Israel Authorizes Construction of New Homes in Gaza Strip

Israel has authorized construction of 1,200 new homes in the Gaza Strip, in what would be one of the largest housing projects in the trouble seaside territory in years, military authorities said Tuesday.

Israel's Civil Administration, the military body that oversees civilian matters in the Palestinian areas, said it has authorized the construction of the 1,200 homes, as well as 18 badly needed schools, in southern Gaza.

Israel, which controls the cargo crossings into Gaza, has largely banned the entry of construction materials into the coastal strip since Hamas militants seized control of the area in 2007. Israel fears items like cement, metal and glass could be used for military purposes by Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Gaza's construction needs are dire, especially following an Israeli military offensive against Hamas two and a half years ago. The United Nations estimates that 60,000 homes were damaged or destroyed during the three-week operation.

Israel has sporadically approved a series of housing projects since that war, but U.N. officials say the limited approvals, combined with the slow entry of materials into the territory, have done little to alleviate the situation.

U.N. officials said Defense Minister Ehud Barak relayed the decision to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon in a telephone conversation on Monday.

Ban's Mideast envoy, Robert Serry, welcomed the "significant step."

"We will continue to work together with the relevant U.N. agencies to implement these projects in a timely fashion so as to improve the situation in Gaza," Serry said.

Officials with UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said it was important that Israel follow through and allow large quantities of construction materials into Gaza.

Adnan Abu Hassna, a spokesman for the U.N. agency, said the approval would allow two major housing projects in southern Gaza. He said they would replace homes that were demolished by Israel's military in 2003 and 2004, a period of heavy fighting between the Jewish state and Palestinian militants. He said the projects are being funded by Saudi Arabia and Japan.

"We are now waiting for practical steps to allow thousands of trucks loaded with construction materials to enter, which will allow us to start the building process needed to ease the lives of thousands of families," he said.

He said the new schools would alleviate a crunch that has forced students to attend U.N. schools in three shifts throughout the day.