Gaza: Israel hits UN aid compound; world pressure mounts for ceasfire

Israeli strikes set UN and media buildings and a hospital ablaze Jan. 15 as tanks rolled deep into Gaza City and diplomats struggled to find a way to halt the offensive that has now killed nearly 1,075. Hundreds of terrified civilians, many gripping wailing children, fled the advancing Israeli forces inside Gaza’s main city as warplanes continued to pound the impoverished enclave.

Air-strike hits UN aid compound
Shortly after UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Israel, a raid hit the main UN compound in Gaza, wounding three employees, setting fire to a warehouse filled with tons of aid, and leading the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to partly suspend operations. UNRWA spokesman said tens of millions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid had been destroyed in the blaze. As many as 700 Palestinians had taken refuge in the compound, UNRWA said. “I have conveyed my strong protest and outrage and demanded a full explanation,” Ban told reporters after holding talks with Israeli officials as part of a regional truce tour.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also slammed the attack, calling it “indefensible” and “unacceptable,” and EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel saying he was “shocked and dismayed.”

UNRWA director John Ging said he believes that the Israeli shells that struck the complex contained white phosphorus. “It looks and smells like phosphorus and it’s burning like phosphorus. That’s all I can say. That’s why I’m calling it phosphorus,” said Ging.

More civilian targets hit
In southwestern Gaza, an Israeli strike hit al-Quds Hospital in the Tal al-Hawa neighborhood. The flames were contained and no injuries were reported in the hospital, where hundreds of frightened people had taken shelter to escape the battles raging just a few hundred meters away. An Israeli shell also hit a media compound which housed the Reuters news agency, NBC, and a number of Arab networks in Gaza City. Two camermen working for Abu Dhabi TV were injured.

Since Israel unleashed its Operation Cast Lead on Dec. 27, at least 1,073 people have been killed and another 5,000 wounded, according to Gaza medics. Among the dead are at least 355 children, 100 women, 117 elderly men and 12 medics.

Palestinian militants remained defiant, sending nearly 20 rockets and mortars into Israel, without causing injuries.

Israel intransigent before world pressure
Ban Ki-moon, who has for weeks called for a ceasefire in Israel’s deadliest offensive ever on Gaza, again urged the two sides to halt the violence, saying the death toll had reached “an unbearable point.” But Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni responded, “we will decide when to stop.”

Israeli envoy Amos Gilad meanwhile arrived in Egypt, which has been spearheading ceasefire efforts. Egyptian and Spanish diplomats said that Hamas had accepted Egypt’s ceasefire plan, but a Hamas spokesman said only that the group did not reject its “broad outlines.” (Middle East Online, Ma’an News Agency, Raw Story citing CNN, NYT, Jan, 15)

Hamas Interior Minister assassinated
The Israeli military assassinated Hamas’ de facto Interior Minister Sa’eed Syam in an air-strike on a house in Gaza City. His brother, son and several other family members were also killed. Hamas announced a period of mourning over the assassination of Syam, who was a member of the movement’s politburo. Ten Palestinians were reported killed in the strike. (Ma’an News Agency, Jan. 15)

“Iranian unit” of Hamas destroyed?
Palestinian Authority sources reported that an “Iranian Unit” of Hamas, members of the group’s military wing trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, had been destroyed. According to the sources, most of the unit’s members were killed in fighting in the Zeytun neighborhood of Gaza City. The unit reportedly consisted of approximately 100 men who had traveled to Iran and Hezbollah camps in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, where they were trained in infantry and guerilla tactics. (Ha’aretz, Jan. 16)

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Israeli leaders of a “doomed end,” but ruled out sending weapons to Hamas. “I believe Gaza has no military solution from the outside,” Ahmadinejad said at a press conference. “We do think Hamas does not need weapons because 1.5 million women, children, elderly and young men are defending it.” (LAT, Jan. 16)

Israeli navy turns back aid ship
Israel navy ships intercepted a boat trying to deliver food and medical supplies to Gaza and forced it to return to Cyprus. Free Gaza group spokeswoman Mary Hughes-Thompson said Israeli naval vessels surrounded the 66-foot Greek-flagged boat off the coast of southern Lebanon and threatened to open fire if it did not turn back. The Israel Defense Forces said navy ships warned the boat to turn back because it was entering a war zone subject to a naval blockade. The ship turned back without incident, the military said. (Ha’aretz, Jan. 15)

Offshore resources at stake?
Last year, British gas producer BG Group announced that it had resumed talks with Israel over developing a gas field off the Gaza coast, reviving plans to exploit the territory’s only significant energy resource. The Gaza Marine Field in the eastern Mediterranean Sea lies about 30 kilometers off the coast and is said to contain some 1.3 trillion cubic feet of reserves, worth an estimated $4 billion—making it a significant potential source of exports and foreign currency for the cash-starved Palestinian Authority.

BG won a majority stake in a concession to develop the Gaza field in 2000 and five years later was pursuing plans to sell the gas to Egypt. Pressure from Britain’s then-Prime Minister Tony Blair led the company to reopen earlier failed negotiations with Israel for a pipeline development that would land the gas at Ashkelon, a southern Israel city with a petroleum refinery. Israel broke off discussions at a time of heightened tensions during the Palestinian Intifada. BG, which discovered the Gaza field, also struck gas off Israel’s coast in the 1990s but those fields, already been producing for several years, are much smaller. (The National, UAE, July 27, 2008)

After Hamas’ take-over of the Gaza Strip in 2007, both Israel and the BG Group said that the development would not interfere with the exploitation plans. The two sides reportedly arrived at an “understanding” that will transfer funds intended for the Palestinian Authority’s Palestinian Investment Fund into an international bank account. “Both Israel and BG intend that until the PA is able to remove Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip, the money will be held in an international bank account,” a BG source told the Jerusalem Post. “Neither side wants the money to go to fund terror-related activities.” (Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2007)

See our last post on Gaza.

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