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Red Cross Official Details Gaza Situation


In Gaza, the International Committee of the Red Cross is scaling back its rescue work, after a convoy came under fire yesterday at an Israeli checkpoint. The gunfire narrowly missed the driver of a Red Cross truck. The Red Cross says the trip had been cleared in advance with the Israeli army. The convoy of ambulances carrying intensive care patients from Gaza to Egypt had to turn back.

On Wednesday, the Red Cross reached a neighborhood of demolished homes south of Gaza City. There, rescue workers found 16 bodies, mostly women and children, and they found survivors, including children next to their dead mothers. They were too weak to stand on their own. The wounded were taken by donkey cart to ambulances half a mile away. The Red Cross says it had requested safe passage for ambulances to get to the area, but had been denied permission for four days. Katharina Ritz is head of mission for the Red Cross in Jerusalem. I asked her what sorts of injuries the rescue teams in Gaza are treating.

Ms. KATHARINA RITZ (Head of Jerusalem Mission, International Committee of the Red Cross): What we can see is that most of the injured coming in, especially the civilians, they have mainly blast and burn injuries. So, we can see many lower-limb amputation and chest, head traumas, many children.

BLOCK: Your head of delegation there called this incident shocking, and the Red Cross issued a statement saying Israel had failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded. How unusual is it for the Red Cross to make a statement like that?

Ms. RITZ: It's very unusual. I think this expresses as well a little bit the scenes we have found there. We do still say to the Israeli army, well, look, there are still families in this neighborhood; they need assistance until we can get to them; the wounded should be looked after; they should be evacuated. It doesn't necessarily need to be a humanitarian organization. The army should at least give them the water, the food and the medical treatment until we can move in and evacuate the wounded.

BLOCK: When the Red Cross said that Israel's conduct here was unacceptable, does that still apply to the position of the Israeli military now, or have things improved?

Ms. RITZ: Listen, let's - I mean, I will be very honest. We didn't find this scene again. Let's hope that this is not something which hopefully have happened in other areas. I think we say we should leave this behind us, and the Israeli army has called us as well to help them to bring in food and water. But you know, there is fighting on the ground, and then we do whatever we can, and in the meantime, they should assist the people. And when we get in, we will assist them and we will evacuate them.

BLOCK: There is a three-hour suspension of fighting every day. How much are you able to do in that three-hour window?

Ms. RITZ: Yesterday, before it was actually quite successful. And I think it was successful because, for the first 10 days, I think it was - we were practically not able to achieve anything. We couldn't bring in ambulances. Whenever we got an approval by the army, we run into fighting and we had to abort the ambulance mission. And you know, the situation changed since you have ground forces inside Gaza. During the air raid, it's the big risk to be a collateral damage, but not really the target.

Now, we have soldiers inside the Gaza Strip. We have checkpoints. There is fighting going on, and whatever the soldier doesn't know is coming is potentially an enemy, and the same thing probably for the Palestinian side too. On the other hand, we have to stress we are an organization working in war. We have emblems; we have flags. We still think that if we arrive with such a marked convoy stopping in front of a checkpoint, approaching very slowly, that, OK, they just shouldn't shoot in front, in the windshield and in the truck itself. We have to go back to the drawing book with the army and say, OK, this happened. Now what? How can we work? And we need to work.

BLOCK: We've been talking with Katharina Ritz, head of mission for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jerusalem. Ms. Ritz, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. RITZ: Thanks to you, too. 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.

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