By EDITH M. LEDERER
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said Tuesday that he's heading to Gaza and a top priority will be to get all border crossings opened not only for food and medicine but for desperately needed construction materials which Israel has refused to allow in since Hamas seized power in June 2007.
Holmes, who expects to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, told reporters "it's absolutely critical" that cement, pipes and other building materials are "unbanned" by Israel and allowed into Gaza to start rebuilding the war-ravaged Palestinian territory. "Otherwise, the reconstruction effort won't get off first base," Holmes said.
Holmes said Monday that hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid will be needed immediately to help Gaza's 1.4 million people and billions of dollars will be required to rebuild its shattered buildings and infrastructure.
Israel launched the war on Dec. 27 in an effort to halt years of militant rocket fire by Hamas on its southern communities and arms smuggling into Gaza. The Israeli government declared a cease-fire that went into effect early Sunday, and hours later, Hamas agreed to silence its guns, too.
Holmes said Tuesday the U.N. is trying to bolster humanitarian efforts in Gaza. "We need more food, wheat grain in particular," Holmes said.
Gaza also needs continuing supplies of fuel for its power plant, for hospital generators and for bakeries to bake bread, he said.
Holmes said a lasting and durable cease-fire and the reopening of all border crossings are essential to get humanitarian aid, commercial goods and construction materials into Gaza.
The temporary cease-fire doesn't include an agreement on the opening of border crossings, he noted.
"There's a lot of talk about it but it doesn't exist yet. So that's one of the points I'm very keen to pursue when I go there myself later this week," Holmes said.
Holmes said construction materials "were effectively to virtually 100 percent banned from entering into Gaza since the Hamas takeover in 2007, which meant even before these hostilities a lot of humanitarian projects which had been planned were not able to be completed."
He cited the repair of Gaza's sewage system, which was further damaged in the latest conflict, as an example.
"So it's absolutely critical that these kind of materials now be allowed into Gaza on a regular" basis, Holmes said.