New conflict likely unless Israel ends Gaza blockade: UN official

AFP , Monday 11 Aug 2014

People watch as a fire burns in a building that witnesses say was hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City. (Photo: Reuters)

A senior UN aid official warned Israel that a new conflict in Gaza is likely unless Tel Aviv lifts a crippling blockade on the tiny Palestinian enclave.

James Rawley, the top UN humanitarian official for the Palestinian territories, told AFP in an interview that the international community had failed during more than a month of the Israeli offensive which has killed more than 1,930 Palestinians and 67 people on the Israeli side.

"The blockade must be lifted not only to get material into Gaza in order to rebuild it but to allow Gaza to do what it was doing very well just 10 years ago, to trade with the outside world," Rawley told AFP.

"Gaza has a tremendous potential. People are very entrepreneurial, they're well educated, they have markets abroad, in Israel and the West Bank. The blockade has to be lifted in order that Gaza can thrive."

Israel and the Palestinians committed to observe a fresh 72-hour truce from 00:01 am Monday, accepting an Egyptian initiative to broker indirect talks on fleshing out a longer-term truce.

The Palestinians' primary demand is for Israel to lift a land and sea blockade, imposed in 2006 after Hamas captured an Israeli soldier.

Hamas also wants fishing zones extended, and to have a port and an airport.

Rawley said Israel's legitimate security concerns must be addressed but warned without ending the blockade that another round of fighting was "likely".

"Not only will we see very little in the way of reconstruction, but I am afraid that the conditions are in place for us to have another round of violence like we're seeing now," he told AFP in Gaza City.

"It (another conflict) would be likely... it doesn't make me feel good to say that," he said.

Israel went to war against Hamas last month to destroy its arsenal of rockets, which target Israeli towns and cities, and its network of attack tunnels burrowing into Israeli territory.

But Rawley struck an upbeat note, saying there were "signs" of shifting attitudes in Israel.

"We are seeing signs, and I hope that those voices in Israel that see the need to lift the blockade will come forward," he said.

He called for good leadership from the Israeli side to enable Palestinians to see the wisdom of allowing Israelis to "live a life of dignity," adding: "One has to be hopeful."

Preliminary reports estimate reconstruction needs at $6-8 billion (4.5-6 billion euros) and aid agencies are appealing for $380 million in basic humanitarian assistance, Rawley said.

Well over 10,000 homes, "a large part" of Gaza's industry and "up to half" its agricultural land have been destroyed, with maybe 300,000 people out of work, he said.

Around a third of the population -- 500,000 people -- are displaced within Gaza, 240,000 of them in UN shelters, 20,000 in government shelters and the rest staying with friends and relatives, he added.

Even before the fighting, Gaza suffered from critical water shortages, power supply only eight to 12 hours a day and with 1.1 million people getting food aid, he said.

Speaking to AFP shortly before Israel and the Palestinians accepted a second 72-hour truce agreement in a week, he reserved harsh words for the international community.

"Three UN facilities were attacked and people were killed in them, so we have failed collectively, the international community, in stopping the killing and protecting the people," he said.

Israel eased restrictions on imports of food and construction materials to Gaza in 2010 following an international outcry over a botched Israeli raid on a flotilla which was trying break the blockade, killing 10 Turks.

Some further restrictions were eased after the last Israel assault in Gaza in 2012.

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