Gazans Warned of Escalation While Israel Faces War Crime Accusations

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The Guardian/UK

Gazans Warned of Escalation While Israel Faces War Crime Accusations

by
Rory McCarthy

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell towards Gaza from its position outside the northern Gaza Strip January 10, 2009. Israel pressed on with a punishing Gaza offensive and Hamas fired more rockets into the Jewish state on Saturday in a two-week-old war that continued to defy international efforts to stop it. (Jerry Lampen/Reuters)

The United Nations' most senior human rights official said last night that the Israeli military may have committed war crimes in Gaza.
The warning came as Israeli troops pressed on with the deadly offensive
in defiance of a UN security council resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Navi
Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has called for
"credible, independent and transparent" investigations into possible
violations of humanitarian law, and singled out an incident this week
in Zeitoun, south-east of Gaza City, where up to 30 Palestinians in one
house were killed by Israeli shelling.

Pillay, a former
international criminal court judge from South Africa, told the BBC the
incident "appears to have all the elements of war crimes".

The
accusation came as Israel kept up its two-week-old air and ground
offensive in Gaza and dismissed as "unworkable" the UN security council
resolution which had called for "an immediate, durable and fully
respected ceasefire".

Protests against the offensive were held across the world yesterday just as diplomacy to halt the conflict appeared to falter.

With
the Palestinian casualty toll rising to around 800 dead, including 265
children, and more than 3,000 injured, fresh evidence emerged yesterday
of the killings in Zeitoun. It was "one of the gravest incidents" since
Israel's offensive began two weeks ago, the UN office for the
co-ordination of humanitarian affairs said yesterday.

"There is
an international obligation on the part of soldiers in their position
to protect civilians, not to kill civilians indiscriminately in the
first place, and when they do, to make sure that they help the
wounded," Pillay told Reuters. "In this particular case these children
were helpless and the soldiers were close by," she added.

An
Israeli military spokeswoman, Avital Leibovich, said the incident was
still being examined. "We don't warn people to go to other buildings,
this is not something we do," she said. "We don't know this case, we
don't know that we attacked it."

Despite the intense bombardment,
militants in Gaza fired at least 30 rockets into southern Israel
yesterday. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, told al-Jazeera TV: "This
resolution doesn't mean that the war is over. We call on Palestinian
fighters to mobilise and be ready to face the offensive, and we urge
the Arab masses to carry on with their angry protests."

Israeli
officials said they could not be expected to halt their military
operation while the rockets continued and said they first wanted an end
to the rocket fire and a "mechanism" to prevent Hamas rearming in
future.

"The whole idea that Israel will unilaterally stop
protecting our people when Hamas is sending rockets into our cities to
kill our people is not a reasonable request of Israel," said Mark
Regev, spokesman for prime minister Ehud Olmert. Israel wanted security
for its people in southern Israel, he said, and dismissed suggestions
his military might seek to topple Hamas, saying they were "not in the
regime-change business".

Israeli public opinion still strongly
favours the war. One poll of Jewish Israelis yesterday, by the War and
Peace Index, said 90% of the population supported continuing the
operation until Israel achieved all its goals.

Olmert held a
meeting of his security cabinet, and on the agenda was discussion about
whether to intensify the offensive by launching a fresh stage of
attacks in which Israeli troops would invade the major urban areas of
Gaza as more reservists were called up. There was no word on the
outcome.

So far 13 Israelis have been killed in this conflict, of whom three were civilians.

Another
23 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military yesterday. Seven
from one family, including an infant, died when Israeli jets bombed a
five-storey building in Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza. There was heavy
aerial bombing and artillery fire across the territory.

More than
20,000 Gazans have fled their homes in the north of the strip and
thousands more in the south. In some cases Israeli troops have told
them to leave, or dropped leaflets warning them to evacuate their
homes. Some are even dividing their families between different
addresses for fear of losing them all in a single air strike.

"Many
people are leaving their homes and moving to the centre of the cities,"
said Abdel Karim Ashour, 53, who works with a local aid agency, the
Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee. He, his wife and their four
children fled their house on the coastal road in northern Gaza on the
third day of the conflict. He sent the four children to stay with his
brother while he and his wife are staying at a friend's house. "We were
in an area of heavy shelling, so we left and I divided the family to
try to reduce the victims if we face any trouble. We try and keep in
touch by telephone but there are problems with the network," he said.
"We're just hoping for a ceasefire. If the fighting goes on there will
be more victims."

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