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JERUSALEM - A partial lifting of the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip has had only a limited effect in

'Dashed hopes: continuation of the Gaza blockade'

Coalition of 22 humanitarian groups say Israeli siege of Gaza continues to devastate Palestinians

improving life for residents of the coastal enclave, a coalition of humanitarian groups said on Tuesday.

A report by 22 organisations, entitled "Dashed Hopes: Continuation of the Gaza Blockade," says an Israeli pledge to liberalise the import of materials for UN and other international building projects has barely dented a backlog.

But the study provoked an angry response from Israel, with the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) slamming the claims as "biased and distorted" in a statement.

"Israel has so far only approved the import of materials for 25 UNRWA construction projects for schools and clinics, a mere seven percent of UNRWA's entire reconstruction plan for Gaza," the new report said of the UN Relief and Works Agency, charged with caring for Palestinian refugees.

"Even for these approved projects, only a small fraction of the required construction materials have actually been permitted to enter Gaza so far," it added.

"Only a fraction of the aid needed has made it to the civilians trapped in Gaza by the blockade," said Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International, in a joint statement accompanying the report.

An Israeli military report on shipments said that during October, 223 truckloads of cement, iron, aggregate and other supplies were delivered for five UNRWA projects, three USAID programmes, and for work on water treatment plants supervised by the World Bank and by German development bank KfW.

The military also said that from November 28 it was allowing exports of Gaza-grown flowers and strawberries.

A devastating 22-day Israeli military offensive, which ended in January 2009, reduced much of Gaza's infrastructure and many private homes to rubble.

For 18 months afterwards, Israel banned the import of cement and other construction materials, saying that it was likely to be used by the militant Islamist Hamas group to fix bunkers, tunnels and other fortifications.

It relented in July this year, in response to mounting international pressure to ease restrictions after nine Turkish activists were killed in a May 31 commando raid on a flotilla of aid ships trying to breach the blockade.

In response to claims in the report, COGAT said that since the government decision to ease the blockade, the number of trucks entering Gaza on a daily basis had increased "by 92 percent."

With regards to the broad ban on exports, COGAT said the issue was "intrinsically connected to security and logistical concerns at the Kerem Shalom crossing" while pointing out that Israel was renovating the terminal to increase its capacity in a project due to be finished in mid 2011.

Its policy on building materials was to allow in the necessary items "for specified projects that were approved by the Palestinian Authority" that would be under international supervision, the statement said.

"Since the cabinet decision, Israel has approved 64 new projects... 26 of them for UNRWA," it said, noting that in the same period, 1,052 trucks of construction material had entered Gaza.

Israel now allows in everything except arms or materials which could be used to make weapons or explosives by militants, who regularly fire rockets and mortar rounds across the border.

Building supplies may only be brought in by recognised international organisations managing specifically-approved projects.

And Israel continues to maintain a complete naval blockade on the territory.

The blockade policy was first adopted in June 2006 after Gaza militants snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit during a cross-border raid.

Restrictions were tightened a year later when Hamas seized power in the territory, ousting its more moderate Palestinian rivals from Fatah.

Shalit is still being held at a location somewhere in Gaza.

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