UN drivers killed during three-hour Gaza 'ceasefire'
Two United Nations contractors were killed by an Israeli tank shell today during an official suspension of hostilities designed to allow relief operations in the besieged Gaza Strip.
By Damien McElroy In Jerusalem
Last Updated: 4:59PM GMT 08 Jan 2009
Humanitarian shipments into Gaza were halted immediately after two forklift drivers died when the convoy of aid was targeted.
It came as Israel was subjected to unusually harsh criticism by two leading international agencies for orchestrating a level of violence in Gaza that has forced the collapse of essential services.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said civilians were dying because access to conflict zones was impossible during offensive operations.
Both bodies accused Israel of violations of international law.
The ICRC produced a graphic account of starving children stranded for days by the corpses of their parents at one bombed building in the Zeitoun refugee camp.
It said officials from its local partner, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, had tried to gain access to the area since it was shelled on Saturday. Soldiers in sniper positions overlooked the houses, which were isolated by a dirt berm.
Pierre Wettach, the ICRC regional director said, it was impossible for Israel to be unaware of the condition of the children when they were found during the lunchtime pause in fighting.
The organisation issued a protest letter saying: "The ICRC believes that in this instance the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded. It considers the delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable.
"They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all, there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses."
The plight of Gaza's 1.4 million strong population in the midst of heavy bombardment and aggressive clashes in the strip has grow steadily worse.
On Wednesday, Israel agreed to set aside a period of each day when fighting would stop to allow people to forage for food supplies, move the sick or prepare the dead for burial. But even then many Gazans are too afraid or unable to move outside their homes or shelters.
For a second day running Israel had ordered a lull in fighting for humanitarian deliveries but shipments through the Erez and the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing were suspended after the two drivers were killed.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said it would not organise further deliveries while Israeli forces threatened the life of its contracted workers. The trucking company involved in the incident also said it was too dangerous to participate in the deliveries.
Richard Miron, a UN spokesman, said that the convoy was clearly displaying UN flags and livery. The Israeli army had been notified of the route of the convoy beforehand.
"Three hour lulls are not sufficient and become impossible if the environment even then is not safe," he said. "All convoys will remain suspended until Israel can give us assurances that the orders are not academic."
The death toll from Israel's war on Hamas rose to 763 after dozens of bodies were retrieved, according to Hamas-nominated Palestinian officials.
About 20 people, among them many women and children, were killed in new raids by the Israeli military, said Mouawiya Hassanein, head of Gaza's emergency services. Other bodies were pulled from the debris.