Eight months ago, the Palestinians were celebrating the end of Israel’s military occupation of Gaza. But the artillery shells keep falling, factions are fighting each other and the economy is on its knees as Israel blockades exports. Has anything changed for the better? Chris McGreal reports

Thursday May 25, 2006
The Guardian

Mousa al-Sawarka lived in a small ramshackle house, watching over his camels and crops on the edge of Beit Lahia in the north of the Gaza strip, until the rain of Israeli artillery shells got too much. So the 68-year-old Bedouin farmer moved in with his son in town. Two days later a shell flattened Mousa’s house. Three weeks after that, another shell killed him as he was trying to drive his camels away from artillery fire. "He was hit directly in the head," says his nephew, Fares al-Sawarka. "We couldn’t rescue him because of the shelling. It was 10 minutes before we could get to him. It was so difficult to see his face. When we got the body back from the hospital, we tried not to let his wife see it."

The next day, the family set up the traditional mourning tent within sight of the old man’s flattened house. A stream of friends and neighbours arrived to pay their condolences and take coffee. "Then the shells started falling again," says another nephew, Adel al-Sawarka. "We heard screaming and shouting and it was Hassan al-Shafei. The shrapnel hit him in the back and almost cut him in half. There were so many shells, we had to crawl on the ground to escape."

Hassan al-Shafei, a 55-year-old fruit and vegetable farmer, died in hospital. His cousin, Ahmed al-Shafei, carries to the mourning tent five large pieces of shrapnel he picked up in the field. Each is more than six inches long, heavy and jagged. "Imagine this thing, so hot and fast. Just one piece would tear a person’s body. It’s horrible," he says.

After that, both families set up mourning tents on the other side of town where there were fewer shells, although still enough for the neighbouring American School to close its doors and move to Gaza City in January.

Since the beginning of last month, Israel has fired more than 5,100 shells into the Gaza strip from artillery just the other side of the border and from ships off the coast. The military says the bombardment is aimed at deterring Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel from open fields, but the artillery fire has killed six Palestinian civilians, including two children, eight-year-old Hadeel Ghaen and 15-year-old Mamdouh Obaid, and wounded 60 others, including 21 children.

The Israeli army changed its own rules to allow it to drop shells within 100 metres of built-up areas. On the afternoon that the Sawarka family was mourning the loss of Mousa, more than 300 shells fell in and around Beit Lahia, some so close that the explosions rocked the fragile homes.

"We are Bedouin and we live in homes with zinc roofs and it doesn’t protect us," says Fares al-Sawarka. "The Israelis are dropping shells closer and closer. They can see that for 10 years we have been doing the same things, moving the camels at particular times. They know our names even. They know who they kill. Before, they targeted the fighters. Now they are targeting all of us. The Bedouin have no relationship with the fighters. This is collective punishment."

The two men are among about 110 Palestinians who have been killed by Israel since the beginning of the year, about half of them civilians. At the weekend, an Israeli missile strike on a car carrying an Islamic Jihad commander also killed three generations of a family driving by. The youngest victim, Muhannad Mohammed Aamen, was four years old.

This is not how Palestinians imagined life would be eight months after they danced on the ruins of Jewish settlements as Israel withdrew from the occupied Gaza strip. The scenes of soldiers hauling settlers, who declared that they were being forced to abandon land given to them by God, weeping from their homes, were greeted as a liberation by Palestinians 38 years after Israeli troops marched in. The bulldozing of Israel’s sprawling colonies in the Gaza strip, and the dismantling of its fortified military posts around Palestinian towns and refugee camps, offered the prospect of a new beginning with freedom of travel, economic prosperity and, simply, peace.

Gazans have got some of that. The southern Gaza town of Rafah, the most bloodied and destroyed in the strip, is finally free from the daily terror of Israeli bullets and the misery of house demolitions by army bulldozers. It was regularly cut off from most of the rest of the territory by army checkpoints that separated people from their jobs and schools, and even forced some to move home.

Israeli settlements carved up the main highway running the length of the territory, and the army imposed the notorious Abu Houli checkpoint on the Palestinians. Abu Houli is named after the Palestinian whose land was used to build a bridge carrying Jewish settlers to their homes, and it is where Arabs waited for hours, even days, to cross. It came to symbolise for many Palestinians the pervasive oppression of occupation, and now all that remains are the concrete foundations.

Today Gazans are more or less free to move around inside the strip and to travel to Egypt and beyond. The settlements themselves are now mostly rubble, although the Jewish religious school in Gush Katif, constructed in the shape of a Star of David, is now used as a classroom for the Al-Aqsa university, and an Egyptian company is clearing Netzarim settlement to build a children’s fairground in its place, to be called Lunar Park.

But Gazans are grappling with new problems imposed from without and within. Hamas’s victory in the parliamentary election in January brought international sanctions – including the freezing of nearly $1bn a year in aid from the US and EU – and a power struggle that has spilled on to the streets as the victorious Islamists try to assert their control over the Palestinian Authority in the face of resistance from an embittered and defeated Fatah.

Hamas installed a prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and a cabinet, but it is still far from exerting authority over the Gaza strip, where the core of its support lies, let alone the West Bank. Gun fights between Hamas and Fatah-controlled security forces are ever more frequent, and have claimed eight lives since the beginning of the month, as the rival groups attempt to assert control of the streets. On Monday, a Jordanian diplomat was shot dead driving past the Palestinian parliament as Hamas and Fatah militiamen unleashed grenades and bullets at each other.

Hamas has attempted to impose its authority by deploying a 3,000-strong security force on the streets to guard government ministries, banks and public buildings, but that has only exacerbated the tensions. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has responded by declaring that his forces are in control of Gaza’s borders and that only his policemen are permitted to carry weapons on the street.

It has been a maxim of Palestinian politics that no one would ever want civil war, as that would play into the hands of the Israelis. But many ordinary residents of Gaza are wondering if that is still true, especially since two assassination attempts took place at the weekend. One of them nearly claimed the life of the Palestinian intelligence chief in Gaza, a Fatah man, after a bomb exploded as he got into a lift in his own headquarters. It is still not clear who was responsible for the attack, but had it succeeded, many would have blamed Hamas.

But as dramatic as the scenes of fighting are, the bulk of Gazans will tell you their real problems are economic. When Israel pulled out in September, it said it wanted a free and prosperous Gaza. What the Palestinians have got instead are piles of rotting fruit once destined for European tables amid an Israeli blockade that has quashed attempts to build a flourishing agricultural trade and bankrupted businesses. With it has come a freezing of about $1bn in annual aid by the EU and US until Hamas meets demands for it to recognise Israel and renounce violence.

The withdrawal of aid has left the Palestinian Authority unable to pay its 160,000 workers, hospitals running dangerously short of medicines and the economy plunging into recession. The UN calculates that one PA salary paid to nurses, teachers and policemen supports seven people – more than one million in total, or one in four residents of the occupied territories.

The Palestinians had hoped to begin standing on their own feet. After the Israeli withdrawal, they took over the settlers’ greenhouses with the promise of a flourishing export trade in fruit and vegetables that would create thousands of jobs and bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenues. They planted tomatoes and peppers, melons and strawberries, for harvest in January. This week, the greenhouses were finally closed, driven out of business by an Israeli economic blockade tightened after Hamas won the election.

The Israeli prime minister’s closest adviser, Dov Weisglass, revealed that what Israel has in mind for Gaza is not prosperity but keeping it teetering on life support. "We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death," he said.

At the mourning tent in Beit Lahia, I meet Ahmed al-Shafei, chairman of the Gaza Cooperative Association for Producing and Marketing Vegetables. "Two thousand families in this town depend on the strawberries," he says. "We used to get 12 shekels a kilo exporting. Now we get one or two shekels in the market here if we get anything at all. It’s cost us $1.5m in lost strawberry sales."

Salim Abu Safiya is in charge of Gaza’s borders for the Palestinian Authority working from an office near the main cargo crossing at Karni, with shells dropping periodically not far away. "If you add up all the hours that Karni has been open since the beginning of the year, it amounts to just three weeks," he says. "This is three or four hours a day and sometimes it’s closed for weeks. Karni has the capacity to handle about 700 lorries a day. Now, if it is open, it handles only about 50."

On the day we speak, Karni is open for a little more than three hours for imports. Exports haven’t been allowed in months. "Israel sends us what they want to send us, not what we need," he says. "They are sending fruit, construction material, frozen food, so Israel can save its face and not let us starve." What they need instead is medicine, tampons, washing powder, milk and baby formula.

The impact on some Palestinian industries has been devastating. Textile factories have thrown 75,000 people out of work because they can no longer get their garments out of Gaza. Safiya estimates that there are 700 lorry loads of furniture waiting to be sent to Israel. "Since the beginning of the second intifada, Israel has used the borders as a tool to pressure the Palestinians," he says. "The rest of the economy was destroyed as a result of the closure of the borders. A third of Palestinian industrialists have left for abroad. Twenty-two of the big Palestinian factories have sought a permit to move to Egypt or Sudan. Nineteen garment factories have closed in the past two months."

The unemployment rate in Gaza is 44%, although it rises at times when Israel bars Palestinian workers from entering Israel. Per capita income has dropped 40% in three years. About 70% of the population is defined as living in poverty.

The Israeli government has justified the persistent closure of Karni with what it said was intelligence about impending attacks. Others are sceptical. James Wolfensohn, the US-appointed special envoy to Israel and the occupied territories, who was critical of both sides before he resigned last month, expressed particular frustration at what he characterised as Israeli "foot-dragging" over the border crossings. He has accused the Israeli government of being "loath to relinquish control, almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal" from Gaza. Late last year, Wolfensohn threatened to quit unless Israel agreed to ease the blockade. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, intervened and won a commitment from Israel to open Karni 24 hours a day by the end of 2005 and to permit regular convoys of buses and lorries to move people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank. Israel also promised to discuss reopening Gaza’s airport, closed at the beginning of the intifada when army bulldozers tore up the runway, and the construction of a sea port to allow the territory to trade directly without going through Israel.

At the time, Wolfensohn told PBS television in the US that without relatively free movement across its borders, the Gaza strip will be "like a prison". He said that open borders are "crucial" to the future of the Gazan people, because they would provide "a sense of hope, a sense that they are able to earn money, that they can trade". "The balance is always between Israeli security and freedom and hope for the Palestinians."

Israel reneged on almost all of the agreement, with the exception of the crossing to Egypt, and buried the issue under the Hamas election victory.

"It’s not a security decision to close the borders, it’s a political decision," says Safiya. "This doesn’t mean there are not attempts to attack Israel. I’m not denying it happens, but that is not the real reason for closing the border."

The new Israeli defence minister, Amir Peretz, said last week that he will allow exports to resume from Gaza, but the military then announced another security warning and nothing moved. Safiya is suspicious. "The Israeli trick is to get Palestinians to give up on their national demands and worry about the small thing of just surviving," he says. "We had great hope that the situation would improve after withdrawal, but hope is not reality. Our bit of luck is that we are very close to Israel so they cannot let us starve. Their misfortune is that we are so close so they cannot get rid of us."

Hamas offers little hope beyond planning for a siege economy. "We are planning to deal with the current situation and the siege so, yes, we’re planning for a siege economy," says Yahir Mousa, a Hamas founder and member of the Palestinian parliament. "One example. We have 8,000 government cars, most of them in the hands of individuals. Every car costs us $20,000 a year. Instead of that I could give the same people money for public transport for less than $1,000 a year. We can stop the consumption of money for nothing."

Many of those who voted for the Islamist party did so because they wanted it to put an end to rampant corruption and mismanagement. What they have got is further economic misery, and Hamas is struggling to find answers. "Europe should not behave with double standards, calling for democracy and then going against the decision of the people," says Mousa. "Palestinians are aware of what is going on. Their reaction is going to support the government and their choice in the face of these pressures from America, Europe and, more importantly, Israel."

Among the few to benefit are the gold shops in the heart of Gaza City. Palestinians have traditionally put their money in to land and gold, and the family jewels are sold only as a last resort. "I assure you that there is no woman in Gaza who has not come to my shop to value her jewellery or sell it off," says Wael al-Sa’idi, who has been in the gold business for 22 years. "This started two months ago but it has increased dramatically over the past month. There are two factors, the difficult economic situation and the gold price is very high."

Sa’idi picks up a wedding ring sold to him that morning. It is a flimsy band of gold so thin that it has rippled from being pulled off the woman’s finger. Sa’idi paid 45 shekels (£6) for it. "I’m not telling you she was crying when I bought it but when I looked her in the eye there was a ghost of a tear," he says. "The sad thing is they are not coming in with lots of gold. This morning a woman came in with an earring worth 40 shekels and I gave her 50 because I felt sorry for her because she has less than zero. There are new couples who are getting married and can’t afford to buy a ring so they rent it from the shop for three weeks.

"All Gaza goes by my shop. No one gets a taxi any more. People are not going to restaurants. It’s the result of the blockade. We don’t want aid. We feel like beggars. The world wants us to be dependent on the occupation and aid. How can people live, I wonder?"

Rateeba Shihada, a 59-year-old widow, has kept the money coming in by smuggling cigarettes into Gaza from Egypt. She spends $150 on all the cartons she can carry from just over the border and resells them for double that. Egyptian cigarettes are popular because they are stronger and cheaper than Israeli ones, even with the smugglers’ mark-up. "I bring in washing powder and cheese too. They are hard to get here. A lot of people do it," she says.

But on this day, Shihada is selling the gold bracelet her late husband gave her on their wedding day. She gets $1,500 for it, which she tucks into a pink bag around her neck that holds the last of her jewellery. "I sold my gold to buy flour for my children and to pay for my son to finish his education because this is his future. My son is in the last year of university. My dream is my son. He has to graduate whatever the price. He is an engineer," she says. "My bracelet was my dowry. It’s a very black day to sell it but I hope it’s my last black day."

The gold dealers are buying plenty but selling almost nothing. "We have all this gold," says Sa’idi. "There’s only one thing to do with it. We smuggle it out of the country. We use the black market and send it to Egypt or Dubai to earn some money. All of Gaza’s gold is disappearing." Earlier this month, a courier carrying gold to Dubai disappeared with the money.

More than 2,700 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict with Israel over the past five years. Nearly one-quarter of the dead are children aged 16 or younger. Some of the children were playing football in the street in full sight of the soldier who pulled the trigger, others were sitting at their desks in school when a stray bullet from an army post crashed into the classroom. About half of those children were shot in the Gaza strip, the bulk in two refugee camps in the south – Rafah and Khan Yunis. The killings were only part of it. Israel bulldozed the homes of thousands of Palestinians along the Egyptian border and around the settlements. It drove out many others with the daily, and more often nightly, barrage of fire into Rafah and Khan Yunis. Nowhere suffered more at the hands of occupation.

And it is here in the south of the Gaza strip that the benefits of withdrawal are felt. Zachia Abu Armana’s story highlights how life has improved in Rafah since the Israeli army left. There is not a room in her home without pockmarks from bullets or shrapnel. The entire wall of the kitchen is dotted with holes. When she was lying in bed, she was hit by three pieces of hot flying metal. The family bricked up the windows and moved to the back of the house. When the bowl was smashed by a bullet in the toilet upstairs, they stopped using it. When the army said that everyone on the floors above would be shot, they all moved to the ground floor.

They stayed in their home after Armana’s 15- year-old son, Bashir, was shot dead by a soldier while playing football in February 2004. And stayed too when the army killed three of the family’s four horses that were used to pull the small wooden carts with which the family made a living hauling goods. But in the middle of 2004, another son, Wael, 20, was shot in the arm and the family finally moved out. Armana and her nine children found rooms in the heart of Rafah, where rents rocketed as families sought to escape the army posts.

"My fear was the house would be destroyed if we left it," says Armana. "It was everything we worked for in life."

The family is now back home. "This is not a house, it’s a ruin," she says, but she is overwhelmed with relief. "Every hour I say thank God they are gone. I feel safe now. My children feel safe. I do not have to hear the army shooting and worry every time that one of my children is hit. Safe but there is no work. Safe but there is no money. You get rid of a problem but there are still others."