Page last updated at 21:50 GMT, Thursday, 8 January 2009

UN suspends Gazan aid operation

Chris Gunness, Unrwa spokesman: 'We've had no other choice'

The UN's main aid agency has suspended its operations in Gaza because its staff have been hit by Israeli attacks.

The suspension would continue "until the Israeli authorities can guarantee our safety and security", the UN said.

Meanwhile, the US, UK and France have dropped opposition to a UN resolution urging an immediate ceasefire, and Arab nations are studying a draft.

It comes on day 13 of an offensive by Israel aimed at stopping Palestinian militants firing rockets from Gaza.

The US, UK and France had wanted a weaker statement from the 15-nation UN Security Council, the BBC's Laura Trevelyan in New York says.

But Arab foreign ministers said anything less than a binding resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire would be an inadequate response to the crisis, our correspondent says.

If the Arab nations' response to the draft resolution is positive, a vote could happen later.

The draft calls for an immediate ceasefire, action to stop the smuggling of arms by Hamas across the Egypt-Gaza border and the opening of border crossings into Gaza so aid can be delivered.

At least 765 Palestinian lives are said by sources in Gaza to have been lost since the offensive began 13 days ago.

Three more Israeli soldiers were killed in Thursday, bringing Israel's death toll to 11 military personnel and three civilians.

A captain and a sergeant were shot dead in separate clashes while a major was killed by an anti-tank missile, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports.

'Great regret'

Responding to the suspension of aid efforts by the UN relief agency Unrwa, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel fully supported the work of the UN and other humanitarian agencies in Gaza.

"We will do what needs to be done to facilitate this vital work," he said. "In these difficult days we must work together to meet the humanitarian needs of the population."

Our installations have been hit, our workers have been killed in spite of the fact that the Israeli authorities have the co-ordinates of our facilities
Chris Gunness
Unrwa spokesman

Unrwa's move came shortly after it said one person had been killed and two hurt when a fork-lift truck on a UN aid mission came under Israeli tank fire at Gaza's Erez crossing.

It said it was "with great regret" that it had been forced to make a difficult decision.

"We have suspended our operations in Gaza until the Israeli authorities can guarantee our safety and security," said Unrwa spokesman Chris Gunness.

"Our installations have been hit, our workers have been killed in spite of the fact that the Israeli authorities have the co-ordinates of our facilities and that all our movements are co-ordinated with the Israeli army."

The UN said the movements of the truck hit at the Erez crossing had been co-ordinated and cleared with the Israeli military.

The Israeli army has not commented on that claim but has said it is looking into the matter.

In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the Israeli military's action.

John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for Unrwa, said a convoy of two UN vehicles and an ambulance had also been fired at - although it was not clear by whom - despite having clearance for its movements from Israel.

Smoke rises over Gaza (06/01/2009)

The incident occurred as Israel for a second day suspended its military operation for three hours to allow Gazans to find food and bury their dead.

Mr Ging said the Israeli military had to give his staff a credible guarantee of safety.

"If they give us clearance to move then it is wholly and totally unacceptable that their soldiers on the ground are firing on our aid workers," he said.

A UN spokeswoman said other agencies including the World Health Organization, World Food Programme and Unicef would continue aid operations in Gaza.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has also accused Israel of failing to fulfil its duty to help wounded civilians in Gaza.

The ICRC said its staff had found four weak and scared children beside their mothers' bodies in houses hit by shelling in Zeitoun.

The Israeli military has not yet responded to the accusation, but said it worked closely with aid groups so that civilians could get assistance.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International accused both Israel and Hamas of using civilians as human shields.

Air strikes

The aid agencies' concerns come amid fears the conflict with Gaza militants may spread, with at least three rockets fired from Lebanon into northern Israel, prompting Israel to reply with artillery.

Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan: 'Hamas is discussing the Egyptian plan'

The incident followed the heaviest bombardment so far of Gaza in nearly two weeks of conflict, with 60 air strikes which Israel says targeted Hamas facilities.

Palestinian medical officials said at least 10 Gaza residents had been killed on Thursday.

A further 35 bodies were discovered in rubble in conflict areas around Gaza City during the three-hour pause in fighting, a health ministry official said.

Amid continuing efforts to broker a ceasefire, a senior Israeli official has gone to Cairo to hear details of a plan put forward by Egypt and France.


A Hamas delegation is expected in the Egyptian capital at some stage for parallel "technical" talks, Egyptian diplomats said.

At least three Katyusha rockets were fired from southern Lebanon into the northern Israeli area of Nahariya early on Thursday. One hit a nursing home, injuring at least two people.

Israel immediately responded with five artillery shells into Lebanon, calling it a "pinpoint response at the source of fire".

The rocket fire was condemned by Lebanon's prime minister. A senior Hezbollah politician, Lebanon's energy minister, said the militant group was not responsible for the attacks.

Casualty claims in Gaza have been difficult to verify independently.

While the BBC's Palestinian producers have been reporting from Gaza, Israel allowed Western TV crews to enter only on Wednesday, embedded with its army.

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