UN pulls out as Red Cross demands access to wounded
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The UN’s aid agency says it’s too dangerous to stay in Gaza, while the Red Cross is calling for better access to the wounded after the discovery of 4 starving children next to their dead mothers. Also today: first rockets fired from Lebanon.
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UNRWA, the main UN agency operating in the Gaza Strip, suspended operations in the embattled Palestinian territory on Thursday – day 13 of the Israeli air and ground assault. The move came after a UN-flagged convoy was hit by Israeli tank shells, causing the death of at least one forklift operator.
Also Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) criticised the Israeli military for what it called “unacceptable” delays in gaining access to those wounded in the attacks. The ICRC said Israeli troops tried to stop its workers giving assistance to a group of Palestinian civilians stranded for days after being wounded by Israeli shelling. The group – which included four children found next to their dead mothers, too weak to stand – was less than 100 metres from an Israeli position, the ICRC said in a strongly worded statement. The Israeli military "failed to meet its obligations under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded," the ICRC said.
Rockets from Lebanon
As rocket fire from inside Hamas-led Gaza continued – with at least a dozen new attacks reported in southern Israel Thursday, residents of northern Israel also came under attack, from rockets fired from inside Lebanon. A barrage of three to five Katyusha rockets wounded two Israelis, and the Israeli army retaliated with artillery fire. The rockets were the first fired from Lebanon since Israel launched its offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Dec. 27.
The incident raised concern about the possibility of a second front opening up in the north, between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based Shia militia that fought the Israelis in 2006. But Hezbollah denied involvement in the rocket attacks and there were no further exchanges reported in the afternoon. Hezbollah made it clear to the Lebanese government, in which it has a representative, that it was not involved in Thursday's rocket attack on northern Israel, Lebanese Information Minister Tarek Mitri told AFP.
“Some Palestinian websites are pointing the finger at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP –GC),” says Lanah Kammourieh, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Beirut. It’s an offshoot of the PFLP that operates in Palestine. “But these are still only suspicions.”
Some 400,000 Palestinian refugees currently live in Lebanon.
Palestinians fired rockets from Lebanon into northern Israel in June 2007, causing no casualties. During the 2006 war with Hezbollah, Israel came under frequent rocket attacks that caused casualties.
The 2006 war, which lasted 34 days, killed 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 Israelis. The UN peacekeeping force in South Lebanon is on high alert and has called for maximum restraint to avoid the escalation of hostilities.
Three-hour ceasefire, bodies found
In Gaza, civilians had a respite from the bombardment when Israeli forces for the second day observed a three-hour midday ceasefire, allowing them to leave their shelter to find food and other necessities. But according to FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Gaza, Radja Abou Dagga, “three hours is not enough to allow Gazans to get water and restock their food and medicines.”
The ceasefire allowed Palestinian rescue workers to recover more bodies, raising the 13-day toll to 763 Palestinians killed and more than 3,100 wounded, Mouawiya Hassanein, head of Gaza's emergency services, told the AFP. According to UN officials, at least a quarter of the Palestinian dead were civilians.
Eleven Israelis have died in the past 13 days - seven soldiers have been killed in combat (including four killed by "friendly" fire), and three civilians and one other soldier were killed in rocket attacks.
The midday pause followed a night of heavy bombing - “one of the most intense bombing attacks since the war began,” according to FRANCE 24’s Lucas Menget, in southern Israel.
Israeli warplanes hit a house and a suspected tunnel in an open area near the Egyptian border, witnesses said. Israel claims that Hamas is supplied with weapons through the myriad of tunnels running from Egypt through the border into Gaza.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday afternoon, Israeli planes dropped tens of thousands of leaflets on the Rafah border area, warning people to leave their houses or face air strikes.
Diplomatic efforts continue
Although Israel pressed on with the offensive, it said it accepted the "principles" of a European-Egyptian ceasefire proposal. The United States urged Israel to study the plan.
"We believe a ceasefire is necessary," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday.
Senior Defence Ministry aide Amos Gilad left for Cairo on Thursday to get details on the ceasefire plan.
Hamas said it was looking at the Egyptian plan, which addresses Israel's demand that the militant group be prevented from rearming through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. The proposal also addresses Hamas's call for an end to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.
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