Palestinians Flee Homes, Israel Pounds Gaza City

Intense fighting is still being reported throughout the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces are pushing deeper into neighborhoods in southern and eastern Gaza City. Witnesses say large groups of civilians in the south are fleeing their homes as Israeli ground troops, backed by attack helicopters, search the area for Hamas fighters.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Gaza City was the scene of panic this morning as Israeli forces made their biggest push yet into the city's crowded neighborhoods. At the same time, cease-fire talks are still going on. In a moment, we'll have an update on the diplomatic efforts taking place in Egypt. First we'll hear about the intense fighting on the ground. One of the places hit was the United Nations compound in Gaza City. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Overnight and today, Israeli tanks and infantry forces fought their way into Tal al-Hawa, a neighborhood in the southwest corner of Gaza City. Across much of Gaza City today, the sound of machine guns, air strikes, and drones again can be heard.

(Soundbite of explosions)

WESTERVELT: This morning, witnesses say large groups of civilians in the south of the city and in other parts are now fleeing their homes as Israeli ground troops, backed by attack helicopters, move deeper into crowded residential areas. Here's NPR news assistant Ahmed Abu Hamda in Gaza City.

Mr. AHMED ABU HAMDA (Palestinian News Producer): As we heard from some witnesses, today morning thousands of people who used to live in the south of Gaza City in Tal al-Hawa area, that thousands of them, they started to evacuate, to run away, trying to find a safe place for them and for their families. Now I'm standing here in what's called Shawah and Hussari(ph) building. It's in the middle of the city. And I can see that the whole sky of Gaza City, it's full of black condensed smoke, all of Gaza City. It's very choking atmosphere even.

WESTERVELT: The main United Nations compound in central Gaza City was hit today by what U.N. officials say was Israeli fire. The U.N. compound is now burning. In Jerusalem, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed outrage at the attack and said the death toll in Gaza had now reached an unbearable point. It's likely today's ground and air attacks deeper into the city are an attempt by the Israelis to make last-minute gains and pressure Hamas as cease-fire talks in Cairo intensify.

The Palestinian Health Ministry says more than one thousand people in Gaza have been killed so far, and more than 400 of the dead are women and children. According to the Israeli human rights group Bet'selem, in 20 days in Gaza, the Israeli military has now killed more Palestinians than in any single year this decade.

On Wednesday, a coalition of nine Israeli human rights groups called for a probe of whether the Israeli military had committed war crimes in the Gaza attack. Fred Abrahams with Human Rights Watch says both Hamas and Israel have likely violated the rules of war. But he notes that researchers continue to be denied access to Gaza.

Mr. FRED ABRAHAMS (Senior Emergencies Researcher, Human Rights Watch): We're getting serious and consistent allegations of violations of the laws of war. But you need to investigate. You need to find out where was Hamas? Were they among the civilian population? What type of weapon did Israel use? Did they take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm? Those are the kinds of research that must be done on the ground. And we're blocked. We can't get in, along with the media.

WESTERVELT: Three Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire, but none in more than two weeks. On Wednesday, 16 rockets were fired into Israel with no serious injuries reported. But the number of daily rocket attacks by Hamas is down significantly from the start of the Israeli offensive. The Israeli military death toll remains 10, half of them by friendly fire accidents. The Israelis continue to be able to move at will across large parts of the coastal territory. In fact, during nearly three weeks of combat, it appears Hamas fighters have not been able to mount serious resistance or a significant counterattack.

Professor GERALD STEINBERG (Political Studies, Bar Ilan University): They certainly fell into the trap that often happens in the Middle East of believing your own propaganda.

WESTERVELT: That's Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University. He calls the Israeli human rights abuse allegations exaggerated and political. Steinberg says the Israeli leadership is up against a political clock. They'd like to end the fighting before President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in next Tuesday.

Professor STEINBERG: It would be good to have a new page when - a semi-new page, nothing's new in the Middle East. But if you have the pictures of the inauguration combined with a lot more fighting in Gaza and outside, that would take some of the sheen off the Obama inauguration. So Israel's very conscious of that.

WESTERVELT: But for many of the civilians of Gaza and Israelis in towns across the south, it's far more than an issue of image and politics. They want the violence and bloodshed to stop. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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U.N. Chief Condemns Israeli Strike On Relief Agency

Israelis in southern Israel look out at a plume of smoke rising from Gaza City. i i

Israelis in southern Israel look out at a plume of smoke rising from Gaza City on Thursday. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Israelis in southern Israel look out at a plume of smoke rising from Gaza City.

Israelis in southern Israel look out at a plume of smoke rising from Gaza City on Thursday.

David Gilkey/NPR

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has strongly condemned Thursday's shelling of a United Nations compound in Gaza, again calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and saying the death toll has reached an "unbearable point."

About 700 Palestinians refugees were staying at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency when it was hit Thursday by Israeli artillery shells, U.N. officials said. The attack caused a fire that destroyed hundreds of pounds of food for the refugees. At least three people were wounded, said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.

Ban, who was in the region to push for a cease-fire, said he was outraged by the attack and demanded an investigation.

"I conveyed my strong protest and outrage to the defense minister and foreign minister and demanded a full explanation," Ban said. He said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told him there had been a "grave mistake" and promised to try to protect U.N. installations.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Israeli military shelled the compound in Gaza after being fired on by Palestinian militants.

"It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place," Olmert said. "But the consequences were very sad and I apologize for it."

A U.N. official dismissed the allegation as "nonsense." The U.N. agency put vehicle movements on hold after the incident, but did not suspend aid operations, Gunness said.

As fighting continued, Hamas Interior Minister Said Siam was killed in an Israeli airstrike, Hamas and Israeli officials confirmed. Siam was among Hamas' top Gaza leaders.

The humanitarian aid group CARE International said it stopped distributing emergency food and medical supplies in the Gaza Strip, however, after Israeli forces bombed areas near its warehouses.

More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have been killed in 20 days of fighting in the Gaza Strip, U.N. and Gaza medical officials said. The Israeli military launched the operation Dec. 27 in an effort to stop Hamas from launching rockets into Israel from Gaza.

Shells also hit two hospitals and a building housing several media outlets in Gaza City. The Foreign Press Association condemned the attack, as well as Israel's continued refusal to permit journalists to enter Gaza.

Even as the Israeli military intensified its air and ground assault, Israeli envoy Amos Gilad traveled to Cairo to discuss truce prospects with Egypt, which has been serving as the key mediator. Israel also sent a senior diplomat to Washington to discuss international guarantees that Hamas will not rearm.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said there was some momentum in the negotiations, and Israeli officials were hopeful a deal could be reached soon.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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