by: Ibrahim Barzak and Steve Weizman, The Associated Press
Jerusalem – The United Nations halted aid deliveries to the besieged Gaza Strip on Thursday, citing Israeli attacks on its staff and installations hours after it said tank fire killed one of its drivers as he went to pick up a shipment.
The world body has already demanded an investigation into Israel’s shelling of a UN school in Gaza that killed nearly 40 people earlier this week. Israel said Hamas fighters were operating in the area at the time.
For a second straight day, Israel suspended its Gaza military operation for three hours to allow in humanitarian supplies. Shortly before the pause took effect, however, the UN said one of its aid trucks came under Israeli fire, killing the driver.
The UN said it coordinated the delivery with Israel, and the vehicle was marked with a UN flag and insignia when it was shot in northern Gaza. The Israeli army said it was investigating.
“The UN is suspending its aid operations in Gaza until we can get safety and security guarantees for our staff,” spokesman Chris Gunness said. “We’ve been coordinating with them (Israeli forces) and yet our staff continue to be hit and killed.”
The UN provides food aid to around 750,000 Gaza residents, and runs dozens of schools and clinics throughout the territory. They have some 9,000 locally-employed staffers inside Gaza, and a small team of international staffers who work there.
As Israel pushed forward with the bloody offensive in the Gaza Strip, fighters in Lebanon fired at least three rockets into Israel early Thursday, threatening to open a new front for the Jewish state. Israel responded with mortar shells.
The rockets from Lebanon raised the spectre of renewed hostilities on Israel’s northern frontier, just 2 1/2 years after Israel battled the Hezbollah guerrilla group to a 34-day stalemate. War broke out between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 as Israel battled Palestinians in Gaza, on Israel’s southern borders.
No group claimed responsibility. Lebanon’s government condemned the attack, and Hezbollah – which now plays an integral role in Lebanon’s government – denied any responsibility for the rocket fire, which lightly injured two Israelis.
In other Gaza violence, Israel killed at least 11 people, including three who were fleeing their homes, raising the death toll from its 13-day offensive to 699 Palestinians, according to Palestinian medical officials. Eleven Israelis have died since the offensive began Dec. 27.
The offensive is meant to halt Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel, but with roughly half the dead believed to be civilians, international efforts to broker a ceasefire have been gaining steam.
Despite the heavy fighting, strides appeared to be made on the diplomatic front with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying Washington supported a deal being brokered by France and Egypt.
While the UN Security Council failed to reach agreement on a ceasefire resolution, Egyptian Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said representatives of Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority agreed to meet separately with Egyptian officials in Cairo.
Israeli envoys travelled to Egypt on Thursday to discuss the proposal.
For Israel to accept a proposed ceasefire deal, “there has to be a total and complete cessation of all hostile fire from Gaza into Israel, and … we have to see an arms embargo on Hamas that will receive international support,” said government spokesman Mark Regev.
For its part, Hamas said it would not accept a truce unless it includes an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza – something Israel says it is not willing to do. Israel has maintained a stiff economic embargo on Gaza since the Hamas takeover, sparking the rocket attacks.
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