UN chief visits Gaza as Israeli withdrawal continues

Posted in Israel / Palestine , UN | 20-Jan-09 | Author: Ethan Bronner| Source: International Herald Tribune

Police officers on a street corner as a Hamas presence returned to Gaza City on Monday.

GAZA: As Israeli forces continued to pull out of Gaza on Tuesday, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, became the highest-ranking international official to visit the war-battered coastal strip since Israel and Hamas declared separate cease-fires last weekend.

As the Israelis have withdrawn, Hamas has reasserted control over the rubble-filled streets while tens of thousands of Palestinians seek to cope with destroyed homes and traumatized lives. Ban had no plans to meet with Hamas, according to Reuters, which quoted a United Nations spokesman as saying his mission was to "express solidarity with Palestinian suffering."

"I have seen only a fraction of the destruction. This is shocking an alarming," Ban told a news conference, calling for an inquiry into Israeli shelling of a United Nations warehouse during the fighting, Reuters reported.

He also planned to balance his visit to Gaza with a trip to places in southern Israel struck by Hamas rockets, reporters traveling with him said.

An Israeli military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said Israel forces were "gradually" pulling out but declined to give details of their progress. On Monday, Israel accelerated its withdrawal in an apparent effort to complete it by the time Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States later on Tuesday.

In Kuwait City, meanwhile, the Arab world remained divided on Tuesday over its response to the Gaza war. After a two-day Arab League summit, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said Arab leaders had been unable to reach agreement on the wording of a unified declaration "because some are entrenched in their positions," according to The Associated Press.

The Arab division over Gaza pits conservative and pro-Western states against those demanding fiercer Arab action against Israel.

In Gaza, decomposing bodies continued to be uncovered on Monday in the worst-hit areas, with the death toll for the 23-day conflict that ended on Sunday passing 1,300, according to health officials here. Policemen took up positions directing traffic and a few bulldozers began the enormous task of clearing the ruins. Garbage was everywhere, devastation rampant.

Hamas held its first news conference on Monday since the war began on Dec. 27, with two government spokesmen standing in front of a destroyed compound that had housed a number of ministries and asserting that their movement had been victorious.

"Israel has succeeded in killing everything except the will of the people," said Taher al-Nunu, the main government spokesman. "They said they were going to dismantle the resistance and demolish the rockets, but after this historic victory, the government is steadfast, we are working and they were not able to stop the rockets."

He said 5,000 homes had been destroyed and 20,000 damaged. Mosques and government buildings were also hit in the military campaign that Israel carried out, with the aim of ending years of rocket fire on Israeli civilians. Israel suffered 13 deaths during the conflict, 3 of them civilian, according to military officials.

In Israel, a sense of justice and triumph prevailed with radio stations playing classic Zionist songs and President Shimon Peres asserting on a visit to wounded soldiers that the army had achieved both a military and a moral victory. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio: "We had achievements that for a long time Israel did not have. And therefore, you also have to know when to make the decision to stop and look. If Hamas got the message that we sent so harshly, then we can stop. If Hamas tries to continue to shoot, then we will continue."

A senior Israeli official said that if Hamas continued to hold its rocket fire, it would be better if the troops were out of Gaza by the time Obama took office as president, so he could concentrate on Gaza's rebuilding and supporting a more moderate Palestinian leadership rather than on pressing Israel to withdraw. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.

Despite competing claims of victory and the deep misery felt here, the halt in fighting has opened the way for intensified international efforts to build a more durable peace. The central issues are how to stop arms smuggling into Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai and how to rebuild the economy here through a reopening of border crossings closed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas, which won a 2006 election, pushed out its secular rival Fatah in 2007.

Added to those concerns are internal Palestinian divisions, tensions between Israel and the rest of the region, and the question of whether a Palestinian state can be created in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It remained unclear what impact the conflict had had on Hamas's popularity in Gaza. Israeli officials said Hamas had been harmed politically. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz suggested that Hamas was rapidly losing its public support given the extensive damage. "In addition to the diplomatic isolation, I think Gazans understand today that it is Hamas that led them to this reality," he said during a tour of southern Israel.

But Palestinians here showed little evidence of that attitude.

"I think Hamas is stronger now and will be stronger in the future because of this war," said Eyad el-Sarraj, a psychiatrist here who is an opponent of Hamas. "This war has deepened the people's feeling that it is impossible to have peace with Israel, a country that promotes death and destruction."