Church Groups, Rights Agencies Urge Protection of Gazans

International humanitarian agencies and rights groups sent a letter to President Bush and other U.S. leaders, the United Nations, and Israeli and Egyptian ambassadors this week urging them to protect Gazan civilians according to international law as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas.

"It is…incumbent upon Israel and Egypt to immediately open their borders and provide full rights and protection to [Gazan] civilians under international law attempting to flee violence and persecution," read the letter signed by Church World Service/Immigration & Refugee Program, The Episcopal Church, Amnesty International–USA, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and others.

The groups noted that two-thirds of Gazans are refugees and have not been able to leave the Gaza Strip because of the "siege imposed" by the Israeli Government on the borders.

Both Israel and Egypt are signatories to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the signers added.

In addition to the refugee problem, U.S. and other international leaders were also urged to facilitate the delivery of adequate humanitarian aid to civilians with the cooperation of Egypt and Israel.

"Movement of humanitarian aid within the Gaza Strip is increasingly difficult," they said. "Professional medical volunteers from various countries continue to be denied entry to help treat injured civilians.

"We call on the Israeli Government to urgently facilitate their deployment to Gaza."

On Thursday, Israel tank shells fell on the central warehouses of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) causing the destruction of tens of millions in supplies and aid.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who was in Israel at the time, told reporters that he has expressed "outrage" at the attack on U.N. facilities to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, according to Agence France-Presse.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Ban that the incident was "a grave mistake" and promised there will be no similar incident in the future.

Barak has also blamed Hamas for the U.N. storehouse incident, accusing Hamas of using Palestinian civilians as human shields and firing at Israeli Defense Forces from sites near the U.N. buildings.

But UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness refuted the claim, saying there were "no militants or militant activity in our compound."

The United Nations says it will suspend some of its operations in Gaza following the warehouse fire because "the trucks with aid cannot leave the area following the fire."

As of Friday, Israel is showing signs of easing its offensive on Gaza as it discusses truce terms after Hamas' ceasefire offer. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said "hopefully we're in the final act" on Friday, according Reuters.

The church and rights groups in the letter applauded the United States for its recent commitment of $85 million to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency emergency appeal, but asked the U.S. government to take on a "more robust leadership position" to secure an immediate ceasefire to alleviate the humanitarian disaster.