BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) — Dozens of Palestinians on Thursday tried to block U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon from entering the Gaza Strip and pelted his armored convoy with shoes and sticks, accusing him of being unfairly biased toward Israel.
The incident cast a shadow over Ban's visit to Gaza, which was meant to draw attention to humanitarian issues in the crowded seaside strip. Ban was in Gaza on the second day of a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
About 40 relatives of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails for a range of violent attacks gathered at the Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel as Ban's convoy arrived, hoisting posters with pictures of their loved ones and signs in English and Arabic reading, "Ban Ki-moon, enough bias to Israel."
Some swung their signs and wooden sticks at the armored convoy. Three people threw slippers at his car and another hurled a boot — an insulting gesture in Arab culture that is associated with an Iraqi protester who hurled his shoes at former U.S. President George W. Bush at a news conference in Baghdad in 2008.
The Gaza prisoners' relatives, angry that Ban would not be meeting with them, formed a human chain at the crossing in an effort to block his vehicle, but security forces from the ruling Hamas militant group moved them away so Ban could enter.
"We came here in a symbolic message to Mr. Ban Ki-moon that Palestinians from Gaza want to have the right to visit their children and loved ones in Israeli jails," said Jamal Farwana, a spokesman for Gaza prisoners' families.
Israel holds about 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, after recently freeing more than 1,000 in exchange for a captive Israeli soldier. Some of those still in prison were sentenced for attacks that killed dozens of Israelis.
Relatives of prisoners from Gaza haven't been able to visit them in jail since 2006 because of restrictions on who can enter Israel from the coastal strip. Hamas, a militant group that opposes peace with Israel, won Palestinian elections in 2006, and violently overran Gaza the following year.
Ban did not meet with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West and whose government is not internationally recognized. Instead, he met with U.N. relief officials, aid groups and human rights organizations.
He also visited a U.N.-funded housing project in southern Gaza, where protesters held up signs saying, "We want to lift the siege on Gaza" — referring to Israeli restrictions on the entry and exit to and from Gaza of people and goods.
The visit to Gaza was Ban's third since an Israeli military offensive against Hamas three years ago, aimed at stopping daily rocket barrages from Gaza. About 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed, and the fighting caused heavy damage in Gaza. In Ban's first visit, during the fighting, Israeli artillery shells struck the U.N. headquarters in Gaza, setting a food warehouse ablaze.
Speaking to reporters at a U.N. housing project, Ban thanked the people of Gaza for their "warm welcome" and tried to play down the border incident.
"I met many people who were waiting for me at the entrance and I fully share their fear and frustration. That is why I am here," he said. "There is a very dire social, economic and humanitarian problem. People need to move freely ... I have urged the Israeli authorities to lift the restrictions completely and unconditionally."
Although Ban had no direct contact with Hamas, his visit was heavily secured by Hamas forces. Ban took the opportunity to urge Hamas to end attacks on Israel.
A barrage of mortar shells fell in southern Israel late Wednesday, ahead of Ban's arrival. The shells exploded in open fields without causing casualties.
"All this violence must stop," he said in Gaza. "I would urge the Palestinians from Gaza: they must stop firing rockets on the Israeli side ... this killing of civilians is not acceptable."
From Gaza, the U.N. chief re-entered Israel to visit the border town of Sderot, which has repeatedly been pounded over the years by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.
"Nothing justifies shooting of rockets and mortars into Israel. It is completely unacceptable to target and terrorize citizens on a daily basis," he said in Sderot.