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UN Calling for Unfettered Access to Gaza Strip

United Nations aid agencies say the level of destruction in the Gaza Strip is overwhelming. They are appealing to Israel to open all crossing points so they can import crucial humanitarian goods and reconstruction material into the Palestinian Territory.

United Nations aid agencies say they are planning missions in the coming days into Gaza to make an accurate assessment of the damage done during Israel's 22-day military offensive.

But, they say it is clear that the needs are enormous and work must begin immediately to start helping people rebuild their lives. Spokeswoman for the UN Relief and Works Agency, Elena Mancuni Materi, says UNRWA is working overtime to help more than a million Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

She says people can come to one of UNRWA's many distribution centers to pick up needed goods. She says all health centers have opened and are operational. She says almost 51,000 people are still living in shelters.

"As of yesterday, approximately 5,000 people have left this emergency accommodation provided by UNRWA," said Materi. "However, many of these people who had left have come back because they are finding their houses destroyed. There is a lot of devastation in several areas."

Materi says all crossings from Israel into Gaza must be opened to allow essential relief supplies, reconstruction materials and fuel to enter. She says people must be allowed to move around freely within Gaza.

She says UNRWA has been forced to suspend $93 million of construction projects since 2007 because it could not import the necessary materials into Gaza. Given the current scale of devastation, she says this situation cannot continue.

"This becomes very crucial, as you can imagine because of the reconstruction needs we are facing today in the Gaza Strip," said Materi. "From an early estimate, an assessment we see damage or destruction of 53 UNRWA facilities including schools mainly, but also health centers and other structures. Our main office is included, definitely. So, again we do need to resume the import of goods for humanitarian aid, but also goods that allow us to rebuild and reconstruct structures."

School was to have begun on January 17. The starting date has been deferred for early February. UNRWA spokeswoman Materi says many schools have been damaged or destroyed. And, many are being used as shelters. She says school buildings must be rehabilitated quickly so children can resume their studies as soon as possible.