U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for large-scale humanitarian aid to Gaza on Wednesday in his first visit to the isolated territory as U.N. chief and ordered the immediate release of $4 million from the world body’s emergency relief fund.
Speaking at a U.N.-backed elementary school in the northern Gaza Strip, Guterres also called for unity among the Palestinians’ warring factions — Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Fatah, which rules parts of the West Bank.
“The division only undermines the cause of the Palestinian people,” he said, adding that he had a dream to “come back to Gaza one day and to see Gaza as part of a Palestine state in peace and prosperity.”
Guterres is on his first visit to the region since taking office at the beginning of the year. He has met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders aiming to encourage the resumption of peace talks. But he did not meet with Hamas officials in Gaza, who issued a demand he work to lift the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the strip and save it from a humanitarian crisis. Hamas also demanded he approve relief and development programs and pressure Israel about the Palestinian prisoners it holds.
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,” Danon 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.”
Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, has ruled Gaza with an iron fist since seizing control of the coastal area in 2007 from forces loyal to Palestinians President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party. Repeated attempts for reconciliation have failed.
Hamas has since fought three wars with Israel, firing thousands of rockets into its territory and digging a network of elaborate offensive tunnels. It has largely observed a truce with Israel since the last battle, in 2014, though more radical groups in the territory have carried out occasional attacks.
Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Hamas takeover that has crippled the local economy. In recent years, Egypt has also cracked down on the once-vibrant tunnel trade along the border. Israel began construction of an underground anti-tunnel barrier along the border last year.