Red Cross Reports Grisly Find in Gaza

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 8, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 8 -- The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it had found at least 15 bodies and several children -- emaciated but alive -- in a row of shattered houses in the Gaza Strip and accused the Israeli military of preventing ambulances from reaching the site for four days.

Red Cross officials said rescue crews had received specific reports of casualties in the houses and had been trying since Saturday to send ambulances to the area, located in Zaytoun, a neighborhood south of Gaza City. They said the Israeli military did not grant permission until Wednesday afternoon.

In an unusual public statement issued by its Geneva headquarters, the Red Cross called the episode "unacceptable" and said the Israeli military had "failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded."

When rescue workers from the Red Cross and the Palestinian Red Crescent arrived at the site, they found 12 corpses lying on mattresses in one home, along with four young children lying next to their dead mothers, the Red Cross said. The children were too weak to stand and were rushed to a hospital, the agency said.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment early Thursday on the specific allegations made by the Red Cross but said in a statement that the military "has demonstrated its willingness to abort operations to save civilian lives and to risk injury in order to assist innocent civilians."

"Any serious allegations made against the IDF's conduct will need to be investigated properly, once such a complaint is received formally," the statement added.

The deaths came to light as Israel continued a military offensive against the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Early Thursday, Israeli officials reported a number of explosions in northern Israel and said they were caused by rockets fired from southern Lebanon.

An Israeli military spokesman said that several rockets had been fired from Lebanon about 7:30 a.m. and that they had landed in western Galilee. One man was lightly wounded. The spokesman said the military returned fire into southern Lebanon, targeting the rocket-launching site.

Officials in Galilee said the rockets -- the first fired into Israel from southern Lebanon since the end of the 2006 war with the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah -- landed around the city of Nahariya.

There was no immediate comment from within Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah has threatened Israel with retaliation for its offensive in Gaza.

In the Zaytoun incident, the Red Cross said its workers evacuated 18 wounded survivors from the houses in donkey carts. They said ambulances could not reach the site because of earthen barriers erected around the neighborhood by the Israeli military. Red Cross officials said that Israeli soldiers posted nearby tried to chase rescue workers away from the site but that the rescuers refused to leave.

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