U.N. Seeks $613M In Urgent Aid For Gaza

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon speaks during a press conference on the humanitarian situation in Gaza at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Keystone, Alessandro Della Bella)
AP Photo
The United Nations launched an emergency appeal Thursday for $613 million to help Palestinians recover from Israel's three weeks of military operations in Gaza.

If the Israelis allow the supplies to enter without obstacle, the donations will enable the U.N. and other aid organizations to jump into action, meeting critical needs for food, clean water, shelter, medicine and restoration of basic services, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

"Help is indeed needed urgently," he told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency said, however, that aid shipments are hitting bottlenecks on Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt. The crossings from Israel and Egypt have been tightly controlled or closed since Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Israeli Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog said the border crossings were already adequately open.

"Humanitarian aid is entering Gaza at a rate of 150 trucks a day, which is the maximum amount of aid that the Palestinians can absorb at this time," said Herzog, who is in charge of coordinating international aid shipments to the territory. The Palestinians and aid groups, however, say the needs are much greater.

John Ging, the top U.N. official in Gaza, said ordinary people are not getting sufficient help in time.

"There isn't enough access to Gaza. There are thousands of tons of assistance generously donated, sitting in Egypt, Jordan and the ports in Israel. That aid should be right here, right now, helping the people who need it," he said. "The crossing points have to open."

Talks dragged on over how to extend a cease-fire between Israel and the fundamentalist Islamic group and open the territory's crossings but apart from a handful of trucks sent by a charity sponsored by Egypt's ruling party, no cargo had gone through the Rafah crossing by the early afternoon Thursday. It was unclear why Egypt was curbing shipments.

Ahmed al-Kurd, the Hamas government minister of social affairs in Gaza, noted that Egypt is only allowing medical supplies through on its side of the border.

"The real demand is lifting the siege and opening the borders," said al-Kurd. "Food shipments cannot stay much longer at the borders."

Over a dozen trailer trucks loaded with white sacks of food could be seen waiting inside the Egyptian crossing terminal. Another dozen commercial trucks were lined up outside, and the drivers said they didn't know when they will be allowed in or why they were denied entry.

One truck driver on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing with Gaza said he was transporting cheese, milk and yogurt and had been waiting for two days to make his delivery.

A trickle of passengers went through the Gaza-Egypt border Thursday, including 40 Jordanian engineers who were going in to assess damage.

"We don't want to go back to the position we had before the fighting started where effectively normal economic and other life in Gaza was being strangled by the restrictions on goods and movement," Holmes said.

"For example, no construction materials were able to get through or other key equipment and spare parts," he added. "Clearly we understand Israel's security concerns, but we believe they can be addressed without sacrificing the basic needs of the population," he said.

Ban - the first world leader to enter Gaza since an Israeli blockade of the territory in June 2007 - said the failure to act quickly will lead to even greater humanitarian calamity among the 1.4 million civilians who suffered because of the offensive launched in December to crush Hamas rocket squads.

"More than one-third of the 6,600 deaths and injured were children and women," Ban said. "As a father of three I was especially troubled by the suffering and trauma that so many families went through."

Ban said he was encouraged that the United States and some European countries had agreed to try to prevent the smuggling of illicit arms and weapons from the wider region into Gaza again, which otherwise would allow Hamas to use the cease-fire to strengthen itself.

"That's a very serious issue," Ban said.

Meanwhile, Israeli election front-runner used the Davos forum to seek increased pressure on Iran's nuclear program, saying the while the world can recover from the global economic crisis it faces, the effects of a nuclear Iran are "not reversible."