http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1062219.html

            Last update - 17:27 06/02/2009     
     
     
      UNRWA suspends Gaza aid after Hamas steals food and supplies  
     
      By Haaretz Service and The Associated Press  
     
     

      The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on Friday said it is 
suspending humanitarian aid in Gaza until further notice, after Hamas seized 
control of its warehouses and stole 200 tons of food and supplies. 

      The agency said it made the decision after Hamas personnel seized an aid 
shipment on Thursday. Earlier this week, Hamas police took thousands of 
blankets and food parcels meant for needy residents. 

      In a statement, UNRWA said 10 truckloads of flour and rice that had been 
      d elivered into Gaza on Thursday were taken away by trucks affiliated 
with the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs. Earlier this week, Hamas police 
took thousands of blankets and food parcels meant for needy residents.\ 


      UNRWA said the suspension would remain in effect until the aid is 
returned and the agency receives credible assurances from the Hamas government 
that such thefts will end. There was no immediate reaction from Hamas. 

      UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said the agency would continue to 
distribute aid from its existing supplies in Gaza, but that stocks were running 
thin. 

      "There is enough aid for days, not weeks," he said. Complicating the 
situation, he said the agency has not been able to import plastic bags used for 
food distribution, and that existing supplies will run out early next week. 

      Some 80 percent of Gaza's 1.4 million people rely on the UN agency for 
food and other support, and UN officials say the need for aid has increased 
since Israel ended a military offensive in Gaza last month. 

      A UN spokesman on Wednesday said Hamas police in Gaza broke into a 
warehouse full of UN humanitarian supplies and seized thousands of blankets and 
food packages, creating a rare public clash between the international agency 
that feeds much of the territory and the militant group that rules it. 

      The incident highlighted difficulties facing donors seeking to bypass 
Hamas while helping Gazans survive and rebuild after Israel's three-week 
military offensive. 

      "Hamas policemen stormed into an aid warehouse in Gaza City Tuesday 
evening and confiscated 3,500 blankets and over 400 food parcels ready for 
distribution to 500 families," said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness on 
Wednesday. 

      "They were armed, they seized this, they took it by force," Gunness said, 
terming the incident absolutely unacceptable. 

      Police seized the aid after UNRWA officials refused to voluntarily hand 
it over to the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs, he said. Similar aid 
packages were distributed to 70,000 residents over the past two weeks, Gunness 
said. 

      Ahmad Kurd, the Hamas official in charge of the ministry, did not deny 
the aid was seized. Other Hamas officials defended their actions. 

      Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu demanded an apology and said UNRWA was 
spreading false news. Ihab Ghussein, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, 
said the incident occurred because the UN was storing the blankets in an area 
not authorized to be distributed. 

      In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called UNRWA's decision 
unjustified. 

      He said Hamas supports UNRWA's work, but believes that some of the 
agency's employees were giving aid to groups attached to rival political 
parties. 

      "We as Hamas refuse all use of the people's needs for political ends," he 
said. "He called on UNRWA to put an end to using aid for political means, and 
to distribute it to all the needy equally." 

      UN officials said the aid was kept in a local storage facility because 
the organization's regular warehouses were full. The UN, human rights groups 
and Palestinians have often complained that a blockade by Israel and Egypt has 
left Gaza critically short of vital supplies. 

      Gaza residents are facing more hardship since Israel's devastating 
three-week military offensive, which ended Jan. 18. The operation, aimed at 
halting rocket fire by Palestinian militants, killed 1,300 including hundreds 
of civilians and left thousands destitute after their homes were damaged or 
destroyed. 

      Kurd said the Hamas government had already distributed $50 million in 
emergency relief to residents and promised additional payments for hardship 
cases. 

      Gunness said this was the first time Hamas seized UNRWA supplies. "Does 
anyone really think that the Americans, who are our single largest donor, or 
the Europeans, who are our largest multination donor, would give us aid in the 
generous way they do if they thought that aid would go to terrorists?" Gunness 
asked. 

      The West Bank-based government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a 
fierce rival of Hamas, was also planning to send $600 million in aid, hoping to 
earn the loyalty of Gaza residents. Hamas expelled forces loyal to Abbas when 
it overran Gaza in 2007. 

      Egypt is to host an international conference in coordination with Abbas's 
Palestinian Authority on March 2 on Gaza reconstruction, whose cost has been 
estimated at $2 billion. Saudi Arabia has said it would donate e1 billion. 

      Last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit urged Europe to 
help with fast aid for the Gaza Strip, saying the reconstruction meeting would 
require damage assessments and the support of the European Union, the United 
Nations and others. 

     

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