ICRC calls for lifting Israeli restrictions in Gaza

GENEVA Thu Feb 26, 2009 4:16pm GMT

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GENEVA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Israel on Thursday to lift restrictions on the passage of people and goods in Gaza and said Palestinians were struggling to rebuild their lives more than a month after war ended.

The neutral humanitarian agency also said international efforts to rebuild the coastal strip could only succeed if they are accompanied by an honest and bold peace process involving all sides in Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Many people lack water, medicine and housing after the three-week Israeli offensive, the ICRC said in a statement issued before a Gaza relief conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday.

Some 2,800 houses were completely destroyed and 1,900 partially, leaving tens of thousands homeless, it said.

"The first and most urgent measure should be to end the isolation of Gaza, particularly by lifting restrictions on the movement of people and goods," ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said.

Construction materials from Israel are still not allowed into Gaza, according to the Geneva-based agency. Machinery and spare parts are also sorely needed.

"Reconstruction is extremely important to help the people of Gaza on to their feet again. But it is unlikely to succeed unless there is a prospect of lasting peace," Kellenberger said.

"Humanitarian action can be no substitute for an honest and courageous peace process involving all states, political authorities and organised armed groups," he said.

The ICRC, which deploys 85 aid workers in Gaza, is sending a high-level delegation to the conference. Palestinians hope to raise $2.8 billion (1.9 billion pounds) at the talks.

Some 43 percent of farmland in Gaza lies within the buffer zone imposed by Israel, it said. Israeli forces have carried out regular military operations in the zone over the past 18 months, resulting in the destruction of fields and harvests, it said.

In Cairo, a dozen Palestinian groups met under Egyptian auspices on Thursday at the start of a long-awaited dialogue which could reunite Palestinians after 18 months of schism between Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-ruled West Bank.

Kellenberger, a former senior Swiss diplomat, called on Palestinian factions to stop targeting civilian areas in Israel with rocket fire.

He reiterated the ICRC's request for access to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been detained in the Gaza Strip since being abducted in June 2006.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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