Red Cross Official Details Gaza Situation

The International Committee of the Red Cross has criticized Israel for restricting access to civilians in Gaza. Katharina Ritz, head of mission for the ICRC in the Palestinian territories, offers her insight.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Gaza, the International Committee of the Red Cross is scaling back its rescue work, after a convoy came under fire yesterday at an Israeli checkpoint. The gunfire narrowly missed the driver of a Red Cross truck. The Red Cross says the trip had been cleared in advance with the Israeli army. The convoy of ambulances carrying intensive care patients from Gaza to Egypt had to turn back.

On Wednesday, the Red Cross reached a neighborhood of demolished homes south of Gaza City. There, rescue workers found 16 bodies, mostly women and children, and they found survivors, including children next to their dead mothers. They were too weak to stand on their own. The wounded were taken by donkey cart to ambulances half a mile away. The Red Cross says it had requested safe passage for ambulances to get to the area, but had been denied permission for four days. Katharina Ritz is head of mission for the Red Cross in Jerusalem. I asked her what sorts of injuries the rescue teams in Gaza are treating.

Ms. KATHARINA RITZ (Head of Jerusalem Mission, International Committee of the Red Cross): What we can see is that most of the injured coming in, especially the civilians, they have mainly blast and burn injuries. So, we can see many lower-limb amputation and chest, head traumas, many children.

BLOCK: Your head of delegation there called this incident shocking, and the Red Cross issued a statement saying Israel had failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded. How unusual is it for the Red Cross to make a statement like that?

Ms. RITZ: It's very unusual. I think this expresses as well a little bit the scenes we have found there. We do still say to the Israeli army, well, look, there are still families in this neighborhood; they need assistance until we can get to them; the wounded should be looked after; they should be evacuated. It doesn't necessarily need to be a humanitarian organization. The army should at least give them the water, the food and the medical treatment until we can move in and evacuate the wounded.

BLOCK: When the Red Cross said that Israel's conduct here was unacceptable, does that still apply to the position of the Israeli military now, or have things improved?

Ms. RITZ: Listen, let's - I mean, I will be very honest. We didn't find this scene again. Let's hope that this is not something which hopefully have happened in other areas. I think we say we should leave this behind us, and the Israeli army has called us as well to help them to bring in food and water. But you know, there is fighting on the ground, and then we do whatever we can, and in the meantime, they should assist the people. And when we get in, we will assist them and we will evacuate them.

BLOCK: There is a three-hour suspension of fighting every day. How much are you able to do in that three-hour window?

Ms. RITZ: Yesterday, before it was actually quite successful. And I think it was successful because, for the first 10 days, I think it was - we were practically not able to achieve anything. We couldn't bring in ambulances. Whenever we got an approval by the army, we run into fighting and we had to abort the ambulance mission. And you know, the situation changed since you have ground forces inside Gaza. During the air raid, it's the big risk to be a collateral damage, but not really the target.

Now, we have soldiers inside the Gaza Strip. We have checkpoints. There is fighting going on, and whatever the soldier doesn't know is coming is potentially an enemy, and the same thing probably for the Palestinian side too. On the other hand, we have to stress we are an organization working in war. We have emblems; we have flags. We still think that if we arrive with such a marked convoy stopping in front of a checkpoint, approaching very slowly, that, OK, they just shouldn't shoot in front, in the windshield and in the truck itself. We have to go back to the drawing book with the army and say, OK, this happened. Now what? How can we work? And we need to work.

BLOCK: We've been talking with Katharina Ritz, head of mission for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jerusalem. Ms. Ritz, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. RITZ: Thanks to you, too.

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Despite U.N. Truce Call, Israel Vows To Fight On

Israel said Friday it will press ahead in an offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire.

The office of Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the U.N. resolution "not practical" and said the military "will continue acting to protect Israeli citizens and will carry out the missions it was given."

Israel's words were accompanied by military action on the ground, as its warplanes and helicopters bombarded Gaza Friday and Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets.

The U.N. resolution, passed by a vote of 14-0, with the United States abstaining, stresses "the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza."

It gave impetus to a joint Egyptian-French push for cease-fire talks, proposed earlier this week.

That plan calls for an immediate cease-fire, followed by the opening of Gaza's borders to humanitarian aid, and then longer-term talks aimed at a broader peace between Israel and all Palestinian factions. The Egyptians have said a full opening of the Gaza border could come once European observers and Palestinian Authority representatives were in place to monitor the crossings.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the resolution but said Washington had abstained from the vote because it was important to first see the outcome of Egypt's mediation efforts.

"We decided that this resolution, the text of which we support, the goals of which we support and the objectives that we fully support, should indeed be allowed to go forward," Rice said. "I believe [that] in doing so, the council has developed a road map for a sustainable, durable peace in Gaza.

"We require principled resolution of the situation in Gaza, and the Security Council resolution we are passing tonight in fact gives us a basis with which to do this," she added.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he still thinks the Security Council's resolution spoke loudly and clearly. He said the job now is to turn the "good words" in the resolution into desperately needed changes on the ground.

However, Arab critics, especially those in Syria, have attacked the Egyptian plan as handing Israel an end to Palestinian rocket fire but denying Hamas an immediate full opening of Gaza's borders.

For its part, Hamas showed little interest in the U.N. resolution. Mousa Abu Marzook, one of Hamas' top figures in Damascus, told Al Jazeera English satellite television that Hamas would cease its rocket attacks only after Israel stopped its offensive.

"If the Israelis stopped the fire and their aggression against the Palestinians in Gaza Strip, Hamas should answer directly about the United Nations resolution," Marzook said.

Hamas is sending a delegation to Cairo Saturday to participate in talks with Egypt. But Hamas, which is the effective government of Gaza, seems to be in no hurry to sign onto a cease-fire because, Marzook suggested, it is winning just by continuing the rocket attacks.

More than 800 Palestinians have lost their lives in the fighting, with 3,300 wounded. At least 14 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have died.

Over the past 24 hours, information has emerged about a deadly incident in the town of Zeitoun, south of Gaza City. Several days ago, the Israeli Defense Force ordered more than a 100 people into a single building there, according to Allegra Pacheco of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The house was shelled the next day and about 30 people, including several children, were killed, Pacheco said, citing eyewitness accounts.

Several other buildings were demolished in Zeitoun with up to 40 people killed. Scores were trapped in the rubble. Rescuers finally got to them Thursday, according to Iyad Nasr, of the Gaza Red Cross.

"We managed to rescue 105 civilians — women, children, men — who were trapped in a house for more than a week with hardly sufficient amounts of water and food," Nasr said.

The Red Cross was not permitted to drive its vehicles into Zeitoun, where it says its trucks have come under Israeli fire. Two contractors delivering aid for the U.N. were killed Thursday and the driver of a Red Cross truck was injured.

The Israeli military said it is closely cooperating with international aid groups to assist civilians caught in the crossfire.

"The Israel Defense Forces are engaged in a battle with the Hamas terrorist organization that has deliberately used Palestinian civilians as human shields," a military statement said. "The IDF in no way intentionally targets civilians and has demonstrated its willingness to abort operations to save civilian lives and to risk injury in order to assist innocent civilians."

Across the Arab and Muslim worlds, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Friday in anger at Israel, the United States and pro-American Arab governments. Record crowds turned out in Egypt and Libya, but there were also protests in Europe. In Amman, Jordan, riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse stone-throwing protesters marching on the Israeli Embassy.

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