(VIDEO) Israel Hits UN Headquarters with White Phosphorous Shells
The headquarters of the UN refugee agency was on fire today after coming under attack as Israeli forces pushed deeper into Gaza City, unleashing the heaviest shelling of densely packed neighbourhoods since the military operation began nearly three weeks ago.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, expressed “strong protest and outrage” and demanded an investigation into why there was an attack on the compound of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a well-known location in Gaza marked with blue UN flags. The number of casualties in the Gaza Strip, now 1,055 according to local UN officials, had “reached an unbearable point”, Ban added.
As an Israeli envoy arrived in Cairo to take part in Egyptian-brokered talks on a possible ceasefire, the UN chief said there was no reason why the fighting could not stop immediately. “I believe that elements are in place for the violence to end now,” he said in Tel Aviv, the latest stop on his peace mission.
Gordon Brown described the shelling of the UN compound as “indefensible” and “unacceptable” and called for a ceasefire.
“The UN’s mission in Gaza is purely humanitarian, bringing relief to civilians suffering in appalling conditions as a result of the ongoing military action and restrictions on food and medical supplies entering Gaza,” the prime minister said. “UN staff are working on behalf of the international community – any attack on them is unacceptable, as Israel has acknowledged.”
A warehouse containing tonnes of relief supplies was ablaze after the compound was hit by what a UNRWA spokesman, Chris Gunness, said appeared to be three white phosphorous shells.
Three people were reported to be injured – one UN staff member and two of the estimated 700 local people who had taken shelter from the violence.
Relief operations had been temporarily held up but were not being suspended, Gunness said.
John Ging, the head of UN operations in Gaza, told al-Jazeera television: “This is going to burn down the entire warehouse … thousands and thousands of tonnes of food, medical supplies and other emergency assistance is there.”
He said the phosphorus fires were hard to extinguish “because if you put water on it, it will just generate toxic fumes and do nothing to stop the burning”. Phosphorous munitions are banned under international law as a weapon but permitted if used to create a smokescreen.
Ban said he had demanded a full explanation from Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and the defence minister, Ehud Barak.
“The defence minister said to me it was a grave mistake and he took it very seriously. He assured me that extra attention will be paid to UN facilities and staff and this will not be repeated,” Ban said.
The AFP news agency quoted witnesses as saying that a fire had broken out after an Israeli strike in a wing of al-Quds hospital in south-west Gaza City, where hundreds more people took shelter early today from advancing Israeli tanks. It was not clear if there were any injuries.
The news agency Reuters reported that a missile or shell had struck the Gaza tower block where it and other media organisations have offices. The 13th floor of al-Shurouq Tower, which houses Abu Dhabi television, appeared to have been hit, injuring one of its journalists.
Israeli forces were reported to be closing in on the outskirts of Gaza City, targeting 70 sites overnight and forcing thousands more Palestinians to flee their homes. It is not clear whether this morning’s offensive marks another escalation in the conflict or a brief foray ahead of a possible ceasefire.
Israel’s envoy Amos Gilad flew into Cairo today for talks with Egyptian mediators. He will not meet any of the Hamas representatives who are also in Egypt’s capital.
An Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, said Gilad was there to discuss the “parameters of the endgame” – a goal that was “close and attainable”. Regev said: “There is momentum in these discussions. We are hopeful that a deal will be based on a total cessation of Hamas fire into Israel and an arms embargo to prevent Hamas from rearming.”
The Egyptian plan appears to begin with a ceasefire of a week or 10 days, during which all fighting would stop but Israeli troops would remain on the ground in Gaza. Talks would then be held on the more difficult questions of stopping the smuggling of weapons to Hamas and lifting Israel’s long economic blockade of the Gaza Strip.
However, it is thought Hamas’s conditions for any deal would probably include an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces the moment a ceasefire started. That may prove too much for Israel to accept.