JERUSALEM (AP) — The United Nations said Monday that Israel has agreed to again allow imports of construction materials into Gaza after a two-month clampdown following the discovery of a tunnel dug by militants from the coastal strip into Israel.
Israel restricted items that can enter Gaza Strip since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory in 2007, fearing Palestinian militants could use construction materials like metal and concrete for military purposes.
In 2010, Israel eased the restrictions to allow imports for internationally supervised projects. But in October, it halted the entry of all construction materials after discovering the concrete-lined tunnel along the border. Israel said the tunnel was to be used by militants for attacks and abductions of Israelis — a claim that Palestinian armed groups later confirmed.
Hamas-allied militants sneaked into Israel through one such tunnel in 2006, killed two Israeli soldiers and kidnapped a third, holding him hostage in Gaza for five years. U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry said Monday the materials that will be imported are to be used to build U.N.-funded schools, housing and sanitation facilities.
"The United Nations will continue to preserve the integrity of these works through their uninterrupted and transparent implementation in accordance with agreed procedures," Serry said. "The situation in Gaza remains concerning and the United Nations is engaged with relevant parties in trying to address the most urgent issues such as energy, water and private sector construction."
Monday's U.N announcement came after talks with Israel's Defense Ministry over concerns the materials could reach Hamas. U.N. officials had pleaded with Israel to lift the restrictions, saying the lack of materials has paralyzed Gaza's key construction industry and idled 10 percent of the workforce.
Israel's border restrictions on Gaza, along with an Egyptian blockade, have hit the territory's economy hard. Egypt has tightened its own clampdown after a military coup in July ousted the country's Islamic president, a Hamas ally. Since the coup, the Egyptian military destroyed a network of smuggling tunnels that was an economic lifeline to Gaza.
Israel says the restrictions on Gaza, including limits on exports out of Gaza, are because of security concerns. But critics have accused Israel of trying to weaken Hamas and collectively punish the strip's 1.7 million Palestinians.
In a separate development, a spokesman for visiting Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said on Monday there has been a "misunderstanding" with Israel about a security scanner donated by the Netherlands to facilitate exports from Gaza. The disagreement led the Dutch to call off a planned inauguration ceremony for the scanner.
The Dutch spokesman, Ahmed Dadou said the Netherlands and Israel differ on how the machine would be used. He said the Dutch had envisioned using the machine to facilitate exports to the West Bank, a main market for Gazan items in the past. He said Israel had rejected the request.
"There seems to be a misunderstanding with the Israelis on what we both envision with this scanner," Dadou said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked about the matter on Sunday at a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Netanyahu said Israel was not trying "to prevent prosperity," but wanted to ensure security and called the scanner an "important contribution" to the Gazan economy. "It can facilitate right now the screening of goods that go out to the European markets ... We want to make sure that goods that go from there, from Gaza, do not contain weapons or explosives that can reach the Palestinian Authority areas," Netanyahu said. He did not explain why goods could go safely to Europe, but not to the West Bank, which is mostly controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group critical of the Gaza blockade, said the ban on exports like agricultural produce to the West Bank is politically motivated to pressure Hamas rather than out of security reasons.