U.N. chief Ban tours destruction in Gaza

Israeli soldiers continue to withdraw after 22-day battle

January 21, 2009|By Ashraf Khalil | Ashraf Khalil,Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -

As residents of the Gaza Strip continued to sift through the rubble and mourn their dead, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon toured the seaside Palestinian enclave yesterday and declared himself "deeply grieved by what I have seen today."

Ban entered Gaza from Israel in a convoy of armored vehicles. Speaking to reporters in front of the smoldering remains of a U.N. food warehouse set ablaze last week by an Israeli tank shell, a somber Ban said he had witnessed "heartbreaking" scenes of destruction.

"I have seen only a fraction of the damage," he said. "This is shocking and alarming."

Ban later visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot, long a target for rockets fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza.

"You live every day with a threat of a rocket falling from the sky. No human being can live in a state like this," Ban said. "I expect basic humanitarian law to protect civilian life to be respected and restored and not violated as Hamas has done."

Israeli tanks and soldiers continued their withdrawal from Gaza yesterday, signaling an end to the devastating 22-day campaign against the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from the rival Fatah faction in mid-2007.

Israeli officials had expressed a desire to be out of Gaza by the time Barack Obama was sworn in as the U.S. president, but it was unclear whether all Israeli forces had officially left ahead of the self-imposed deadline.

Normal life continued to return yesterday in Gaza. Stores around Gaza City's Palestine Square were bustling with customers. However, much of the northern third of the territory, which witnessed the heaviest fighting and airstrikes, was still without consistent water and electricity. Some neighborhoods have been without power or running water for more than three weeks.

More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed and more than 5,000 wounded during the Israeli assault, according to local medical officials. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimated that 21,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed - nearly 1,000 structures every day of the Israeli campaign. The bureau estimated reconstruction costs, infrastructure damage and economic losses at nearly $2 billion.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has run schools and aid programs in Gaza since 1948, said at least $330 million in emergency funding would be required simply to meet the most immediate needs on the ground.

"As the full scale of the destruction becomes clear, the figure will undoubtedly get larger. That is not a figure for reconstruction in Gaza. That is just for immediate repair and emergency relief," said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness.

At least 13 Israelis - 10 soldiers and three civilians - died in the conflict. Most of the Israeli military fatalities resulted from "friendly fire."

International aid organizations are rushing emergency supplies and medical aid into Gaza through border crossings with Israel in the north and Egypt in the south. Israeli Cabinet minister Isaac Herzog said the goal was to allow through as many as 500 truckloads a day.

"The immediate need is mattresses, blankets, kitchen sets and plastic sheeting," Anne Bonefeld, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Reuters news agency.

Despite the devastation on display, Hamas declared a moral and strategic victory, with thousands of supporters parading through Gaza City yesterday, waving the green flags of the movement.

"Every time the attacks increase, our support increases," shouted one of the rally's leaders through a speaker system mounted on a truck. "We won't surrender to destruction and we won't surrender to the siege. We won't surrender to the cowardly policies of the Zionists."

Israel has also claimed victory, but neither side was the clear winner.

The fighting killed some 1,300 Gazans, the vast majority civilians, and thousands of Palestinian homes were destroyed. Israel emerged from the war with relatively few casualties - 13 dead, including 10 soldiers - but halted fire before reaching its objectives. No internationally backed truce deal is yet in place to prevent Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel or arms smuggling into Gaza.

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