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UN hopes project will unlock Gaza reconstruction

New housing project to provide homes for 150 families

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The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees hopes that a housing project in the Gaza Strip approved by Israel can unlock reconstruction efforts in the Hamas-run territory.

The new apartments will house 150 families and could prove to Israeli authorities that the United Nations can undertake such projects without construction materials falling into the hands of Hamas and other armed groups.

"We have estimated very accurately all the quantities because we do not want to be accused by the Israelis of exaggerating," said Munir Manneh, head of construction in Gaza for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

"We will give an excellent example and prove that we will control the process 100 percent," he said, adding that all materials would be clearly documented from the moment they enter the territory.

UNRWA has carried out other limited pilot projects but this will be the largest housing construction carried out since the end of the war.

The partly finished apartment blocks stand in neat rows on a stretch of sand near the beachfront outside the town of Khan Yunis, in an area that used to be a Jewish settlement before Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Thousands of homes in Gaza were demolished during a blistering 22-day Israeli offensive launched in December 2008, and almost no reconstruction has taken place because of border closures that keep out building materials.

Israel has sealed Gaza off from all but vital humanitarian aid since Hamas seized power in June 2007, and has banned building materials for fear the Islamist group would use them to build military infrastructure.

We have estimated very accurately all the quantities because we do not want to be accused by the Israelis of exaggerating

Munir Manneh, UNRWA

Bypassing Hamas

But Israel has said that if a mechanism could be found to bypass Hamas then more materials could be allowed in.

"If there could be a greater level of confidence that Hamas would not be siphoning off materials for its own military machine that would make things obviously much easier," government spokesman Mark Regev said.

Manneh brushed off such concerns, arguing that Hamas and other armed groups could smuggle in cement through tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border anyway.

"Nobody is interested to take any of the materials that will be permitted into Gaza... Because everything is available. If Hamas wants cement, it's there," he said.

If the project succeeds, UNRWA may be able to proceed with plans to build homes for nearly 6,000 Palestinian families whose houses were destroyed by Israeli forces before or during the war.

In the meantime UNRWA, which provides humanitarian aid to Gaza's more than one million Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Middle East war, has been building shelters out of mud bricks to highlight the closures.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon hailed the project during a visit to the site on Sunday, but said it was a "drop in the bucket" and that more needed to be done.

Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza war, which was aimed at halting Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. Thirteen Israelis were killed during the conflict.

If there could be a greater level of confidence that Hamas would not be siphoning off materials for its own military machine that would make things obviously much easier

Government spokesman Mark Regev