Wednesday, February 4, 2009

CAN YOU TRUST UN? - UN says Hamas stole aid intended for Gazans

International Herald Tribune

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

JERUSALEM: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides assistance to Palestinian refugees, said Wednesday that the Hamas police force in Gaza had seized aid supplies intended for the desperately needy from a distribution store in a Gaza refugee camp, signaling tensions between the agency and the Islamic rulers of the Palestinian enclave.

The UN agency said it condemned the Hamas action "in the strongest terms."

On Tuesday afternoon, the agency said in a statement, the police confiscated about 3,500 blankets and more than 400 food parcels meant to help hundreds of families in the Gaza City Beach Camp. It was part of the emergency aid being distributed after Israel's 22-day military offensive in Gaza that ended Jan. 18.

According to the statement, the incident took place "after Unrwa staff had earlier refused to hand over the aid supplies to the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs. The police subsequently broke into the warehouse and seized the aid by force."

Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the refugee agency, said it was the first time its supplies had been seized in such a way. He added: "They were armed and we were not."

Ahmed al-Kurd, the minister of social affairs in the Hamas-run Gaza government, said he was "very surprised and shocked" at the agency's statement to the news media.

The Hamas authorities have "never harmed Unrwa's security," he said.

But Kurd hinted at some displeasure among Hamas officials with the way the agency works. He said his ministry had been asking Unrwa to provide information about the assistance it is providing, and was "investigating" whether the agency is working with any unlicensed nongovernmental organizations in Gaza "that have a political agenda." He was presumably referring to groups at odds with Hamas.

Isaac Herzog, the Israeli minister responsible for coordinating humanitarian assistance to Gaza, said that the "robbing" of the UN warehouses by Hamas was "further proof that Hamas is continuing to make life miserable for the population of Gaza and will use any means to intensify its suffering."

Peter Lerner, an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman, said Israel was "aware of numerous incidents" in which aid sent into Gaza, particularly from Jordan and Egypt, was seized, "sometimes at gunpoint."

While Israel officially says it appreciates the refugee agency's humanitarian work, there has always been some inherent political friction between the two. Tensions flared between the Israeli military and the agency during the recent offensive after Israeli forces fired at the Unrwa headquarters in Gaza City and killed up to 43 Palestinians in a street outside an agency school.

Israel said it was returning fire after Hamas militants attacked them from inside, or in the vicinity of, the UN facilities. UN officials vehemently denied any Hamas presence in their compounds.

Israel has been allowing up to 200 truckloads of humanitarian aid a day into Gaza since the end of the campaign, but some aid groups have been protesting about continuing restrictions. The Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that the European Union had sent a letter to Israel complaining about the obstacles it has faced.

Also Wednesday, the Israeli military acknowledged that its soldiers fired two tank shells at the house of Izzeldin Abuelaish, a well-known Gaza doctor, killing three of his daughters and a niece, on Jan. 16.

The story of the Gazan doctor, who has worked in Israeli hospitals and is known as a strong advocate of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, moved many in Israel and abroad.

The military said it concluded from an investigation that an infantry force had come under sniper and mortar fire from a house adjacent to the doctor's, and identified "suspicious figures" in the upper level of the doctor's house who were "thought to be spotters who directed the Hamas sniper and mortar fire."

The commander of the force gave the order to open fire, and the doctor's family members were killed as a result. The military said that in the days leading up to the incident, officers had contacted the doctor and urged him to evacuate his home because of intense fighting in the area.

The military said it was "saddened by the harm caused" to the doctor's family, but that under the circumstances it considered the decision to fire toward the building "reasonable."

In a message broadcast on Israeli television Wednesday, Abuelaish, speaking in Hebrew, thanked the Israelis for carrying out an honest investigation and said he hoped that such a mistake would never be repeated.

Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem and Taghreed El-Khodary reported from Gaza.

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