Thursday, January 8, 2009

Relief workers in Gaza take casualties

A United Nations relief worker died today after Israeli troops attacked a relief convoy clearly marked and carrying the UN flag as it moved toward the Erez border crossing to pick up humanitarian aid to be distributed to the people trapped in Gaza. The convoy was moving during the agreed to three-hour lull in the fighting that has been set aside for relief efforts to be carried out, and the movement had been coordinated with and green lighted by Israeli liaison officers.

A second equally coordinated and marked medical convoy that was dispatched to retrieve the body of a UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) worker killed in an earlier attack came under small-arms fire as they attempted to retrieve the body of their fallen compatriot in Gaza City.

"This is heartbreaking... a very, very difficult decision for us to take," UNRWA Director of Operations in Gaza John Ging told a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York, speaking by video link from Gaza. "The population here are in a dreadful state and really need our help at this point but we have also a responsibility to our staff, and eager as they are, and believe me they are, we cannot fly in the face of the security situation."

While UNRWA is perfectly prepared for reasonable risks in a conflict zone, "added to those is the fact that we cannot rely on firm commitments given by the Israeli side, carefully coordinated with them, green lights given to move... specifics provided, carefully coordinated throughout, and to have the Israeli forces on the ground firing at and now hitting aid workers."

He said the movement of all staff would be suspended until UNRWA could be assured of their safety, and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told the same news conference: "We are seeking those assurances... We're talking very urgently about how we can make better arrangements, more reliable arrangements to avoid these incidents on the ground which we simply cannot see repeated. Otherwise we simply won't be able to do our job."

Mr. Ging said Israel was investigating the Erez incident, which came two days after Israeli shelling near an UNRWA school killed 40 people and injured more than 100. Israel said it was returning fire from the area of the school. UN officials stressed there were no Hamas or other militants inside the school.

On today's second incident, which occurred during Israel's stated daily three-hour lull in fighting, Mr. Ging said he had received no credible explanation from Israel as to how "the green light turned into three rounds" of light arms fire. Asked how he could be sure that Israel was responsible for the incidents, he said the Israelis had not so far disputed the cases.

"The headlines are that we desperately need a full and immediate ceasefire in Gaza to enable the civilian population to be protected and helped and that need is becoming more desperate by the hour," Mr. Holmes said, stressing that most of the Strip was without power, although some fuel was getting through, and 20,000 people were in UN shelters.
He added that the Israeli lull, which the UN has called totally insufficient, allowed residents to get food supplies, access medical services, get to the dead and wounded in buildings, bury the dead and dig out more bodies from the rubble. Meanwhile rocket fire into Israel continued. He cited credible Palestinian reports that the death toll had now reached 758, of whom 257 were children and 56 women, with 3,100 wounded of whom 1,080 are children and 452 women.

He referred to "absolutely horrifying" accounts that the International Red Cross had reached bombed houses in Zaitoun, finding 12 dead people and four children alive next to their dead mother on mattresses in one, and 15 wounded in another, noting that what was particularly shocking was that a nearby Israeli team must have been aware of the wounded, yet did nothing.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the incidents and called for an immediate cease fire. In a statement issued by his spokesperson, he noted that four United Nations relief workers have been killed in the two week old conflict. Think about that. The United Nations and their relief agencies have taken casualties that rival those of Israel.

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