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U.N. Protests Israeli Fire On Gaza Facility

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The United Nations and the Palestinian Red Crescent both came under fire from Israeli forces in Gaza today. The U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, demanded a full explanation. Initially, the Israeli Defense Minister called the attack on the U.N. compound a grave mistake. But afterward, Israel's Prime Minister said Hamas militants had launched attacks from the U.N. facility. NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Jerusalem.

MIKE SHUSTER: It was a very violent day in Gaza. Last night and much of today, Israel intensified its bombardment of the territory, concentrating fire on structures in central Gaza City which until now had not been targeted. The shelling of the U.N. compound caused a massive explosion, according to John Ging, director of the U.N.'s Relief and Works Agency speaking earlier today from Gaza.

NORRIS: The warehouse now is on fire. And this is where there are thousands of tons of food and medicine. This is our hub for the whole operation. It's right here in the center of Gaza City.

SHUSTER: The shelling of the U.N. compound came on the day that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was meeting with key Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Ban expressed outrage at the Israeli attack and Barak told him it was a grave mistake. The U.N. secretary general demanded that Israeli military activities should stop.

NORRIS: Civilian sufferings has reached an unbearable point. That is why I have urged an immediate and durable and truly respected ceasefire. The rockets must stop and Israel's offensive must end.

SHUSTER: Secretary General Ban met later with Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Olmert insisted Israeli forces hit the U.N. compound because Hamas militants were launching attacks from inside. With the U.N. secretary general present, however, Olmert expressed his regrets.

P: I'm very sorry. Although, as I said, the Israeli forces were attacked and as it happened, the response was harsh and I'm very sorry. We certainly, absolutely don't want that to happen.

SHUSTER: These attacks were all part of the intensification of Israel's operations over the past 24 hours. Iyad Nasser(ph) of the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza said the military situation had become much more volatile.

NORRIS: Another wave, another scale of violence that is going on here last night and today for all day.

SHUSTER: Among the targets was Hamas' Interior Minister Said Siyam. Hamas' television station in Gaza tonight confirmed that Siyam was killed today in an Israeli airstrike along with his son and brother. Siyam was one of the most important Hamas leaders killed in the war so far. One of the Red Crescent's hospitals was also the target of Israeli shelling. It, too, was set ablaze, Iyad Nasser said.

NORRIS: And it's been extremely difficult to organize the putting off this fire with the fire brigade. And finally, we were allowed to escort fire brigades to put off the fire.

SHUSTER: Through 20 days of the Israeli offensive, rockets launched from Gaza have continued to fall on Israeli territory, at least a dozen today. Medical workers now believe more than a thousand Palestinians have died in the conflict, with over 4,000 injured. The number of Israeli fatalities has held steady for two weeks at 13. There's been much talk here that Israel and Hamas are close to an agreement on a ceasefire. Today, Israel sent a senior representative to Cairo to continue talks with the Egyptian government. He returned to Jerusalem this evening to brief the triumverate that has been running the war: Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. There is much speculation that Israel's intensified bombardment of Gaza today is meant to send a signal to Hamas, a demonstration of just how far Israel is prepared to go if Hamas does not agree to a ceasefire and the fighting continues. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Shuster
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.