UN Security Council calls for Gaza ceasefire

The UN Security Council passed a resolution late Thursday calling for an "immediate and durable" ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, ramping up pressure on the two sides to end military activities that have raged for the past two weeks.

U.S. lone abstention in unanimous vote on resolution

A severely injured Palestinian man is carried moments after being hit in an Israeli missile strike in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday.
The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution late Thursday calling for an "immediate and durable" ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, ramping up pressure on the two sides to end military activities that have raged for the past two weeks. 

The resolution passed in a vote at UN headquarters in New York after key Arab and Western countries reached agreement on the language, which calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territory.

It also calls for arrangements in Gaza to prevent arms smuggling, as well as the reopening of border crossings and the "unimpeded" provision of aid for the territory's 1.4 million residents.

The United States, a permanent member with veto power on the 15-member council and Israel's staunchest ally, was the lone country to abstain from the vote.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washinton wanted to see what would emerge from the Egyptian mediation effort underway to end the conflict, but she added her country backed the text of the resolution, despite its abstention vote.

After the vote, Rice called the resolution "a step toward our goals," but lay the blame for the outbreak of hostilities squarely on Hamas rocket attacks.

"We must establish an international consensus that Gaza must never again be used as a launching pad for rockets against Israel," she told the council.

But as the Security Council convened to vote on the resolution, Israeli aircraft bombed a five-storey building in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, killing seven people, including an infant, the Associated Press reported.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

The Palestinian death toll since the Israeli assault began has now exceeded 750, including some 350 civilians, according to Gaza medical officials and UN estimates. More than 3,000 Palestinians have been injured, according to the Associated Press. Ten Israelis, including three civilians, have also been killed.

UN relief agency suspends aid to Gaza

The vote came hours after the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said it will suspend aid shipments over safety concerns, after Israeli forces fired on one of its trucks.

"These firings on our convoy are coming from the Israeli military themselves, with whom we have co-ordinated our movement, and that is what is absolutely unacceptable," UNRWA director John Ging said in an interview with CBC News.

John Holmes, the UN's humanitarian affairs chief, said one person was killed and a second man later died of his injuries when the delivery truck contracted by UNRWA came under fire in the morning. Holmes said they believe the fire came from an Israeli tank.

The attack occurred despite the fact the UN had co-ordinated the delivery with Israel and the vehicle was clearly identifiable, he said.

Flow of goods halted

As a result, the transport company, which is the only one authorized to handle the movement of goods at the border crossings, will suspend all operations until the safety of its drivers can be guaranteed.

"All movement of goods of any significant kind in Gaza is suspended even if the crossings are opened," Holmes said during a briefing at UN Headquarters in New York.

Israel, which launched the Gaza offensive on Dec. 27 to curb rocket attacks from Hamas on its southern towns, said its army is investigating the fatal shooting.

"We're not sure it was us. We're investigating. Any complaint the UN makes, we look into," said Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev. "You've got to remember there are a lot of other … people with weapons in Gaza."

Later Thursday, during the daily three-hour humanitarian lull, a UN medical convoy that included an ambulance and two armoured vehicles came under fire in Gaza City. Holmes said all vehicles were clearly marked and had been on their way to retrieve the body of a UN worker killed earlier in the campaign.

"It's now apparent to us that this has reached an unacceptable level," Ging said. "We just have to now call a hold until we can be assured that we can conduct our humanitarian operations here with a reasonable [sense of] security.

"We are devastated because we're here with people who are in phenomenal need of our assistance."

Red Cross accuses Israeli troops of hindering help to wounded

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is accusing Israel of failing to fulfil its obligation to assist injured civilians in the Palestinian territory.

The accusations were made after Red Cross medical teams discovered four young children huddled around 12 bodies inside a shelled house. The ICRC said in a statement that its aid workers were told by Israeli Defence Forces, who had an outpost about 80 metres from the house, to leave the area, where more than a dozen other wounded Palestinians were languishing in bombed houses.

Large earth walls erected by the Israeli army had made it impossible to bring ambulances into the neighbourhood, according to the statement. The wounded were eventually transported to ambulances on a donkey cart.

Palestinians gather around the ruins of the Al-Noor Mosque following an Israeli air strike in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood of Gaza City on Thursday. ((Hatem Moussa/Associated Press))

"This is a shocking incident," said Pierre Wettach, ICRC head for Israel and the 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."

The accusation was a rare move for the ICRC, which normally conducts confidential negotiations with warring parties.

The Israeli army said any serious allegations would be properly investigated once a formal complaint was received, according to Reuters.

Palestinian health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain saidthe bodies of 35 people, including women and children, were discovered Thursday in the ruins of a Gaza Strip battle zone. It was not immediately clear how many of the dead were militants.

Israel temporarily halted attacks on the Palestinian territory for a second day in a row Thursday to allow Gaza residents to stock up on humanitarian supplies, and to allow aid to enter the embattled region.

Rockets fired from Lebanon into northern Israel

The brief lull occurred several hours after rockets fired from Lebanon struck northern Israel on Thursday, the first time the Jewish state has come under fire from its northern neighbour since the offensive began.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said at least three rockets fell around the town of Nahariya, about eight kilometres south of the Lebanese border, striking a nursing home and wounding two people.

Israel's army fired five artillery shells back at Lebanon, an Israeli military spokesperson said, in "a pinpoint response at the source of fire."

It was not immediately clear who was behind the rocket attacks from Lebanon, but similar launches from Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon were a hallmark of the 34-day conflict in 2006 between Israel and the militant and political group.

Both Israeli and Lebanese officials have said they don't believe the attack was launched by Hezbollah.

UN commander urges 'maximum restraint'

Lebanon and Israel must exercise "maximum restraint" in the aftermath of the attack, the commander of UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) in Lebanon, Maj.-Gen. Claudio Graziano, said via a spokesman for the peacekeeping force, according to Reuters.

UNIFIL is working to determine who launched the attacks and has deployed additional troops to the Lebanese-Israeli border, said spokesman Neeraj Singh.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the rocket attacks, as well as Israel's response, in a statement issued Thursday, saying the strike from south Lebanon was designed to undermine stability.

In Nahariya, one of the rockets fired from Lebanon penetrated the roof of a retirement home and exploded in the kitchen as about 25 residents were eating breakfast in the next room. One resident suffered a broken leg and another some bruising after slipping on the floor when the emergency sprinklers turned on.

Earlier in the day, explosions were heard from southern Gaza, according to media reports from the Israel-Gaza border, while Arab television station Al Jazeera reported 15 people were injured in a nighttime strike at a mosque. Israel has barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza, making it difficult to get an accurate picture of the situation in the coastal territory.

Later reports that a second barrage of rockets had struck northern Israel appear to have been a false alarm caused by the sonic boom from an aircraft.

Lebanese authorities are trying to determine who launched the rockets and have deployed additional troops to the border with Israel.

Israel, which has repeatedly said it is preparing for an attack in the north, has mobilized thousands of reserve troops and warned Hezbollah that it is prepared to retaliate.

Israeli cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit, however, agreed the attack was likely carried out by a small Islamic group and not Hezbollah.

Israeli envoy to arrive in Cairo

Late Wednesday, Egypt's UN ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz, said his country would host separate talks with delegations from Israel, Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which is not directly involved in the conflict.

The plan, introduced by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, calls for an immediate ceasefire, an end to rocket attacks on Israel, the opening of Gaza border crossings and an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza from neighbouring Egypt.

Israel has said that it accepts the principles of the proposal but that it needs guarantees Hamas will not rearm during the ceasefire period. Hamas has said it wants border crossings into Gaza reopened.

Israel launched its military campaign with a series of air strikes on Dec. 27, followed by a ground incursion by thousands of its troops into Gaza, in response to the resumption of Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel. The rocket attacks restarted shortly after a six-month truce between the two sides expired. 

Many Gazans are living without electricity or running water, and thousands have been displaced from their homes. Hospitals are overcrowded, and the UN is urging that patients be allowed to be taken out of Gaza.

Holmes said about 20,000 Palestinians have been displaced by the violence and most of Gaza is without electricity. Sewage lagoons are filling up because pumps don't have power to run while hundreds of thousands of people are without running water.

The main power plant can't resume full operations because it is too damaged, he said.

With files from the Associated Press