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UN calls for probe into Israeli strikes

THE United Nations chief inspected the devastation wrought by Israel's onslaught in Gaza yesterday, leading a moment of silence at the smoldering UN headquarters, as the territory's militant Hamas rulers, triumphant at having survived, held victory rallies amid the ruins.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, appearing stern and saddened at a ceremony at the burned out UN headquarters in Gaza, demanded an Israeli investigation into strikes on UN facilities. Ban asked the crowd to honor victims of the offensive, who included nearly 40 Palestinians who had sought refuge at a UN school shelled by Israel.

"It has been especially troubling and heartbreaking for me as secretary-general that I couldn't end this faster," he said. He warned the truce was fragile, and called on Israel and Hamas to "exercise maximum restraint and nurture the cease-fire."

Thousands of Hamas supporters thronged a square outside the remains of the parliament building in Gaza City which was heavily damaged in an Israeli airstrike at the outset of the war. Two men hoisted a sign in carefully scripted Hebrew reading: "The resistance will be victorious, Israel has been defeated."

Israel and Hamas both ceased fire on Sunday after an offensive that claimed the lives of some 1,300 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, and 13 Israelis. The last of Israel's ground troops were expected to pull out of Gaza yesterday if the quiet holds, defense officials said.

Israel mounted the air and ground campaign against Hamas on December 27 in an effort to force Gaza militants to halt years of rocket fire on southern Israel and to cripple arms-smuggling operations. The fighting stopped before Israel achieved those aims, though the Egyptian-brokered truce hopes to address the issues of arms smuggling and reopening Gaza's blockaded border crossings in its next stage.

The UN chief intervened during the war to try to stop the violence, and said over the weekend that he was sending a team to assess the humanitarian needs so the UN could issue an appeal for funds.

Calling the crisis a "collective political failure," Ban said he would share the findings of his trip to Gaza with world leaders, including United States President Barack Obama.

The first estimates by independent surveyors said Gaza lost nearly US$2 billion in assets, including 4,100 homes, about 1,500 factories and workshops, 20 mosques, 31 security compounds, and 10 water or sewage lines. Shattered glass and mounds of rubble littered city streets.

Ban called the attacks on the UN headquarters and two of its schools "outrageous" and demanded a full investigation. Israel said militants used the UN buildings as cover to launch attacks.


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