By Griff Witte and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 9, 2009
JERUSALEM, Jan. 8-- The U.N. Security Council on Thursday adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, hours after the United Nations announced it would suspend humanitarian aid deliveries in the territory, citing Israeli attacks on its facilities and personnel.
The 15-nation council adopted the resolution by a vote of 14 to 0. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cast the sole abstention but said the United States supports the text and objectives of the resolution.
The resolution demands an "immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza," U.S. and Arab officials said. It marked a sharp reversal by the Bush administration, which had refused to allow passage of a cease-fire resolution without binding assurances that Hamas would halt its rocket attacks against Israel.
Israeli officials, who vigorously opposed the passage of any U.N. resolution on the crisis, privately expressed reservations about the current text on the grounds that it failed to include a firm guarantee that Hamas would stop its rocket fire before Israel would have to halt its military operation, according to U.N. diplomats.
Israel's U.N. ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, did not say whether Israel would bring an immediate halt to its Gaza operation. But she said that Hamas bears responsibility for the situation and that any "durable" cease-fire requires "the total cessation of rocket fire and [arms] smuggling."
The resolution expresses "grave concern" over the "deepening humanitarian crisis" in Gaza and calls for more international aid and "unimpeded" distribution of food, fuel, medical treatment and other humanitarian assistance. The text makes no mention of Hamas's practice of launching missiles into Israel. Instead, it "condemns all violence and hostilities directed against civilians and all acts of terrorism."
After the vote, Rice said that the United States had abstained on the resolution because the council refused to allow a delay to permit an Egyptian-led mediation effort to broker a cease-fire. But, she said, "we decided that this resolution -- the text of which we support, the goals of which we support and the objectives of which we fully support -- should indeed be allowed to go forward."
The suspension of U.N. aid deliveries is likely to deepen the crisis in Gaza, where more than half of the territory's 1.5 million people live on food aid and where water, power, medical supplies and cooking gas are already in short supply. It also deepens a bitter standoff between the Israeli government, which continued to bombard Gaza with airstrikes Thursday, and humanitarian groups say Israel has made it impossible to distribute badly needed aid in the beleaguered territory.
"We are perfectly prepared to take responsible risks in this conflict zone," said John Ging, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency's top official in Gaza. But it is "totally and wholly unacceptable," he said, that Israeli forces are "firing at our workers."
Israel has denied the charge and says Hamas is responsible for obstructing aid.
Other aid organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Thursday its officials would curtail their work in Gaza because of security concerns.
The Palestinian death toll stood at more than 760 Thursday, with more than 3,100 people injured, health officials in Gaza said. The United Nations has said a third or more are civilians.
Three Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting in Gaza on Thursday, bringing the total since the start of the ground operation to nine. Four Israelis have been killed by rockets since the offensive on Gaza began Dec. 27.
The U.N. decision came after a convoy of its vehicles was fired on Thursday by Israeli forces during a mission to recover the body of a U.N. worker who had been killed in a previous Israeli attack, according to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.
The incident occurred during a three-hour period in which Israel said it would pause its offensive to allow humanitarian supplies to be delivered. It followed the death Thursday morning of a U.N. driver who was shot despite Israeli assurances that it was safe to travel.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack on the U.N. convoy and said that "the inability of the U.N. to provide assistance in this worsening humanitarian crisis is unacceptable."
Gunness said that three U.N. workers had been killed by Israeli fire since Dec. 27 and that aid would not resume until "the Israeli army can guarantee the safety and security of U.N. personnel."
Gunness said that the locations of U.N. facilities and the movements of its workers are communicated to the military and that Israel was being reckless or was targeting aid workers. Earlier this week, 45 Palestinians died after Israeli forces fired on two schools the United Nations had opened to people seeking refuge from the fighting. Israel claims the schools were being used by gunmen, but the United Nations denies that.
Israeli military spokesman Ilan Tal, a reserve brigadier general, said that he was looking into the accusations but added that Israel had not targeted aid workers. Tal said Israel had facilitated aid to Gaza by holding its fire for three hours both Wednesday and Thursday.
"Our intention is to allow for any needed humanitarian aid to come in and to coordinate with all the international organizations," he said.
Tal accused Hamas of targeting humanitarian convoys for attack and then blaming Israel. He also said the group is hoarding food and other supplies.
Gaza residents said basic goods were not getting through.
"There is no food. I went to the market and all I could find were onions and lemons," said Um Adel Abu Nahil, a resident of the Shati refugee camp who ventured from her home during Thursday's pause. "I can't find milk. I can't find diapers. And we have no water. It's awful."
About 500,000 people in Gaza are believed to be without running water, and the sewage system is on the verge of collapse because of a lack of electricity. Even before the war, Gaza had endured a near-total economic blockade for 18 months, which began after Hamas routed forces loyal to the rival Fatah party and seized power in 2007. The previous year, Hamas had won Palestinian legislative elections.
Despite a Supreme Court order, Israel has not allowed international journalists into Gaza since it began its offensive, with the exception of a BBC cameraman who was permitted to embed with Israeli troops.
Israel conquered Gaza in a 1967 war with Arab armies, and although it pulled its troops and settlers out in 2005, it remains the occupying power under international law. Sari Bashi of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, said that means Israel is legally responsible for the humanitarian needs of the population.
"The obligation is the Israeli army's. No one else's," she said.
The U.N. decision reflects rising anger and frustration among humanitarian workers in Gaza over the perceived hostility of the Israeli military toward their efforts. The Red Cross on Thursday protested Israel's "unacceptable" delays in letting rescue workers reach three buildings that had been hit by Israeli shelling.
An Israeli mediator was in Egypt Thursday, discussing possible cease-fire proposals with Egyptian authorities. Israel said on Wednesday that it was in "fundamental agreement" with a cease-fire plan offered by Egypt and France but that many details still need to be worked out.
In the meantime, Israel's offensive against Hamas continued with more than 40 airstrikes, including an intense bombardment of the southern part of the territory, near the border with Egypt. Hamas and its allies in Gaza fired at least 20 rockets Thursday into southern Israel. Earlier in the campaign, the daily number of rocket attacks was 40 or more.
There was also a brief exchange of fire Thursday morning across Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Several rockets were lobbed into Israeli territory, and the Israeli military responded with fire into southern Lebanon.
Although the exchange recalled the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement, Lebanese officials promptly condemned the fire from their side and said they were taking steps to patrol the area more closely. Several Palestinian refugee camps are located in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah said it was not responsible for the rockets, which landed near the Israeli town of Nahariya.
"We regard this as an isolated event," said Tal, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman.
Also on Thursday, Israel reacted angrily to comments made by an aide to Pope Benedict XVI comparing Gaza to "a big concentration camp." Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that Israel was "terribly dismayed" by the comments and that they reflected Hamas propaganda.
Lynch reported from the United Nations. Correspondent Craig Whitlock in Jerusalem and special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and Reyham Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.