AFP - Civilians were mired in a "full-blown humanitarian crisis" and "intolerable" conditions in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday as the number of casualties during Israel's military offensive grew, UN and Red Cross agencies said Tuesday.
At least 45 people were killed in hits on three UN-run schools at the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, Palestinian medical sources said.
It was the third reported incident of the kind in a day and came just hours after the International Committee of the Red Cross warned in Geneva that there was an international legal obligation on all sides to ensure that civilians were unharmed.
"At present we are gravely concerned by the growing number of civilian deaths and injuries, and the growing number of civilian infrastructure including hospitals, that have been affected by Israeli operations," senior ICRC official Pierre Kraehenbuehl said.
"It is critical that the parties at this point do everything to keep civilians out of the firing line," the ICRC director of operations added, warning that conditions for civilians in the Palestinian territory had become "clearly intolerable."
Direct attacks on civilians or civilian infrastructure, such as homes, hospitals, water and power supplies or emergency services, as well as indiscriminate attacks, are prohibited under international law.
Kraehenbuehl highlighted the need for ever more stringent military precautions against civilian casualties in a densely populated area like Gaza, home to an estimated 1.5 million people.
"That means that when you are operating in a densely populated area such as Gaza, your responsibility only increases, it doesn't diminish." That also extended to the potential use of civilian locations by Palestinian combatants, he added.
Kraehenbuhl said he was in no doubt that there was "a full blown and major crisis in humanitarian terms" in Gaza after more than 10 days of fighting, despite earlier assertions from Israeli officials to the contrary.
Red Cross staff in Gaza described the night from Monday to Tuesday as "the most frightening to date," as they sought refuge from bombardments, he added.
Life-saving help was often unable to get through to victims due to the intensity of the fighting, relief officials reported, while hospitals were "stretched to breaking point".
John Ging, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA, said Tuesday in Gaza City that he was shocked by what he had seen during a visit to the main Al Shifa hospital.
"This is a horrific tragedy here and it's getting worse moment after moment. People are coming in all the time with more and more injuries," said Ging.
Hospitals were operating on fragile emergency generator power as fuel supplies dwindled, while pumped water for half a million people in Gaza was also under threat, according to the relief agencies.
The UN Children's Fund UNICEF called for a complete halt to fighting and said it was crucial to ensure "total access to the Gaza Strip" for emergency aid.
"Intermittent entry of aid is totally unpredictable, vastly insufficient, and there is no insurance that the humanitarian aid can be consistently and properly distributed to the population," said UNRWA's spokeswoman in Geneva, Elena Mancusi Materi.
The World Food Programme said it was able to supply about 65,000 Palestinians in Gaza, compared to 265,000 vulnerable people who normally receive food aid.
Even if the food got through, many Palestinians were too afraid to leave their homes to fetch the supplies at distribution points, WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella added.
The ICRC, which has 13 expatriate and 65 local staff in Gaza, was unable to give a full death and injury toll. Medics in Gaza said 635 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 160 children, and more than 2,700 wounded.
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