100 Survivors Rescued in Gaza From Ruins Blocked by Israelis

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 and Reyham Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 9, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 8 -- Emergency workers said they rescued 100 more trapped survivors Thursday and found between 40 and 50 corpses in a devastated residential block south of Gaza City that the Israeli military had kept off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross for four days.

Relief agencies said they feared more people remained in the rubble of several shattered houses in the Zaytoun neighborhood. Red Cross officials said that they began receiving distress calls from people in the houses late Saturday but that they were blocked by the Israeli military from reaching the area until Wednesday.

"There are still people under demolished houses -- we are sure of it," said Khaled Abuzaid, an ambulance driver for the Red Cross who treated survivors at the site Wednesday and Thursday. "But without water or electricity, we are sure they will die."

In an interview at al-Quds Hospital, a Red Cross medical center in Gaza, Abuzaid said rescue workers found 16 bodies Wednesday in a large room of a house in Zaytoun: seven women, six children and three men, all members of the al-Samuni family.

Most had sustained trauma injuries from shelling, but many had gunshot wounds as well, he said. Four children, weak but alive, were found lying under blankets, nestled next to their dead mothers, Abuzaid said. Red Cross officials had said earlier that 12 adult bodies had been found in the house but otherwise corroborated Abuzaid's account.

Abuzaid said he was part of a crew of 10 paramedics and other rescue workers who reached Zaytoun on Wednesday afternoon, during a three-hour break in combat operations in Gaza during which relief agencies were allowed to deliver supplies and medical care to stricken Gazans.

He said Israeli soldiers told the crew of Red Cross and Palestinian Red Crescent workers in advance that they were forbidden to take cameras, radios or cellphones to the site. It is standard practice for crews to carry such equipment on rescue missions.

The Red Cross has accused the Israeli military of repeatedly refusing to grant permission for ambulances to go to Zaytoun, even though soldiers were stationed outside the damaged houses and were aware people were wounded inside. In a statement issued early Thursday, the agency 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."

The Israeli military said it was investigating but declined to respond to specific allegations by the Red Cross. "This is a complaint, and we have to check it," said reserve Brig. Gen. Ilan Tal, an Israeli military spokesman.

The United Nations also pressed Israel to investigate the Red Cross allegations. John Holmes, chief of U.N. humanitarian aid programs, called the Zaytoun deaths "a particularly outrageous incident." "What they found was absolutely horrifying," he said at a news conference in New York.

B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, said residents of Zaytoun who had been trapped in other houses have given similar accounts of how Israeli soldiers were aware of their plight but refused to allow rescue workers into the neighborhood. "What these family members say consistently is that the IDF was close by," said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the group, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. "This wasn't some remote area. The soldiers certainly were about and were aware of their position."

Access to Zaytoun, near a major north-south road that bisects Gaza, remained highly restricted Thursday. Red Cross and Red Crescent crews were allowed back to the site during another three-hour break in the fighting, evacuating 103 people who had been trapped for days without food and water, according to Anne-Sophie Bonefeld, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Jerusalem. Other relief officials said the people rescued Thursday were crammed inside three houses on the same block as the Samunis' house.

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