Israel Debates Moving Deeper Into Gaza City
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. Here's what we know about a proposal for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. Israel, whose troops moved into the Palestinian area, says it welcomes the idea, which does not necessarily mean the shooting stops right away. Israel says it's willing to keep talking about a cease-fire so long as the idea applies to both sides.
Hamas, the group that's fired rockets out of Gaza, has yet to respond in public. Now, the latest idea of a cease-fire came from Egypt and France, and the discussion comes after a sharp increase in civilian casualties. Israeli troops struck United Nations-administered schools in Gaza yesterday. Dozens of people were killed. And this morning, NPR's Mike Shuster reports on the most deadly incident.
MIKE SHUSTER: The shelling of the U.N. school in the Jabaliya refugee camp has caused an uproar. It was the third U.N. school to be hit by Israeli fire on Tuesday, and the devastation there was by far the bloodiest. At least 300 people had gathered there in a desperate effort to avoid the fighting in their neighborhoods. But during the late afternoon on Tuesday, according to the Israelis, Palestinian militants launched mortar rockets from near the school. The Israelis responded with tank fire.
John Ging, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which runs the school, says the U.N. provided location coordinates to the Israeli Defense Force for all its facilities in Gaza in an effort to avoid just such an incident.
Mr. JOHN GING (Director of Operations in Gaza, UNRWA): The civilian population here have no protection at the moment. They are dying in their hundreds. They're being injured in their thousands. And they're entitled to action from the international community. And the international community must be accountable for its action or inaction in protecting civilians caught up in conflict because these people are trapped. They cannot even flee this conflict.
SHUSTER: This was just a single incident in a day that saw rapidly mounting casualties among Gaza's civilians. It put Israel on the defensive. Andy David of the Israeli Foreign Ministry insisted Israel has been doing everything it can to minimize civilian casualties. He put the blame on Hamas, whose militants hide themselves among the civilian population.
Mr. ANDY DAVID (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): We are trying to avoid casualties. Eighty percent of the air force operations, for instance, are being aborted just because there are civilians present. But when you have soldiers, combatants, gunmen hiding amongst civilians, this has in the past given them protection. That will no longer be the case.
SHUSTER: But Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel. One reached the town of Gedera yesterday. Gedera is only about 17 miles from Tel Aviv. Until now, no Hamas rocket has flown that far. The Israeli operation in Gaza is aimed at stopping this rocket fire. Major Michael Oren, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force, conceded it will inevitably result in civilian casualties.
Major MICHAEL OREN (Spokesman, Israeli Defense Force): If you move ground troops in with heavy armor into urban areas, and Hamas wants to fight from those urban areas, it would be almost unavoidable, some type of rise in the number of civilian casualties.
SHUSTER: The bloodshed yesterday has given new momentum to an international effort to bring about a cease-fire. At the U.N. in New York and in Cairo, Paris, and other international capitals, the calls for at least a temporary humanitarian cease-fire are growing more urgent. Among Palestinians outside of Gaza, there is enormous anger and frustration. In Ramallah in the West Bank, Randa Siniora of the Independent Palestinian Commission for Human Rights brushed aside Israel's justification for its actions.
Ms. RANDA SINIORA (Executive Director, Independent Palestinian Commission for Human Rights): Israel cannot claim as an occupying authority that it is in self defense doing what it is doing because, simply, it's very clear in international humanitarian law that you cannot attack. And it is considered war crimes to create harm and damage and a lot of sufferings among the civilian population under the justification that they are defending themselves.
SHUSTER: How precisely Israel will act at the moment is not clear. Israel's leaders are beginning a discussion about whether to expand the ground operations and order Israeli soldiers deeper into the dense, urban neighborhoods of Gaza City. That would be a significant escalation and would inevitably bring even greater casualties among the civilian population. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Jerusalem.