After 4-year delay, aggregates enter Gaza 27Apr11 April 28, 2011

Ma’an News Agency -  27 April 2011

Over the past month and a half, at least 60,000 tons of construction aggregates have been imported into Gaza, following a four-year-long wait that dated back to the start of Israel’s siege on the coastal enclave.

Speaking with Ma’an, UNRWA’s spokesman in Gaza Adnan Abu Hasna said the imports had come unexpectedly, but followed years of pressure on Israel from UN and other international bodies.

“I think they wanted to get rid of the materials,” Abu Hasna said, adding that he expected the remaining 15,000 tons of materials to make it through to Gaza during the next month.

The tens of thousands of tons had been imported via the Sufa crossing, a terminal that Israeli officials had closed permanently in 2008.

The import of materials was “made possible through coordination and cooperation with the PA, the IDF [Israeli military] and international organizations,” Spokesman for Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the [Palestinian] Territories Major Guy Inbar said, noting that coordination was not the only factor in the decision to allow the import.

Previously, Inbar said there were “problems solving logistical issues,” rendering the import of materials into Gaza impossible for some four to five years.

Despite alleged coordination efforts, UN officials were not informed that Israel was planning to send goods into Gaza via the Sufa gate, and were unaware that the decision had been made to halt imports via that mechanism.

Imports via Sufa had come to a close, Inbar told Ma’an by phone, after what he said was a limited three-week operation.

What Inbar estimated was 60,000 tons of aggregates passed into Gaza via a gate in the Sufa crossing, which he emphasized was not opened. “The crossing remains closed … the goods entered via a special operation,” he explained.

UN officials estimated that 65,000 tons of aggregates had been allowed in.

The building supplies were for projects administered by international aid agencies, that Israel had approved as early as 2007 in the first months of the blockade. UNRWA, UNDP, USAID and the German Development Bank are just some of the organizations carrying out work with the newly imported materials.

The surprise and sporadic opening of the Sufa crossing gate was welcomed by Abu Hasna, who said the “regular supply” of aggregates had allowed stagnated projects to move forward.

“This is only for approved projects, these materials are not for unlimited use,” the UNRWA official stressed, adding that refugee agency was still waiting for approval to build some 2,000 housing units in Rafah and Khan Younis for residents who were made homeless during a series of Israeli air strikes on the area in 2003-4.

Reconstruction for the 6,000 homes UN reports said were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 remain far down the list.

“We are full of hope,” Abu Hasna said about the possibility that even more projects could be approved in the coming months. “They would hugely improve living conditions, and we have concrete promises from Israel.”

The limited opening of a gate in the Sufa crossing followed close on the heels of the closure of the bulk goods terminal, Karni, in the northern Gaza Strip. At the time, Israeli forces said the crossing had been closed for security reasons.

Developing a new mechanism for the import of construction aggregates meant that imports did not stop when the crossing closed, though no announcement was made regarding the decision.

With the Sufa gate re-closed indefinitely following the three-weeks of transport, Inbar said provisions had been made at the Kerem Shalom terminal to import aggregates via a “spacial platform.” The new conveyor belts would allow for a three-fold increase in the amount of aggregates delivered into Gaza above what had earlier been coming through the Karni bulk goods terminal, he said.

A mid-April report from the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affiars noted that the Sufa gate had been opened as a temporary measure, as an “alternative facility at the Kerem Shalom Crossing that has been designated to replace it is not yet operational.”

While the Sufa gate has been closed, it remains unclear when the Kerem Shalom conveyor belts will being working.

The earlier closure of Karni worried officials, with a UN spokesman in Jerusalem calling the Kerem Shalom crossing a “bottleneck through which we are forced to bring assistance to over one million people.”

On Wednesday, approximately 300 truckloads of aid and goods including 20 new cars, and 128 truckloads of building materials for UNRWA projects were transported in through Kerem Shalom, along with limited amounts of cooking gas, a Palestinian liaison official said.

Once the conveyor belts begin operations, hundreds of tons of construction aggregates will also enter through the single crossing.

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