‘Gaza toll in July highest since 2004’

LAST MONTH WAS the deadliest in the Gaza Strip for nearly two years, with Israel’s offensive against Palestinian fighters in the territory leading to a surge of killings, a Palestinian research group said on Thursday.

The Palestinian Monitoring Group said 151 people were killed in the coastal strip in July, the highest total since October 2004, when 166 people died.

The group, which describes itself as internationally funded as well as a “supportive institution” to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said most of the Gazans killed last month were civilians, but gave no precise number.

Separately, figures compiled by the Israeli human rights watchdog B’tselem showed the army killed 163 Palestinians in Gaza in July, 78 of whom were not involved in hostilities.

Major Tal Avraham, an Israeli army spokesman, rejected both groups’ estimates of civilian casualties, saying “the vast majority of our hits were of armed people” and that the military did its utmost to avoid harming non-combatants.

Israel launched the Gaza campaign in late June to try to secure the release of a soldier abducted by fighters in a cross-border raid. The Jewish state has also come under frequent rocket fire from Gaza since quitting the territory last year.

“The spiralling civilian casualties caused by Israeli actions throughout the region serve to strengthen extremists, weaken peace advocates and exacerbate the conflict,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, commenting on the findings.

The army, which said it thoroughly investigated any civilian casualties, put the blame on fighters for sheltering in civilian areas and accused them of sometimes using children to plant bombs.

The monitoring group said  from  the  time  the  offensive   began    until  August  8, 170 Palestinians had been killed, of whom 138 were civilians.

B’tselem, whose casualty figures for the Israeli offensive only cover until July 30, said 178 Palestinians had been killed, equally divided between civilians and fighters.

Events in Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, have largely been eclipsed in the past month as Israeli forces battle Hizbollah fighters in southern Lebanon following the group’s abduction of two soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

Yet Israel has sustained its operations in Gaza during that time, battling fighters and hitting suspected hideouts and rocket-manufacturing sites in air strikes and with tank shells.

When the offensive was launched, Israeli warplanes bombed and partly destroyed Gaza’s only power plant and also hit several bridges. The flow of gasoline, food and other essential supplies into the strip was also repeatedly interrupted.

The United Nations says the densely populated territory is now facing some of the worst humanitarian conditions in years.

The ability to coordinate relief has been complicated by an attack by Palestinian demonstrators on the main UN compound on July 30, when UN cars were smashed and offices ransacked.

Gaza border reopens briefly

Meanwhile, hundreds of people poured through the Rafah border crossing from the Gaza Strip to Egypt Thursday after it was reopened briefly but many others were left still stranded after the Israeli army ordered its closure again just hours later.

About 2,000 people managed to cross at Rafah — Gaza’s only gateway to the world that bypasses Israel — which was supposed to be reopened from 8:30am to 8:00pm to allow passage for humanitarian reasons.

But hundreds more frustrated Palestinians were left stuck after the Israeli army ordered its early closure for security reasons.

“The terminal closed at 1:00pm (1000 GMT) after the Israeli army requested it for security reasons,” a spokeswoman for the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) told AFP.

She said efforts were under way to reopen the crossing as soon as possible.

Students, the sick, businessmen and visitors from foreign countries who had been stranded in Gaza were among those waiting at the border.

“I have been waiting almost two months to leave,” said Wael Halalou, 26, who lined up from 3.30am with his family, passports in hand, to try to leave en route for the United Arab Emirates where he works as an engineer.

The closure came only hours after an announcement that the crossing would reopen for humanitarian cases from the Gaza Strip to Egypt and thousands of Palestinians had started massing at the border.

“I’m not sure if I can leave today,” said 27-year-old Ola Mighary, who hoped to rejoin her family in Saudi Arabia.

“My visa has now expired and my airplane ticket is no longer valid. Once I get to Egypt it will take several days to sort out.

It’s going to be expensive,” said the Gaza student, who has been waiting several weeks to leave.

Since June 25, the crossing has been opened just once, on July 18 and 19, to allow Palestinians stranded in Egypt to cross back into the Gaza Strip.

Last November, two months after Israel withdrew from Gaza following a 38-year occupation, the Rafah border crossing began operating under a US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian agreement with EU monitors.

But while many were disappointed, others finally made it across.

“I found work in Dubai,” said 27-year-old Ibrahim Al Muthaqar who was about to hop in a taxi across the border with 10 relatives.

“I’m leaving Gaza, forever,” he said, flashing a wad of passports happily. “The situation here is intolerable,” he lamented, as the 15 other passengers squeezed into the nine-seat car gesticulated at him to hurry up.

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