UN suspends food aid into Gaza; Red Cross reports 'shocking' scenes

Posted in Broader Middle East , Israel / Palestine , Iran | 08-Jan-09 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Smoke rising during Israeli's offensive in Gaza on Thursday.

JERUSALEM: The United Nations suspended its food aid deliveries into Gaza on Thursday after one of its contract drivers was killed during an Israeli attack on a delivery convoy at a border crossing, the United Nations said.

The suspension by the United Nations came after rockets were fired from Lebanon on Thursday, landing in northern Israel and raising concerns they could represent a broadening of the conflict. However, both the Israeli and Lebanese governments played down their significance as international efforts to end the 13-day war in the Gaza Strip continued with the arrival of Israeli negotiators in Cairo.

Egyptian officials said the Israeli officials were meeting with the head of Egyptian military intelligence, Omar Suleiman, to explore a proposal devised by Egypt and France as what officials in Paris called a road map to a cease-fire. There was no immediate word on the outcome of the talks.

As Israel's offensive in Gaza continued with tanks on the ground in the beleaguered coastal strip and bombardment from the air, Israel again ordered a temporary lull in the fighting on Thursday to give the 1.5 million population a three-hour opportunity to seek medical help and buy supplies.

A similar pause on Wednesday enabled rescue teams from the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter some areas for the first time since Israel's ground offensive began last weekend after days of air-strikes. In one area, the Committee reported Thursday, its representatives discovered "shocking" scenes including four children next to their mother's corpses. The children were too weak to stand on their own, the aid organization said.

Three forklift trucks operated by the only trucking company authorized to carry out deliveries near the Israeli-Gaza border were collecting food at Kerem Shalom crossing when they came under Israeli fire at 9 a.m. on Thursday, killing one of the drivers, named as Bassem Quta, 32, a United Nations relief agency official said.

"We have suspended all food distribution because of lack of security," according to the official, Andrew Whitley, director of the United Nations relief agency office in New York.

He said the delivery had involved prior coordination with the Israeli military and food deliveries would be suspended until Israel could guarantee the safety of its convoys.

The latest incident followed a similar attack earlier this week when the two trucks were hit by missiles from a helicopter as the trucks were leaving a garage in Gaza City, Whitley said. That attack left two dead. The trucking company, Shuhaiber, had refused to continue deliveries, he said.

"The UN is suspending its aid operations in Gaza until we can get safety and security guarantees for our staff," spokesman Chris Gunness told the Associated Press. The Israeli military was investigating the incident, the AP reported.The discussions in Cairo got underway hours after at least three missiles from Lebanon landed near the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, slightly injuring two Israelis, and the Israeli army responded with fire. The rockets from Lebanon raised concern that they could presage a second front in the conflict that would complicate peace efforts and revive memories of the bloody war between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006.

But the Israeli Army later dismissed the rockets on Thursday as "a minor event" and, in Lebanon, the government said Hezbollah had distanced itself from the attack. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon immediately condemned the rocket-fire. In a statement, Lebanese Information Minister Tarek Mitri said: "Hezbollah assured the Lebanese government that it remains engaged in preserving the stability in Lebanon and respects Security Council resolution 1701."

United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 laid out the terms of the ceasefire that ended the war between Israel and Lebanon in August 2006.

The Israeli Army said it "responded with fire against the source of the rockets," which landed near the town of Nahariya. Two Israelis were slightly wounded, the police said.

The rockets from Lebanon fell in residential areas. Shimon Koren, head of the northern district police, instructed residents of Nahariya and Kabri to enter bomb shelters and he instructed residents in nearby localities to open their shelters. School was canceled in Nahariya and nearby Shlomi.

So far there has been no claim of responsibility.

The lull Thursday coincided with news from Cairo that the Israeli delegation had arrived to open talks. Israeli officials said on Wednesday that their country would be represented at the Cairo talks by two officials — a senior aide to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Shalom Turgeman, and a senior defense official, Amos Gilad.

International pressure for a negotiated cease-fire intensified after Israeli shells killed some 40 people at a United Nations school in Gaza on Tuesday. Israel said Hamas militants had fired mortar shells from the school compound prior to Israel's shelling.

The Israeli government said Wednesday that it welcomed the efforts of France and Egypt to work out a durable cease-fire. It said it would end its assault if Hamas stopped firing rockets into Israel and ended the smuggling of weapons from Egypt. It said that if a durable cease-fire took hold, it would reopen border crossings into Gaza for goods and people. But Israeli and Hamas officials both denied an assertion on Wednesday by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, that a cease-fire had been agreed upon.

"There is an agreement on general principles, that Hamas should stop rocket fire and mustn't rearm," a senior Israeli official said Wednesday evening. "But that's like agreeing that motherhood is a good thing. We have to transform those agreed principles into working procedures on the ground, and that's barely begun."

The United States has been involved behind the scenes, senior Israeli and French officials said, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "constantly on the phone" with Olmert, according to one Israeli official.

In Washington, the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said of talks about a cease-fire: "As I understand, the Israelis are open to the concept, but they want to learn more about the details; so do we."

At the United Nations, several Arab delegates said Wednesday night that they thought they now had enough votes to approve a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire. That would likely put the United States and other Western powers, which oppose a binding resolution, in the awkward position of having to veto a cease-fire.

A senior French official in Paris said that Sarkozy's earlier comment about an agreement on a cease-fire was misunderstood: "The plan is not a cease-fire; the plan is a road map toward a cease-fire." One crucial aspect of any deal is how to prevent new smuggling tunnels from being built under Egypt's border with Gaza.

The senior Israeli official raised the possibility of reaching "tacit agreements" with Hamas to end rocket fire, while also persuading Egypt to allow American and perhaps European army engineers to help seal its border with Gaza above and below ground.

Hamas is insisting that any new arrangement include the reopening of border crossings for trade with Israel and the reopening of the Rafah crossing into Egypt for people.

Casualty figures in the Gaza war are hard to verify, but officials at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and the Gazan Ministry of Health said 683 Palestinians had died since the conflict began Dec. 27, including 218 children and 90 women. They said 3,085 had been wounded. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza said 130 children age 16 or under had died. The United Nations estimated a few days ago that a quarter of the dead were civilians.

But Palestinian residents and Israeli officials say that Hamas is tending its own wounded in separate medical centers, not in public hospitals, and that it is difficult to know the number of dead Hamas fighters, many of whom were not wearing uniforms.

Israel says it has killed at least 130 Hamas fighters. Ten Israelis have been killed during the offensive, including three civilians. Most of the seven dead Israeli soldiers were killed in so-called friendly fire.