8 January 2009 A United Nations agency that is a lifeline for 750,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza suspended food delivery operations today after Israeli strikes killed one of its drivers and injured a second after they had received Israeli clearance on the 13th day of an offensive launched with the stated aim of ending Hamas militant rocket attacks into Israel.
The body of another UN worker killed in a bombing several days ago was found today and UN officials said the suspension would continue until they received adequate assurances from Israel that such incidents will not be repeated.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said the clearly marked convoy carrying a UN flag and picking up supplies at the Erez crossing into Gaza had been coordinated with Israeli liaison officers who gave the green light. A second equally coordinated and marked UN medical convoy on its way to fetch the body of an UNRWA staffer killed in an earlier bombardment came under light arms fire 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.
While UNRWA has suspended its supplies for the 750,000 people classified as refugees, a further 250,000 of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants receive food aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which has not yet taken a decision on its operations.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the incidents, once again calling for an immediate ceasefire. In a statement issued by his spokesperson, he noted that four UNRWA local staff have been killed since the conflict started 13 days ago. Mr. Ging said that when another UN convoy came under fire yesterday, Israel said it was not firing at it but over it.
UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Ann M. Veneman voiced deep concern that the ongoing violence had forced UNRWA to suspend operations. “This can only deepen an already critical humanitarian situation and put children at even greater risk of death or permanent damage. The distribution of food, water, fuel and medicine should not be impeded,” she said in a statement.
“UNICEF calls on all parties to the conflict to take every measure to protect children. It is only with an end to the conflict that children’s rights can be fully respected. In the interim, safe spaces and unimpeded humanitarian access must be established in Gaza urgently to ensure that children have access to regular life-saving supplies and support.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres told the Security Council today that, with Gaza’s borders closed, the civilian population cannot flee to safety elsewhere. He called for strict adherence to humanitarian principles in and around Gaza, including respect for the universal right to seek and receive asylum.
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