UN, Hamas Meet to Discuss Stolen Gaza Aid

Humanitarian aid on hold until further notice; UN spokesman: Donors won't give us aid if it goes to terrorists.

Hamas said Saturday that it and the United Nations had resolved their differences over aid to Gaza which the UN said had been stolen by Hamas.

Ahmed Kurd, Hamas' minister of social affairs, claimed that the UN trucks involved were not marked and Hamas officials believed the goods were sent by Egyptian charities, meant to be given straight to Hamas.

UN and Hamas officials met in Gaza late Friday, after Hamas police seized the 10 trucks containing UN aid shipments, including rice and flour. In response, the UN suspended aid shipments to Gaza.

Earlier in the week, Hamas police had seized thousands of blankets and food parcels earmarked for UN distribution to needy residents.

UN officials would only confirm Saturday that they met with Hamas representatives but said they would not lift their freeze on aid shipments until all 10 trucks were returned.

"When they return what they have taken, we will inform everybody. But what we are hearing is positive as of now," said John Ging, the top UN aid official in Gaza.

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 delivered 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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