Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Homeless and terrified, 15,000 seek refuge in UN schools

Desperate civilians find shelter wherever they can but even the humanitarian agency's buildings are not safe

Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Wednesday 7 January 2009

"More than 15,000 Gazans are sheltering in UN schools because they have been forced to flee their homes in the face of the Israeli air and ground offensive, or even ordered out by Israeli troops. The UN has opened 27 of its schools as shelters, most in the northern town of Jabaliya, where food, blankets and counselling are being provided.

It is the UN that has stepped in to help because it is by far the largest humanitarian resource in Gaza, particularly the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), which supports Palestinian refugees across the Arab world. More than 1 million Gazans are refugees: either they or their families were forced from their homes or fled in the 1948 war that brought the creation of Israel.....

Yesterday, presented with reports of the heavy civilian death toll after the Israeli bombing of two UN schools serving as shelters in Gaza, some Israeli officials were quick to argue that militants had used UN property from which to launch rockets in the past.

But the UN underlined the fact that it had passed on the coordinates of the schools to the Israeli military to prevent these kind of killings, and called for an inquiry. "These tragic incidents need to be investigated and if international humanitarian law has been contravened those responsible must be held accountable," said Max Gaylard, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinians.

While Israel says that its war in Gaza is "unavoidable", it also argues there is no humanitarian crisis and it is allowing in sufficient aid. Unrwa has been critical of Israel's blockade of Gaza in recent years, presenting evidence of a mounting humanitarian crisis, particularly in the last 11 days of conflict. John Ging, Unrwa's director of operation in Gaza, yesterday described Israel's war as a "completely unjustified and unnecessary conflict".

It is not the first time the UN has found itself in the Israeli line of fire. During the Lebanon war two years ago four unarmed UN military observers were killed when their clearly marked UN position was bombed by the Israeli military in Khiyam, in southern Lebanon. Israel apologised and later said the building, which had been on the same spot since 1972, had been wrongly identified as a Hezbollah target.

A decade earlier, in 1996, the Israeli military fired artillery shells into another UN site, at Qana in southern Lebanon, killing more than 100 Lebanese civilians who were among 800 sheltering from heavy fighting.....

More often their disagreements have a strong political dimension. Last month Israel refused entry to, and then deported, Richard Falk, a Jewish American academic who is the UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories. Israel said he was being denied entry because in 2007 he described the Israeli blockade of Gaza as a "holocaust in the making"......"

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