United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, in order to see for himself the extent of the damage caused there during the 50-day war with Israel to receive a report on preparations being made to begin reconstruction.
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Ban also visited Israeli communities near the border with Gaza, and toured a Hamas tunnel uncovered by Israel during the fighting.
During his visit to the Strip, Ban lamented the vast destruction in Gaza as he visited the area on Tuesday for the first time since the war, calling the situation "beyond description" and urging a speedy reconstruction effort.
He also announced that Israel was permitting a first truckload of construction materials to enter the enclave, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since before the conflict.
In a short visit under tight security, Ban toured areas that were heavily bombarded by Israel during the 50-day war, in which more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel also died at the hands of Hamas rockets and other attacks.
"I am here with a heavy heart," Ban told a news conference. "The destruction which I have seen coming here is beyond description," he added, calling it much worse than what he had witnessed after the last war in 2008-9.
He also called on Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table to find a solution to the crucial issues, warning that violence would otherwise return to the region.
The news conference was held jointly with Deputy Palestinian Prime Minister Zayad Abu Amar.
Ban entered the Strip through the Erez checkpoint, and began his tour in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood, east of Gaza City, followed by the Jabalya refugee camp, where he saw first-hand the destruction in both places - and in particular in Shujaiyeh, which was almost completely demolished during this summer's fighting.
Ban visited a number of other sites, including the sea shore, where he spoke with a number of Gazan fishermen. He also visited facilities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) that were damaged during the war.
An estimated 20,000 homes were heavily damaged or destroyed in the fighting, while the territory's power station and other major pieces of infrastructure were hit. Contractors say it could take years to rebuild.
At a conference in Cairo on Sunday, international donors pledged a larger-than-expected $5.4 billion for Gaza's reconstruction, although a large portion of that money will go to support the Palestinian budget, not directly to rebuild homes and Gaza's infrastructure.
During his visit, Ban met with members of the Palestinian unity government that was formed following an agreement in April between the Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah, and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that dominates in Gaza.
Fifteen trucks carrying cement, 10 carrying iron and 50 carrying gravel entered the Strip on Tuesday. The construction materials are intended for private construction.
This is the first time such goods have entered Gaza since end of the recent round of hostilities. Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh and Raid Fatuh, who heads the presidential commission for coordinating the entry of goods into Gaza, said they hoped this would be just the first step in reconstructing the Strip.
Under the agreement between the parties, UN employees in Gaza will oversee the use of the construction material and heavy equipment to be brought into the Strip to assure that they are not used to rebuild Hamas’ tunnels or fortifications.
“The UN-brokered trilateral agreement on a temporary Gaza reconstruction mechanism has opened the door for much needed reconstruction, taking fully into account Israel’s legitimate security concerns,” Ban said, at the start of a two-day visit to the region. “I urge both sides to implement this mechanism in good faith.”
With that, Ban stressed that rebuilding Gaza is not enough to change the Strip’s difficult reality. He called on Israel to fundamentally change the conditions in Gaza by easing the blockade on the Strip, saying, “If conditions in Gaza simply revert to where they were before this escalation, the clock will be reset for more instability, underdevelopment and conflict.”
Ban called on Israel to allow the orderly entry and exit of people and goods to and from the Strip, to encourage economic growth that would “change the dynamics on the ground and ultimately enhance stability in Gaza, which in turn will improve Israel’s security.”
He also stressed that “the sides must quickly return to the negotiation table with the readiness to make the tough but necessary compromises.”
On the Israeli site of the border, Ban stopped by Kibbutz Nirim, and toured a Hamas tunnel that was uncovered By Israel in the area. He also met with the parents of Daniel Tragerman, a 4-year-old boy who was killed in a mortar shell attack on August 23. The UN chief reiterated his condemnation of rocket fire toward civilian areas and terror attacks carried out via tunnels.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the presence of Ban in Jerusalem on Monday, condemned the United Nations on Monday for its conduct in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. He defended the Israel Defense Forces’ attacks on UN facilities during the operation, noting that Hamas had violated the neutrality of UN installations when it used them to fire rockets at Israel.
“When they found rockets in UN schools, UN officials returned them to Hamas, the same Hamas that fired the same rockets on Israeli cities and Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said.
A day after the international donors’ conference in Cairo raised billions to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip, Ban arrived in Israel on Monday to discuss the reconstruction with senior Israeli government officials, saying it must begin without delay.
At Sunday’s donor conference, Ban said the root causes of the summer’s hostilities were “a restrictive occupation that has lasted almost half a century, the continued denial of Palestinian rights and the lack of tangible progress in peace negotiations.”
Netanyahu, however, said Monday that the occupation was irrelevant. “The root cause of the violence that burst from Gaza is not Israel’s occupation in Gaza, for a simple reason: Israel doesn’t occupy Gaza,” he told the UN chief. “The root cause of this summer’s outburst of violence was Hamas’s rocketing of Israeli cities.”
Netanyahu did not mention the rehabilitation of Gaza in his remarks.
Before meeting with Netanyahu, Ban referred to the trilateral mechanism established by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations to carry out the rehabilitation and oversee it from a security perspective.
Ban got a more positive message in his meeting with President Reuven Rivlin than he got from Netanyahu.
“The rehabilitation of Gaza is an Israeli interest as much as a Palestinian one,” Rivlin said at the opening of their meeting. “Our Palestinian neighbors in Gaza are held captive by Hamas. They deserve safety and a better life.”
Rivlin added that Israel is not “blind to the difficulties” faced by the residents of the Gaza Strip. However, he added, “The lifting of the restrictions can only take place after the Palestinian leadership, and the international community ... dismantle the terrorist capabilities of Hamas, and ensure that Israeli citizens will be able to live in safety.”