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Humanitarian Concerns Mount in Gaza as U.N. Calls for Cease-fire

January 9, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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As fighting continued in Gaza Friday, U.N. officials said they would resume their aid shipments to Palestinians after receiving assurances from the Israel that aid workers would be better protected. U.N. and Israeli officials give their views on the situation.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, daily life and survival amid the Gaza conflict. Margaret Warner has our report.

MARGARET WARNER: The humanitarian toll in Gaza and Israel is growing more dire, with the war now approaching its third week and both sides rebuffing a U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire.

Of the nearly 800 Palestinians reported killed, about half were civilians. And among the 3,000 injured, many are children.

On the Israeli side, at least 10 soldiers have died in the fighting, as well as three civilians.

And as the ground war continues, relief agencies say it’s getting harder to provide basic food and services in Gaza.

I spoke with the United Nations’ top humanitarian official, Undersecretary General John Holmes, this afternoon.

JOHN HOLMES, United Nations undersecretary-general: … people are subjected to continuous bombardment and shelling and planes and drones overhead. They’re very difficult in other respects, as well. People are increasingly cold and hungry, without services, with very difficult access to hospitals and medical services. So the situation is really bad, and I’m afraid it’s getting worse all the time.

MARGARET WARNER: But the Israelis, who launched the offensive after weeks of Hamas rocket fire into their territory, say they are determined to protect their own population living near the Gaza border. Sallai Meridor is the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

SALLAI MERIDOR, Israeli ambassador to the United States: We are making every effort and we continue to make every effort to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

It is a very difficult situation. Hamas, which is a terrorist organization, is acting from civilian population. They’re purposely choosing civilian neighborhoods in order to fire from and fight from. And we have to, on the one hand, make every effort to hit their terrorist capacities, because otherwise our citizens will be under fire and they are under fire, at the same time to minimize the damage to civilians on the Palestinian society.

So just to share with you, I’ve never seen such an effort in any war of this kind. Israeli pilots, when they’re targeting targets of Hamas within civilian population, are making sure that these are only Hamas targets and that they are using only the munition that is minimal in order to hit terrorists.

U.N. suspends aid delivery

MARGARET WARNER: But yesterday, the leading U.N. agency operating in Gaza temporarily suspended its food delivery operations after an Israeli strike killed one of their local drivers.

Meridor says it happened when Hamas fighters took advantage of a three-hour lull in Israel's offensive designed to allow humanitarian aid through.

SALLAI MERIDOR: In this particular case, what I understand happened was that, while we were allowing for this humanitarian corridor, the terrorists of Hamas were shooting at our soldiers and the soldiers returned fire. And the result of that was this unfortunate case happened and the person who was working for this agency was killed.

We are deeply saddened about it, but, again, you should ask yourself, who is responsible here? And I think the sole responsibility is on those who are using civilian populations as shields to perform the terrorist acts.

JOHN HOLMES: We accept -- UNRWA accepts, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, accepts that in the kind of fog of war, some things can and do happen. Those risks have to be accepted.

But when agreements have been made, they need to be respected, which means the communication between those who are making the arrangements and the people actually on the ground and with the guns have got to be as good as the possibly can be.

MARGARET WARNER: Holmes told us the U.N. has, indeed, received new assurances for safe passage from the Israelis and hope to resume aid delivers tomorrow.

JOHN HOLMES: Now, we have had those assurances a few minutes ago from the Israeli authorities at high level. And they hope to resume their normal operations as soon as possible.

Will pauses in fighting continue?

MARGARET WARNER: What guarantees can you give that it won't happen again?

SALLAI MERIDOR: We are considering or giving -- taking a look in our operations on a constant base. And we always balance this thing, on the one hand, be effective in fighting terror, because we have to protect the people, you know, on the one hand.

And we have feel sympathy for that. We have Palestinians who are civilians, who are uninvolved. There are those of them who don't support Hamas. They're obviously young kids who are victims of Hamas. At the same time, we have 1 million Israelis whom we have to defend.

MARGARET WARNER: Israel won't say whether it will continue the daily there-hour pauses in fighting to ease civilian life in Gaza. Holmes says, in any case, those lulls aren't nearly enough.

JOHN HOLMES: They're obviously better than nothing. I think they're -- it's very good for the population to have three hours of peace and quiet every day when they can move around, they can have access to the local shops and bakeries, assuming they have any food in them, which very often I fear they don't.

They can find their wounded, people can have access to hospitals, they can bury their dead. So it's good for that point of view. It gives an opportunity for technicians to fix electricity lines and water wells and so on where possible.

But at the same time, it's very short. It doesn't matter any difference to the amount of aid we can get into Gaza, because it happens independently of the three-hour truce, and we still don't have enough freedom of movement and safety of movement around Gaza to really make a difference. And that's why we've said we need a proper 24-hour lasting cease-fire and not three-hour truces.

More cease-fire talks expected

MARGARET WARNER: But Israel has flatly rejected the cease-fire resolution adopted by the U.S. Security Council last night.

SALLAI MERIDOR: Because we need something that is serious. We need something that will not blow up in the face of everybody in the region in four, five, six months.

How many times can we go back and back into those situations? We've left Gaza, as you know, three years ago, only to be faced by rockets firing from Gaza. We were entering an arrangement of calm half a year ago. It was broke by Hamas.

They've used the calm in order to extend the range. We want something that will be reasonable, and calm, and dignified for us and for them, for our children and their children, to be able to grow up in a normal civilized situation.

This is interminable, and this must stop. And we will take the steps necessary to stop it.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, the war is hurting people on both sides of the border. In Israel, nearly a million are within range of the Hamas rockets. Some 30 were fired into Israel today. And Israeli children are now forced into underground shelters.

For his part, Holmes agrees the fault is on both sides.

JOHN HOLMES: Unfortunately, the population of Gaza, the civilian population of Gaza -- which is by far the overwhelming majority of them -- are being held hostage between these two people fighting it out, these groups fighting it out between them.

They are suffering a kind of collective punishment for something which has nothing to do with them. That's the unfortunate thing about it. And that's why we have such an obligation to get them the humanitarian aid we can.

MARGARET WARNER: More talks about a cease-fire are expected to take place in Cairo over the weekend.