Ban tells Israel to open Gaza borders
By Anna Fifield in Gaza City
Published: January 20 2009
The United Nations secretary-general called on Israel on Tuesday to reopen the borders with the Gaza Strip immediately to allow the free movement of Palestinian people and goods.
Ban Ki-moon said he was promoting the idea of a third party – perhaps the European Union or Turkey – to police the border crossing to ensure that weapons could not be smuggled to Hamas.
"I hope that all the parties can agree on the border situation, to prevent any smuggling of illegal arms and weapons into Gaza," Mr Ban told the Financial Times after visiting damaged areas and a bombed UN food storage centre in Gaza City.
Stopping Hamas from re-arming, after a three-week conflict aimed at wiping out the militant group's ability to attack Israel, is the top priority of the Jewish state.
"In the absence of Palestinians manning the crossing, then the idea of having a European or Turkish presence [on the border] has to be discussed," said Mr Ban, who was promoting the idea among political leaders in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the other countries. "I think this should happen."
Mr Ban also said Israel should "fully open" the borders to the Gaza Strip as soon as possible – Hamas's key demand – to allow normal transport to flow.
Standing in front of the still burning warehouse, Mr Ban said he was "appalled" by the destruction in Gaza and again called for a full investigation into the conflict, which claimed the lives of 1,300 Palestinians and injured more than 5,000.
He said he would call world leaders, including Barack Obama, the US president, to encourage new political will for progress.
Israel had said it would withdraw its tanks before Mr Obama's inauguration, and when the FT visited the Erez Crossing on the northern border with Israel on Tuesday afternoon, there was no sign of any Israeli military activity on the Gaza side of the border.
But in spite of Mr Ban's calls, the crossings remained closed.
Mohammad Sadiq, a teacher from Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, said: "The Israelis bombed homes, schools, mosques. The problem is that now there are no materials to rebuild anything. The Israelis will not allow anything to come in."
The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and a Palestinian economic development council have estimated that $1.9bn in damage had been caused by the three-week incursion.
More than 4,100 homes, about 1,500 factories and workshops, 20 mosques and 31 security compounds were destroyed in the attacks, according to the estimate, leaving about 50,000 people homeless.
Half a million people are without running water, and electricity supplies are intermittent.
Arab governments have pledged at least $1.25bn (€940m, £850m) for reconstruction in Gaza, and European leaders have also promised aid, but Palestinians say they cannot use the money to rebuild as long as the borders remain sealed.
Faysal Shawa, the owner of a construction company and head of the Palestinian Businessmen's Association, said: "The most important thing is for the borders to be opened. Of course we need a lot of money to rebuild but we can get money. We need the borders to be opened not just for cement and steel but completely."
Israel said this week that it would consider allowing traffic through the border on a case by case basis, indicating its intention to decide what gets through to Gaza in spite of the international pledges to help rebuild.
"Anything less than opening the borders will make the disaster even worse," Mr Shawa said. "People have no homes so we need immediate action to rehouse them."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009