- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009



Warnings of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza dominated calls for a truce Monday, as Palestinians coped with winter temperatures, backed-up sewage and shortages of food and medicine.

Fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters intensified with heavy gunbattles and shelling on the eastern and northern outskirts of Gaza City.

Israeli officials resisted international pressure, saying its 10-day-old offensive would continue until it succeeded in halting Hamas rocket fire at Israeli cities and towns.

“People are isolated and traumatized,” John Ging, director of Gaza operations for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), told reporters at the United Nations by video link Monday afternoon.

As he spoke, the sound of an Israeli jet could be heard in the background.

Israel, which has blocked commercial traffic into Gaza for the past 18 months, said it was taking steps to avoid a crisis for 1.5 million Palestinians in the coastal strip.

“Israel will do what needs to be done to avoid a humanitarian disaster,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “We are, every day, facilitating convoys into the Gaza Strip, bringing food and medicines.”

Arab foreign ministers sought backing at the United Nations for a truce as the Palestinian death toll climbed to at least 540 since Israel began its air assault on Dec. 27.

Six Israelis have been killed.

The Israeli military said three soldiers were killed and 24 others wounded Monday evening by friendly fire, the Associated Press reported. The military said an errant Israeli tank shell hit their position outside Gaza City.

Humanitarian and human rights groups say it has been difficult to arrange access for their staff and relief cargo.

Mr. Ging said it took him more than seven hours to cross the border Monday morning, even after days of negotiations for clearance and for safe passage from the Israeli government and the army.

Foreign ministers representing the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria delivered appeals for a truce at the United Nations.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the group expects the Security Council on Tuesday to consider a draft resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and a condemnation of attacks on civilians.

“Now it is our turn to demand a balanced resolution,” Mr. Moussa said.

The U.S. and Britain have blocked earlier U.N. attempts to consider a resolution, calling the language unbalanced.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is to visit New York on Tuesday to appeal directly to the council.

Israel launched its offensive, including a ground assault that began Saturday, after Gaza’s Hamas rulers refused to renew a six-month truce and began hitting Israeli towns and cities with dozens of rockets daily.

In Washington, President Bush blamed Hamas for the war.

“Instead of caring about the people of Gaza, Hamas decided to use Gaza to use rockets to kill innocent Israelis,” Mr. Bush said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called foreign officials and laid out three conditions for a cease-fire: a halt to rocket fire, provisions for relief supplies to enter Gaza and steps to close tunnels from Egypt that have been used to smuggle weapons and supplies.

“The secretary is trying to get the international system and various actors in the international system to coalesce around those three elements,” department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy brought a proposal to Israel for a 48-hour cease-fire but was rebuffed.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, “There is no humanitarian crisis in the strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce.”

Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American who directs Middle East studies at Columbia University, said that despite Israeli claims of alleviating the situation, the plight of Gazans is dire. A cousin there told him “there are bodies on the street and no heat,” Mr. Khalidi said.

• Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv.

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