U.N. agency suspends Gaza construction

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A leading U.N. agency suspended on Monday all of its construction projects in the Gaza Strip, citing a shortage of building supplies it said was caused by Israeli closures of a border crossing.

Israel largely closed off the Karni terminal, the main commercial crossing to and from Gaza, soon after Hamas Islamists took over the territory last month following weeks of fighting against loyalists of President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) funds scores of building projects in the impoverished Gaza Strip. It buys its materials from Israeli companies and hires mostly Palestinian contractors.

“Some $93 million worth of projects are on hold because cement and other building supplies have run out,” said John Ging, UNRWA’s director in Gaza, citing the crossing closure.

Officials in the United Nations Development Programme said the UNDP had notified its donors that infrastructure projects it was carrying out in Gaza would be suspended soon unless cement started to arrive.

Christopher Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman, said some concrete was transferred from Israel to Gaza in recent weeks but it was not enough. The suspension of the projects would affect thousands of Palestinians, both he and Ging said.

Gunness said there was “a risk of a public health disaster” if the facilities UNRWA had been funding were not maintained.

Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel’s liaison office with the Palestinian territories, said concrete was transferred from the Jewish state to Gaza a week ago and more would be sent in the near future following requests by UNRWA officials.

“Concrete is harder to bring in, technically,” he said. “It requires more manpower and it is more important to us now to allow humanitarian aid.”

Israel has in recent weeks permitted some food and medical supplies to go through the crossing and others that it controls on its border with Gaza. However, it often closes its terminals amid daily rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian militants.

Israel has maintained control of the crossings on the Gaza frontier, under interim peace deals with the Palestinians, since it pulled out of the territory in 2005.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza