Mideast Gaza Trapped Under Fire

The Gaza war left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, the majority of them civilians, according to Palestinian and UN officials. Israel says the number of militants killed was much higher and accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

The United Nations has brokered an agreement to enable the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, giving a lead role to the Palestinian Authority while involving the private sector, the UN's top Mideast envoy said Tuesday.

The agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations includes UN monitoring to ensure that construction materials will not be diverted from civilian to military uses, Robert Serry told the UN Security Council.

The Gaza war left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, the majority of them civilians, according to Palestinian and UN officials. Israel says the number of militants killed was much higher and accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians were killed.

Serry said he witnessed "truly shocking levels of destruction to infrastructure, hospitals and schools" during a visit to Gaza last week.

Large neighbourhoods have been totally ruined, an estimated 18,000 houses were destroyed or severely damaged, he said. Some 100,000 people have lost their homes, "leaving families shattered and despairing." He said 111 UN facilities were damaged and over 65,000 displaced Palestinians are still living in UN shelters.

Ceasefire 'worryingly fragile'

"The Gaza conflict is an appalling human tragedy, and has also exacted a terrible cost in already strained trust," Serry said. "While the cease-fire brokered by Egypt has largely held since Aug. 16, it remains worryingly fragile with the underlying dynamics still unaddressed."

He said the United Nations considers the "temporary mechanism" to rebuild Gaza "a signal of hope to the people of Gaza" and an important step toward lifting all remaining closures of crossings into the Strip. He stressed that it "must get up and running without delay."

The deputy Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Mustafa, said last week that international donors are hesitant to fund Gaza's reconstruction so long as Hamas remains in control there and the spectre of future wars looms. Mustafa, a top official in the West Bank Palestinian Authority, said international bodies are eager for President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah forces to take on a leading role in Gaza.

Serry called on the Security Council to support the agreement, saying it will help give donors confidence that what they are investing in will be implemented "expeditiously, and solely for their intended civilian purpose."

He said the monitoring agreement is timely ahead of a donors conference to fund Gaza's reconstruction on Oct. 12 hosted by Egypt and co-sponsored by Norway.

Serry said the UN doesn't want a repetition of a donors' conference at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2009 when a lot of pledges were made to rebuild Gaza after another Hamas-Israel conflict "but there was no possibility to implement these projects" because of issues over getting construction materials into the Strip.

Serry said reconstruction must take place alongside fresh efforts to promote a two-state solution and end Israel's occupation. He said the Aug. 26 Egyptian-brokered cease-fire is "worryingly fragile, with the underlying dynamics still unaddressed," including having the Palestinian Authority take control of Gaza from Hamas.

Serry said he has been in close touch with Egyptian authorities who are "very supportive" of the new agreement, and are also hoping that stalled cease-fire talks will resume soon in Cairo between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Pressed for details of the agreement, Serry said that for the first time the private sector in Gaza is going to be fully involved in Gaza's reconstruction, together with the Palestinian Authority.

He said the UN procedure for monitoring the import of construction materials for its own schools, clinics and other facilities, which has been going on for years, will be expanded to cover the wider reconstruction of Gaza. This will require more U.N. monitors though he gave no figures.