By Nidal al-Mughrabi
Beit Hanoiun, Gaza (Reuters) – A senior United Nations official described Gaza as suffering "massive" human rights violations during a visit to the territory on Monday and urged all sides to be bold in trying to end the violence.
"The violation of human rights I think in this territory is massive," Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told reporters during a visit to Beit Hanoun, a town the Israeli army shelled earlier this month, killing 19 civilians.
"The call for protection has to be answered. We cannot continue to see civilians, who are not the authors of their own misfortune, suffer to the extent of what I see."
Arbour, on a five-day trip to the region, spent time at the house of a family who had lost more than a dozen members in a shelling on Nov. 8, when Israel says a mistake led to the barrage of artillery shells hitting the neighbourhood.
Her visit, the first she has made to the region since becoming commissioner, comes days after the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution that "deplored" Israel’s shelling of Gaza and called for an immediate cessation of violence.
Asked what she planned to do about the rights violations, Arbour said: "I will help to keep the conscience of the many who care about what happens in this part of the world alive.
"I will speak to the Palestinian Authority about their responsibility to enforce the law, to create an environment in which people can seek protection of the law and, of course, I will also speak to the Israeli authority.
"We need to collectively call on leaders, political, military and militia leaders, to have the courage to break the cycle of violence to ensure the well-being of civilians."
More than 350 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians according to Palestinian doctors and human rights workers, have been killed since Israel launched an offensive in Gaza in late June, following the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier.
The offensive was designed not only to try to trace the captured soldier, who was seized by militants including members of the governing Palestinian faction Hamas, but also to stop militants firing rockets into Israeli territory from Gaza.
Israeli authorities say militants have fired more than 300 of the homemade rockets into southern Israel this year, targeting towns like Sderot, just across the frontier from Gaza.
Last week, a woman resident of Sderot was killed, the first death from a rocket attack since July 2005. Others have been wounded and scores are treated each week for shock.
Residents of Beit Hanoun turned out to see Arbour as she toured the town, where many buildings are scarred by shrapnel, but were not hopeful her visit would achieve any results.
"It will not do anything," said Majdi al-Athamna, 37, who lost his son and three brothers in the shelling.
"This visit will not achieve anything unless the world pressures Israel to engage in a real peace process because as Palestinians we are paying the price of the false peace."