U.N. Says Hamas Seized Aid Meant for Needy Civilians

Hamas police in Gaza seized thousands of blankets and food parcels meant for needy residents, a U.N. spokesman said Wednesday, threatening to fracture relations between the international agency that cares for most of Gaza's residents and the territory's militant rulers.

Hamas policemen forcibly broke into an aid warehouse in Gaza City on Tuesday evening and confiscated 3,500 blankets and over 4,000 food parcels, said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Gunness said the incident was "absolutely unacceptable."

He said police confiscated aid meant for 500 families after U.N. officials refused to voluntarily hand it over to the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs. Similar U.N. aid packages had already been distributed to 70,000 residents over the past two weeks.

Ahmad Kurd, the Hamas Minister of Social Affairs, did not deny the seizure of the aid Wednesday. He charged 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.

Israeli officials have charged in the past that the militant group routinely confiscates aid meant for needy Gazans, but Gunness said this was the first time Hamas had seized its goods since taking control of the territory in 2007.

The U.N. agency provides food, education and health care services to more than half of Gaza's 1.4 million residents.

Hamas is under pressure to provide aid to Gazans, who are facing more hardship than ever since Israel's devastating three-week military offensive, which ended Jan. 18. The operation, aimed at halting rocket fire from the territory, killed hundreds of civilians and left thousands destitute after their homes were damaged or destroyed.

Tensions between Hamas and the U.N. could make it difficult for the international agency to continue providing desperately needed services.

Some international donors had expressed concern that funds meant to rebuild Gaza could fall into Hamas' hands, and the U.N. had been trying to assuage those concerns.

The United Nations is expected to take a leading role in rebuilding Gaza, because Israel and the international community will not deal with Hamas.