GENEVA - Relief workers found four starving children sitting next to their dead mothers and other corpses in a house in a part of Gaza City bombed by Israeli forces, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday.
The ICRC accused Israel of delaying ambulance access to the hit area and demanded it grant safe access for Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances to return to evacuate more wounded.
"This is a shocking incident," said Pierre Wettach, ICRC chief for Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
"The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestinian Red Crescent to assist the wounded," he said.
In unusually strong terms, the neutral agency said it believed Israel had breached international humanitarian law in the incident.
In a written response, the Israeli army said it works in coordination with international aid bodies assist civilians and that it "in no way intentionally targets civilians".
The Israeli offensive launched in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Dec. 27 to end rocket attacks by Islamic militants has drawn increasing international criticism over mounting civilian casualties.
Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances and ICRC officials managed to reach several houses in the Zeitoun area of Gaza City on Wednesday after seeking access from Israeli military forces since last weekend, the ICRC statement said.
The rescue team "found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses", the ICRC said.
"They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses," it said.
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In another house, the team found 15 survivors of Israeli shelling including several wounded, it said. Israeli soldiers posted some 80 meters (yards) away ordered the rescue team to leave the area which they refused to do, it said.
The ICRC said it had been informed that there were more wounded sheltering in other destroyed houses in the area.
"The ICRC believes that in this instance the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuated the wounded. It considers the delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable," it said.
In all, it evacuated 18 wounded and 12 others who were exhausted, including the children, by donkey cart. This was because large earth walls erected by the Israeli army had made it impossible to bring ambulances into the immediate area.
Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, warring parties are obliged to do everything possible to search for, collect and evacuate the wounded and sick without delay, it said.
Dominik Stillhart, ICRC deputy director of operations, declined to say explicitly whether the Israeli inaction constituted a war crime.
"Clearly, it is (for) the International Criminal Court -- not for the ICRC -- to say whether this is or is not a war crime," he said, referring to the Hague tribunal.
Ambulances must be given "round-the-clock" access to the wounded throughout Gaza, Stillhart told a news briefing. "We cannot wait for the next suspension of hostilities for the wounded to be evacuated and brought to hospital."
The Israeli army said any serious allegations would need to be investigated properly after a formal complaint was received, "within the constraints of the military operation taking place". (Additional reporting by Adam Entous in Jerusalem) (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jonathan Lynn)