Israel to allow cement into Gaza after 6-week freeze

Israel to allow cement into Gaza after 6-week freeze

Hamas official who diverted building materials to tunnel construction dismissed in deal to end halts on private imports

A Palestinian worker adjusts bags of cement loaded onto a truck after it entered the southern Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Rafah, on April 29, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash 90)
A Palestinian worker adjusts bags of cement loaded onto a truck after it entered the southern Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Rafah, on April 29, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash 90)

Israeli authorities are renewing the transfer of cement to the Gaza Strip’s private sector on Monday after freezing imports for over a month over the claim Hamas was siphoning it off for building tunnels.

Sunday’s decision by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories was confirmed by Israeli and Palestinian sources.

COGAT halted the import of cement and other building materials at the beginning of April after an undisclosed amount of cement intended for the rebuilding effort of the beleaguered Strip was “taken by Imad al-Baz, deputy director of Hamas’s Economic Ministry,” the Defense Ministry body said on its Arabic Facebook page at the time.

Deliberations between Israeli and UN officials, including Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, yielded an agreement to allow cement to be imported anew. Stipulations included al-Baz’s dismissal and an increase in the number of Palestinian inspectors on the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing, according to the sources.

The move to freeze some imports in April caused a shutdown in construction in the Gaza Strip and raised the unemployment rate as well as the cost of cement.

The UN’s Palestinian refugee agency said Sunday that the unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip was 41.2% in the Gaza Strip in the first quarter of 2016.

Egypt allowed more cement to be imported from the Sinai in a bid to ease the crisis, but the price of cement shot up to NIS 600 per ton in Gaza, compared to NIS 350 per ton in Israel.

Cement imports for public projects were unaffected by the move.

One of Israel’s main concerns in the reconstruction effort of the Gaza Strip has long been that materials being brought into the coastal enclave will be employed to create tunnels and other infrastructure that can be used against the Israel Defense Forces in a future conflict with Hamas.

Since April, Israel found and destroyed two Hamas tunnels, reinforced with concrete, running under the border into Israel, setting off a violent cross-border flareup for several days earlier this month.

The information about al-Baz’s actions came to light via international actors taking part in the reconstruction effort in Gaza, COGAT said in April.

“We are disappointed that Hamas continues to harm and take advantage of the Palestinian population, only to advance the personal interests of the organization,” COGAT wrote on its Arabic-language Facebook page.

The United Nations condemned the “deviation of materials” in a statement released at the time, but refrained from naming Hamas as responsible.

“Those who seek to gain through the deviation of materials are stealing from their own people and adding to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza,” said Mladenov.

“The people of Gaza depend on the entry of construction material to repair and reconstruct their damaged and destroyed houses following the 2014 conflict and to enable much-needed infrastructure and development projects,” Mladenov said, referring to the 50-day war fought between Israel and Hamas in summer 2014.

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