UN Agencies Blame Israel for Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

Statement calls for urgent action to halt deterioration; UNRWA chief says living conditions in Gaza 'at a new low'

The United Nations blamed Israel for a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, including deaths, injuries and harm to children, from its offensive in Gaza in a strong statement released Saturday.

The three-page statement, listing charges separately from six UN-affiliated agencies, called for "urgent action" to halt the rapid deterioration. Israel rejected the charges.

The statement charged that Israel's military offensive has caused mass violations of human rights of civilians in Gaza. Some result from an Israeli attack that destroyed the main Gaza power station, others from the closing of vital crossing points and the rest from military operations, it said.

The world body expressed alarm over events in Gaza "which have seen innocent civilians, including children, killed, brought increased misery to hundreds of thousands of people and which will wreak far-reaching harm on Palestinian society."

Among the specific issues listed, the statement said Gaza is "on the brink of a public health disaster," including a shortage of medicines. Also, children in Gaza "are living in an environment of extraordinary violence, insecurity and fear."

In one of the six sections, from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the statement faults the Palestinians while implying that Israel is hitting civilians on purpose. "The prohibition on targeting civilians is also being violated by Palestinian armed groups, launching missiles from the Gaza Strip into Israel, and must therefore end," it said.

The UN document does not mention the incident that set off the Israeli operation - a June 25 attack by Palestinian militants who tunneled under the border into Israel and attacked an army post, killing two soldiers and capturing a third.

"Unless urgent action is taken," the statement concludes, "we are facing a humanitarian crisis that will have far-reaching consequences."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yariv Ovadia denied there is a humanitarian crisis and said the Israel Defense Forces operation "has been tailored to avoid civilian casualties while bringing sufficient pressure to bear on the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority" to order release of the soldier and halt the rocket attacks.

He said Israel is allowing transfer of fuel and food into Gaza through crossing points from Israel "despite continued attempts by terrorist groups to attack these facilities."

Ovadia rejected the premise of the UN statement, that Israel was to blame for the hardships in Gaza. "The Palestinian terrorists purposely manufacture, store and fire missiles at Israeli civilians from the midst of their own population," he wrote. "It is they themselves who bring suffering upon their own people by using them as shields for their terrorism," also blaming the Palestinian people for electing a government led by "Hamas, a murderous terrorist organization."

In a specific demand, a UN agency said Israel must repair the power station it destroyed. "With the bombing of the electric plant, the lives of 1.4 million people, almost half of them children, worsened overnight," said the world body's humanitarian affairs office in the statement.

New UNRWA chief says living conditions in Gaza 'at a new low'More than 200 Palestinians who fled their homes because of an IDF offensive in southern Gaza sought shelter in a vacant UN school Saturday.

In a sign of the tensions, some of the displaced got into an argument over winning a spot at the shelter and gunfire erupted. Police said three officers were wounded in the melee.

"Living conditions are at a new low. It's a struggle to survive," said John Ging, the new head of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza.

Ging warned that Israel's military campaign, prompted by the kidnapping of an IDF soldier two weeks ago, has led to a humanitarian crisis. "Water, food, electricity, sanitation; these are the problems. The situation doesn't get more basic than that," he said.

On Saturday, UNRWA oversaw the transfer of 235 people - or 36 families - who were moved from Shouka, a largely Bedouin area close to Gaza International Airport, to an elementary school in the southern town of Rafah.

Arriving with few possessions, the Bedouins crowded around a UN truck in the school's courtyard to receive mattresses. One group of men made tea in the courtyard, using a small gas canister.

"We fled our home near the airport because of tank fire and air fire. At one stage we were told by Israelis over a loudspeaker at night to leave our homes for our own safety," said Jihad Abu Zakkar, 45, the father of six children.

He said his children screamed through the night, and the family left home in the morning under a white flag.

Umm Issam, 50, said her family of seven left home every night in the past week to sleep under a tree, further away from the fighting. Issam said she decided to seek UN help when she realized her husband, who is ill, could no longer walk such distances each night.

The UN gave other Bedouin families who have livestock 18 tents to set up nearby so they could watch their cattle and sheep.

The IDF launched its military offensive two weeks ago, after Hamas-allied militants kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid. Southern Gaza's long-closed airport was one of the first positions IDF forces and tanks occupied. Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt have been largely closed during the crisis.

The closure and the destruction of Gaza's only power station by the Israeli air force have led to a humanitarian crisis in the area, said Ging, the UNRWA chief.

He urged Israel to open supply routes at crossings such as Karni in southern Gaza, where he said 235 containers of UN food were waiting to cross.

He said the border closure also was preventing the United Nations from shipping its empty containers out of Gaza to be refilled and returned.

The IDF had no immediate comment.