UN and Red Cross add to outcry on Gaza

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 10-Jan-09 | Author: Ethan Bronner| Source: International Herald Tribune

Palestinians gathered to receive flour at a United Nations food distribution center in Gaza City on Thursday.

JERUSALEM: International aid groups lashed out at Israel on Thursday over the war in Gaza, saying that access to civilians in need is poor, relief workers are being hurt and killed, and Israel is woefully neglecting its obligations to Palestinians who are trapped, some among rotting corpses in a nightmarish landscape of deprivation.

The United Nations declared a suspension of its aid operations after one of its drivers was killed and two others were wounded despite driving United Nations-flagged vehicles and coordinating their movements with the Israeli military. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called for an investigation by Israel for a second time in a week after the more than 40 deaths near a United Nations school from Israeli tank fire on Tuesday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported finding what it called shocking scenes on Wednesday, including four emaciated children next to the bodies of their dead mothers. In a rare and sharply critical statement, it said it believed that "the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded."

Israeli officials said that they were examining all the allegations, that they did not aim at civilians and that they were not certain that the source of fire that killed and wounded the United Nations drivers was Israeli.

"We do our utmost to avoid hitting civilians, and many times we don't fire because we see civilians nearby," said Major Avital Leibovich, chief army spokeswoman for the foreign media. "We are holding meetings with UN officials to try to work out a mechanism so that their work can go forward."

She said that the army learned of the Red Cross allegations in a media report, and that the Geneva-based committee had not yet presented the evidence of what she called "these very serious allegations" to the army.

At the United Nations, members of the Security Council voted Thursday night to approve a resolution calling for "an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire" that would lead to the "full withdrawal" of Israeli forces from Gaza, the passage of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and an end to the trafficking of arms and ammunition into the territory.

Fourteen nations approved the measure, with the United States abstaining. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States abstained from voting on the resolution, which left it unclear how a cease-fire would be enforced, because it wanted to see whether mediation efforts undertaken by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt succeed. The United States did not veto the resolution because Washington supports its overall goals, she said.

Some Arab ambassadors expressed disappointment that the measure did not specifically call for a lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and some Western ambassadors acknowledged a long history of United Nations resolutions that led nowhere.

"We are all very conscious that peace is made on the ground, while resolutions are written in the United Nations," said David Miliband, the British foreign secretary.

A Red Cross spokeswoman, Anne-Sophie Bonefeld, said that when the children and others were rescued in Gaza on Wednesday, workers had to leave behind a number of bodies. On Thursday, she said, 100 civilians were rescued from the same Gaza City neighborhood. They were not wounded, but they were weakened because of being without food or water for two days.

As the war entered its 14th day, and Israeli airstrike destroyed a five-story building, killing at least seven people, Hamas security officials told The Associated Press.

The Gaza authorities said that the death toll passed 750, with women and children making up about 40 percent of the dead. Israel held its fire for three hours Thursday afternoon, the second day in a row, to allow in aid. It was during that pause that local ambulance crews and the Red Crescent found dozens of bodies under a collapsed building. Three Israeli soldiers were killed in combat; seven other soldiers have died during the military campaign, which is aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire, and three civilians have been killed by rockets.

More rockets flew into Israel and, for the first time since the operation against Hamas began, three Katyusha rockets were shot from Lebanon into northern Israel. Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006 that included thousands of rockets, said it was not responsible.

But attention was increasingly focused on the growing humanitarian crisis and on the increasing anger abroad.

Israel condemned a high-ranking Vatican official for comparing Gaza to "a concentration camp."

"Look at the conditions in Gaza: more and more, it resembles a big concentration camp," Cardinal Renato Martino, the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said in an interview published Wednesday in Il Sussidiaro.

He defended his comments in the center-left Italian daily La Repubblica on Thursday. While noting that Hamas rockets into Israel were "certainly not sugared almonds," he called the situation in Gaza "horrific." Israel sharply condemned the cardinal's use of World War II imagery. "We are astounded that a spiritual dignitary would have such words that are so far removed from truth and dignity," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

The Vatican sought to play down the remarks, calling them inopportune.

John Holmes, a United Nations emergency relief coordinator, said in New York that the three-hour daily pause in the fighting permitted by Israel in Gaza was insufficient. He said the Gaza authorities counted 758 fatalities, among them 257 children and 56 women. The injured totaled 3,100; of them 1,080 were children and about were 465 women.

He added that the Gaza authorities reported that 20,000 were displaced but that conditions prevented officials from helping them properly. "The continuing violence is making humanitarian aid increasingly difficult and almost impossible," Holmes said.

Antoine Grand, head of Red Cross operations in Gaza, said his group's workers came under Israeli fire on Thursday. He said a convoy of two trucks, one clearly marked as Red Cross and the other from the Ministry of Health, was taking medical equipment to the southern city of Khan Yunis, followed by 13 ambulances heading to the Egyptian border.

He said the convoy's movement was "fully coordinated with Israel. I did it myself." And it was during the three-hour lull, at 3:30 p.m., he said, when they stopped in front of the checkpoint that the Red Cross vehicle was shot at from a tank.

"One bullet passed 10 centimeters from the head of the driver," he said. He was lightly injured from shattered glass. Grand said the group would limit its operations to Gaza City.

Israeli officials said they were investigating.

The Jerusalem Post's Web site quoted an Israeli medical worker as saying that the killing of the United Nations driver that contributed to the suspension of aid delivery was the work of a Hamas sniper.

John Ging, who heads United Nations relief operations in Gaza, said by telephone that he was unaware of any information suggesting that the driver had been shot by Hamas.

"If they have evidence, let them present it," he said, adding that in none of the events of the past few days — the attacks on the school or the trucks — was there any evidence of cross-fire. He visited the school after the shelling.

"I want an exhaustive investigation to establish all the facts," he said in a telephone interview. "In the school, they say two of those killed were militants. But that means 41 were civilians. That is wholly and totally a very serious matter regarding duty of care and appropriate use of force. But I can't pass judgment without the facts."