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Ban readies Middle East visit to help promote Gaza ceasefire

Ban readies Middle East visit to help promote Gaza ceasefire

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
On the eve of his departure for wide-ranging, high-level talks in the Middle East to personally help broker a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza conflict, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called on Israel and Hamas to immediately stop fighting.

“My goal is to step up the pace of our joint diplomatic efforts and ensure that urgent humanitarian assistance reaches those in need,” he told a news conference in New York. “It is one thing to speak to world leaders, as I have done daily in seeking to resolve this crisis. And it is another thing to be present oneself.”

He said his message was simple, direct and to the point. “The fighting must stop,” he stressed as the Israeli offensive moved towards its 18th day with the stated aim to end Hamas rocket attacks into Israel.

“To both sides, I say: Just stop, now. Too many people have died. There has been too much civilian suffering. Too many people, Israelis and Palestinians, live in daily fear of their lives. And in Gaza, the very foundation of society is being destroyed: people's homes, civic infrastructure, public health facilities and schools.”

Mr. Ban, who leaves tomorrow and will meet with all the main players apart from Hamas, laid out the major elements needed to ensure full implementation of last week’s Security Council resolution calling for an immediate and durable ceasefire.

These include an immediate end to military operations in Gaza, an end to Israel's offensive and a halt to the rocket attacks by Hamas; help from the international community to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza; and a full re-opening of border crossings into Gaza, he said of the message he would repeat at each of his stops.

Israel has insisted on an end to rocket attacks and the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through tunnels dug by Hamas, while Hamas has demanded an end to the border closures imposed by Israel in response to the rockets – closures that have starved Gaza of basic supplies, creating what the UN has called a severe humanitarian crisis for its 1.5 million residents.

“Innocent civilians, whether in the Occupied Territory or southern Israel, cannot live in a state of fear or under a de facto state of siege. Let normal life resume. That is the only path to lasting peace,” Mr. Ban declared.

Noting that diplomatic talks were underway in Cairo, he said the sides must agree to the elements of an immediate ceasefire, which at a minimum means a halt to rocket attacks by Hamas and a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. “It is time to stop. It is time to stop the killing and the destruction,” he stressed.

He noted that he had urged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a telephone call last Friday to observe the ceasefire and had discussed the issue with the United States so that it could influence Israel.

He also discussed the crisis with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom he will meet in Cairo at the start of his mission on Wednesday, when he will also confer with Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. He will then meet with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman.

On Thursday, he will be in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with meetings scheduled with Mr. Olmert, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak. He will then visit Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

He is to travel briefly to Turkey for talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then go to Beirut to meet with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri. He will also visit the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura and then move on to Syria. His last scheduled stop is Kuwait, where he will attend the meeting of the Arab League.

Mr. Ban said he wanted his visit to be a tangible expression of support for the 10,000 UN staff on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel who work under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. “I salute their bravery and their dedication to the UN's mission,” he declared.

“Most of all, I want to demonstrate my deep concern and empathy for the innocents caught in these terrible circumstances, both in Israel and the Occupied Territory. More than 900 Palestinians have died. About 4,000 more have been injured. They have no place to hide, no place to run,” he added, calling it “tragic and heartbreaking to see so many civilians having been killed and suffering.”