The top United Nations humanitarian official today, on a visit to Gaza, called for the re-opening of border crossings to alleviate the suffering of the area’s population in the wake of last year’s deadly conflict.
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes saw first-hand the conditions in Gaza, just over one year after the end of the three-week Israeli military offensive, known as operation “Cast Lead,” which had the stated aim of ending rocket attacks by militants operating in the area.
The fighting left more than 1,400 people dead, injured 5,000 others and reduced homes, schools, hospitals and marketplaces to rubble.
In Beit Hanoun and Izbet Abed Rabbu, Mr. Holmes met families whose houses were destroyed and was briefed on humanitarian work being carried out, including by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
“I have a lot of admiration for the resilience and ingenuity of Gaza residents in trying to cope with the present circumstances,” he said. “The work of relief agencies to assist those who have to endure hardship is also remarkable.”
But he stressed that it is “disturbing” that one year after the fighting ended, “no meaningful reconstruction has yet started.”
Emphasizing the negative impact of the blockade and the tunnel economy, the official, who arrived in the region on Sunday for a five-day visit, said he witnessed their effects on people’s livelihoods and efforts to carry out normal lives.
While in Gaza, he also met with representatives from civil society and the private sector to discuss socio-economic conditions in the area, as well as with aid workers, who voiced concerns over the lack of hope for significant change and for shrinking humanitarian space.
Addressing reporters, Mr. Holmes underscored the unacceptability of the continuing blockade and appealed for the release of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been held for almost four years.
Regarding Mr. Shalit, he rejected any ties between the Israeli soldier’s case and the conditions of 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza.
A dramatic change of policy, including the full re-opening of crossings, is essential to allow people to live the dignified lives they are entitled to, emphasized Mr. Holmes, who also serves as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.
“Where there have been some marginal access improvements in some sectors during the past months, including the import of glass which we welcome, this falls far short of what is needed to rebuild livelihoods and avoid Gaza sliding backwards.”
Mr. Holmes’ first stop in the region was Jerusalem, where he commended senior Israeli officials for the country’s recent response to the earthquake in Haiti, in particular the very early deployment of a field hospital, and both sides agreed to work to strengthen cooperation between the UN and Israel in this area.
He also stopped in Ramallah, voicing concern over the situation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, not least the so-called Area C, which covers 60 per cent of the West Bank and remains largely off limits to Palestinians.
Mr. Holmes is scheduled to head to Tel Aviv tomorrow.