Thursday, 8 January 2009

Gaza truce collapses; UN cuts off aid to beleagured area as rockets from Lebanon hit Israel

Friday, January 9th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York


Italian U.N. peacekeepers search an area in Southern Lebanon where rockets attacks are believed to have orginated...

...and which hit this retirement home in Northern Israel Thursday. Kaminsky/AP

...and which hit this retirement home in Northern Israel Thursday.

The Gaza war escalated today when Hamas rejected truce talks, someone started firing rockets at Israel from Lebanon and the Red Cross took an unusual slap at the Jewish state for leaving starving children clinging to their mother's corpses.

The United Nations halted all aid deliveries to the besieged Palestinians, after its staff came under fire from the Israel Defense Forces. The driver of a marked UN truck was killed by tank fire at the Erez Border Crossing a day after a UN shelter was bombarded in the bloodiest incident of the war.

"We've been coordinating with them and yet our staff continue to be hit and killed," said UN spokesman spokesman Chris Gunness.

Three rockets were fired into Israel from Lebanon, sparking fears that Hezbollah had opened a second war front. But Hezbollah denied it was responsible, Israel seemed to agree, based on the type of rocket fired, and the Lebanese government quickly condemned the strikes.

Israeli Minister Rafi Eitan played down the strikes.

"I think these are isolated incidents. We expected this," he said.

One hit a nursing home but the elderly residents escaped because they were having breakfast on the ground floor.

The IDF shelled the areas in southern Lebanon from which Katyusha rockets were fired.

In Damascus, Hamas flatly rejected a Franco-Egyptian truce proposal that was backed by Washington and "welcomed" but not yet endorsed by Israel.

Hamas said it had the right to "resist" Israel and rejected calls for it to disarm.

Senior Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal told Syrian TV that the militant group would never surrender and vowed to fight house to house against the Israeli military in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Operation Cast Lead will continue until Israel had wiped out Hamas' ability to threaten a million residents of southern Israel with rocket fire and terror attacks.

"We are not there yet and the Israel Defence Forces haven't been asked yet to do whatever it takes get to this point. This decision is still ahead of us,"Olmert told army officers near the front line.

Moawya Hasanin, head of the emergency department in the Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza, said the Palestinian death toll had reached 763 since the start of the Israeli assault.

He said there were more than 3,000 injured, including 375 critical cases in urgent need of specialist medical care.

Israeli military sources said at least 130 of the dead were armed Hamas fighters killed in battles with the invading forces, and many more of the victims were Hamas operatives.

As many as 200 children are among the dead.

One Israeli soldier was killed as Israeli troops, aircraft and tanks continued their push towards the main population centres of Gaza.

More than 30 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel. One hit an evacuated school in Ashkelon.

Along the Egyptian border, Israeli warplanes destroyed a dozen houses which they said served as cover for tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives into Gaza under the border.

The bombardment was halted again today for a three-hour period to allow people to go out for to look for food and medicine.

During the lull, three dozen bodies were found in the rubble of city buildings.

The Red Cross, which usually takes great pains to remain neutral in conflicts, lambasted Israel for breaching humanitarian law after discovering four emaciated children who had spent four days trapped in the rubble of three shelled Gaza City homes with dead bodies.

Pierre Wettach of the International Committee of the Red Cross called it "shocking."

"The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded," he said, adding that soldiers barred medics from going to the site to help the wounded.

Rescuers found "four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own," the Red Cross said. "In all, there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses."

Israel's ambassador in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, denied his country was failing in its humanitarian obligations.

"Once the military activity was over, then it was possible for humanitarian teams to evacuate the wounded," he told The Associated Press.

In al-Atatra, north of Gaza City, Israeli paratroopers discovered what they said was a color-coded map of Hamas booby-traps in the area.

Chief IDF Intelligence Officer Brigadier-General Yuval Halamish said Hamas had divided the neighborhood into a number of areas distinguished by landmarks such as mosques, gas stations, and fuel depots.

"You can see that the neighborhood was divided into three areas of fighting, according to colour, and inside the terrorists spread out a number of posts, planted explosive devices, and posted sharpshooters," he said.

"Hamas makes cynical use of civilian homes, the entrances of which were booby-trapped in order to hurt IDF soldiers."

Explosive devices were also planted near gas stations despite the immediate danger to civilians, Halamish added.

He said the layout had been thoroughly planned in preparation for a ground operation.

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