JERUSALEM — Armed Hamas police broke into a Gaza warehouse packed with U.N. humanitarian supplies and seized thousands of blankets and food packages, officials said Wednesday.
It was a rare public clash between the international agency that feeds much of the territory and the militant group that rules it. And the incident highlighted difficulties facing donors seeking to bypass Hamas while helping Gazans survive and rebuild after Israel's punishing military operation.
In New York, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said UNRWA "condemned in the strongest terms" the confiscation of its aid supplies. The U.N. demanded the items be returned, but they remained with Hamas late Wednesday.
Hamas policemen stormed 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 United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesman Christopher Gunness.
"They were armed. They seized this. They took it by force," Gunness said, terming the incident "absolutely unacceptable."
The seizure took place after UNRWA staff earlier refused to hand over the aid supplies 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, charging the U.N. was giving the aid to local groups with ties to Hamas opponents.
"UNRWA did not do what it said it would do, and began distributing its aid to groups that tie their activities to political activism," Kurd said, an apparent reference to Fatah, the main opponents of Hamas. In 2007, Hamas overran Gaza, expelling Fatah forces.
Ihab Ghussein, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the incident occurred because the U.N. was storing the blankets in an unauthorized area. Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu demanded an apology from UNRWA, saying the group was "spreading false news."
But control appeared to be at the heart of the issue.
The ability of Hamas to provide aid is crucial to maintaining support for its rule in the territory. The group claims to have distributed $50 million in emergency cash relief since the end of the incursion.
An 18-month blockade by Israel and Egypt left Gaza critically short of vital supplies, and residents are facing more hardship in the wake of Israel's devastating three-week military offense, 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.
Israel and Gaza have allowed more aid into the territory in recent weeks. UNRWA, which has traditionally served the more than 1 million Palestinians living in Gaza's refugee camps, is expected to take the lead in rebuilding the territory. Israel and the international community label Hamas a terror organization and will not deal with it.
Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor at the Fatah-linked al-Azhar University in Gaza City, said Hamas probably took the supplies to distribute them more widely than the U.N., which supports only refugees.
Senior U.N. official John Ging said aid distribution would continue. "We are not going to punish the refugees for the irresponsible actions of a few," Ging said.
"The stakes are very high," Ging said. "Whatever donors give us by way of assistance has to be fully accounted for."
Some international donors have expressed concern that funds meant to rebuild Gaza could fall into the militant Islamic group's hands, and the U.N. had been trying to calm those fears.
"We are very concerned, but this is an isolated incident, we hope," said Alix de Mauny, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, one of the largest donors to the Palestinians. "We will react accordingly if this develops beyond an isolated incident," de Mauny said. The EC contributed $626 million to the Palestinians in 2008.
On Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line candidate for prime minister who is leading in polls a week before Israel's election, charged that Israel's offensive was stopped too early. He said the military should have been allowed to put an end to Hamas arms smuggling from Egypt. He also said, "There is no choice but to uproot the Iranian-backed regime in Gaza."
Israeli officials say the incident vindicated their long-standing claims that Hamas routinely confiscates aid meant for needy Gazans.
"We have said in the past that we know Hamas is stealing humanitarian aid and donations from international organizations," said military spokesman Peter Lerner.
However, 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 said.
The West Bank-based government of President Mahmoud Abbas, a fierce rival of Hamas, is also sending $600 million in aid, hoping to earn the loyalty of Gaza residents.
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Barzak and Ben Hubbard in Gaza City, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Aron Heller in Jerusalem.