Ban gets first-hand look at Gaza devastation

20 January 2009

20 January 2009

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the war-shattered Gaza Strip on 20 January to demonstrate solidarity with the population and assure them of the full support of the United Nations and the international community.

"I am just appalled," he said on visiting the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) compound that was bombed by Israel last week. "Everyone is smelling this bombing still. It is still burning. It is an outrageous and totally unacceptable attack against the United Nations.

"I have protested many times, and am today protesting in the strongest terms, and am condemning it. I have asked for a full investigation and to make those responsible people accountable."

Mr Ban said he would dispatch a humanitarian needs assessment team on Thursday, led by UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes. "I will do all I can, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, to help in this time of need," he declared.

"This is shocking and alarming. These are heartbreaking scenes. I am deeply grieved by what I have seen today. To the people of Gaza I have this to say. I have seen only a fraction of the destruction and suffering caused to this tiny and crowded place by more than three weeks of heavy bombardment, shelling and street fighting on top of months and years of economic deprivation," he said.

"I have condemned from the outbreak of this conflict the excessive use of force by the Israeli forces in Gaza. I view the rocket attacks into Israel as completely unacceptable."

Earlier he met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, again expressing his relief that Israel had declared a unilateral ceasefire. He stressed the importance of the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and of putting a framework in place to ensure a durable and sustainable end to the violence.

He told Mr Olmert the UN would continue to play a pivotal role in providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza, as well as in long-term recovery and reconstruction.

In addition to visiting Gaza, Mr Ban was also visiting the town of Sderot in southern Israel, a frequent target of Hamas rocket attacks. He has frequently condemned these attacks as well as Israel’s disproportionate response. The three weeks of violence claimed over 1,300 lives, 412 of them children, and wounded more than 5,300, 1,855 of them children, as well as causing widespread destruction and suffering.

Mr Ban said a true end to violence, and true security for both Israelis and Palestinians, would only come through a just and comprehensive settlement to the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict, including the creation of the State of Palestine living side by side with the State of Israel, in peace and security, consistent with relevant Security Council resolutions.

While at the shelled UNRWA building in Gaza City he addressed 200 people from all UN agencies at a town-hall meeting. "For the staff if was a big boost to see him here in person and to hear from him," UNRWA Director of Operations John Ging told a news conference in New York, speaking by video link from ground zero.

He stressed that Mr Ban was able to see first-hand all the devastation on his way into and out of Gaza City from the northern Erez crossing point with Israel, including a damaged hospital and neighbourhoods basically reduced to rubble. "He also saw for himself the impact of the fire that was caused by the shelling of this compound," he added.

Mr Ban met with Gazan civil society leaders who conveyed to him their concerns on the need for accountability by all sides in the recent fighting, the restoration of a dignified existence and a full opening of the crossing points which Israel has frequently closed in response to rocket attacks and other incidents, cutting off basic supplies.

"And also he heard first hand from those civil society leaders their desire for a peaceful process, and I was very pleased that he did get to hear that first hand, because that is somewhat counter to the rhetoric in terms of what would normally be said of people here, in terms of their outlook and orientation," Mr Ging stressed.

"It was a very positive visit for all concerned, and hopefully it sets a precedent that other global leaders will follow, not without its risks, as of course everybody will appreciate, but the courage of the Secretary-General was there, the determination was there for all to see in the fact that he came… We draw inspiration from his courage and humanity to continue with our efforts here on the ground."

Those efforts including the steady ramping up of humanitarian aid, including the hoped-for re-opening of scores of UNRWA schools by the weekend, once the last of the 55,000 people who sought shelter in them during the fighting depart.

UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said four crossing points were open today, including the fuel transmission centre at Nahal Oz, but not nearly enough supplies were getting through, with more food needed as well as more fuel to power hospitals and bakeries. He noted that it still remained very difficult for humanitarian staff, especially from non-governmental organizations, to cross over and this was a matter of particular concern.

He told the same news conference there was a crucial need for reconstruction materials such as cement and pipes, banned after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, in light of the devastation of infrastructure. "It’s absolutely critical that these kinds of material now be allowed into Gaza on a regular and hopefully free basis," he stressed, adding that he would pursue the matter with the Israeli authorities when he visits the region later this week.

Meanwhile, health care, food distribution, water and sanitation were gradually improving, although sewage was still bubbling up on the streets in some northern areas, posing a potential health hazard.

Story courtesy of UN News Service

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