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UN chief says Gaza suffering under Israeli blockade

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Gaza conditions 'unacceptable'

The UN chief has said Israel's blockade of Gaza is causing "unacceptable suffering," during a Middle East visit to reinvigorate the peace process.

Ban Ki-moon told Gazans that "we stand with you" as he visited an area damaged by Israel's offensive 14 months ago.

His visit to the region comes amid tension over Israel's plans to build more settlements in East Jerusalem.

Rebuilding is difficult due to a lack of building materials during the three-year blockade.

Israel imposed a tightened blockade after the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June 2007.

Speaking in Gaza, Mr Ban said families were living under "unacceptable, unsustainable conditions".

Mr Ban said it was "distressing" for him to see damage to housing remaining, with no reconstruction possible under the blockade.

The blockade has prevented the UN from completing housing projects, but Mr Ban pledged to continue providing aid to Gazans.

"My message to people of Gaza is this: the United Nations will stand with you through this ordeal," he said.

'Path of non-violence'

Among a list of criticisms of the blockade by Israel and Egypt, Mr Ban said the blockade was counter-productive as it prevented legitimate commerce and encouraged smuggling and extremism.

Mr Ban urged all Gazans to "choose the path of non-violence, Palestinian unity and international legitimacy".

He also called for a prisoner exchange involving Palestinian prisoners and Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was captured by militants in 2006.

His two-day visit is aimed at restarting the peace process, and comes just ahead of a visit by US special representative George Mitchell on Sunday to try to get indirect talks going between the Israelis and Palestinians.

We will continue to build in Jerusalem as we have done for 42 years
Benjamin Netanyahu

The international community last week strongly condemned Israel's announcement of planning permission for 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Ahead of Sunday's Israeli cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said settlement building would continue.

"The policy of construction in Jerusalem is the same as in Tel Aviv.

"We will continue to build in Jerusalem as we have done for 42 years," he said, according to AFP news agency.

Clashes

Mr Netanyahu is to travel to Washington on Sunday, where he is expected to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and possibly President Barack Obama.

Also on Sunday, the Israel army said soldiers shot dead two Palestinians who tried to stab a soldier at a checkpoint in the West Bank.

The soldier was on a routine patrol near a security crossing southeast of Nablus.

The deaths bring to four the number of Palestinians killed in the past two days in the occupied West Bank.

A Palestinian teenager was shot dead during clashes near Nablus on Saturday. A second person shot on Saturday died of his injuries on Sunday, West Bank medical officials said.

The army said no live bullets were fired, only tear gas and rubber bullets.



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