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U.N. Halts Aid to Gaza In Dispute With Hamas

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 7, 2009

GAZA CITY, Feb. 6 -- A United Nations aid agency that serves more than half of the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip suspended humanitarian shipments here on Friday, accusing Hamas of confiscating U.N. material for the second time this week.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency said Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, had seized 10 trucks filled with rice and flour. Earlier in the week, the agency had accused Hamas's police force of confiscating blankets and food from a U.N.-affiliated warehouse.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Hamas to release the aid immediately. In a statement from New York, the world body said the suspension would remain in place "until the aid is returned and the agency is given credible assurances from the Hamas government in Gaza that there will be no repeat of these thefts."

The suspension comes at a time when Gaza's residents are still reeling from the effects of a 22-day Israeli offensive in the coastal territory. About 1,300 Palestinians died in the conflict, which ended nearly three weeks ago with a tenuous cease-fire, and thousands more were injured or left homeless. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the war, which Israel says was intended to halt persistent Hamas rocket fire from the strip.

Hamas officials in Gaza denied that the Islamist movement had seized the trucks, saying there had been a misunderstanding. But in an interview, Hamas economics minister Ziyad al-Zaza defended the group's decision to take 3,500 blankets and 400 food packages from the warehouse. Zaza said some employees of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency had been telling recipients that the aid was a gift of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is the leader of the Fatah party, Hamas's chief Palestinian rival.

"UNRWA is supposed to do work that is purely humanitarian," Zaza said. "But some of their employees want to use the aid to play politics."

John Ging, head of the relief agency in Gaza, called the allegation "nonsense," saying Hamas's actions had "crossed a red line."

"We're not going to bring aid in here and let it be hijacked by Hamas or anyone else," he said. But he added that these incidents were the first in a year and a half in which Hamas tried to interfere with the agency's operations.

Fatah has had no formal presence in Gaza since June 2007, when Hamas forces routed Abbas loyalists. Since then, Abbas's power has been confined to the West Bank, while Hamas has had control in Gaza. Hamas defeated Fatah in 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

Israel has placed tight restrictions on the transfer of goods into Gaza since the Hamas takeover. The embargo has severely curtailed reconstruction efforts since the war ended.

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Maj. Peter Lerner said Friday that Hamas's seizure of the aid was evidence that it intends to use any materials sent into the strip for its own gain, rather than to help the broader population.

Hamas has been pushing for the border crossings to be opened during negotiations in Egypt aimed at producing a cease-fire of a year or more.

"We will not accept a truce unless it is in return for lifting the siege, opening the border crossings and acceleration of the reconstruction of Gaza," Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said in a speech Friday in Damascus.

Special correspondent Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza contributed to this report.

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