United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon crossed into the Gaza Strip on Sunday for an hours-long visit as part of a regional tour aimed at reviving the Middle East peace process.
Ban made the visit several hours before a planned meeting with the parents of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. A number of activists held a protest at the Erez crossing, demanding an immediate meeting with Shalit and calling for his release.
Ban was met on the other side of the borderby a small group of people waving Palestinian flags. "I'll go to Gaza to express my solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian people there and to underscore the need to end the blockade," Ban told reporters on Saturday. He added that the siege was causing "unacceptable human suffering".
Ban was making his second visit to the Gaza Strip since the 22-day Gaza War in 2008-2009 which brought the peace process to a halt.
Activists rally for Shalit's release (Photo: AP)
Ban announced during the visit to Gaza that Israel had agreed to launch a housing project in the town of Khan Younis. The project includes the rebuilding of 150 housing units, a mill, an UNRWA school and sewage infrastructure.
Ban said that this was a positive move, but stressed that the Strip's residents were dealing with harsh living conditions and proved their courage every day.
Yoel Marshak, one of the leaders of the Gilad Shalit campaign, greeted Ban at the Erez crossing. "We were 40 activists waiting for the UN chief. He arrived at 8 am with his car, which passed slowly within a convoy of eight vehicles. We addressed him with loudspeakers and posters in a bid to convey three messages: The first, that we congratulate him for entering the Strip and ask him to look into Gilad Shalit's health; the second, a demand to organize Red Cross visits to Gilad; and the third, to encourage continuing the negotiations between Hamas and the Israeli government, which is stuck because of both sides.
"We told him we were waiting for him to leave Gaza peacefully," Marshak told Ynet. "But we won't be the ones to greet him when he leaves, but rather Noam and Aviva Shalit who will meet with him in the afternoon hours. From there, they are slated to fly to Geneva, for a meeting with a European human rights organization. I am certain that the appeal will help. He is a reliable and decent person who will adopt the message, but it’s unclear what Hamas will do with all this."
Greeted by Gaza women. Civilians around Ban's car (Photo: AFP)
Ban met Saturday evening with President Shimon Peres. He called on Hamas to release the kidnapped soldier, and Peres thanked him for scheduling a meeting with Shalit's parents. The UN chief also called on the Palestinians to end rocket attacks from Gaza, while urging Israel to lift the Gaza blockade.
Ban said the UN aims to see negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians bringing results within 24 months.The UN chief also said the parties should refrain from acting in a way that could predetermine negotiation results, hinting at Israeli settlement construction.
Addressing Peres, Ban said he understood the challenges involves in guaranteeing security for Israelis. He then urged "Palestinian radicals" to put an end to their rocket attacks on Israel.
Ali Waked and AFP contributed to this report