Gaza-trip MPs face Kassam attack

In a week of renewed violence between Israel and Hamas that claimed the lives of three IDF soldiers and reportedly around 20 Gazans, British MPs saw Palestinian rocket fire at first-hand as Kassams were launched from a village near the Gaza Strip.

The MPs — three from the Labour Party and one Liberal Democrat — were on a fact-finding mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories, organised by Caabu, the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding.

Brian Iddon, Labour MP for Bolton South East, said the rocket attack came on the second day of their visit, as they made their way out of Gaza.

“Three rockets were fired together. One lay unexploded in a car park and another went overhead. While making our way through the checkpoint, we heard another explode. It was quite scary but I knew we would be OK where we were, and not in danger,” he said.

The others were Lib-Dem Sarah Teather, MP for Brent East; the Labour MP for High Peak, Tom Levitt; and Swindon South’s Anne Snelgrove.

The Kassams were fired from a Palestinian village towards Israel, but fell short of the Erez checkpoint.

The Israeli army were thought to have closed the checkpoint for six hours, leaving the MPs stranded, although that report is unconfirmed.

But they ran out of time to meet officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. They were later due to visit the southern Israeli town of Sderot, a constant target of Palestinian rocket attacks.

Ms Teather was reluctant to comment this week, telling the JC: “Speak to me next week when I’m in the UK.”

Mrs Snelgrove, a member of Labour Friends of Israel, said from her hotel in Jerusalem: “It’s too late to talk. It’s nearly midnight.” She put the phone down.

Wednesday also saw the resumption of severe fighting around the Strip. In the morning, three soldiers of the Givati Brigade — Corporal Matan Ovadati, 19, Sergeant David Papian, 21 and Sergeant Menhash al-Banyat, 20 — were killed when they were ambushed as they tried to capture two men preparing a bomb on the border fence.

At least 15 Palestinians, including two children, were killed later that day when Israeli aircraft fired three missiles at a group of armed men.

Another round in the PR wars was played out this week around former US President Jimmy Carter’s visit to the Middle East and his meetings with senior Hamas leaders.

President Carter spent most of the week in Israel, but was snubbed by the political leadership, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the rest of the cabinet refusing to meet him. The only one who did was President Shimon Peres, who seriously chastised him.

The renewed violence was sparked by a Hamas attack on the Nahal Oz fuel depot last week, in which Israeli civilians Oleg Lipson, 37, and Lev Cherniak, 53, were killed. Israel has since been engaged in an international media offensive to blame the Hamas government in Gaza and lay the groundwork for a new blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Following the attack, both the EU and Israel said they would suspend fuel shipments to Palestinians in Gaza. When Israel tried a similar sanction three months ago, the Palestinians used it to devastating effect, switching off the electricity in Gaza, even before the fuel had run out, and staging processions with children holding candles.

Yarden Vatikay, head of the newly formed Hasbara (public relations) Directorate, said: “We have learnt the lessons from the ‘candles’ fiasco, and this time we prepared in advance a proactive media strategy to counter the Hamas claims, which we believe has been successful.”

    Last updated: 5:53pm, May 13 2008