Israel Says Palestinians Abusing UN Symbols, Vehicles

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel is demanding that the United Nations investigate the alleged abuse of its vehicles by Palestinians after a drone photographed Palestinian militants loading what appeared to be a Kassam rocket into an ambulance clearly marked from the top as belonging to the U.N., the Israeli army said.

The U.N. Security Council is due to meet on Monday to discuss Israel's latest military operation in the northern Gaza Strip, now in its sixth day.

Israeli tanks and troops spread out in the northern Gaza Strip over the weekend in an extensive operation in Gaza, taking up positions several miles into the Gaza Strip, to create a buffer zone against the firing of Kassam rockets at Israeli cities.

Two Kassam rockets fell in Sderot on Monday morning, lightly injuring one Israeli, Israel Radio reported. The army could not confirm the report.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said earlier in a radio interview that the military operation, which is expected to be protracted, would last "as long as necessary" and was intended to harm terrorists, those that send them, terrorist leaders and those who manufacture the weapons used to harm Israelis.

Israel launched the operation after two toddler cousins were murdered while playing together under a tree in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on the eve of the Succoth holiday.

More than 60 Palestinians have been killed, most of them armed militants, and some 250 wounded since the beginning of the operation last week, including a number of militants that were killed by helicopter fire as they attempted to launch rockets or plant bombs.

More than 460 of the homemade but deadly Kassam rockets have been launched at Israel, killing four people so far and doing a tremendous amount of damage.

Hamas has been sending mixed messages. A spokesman was quoted on Monday as saying that his group would stop firing rockets if Israel halted its operation in the Jabalya refugee camp.

Earlier the group vowed to target the Israeli city of Ashkelon, which is even further north of Gaza than Sderot. At least one Kassam has landed on the outskirts of the city during the last few years.

The Israeli army released a video taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle showing Palestinian gunmen launching Kassam rockets from within a densely populated area within the Jabalya refugee camp, one of two locations where the military operation is concentrated.

The six video clips, taken over a two-week period, also show a targeted killing of a Hamas operative responsible for launching Kassam rockets as he is transporting them in his car, with a subsequent explosion after the vehicle is hit.

But the black and white image that has upset Israel the most appears to show militants loading a Kassam rocket into a white vehicle with large U.N. initials on the top in the Jabalya refugee camp.

Israel's Ambassador to the U.N. Dan Gillerman planned to file a complaint with the Secretary General Kofi Annan on Monday, Foreign Ministry Spokesman David Saranga said.

"We are asking the secretary general to investigate the abuse of U.N. vehicles and symbols by the Palestinians," Saranga said.

In a weekend radio interview Gillerman said it was "inconceivable" that the U.N. would be used a "cover for terror."

Gillerman also blamed Peter Hansen, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) - the U.N. body that takes care of Palestinian refugee aid - calling him a "hater of Israel" and the "source of the problem." He suggested that the U.N. reconsider Hansen's role.

But Saranga said that contrary to media reports, no complaint about Hansen was being made and Israel would wait to see the results of the U.N. investigation and what steps the U.N. would take to correct the abuse before making any other further demands.

UNRWA, meanwhile, demanded an apology from Israel, saying the object seen in the video clip was a stretcher and not a missile.

At a press conference in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, UNRWA produced a rescue worker, Wahel Ghabayen, who said he's the person seen in the video clip. He said he had responded to a call at a school but found the victim already had been moved and therefore returned to the ambulance with the stretcher in one hand and threw it in the car.

"If it was a missile, I would not throw it into the car but would put it in carefully," Ghabayen said.

Hansen said in a statement on UNRWA's website that following a U.N. analysis, which included the size and weight of a Kassam, he had concluded that "beyond the shadow of a doubt that the object carried and thrown into the vehicle is not/ cannot be a Kassam rocket."

Hansen said he had been told that a Kassam rocket weighs 32 kilograms (about 70 pounds). According to reports, the rockets can weigh between 5.5 kilos (11 pounds) and 35 kilos (77 pounds).

"I am concerned that such false allegations can lead to increased aggressive behavior by Israelis towards the United Nations in general and U.N. humanitarian staff in particular, and therefore seriously increase the risks which U.N. personnel face in this zone of violent conflict," Hansen said.

But Saranga said that is why Israel is demanding an investigation. It is not the first complaint that Israel has lodged with the U.N. about seemingly neutral organizations.

Several months ago, Israel filed a complaint about the use of Palestinian militants and munitions being transported in U.N. ambulances in the Zeitoun neighborhood of the Gaza Strip, Saranga said.

Four years ago, when Hizballah staged a cross-border kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers, U.N. peacekeepers stationed on the Lebanese side of the Israeli-Lebanese border caught the abduction on video.

Only after Israel pressured the U.N. for well over a year, did the international organization admit that the tapes even existed, Saranga said.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called on Israel to end its operation in the Gaza Strip, which, he said, had "led to the deaths of scores of Palestinians, among them many civilians, including children."

He also called on the Palestinian Authority to "take action to halt the firing of rockets against Israeli targets."

At the request of Algeria, the Security Council is due to hold an emergency session on Monday to discuss the Israeli operation.

Palestinian leaders have called on the international community to pressure Israel into halting the operation.

PA Chairman Yasser Arafat claimed that the rockets that Israel is talking about haven't killed anyone. "They only make noise," he said.

In the past, Israel's military incursions into Palestinian areas have met with severe international criticism that has basically curtailed Israel's activities against terrorists and their infrastructure.

But Saranga said he did not think it would happen this time "because the world understands that the reason [for the operation is to end] the launching of rockets."

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