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U.N. agency says Hamas seized Gaza aid

GAZA (Reuters) - A U.N. aid agency accused Hamas policemen Wednesday of seizing hundreds of food parcels and thousands of blankets it had planned to distribute to 500 families in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas Welfare Minister Ahmed al-Kurd denied the accusation, in a burgeoning dispute that could affect the delivery of essential aid in the Hamas-ruled territory hard-hit by Israel’s recent 22-day offensive.

“Over 3,500 blankets and 406 food parcels were confiscated from a distribution store at Beach Camp in Gaza by police personnel,” the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said in its first such statement since a ceasefire went into effect on January 18.

“This took place after UNRWA personnel 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,” the statement said.

The aid was to have been handed out to 500 families in the area, UNRWA said, demanding it be returned immediately.

Kurd, accusing UNRWA of being reluctant to cooperate with his ministry, told Reuters: “Not a single policeman nor any employee of the Welfare Ministry entered any facility or center belonging to UNRWA.”

He said UNRWA had given some of its aid to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with a political agenda, alleging the agency lacked “neutrality and transparency.”

Last week, UNRWA’s Gaza director, John Ging, said the agency had expanded its aid roster to include employees of the Palestinian Authority, which answers to Hamas’s rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah faction.

Ging said they needed the aid because Israel was preventing the transfer of cash to the Gaza Strip to pay Palestinian Authority workers.

The overseeing of aid and reconstruction in the Gaza Strip is a source of friction between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement, which lost control of the territory to the Islamist group in internal fighting in 2007.

UNRWA was set up in 1948 to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees. It provides food and other aid to more than half of the Gaza Strip’s population of 1.5 million.

Humanitarian assistance is essential in the Gaza Strip, where the territory’s Hamas rulers have said 5,000 homes were destroyed and 20,000 damaged in the recent fighting.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Editing by Matthew Jones