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Hamas dispenses politics along with aid to Gazans

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[January 30, 2009]  JEBALIYA, Gaza Strip (AP) -- The aid money from Hamas came with a heavy dose of politics. A Hamas Cabinet minister carried a carton stuffed with checks worth nearly $2 million into a Gaza tent camp pitched on the ruins of the Salam neighborhood, close to the Israeli border.

But before hundreds of homeless residents could collect, they had to listen to a political speech. Social Affairs Minister Ahmed al-Kurd told them Israel's military machine was defeated and that the Hamas government would rebuild their neighborhood bigger and better.

Insurance"There's a lot of talk," resident Zayed Khader, 45, said after the speech, as he waited for his name to be called so he could pick up relief checks worth a total of $6,000 for his family of nine. "When I see them actually building my house, I'll say these are good words."

Israel's three-week war on Gaza's Hamas rulers ended 10 days ago, but many here complain that political maneuvering -- both between Hamas and its moderate West Bank rivals, and in the international community -- is slowing the delivery of urgently needed aid to Gaza.

Israel and Egypt have not significantly eased their blockade of Gaza since a shaky cease-fire took hold Jan. 18, aid officials say.

A lifting of the blockade, a key Hamas demand, is being held up because of slow-moving negotiations over the terms of a durable truce.

Israel says it will only open the gates if Hamas halts weapons smuggling under international supervision. Egypt has said that on its border with Gaza, it will only deal with forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and not with troops from Hamas, Abbas' rival.

In the meantime, thousands of tons of supplies are not reaching Gaza, said John Ging, the top U.N. aid official in the territory. "The ordinary people here in Gaza are not getting enough help and are not getting it quickly enough," Ging told reporters this week.

Israel said U.N. trucks are given priority at crossings into Gaza and denied aid was getting stuck. "Over 40,000 tons of aid have entered Gaza since the cease-fire and that is despite ongoing Hamas rocket attacks," said Peter Lerner, an Israeli military official.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency is the biggest aid organization in Gaza. It is responsible for 1 million refugees and their descendants, out of a population of 1.4 million. Its initial war emergency budget was $100 million, and on Thursday it filed an aid appeal for $613 million.

But without a deal to open the devastated territory's borders, it wasn't clear the appeal would do much good. More than two dozen trucks loaded with food, aid and goods intended for Gaza were stranded on the Egyptian side of the border Thursday.

"There are thousands of tons of assistance generously donated, sitting in Egypt, Jordan and also in the ports in Israel," Ging said. "That aid should be right here, right now, helping the people who need it."

In recent days, UNRWA expanded food aid, with some 900,000 Gazans now getting rations of flour, oil and sugar. On Thursday, each of 200,000 students in UN schools received about $25.

During the war, U.N. schools sheltered 50,000 displaced Gazans, and the agency is paying nearly $150 to each family to try to find another place to stay.

UNRWA operates independently of the Hamas government, and the Islamic militants have been careful not to interfere with U.N. aid programs. However, Hamas has insists on supervising the projects of foreign and local volunteer groups.

On Thursday, government representatives took charge of a tent camp pitched in the Salam neighborhood of the town of Jebaliya, near Israel.

Dozens of tents stood on a newly cleared lot, ringed by the rubble of houses that had been demolished or badly damaged by Israeli forces. Hundreds of residents, now homeless, milled around, chasing rumors about the size of the eventual aid payment as they waited for other deliveries. Two U.N. trucks eventually dropped off 460 mattresses and 2,540 blankets.

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The camp was divided into an area for residents and a fenced off compound for official business, with bearded Hamas police in black uniforms standing guard. In the administration tent, equipped with a computer, the chiefs of the 10 local clans presented lists and ID card numbers of family members to prove their aid claims.

By mid-afternoon, two Hamas Cabinet ministers arrived to the sound of Hamas marching music, carrying a cardboard box with 332 white envelopes. Each envelope held two checks totaling $6,000, to enable each family to buy food and supplies -- after they heard al-Kurd, the Cabinet minister, deliver his speech on the Gaza victory.

But many are skeptical.

As a result of the border blockade, imposed after Hamas seized Gaza in June 2007, there are barely any building supplies, such as concrete, window glass and aluminum. Without a full opening of the border, the rebuilding of thousands of homes is impossible, Ging has said.

Jumma Dardona, whose nearby three-story family house has been rendered uninhabitable, fears he'll live in a tent for a long time. "No one knows the accurate period," said Dardona, 34, as he cut firewood behind the last row of tents, his 6-year-old son Mohammed by his side.

Dardona and several others in Salam said they want Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement to put aside their rivalries. They say the infighting is one of the main reasons for the misery of Gaza civilians. "As long as they fight, I feel I am lost," said Dardona, who served as a policeman before the Hamas takeover.

However, Abbas' government has not been visible among the aid groups, sidelining him even further in the eyes of many Gazans.

He still pumps huge sums into Gaza every month, paying the salaries of tens of thousands of civil servants and police, like Dardona. But his promised $3.5 million for the families of the dead -- according to Gaza health officials nearly 1,300 -- has not been disbursed, in part because Gaza banks suffer from a shortage of bank notes, another fallout from the closure.


Hamas, which smuggles cash through border tunnels instead of using bank transfers, has no problems with distribution.

Khader watched Thursday's bustle of Cabinet ministers, bodyguards and aid deliveries with disdain. He said he has told visiting Hamas politicians that the civilians are the losers and that they oppose continued rocket fire on Israel -- the attacks that triggered the war.

"It's all hot air," he said of the officials' promises. "What do they care if my house is bombed?"

[Associated Press; By KARIN LAUB]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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