GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said he's heading to Gaza and a top priority will be to get all border crossings opened not only for food and medicine but for desperately needed construction materials which Israel has refused to allow in since Hamas seized power in June 2007.
He told reporters Tuesday "it's absolutely critical" that cement, pipes and other building materials are "unbanned" by Israel and allowed into Gaza to start rebuilding the war-ravaged Palestinian territory.
"Otherwise, the reconstruction effort won't get off first base," Holmes said.
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Holmes, who expects to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, told a news conference he will also be pressing Israeli authorities to allow humanitarian staff from international organizations into Gaza.
"In theory, they have permission," he said. "In practice, it's proving very difficult to get into Gaza."
Holmes said Monday that hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid will be needed immediately to help Gaza's 1.4 million people and billions of dollars will be required to rebuild its shattered buildings and infrastructure.
Israel launched the war on Dec. 27 in an effort to halt years of militant rocket fire by Hamas on its southern communities and arms smuggling into Gaza. The Israeli government declared a cease-fire that went into effect early Sunday, and hours later, Hamas agreed to silence its guns, too. Israel had withdrawn the bulk of its forces from Gaza by Tuesday evening, ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama, but the temporary cease-fire remained shaky.
Holmes said Tuesday the U.N. is "trying to ramp up the humanitarian efforts in Gaza," and while some trucks and fuel are getting into Gaza, the number remains small and "very inadequate" compared to the number of trucks allowed in before Hamas seized power.
"We need more food, wheat grain in particular both for the humanitarian food distribution and for local bakeries," Holmes said.
Gaza also needs continuing supplies of fuel for its power plant, for hospital generators and for bakeries to bake bread, he said.
Holmes said a lasting and durable cease-fire and the reopening of all border crossings are essential to get humanitarian aid, commercial goods and construction materials into Gaza.
The temporary cease-fire doesn't include an agreement on the opening of border crossings, he noted.
"There's a lot of talk about it but it doesn't exist yet. So that's one of the points I'm very keen to pursue when I go there myself later this week," Holmes said.
Under an Egyptian-French initiative being discussed, the temporary cease-fire would be followed by separate talks with Israel and Hamas on a permanent cease-fire in which weapons smuggling routes into Gaza would shut down with international help. Discussions on opening Gaza's blockaded border crossings would take place at a later date.
Holmes said construction materials "were effectively to virtually 100 percent banned from entering into Gaza since the Hamas takeover in 2007, which meant even before these hostilities a lot of humanitarian projects which had been planned were not able to be completed."
He cited the repair of Gaza's sewage system, which was further damaged in the latest conflict, as an example.
"So it's absolutely critical that these kind of materials now be allowed into Gaza on a regular ... basis ... without too much bureaucracy," Holmes said. "That is something we need to pursue with the Israeli authorities to make sure they are doing that, and that's one of the things we'll be pursuing."
John Ging, head of Gaza operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency which helps Palestinian refugees, said that when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the seriously damaged UNRWA office in Gaza City on Tuesday, representatives of Gaza civic organizations told him the cycle of violence in the territory must end, "even in terms of building."
They want to make sure that "what is built now will remain standing because many of the buildings that have been destroyed — the ministry buildings, other vital infrastructure here — they were built with international money in the last 15 years, and now they're piles of rubble," he said.
"What a waste of money," Ging said. "We unfortunately now have to put money back into building that should be going into further development."