Thu, Jan 22, 2009 - Page 1 News List

UN chief tours Gaza, calls destruction ‘heartbreaking’

AGENCIES , GAZA AND JERUSALEM

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, voicing shock and anger at the “heartbreaking” devastation, visited the Gaza Strip on Tuesday to pledge aid for Palestinians after Israeli attacks killed 1,300 and made thousands homeless.

Israel had withdrawn most of its force before US President Barack Obama was inaugurated — Israeli leaders seemed eager not to cloud the start of a new era in a key alliance. Obama’s predecessor, former president George W. Bush, had endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket fire by Gaza’s ruling Islamists.

Since a ceasefire — though nothing like a peace accord — took hold on Sunday, Hamas has demonstrated it remains in charge in the coastal enclave.

It held “victory” rallies to coincide with Ban’s visit. Some speakers urged him and Western powers to end their boycott of Hamas, which won the last Palestinian election.

“I have seen only a fraction of the destruction. This is shocking and alarming,” Ban said, condemning an “excessive use” of force by Israel as well as Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel.

“These are heartbreaking scenes I have seen and I am deeply grieved by what I have seen today,” he told a news conference held against a backdrop of still smoldering food aid in a UN warehouse set ablaze by Israeli gunfire on Thursday.

Ban called the attack “outrageous” and demanded an inquiry and, if need be, the guilty to be held to account.

Ban, on a Middle East tour, was the most senior diplomatic figure to visit the territory in years.

Later, visiting a southern Israeli town that for years was a target for militants in Gaza, he called the Palestinian rocket fire at the Jewish state “appalling.”

PHOSPHORUS

Meanwhile, doctors in Gaza described on Tuesday how they had struggled to treat dozens of patients with terrible and unusually deadly burns consistent with white phosphorus weapons, during Israel’s three-week war in Gaza.

Nafiz Abu Shabaan, head of the burns unit at Shifa hospital and the most senior burns surgeon in Gaza, said between 60 and 70 patients had died in his unit during the war from severe burns that were unlike any injury he had seen before.

Patients with relatively small burn injuries, which ought to be survivable, were dying unexpectedly.

His account, along with evidence from survivors, corroborates mounting evidence from groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that the Israeli military fired phosphorus shells into populated areas of Gaza in direct violation of international humanitarian law. Amnesty said it believes Israel is guilty of a war crime.

The use of white phosphorus in civilian areas is prohibited by UN conventions.

The Israeli military has at times denied using white phosphorus and at other times said only that it uses weapons “in compliance with international law.”

Israel’s Maariv newspaper said yesterday that Israel had admitted to using phosphorus munitions, but only in open areas.

WITHDRAWAL

The last Israeli soldier withdrew from Gaza yesterday, an Israeli army spokesman said.

“However the army remains deployed all around the Gaza Strip to meet any eventuality,” the spokesman said

The Israeli navy fired sporadic salvoes into the northern Gaza Strip during the morning, Palestinian witnesses said. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, voicing shock and anger at the “heartbreaking” devastation, visited the Gaza Strip on Tuesday to pledge aid for Palestinians after Israeli attacks killed 1,300 and made thousands homeless.

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