UN chief arrives in war-torn Gaza Strip

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in the devastated Gaza Strip Tuesday, in the first visit by an international leader to the coastal strip following Israel's deadly 22-day offensive.


AFP - UN chief Ban Ki-moon paid a first visit to the war-battered Gaza Strip on Tuesday where Israeli troops remain deployed on the third day of a ceasefire.

Hours before the inauguration of US president-elect Barack Obama, the army said a total troop pullout from Gaza was not under discussion.

"For the moment, no one is talking about the total withdrawal of troops," said army spokeswoman Avital Liebovich.

However the ceasefire appeared to be holding.

But Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian farmer in the north of the strip on Tuesday, doctors said.

An Israeli army spokesman said she could not confirm the report that the man had been killed near the town of Jabailya by shots fired by troops close to Gaza's border with Israel.

And two Palestinian children died in Gaza City when an Israeli shell they had been playing with exploded, doctors said.

Israel launched its massive assault on December 27 and started to pull out gradually from the territory on Sunday as Hamas and other militant groups pledged a week-long ceasefire.

With an air of normalcy returning, Ban entered the strip mid-morning to witness the extent of the destruction which killed more than 1,300 people, including some 400 children, and wounded at least 5,300 others.

It was the first visit by a foreign leader to the impoverished territory since Hamas, an Islamist group boycotted by the West as a terror outfit, violently seized power in June 2007, ousting forces loyal to moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

The secretary general was to tour a UN-run school hit by an Israeli bombardment, Palestinian sources said.

Following his visit to Gaza, the UN chief was due to visit the southern Israeli town of Sderot, five kilometres (three miles) from the Gaza border, that has taken the brunt of Palestinian rocket fire since 2000.

Gazans say the tide of global hope that has surged with Obama's election victory has not washed over the Gaza Strip.

"Obama won't bring my husband back to life," said Leila Khalil. "He was martyred and left me with six children to feed on my own. And Obama won't repair our house that was damaged in the (air) raids."

For Khalil, Obama, who was to be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States later om Tuesday, will not alter the historically pro-Israel US policy on the Middle East.

"No one cares about us," she said. "If we can't even count on Arab presidents, what can we hope for from an American president when they've always supported Israel?"

The Palestinian bureau of statistics reported 4,100 homes totally destroyed and 17,000 others damaged in Israel's deadliest ever assault on Gaza.

Despite the devastation, Hamas called the war a "divine victory" and vowed to rearm, warning Israel it would face more rocket attacks if it did not withdraw all forces by Sunday.

In Kuwait, an Arab summit was concluded on Tuesday with aid pledges to help rebuild the Gaza Strip, but without a specific fund or political unity on the Gaza war.

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah called for "practical steps to stabilise the ceasefire," while Saudi King Abdullah pledged one billion dollars to rebuild the battered territory.

Abbas, the beleaguered Palestinian president, made a renewed appeal on Monday for national unity between Hamas and his secular Fatah.

The rebuilding of Gaza looks set to become another battleground with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warning that Israel did not want Hamas to take control of reconstruction.

"Israel believes that the reconstruction process must be led by international organisations in cooperation with the UN, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority," he told visiting Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

His foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, also warned that Israel will not open Gaza's border crossings without progress on the fate of an Israeli soldier who has been held hostage in the enclave for nearly three years.

Hamas has demanded that Israel open the coastal strip's borders and the European Union, along with key nations in Europe, have also urged Israel to open the crossings to help secure a lasting ceasefire.

Israel considers Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that is pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state, a terror organisation.

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