The Secretary-General of the United Nations has condemned the "unacceptable suffering" caused by the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip during a visit to the beleaguered territory. Ban Ki-moon "expressed his solidarity" with the people of Gaza and said, "Every day they show heroism and quiet courage and this is an inspiration."
Describing the conditions he saw in Gaza as "unacceptable" and "unsustainable", Mr. Ban welcomed the announcement by the Israeli government that some building materials are to be allowed in to Gaza. "While I believe that this is a positive welcome step," he said, "I believe again we need far, far, much more." This is like a drop in a bucket of water, he added.
The surprise announcement by the Israelis means that materials will be allowed in to Gaza which will allow a UN housing project in the Khan Younis area to recommence with the building of 150 housing units. According to a statement by the UN on 21 March, "also set to be built are a flour mill and sewage treatment plant". Some classes for schools and aluminium for windows will also be allowed across the border. Despite this "positive" step, Mr. Ban said that Israel's closure policy is "not sustainable and it is wrong".
The Secretary-General arrived in the Middle East from Moscow, where he attended a meeting on Friday of the diplomatic Quartet comprising the UN, Russia, the European Union (EU) and the United States. He said that the UN stands with the people of Gaza, and agencies such as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) will continue to provide humanitarian aid and help with the rebuilding process.
The Quartet urged the Israeli and Palestinian sides to resume talks as soon as possible with the aim of reaching a settlement within two years.
"These negotiations should lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties within 24 months, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its neighbours," the Quartet said in a joint statement at the end of their meeting in the Russian capital.
Although the Secretary-General met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah after his visit to Gaza, he did not meet any of the democratically-elected members of the government of the territory. The UN, like the other members of the Quartet, regards the Hamas government as a "terrorist organisation".
Ban Ki-moon's visit came just a few days after a similar fact-finding trip by the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Labour peer Baroness Cathy Ashton.
MEMO Photographer: Mohammed Asad