United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres paid a visit to Hamas-controled Gaza on Wednesday as the Palestinian movement called on Israel to end its siege of the coastal strip.
This marked the first visit by the UN chief to the strip since taking office and as international concerns have grown over the humanitarian conditions in the area.
Hamas welcomed the trip, describing it as “important,” urging Guterres to make “all efforts to lift the siege on the strip and end the suffering for two million Palestinians living in the largest prison in the world.”
The residents are experiencing electricity shortages and deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
Small demonstrations accompanied the UN chief’s visit. At one protest, around 25 people held a fake coffin with a sign that said “Welcome to the largest prison in the world”.
Dozens of people also demonstrated as Guterres’s convoy crossed the border with Israel into Gaza, calling for action in support of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Guterres, who held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday, was to visit a school in the strip run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade for a decade, while its sole crossing with Egypt has also been largely closed in recent years.
At least 70 percent of Gazans are dependent upon international aid. UNRWA plays a major role in the strip, with the same percentage of the population classified as refugees.
Palestinians in Gaza and Israel have fought three wars since 2008, and Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep Hamas from obtaining weapons or materials that could be used to make them.
The blockade also serves to isolate the movement.
UN officials have however called for the blockade to be lifted, saying the enclave is fast becoming unlivable, with sparse electricity and a lack of clean water.
Guterres arrived in Israel on Sunday on a three-day visit. His meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are aimed at encouraging the resumption of peace talks.
Prior to arriving in Gaza, he took a helicopter tour of the Israel-Gaza border with Israeli officials, visited a tunnel Hamas dug into Israel to carry out attacks and met local residents living along the volatile front.
Guterres was accompanied by Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s deputy military chief. Danon warned Guterres that Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been exploiting international humanitarian aid to dig the tunnels aimed at harming Israel.
“Instead of working to ensure a better future for their children, Hamas has turned the residents of Gaza into hostages,” he said. “At the same time, the Israeli residents of the border communities have stood strong in the face of terror threats, as they build prosperous communities and help further develop the region for the betterment of the next generation.”