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UN chief Ban Ki-Moon slams Israel blockade of Gaza

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon told Palestinians that the "[United Nations] stands with you" during a visit to Gaza on Sunday. Mr. Ban also slammed the Israel blockade of Gaza for causing 'unacceptable hardships.'

By Correspondent / March 21, 2010

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon speaks to the media during a visit to new houses built with UN funding for Palestinians who lost their homes during Israel's three-week offensive last year, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Sunday.

Mahmud Hams/Reuters

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During a visit to the Gaza Strip on Sunday, United Nations SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-Moon told Palestinians living under an Israeli blockade that the “[United Nations] stands with you.”

Mr. Ban’s pledge to Gazans comes as Israel is facing increasing diplomatic pressure following its widely condemned announcement that it will expand settlements in East Jerusalem. The timing of that announcement, during Vice President Joe Biden's trip to the Middle East, helped bring US-Israel relations to the lowest point in decades, reports the Monitor.

Ban’s stop-over in Gaza comes as part of a Middle East tour to promote the resumption of peace talks between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. Since the blockade began in 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza, Ban has repeatedly called for an end to the lockdown.

On Saturday, speaking in Jerusalem, Ban criticized Israel for exposing Palestinians to “unacceptable hardships,” reports Iran’s Press TV. This trip to Gaza marks the UN leader’s second visit to the troubled area since the 22-day Israeli offensive in 2008-09. He will tour a number of areas that are unable to rebuild because they are cannot get supplies due to the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.

Ban offered a number of criticisms about Israeli policy, including plans to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem. Most of his remarks focused on the blockade, however, which has stopped the completion of several UN housing projects, reports the BBC. He added that the blockade is a “counter-productive” tool that stops the growth of legitimate business and fuels the growth of illicit economies and extremism.

[Ban] urged all Gazans to "choose the path of non-violence, Palestinian unity and international legitimacy".

He also called for a prisoner exchange involving Palestinian prisoners and Israeli soldier Gilat Shilad who was captured by militants in 2006.

Agreeing with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Ban said that peace negotiations should begin immediately, reports the Jerusalem Post. He added that all issues should be settled within 24 months.

While he was aware of Israel’s security problems, and always will be aware and open minded about them, he said, Ban stressed the need for Israel and the Palestinians to live as two states side-by-side in peace and security.

Though Ban met with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and had dinner with Peres on Saturday night, he will not meet with members of the Hamas militant group, which controls Gaza, reports Xinhua.

Ban’s visit to Gaza comes as international players from around the world are working to restart talks between Israel and Palestinians. On Sunday, George Mitchell, US envoy to the Middle East, will also arrive in Israel, reports Al Jazeera. His visit was delayed after Israel announced its settlement expansion plan during Mr. Biden’s visit. Israeli leaders are expected to make some concessions during the visit, but many points of contention are likely to remain.

“What we're witnessing is really concerted efforts on the part of the international community to get some sort of peace process going again,” Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera's Jerusalem correspondent, said. “It's been stagnant, it's been moribund for almost a year and a half now.”

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