U.N. Chief Offers Stark View of Gaza Devastation

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JERUSALEM — Visiting Gaza on Tuesday for the first time since this summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas, the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said the destruction was “beyond description,” even as reconstruction efforts were underway for the first time.

“No amount of Security Council sessions, reports or briefings could have prepared me for what I witnessed today,” Mr. Ban told reporters after touring some of the most badly damaged areas of the Gaza Strip and visiting a United Nations school that was shelled during the fighting.

Perhaps anticipating the secretary general’s harsh assessment, Israel on Tuesday allowed a first delivery of building materials across the border into Gaza in a move to signal its support for the reconstruction effort and to deflect international criticism.

But that did little to soften Mr. Ban’s critique. “The build-destroy, build-destroy cycle must be broken,” he said. “The mindless pattern of blockade, rockets and destruction must stop.”

Mr. Ban’s visit to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, came after an international donor conference in Cairo on Sunday garnered $5.4 billion in pledges for the rehabilitation of the tiny coastal enclave, which has a population of some 1.8 million. Palestinian officials said that half the funds would be used for rebuilding while the other half would provide budgetary support for Gaza for the next three years.

United Nations officials said they were also encouraged by the symbolic first meeting in Gaza last week of the Palestinian government of national consensus that was formed in June with the backing of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and its rival Hamas, which had previously maintained a monopoly of power.

But the continuation of the reconstruction effort will largely hinge on a United Nations-brokered mechanism to monitor and supervise the process — a tracking system meant to balance between the urgent need for relief in Gaza and Israel’s demand for assurances that the building materials will not end up used by Hamas to rebuild its military infrastructure.

“For this to be successful there needs to be full calm — no rebuilding of tunnels or rockets,” Robert H. Serry, the United Nations special envoy for the Middle East peace process, said in a telephone interview.

The Gaza recovery plan drawn up by the Palestinian government states that 2.5 million tons of rubble must be removed and that 60,000 homes were damaged in the war. Of those, it said, 20,000 were severely damaged or completely destroyed.

The shipment Tuesday of building materials included 600 tons of cement, 50 trucks of aggregates and 10 trucks of metal, according to the office of the Israeli defense ministry that coordinates civilian activities in the Palestinian territories. It described the transfer as a “pilot” presumably meant to test the mechanism for monitoring the reconstruction, which is still in its early stages.

The system for ensuring it was all properly used, agreed upon by the United Nations, the Palestinian Authority and Israel last month, involved running a central database for tracking the ordering and delivery of materials.

 

Once in Gaza, the materials would be transferred to private sector vendors approved by the Palestinian Authority. Contractors and engineers would also have to be licensed by the authority. The United Nations will contract local engineers to carry out spot-checks of some projects.

Nazmi Muhana, the Palestinian Authority’s director of crossing points, described the conditions for shipping the building materials as “strict and complicated.” Speaking by telephone from Ramallah in the West Bank he said the materials had to be stored in warehouses equipped with cameras and protected by guards. Since the Palestinian Authority has no forces on the ground in Gaza, Mr. Muhana said, the authority has handed responsibility for the materials to the United Nations.

Israeli officials have refused to discuss the details publicly; one said exposure would only lead people with an interest to look for and exploit the loopholes.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, said Hamas would have nothing to do with the deliveries of building materials. “This is a Palestinian Authority-United Nations business,” he said. “They have to stop seeking pretexts obstructing the delivery of materials in sufficient amounts.”

The sole goods crossing now in use between Israel and Gaza has the capacity for 400 to 450 trucks per day, according to Israeli officials, and already transfers about 300 to 350 trucks a day of consumer goods. Eventually, when the reconstruction effort is at its peak, the capacity will need to grow to accommodate 700 to 900 trucks a day.

Since Hamas took over the territory in 2007 Israel and Egypt have tightened the restrictions on the movement of people and goods across their borders with Gaza. Critics of the new mechanism for reconstruction say it falls far short of the lifting of the blockade, a condition they say is necessary for Gaza’s recovery.

Israel has shown willingness to ease the blockade after reaching a cease-fire with Hamas in late August. Israel announced on Tuesday that it would allow the export of agricultural produce from Gaza to the West Bank in the coming weeks, beginning with about 15 tons of dates and sweet potatoes and expanding over time to apply to other products, including fish.

But for a full lifting of the closure, Mr. Serry said, “You need more. You need peace.”

Back in Israel, Mr. Ban visited Nirim, an Israeli community just across the border from Gaza where two residents were killed by Palestinian mortar fire in the final hours of the war. He met the grandparents of a 4-year-old Israeli boy who was killed in another mortar attack on a nearby community and was taken by Israeli army officers into one of the tunnels built by Hamas to infiltrate Israeli territory.

That was meant as a poignant reminder of Israel’s security concerns and its fears that Hamas, the Islamic militant group that dominates the Palestinian enclave, would try to divert funds and materials meant for reconstruction to replenish its rocket stocks and rebuild the destroyed tunnels.

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