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January 7, 2009

Israel Attacks Schools, Ambulances


by Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH - At least 42 Palestinians sheltering in a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City were killed Tuesday afternoon after two Israeli tank shells exploded outside the school.

Hundreds of terrified Palestinians, desperately trying to escape the bombing, had sought shelter there assuming that a clearly marked school would not be targeted. Palestinian sources reported that the school was one of 26 residential buildings hit Tuesday.

Another UN facility, the Ash-Shouka School in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, was bombarded Monday night.

The UN Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA) said that prior to the current fighting it had given the Israeli authorities the GPS coordinates of all its installations in Gaza, including the schools. The organization has demanded an explanation from Israel, and called for an investigation.

"There's nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized," said John Ging, the UN head in Gaza. He blamed the international community for allowing the violence to continue.

"I am appealing to political leaders here and in the region and the world to get their act together and stop this," he said, speaking at Gaza's largest hospital. "They are responsible for these deaths."

Earlier Tuesday another 13 Palestinians were killed in the Zeitoun suburb of Gaza City when their apartment building collapsed after sustaining a direct hit. And at least 30 Palestinians were killed as Israeli warships shelled targets in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza and the al-Brej refugee camp near Gaza City.

These latest attacks bring the Palestinian death toll to nearly 600 on day 11 of Israel's Operation Cast Lead.

Meanwhile the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has declared a "full-blown humanitarian crisis" in Gaza, said it is investigating reports that a Palestinian Red Crescent (PRC) ambulance station in Jabaliya refugee camp was targeted Monday night.

In an earlier attack last Friday, the ICRC reported that two clearly marked ambulance medics from the PRC, evacuating the dead and wounded from an earlier Israeli attack, were targeted by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fire.

The paramedics were wearing fluorescent jackets, and their ambulances had flashing lights visible from a considerable distance.

"I have no doubt that one missile was aimed at us. I do not know for certain whether it was meant to kill us or warn us to keep away, but it was definitely aimed in our direction," said Palestinian ambulance driver Khaled Abu Saada.

Sammy Hassan, a spokesman from Shifa Hospital, said in the last week that four ambulance personnel had been killed in Israeli strikes. "One was a doctor and the other three were medics. We are very worried about our ambulance staff," Hassan told IPS.

Israel reported Tuesday it had killed Ayman Siam, the head of Hamas' rocket unit and commander of the group's artillery forces, in an aerial attack on Jabaliya.

While Israel continues to pound Gaza intensively, Israeli troops have also been arresting Palestinian men in Gaza they suspect of being involved in the resistance movements.

A reporter for an Israeli TV network said that as many as 100 Palestinians had been abducted and taken over the border for interrogation.

Meanwhile, Israel's northern border with Lebanon remains tense following Shia resistance organization Hezbollah's declaration of a state of high alert. The group says it fears Israel might use the war in the south to launch an attack on Lebanon.

Israel has moved troops northward to fortify the border in the event Hezbollah tries to launch an assault on Israel.

Israel is still refusing to allow foreign media into Gaza to report on the war. Following a petition by the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel to the Israeli High Court, the Israeli government said Jan. 1 it would allow a small group of eight journalists to enter Gaza when the crossings opened.

All would have to undergo security checks and would be embedded with the IDF. Two of the eight would be chosen by the Israelis and the rest would be selected randomly.

The crossings opened briefly afterward to allow several hundred foreign passport holders to leave Gaza, but no foreign journalists were allowed in despite the court ruling.

A few foreign journalists, however, had managed to enter the coastal territory after Gaza's borders opened briefly at the beginning of December. The borders were closed for most of November.

The journalists refused to leave despite an IDF warning that they would be prevented from leaving and that their safety was being compromised.

UNRWA's John Ging, speaking from Gaza's Shifa Hospital, said he had been forced into reporting what is happening in Gaza "since there is no international press in Gaza to report it."

Journalists have normally been allowed to enter Gaza individually without any security checks even when the borders were closed during previous military operations.

According to a Palestinian media report, Palestinian journalist Khader Shahin, working for Iranian World TV, was arrested in Jerusalem Tuesday and is currently being investigated for spreading "state secrets."

The Israeli military has reportedly stepped up its monitoring of the international, Arabic, and Hebrew media since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead.

A cease-fire still appears elusive. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday rejected an EU request for a 48-hour cease-fire, saying Hamas might use the lull to shoot rockets further into Israel.

(Inter Press Service)

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Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.

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