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UN Chief Visits Gaza; Israel Refuses To Halt Settlement Expansion

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) and Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad during a visit to Ramallah on March 21.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) and Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad during a visit to Ramallah on March 21.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has visited Gaza, urging Israel to lift its blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory and take steps toward direct people talks with the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has meanwhile refused to halt the expansion of a Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem despite urging from the United States.

Ban's visit to Gaza came one day after he called on Israel and the Palestinian to start negotiations and for the Jewish state to stop settlement building in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The visit also came as U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell prepared to return to the region and as Netanyahu got ready to travel to Washington for talks with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Mitchell hopes to revive and broker indirect talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Speaking in Gaza City today, Ban said he would urge Netanyahu to lift a tight blockade it has imposed on the Gaza Strip since June 2007, when Hamas Islamists seized control of the coastal enclave from their rival, the secular Fatah movement.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to have a meeting with President Obama and the U.S. administration," Ban said. "And, right after this visit to Gaza, I'm going to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and I will discuss this matter -- and I will urge again Prime Minister Netanyahu to ease all these restrictions."

Ban's call for Israel and the Palestinians to restart negotiations -- and for Israel to stop settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem -- follows a meeting in Moscow of the so-called Mideast Quartet, made up of the United Nations, Russia, the United States, and the European Union.

The quartet called for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with the aim of producing an agreement within 24 months to end Israeli occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state.

"The quartet has made a very strong statement," Ban said. "This quartet meeting has been, to my mind, [made] most substantive and strongest statement which we ever made during the last two, three years. I sincerely hope that the parties concerned, particularly the Israeli authorities, will heed to these calls and appeals and urging of international community -- particularly the quartet."

The sides have not engaged in negotiations in more than a year.

Netanyahu said today that he would not restrict construction in east Jerusalem, a step requested by the U.S. But he said Israel is willing to upgrade indirect talks with the Palestinians to include the main issues dividing them.

Netanyahu originally had wanted to put off, until direct talks are launched, issues like the status of contested East Jerusalem, final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

It was not immediately clear what Netanyahu's declared refusal to halt Jewish settlement construction in East Jerusalem -- the territory that lies at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- would mean for future relations with Washington and the rest of the international community.

Netanyahu's moves go nowhere near the U.S. demand to cancel a major new housing project at the heart of the row. But he apparently has offered enough to prompt U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to send Mitchell back to the region later this week.

compiled from agency reports