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January 10, 2009

Aid Groups Dispute Israeli Claims in Gaza Attacks


by Thalif Deen

As the Israelis try to justify the massive loss of civilian life in Gaza, their arguments and counter-charges continue to be shot down either by the United Nations or by international human rights organizations.

Did the Israelis misidentify a school run by the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), where 43 Palestinians seeking shelter were killed in an early morning air strike? Or were there Hamas gunmen shooting from the school drawing Israeli fire?

Neither assertion is accurate, says John Ging, UNRWA's director of operations in Gaza.

All UN schools in Gaza are clearly marked, and they fly the organization's distinctly discernible blue-and-white flags.

Moreover, he told reporters, Israel has been provided with global positioning system (GPS) coordinates of all of UNRWA's installations in Gaza.

So there could not have been a misidentification of the UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp whose compound was hit by an artillery shell early this week.

Asked if Hamas militants could have taken shelter in the school that was attacked, Ging said that UNRWA was "hugely sensitive" to maintaining the integrity of its facilities.

"We vet all those who seek shelter in our facilities to make sure militants were not taking advantage of them," he said.

Ging said that after visiting the site, he was confident no militants had been inside the building at the time of the bombing and no fire had come from within.

However, he said, "Israel's position on the issue had shifted to suggest that militant fire had come from the vicinity of the school rather than from inside."

Still, Ging demanded an independent investigation to prove the UN's credibility against the unfounded charges.

On Thursday, UNRWA was forced to suspend its relief work following the killing of one of its drivers and the wounding of another. They were in a clearly marked aid convoy.

Ging said that while the Israeli authorities had given clearance to UN aid workers to move around, "it is wholly and totally unacceptable that [Israeli] soldiers on the ground are firing on our aid workers."

On Friday, however, UNRWA resumed its relief operations after the Israeli defense ministry provided "credible assurances" that UN personnel and humanitarian operations would be fully respected.

Told that Israeli officials were denying the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes dismissed the denial by pointing out that the crisis was "worsening day by day."

The appeals to halt the violence, he said, fell on deaf ears, both on the Israeli side and on the Hamas side.

According to the United Nations, the two-week old Israeli military operation in Gaza has killed 758 people, of whom 257 were children and 56 women, with 3,100 wounded, including 1,080 children and 452 women.

The staggering numbers were provided to the United Nations by the local Ministry of Health.

Although the United Nations could not independently verify the figures, Holmes told reporters "they appeared credible."

In contrast, the total number of Israeli deaths, both military and civilian, was about 10, including by friendly fire, according to press reports.

At a news conference Wednesday, Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, said Israel had attacked police stations in Gaza on the ground they were "combatants."

"Police were not combatants and could not represent legitimate targets unless actively engaged in hostilities," she pointed out. "It was Israel's burden of proof to show the police they targeted were, indeed, Hamas militants."

Instead, she said, it appeared that Israel had targeted police stations on a "blanket basis."

Whitson said that only combatants actively engaged in fighting were legitimate targets of Israeli attacks.

Thus, a Hamas official at the Ministry of Health was not a legitimate target and neither was a Hamas media broadcasting station.

The situation in Gaza is so abominable that both the UN and international human rights organizations have refused to remain silent. Israel has been accused of violating both humanitarian law and the Geneva conventions on military operations.

In a letter to the UN Security Council Friday, the London-based Amnesty International (AI) called for firm action "to ensure full accountability for war crimes and other serious abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law."

AI also urged the Council to dispatch international human rights monitors to Gaza and southern Israel to investigate and report on the continuing abuses by both warring parties.

Even the Vatican seemed outraged by the unmitigated violence by the Israelis.

Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, compared Gaza to a "concentration camp," reminiscent of the horrors of the Nazi era – provoking anger from the Israelis.

"Look at the conditions in Gaza," the cardinal was quoted as saying. "More and more, it resembles a big concentration camp."

(Inter Press Service)


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  •  

    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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