UN holds out peace possibility to Gaza's warring parties

By staff writers
January 1, 2009

As 2009 begins, the United Nations Security Council is meeting to discuss the crisis in the Gaza Strip and behind-the-scenes discussions are going on with leading protagonists on both sides.

International calls for a halt to the Israeli-Palestinian violence are growing by the minute - from politicians, faith leaders, civil society groups and grassroots activists.

France's President Sarkozy has said he will visit the region in a bid to end the crisis, which has seen five days of Israeli raids and Hamas rocket fire.

Yesterday, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert rejected calls for a 48-hour truce to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to end general peace negotiations without an end to the "barbaric" bombing of Gaza.

Pressure is also being put on Hamas to end its rocket attacks on Israel.

News agencies report that the Gaza Strip has now lost its last lifeline after five days of Israeli bombing raids that destroyed dozens of smuggling tunnels under the sandy border with Egypt.

The passages did not just supply Hamas with arms, but brought in flour, fuel and baby milk. For Gazans, already used to blackouts and shortages from an 18-month border blockade, the daily hunt for basics is ever more desperate — though there are no reports of outright hunger.

"I fed the children cooked tomatoes today, I can't find bread," Nima Burdeini, a mother of 11, said Wednesday at the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border.

Israeli warplanes pounded the illicit tunnels as a part of the heavy bombardment of Hamas targets in Gaza that began Saturday. The hundreds of tunnels were seen as key to keeping Hamas in power.

After the Islamic militants seized Gaza by force in June 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory, allowing in only basic goods and humanitarian supplies.

Most of Gaza's 3,900 factories have closed, unable to import raw materials or export products. Construction halted and thousands of people were thrown out of work, deepening poverty in an area where most of the 1.4 million residents rely on U.N. food aid to get by.

At times, Israel tightened the closure, restricting the inflow of fuel, cash and other key supplies. The blockade caused frequent power outages and interruptions in the water supply.

In the two months leading up to Israel's offensive, Israel kept Gaza tightly sealed in an attempt to force Gaza militants to stop firing rockets at southern Israeli towns.

The tunnels became a lifesaver for Hamas — and for Gaza. Some were used to sneak in arms, including rockets that militants are now firing into Israel. But most of the underground passages were used to haul in consumer goods, from motor bikes to goats, refrigerators, flour and chocolates.

The tunnel area that residents once jokingly referred to as Gaza's "duty-free zone" is now a wasteland of smashed concrete and deep craters, churned up by Israeli bombs.

Late Wednesday, the tunnel area was struck by 19 times within a half hour, residents said. A Gaza health official, Moawiya Hassanain, said two people were killed and 42 wounded, including at least four children.

Before that report, Israeli air force officials said the bombing campaign had demolished more than 80 tunnels. Egyptian officials said the number was at least 120.

Residents say there are several hundred tunnels under the 9-mile border. Owners said they believe many tunnels are badly damaged, but tunnel workers fear going near the area to check because of the attacks.

The tunnels are not visible from the air, but their locations are well known — brazen owners put up colorful tents over tunnel entrances.

Economist Omar Shaban estimated some two-thirds of goods sold in Gaza came through the tunnels. From diggers, drivers and haulers, the passages employed around 12,000 Gazans, Shaban said.

"It was Gaza's new economy, even if it was just importing commercial goods," Shaban said.

Tunnel owner Abu Sufian said he and his colleagues lost millions of dollars in merchandise that they had paid for, but that cannot be delivered now from the Egyptian side.

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