UN halts Gaza aid shipments, cites Israeli attacks


Published: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 12:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 12:38 p.m.

JERUSALEM The U.N. halted deliveries to the Gaza Strip on Thursday after gunfire from an Israeli tank killed an aid truck driver, and the threat of a wider conflict arose when militants in Lebanon fired rockets into northern Israel.

Israel responded with mortar shells.

During a three-hour pause in the fighting to allow in food and fuel and let medics collect the dead, nearly three dozen bodies were found beneath the rubble of bombed out buildings in Gaza City.

Many of the dead were in the same neighborhood where the international Red Cross said rescue workers discovered young children too weak to stand who had stayed by their dead mothers.

Relations between Israel and humanitarian organizations have grown increasingly tense as civilian casualties have mounted.

The United Nations demanded an investigation after Israel fired shells at a target next to a U.N. school filled with Gazans seeking refuge from fighting that has left nearly 750 Palestinians dead, according to Palestinian hospital officials and human rights workers. Israel said militants had launched an attack from the area, and then ran into a crowd of civilians for cover. Nearly 40 Palestinians died.

"We've been coordinating with them (Israeli forces) and yet our staff continue to be hit and killed," said a U.N. spokesman, Chris Gunness, announcing the suspension.

Eleven Israelis have died since the Dec. 27 beginning of the offensive against the Hamas militants in charge of Gaza, meant to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. But with roughly half the Palestinian dead believed to be civilians, international efforts to broker a cease-fire have been gaining steam.

Israeli envoys traveled to Egypt on Thursday to discuss the proposal being brokered by France and Egypt and now backed by the U.S.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said any time lost will play into the hands of those who want war.

"The weapons must go quiet, the escalation must stop, Israel must obtain security guarantees and leave Gaza," he said in Paris.

The U.N. provides food aid to around 750,000 Gaza residents, and runs dozens of schools and clinics throughout the territory. They have some 9,000 locally employed staffers inside Gaza, and a small team of international staffers who work there.

Elena Mancusi Materi, UNRWA's spokeswoman in Geneva, said the suspension concerned all truck movement in Gaza.

"If someone comes to one of our food distribution centers, we will give that person food. If people come to our clinics with injuries, we will treat them."

For a second straight day, Israel suspended its Gaza military operation for three hours to allow in humanitarian supplies. Shortly before the pause took effect, however, the U.N. said one of its aid trucks came under fire from a gunner on an Israeli tank, killing the driver.

U.N. spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said the U.N. coordinated the delivery with Israel, and the vehicle was marked with a U.N. flag and insignia when it was shot in northern Gaza. The Israeli army said it was investigating.

Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Palestinian Health Ministry said 35 bodies were discovered Thursday during the three-hour pause in fighting in several areas around Gaza City that have seen fierce fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.

He said it was unclear how many militants were killed because the remains were in poor condition, but that women and children were among the dead. Hassanain said 746 Palestinians have died in Israel's 13-day offensive.

Many of the dead found Thursday were in Gaza City's Zeitoun neighborhood, where the international Red Cross said it found four small children alive next to their mothers' bodies in the rubble of a home hit by Israeli shelling. The neutral aid group says a total of 15 dead were recovered from two houses in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City on Wednesday.

A Red Cross spokesman says rescuers had been refused permission by Israeli forces to reach the site for four days. It said the delay in allowing rescue services access was "unacceptable."

The Israeli military said in a statement that Hamas militants used Palestinian civilians as human shields, and that Israeli forces work closely with international aid groups to help civilians during the fighting in Gaza.

In other Gaza violence, Israel killed at least 12 people, including the U.N. driver and three people who were fleeing their homes, according to Palestinian medical officials.

The rockets from Lebanon raised the specter of renewed hostilities on Israel's northern frontier, just 2 years after Israel battled the Hezbollah guerrilla group to a 34-day stalemate. War broke out between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 as Israel battled Palestinian militants in Gaza, on Israel's southern borders.

No group claimed responsibility. Lebanon's government condemned the attack, and Hezbollah which now plays an integral role in Lebanon's government denied any responsibility for the rocket fire, which lightly injured two Israelis.

"The rocket entered through the roof, hurling the water heaters into the air. It went through bedrooms upstairs and then into the kitchen," said Henry Carmelli, the home's manager.

Israel has repeatedly said it was prepared for a possible attack on the north since it launched its bruising campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza, to the south. Israel has mobilized thousands of reserve troops for such a scenario, and leaders have warned Hezbollah of dire consequences if it enters the fighting.

"We are prepared and will respond as necessary," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters.

The Israeli offensive has reduced Palestinian rocket fire, but not stopped it altogether. Several barrages were reported Thursday, including one strike that damaged a school and sports center in the southern city of Ashkelon, police said. Both buildings were empty.

For Israel to accept a proposed cease-fire deal, "there has to be a total and complete cessation of all hostile fire from Gaza into Israel, and ... we have to see an arms embargo on Hamas that will receive international support," said government spokesman Mark Regev.

For its part, Hamas said it would not accept a truce deal unless it includes an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza something Israel says it is not willing to do. Israel and Egypt have maintained a stiff economic embargo on Gaza since the Hamas takeover.

The Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank while Hamas rules Gaza two territories on opposite sides of Israel that are supposed to make up a future Palestinian state. Hamas took control of Gaza from forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007.

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