Saturday, January 24, 2009

UN reopens schools in Gaza Strip

Schools in the Gaza Strip operated by the United Nations have reopened for the first time since the Israeli offensive against Hamas militants.

About 200,000 Palestinian children were expected to return to class.

In the later stages of the three-week conflict, many of the schools were used to shelter Palestinians whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

It follows a decision by Israel on Friday to lift a ban on UN and foreign aid workers entering the Gaza Strip.

The ban had been in place since early November when tensions mounted between Israel and Hamas as the end of a six-month ceasefire approached.

Aid agencies welcomed the lifting of the restrictions, but warned that the task ahead was "enormous", with vast amounts of building materials alone needed to help rebuild schools, hospitals, mosques, and homes.

After a visit to the Gaza Strip, the top UN official responsible for emergency relief and humanitarian affairs told the BBC that he was shocked by the scale of destruction.

Sir John Holmes said it would have "disturbing" repercussions for the people of Gaza - with any private economic activity in Gaza is "set back by years or decades".

A humanitarian appeal was launched by a number of UK charities on Thursday to raise money for aid relief in Gaza.

Thirty of the UN's 200 schools in Gaza were damaged during the conflict, UN spokesman Christopher Gunness said.

In one of the deadliest incidents, about 40 Palestinian civilians were killed while sheltering at the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Initially, Israel accused Hamas of firing from the school and using civilians as "human shields", but later changed its defence, blaming a stray Israeli mortar instead.

The UN has called for an independent investigation and for criminal charges to follow if culpability is revealed.

Smuggling tunnels

Meanwhile the new US President, Barack Obama, has asked King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for his country's support in halting the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Israel, which ended its 22-day offensive last Sunday, has warned of renewed military strikes on the Strip if smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border are reopened.

Palestinians argue that Israel's tight control of their borders means the tunnels are the only way they can get enough basic supplies - food and fuel - to survive.

Israel said it launched its offensive to stop cross-border rocket attacks by militants in Gaza against its civilians.

Rocket attacks claimed the lives of three Israeli civilians during the conflict. Ten soldiers were also among the dead.

Palestinian medical officials said about 1,300 Palestinians were killed and thousands more were injured.