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Civilian Casualties Increase Pressure On Israel To Halt Offensive

  • Nikola Krastev

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) called for restraint, as Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas decried Israeli "genocide."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) called for restraint, as Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas decried Israeli "genocide."

UNITED NATIONS -- A strike on a United Nations-run school that killed more than 30 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip has increased international pressure on Israel to halt its offensive against the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

During a high-level meeting of the UN Security Council on January 6, foreign ministers from several European countries and Arab states called for an immediate Israeli cease-fire.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, presiding over the council meeting, also urged an end to Hamas's rocket attacks against southern Israel and the smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza.

Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, expressed the deepening frustration over the inability of the Security Council to stop the bloodshed in Gaza, or at least to censure it.

"The United Kingdom believes that the crisis, and I use that word advisedly, the crisis in Gaza is an indictment of our collective failure, all of us, over a long period to bring about the two-state solution that offers the only hope of security and justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike," Miliband said.

Britain, one of the Security Council's five permanent members, has joined the growing chorus of voices urging the reestablishment in Gaza of rule by the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority under President Mahmud Abbas. Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 following a conflict with Abbas's Fatah faction.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also supports the reestablishment of Palestinian Authority rule. "We need urgently to achieve Palestinian unity and reunification of Gaza with the West Bank within the framework of the legitimate Palestinian Authority," he told the Security Council.

President Abbas attended the beginning of the Security Council session. He called Israel's offensive in Gaza "genocide" and appealed to the Security Council to produce a resolution calling for an immediate cessation of Israel's "aggression."

The draft of such a resolution was introduced last week by Libya, the Security Council's only Arab member. However, it has been strongly resisted by Israel's ally the United States, a veto-holding permanent member of the Security Council.

The Libyan draft condemns Israel's actions in Gaza, but omits censure of Hamas's continuing rocket attacks on Israel. The United States has said that such a resolution is unacceptable and, in fact, Washington's stance toward Hamas has hardened since Israel's military operation began 12 days ago. The United States has put the blame for what has happened in Gaza squarely on Hamas.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated during the Security Council meeting that in the view of Washington, only Hamas is to blame. The United States describes Hamas as a terrorist entity.

"The situation before the current events in Gaza was clearly not sustainable," Rice said. "A cease-fire that returns to those circumstances is unacceptable and it will not last. We need urgently to conclude a cease-fire that can endure and that can bring real security."

Many diplomats at the UN subscribe to the view that the draft resolution introduced by Libya still needs to be significantly toned down in its language toward Israel if it is to achieve Security Council approval. A vote on such a resolution may or may not happen next week, diplomats say.

Calls For Truce

Meanwhile, a joint Egyptian-French initiative to stop hostilities is gaining momentum. The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has proposed a limited initial truce to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza and to give Egypt time to broker a permanent cease-fire. The initiative has the support of Palestinian leader Abbas, but Israel is so far noncommittal.

Egypt and France have backed a truce to allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
Russia, another of the Security Council's permanent members, expressed its support for the Egypt-French initiative. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko reiterated that only political dialogue, not armed conflict, is likely to bring about a lasting solution.

"[We] firmly believe that there is no way to find solutions to the region's problems with tanks and air force, as well as with rocket attacks," Yakovenko said. "Only through a peace dialogue and through commitment by both sides to their international obligations it will be possible to move the peace process forward."

UN chief Ban, who since the surge of hostilities in late December has called on both sides to show restraint, underscored the growing number of civilian casualties. He noted the incident on January 6 when an Israeli strike killed more than 30 people in a UN-managed school in Gaza that was being used as a shelter for civilians. Israel says it's strike was targeting militants who were firing from the school.

"These attacks by Israeli military forces, which endanger UN facilities acting as places of refuge, are totally unacceptable and should not be repeated," Ban said. "Equally unacceptable are any actions by Hamas militants which endanger the Palestinian civilian population." (Ban likely meant "the Israeli civilian population.)

According to the United Nations, more than 660 Palestinians have been killed -- about a quarter of them civilians -- and over 2,700 wounded since Israel's military operation began. Israeli authorities say six Israeli soldiers have died and about 50 have been injured.
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