UN and Red Cross halt Gaza aid deliveries after Israeli attacks on staff
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The United Nations and the Red Cross halted aid deliveries to the Gaza Strip on Thursday after accusing Israeli forces of firing on their drivers, killing one. The threat of a wider conflict, meanwhile, arose when fighters in Lebanon fired two rockets into northern Israel.
One rocket crashed into a retirement home, but there were no serious injuries. Israel responded with mortar shells.
During a three-hour pause in the Israeli offensive to allow in food and fuel and let medics collect the dead, nearly three dozen bodies of Palestinians were found beneath the rubble of bombed-out buildings in Gaza City.
Many of the dead were in the same Zeitoun neighbourhood where the international Red Cross said rescuers discovered young children too weak to stand who had stayed by their dead mothers. The aid group accused Israel of an "unacceptable" delay in allowing workers to reach the area.
Relations between Israel and humanitarian organizations have grown increasingly tense as civilian casualties have mounted.
The UN demanded an investigation after Israel earlier this week fired shells at a target next to a UN 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 Palestinian fighters had launched an attack from the area, and then ran into a crowd of civilians for cover. Nearly 40 Palestinians died in the Israeli attack.
"We've been co-ordinating with them (Israeli forces) and yet our staff continue to be hit and killed," said a UN spokesman, Chris Gunness, announcing the suspension. The UN is the largest aid provider in Gaza.
Israeli police, meanwhile, said fighters in the Gaza Strip fired 24 rockets into Israel on Thursday, injuring four people, one of them seriously.
The Israeli military said one soldier attached to a tank battalion was killed by gunfire in the Gaza Strip on Thursday.
Twelve Israelis, including nine soldiers, have died since the Dec. 27 beginning of the offensive. But with roughly half the Palestinian dead believed to be civilians, international efforts to broker a ceasefire have been gaining steam.
Israeli envoys travelled to Egypt on Thursday to discuss the proposal being brokered by France and Egypt and now backed by the United States.
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 UN provides food aid to around 750,000 Gaza residents - about half of Gaza's population - 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.
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 UN said one of its aid trucks came under fire from a gunner on an Israeli tank, killing the driver.
The UN said the vehicle was marked with a UN flag and insignia when it was shot in northern Gaza. The Israeli army said it was investigating.
In Geneva, the international Red Cross said it would restrict its aid operations to Gaza City for at least one day after one of its convoys came under Israeli fire at the Netzarim crossing during the three-hour lull in fighting Thursday. One driver was lightly injured.
Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Palestinian Health Ministry said 35 bodies were discovered Thursday during in several areas around Gaza City that have seen fierce fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas.
He said it was unclear how many Hamas fighters 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 the Zeitoun neighbourhood, where the 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 aid group says a total of 15 dead were recovered from two houses there 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 Red Cross statement was a rare public criticism from the aid group, which normally conducts confidential negotiations with warring parties.
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.
The rockets from Lebanon raised the spectre of renewed hostilities on Israel's northern frontier, just 2 1/2 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 Palestinians 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.
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 centre in the southern city of Ashkelon, police said. Both buildings were empty.
For Israel to accept a proposed ceasefire, "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 has maintained a stiff economic embargo on Gaza since the Hamas takeover, sparking the rocket attacks.
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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