GAZA CITY // A UN aid agency yesterday announced it would suspend relief operations in Gaza after two drivers were killed when their convoy carrying humanitarian supplies was struck by an Israeli tank shell. As Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip entered its 14th day, Israel also came under heavy criticism from the International Committee of the Red Cross for delaying access of medical staff to casualties. Meanwhile, earlier yesterday, a salvo of rockets from Lebanon wounded two Israelis in the north of the country.
Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency, said that until the Israeli army could guarantee the safety of its staff, UNRWA had "no choice but to make this very difficult decision". "We've been forced to suspend aid operations in Gaza because our personnel is coming under deliberate attack by the Israeli army and our installations have been directly hit." UNRWA provides aid to some 750,000 Gazans, or half the population of the Gaza Strip, and UNRWA schools have been turned into temporary shelters for those who have had to flee their homes as a result of the Israeli offensive. Three schools have been bombed in recent days, killing some 45 people.
The latest incident occurred at nine in the morning yesterday, Mr Gunness said, when a convoy headed for the Erez Crossing in northern Gaza came under attack. The two killed were contract workers. Mr Gunness also said UNRWA staff had come under Israeli fire when they had gone to collect the body of a colleague, and said protests were being made with the Israeli government. UNRWA's decision will further worsen the humanitarian crisis of Gaza's 1.5 million residents, most of whom are already struggling without electricity and running water. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, the Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the UAE Red Crescent Authority, has pledged to reconstruct the schools destroyed by Israeli artillery.
But Israel's offensive shows no sign of a let-up despite increasing diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire. Yesterday, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, told soldiers during a visit to the Israeli army's Gaza Division that Israel had not yet achieved its objectives in Gaza. "The decision about how we make sure that the quiet in the south remains, is still before us, and the Israel Defence Forces has still not been asked to carry out everything that is necessary to achieve this," Mr Olmert was quoted by Israeli media as saying.
The remark suggests Israel may yet expand its operations in Gaza, a decision that the Israeli cabinet deferred to take on Wednesday. Israel has said it accepts "in principle" a French-Egyptian ceasefire proposal, but before the details of that proposal are ironed out, Israel may yet embark on a third phase of its ground operation that would see troops and tanks move deeper into populated areas. For its part, Hamas has said it will not accept any ceasefire that does not include an opening of crossings into the strip and an end to the blockade.
So far, more than 700 Palestinians have been killed in the offensive, 217 of them children, according to Palestinian medical sources. Other sources, though, including Al Jazeera, put the number at more than 760. Eleven Israelis have died during the same period, eight of them soldiers. The latest Israeli casualty was an officer who was killed in a gun battle with Hamas fighters early yesterday. Two Israelis were lightly wounded in the north of the country, meanwhile, when a salvo of rockets was fired across the border from Lebanon earlier yesterday. One rocket struck a nursing home in Nahariyeh, a northern Israeli city. Israel returned artillery fire, but there were no reports of casualties in Lebanon. Hizbollah has denied involvement, and Israeli officials have not blamed the Shiite movement with which Israel fought a bloody war in 2006. Israeli officials have said they are ready for a second front to open in the north, but most analysts suggest Hizbollah is not interested in entering the fray. In Gaza, residents showed little expectation of any outside intervention. "No one cares about us," said Ola Samouni, 29, at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. "Where are the Arabs? Where are the leaders to help us? Who will bring the martyrs back and rebuild our homes?" Mrs Samouni was at the hospital to visit her husband who had been injured when a tank shell struck their house in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City on Jan 3, killing 32 members of the family, including two of Ms Samouni's children. The whole family had gathered for safety in one house, she explained, when it was struck. Four starving children had been found alive at the house on Wednesday along with 12 corpses of family members by medical staff from the International Committee for the Red Cross. The incident prompted an angry protest from the ICRC, which accused Israel of delaying ambulance access to the stricken area. "The ICRC believes that in this instance the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded. It considers the delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable," an ICRC statement said. In a written response, the Israeli army said it works in co-ordination with international aid bodies assisting civilians and that it "in no way intentionally targets civilians". It promised an investigation "within the constraints of the ongoing military operation". In the centre of Gaza City, so far relatively safe, people were yesterday busy seeking water and getting bread. At the Sharq bakery, queues for one bag of bread of 50 pieces were several hundred long and some had queued since the early morning. "I came at six," said Mohammad al Jarrar, 45, whose son Saleh, 16, was keeping him company. Mr al Jarrar and his immediate family had fled their house to the east of Gaza City a few days ago when Israeli troops advanced, to live with a relative in the city. "I am embarrassed to stay all day doing nothing. So I try to make myself helpful by waiting in line to bring home bread." Like Mrs Samouni, Mr al Jarrar held out little hope that the fighting would end soon. "We hear the news every day, but we have no hope. We have no hope in the Arab leaders or in the international community. Our only hope now is the resistance," he said.
Omar Karmi reported from Ramallah; Safwat Kahlout is in Gaza City