GAZA CITY - UN officials issued warnings yesterday about the dire collapse of Gaza's economy and called on the international community to open crossing points for trade.
At least 68,000 Palestinians have lost their jobs in the past month since Israel closed the crossings out of the narrow, highly populated strip of land, according to the latest Palestinian figures. The closures came after the Islamist movement Hamas seized full security control of Gaza in mid-June after months of near civil war with its rival Fatah.
Around 85% of Gaza's private-sector employees are out of work, according to Nasser el-Helou, a prominent business leader. Thousands of factories have closed as imports and exports have halted.
The warnings come before a meeting today in Lisbon of the Quartet of Middle East negotiators - the US, the EU, the UN and Russia - which Tony Blair, the Quartet's new special representative, will also attend. Included in his remit is the task of promoting Palestinian economic development but in Gaza most say the economic crisis has never looked so bad.
The isolation of Gaza has highlighted its growing division from the West Bank, where the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has installed an emergency government after sacking the Hamas-led authority which was elected into power last year. Yesterday Mr Abbas said he would call early elections. Hamas has already said it will not take part.
Karen AbuZayd, head of the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), which helps Palestinian refugees, called on Mr Blair to visit Gaza to see the problem for himself. Mr Blair is expected to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah from Monday, but there appear to be no immediate plans for him to travel to Gaza.
"First he has to see what is going on and the best way would be if he came down to Gaza, at least to talk to those of us who live here," said Ms AbuZayd, who has worked in Gaza for seven years. "It is a time of great worry about the future." Her agency feeds 825,000 refugees in Gaza. It has had to stop $93m (£45m) worth of construction projects, employing thousands of people, because no cement can be imported.
Although Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza two years ago, it maintains control of the sea, the airspace and all the crossings for people and goods with Israel and with Egypt.
Under an agreement arranged by the US in late 2005, Israel is committed to opening the crossings to allow trade in and out of Gaza. However, since Hamas consolidated its control of Gaza a month ago Israel has said the crossings must remain closed for security reasons. Several have been attacked by Palestinian militants in recent weeks. But supplies of fuel and electricity continue to be delivered as well as the food aid from the UN.
"If the present closures continue we at Unrwa anticipate that Gaza will become a nearly totally aid-dependent population that will be robbed of the possibility of self-sufficiency and also of the dignity of work," said John Ging, the agency's director of operations in Gaza.
In Gaza many business people have watched their livelihoods collapse. Mr el-Helou, the spokesman for Gaza's Borders and Crossings Crisis Committee, said he had fired 45 of his 75 employees.
He appealed to the Quartet and to Mr Blair. "Please lift the siege on Gaza, Mr Blair. The siege is destroying our economy, our community and our sense of hope in the future.
"It is radicalising the people of Gaza and making your vision of bringing peace to the Middle East an ever-more distant dream."
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