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Israel Authorizes New Palestinian Housing Project in Gaza

Unfinished buildings at the UNRWA housing project in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, March 9, 2011
Unfinished buildings at the UNRWA housing project in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, March 9, 2011

Israel has approved one of the largest housing projects the Gaza Strip has seen in years, authorizing the construction of 1,200 new homes and 18 schools in the impoverished Palestinian territory.

Military spokesman Guy Inbar said Tuesday that Israel had given the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, the green light to bring building materials into the Hamas-controlled territory as soon as UNRWA is ready.

U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry welcomed what he called "this significant step."

Gaza's construction needs are dire. A devastating 22-day Israeli offensive against Islamist Hamas militants, which ended in January 2009, reduced much of the territory's infrastructure and many private homes to rubble.

Other homes in Gaza were demolished by Israel's military in 2003 and 2004, a period of heavy fighting between the Jewish state and Palestinian militants.

Israel has largely banned the import of items such as cement, metal and glass into the coastal strip since Hamas seized control of the area in 2007. The Israeli government says the group could use the materials for military purposes.

Israel also maintains a tight naval blockade of Gaza, which Palestinians say is illegal and helping to strangle the territory's underdeveloped economy.

Meanwhile, organizers say they hope a new pro-Palestinian aid flotilla will set sail for Gaza this month, despite Israeli warnings.

Israel calls the flotilla a provocation and has stepped up diplomatic efforts to block it.

Also Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, congratulating him on his victory in last week's Turkish elections and expressing a wish to repair Israel's relations with Ankara.

Turkey has long been Israel's closest friend in the Middle East, but the relationship reached a new low last year when Israeli commandos stormed an aid flotilla bound for Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists.

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