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A United Nations official on Thursday expressed concern that Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip was encouraging a "smuggler-gangster" economy which was financially beneficial for Hamas.

"People are not starving in Gaza," said John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in an exclusive interview with Haaretz. "There are plenty of goods available, some coming in through legitimate crossing points but mainly through the tunnels."

"While it relieves the pressure in a sense, it isn't good at all, because all it really does is encourage a smuggler-gangster economy, which incidentally benefits Hamas financially," Holmes added.

According to Holmes, the blockade was working against Israel's interest and has proven to be ineffective in its goal.

"The smuggler-gangster economy is undermining some of the best legitimate forces in Gaza's civil society, which do exist, whatever people might think," he said. "It is therefore not in anyone's interest, certainly not in Israel's. So I think this policy continues to be ineffective and indeed counterproductive."

Although there are basic goods in Gaza, said Holmes, the population is still dependent on outside aid because they cannot afford the stocks available in the coastal territory.

"Even though there are plenty of goods available in Gaza, and that people should be able to get them, the problem is of course that most people have no money," he said. "Eighty percent of the people in Gaza are essentially dependent on outside food aid" not because there isn't food in the shops - there is - but they can't afford it, or they can't afford enough of it."

"Other than the people that work for Hamas, or are paid by the PA, there is no income, so people are forced to live on handouts," he added.

When asked what he foresaw for Gaza's future, Holmes said: "Trouble is that most of the avenues that could lead to change are blocked."

Nevertheless, he said that an Israeli-Hamas deal to see hundreds of Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange for captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit may be able to improve the situation facing Gaza population.

"If Gilad Shalit was released, although the link between his fate and the fate of 1.5 million people is not a reasonable one, that might at least lead to some improvement," he said.

"It is unclear how great that improvement would be, but let's hope so. But that negotiation seems to have run into a dead end, and negotiations between Hamas and Fatah seem to be stuck, so it is hard to see how it can get any better."

"What the policy of the blockade is doing is not encouraging the forces you want to encourage. Gaza is not a nest of terrorists," Holmes declared. "For the most part there are people who just want to live ordinary lives, and they are being undermined by what's happening. So you are in danger of creating a generation of people who are nourished on despair."

Morten Berthelsen contributed to this report.

The full exclusive interview with John Holmes will appear in Haaretz on Friday