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World

UN Chief Witnesses "Heart-breaking" Gaza Destruction on Visit

Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated "victory" in Gaza City, as the UN's top diplomat said the sights he witnessed during his tour of the war-torn strip Tuesday were "heart-breaking."

An injured Palestinian man looks on as others inspect the damage at a building following Israeli military operations, in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood in Gaza City

A UN humanitarian team will assess the destruction and crisis situation in Gaza City

The supporters filled a square in the city centre opposite the rubble of the destroyed Palestinian parliament building, creating a see of green as they waved Hamas flags and chanted victory slogans.

"The huge participation ... is proof that Hamas was not broken in the war" and still enjoys the support of the people, declared the public relations chief of the radical Islamic movement ruling Gaza over loudspeakers mounted on a van.

"The crowds came here to express their complete solidarity with the armed resistance and with the families who lost their loved ones and had their homes destroyed," shouted Ashraf Abu Dayya as he marched amid the crowd.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon entered Gaza via the Erez border crossing with Israel, becoming the highest-ranking foreign official to assess the damage first-hand - or to visit Gaza since Hamas violently seized sole control of the coastal enclave in June 2007.

"This is heartbreaking," he told a news conference at Gaza City's UN headquarters. "I am deeply grieved at what I have seen today."

"I'm just appalled. I'm not able to describe how I am feeling at this sight," he said of the compound, which was struck by several Israeli shells late last week. The shells set ablaze the main warehouse of UNWRA, the UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees, destroying tons of humanitarian aid.

UN humanitarian team due in Gaza this week

Ban said he planned to dispatch a humanitarian assessment team to Gaza on Thursday.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

The UN general secretary was shocked by the destruction

"I have condemned on the outbreak of the conflict the excessive use of force by Israeli forces in Gaza," Ban said, adding however that he also viewed Palestinian rocket attacks at southern Israel as "completely unacceptable."

The top UN diplomat called for a "full investigation" into civilians deaths in the war. "The UN will do all we can," he pledged.

He called the Gaza crisis a "collective political failure" of all parties involved.

Palestinian unity was needed to allow a recovery process and the opening of Gaza's border crossings.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), more than 4,000 buildings have been completely destroyed and another 17,000 damaged in Israeli airstrikes and shelling over the past three weeks. It estimated the total cost of the damage at $1.9 billion.

Some 50 UN facilities are among the buildings which sustained damage. More than 46,000 displaced Gazans also remain in UN shelters throughout the strip.

Ban, who was not expected to meet members of the de facto Hamas administration in Gaza, was also due to tour the rocket-stricken southern Israeli town of Sderot.

Israel warns of granting Hamas legitimacy with reconstruction

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, talks with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon

Olmert, right, warns about giving Hamas any legitimacy

Caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meeting Ban in Jerusalem earlier Tuesday, urged the international community not to allow Hamas "to draw any legitimacy whatsoever from the construction process" in Gaza.

The Palestinian death toll has reached 1,415, after rescue teams uncovered 112 bodies since a fragile truce took effect early Sunday and more people died of their wounds in hospital, Gaza emergency services chief Mo'aweya Hassanein said.

Two children died Tuesday when they found an explosive device or shell, probably left behind by the Israeli military, on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City, which blew up when they touched it, he said.

Thirteen Israelis were also killed and dozens injured in the ground fighting and in rocket attacks. Some 5,500 Palestinians have been injured, about a tenth of them seriously.

Some 230 members of Hamas' security forces, among them Police Chief Tawfiq Jabber, were among the dead, police spokesman Islam Shahwan told a news conference in Gaza City. But many of the dead are also civilians, with women and minors making up some 40 per cent of the total toll.

Gradual Israeli withdrawal continues

Israeli soldiers walk towards the northern Gaza Strip

Israeli ground troops have been pulling out of Gaza

The Israeli military continued its gradual withdrawal from the strip, on the third day of the truce, which ended 22 days of Israeli attacks in Gaza, as well Palestinian rocket and mortar fire at southern Israel.

But the truce continued to be shaky, with residents saying a Palestinian farmer was shot dead after he approached the border with Israel as he inspected his land north-east of Gaza City.

The Israeli military said it was unaware of any shooting incident in that area, but said it Israeli soldiers did return fire in the south of the strip, in two cases in which Palestinian gunmen shot at Israeli soldiers patrolling near the border.

Reports that Palestinians on Tuesday fired the first mortar shell into Israel in two days however proved a false alarm, a military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv told the DPA news agency.

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