Israel fostering extremism in Gaza with blockade
Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, has warned Israel that its blockade of Gaza is "empowering extremists" in the coastal enclave.
By Adrian Blomfield in Jerusalem
Published: 2:32PM GMT 21 Mar 2010
Mr Ban called on Benjamin Netanyahu's government to end Jewish settlement construction in East Jerusalem Photo: Speaking during a tour of Gaza, Mr Ban sought to increase international pressure on Israel by deploring the scale of human suffering in the Palestinian territory and calling on Benjamin Netanyahu's government to end Jewish settlement construction in East Jerusalem.
Amid renewed calls from the United States to ease the blockade of Gaza, the secretary general urged Israel to act both out of compassion and in response to its own security needs.
Israeli policy of closure if not sustainable and that it is wrong," he said. "It causes unacceptable sufferings to the people and population."
"The policy is also counter-productive. It prevents legitimate commerce and encourages smuggling. It undercuts moderates and empowers extremists."
Saying it needed to protect itself from frequent rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel imposed its blockade in mid-2007 after the Islamist movement Hamas seized the territory from Fatah, the moderate party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader.
But human rights organisations say that the restrictions have stunted economic development, caused widespread humanitarian suffering and amount to collective punishment.
Mr Ban visited parts of Gaza that were destroyed when Israeli forces invaded the territory in December, 2008 following an upsurge in Hamas rocket attacks. He described the scenes as "distressing".
In recent days, against the backdrop of a serious diplomatic dispute with the United States, Israel has agreed to allow the UN to rebuild 150 homes, a flour mill and a sewage treatment plant destroyed during the Israeli operation. Mr Ban welcomed the progress, but noted that it was "only a drop in the bucket."
Mr Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, on Sunday indicated his acquiescence to some of the demands made by the United States in the wake of a row triggered by a decision to expand a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, which Israeli captured in the 1967 Six Day war.
He reportedly pledged to relax some of the restrictions on Gaza and release several hundred Palestinian prisoners as part of a series of "confidence building" concessions he was asked to make by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state.
But Mr Netanyahu also rejected Mrs Clinton's core demand by refusing to reverse plans to build 1,600 new homes in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo or to halt all Jewish construction in the predominantly Arab portion of the city, seen by Palestinians as their future capital.
Just hours before he headed to Washington for talks with President Barack Obama and other senior US officials, Mr Netanyahu vowed not to back down on East Jerusalem, which he claimed was as Jewish as the rest of Israel.
"Construction in Jerusalem is like construction in Tel Aviv and we have clarified that for the American government," he said.
Although the Obama administration has markedly softened its rhetoric towards Israel in recent days, it is far from clear that it will cede ground to Mr Netanyahu on East Jerusalem -- a concession that could be seen as an embarrassing climb-down.
Mr Ban, who is due to meet Mr Netanyahu later on Sunday, added his voice to the international condemnation of Israel's construction activities in East Jerusalem, which is seen by many as a contravention of articles in the Geneva Conventions governing the administration of occupied territory.
"The world has condemned Israel's settlement plans in East Jerusalem," he said. "Let us be clear. All settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory and must be stopped."
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