- over 530, and counting. On Sunday, Israeli ground troops entered Gaza, escalating the violence. "At least 75 Palestinians have been killed since Saturday," the AFP reported on Monday, "when Israel upped a weeklong bombardment of Hamas targets in Gaza by pouring in ground troops into the densely populated territory."

More recently, it has been reported in the UK Times Online that the Israel Defense Forces is using white phosphorus in its attacks, a controversial substance that can cause excruciating burns, but nevertheless is not illegal if it is only used as a smokescreen. Banned by the Geneva conventions, white phosphorus has been used by the U.S. military in Iraq:

"...[T]he tell-tale shells could be seen spreading tentacles of thick white smoke to cover the troops' advance. "These explosions are fantastic looking, and produce a great deal of smoke that blinds the enemy so that our forces can move in," said one Israeli security expert. Burning blobs of phosphorus would cause severe injuries to anyone caught beneath them and force would-be snipers or operators of remote-controlled booby traps to take cover. Israel admitted using white phosphorus during its 2006 war with Lebanon."

After a week of doing pretty much nothing, Western leaders have started to respond to the crisis, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and (otherwise MIA) Middle East special envoy Tony Blair arriving in the region on Monday.

"We in Europe want a cease-fire as quickly as possible," Sarkozy said. "… The guns must fall silent, there must be a humanitarian truce. Everyone must understand that what is at stake here is not just an issue of Israel and Palestinians, it is a global issue, and it is the whole world which will help you find a solution."

Israeli officials continue to deny that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. "There is no humanitarian crisis in the Strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said during a visit to Paris on New Year's Day.

Reports out of Gaza prove otherwise. As of Sunday, local hospitals were relying on generators for electricity. "The U.N. has warned that power networks were down in large parts of the Gaza Strip on 4 January, with hospitals relying on generators," reported the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "Without power for pumps, 70 percent of Gazans are estimated to be without tap water."

According to IRIN:

Israel has been blocking fuel supplies, and stocks are dwindling, the latest (Jan. 4) report by the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territories said.

The Israeli Gisha organization, a nongovernmental organization, said seven of the 12 electricity lines in the enclave (the 12 lines normally supply about 70 percent of Gaza's electricity) were down and warned that the lack of power was causing sewage to flood into populated areas and farmland. There continued to be a risk of sustained flooding.

"The water and sewage system in Gaza is collapsing, cutting people off from the water supply and causing sewage to flood the streets," said Maher al-Najjar, deputy director of Gaza's water utility, CMWU. He also said 48 of Gaza's 130 wells were not working at all due to lack of electricity and damage to pipes. "At least 45 other wells are operating only partially and will shut down within days without additional supplies of fuel and electricity," al-Najjar said.

The question of whether there is a humanitarian crisis was further debated on Democracy Now on Monday morning, in a heated debate between Christopher Gunness of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency -- called in from Gaza, where he works to provide aid to some 750,000 refugees -- and Meagan Buren, a spokeswoman for the Israel Project in Washington.

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