Ban arrives in Gaza to assess destruction

January 20th, 2009 - 9:34 pm ICT by IANS  

Tel Aviv/Gaza City, Jan 20 (DPA) UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon crossed into Gaza Tuesday, becoming the highest-ranking foreign official to assess first-hand the damage of three weeks of deadly and destructive Israeli air and ground attacks.The Israeli military meanwhile continued its gradual withdrawal from the strip, on the third day of a fragile truce, which has taken cautious hold and ended 22 days of Israeli attacks in Gaza, as well as Palestinian rocket and mortar fire at southern Israel.

Ban arrived at the Erez border crossing between Israel and the north of the strip in an Israeli army helicopter, after holding talks with caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.

The UN’s top diplomat, who said he plans to send a high-level recovery assessment mission to Gaza this week, is to tour the world body’s Gaza City headquarters. He is not expected to meet members of the de-facto Hamas administration in Gaza.

Ban, who was also due to tour the rocket-stricken southern Israeli town of Sderot, is the highest-ranking foreigner to visit the enclave since Hamas violently seized sole control over it in June 2007.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), more than 4,000 buildings have been completely destroyed and another 17,000 were damaged in Israeli airstrikes and shelling over the past three weeks. It estimated the total cost of the damage at $1.9 billion.

Some 50 UN facilities are among the buildings which sustained damage, among them the main warehouse of UNWRA, the agency caring for Palestinian refugees, which was struck by several shells last week, setting it ablaze and destroying large amounts of humanitarian aid.

More than 46,000 displaced Gazans also remain in UN shelters throughout the strip.

The Palestinian death toll has reached 1,414, after rescue teams uncovered more bodies from underneath the rubble of destroyed homes and several people died of their wounds in hospital, Gaza emergency services chief Mo’aweya Hassanein said.

Two children died Tuesday when they found an explosive device or shell, probably left behind by the Israeli military, on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City, which blew up when they touched it, he said.

Thirteen Israelis were also killed and dozens injured in the ground fighting and in rocket attacks. Some 5,500 Palestinians have been injured, about a tenth of them seriously.

Israel conditioned its assistance for the reconstruction effort on Hamas being excluded from it. Instead, the international community and the Palestinian Authority headed by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah should lead the effort, to avoid granting legitimacy to his radical Islamic rival ruling Gaza, Olmert told Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini Tuesday morning.

“If this is the case, Israel will fully cooperate with the rehabilitation process of the Gaza Strip,” a statement from his office said.

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