One year after Gaza war, calls grow for end of Israel blockade
GAZA CITY - Israel and Palestinians marked one year since last summer's war in Gaza on Wednesday, with a UN official calling for an end to the "inexcusable" blockade of the territory that has helped prevent rebuilding.
The ceasefire that ended the 50-day war has largely held, but few of the issues that led to the conflict have been resolved and tens of thousands of Gazans remain homeless in the besieged strip.
While there appears to be little appetite for conflict on either side for now, analysts say failing to address the misery of Gazans who have faced three wars in six years will only sow the seeds for future violence.
"The blockade remains in place and its crippling effect on Gaza is undeniable, inexcusable," Robert Turner, operations director in Gaza for UN relief agency UNRWA, told reporters.
He however referred to a small amount of Gazan goods being allowed through for sale in Israel and the occupied West Bank in recent months as a reason for hope.
"I see a real willingness on the part of Israel to address some of its worst impact," Turner said of the blockade, which Israel says is necessary to prevent the import of arms and material to make weapons.
"It is not yet enough. It is not what is required, which is a full lifting of the blockade."
The war took a heavy toll on Gaza, killing 2,251 Palestinians, including more than 500 children. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side, including 67 soldiers.
A UN report released last month said both sides may have committed war crimes during the conflict in and around the impoverished enclave of 1.8 million people.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, planned commemorations for later Wednesday, but details were not yet clear.
Israel held a memorial on Monday for its 73 victims killed in the war, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the military offensive.
"I say to all enemies of Israel -- Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and IS (Islamic State) -- that those who attempt to attack our people will pay with their blood," he said.
Indirect talks on shoring up the ceasefire and easing Israel's blockade have taken place, but there have been no signs that a deal could be reached anytime soon.
The blockade, as well as a lack of financing from international donors, have been blamed for the slow pace of reconstruction in Gaza, where around 18,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.
A split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority led by president Mahmud Abbas, which runs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has worsened the situation. Reconciliation attempts have failed to heal the rift.
Meanwhile, Hamas has been challenged by Salafist extremists in Gaza claiming links to the Islamic State jihadist group and who have taken credit for recent rocket fire.
Last year's war was sparked in part by the abduction and murder of three young Israelis near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
The kidnapping triggered a massive manhunt in which hundreds of Palestinians were arrested and at least five killed.
It also led to the grisly revenge slaying of a 16-year-old Palestinian, who was snatched in east Jerusalem and burned alive by Israelis.
A surge in rocket fire from Gaza into Israel followed, and Israel in response launched its offensive on July 8. A ground offensive began on July 17.
Air and naval bombardments on the coastal strip continued until an Egyptian-brokered truce was reached on August 26.
Israel's aims in the war were to stop the rocket fire and destroy tunnels used by Palestinian militants to carry out attacks.
But rocket fire has started up again -- although sporadically and not claimed by Hamas -- and militants in Gaza have rebuilt tunnels.
Hamas claimed victory after the war, but that has been scoffed at by Gazans who have seen family members killed and who now live among the ruins of their former homes.
Mohammed Zaza, a 19-year-old nursing student, pointed to a vacant lot where his family's house once stood and said they now live in an overpriced, rented flat.
"All that comes out of our pocket because we are receiving absolutely no help," he said.
The UN's Turner said payments would be issued for the first time Wednesday for a limited number of families whose homes were destroyed, while repairs for damaged houses have occurred. Financing however remains lacking.
"We need to help rebuild over 7,000 refugee family homes," he said of his agency's programme. "We have funding only currently for 200 homes."