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Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes in the southern town of Rafah as Israel intensifies its assault on the Gaza Strip. Palestinians reported dozens of Israeli air strikes overnight, with attacks hitting homes, mosques and tunnels. Earlier today, the UN said Israeli forces fired on one of its relief convoys trying to pick up supplies. Al Jazeera reports at least one Palestinian was killed and two others injured. At least twenty-nine Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks Wednesday, including a family of four traveling in their car in Beit Lahia. The Arabic news channel Al Jazeera reports the Palestinian death toll stands at more than 700 overall, including 219 children. More than 3,000 Palestinians have also been wounded. Ten Israelis have died over the same thirteen-day period, including seven soldiers, four of them by so-called friendly fire.
Another four Palestinians died Wednesday from injuries sustained in the Israeli bombing of a UN school sheltering Gaza civilians in Jabalya, bringing the death toll to forty-six. Another fifty-five were wounded. UN spokesperson Chris Gunness said Israeli officials have privately retracted their widely cited initial claim that Hamas militants were firing from the school.
UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness: “I’ve been authorized to say that the Israeli army, in private briefings with diplomats, is admitting that the firing that came out of Jabalya yesterday, the militant fire, was not from within the UNRWA school compound, it was from outside the UNRWA school compound. This is a crucial distinction, because serious allegations have been made against UNRWA that the militants were firing from within. In fact, those allegations are baseless. It, as far as we’re concerned, illustrates the need for a full and independent investigation. It’s been shown that these allegations against us are completely baseless.”
The UN is calling for an independent investigation into the school bombing as a possible war crime.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, has issued a rare condemnation of the Israeli government for blocking it from the site of a deadly bombing of Palestinian civilians. The Red Cross says Israel barred aid workers for four days from reaching victims in the neighborhood of Zeitoun. Israeli soldiers reportedly tried to chase the rescue workers away. When they finally arrived, the workers found fifteen bodies, along with several children still barely alive. The children were lying next to their dead mothers. In a statement, the Red Cross said the Israeli military has “failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded,” calling the episode “unacceptable.” Other sources have reported a higher death toll in the Zeitoun attack. The Daily Telegraph of London reports the bombing could have killed between sixty to seventy members of the same family.
Meanwhile, militants in southern Lebanon have opened fire on Israel, with three rockets hitting the northern town of Nahariya earlier today. Israel responded with mortar fire into Lebanon. No one has claimed responsibility for the firing from Lebanon.
Aid workers were given a three-hour halt to the fighting Wednesday to try to deliver desperately needed supplies. But European Commission official Simon Horner said the brief lull doesn’t even meet the bare requirement for delivering aid.
Scott Horner: “Yes, three hours is a bit of a help, but it’s really not even the bare minimum. It’s just a slight assistance that allows inhabitants of Gaza to get out to reach supplies where they’re available inside the Strip, but an awful lot more needs to be done. And ultimately, of course, what we want is a sustained ceasefire, followed up hopefully by a political solution, in order to ensure that the humanitarian needs are addressed as quickly as possible.”
The UN says more than one million Gazans are without electricity or running water.
Israel has continued the Gaza assault despite claiming it’s in “fundamental agreement” with an Egyptian and French ceasefire proposal. The plan calls for an end to the fighting, followed by talks on lifting the economic blockade of Gaza and securing its borders. Israeli officials are expected to travel to Egypt today.
European Union policy chief Javier Solana: “The initiative of President Mubarak, we welcome it and we support it. We were working with him last night and had been well received by Prime Minister Olmert, by leaders of the region, and I hope very much that that will be the stone upon which we can construct a ceasefire that I hope will be coming very soon.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly will begin a two-day emergency session today over the Gaza attack. General Assembly president and former Nicaraguan foreign minister Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann called the session in response to his reported opposition to the US refusal to authorize a Security Council-backed ceasefire.
Protests continue against the Gaza attack. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 Palestinians gathered in the West Bank city of Hebron. And in Israel, hundreds of Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv.
Israeli protester: “I came to protest against what my government is doing in Gaza: killing civilians, children, women, that are stranded in their houses with nowhere to go, with no fuel, no electricity, no water. This is absolutely violation of human rights.”
Meanwhile, in Canada, a group of eight Jewish women were arrested after staging a sit-in at the Israeli consulate in Toronto. The women were handcuffed, arrested and detained in a police wagon before they were released. The group included the Canadian journalist and activist Judy Rebick. A spokesperson said, “Israel purports to represent all Jews worldwide, and these atrocities are not being committed in our name.”
On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders appear to have reversed their opposition to allowing Roland Burris to claim President-elect Obama’s vacated Senate seat. Burris was appointed by the scandal-plagued Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has been indicted on corruption charges. Democratic lawmakers met Burris Wednesday, one day after blocking his swearing-in on the Senate floor. Burris said he expects to take office.
Roland Burris: “So I’m very pleased this afternoon. I’m happy. My whole interest in this experience has been to be prepared, Roland, to represent my great state. And that is my love, that is my desire, and, very shortly, I will have the opportunity to do that as a junior senator from the fifth largest state in this great country of ours.”
Burris is the former Illinois Attorney General. If he is allowed to serve, he would be the only African American in the Senate.
Meanwhile, at the White House, President Bush hosted President-elect Barack Obama and three other living US presidents for a rare meeting. Standing next to Bush, his father President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton and President Jimmy Carter, Obama thanked Bush for the gathering.
President-elect Obama: “I just want to thank the President for hosting us. This is an extraordinary gathering. All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office. And for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary, and I’m very grateful to all of them.”
The five then held a private White House lunch, but no details were revealed on their discussion. President Jimmy Carter has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration, calling President Bush “the worst president in history” on foreign policy.
And in California, the police officer involved in a New Year’s Day shooting of an unarmed transit passenger has resigned. Officer Johannes Mehserle stepped down just before he was set to be interviewed by investigators. Cell phone videos show Officer Mehserle pulling out a gun and shooting twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant in the back while he was lying face down on the ground on a subway platform. Grant worked as a butcher at an Oakland grocery store and was the father of a four-year-old daughter. He was buried on Wednesday. Fifteen people were arrested in Oakland Wednesday night after hundreds turned out to protest Grant’s killing.