UN chief calls Gaza a ‘dramatic humanitarian crisis,’ urges end to blockade
Antonio Guterres, visiting Hamas-run Palestinian coastal enclave, calls on Israel and Egypt to lift border restrictions
UN chief Antonio Guterres called for the blockade of the Gaza Strip to be lifted Wednesday as he visited the Palestinian enclave which, he said, is enduring”one of the most dramatic humanitarian crises” he had seen.
Guterres earlier visited Israeli communities near the border with Gaza.
“I am deeply moved to be in Gaza today, unfortunately to witness one of the most dramatic humanitarian crises that I’ve seen in many years working as a humanitarian in the United Nations,” Guterres said.
He later said it was “important to open the closures,” in reference to Israel and Egypt’s blockade of Gaza.
Israel says the blockade it imposed a decade ago is necessary to prevent Hamas from smuggling in weapons to Gaza or the materials need to make them. Goods heading for Gaza are first shipped to Israel for inspection and then trucked into the Palestinian territory after items considered a security risk are removed.
Egypt only allows the opening of the Gaza’s southern border occasionally.
Hamas, the Islamist terror group that runs the Gaza Strip, welcomed the trip, calling it an “important visit,” but small demonstrations against the UN head also occurred.
At one protest, around 25 people held a fake coffin with a sign that said “Welcome to the largest prison in the world.”
Dozens of people also demonstrated as Guterres’s convoy crossed the border with Israel into Gaza, calling for action in support of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
In a statement issued upon Guterres’s arrival, Hamas also demanded he approve relief and development programs and pressure Israel about the Palestinian prisoners it holds.
Guterres, who held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday, was to visit a school in the Strip run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
Hamas called on Guterres to make “all efforts to lift the siege on the Strip and end the suffering for two million Palestinians living in the largest prison in the world.”
Guterres is on his first visit to the region since taking office at the beginning of the year. His meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are aimed at encouraging the resumption of peace talks.
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade for a decade, while its sole crossing with Egypt has also been largely closed in recent years.
At least 70 percent of Gazans are dependent upon international aid. UNRWA plays a major role in the Strip, with the same percentage of the population classified as refugees.
Hamas, a terror group that seeks Israel’s destruction, has ruled Gaza with an iron fist since seizing control of the coastal area in 2007. It has since fought three wars with Israel, firing thousands of rockets into its territory and digging a network of elaborate attack tunnels.
Hamas has largely observed a truce with Israel since the last battle, in 2014, though more radical groups in the territory have carried out occasional attacks.
Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Hamas takeover that has crippled the local economy. In recent years, Egypt has also cracked down on the once-vibrant tunnel trade along the border. Israel began construction of an underground anti-tunnel barrier along the border last year.
UN officials have however called for the blockade to be lifted, saying the enclave is fast becoming unlivable, with sparse electricity and a lack of clean water.
Before crossing into the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials gave Guterres a tour of the Gaza border area and he was shown a tunnel, dug by terrorists, crossing from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
Such tunnels, used by Hamas for terror attacks in the past, are a major concern for Israel.
Guterres, who took office at the start of the year, was later due to give a speech in Tel Aviv before departing following his three-day visit.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.