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UN Official Pleads for Opening of Gaza Borders

by Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS  - The top U.N. aid official in the Gaza Strip urged Israel on Friday to ease restrictions on the flow of goods into the conflict-torn territory, saying they were "devastating" for the people.

"It's wholly and totally inadequate," John Ging, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, said about the amount of goods Israel permits into the territory, where some 1.5 million Palestinians live.

"It's having a very devastating impact on the physical circumstances and also the mindset of people on the ground," he said.

Israel says it has opened Gaza's border to larger amounts of food and medicine since its December-January offensive against Hamas militants who control the Palestinian enclave and were firing rockets against Israeli towns.

The war destroyed some 5,000 homes and, according to figures from a Palestinian rights group, killed over 1,400 people. Around 80 percent of Palestinians are reliant on aid.

Ging said access to goods was still a severe problem.

"We need access," he said. "It's the number one issue. It's the number two issue. It's the number three issue, and so on. Until we get it, there's nothing as important as solving the access issue."

Israel fears opening the borders would allow Hamas to smuggle more weapons and ammunition into the territory.

Ging said that all the crossing points from Israel into the Gaza Strip should be opened, and those that were currently opened in a limited way to only selected people or goods should be fully opened.

In addition to restrictions on what it deems luxury goods, such as cigarettes and chocolates, Israel has blocked entry of materials such as cement and steel for rebuilding because it says they could be used for bunkers and rearming.

Since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in a 2007 civil war with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction, Israel has tightened its blockade of the 30-mile (45-km) strip in an effort to weaken Hamas' hold on power.

Ging said he understood the "real security challenges" to the operation of crossing points, such as when militants were firing rockets that could endanger people at the crossings. But he said it was not clear why they were closed at other times.

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev said last month that an expansion of activity at Gaza's border crossings could be discussed once Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in 2006, is released.

(Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Alan Elsner)

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