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UN Official Calls Situation in Gaza 'Grim and Miserable'


The U.N.'s humanitarian chief says conditions in the Gaza Strip are "grim and miserable" and far from normal. John Holmes briefed the Security Council Tuesday, following a recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. From United Nations headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

Holmes said restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, since Hamas took control of the territory eight months ago, have taken a heavy toll.

He said nearly 80 percent of the population is receiving food aid, most industry and agriculture have collapsed, unemployment is up and the supply of water, fuel and electricity are sharply down.

Gaza has become even more isolated since mid-January, when Israel imposed a blockade in response to Palestinian rocket attacks into southern Israel. Holmes said the continued firing of rockets is "completely unacceptable" and must stop "unconditionally," but he also called the Israeli response "collective punishment" and contrary to international humanitarian law.

"Israel has legitimate security concerns and a right and duty to defend its citizens," he said. "But even in such circumstances, security cannot override all other concerns or justify so much damage to ordinary people's livelihoods and infringements of their human dignity and human rights."

Holmes told the Council that conditions in the West Bank, while better, are equally worrisome. He said the expansion of illegal settlements, the construction of a separation barrier and the growing number of checkpoints within the West Bank are impairing access for thousands of people to their lands and essential services.

The U.N.'s new envoy for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, delivered a similar message to the Council, warning that the situation in Gaza remains fragile.

"Unless addressed, it will remain a danger to the safety, security and well-being of the Palestinian population, to the security of Egypt and of Israel, and to the sustainability of the political process itself," he said.

He urged Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to develop a new strategy for Gaza that will lead to the normalization of life there, including an end to rocket and suicide attacks, the reopening of crossing points and the uninterrupted flow of essential goods and services.

Israel's U.N. Ambassador, Dan Gillerman, told reporters he is disappointed the Council did not hear more about the suffering of Israeli citizens.

"I did not hear today in the Security Council enough of an emphasis on the cause of what is happening in Gaza, about the suffering of the people of Sderot and the children of the neighboring kibbutzim [communal farms] and villages," he said.

Sderot is the southern Israeli town that has been the main target of the Hamas rocket attacks.

The Israeli ambassador added that his government's blockade of Gaza is not intended to hurt or punish the 1.5 million people living there, but that Israel will continue to do everything to fight Hamas. He also denied U.N. accusations that the blockade is collective punishment and contrary to international humanitarian law, saying Israel's Supreme Court has justified Israel's actions.