Gaza 'on point of explosion' warns UN

Gaza is about to reach a "point of explosion" that could lead to another breakout by the desperate Palestinian population, trapped by an Israeli economic blockade, the most senior UN official in the territory has warned.

Thousands of Palestinians surged across the border with Egypt last January after breaching the border fence in order to buy basic supplies which were no long obtainable in the Gaza Strip. John Ging, Gaza head of the UN Relief and Works Agency which supports Palestinian refugees, said yesterday that the breakout last January "was predicted, but the causes were not addressed". Now, he said, "pressure is building again and coming to a point of explosion".

In testimony via videolink to the Commons International Development Committee, Mr Ging said the main problem was access in and out of Gaza.

Describing humanitarian conditions in Gaza as "shocking" and "shameful" because of the lack of basic supplies, he said the closures imposed since last June, when Hamas seized control of the territory, were having a "devastating effect" on the civilian population. Israel only allows minimal amounts of food, medicine and fuel to pass unimpeded through the crossing points, while petrol and diesel deliveries were halted completely last month following an attack by Palestinian militants on a fuel terminal in which two Israeli workers were killed.

The UN was forced to temporarily halt food distribution to up to 800,000 Palestinians in Gaza for the first time at the end of last week as a result of the fuel shortages which have had a knock-on effect on electricity and water supplies and sewage treatment.

Mr Ging said the "number one issue" was access for non-food and non-medical items. Supplies of cement and steel, and even items for printing schoolbooks, are subject to a lengthy process by Israel which cites security reasons. Mr Ging, who met the Middle East envoy Tony Blair on Tuesday, noted that the former prime minister's "pet project" of a water treatment plant in Gaza was at a standstill because construction materials had not been allowed through.

Addressing the same committee session, Adam Leach, regional director of Oxfam, said that the international community's response had been "wholly inadequate" as it had failed to take "robust" decisions needed to remove the movement restrictions and secure the opening of the crossings.

Israel is expected to come under international pressure on the issue of Palestinian access to and from Gaza and within the West Bank at a series of meetings on the Palestinian economy involving the donor community in London tonight and tomorrow. The Israeli government says the restrictions are needed because of the risk of militant attacks against Israel proper. However, Mr Ging said that in Gaza, "this approach has not worked. It has not inhibited those who are firing the rockets but has crushed the population".

Twelve small Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, were reported yesterday to have agreed to a ceasefire with Israel starting in the Gaza Strip after Egyptian-brokered talks. However, Israel has been sceptical about a ceasefire and last week rejected an offer from Hamas for a six-month Gaza truce, out of fears that the Islamic militants would use the period to rearm.

An Israeli warplane yesterday attacked a metal foundry in Rafah, on the border between Gaza and Egypt border, killing a local commander of Islamic Jihad and wounding three people.

LibDem MP Sarah Teather, who was in Gaza last week, yesterday described how a delegation of four MPs had to seek refuge in the lavatories at the Erez crossing after a Palestinian rocket landed close to the building. She said she was "really appalled" by conditions in Gaza.

*Israeli troops were unable to identify Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana as a journalist before they fired at him, the Israeli army said yesterday, citing preliminary results of an investigation.