Visiting Gaza today, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his solidarity with the people of the area, just over one year after the end of the deadly conflict.
“Every day they show heroism and quiet courage and this is an inspiration,” Mr. Ban said while visiting the Khan Younis section of Gaza.
The people of the area, he said, “are striving to provide for their families amid unacceptable, unsustainable conditions.”
For nearly three years, the United Nations housing project in Khan Younis has been stalled, but the Israeli Government recently approved the world body's request to continue work on the humanitarian project and erect 150 housing units. Also set to be built are a flour mill and sewage treatment plant, while classes for schools and aluminum for windows will also be brought into the area.
“While I believe that this is a positive welcome step, I believe again we need far, far, much more,” the Secretary-General stressed. “This is like a drop in a bucket of water.”
He reiterated that Israel's policy of closure is “not sustainable and it is wrong.”
Mr. Ban, who is on his first visit to Gaza in over a year, said that the closure “causes unacceptable suffering of human beings,” with half of the area's population, which is under the age of 18, suffering the most.
“The policy is also counter-productive,” he emphasized. “It prevents legitimate commerce and encourages smuggling. It undercuts moderates and empowers extremists.”
Operation Cast Lead, the three-week Israeli military offensive starting at the end of 2008, 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.
The Secretary-General 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.
“I urge all Gazans to choose the path of non-violence, Palestinian unity, and international legitimacy,” he said, also calling for a prisoner exchange so that both Palestinian prisoners and Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit can be released.
Following his stop in Gaza, the Secretary-General returned to Jerusalem for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Ban told reporters after talks with the Israeli leader that his visit is taking place at a “crucially important juncture,” coming just before the start of proximity talks between the country and Palestinians.
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.
The body 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.
At a press encounter with Mr. Netanyahu today, Mr. Ban thanked Israel for its humanitarian efforts in Haiti after January's devastating earthquake which claimed more than 200,000 lives.
“You demonstrated great humanity and it was widely respected and appreciated,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the Secretary-General also met with Israeli Deputy Minister Daniel Ayalon, Mashav (Israel's National Agency for International Development) and members of the Israeli Government''s medical team dispatched to Haiti.