GAZA CITY, Jan 13: International Committee of the Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger on Tuesday called for medical workers in Gaza to be protected as he visited the battered territory in the midst of Israeli attacks.

“I wanted to see this hospital,” he said outside Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital that, short-staffed and low on supplies, has been straining to handle the wounded from Israel’s deadliest offensive on Gaza.

“And I can only say this is really very sad and it hurts a lot when you see what I’ve just seen. It’s absolutely indispensable and not negotiable that (the) medical mission in such a conflict has to be protected,” he said.

At least 12 medics have been killed since Israel unleashed its Operation Cast Lead on Hamas in Gaza on Dec 27.

The ICRC, which has a dual role as a relief agency in conflicts and the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, has been unusually outspoken over the past week about the impact of the fighting on civilians and health workers.

Last Thursday, the agency accused Israel of failing to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for the wounded after it found a group of wounded people and corpses unattended near an Israeli army position.

Kellenberger has backed repeated calls for unrestricted safe passage for ambulances at all times. On Tuesday the agency complained in a daily report that access to the wounded was still limited due to the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants.

Israeli forces storm neighbourhood

Israeli tanks roared into a Gaza City neighbourhood full of apartment towers on Tuesday as soldiers sought to flush out Hamas militants from cellars and alleyways. Terrified residents cowered in their homes or ran for cover from the fighting.

The thrust into the Tel Hawwa neighborhood was the deepest yet by Israeli troops who have virtually surrounded the coastal city of 400,000.

Israel’s chief negotiator will go to Egypt for “decisive” talks on a cease-fire with Hamas, officials said on Tuesday.

Asked if Israel’s war aims had been achieved, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said: “Most of them, probably not all of them.”

Palestinian hospital officials say more than 970 Palestinians, half of them civilians, have been killed in the offensive so far.

A total of 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers, have died. Palestinian rocket fire has dropped since the offensive was launched. Some 15 rockets and mortar shells were fired toward Israel on Tuesday, the army said.

Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israeli military, said Hamas militants have put on Israeli military uniforms to try to approach troops and carry out suicide bombings.

Hamas cannot hope to score a battlefield victory over the powerful Israeli military, but mere survival could earn it political capital in the Arab world as a symbol of resistance to the Jewish state. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, another Iran-backed group, achieved that goal in its 2006 war with Israel.

Hundreds of terrified Palestinians living in Rafah fled for their lives after a wave of ferocious Israeli air strikes along Gaza’s border with Egypt, witnesses said.

Black smoke curled into the sky as Israeli warplanes carried out dozens of bombing raids over the border area, destroying at least four houses, they said.

Witnesses said hundreds of people had been forced to flee after Israel dropped leaflets warning it was about to bombard targets along the border.

“There have been more than 60 air strikes along the border and my house has been partly destroyed,” said Mohammed Ismael, 28, who has taken his family to stay with relatives in another party of the city.

Ali Abdelsataf al-Hams, 22, said he and his family had abandoned their home several days ago to stay with relatives in another part of Gaza. “I came back and found our house destroyed,” he said.

An Iranian ship carrying aid to Gaza was stopped by Israel’s navy off the coast of the Palestinian territory, Iran’s state radio said.

“An Iranian ship that was carrying foodstuff and medicine was stopped by the Zionist regime’s navy 20 miles off the coast of Gaza,” radio reported, adding that the ship had left the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas 13 days earlier.—Agencies