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.

Russia Not Interested in Ukraine Falling Into Pieces – Lavrov

© RIA Novosti. Evgeny Biatov

© RIA Novosti. Evgeny Biatov

 

SELIGER (Tver Region), August 27 (RIA Novosti) — Russia is not interested in Ukrainian government falling into pieces, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.

“We are not interested that a government falls into pieces. What is happening right now in Ukraine, as the International Red Cross has witnessed, is a domestic armed conflict, and that makes us follow those approaches that are encompassed in international law: a ceasefire and beginning of negotiations,” Lavrov said.

“We want Russians in Ukraine together with Ukrainians, together with Hungarians, together with Romanians to live like they are used to live. We want them to be respected, and their rights to be respected,” he added.

Russian Foreign Minister also stated he saw no need for establishing a special international tribunal to hear war crimes in Ukraine, similar to those established for Rwanda or former Yugoslavia.

“I don’t think that we need to multiply special tribunals for specific countries. We have seen the examples of this, when a special tribunal for former Yugoslavia and a similar tribunal for Rwanda after genocide was conducted. They work, but it seems to me that it would be counter-productive to set tribunals for each and every conflict. There are other international judicial bodies,” he said.

Since mid-April the Ukrainian government has been conducting a military operation in the east of Ukraine attempting to suppress independence supporters who had refused to acknowledge the new government that came to power after the coup that took place in Ukraine on February 22.

The fighting intensified dramatically after Donetsk and Luhansk regions proclaimed themselves independent republics.

Thousands of civilians have died as a result of the violent confrontation. Moscow has repeatedly condemned the operation and urged ceasefire to prevent further casualties, sending a humanitarian convoy to the war-torn eastern Ukraine that has delivered about 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid.

Deep Crisis in Ukraine Cannot Be Resolved by Winning War Against Own People – Lavrov

"Our stand is crystal clear – we want peace in Ukraine which can only be attained through broad national dialogue in which all regions and all political forces of the country must participate," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview. © RIA Novosti. Evgeny Biatov

“Our stand is crystal clear – we want peace in Ukraine which can only be attained through broad national dialogue in which all regions and all political forces of the country must participate,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview.
© RIA Novosti. Evgeny Biatov

 

RIA NOVOSTI – INTERVIEW

Kiev has been conducting a special military operation in eastern Ukraine aimed at suppressing the region’s independence supporters since mid-April.
Over 2,000 people have been killed and more than 5,000 injured since the operation started, according to the UN reports. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shared his thoughts on the Ukrainian crisis in an interview.

Minister Lavrov, there has been repeated speculation, particularly in Western media, that Russian troops could be deployed in Ukraine and even that they have already crossed the border into Ukrainian territory. Is such an action possible in your view?

Sergei Lavrov: Unfortunately, mass media continue to spread rumours, distorted information and even outright lies. Recently there were claims by Ukraine that its artillery destroyed an armoured column that had allegedly crossed from Russia into Ukraine, and two British newspapers even said they witnessed the incursion. No evidence, however, was presented, and even the US State Department could not confirm the incident. We view all such stories as part of an information war.

But a real war is happening on the ground. What can Russia do to resolve this crisis?

Sergei Lavrov: Our stand is crystal clear – we want peace in Ukraine which can only be attained through broad national dialogue in which all regions and all political forces of the country must participate.

This is what Russia, the US, the EU and Ukraine have agreed upon in Geneva on 17 April. At a recent meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine in Berlin no one objected to confirming the Geneva Statement. The point is for Kiev to stop war games and to abandon the illusion that the deep crisis in Ukraine can be resolved by winning the war against your own people. It is deeply saddening that the US and the EU continue to blindly support anything Kiev does.

Let’s recall another document which Kiev and the West are trying to forget. On February 21 an agreement on settling the crisis was signed by Yanukovych, Yatsenyuk, Klichko and Tyagnibok and witnessed by Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland. They say now that the agreement “has been superseded by events” because Yanukovych left the country. But let me remind my colleagues that the 21 February agreement listed the commitment to form a government of national unity as number one priority. Does this goal depend on the personality of Yanukovych? Isn’t national unity a universal principle for any country which wants to stay in one piece? Instead of honoring this commitment the then opposition leaders staged an armed coup and publicly declared that they created a “government of the winners”. Unfortunately, the “winner takes it all” logic remains the thrust of Kiev’s actions resulting in thousands of victims among civilians, hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons, as well as almost totally destroyed social infrastructure in many cities and towns in Eastern Ukraine.

There has been much talk of a new Cold War in relations between the West and Russia, with the United States and the European Union having imposed economic sanctions. If they pursue a further hardening of sanctions, how can Russia respond?

Sergei Lavrov: Attempts to settle any crisis by unilateral sanctions outside the framework of the UN Security Council decisions threaten international peace and stability. Such attempts are counterproductive and contradict norms and principles of the international law.

It is absolutely unacceptable to talk to Russia – and to anyone, for that matter – in the language of ultimatums and coercive measures.  Our response to unilateral steps by the United States, the EU and some other countries has been balanced and in line with the rights and obligations of Russia under international treaties, including WTO.

But sanctions continue to be threatened and implemented. Will Russia respond to new measures against it?

Sergei Lavrov: It is not at all our choice, but there should be no doubt that we will do whatever is necessary to protect our legitimate interests, including the interests of national security in all its dimensions. That was the basis of our decision to restrict import of agricultural and food products from several states which had adopted sectorial economic sanctions against Russia for the duration of one year.

But Russia does not want to proceed along the road of escalation. We hope that the US, the European Union and others heed to the voice of reason and put an end to these meaningless tit-for-tat vicious circle which they themselves started.

The crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 brought even more horror to the region. How does Russia view the investigation into what happened to the aircraft over eastern Ukraine?

Sergei Lavrov: The downing of the Malaysian plane is a shocking tragedy. Since it happened on 17 July we have been calling for an open and objective international investigation. It is impossible to explain why the Ukrainian authorities, who bear full responsibility for the safety of international flights over the territory of their country, had not closed the airspace over the area of combat.

The Resolution 2166 adopted by the UN Security Council on 21 July provides for a full, thorough and independent investigation into the incident in accordance with international civil aviation guidelines.

Unfortunately, from the very beginning we have been witnessing attempts to conceal evidence and to hinder the implementation of that resolution. The demand  for a ceasefire in the area of the crash was ignored by the Ukrainian authorities for more than 10 days, and our proposal to call for full respect of Resolution 2166 was blocked in the Security Council by the US, UK and Lithuania. At the same time those very countries and some others started spreading unfounded accusations against Russia.

Let me reiterate that Russia is fully committed to the international investigation in full compliance with Resolution 2166. We would like to see the International Civil Aviation Organisaton take a more active role in the matter, and we believe that the UN and ICAO should coordinate international efforts to ensure early and convincing results of the investigation. Russia is the only country which officially presented to the international community the data related to the incident as received through our space monitoring capacity. Others are still to provide the evidence they possess.

Do you think all of the evidence related to the crash will be made available so that investigators can establish exactly what happened?

Sergei Lavrov: We formally put forward a number of questions on our part that remain unanswered. For example, where are the transcripts of exchange between the pilots of MH17 and the Ukrainian air controllers and why were they not presented to the international community? Why did the controllers instruct the flight to enter the zone of war conflict? What was a Ukrainian Air Force plane doing in the vicinity of the Malaysian Boeing right before the incident? What is happening to the wreckage at the crash site and why has it not been thoroughly examined by the appropriate international investigating authorities? To what extent can an objective and independent investigation be assured without safe and unimpeded access of experts to the crash site, where Kiev continues its war activity in violation of the UNSC Resolution 2166? And where is the documented evidence of claims by the US officials regarding the causes of the downing of the aircraft?

We hope to get answers to these and other questions both from the states which took the leading role in the international investigation and from those who made unsubstantiated public statements. The truth must be revealed. That was our strong demand at the recent meeting of the UN Security Council while some member States showed little enthusiasm in pursuing the investigation in a transparent and accountable manner.

We must not allow the investigation of MH17 crash to be manipulated into oblivion like it already happened to investigations of many Ukrainian tragedies, including a sniper assault against civilians in Kiev in February, massacres in Odesa  and Marioupol in May and others. We are determined to insist on bringing all those who bear responsibility for these crimes to justice.

The cost in human life of this conflict has already been high and tens of thousands of people have been displaced because of the fighting. How do you view the humanitarian situation in Ukraine?

Sergei Lavrov: The humanitarian situation in Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine is catastrophic and continues to deteriorate. And it is not only our view. This assessment is widely shared in the United Nations, including the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in the International Committee of the Red Cross and in the Council of Europe.

More than two thousand people have been killed and over five thousand wounded, many of them children. There is acute shortage of food and medicine and growing risk of outbreaks of infectious deceases. Over 200 thousand people in Luhansk are deprived of electricity, drinking water and means of communication.
A lot of people have fled the area of the conflict. Since 1 April nearly 775 thousand Ukrainian citizens entered the Russian territory, and 190 thousand Ukrainians applied for a refugee status in Russia. Temporary shelters have been put up in our country to accommodate tens of thousands of refugees.

Under these circumstances it is crucial to ensure immediate supply of humanitarian aid to the people of southeastern Ukraine. Humanitarian issues must bring together all people who act in good faith trying to alleviate the suffering of people in dire need – especially women, children and the elderly.

But Russia has been sending aid. What has happened with the humanitarian convoy?

Sergei Lavrov: Russia in cooperation with the ICRC sent a humanitarian convoy of around 300 trucks carrying 2000 tons of medical supplies, food, sleeping bags, power generators and other basic commodities. The convoy was ready to move as early as 17 August, but was delayed primarily due to procrastination tactics employed by Kiev authorities though they had recognized the cargo as humanitarian aid of the ICRC and sent Ukrainian border guards and customs officers to monitor all procedures at the Russian check point Donetsk.

We urge the Ukrainian government to deliver on its promises and to facilitate safe and unhindered passage of future humanitarian assistance. We also hope that our partners in the West and international organizations fully understand the magnitude of the disaster and contribute in practical terms to meeting the basic needs of the civilian population in southeastern Ukraine.

But the central task in the efforts to stop the suffering of civilians in Ukraine remains, of course, in reaching a ceasefire. People are dying, and civilian infrastructure is being destroyed every day. We firmly believe that ceasefire must be unconditional and open the way for serious political dialogue and constitutional reform process with the participation of all regions and all political constituencies of Ukraine, as agreed by the EU, Russia, Ukraine and the US in Geneva Statement of 17 April 2014.