'No safe place for civilians' in Gaza

STEPHANIE NEBEHAY
Last updated 15:24 23/07/2014

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Palestinian civilians in densely-populated Gaza have no place to hide from Israel's military offensive and children are paying the heaviest price, the United Nations said.

Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip, saying no ceasefire was near as United States and UN diplomats pursued talks on halting the fighting that has claimed more than 600 lives as the conflict entered its third week.

The overwhelming majority of people killed so far in the conflict are Palestinians, including 149 Gaza children, the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Tuesday. Gaza's Health Ministry said 155 children had been killed.

At a United Nations Security Council meeting the Palestinian envoy to the UN held up photographs of children slain in Gaza and read out names of the dead as he pleaded for action from the council.

"On behalf of the Palestinian people, we ask: What is the international community doing to stop this bloodletting, to stop Israel's atrocities?" Riyad Mansour said during a debate on the Gaza crisis on Tuesday.

He showed photographs of families overcome with grief and of children's corpses, and read out the names of young victims who lost their lives. "Umama Al-Hayyeh, age 9; Dima Isleem, age 2; Mohamad Ayyad, age 2; Rahaf Abu Jumaa, age 4..."

More than 900 Palestinian children are also reported to have been injured, according to UNICEF

Less than a quarter of all casualties are thought to be Hamas militants, charity Save the Children said.

"This is why we described the ongoing operation as a war on children," said charity official Osama Damo.

"According to an assessment by aid workers on ground at least 107,000 children need psycho-social support for the trauma they are experiencing such as death, injury or loss of their homes," Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in Geneva.

Aid agencies point out that, unlike in other wars, Palestinians, enclosed by the security fence around Gaza, cannot flee.

"There is literally no safe place for civilians," Laerke said.

The death toll is rising in the coastal enclave which has an estimated 4500 people per square kilometre, he said. The priority for aid agencies was protecting civilians and evacuating and treating the wounded.

Nearly 500 homes have been destroyed by Israeli air strikes and 100,000 people have sought shelter in schools of the UN Relief and Works Agency where they need food, water and mattresses, he said.

"This number continues to increase by the hour,"  the agency said on Tuesday, raising its emergency funding appeal to $US115 million from $US60 million.

The agency also said a girls' school housing refugees had suffered a "direct hit from Israeli shelling" on Tuesday. It was unclear whether any casualties had been inflicted.

Israel began air strikes on the coastal strip on July 8, saying it wanted to halt missile fire out of Gaza by Hamas militants, and launched a ground offensive last Thursday.

Twenty-nine Israelis, 27 of them soldiers, have died.

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Yesterday, an air strike destroyed six floors of Salam Tower in the centre of Gaza City, killing at least 11 people including Ibrahim Al-Kilani, a professor of engineering, his wife and their five children. All had fled from Shujaiya, where more than 70 people died in the biggest Israeli bombardment of the war on Sunday.

Israel says that Hamas bears responsibility for civilian deaths because it launches rockets from and stores weapons in civilian areas.

"All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but intended by Hamas," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. "They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause."

The World Health Organisation said that 18 health facilities in Gaza have been damaged, including three hospitals.

Hospitals in northern Gaza have been overwhelmed by high numbers of trauma cases and their inadequate supplies, it said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, guardian of the rules of war, condemned an Israeli attack on the Al-Aqsa hospital which it said had come under "direct fire at least four times".

Warring parties are obliged under international humanitarian law to protect medical personnel, ambulances and facilities, the committee said.


- Reuters

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