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UN Chief: Gaza in 'Critical Condition'

by VOA News July 28, 2014

Decrying the deaths and displacement of civilians, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate break in the fighting in Gaza, a territory in 'critical condition.'

'In the name of humanity, the violence must stop,' he told reporters Monday from the organization's New York headquarters, hours after the U.N. Security Council called for 'an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire' in Gaza.

'More suffering and siege conditions will only hurt innocent civilians, further isolate Israel, empower extremists on all sides and leave our world far less safe,'' Ban said.

The 21-day conflict between Israel and Hamas militants already has killed more than 1,049 people and displaced at least 167,000 Palestinians, the U.N.'s main agency in Gaza said. Most of the Palestinian dead have been civilians. Israel says it has lost 43 soldiers and three civilians.

Tensions escalated Monday when an explosion that rocked a hospital and nearby park Monday killed at least 10 people, including children. Palestinians contended an Israeli missile hit Shifa Hospital; the Israelis said the attack came from a failed Hamas rocket.

​​Israeli media reports also said four Israelis were killed by mortar fire from Gaza. And Israel's defense forces said militants sneaked across the border from Gaza to attack an Israeli village near the border. Israeli media say five militants were killed when they traded fire with Israeli soldiers.

The U.N. council adopted the presidential statement at an emergency meeting just after midnight Sunday as Muslims started celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Hours before the U.N. action, U.S. President Barack Obama phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to demand an 'immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.'

But Netanyahu rejected the demand, later telling U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon that it dealt with 'the needs of a murderous terrorist group that attacks Israeli civilians' while neglecting the security needs of the Jewish state.

​​In a CBS television interview, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal demanded that Israel end its occupation of Gaza and said he would not recognize Israel's right to exist, a position that has prevented any direct negotiations between the two sides.

UN calls for truce

The U.N.'s secretary-general, who just wrapped up six days of shuttle diplomacy to eight Middle East countries, on Monday repeated his call for calm.

'The temporary weekend pause in fighting brought a brief respite to war weary civilians; it also revealed how much the massive Israeli assault has devastated the lives of the people of Gaza,' Ban said. 'We saw scenes of indiscriminate destruction. Some described it as a man-made hurricane."

Ban said that beyond a cease-fire, the warring sides have a responsibility to resolve long-standing root causes of their years-long conflict 'to break the seemingly endless cycle of violence and suffering.' He said Israel must end its blockade of Gaza and 'nearly half century of occupation,' while Palestinians must agree to 'security for Israel.'

Ending the bloodshed depends on Israeli and Hamas leaders, Ban said. 'It's a matter of their political will,' Ban said at the news conference, Reuters reported. The continued widespread killing, Ban added, is 'not responsible, [it's] morally wrong.'

Ban added that about 10 percent of Gaza's population has sought refuge at U.N. facilities. He said the casualty and damage figures raise serious questions about proportionality.

Last week, a U.N.-run school in northern Gaza was shelled and more than a dozen civilians were killed. Ban has been reluctant to assign blame, saying he has ordered a full investigation. Israel's military, which hit two other U.N. shelters in recent days, has not claimed the attack, but acknowledged fighting in the area the day the school was struck.

Ban said U.N. staff told him there is no safe place in Gaza.

"The people of Gaza have nowhere to run; they are trapped and besieged on a speck of land. Every area is a civilian area. Every home, every school, every refuge has become a target."

He said both sides have a responsibility to stop fighting, begin talking and address the root causes of the conflict, including Israel's economic blockade of Gaza.

US calls for break in fighting

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met last week with Ban and other world leaders to address the crisis, on Monday repeated the call for calm.

'Today, we are continuing to work toward establishing an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire, one that would honor Eid' and stop the fighting, he said in brief, televised comments Monday.

'We believe the momentum generated by a humanitarian cease-fire is the best way to find out if you can put in place a sustainable cease-fire,' one that would provide more time to address grievances behind the fighting, Kerry said.

Kerry emphasized the United States' support for Israel to 'address the threat ... posed by tunnel attacks,' and said any resolution to the Gaza crisis 'must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups.'

Gaza Strip residents and Reuters witnesses said Israeli shelling and Hamas missile launches slowly subsided on Sunday.

However, the Israeli military said Monday that it had carried out three airstrikes on Gaza, targeting Hamas rocket launchers and infrastructure in the strip.

The military said Israeli jets hit two rocket launchers and a rocket manufacturing facility in central and northern Gaza Monday.

The strikes broke a relative lull in the fighting at the start of a major Muslim holiday.

UN declaration

Palestinian Ambassador to the U.N. Riyad Mansour said he hoped the U.N. statement would lead to a long cease-fire, but criticized the Security Council for not taking the stronger action of adopting a resolution against what he called Israel's 'aggression.'

"We were expecting the Security Council to deal with the issue of providing protection of our people and to deal with legitimate concerns of our people in the Gaza Strip. The status quo is not sustainable, and to return to the situation before this aggression is not sustainable,' Mansour said.

Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor said Hamas has fired 2,500 rockets at Israel, and reiterated that if Israel were not facing rocket attacks, it would not need to carry out its own strikes.

"We did everything we could to avoid this conflict, but Hamas refused to stop the attacks. Israel agreed to five cease-fire proposals; Hamas rejected or broke all of them, even the ones that they requested themselves,' Prosor said.

He said the Security Council statement was lacking in the specific mention of Hamas, militant rocket fire or Israel's right to defend itself.

The Security Council statement, drafted by Jordan, "urged all parties to accept and fully implement the humanitarian ceasefire into the Eid period and beyond" and "calls on parties to engage in efforts to achieve a durable and fully respected ceasefire, based on the Egyptian initiative."

The call for a cease-fire follows new attacks launched by Israel and Hamas despite going back and forth over proposals for another temporary halt to nearly three weeks of fighting.

US-Israel relations

Israel sees no need for another Gaza cease-fire, an Israeli official was quoted as saying on Monday, as tensions between Netanyahu's government and Washington flared over U.S. mediation to end the almost three-week-old war.

​​Fighting had subsided over the weekend, with the battered Palestinian enclave's dominant Hamas Islamists endorsing a U.N. call for a 24-hour halt ahead of Monday's Eid festival.

Yet Israel balked, having abandoned its own offer to extend a 12-hour truce from Saturday as Palestinian rocket launches persisted. Netanyahu's security cabinet met into the early hours of Monday to debate proposals including for an escalation of the Gaza offensive.

The council, however, commended the efforts of Kerry and U.N. chief Ban in trying to broker an end to the fighting.

Little progress in two decades

Two decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have made little progress and been frequently interrupted, most recently in April when Netanyahu called off talks overseen by Kerry in response to Abbas's surprise power-share with Hamas.

Speaking earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu sounded open to easing conditions for the Gaza Strip's 1.8 million Palestinians but said this must be 'intertwined' with disarming Hamas.

'I think you can't get social and economic relief for the people of Gaza without having an assured demilitarization,' he told CNN.

The Security Council expressed "grave concern regarding the deterioration in the situation as a result of the crisis related to Gaza and the loss of civilian lives and casualties" and "reiterates the need to take appropriate steps to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians and their protection."

Meanwhile, the Israeli army released on Monday footage said to show forces preparing and executing the detonation of a militant tunnel network leading from Gaza into Israel.

In the video, a tunnel shaft is seen ahead of its detonation. The explosion in two locations along the tunnel route is also seen in an aerial image.

A poll published by Israel's Channel 10 television on Sunday said some 87 percent of respondents wanted Israel to continue the operation until Hamas was toppled. Another poll, published in the Jerusalem Post newspaper, found that 86.5 percent of Israel's majority Jews opposed calling a truce while rocket fire continued and Gaza retained any of the cross-border tunnels.

The main U.N. agency in Gaza, UNRWA, said 167,269 displaced Palestinians have taken shelter in its schools and buildings, following repeated calls by Israel for civilians to evacuate whole neighborhoods ahead of military operations.

But residents of villages near the southern town of Khan Younis on Sunday attacked offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, torching furniture and causing damage. They said the organization had not done enough to help them.

During the lull in fighting inside Gaza on Sunday, residents flooded into the streets to discover scenes of massive destruction in some areas, including Beit Hanoun in the north and Shejaia in the east.

An Israeli official said the army hoped the widespread desolation would persuade Gazans to put pressure on Hamas to stop the fighting for fear of yet more devastation.

The Gaza turmoil has stoked tensions amongst Palestinians in mainly Arab East Jerusalem and in the occupied West Bank, which Abbas governs in uneasy coordination with the Israelis.

VOA's Margaret Besheer contributed to this report from the United Nations and Scott Bobb contributed from Jerusalem. Some information also was provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.

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