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UN Secretary-General Visits Devastated Gaza

A Palestinian girl stands amid the ruins of destroyed houses on the outskirts of Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on January 19.
GAZA (Reuters) -- Confronted by stark scenes of destruction, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has visited the Gaza Strip, and Israel was poised to withdraw its troops before the U.S. presidential inauguration later in the day.

Ban, on a Middle East tour, was the highest-ranking international figure to visit the territory since separately declared cease-fires by Israel and Hamas ended a 22-day Israeli offensive and Palestinian crossborder rocket attacks.

"The secretary general was keen to express solidarity with the people of Gaza who have suffered so much over the past few weeks and the UN staff who have continued heroically to provide assistance despite the difficulties," said Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for Ban.

Israeli political sources said Israel planned to complete its troop pullout before Barack Obama's inauguration. Analysts saw the withdrawal as an effort to avoid any tension with the new U.S. president.

Amid crowds waving Hamas flags, Ban drove in a convoy to the compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the city of Gaza.

On January 15, Israeli fire set ablaze the UNRWA facility's food and fuel warehouse, an incident Ban described at the time as "an outrage." Israel apologized but said it was prompted by fire from gunmen at the compound.

Many Palestinians returned to the rubble of what used to be their homes in Gaza City suburbs that were hard hit during the fighting. They picked through debris, trying to salvage belongings.

Two children playing with unexploded ordnance were killed when it detonated, Hamas officials said.

Ban, who met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before traveling to the Gaza Strip, planned to visit southern Israel, an area hit by Palestinian rockets during the Gaza war, later in the day.

At the prime minister's office, Ban said he wanted to help to make the cease-fire "durable."

World leaders are keen to cement a truce and avoid any more bloodshed in Gaza where more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in Israel's air and ground strikes launched on December 27 with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks.

Ruined Infrastructure

In a report denied by the Israeli military, Hamas said an Israeli force holding a position near the town of Jabalya shot and killed a 17-year-old Palestinian.

Residents of Maghazi refugee camp said Israeli tanks had shelled houses, causing several casualties. An Israeli military spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

Gaza's infrastructure has been left in ruins and the repair bill was estimated by the Palestinian statistics bureau to be about $1.9 billion.

Hamas said 5,000 homes, 16 government buildings, and 20 mosques were destroyed and that 20,000 houses were damaged. Israel has said militants hid weapons inside the mosques.

Palestinian militant groups said 112 of their fighters and 180 Hamas policemen were killed. Israel put its dead at 10 soldiers and said three civilians were killed in rocket attacks.

Gaza medical officials said the Palestinian dead included at least 700 civilians. Israel, which accused Hamas of endangering noncombatants by operating in densely populated areas, said hundreds of militants were among the dead.

In Geneva, World Health Organization head Margaret Chan warned of a looming health crisis in the Gaza Strip.

Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion for rebuilding and the European Union said the bloc's foreign ministers planned to meet in Brussels to discuss humanitarian aid and Israeli demands for the prevention of weapons smuggling to Gaza.

Israel had launched its offensive with a vow to "change the reality" for southern border towns that had been the target of rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups since 2001.

Olmert has declared the mission accomplished, noting diplomatic efforts by the United States, Egypt, and European nations to prevent Hamas rearming. Israel has vowed to respond to any renewed flow of arms to Gaza.

The fighting ended just weeks before a February 10 Israeli elections. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party is still the front-runner, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Labor Party has gained in popularity.

Hamas proclaimed victory despite the destruction in Gaza, and its armed wing vowed to replenish its arsenal of rockets.

But Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said talks would continue on Egypt's proposal for a long-term truce that would assure the reopening of crossings into Gaza, including the Rafah terminal with Egypt that was the main access to the outside world.

Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas's Fatah forces in 2007 after winning an election the year before. Israel and the West boycotted governments led by Hamas because the group rejects Israel's right to exist.