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World News

Situation at Gaza crossings is "intolerable": U.N.

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The situation at the borders between Israel and the Gaza Strip is “intolerable” and restrictions on imports into the Palestinian territory must be eased, a top U.N. official said on Wednesday.

“The intolerable situation at Gaza’s crossings remains the key impediment to bringing help -- and hope -- to the people of Gaza,” U.N. Under-Secretary-General Lynn Pascoe told the U.N. Security Council during a monthly debate on the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Earlier this week, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Western donors that Israel would lift restrictions on food supplies entering Gaza after a row with Washington over blocked convoys of macaroni and cheese.

But Pascoe, a former U.S. diplomat, told council members that while there has been an increase in the amount of goods allowed into the Gaza Strip, “the quality and quantity of imports are insufficient.”

He said the United Nations urged Israel “to abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law and open crossings for emergency supplies and construction materials, without which there will be no way to rebuild Gaza.”

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. The war destroyed some 5,000 homes and -- according to figures from a Palestinian rights group -- killed 1,417 people.

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.

Pascoe also expressed concern about the lack of a permanent ceasefire despite Egyptian efforts to broker a deal on one.

“In the absence of a ceasefire, violence continues,” he said. “During the (mid February-mid March) reporting period more than 100 rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel from Gaza. These attacks, targeting civilian areas, are irresponsible and must cease.”

ISRAEL URGES HAMAS TO FREE SOLDIER

Israel’s envoy made clear that her country’s security was still under threat because of the rocket fire. She said the Jewish state was not indifferent to the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people, but reiterated that Hamas militants needed to release an Israeli soldier it kidnapped in 2006.

“Expanded activity at the crossings will be discussed upon the release of Gilad Shalit,” Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev told the council, referring to the captive soldier.

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 a bid to weaken Hamas’ hold on power.

Pascoe also criticized Israel for allowing more settlement construction in Palestinian areas, saying “settlement activity, including so-called ‘natural growth,’ must be frozen.”

The Palestinian delegate also complained about settlements. “Colonization and the peace process cannot coexist,” the Palestinian observer to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, told the council.

“Israel’s settlement activities are totally contradictory to the peace process and the core principle of land for peace sustaining that process,” he said.

Editing by Vicki Allen

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