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As Fighting in Gaza Stops, UN Intensifies Aid Operations

As Israeli troops begin pulling out of the Gaza Strip, following their 22-day offensive against Hamas militants, the United Nations is intensifying its efforts to deal with the humanitarian crisis left in its wake.

Gazans were already suffering from the effects of a 19-month long Israeli blockade that hindered supplies reaching the population before hostilities erupted last month. But the situation is significantly worse after more than three weeks of an Israeli air and land offensive that caused extensive damage to Gaza's infrastructure and slowed the distribution of aid.

Israeli officials say U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is in the region, will go to Gaza Tuesday. U.N. officials would not confirm the visit, but if he does go, there is much for him to see. In addition to the devastation caused to Palestinian homes, businesses, hospitals and other structures, the United Nations says 50 of its own facilities have been damaged.

And then there is the human toll. The Palestinian Ministry of Health reports 1,314 Palestinians were killed during the conflict, including more than 400 children. More than 5,000 people were injured, nearly 2,000 of them children. While the United Nations says about 35,000 displaced persons fill their shelters.

U.N. Palestinian refugee agency director John Ging said from Gaza now that the fighting has stopped people are trying to come to terms with what has happened.

"I would say the pervasive sense here among the population is one of overwhelming grief," said John Ging. "So many families have been destroyed in so many ways."

Ging said that while there is relief the fighting has stopped, recovery will not be easy. He said the challenge facing his agency is daunting.

"The aid operation is now thankfully in full swing in terms of distribution of what we have here," he said. "The distribution centers that had been closed due to the fighting in areas such as Zeitun and Beit Hanoun, they have now resumed operation as are all of the health centers throughout the Gaza Strip."

As the United Nations tries to get its operations back on track, the secretary-general said he is dispatching a high-level humanitarian and early recovery assessment mission to Gaza this week and hopes to issue an international appeal for humanitarian assistance within 10 days.

U.N. Humanitarian chief John Holmes said that appeal would likely be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He added that overall reconstruction costs would likely be in the billions.

The conflict was not without cost to Israel. Three civilians were killed in Hamas rocket attacks in southern Israel. Nine soldiers were also killed, four of them in a friendly-fire incident.