- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | The U.N. chief inspected the devastation wrought by Israel’s onslaught in Gaza on Tuesday, leading a moment of silence at the U.N. headquarters as the territory’s militant Hamas rulers, triumphant at having survived, held victory rallies amid the ruins.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, appearing stern and saddened at a ceremony at the burned-out U.N. headquarters in Gaza, demanded a full investigation into strikes on facilities of the United Nations. Mr. Ban asked the crowd to honor victims of the offensive, including nearly 40 Palestinians who had sought refuge at a U.N. school shelled by Israel.

“It has been especially troubling and heartbreaking for me as secretary-general that I couldn’t end this faster,” he said. He warned that the truce is fragile, and called on Israel and Hamas to “exercise maximum restraint and nurture the cease-fire.”

Thousands of Hamas supporters thronged a square outside the remains of the parliament building in Gaza City, which was heavily damaged in an Israeli air strike at the outset of the conflict. Two men hoisted a sign in carefully scripted Hebrew reading, “The resistance will be victorious, Israel has been defeated.”

Mr. Ban later visited the rocket-scarred Israeli town of Sderot, where he called the Hamas’ attacks in the past eight years against Israeli residents “appalling and unacceptable.”

Israel and Hamas both ceased fire on Sunday, after an offensive that claimed the lives of some 1,300 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, and 13 Israelis. The last of Israel’s ground troops were expected to pull out of Gaza on Tuesday if the quiet held, defense officials said.

Israel mounted the air and ground campaign against Hamas on Dec. 27 to force Gaza militants to halt years of rocket fire on southern Israel and to cripple arms-smuggling operations. The fighting stopped before Israel achieved those aims, though the Egyptian-brokered truce hopes to address the issues of arms smuggling and reopening Gaza’s blockaded border crossings in its next stage.

Mr. Ban personally intervened during the war to try to stop the violence and said over the weekend that he was sending a team to assess the humanitarian needs so the United Nations could issue an emergency appeal for funds.

Calling the crisis a “collective political failure,” Mr. Ban said he would share the findings of his trip to Gaza with world leaders, including President Obama.

The first estimates by independent surveyors said Gaza lost nearly $2 billion in assets, including 4,100 homes, about 1,500 factories and workshops, 20 mosques, 31 security compounds, and 10 water or sewage lines. Shattered glass and mounds of rubble littered city streets.

Mr. Ban called the attacks on the U.N. headquarters and two of its schools “outrageous” and demanded a full investigation through proper judiciary systems. He also demanded guarantees it would never happen again.

Israel has said militants used the U.N. buildings as cover to launch attacks, but the military has launched its own investigation.

Before setting off for Gaza, Mr. Ban met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who told him that Hamas could not be allowed to lead the reconstruction process in Gaza and thereby gain legitimacy, Mr. Olmert’s office said.

The United Nations and international organizations must lead the reconstruction in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, which has been mediating between Israel and Hamas, Mr. Olmert said.

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