- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

JERUSALEM — Israel has authorized construction of 1,200 new houses for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, what would be one of the largest housing projects in the troubled seaside territory in years, military authorities said Tuesday.

The body that coordinates Israeli activities in the Palestinian areas said it has authorized the construction of the houses, as well as 18 badly needed schools, in southern Gaza.

Israel, which controls the cargo crossings into Gaza, largely has banned the entry of construction materials into the coastal strip since Hamas militants seized control of the area in 2007. Israel fears items such as cement, metal and glass could be used for military purposes by the Hamas rulers, who have vowed to destroy Israel.

Gaza’s construction needs are dire, especially since an Israeli military offensive against Hamas 2 1/2 years ago.

The United Nations estimates that 60,000 homes were damaged or destroyed during the three-week operation.

Israel has sporadically approved a series of housing projects since that war, but U.N. officials say the limited approvals, combined with the slow entry of materials into the territory, have done little to alleviate the situation.

U.N. officials said Defense Minister Ehud Barak relayed the decision to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon in a telephone conversation Monday.

Mr. Ban’s Mideast envoy, Robert Serry, welcomed the “significant step.”

“We will continue to work together with the relevant U.N. agencies to implement these projects in a timely fashion so as to improve the situation in Gaza,” Mr. Serry said.

Officials with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees, said it is important that Israel follow through and allow large quantities of construction materials into Gaza.

Adnan Abu Hassna, a spokesman for the U.N. agency, said the approval would allow two major housing projects in southern Gaza. He said they would replace homes that were demolished by Israel’s military in 2003 and 2004, a period of heavy fighting between the Jewish state and Palestinian militants.

He said the projects are being funded by Saudi Arabia and Japan.

“We are now waiting for practical steps to allow thousands of trucks loaded with construction materials to enter, which will allow us to start the building process needed to ease the lives of thousands of families,” he said.

He said the new schools would alleviate a crunch that has forced students to attend U.N. schools in three shifts throughout the day.