updated 2/6/2009 4:55:35 PM ET 2009-02-06T21:55:35

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees on Friday said it had suspended aid shipments into the Gaza Strip after the ruling Hamas militant group stole a delivery of humanitarian supplies for a second time this week.

The announcement by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency deepened tensions between the international body that assists the majority of Gaza's 1.4 million people and the Islamic group that controls the tiny coastal strip.

The crisis comes at a sensitive time. U.N. officials say Gaza's needs are especially dire in the wake of Israel's recent military offensive against Hamas, which killed nearly 1,300 people, displaced thousands more and caused widespread destruction.

And next week, Israel holds parliamentary elections. New opinion polls published Friday showed a close race , but predicted the nationalist Likud Party, which advocates a tough line against Hamas, would head the next coalition government.

In a TV interview Friday night, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu said he would seek a broad coalition if he wins, but would turn to "the nationalist camp" in building a government. "We need a different way," he told Israel TV.

In a statement, UNRWA said it had suspended aid deliveries to Gaza after the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs stole 10 truckloads of flour and rice delivered into Gaza on Thursday. Earlier this week, Hamas police took thousands of blankets and food parcels meant for needy residents.

"Hamas has got to hand back all the aid that they have taken and they have to give credible assurances that this will not happen again. Until this happens, our imports into Gaza will be suspended," said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.

He said the agency, which maintains "working level contacts" with Hamas, had filed a protest with the government. Gunness said the agency would continue to distribute aid from its existing supplies in Gaza, but that stocks were running thin. "There is enough aid for days, not weeks," he said.

Some 80 percent of Gaza's 1.4 million people rely on the U.N. agency for food and other support.

Resolving dispute
In Gaza, Hamas' Social Affairs minister, Ahmed al-Kurd, dismissed Thursday's incident as a "misunderstanding" and expressed hope the dispute would soon be resolved.

"We welcome all aid, whether from UNRWA or international organizations," he said. "Any international organization that wants to help or build in Gaza, we have no conditions, come to Gaza, and we will provide security, safety and calm," he said.

The spat with Hamas created a new challenge for UNRWA, which already has been pressuring Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza's borders to allow more aid into the area.

Most cargo into Gaza comes through Israeli-controlled crossings. Israel has largely closed the crossings since Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. Israel fears supplies will reach Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group.

Israel unilaterally halted its devastating Gaza operation, meant to halt years of Hamas rocket attacks, on Jan. 18, and Hamas followed with an announcement that it would hold its fire.

Egypt has been trying to broker a long-term truce. Hamas is demanding that Israel open Gaza's blockaded border crossings as part of any agreement. Israel wants a halt to arms smuggling into Gaza, and is seeking the release of a captured soldier held by Hamas for more than two years.

The attempts to negotiate a cease-fire are unfolding in the shadow of Israel's national election on Tuesday, and the candidates have all been competing over who can take the toughest stand against Hamas.

Polls: Hawkish party favored
The final opinion polls before the election predicted a close race, but showed that voters clearly prefer hard-line parties.

A survey in the Maariv daily forecast a narrow Likud victory with 26 parliamentary seats, compared with 23 for the centrist Kadima. But the poll also projected a strong showing by other hawkish parties, putting Likud leader Netanyahu in a much stronger position to form a coalition government in the 120-seat parliament.

The survey, conducted by the TNS/Teleseker agency, questioned 1,000 people and had a margin of error of 2 seats. Polls in other Israeli newspapers forecast similar results.

A Likud victory could put Israel at odds with President Barack Obama, who has been reaching out to Muslims and promising fresh approaches to dealing with the Middle East, including moving forward vigorously with the vision of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu says no peace agreement with the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is possible in the foreseeable future. Instead, he says he will try to jump-start the West Bank economy while continuing Israel's military occupation indefinitely. He also advocates a tough line against the rival Hamas government in Gaza.

In a TV interview Friday night, Netanyahu said he would seek a broad coalition, but would turn to "the nationalist camp" in building a government. "We need a different way," he told Israel TV.

Also Friday, Israel transferred $44 million of Palestinian money to Gaza. The money is to be used by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority to pay civil servants there. The authority lost control of Gaza to Hamas during a five-day civil war in June 2007, but still claims control over the area.

Jihad Wazir, the head of the Palestinian Monetary Fund, said the money was not enough to cover the government's monthly salary expenses. "But it helps in easing the crisis," he said.

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


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