The international Red Cross accused Israel on Thursday of "unacceptable" delays in letting rescue workers reach three Gaza City homes hit by shelling where they eventually found 15 dead and 18 wounded, including young children too weak to stand.
The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross said the Israeli army refused rescuers permission to reach the site in the Zaytun neighborhood for four days. Ambulances could not get to the neighborhood because the Israeli army had erected large earthen barriers that blocked access.
Israel said the delay was caused by fighting in the area and accused Hamas of using Palestinian civilians as human shields. Since Wednesday, Israel has observed a daily three-hour halt in operations to allow humanitarian evacuations and aid deliveries throughout Gaza.
Eventually, rescuers from the international Red Cross and Palestine Red Crescent received permission to go into the shelled houses on Wednesday, four days after the buildings were hit by Israeli shells.
"This is a shocking incident," Pierre Wettach, head of the ICRC for the region, said.
The rescue team "found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up," the statement said. "In all, there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses" in one of the houses, it added.
The organization said the children and the wounded had to be transported by donkey cart to ambulances.
Rare public criticism
"The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded," the international Red Cross said. "Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestine Red Crescent to assist the wounded."
The ICRC normally conducts confidential negotiations with warring parties, and the statement was a rare public criticism of one party to a conflict over a specific incident.
The organization said it believes "in this instance, the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded."
"It considers the delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable," the Red Cross statement said.
The organization alleged Israel also refused requests to go to other destroyed houses in the same neighborhood of Gaza City, where they had reports of more wounded people.
Red Cross medics in Gaza could not be reached for comment on the condition of the children rescued from Zeitoun. ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas in Geneva said the children were evacuated during Wednesday's three-hour cease-fire. The Palestine Red Crescent said the children are in the Shifa and al-Quds hospitals in Gaza City.
The Associated Press was not able to visit the hospitals because of the dangers of moving around Gaza, and it has been difficult to obtain information from the hospitals about the children because staff are overwhelmed with casualties and unable to talk with reporters.
Red Cross spokesman Iyad Nasr said emergency crews evacuated 105 more injured people from Zeitoun on Thursday and were struggling to find shelter for them. Also Thursday, a Palestinian health official said the bodies of 35 people have been found in the rubble of bombed out building in Gaza City during a three-hour pause in fighting, many of them in the Zeitoun neighborhood.
The Israeli military did not comment on the specifics of the Red Cross allegations, but said it is closely cooperating with international aid organizations during the Gaza fighting to assist civilians caught in the crossfire.
"The Israel Defense Forces are engaged in a battle with the Hamas terrorist organization that has deliberately used Palestinian civilians as human shields," a military statement said. "The IDF in no way intentionally targets civilians and has demonstrated its willingness to abort operations to save civilian lives and to risk injury in order to assist innocent civilians."
Israel said it would investigate any formal complaint against the army's conduct within the constraints of the current military operation.
Israel's ambassador in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, denied his country was failing in its humanitarian obligations.
"Once the military activity was over, then it was possible for humanitarian teams to evacuate the wounded," he told The Associated Press.
Leshno-Yaar said Israel respects international humanitarian law and is working with aid groups to allow the wounded to be removed and in some cases transferred to hospitals in Israel.
But aid groups say safe passage around Gaza remains a problem.
On Thursday, the United Nations said it was halting all aid deliveries to Gaza, citing Israeli military actions against its premises and personnel.
The international Red Cross said it would continue its operations despite one of its convoys coming under fire from an Israeli position at the Netzarim crossing during the three-hour halt in fighting Thursday. One driver was lightly injured.
ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas said the convoy, which was escorting ambulances to the south of Gaza, was forced to abort its mission.