/ 20 January 2009

UN chief Ban sees ‘heartbreaking’ Gaza damage

Voicing shock and anger at the ”heartbreaking” devastation, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the Gaza Strip on Tuesday to pledge aid for Palestinians after Israeli attacks killed 1,300 and left thousands homeless.

Israel was set to withdraw its remaining troops before the inauguration of Barack Obama as United States president, seemingly to avoid clouding the start of a new era in a key alliance. Obama’s predecessor George Bush endorsed the three-week offensive as a legitimate response to rocket fire by Gaza’s ruling Islamists.

Since a ceasefire, though nothing like a peace accord, took hold on Sunday, Hamas has demonstrated it remains in charge in the coastal enclave. It held ”victory” rallies to coincide with Ban’s visit. Some speakers urged him and Western powers to end their boycott of Hamas, which won the last Palestinian election.

”I have seen only a fraction of the destruction. This is shocking and alarming,” Ban said, condemning the ”excessive use” of force by Israel as well as militants’ rocket salvoes.

”These are heartbreaking scenes I have seen and I am deeply grieved by what I have seen today,” he told a news conference held against a backdrop of still smouldering food aid in a UN warehouse set ablaze by Israeli gunfire last Thursday.

Ban called the attack ”outrageous” and demanded an inquiry and, if need be, the guilty to be held to account. He criticised Hamas for firing rockets but said Israel used ”excessive force”.

Israel blames Hamas for fighting around civilians and sites run by the United Nations, which supports much of Gaza’s population of 1,5-million. Most are families of refugees who fled or were forced from homes in what became the Jewish state of Israel in 1948.

Ban, on a Middle East tour, was the most senior diplomatic figure to visit the territory in years, certainly since Hamas routed secular Fatah forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and seized control of Gaza in June 2007.

Palestinian unity
Although aid agencies said they planned a massive inflow of supplies to Gaza’s people through Israeli crossings, help will be complicated by the Western boycott of Hamas as a ”terrorist” organisation and an Israeli blockade on many items, including building materials, that can be used to make weapons.

So Ban urged the Palestinians to patch up their political differences within Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in order to realise their hopes of statehood and make peace with Israel.

”I appeal to Fatah, Hamas, to all Palestinian factions, to reunite within the framework of the legitimate Palestinian Authority,” Ban said, urging an end to a schism between Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in the West Bank that has paralysed peace talks.

Thousands of Hamas supporters, many waving green Islamist banners, marched through Gaza and held a rally outside the compound during Ban’s visit. Speakers demanded UN recognition.

”The Hamas government was elected by popular vote,” one said. ”We demand an end to double standards.”

The United Nations, with other key mediators in the Middle East, say they will only deal with Hamas if it recognises Israel, renounces violence and accepts interim peace deals.

In the crowd outside the UN headquarters in Gaza, engineer Abu Murad Ghaleb (40) criticised what many Palestinians see as repeated failure to impose UN peace resolutions on Israel.

”He is just an image, not a voice,” Ghaleb said. ”I am not here to support Hamas but I am here to tell the UN there is no power on earth but Israel and we are not going to bow to it.”

Israeli leaders hope the devastation wrought on Gaza will undermine Hamas’s popularity. There is some sign of impatience.

Also watching the rally outside buildings marked by the latest war, Wael Eid said: ”Hamas over-estimated its own strength … and brought this greater destruction.

”We’ve been let down by everyone in the world, so now we should seek a peace settlement with Israel.”

Troop withdrawal
Israeli political sources said Israel planned to complete its troop pull-out before Barack Obama’s inauguration, scheduled for 5pm GMT. Analysts saw the withdrawal as an effort to avoid any tension with the new US president.

Many Palestinians returned to the rubble of what used to be their homes in Gaza city suburbs that were hard hit during the fighting. They picked through debris, salvaging belongings.

”We’ve won the war. But we’ve lost everything,” said Nabil Sultan, commenting sardonically on Hamas’s V for Victory signs as he surveyed the rubble of his home on the outskirts of the city of Gaza. ”This was my house,” he shrugged, by a pile of smashed concrete and ripped bedding.

Two children were killed by bombs left behind in Gaza, Hamas officials said. There were scattered and contradictory reports of occasional firing but no clear breach of the ceasefire.

Ban, who met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before travelling to Gaza, later visited southern Israel, an area hit by Palestinian rockets during the Gaza war. At Olmert’s office, Ban said he wanted to help to make the ceasefire ”durable”.

Gaza medical officials said the Palestinian dead included at least 700 civilians. Israel says hundreds of militants died.

The United Nations has estimated about $330-million is needed for urgent aid. Reconstruction, if it can be launched in light of the frost between Hamas and the West, may cost close to $2-billion, according to Palestinian and international estimates.

Israel said it hoped to more than treble the number of trucks delivering supplies to about 500 a day. – Reuters