Wary reaction to Ehud Barak's announcement as Saudi Arabia pledges $70m for housing units and aid groups say more materials are needed to address acute shortage.
Israel agrees to increase flow of construction materials for Gaza to build homes
JERUSALEM // Aid organisations and Palestinian officials have reacted cautiously to a reported decision by Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, to increase the flow of construction materials into the Gaza Strip.
They warn that Israel must do more for the move to have any effect on the Palestinian territory's acute housing shortage.
UN officials said Mr Barak announced the decision to Ban Ki-moon, the world body's secretary general, during a telephone conversation on Monday.
Details remain vague, but a spokesman for Israel's defence ministry, Major Guy Inbar, said on Tuesday the material had been approved for building 18 schools and an additional 1,200 housing units.
Yesterday, the UN agency aiding Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said Saudi Arabia planned to contribute US$70 million (Dh256.9m) for new housing units in the Gaza Strip.
Japan is also funding the project. The use of the material would be overseen by UNRWA.
Mr Ban's envoy to the Middle East, Robert Serry, welcomed the decision and pledged to "continue to work together with the relevant UN agencies to implement these projects in a timely fashion so as to improve the situation in Gaza".
But the UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness expressed scepticism, saying that "we have to judge the Israelis by actions on the ground".
"While we welcome the apparent decision, we are under no illusion that, historically speaking, we should not count our chickens before they hatch," he said.
Israel's decision comes as international activists prepare a seaborne aid convoy to break the Gaza siege, which Israeli officials have warned against.
Israel imposed severe restrictions on imports, including such materials as steel and concrete, into Gaza in 2007 for fear that the Palestinian territory's Hamas rulers would use them for weapons and fortified bunkers.
Those restrictions, coupled with an air and naval blockade, have had a devastating effect. Naji Sarhan, Gaza's deputy minister of public works, said the area's 1.7 million Palestinian residents were in need of 100,000 new housing units as a result.
"I think it's a good step," he said about the Israeli decision, "but it should be followed by more aid, to other UN organisations, NGOs and groups working with the ministry."
He added that the housing crisis was exacerbated by the more than 50,000 homes left damaged by Operation Cast Lead, Israel's devastating 22-day war on Gaza that started in December 2008, and a rapid population growth rate that requires 13,000 new homes a year.
Israel announced a slight easing of restrictions in light of mounting international pressure following Cast Lead and its military's killing last year of nine activists aboard a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.
Even so, aid organisations say, a labyrinth of red tape for goods heading to Gaza, as well as Israel's closure in March of the other entry point used to bring in commercial goods, Gaza's Karni Crossing, could negate the benefits from the new approvals. Building supplies can only be imported by a select number of international organisations, whose projects require Israeli approval.
Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates freedom of movement for Palestinians in the occupied territories, said: "The Israeli approval process requires international organisations to document in tremendous detail every nut and bolt design for construction projects as if we were regulating highly specialised weapons."
The result, she said, had been "tremendous bureaucratic costs and delays of months to approve a single truckload of cement".
It was still unclear whether these bureaucratic impediments would be eased, Mr Gunness said. To build the projects approved by Israel, he said, UNRWA would need "to get thousands of trucks in to complete the approved projects in the required time, and that means lifting the blockade".
Currently, the UN organisation is permitted to bring in a fraction of that amount on a daily basis, which at that rate, Mr Gunness added, would "take a very, very long time to get the necessary building materials in" to build the new homes.