The eight-month closure of Gaza has created "grim and miserable" conditions that deprive Gazans of their basic dignity, the U.N.'s top humanitarian affairs official said during a visit Friday, urging that the territory's borders be reopened.
John Holmes, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, toured Gaza's largest hospital, speaking with dialysis patients and inspecting the neonatal unit, and then visited an industrial zone that once employed 1,800 Palestinians but has been idled by the border closure.
Israel and Egypt severely restricted access to Gaza after the Islamic militants seized the territory by force in June. Since then, only a few dozen trucks carrying food, medicine and other basics have been permitted into Gaza every day, while most exports are banned. The closure has driven up poverty and unemployment, and the U.N. says some 80 percent of Gaza's 1.4 million people now get some food aid.
"All this makes for a grim human and humanitarian situation here in Gaza, which means that people are not able to live with the basic dignity to which they are entitled," Holmes told reporters in Gaza.
Extent of suffering disputed
The extent of suffering in Gaza has been a subject of dispute. Palestinians and human rights groups say hardship is widespread, while Israeli government officials have accused Hamas of trying to manufacture a humanitarian crisis for political gain.
Holmes' four-vehicle convoy, marked by blue U.N. flags, drove through potholed, muddy streets without a Hamas police escort. It was Holmes' first visit to Gaza as humanitarian affairs chief, part of a four-day trip that also includes a a stop in the Israeli town of Sderot, hit hard by continued rocket fire from Gaza.
The U.N. envoy started the day at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, where administrators told him that they were worried about a possible breakdown of overburdened generators and that they needed spare parts for medical machinery, such as dialysis machines.
In recent weeks, rolling blackouts of several hours a day have been the norm in Gaza, a result of reduced fuel shipments by Israel, which says it is trying to pressure Gaza militants to halt rocket fire into Israel. So far, generators have kept hospitals going during power cuts.
"No freedom, no freedom," Zaher Shabat, the wife of dialysis patient Ahmed Shabat, told Holmes in broken English, after trying to squeeze all her woes into a brief conversation. She told him she has 10 children, and that with her husband unemployed, it was tough for him to spend money on trips to the hospital every other day. "I'll do my best," Holmes told her before being taken to the next patient.
Holmes calls for reopening Gaza
At Gaza's main cargo crossing, closed since June, Holmes was briefed by Wadie al-Masri, general manager of the Karni industrial zone which employed 1,800 before the closure.
Al-Masri said he told Holmes that Israel must significantly increase the number of truckloads allowed into Gaza, from about 50 to at least 200 a day, just to meet basic needs. He said Gaza's private sector has largely collapsed since the closure, and that some leading manufacturers have taken their business abroad.
Holmes called for reopening Gaza, and said he would talk about it with Israeli officials and representatives of the West Bank government of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "I have been shocked by the grim and miserable things I have seen and heard about during the day," he said of his Gaza tour.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said an improvement depended on an end to the rocket attacks.
"If terrorists in Gaza were to cease firing rockets into Israel, trying to kill our people, the situation could very quickly return to where it was," Regev said.
Also Friday, thousands of Gazans protested against the reprinting of Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
"What Denmark said is heresy," demonstrators chanted in a Hamas march in the Jebaliya refugee camp.
"It is shameful that Denmark should renew its offence against the prophet," Hamas official Mushir al-Masri told reporters at the Jebaliya protest.
In Gaza City, assailants detonated an explosive device in the library of the YMCA, severely damaging the one-story building and shaking Gaza's tiny Christian community. There was no claim of responsibility, and it was not clear if the attack was linked to the cartoon protests.
Hamas police denounced the attack as "shameful," and said it had seized the assailants' car.
Hamas has pledged to protect the Christians, but Christian institutions have been targeted repeatedly in recent months, and a Christian activist was killed in October.
Friday's attack left a small crater in the floor of the YMCA library and tore holes into the walls and ceiling. Books were strewn on the floor, covered by chunks of plaster, wicker bookshelves were overturned and wires dangled from the ceiling.
For decades, Christians and Muslims had a relatively peaceful, if sometimes uneasy relationship in Gaza. Friendships spanned the religious divide and Muslims and Christian would visit each other on holidays, though intermarriage and proselytizing were strictly taboo.
Christians say they fear more attacks and, in the long run, for their future in Gaza. The community has been hit hard by emigration in recent years, with many Christians seeking jobs and a better life abroad.