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January 9, 2009

Gaza Children Found Starving


by Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH - An international chorus of condemnation has blasted Israel over its human rights abuses in Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, into its 12th day, has now claimed the lives of over 700 Palestinians.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) demanded safe access Thursday for ICRC officials and Palestinian Red Crescent (PRC) ambulances to evacuate the wounded. It accused Israel of deliberately delaying ambulances.

Rescue teams made several attempts to rescue the wounded and retrieve bodies in several areas of Gaza city but were refused entry by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers.

On Wednesday, however, after a week's intensive negotiations with Israeli officials, ICRC officials and PRC ambulance teams managed to reach some of the survivors in Gaza's Zeitoun neighborhood.

The ICRC reported finding four starving toddlers next to the bodies of their dead mothers in one of the houses. The children were apparently too weak to stand. One man was found barely alive. Twelve bodies were found laid out on mattresses in the same house.

Fifteen survivors were rescued from another house by the ICRC. Three bodies were found in an adjacent house. The rescue teams kept looking for survivors despite orders by Israeli soldiers that they leave.

"This is shocking," Pierre Wettach, the ICRC's head of delegation for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories told IPS. "The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation, but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they make it possible for us or the PRC to assist the wounded."

The ICRC said it believed Israel had breached international humanitarian law.

Amnesty International accused the IDF and Palestinian gunmen Wednesday of using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

"Our sources in Gaza report that Israeli soldiers have entered and taken up positions in a number of Palestinian homes, forcing families to stay in a ground-floor room while they use the rest of their house as a military base and sniper position," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program director.

"This clearly increases the risk to the Palestinian families concerned, and means they are effectively being used as human shields," he said.

While Palestinian gunmen have also used civilian homes as bases to attack Israeli forces, the IDF has adopted this tactic for many years. It is standard IDF policy throughout the occupied West Bank to use Palestinian homes as bases, while confining families to single bedrooms.

Israeli soldiers have been filmed forcing Palestinian youngsters to walk in front of army jeeps or to enter a home they fear is booby-trapped or has gunmen inside, before the soldiers follow afterwards.

Amnesty International also slammed Israel's decision to establish a daily ceasefire of only three hours, saying it was insufficient to tackle the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

"A truce that lasts for a few hours a day is simply insufficient. It's too short to address the urgent and massive needs of the civilians who are caught in the hostilities and suffering heavy casualties," said Curt Goering, Amnesty's senior deputy executive director for the U.S.

"Israel has severely blockaded aid for nearly all of 2008. The Israeli military can't let aid in for three hours and pretend that is sufficient. Nor would a daily brief 'recess' guarantee the safety of humanitarian workers," Goering noted.

Meanwhile, the UN has demanded that Israel provide evidence for its claims that Palestinian gunmen fired on Israeli forces from a UN school compound in northern Gaza before an Israeli artillery attack that killed more than 40 Palestinian civilians there.

The UN has categorically denied that any armed men were in the school at the time.

"We have nothing to hide," UN Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA) spokesman Chris Gunness told CNN Wednesday. "Bring it on. We want to see the evidence. We want to clear any suspicion."

About 14,000 Palestinians have been sheltered by UNRWA schools. The UN also stated that prior to Israel's current military incursion into Gaza it had provided Israel with the GPS coordinates of all UN installations in Gaza.

Several years ago Israel caused an international furor when it accused UNRWA ambulances of transporting gunmen in its ambulances. The IDF claimed to have satellite pictures of "gunmen" loading "rockets" into the back of an ambulance.

A subsequent investigation established that the "rocket" was a stretcher and the "gunmen" medics. UNRWA demanded an apology, and never got one.

Following the outbreak in 2000 of the second Palestinian uprising, or Intifadah, Israel accused the ICRC of transporting a suicide bomber with an explosives belt around his waist in one of its ambulances. The ICRC strongly denied the claim, and demanded evidence. None has been provided.

Meanwhile, another confrontation could be brewing off Gaza's coast as an international boat carrying humanitarian relief, human rights activists, journalists and politicians prepared to breach Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

Several previous boats made the journey successfully, but during the last attempt the boat Dignity was rammed by Israeli naval vessels and forced at gunpoint to head to Beirut as the damaged vessel took on water.

Those on board included U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and a CNN news crew which filmed the incident.

(Inter Press Service)

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Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.

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