Tuesday, May 10, 2005

AL-MAWASI, Gaza Strip — Trapped between Jewish settlements and the Mediterranean, the Palestinians of al-Mawasi are struggling to survive.

An Israeli security fence meant to separate Jews from Palestinians has folded the roughly 1,600 families of al-Mawasi into the settlement bloc of 6,000 Jews, and tighter security enforced during 4 years of conflict has effectively cut them off from their relatives, jobs and markets.

Some have moved away to find work, attend school or get specialized health treatment. Many who stayed live off foreign aid.

Although many Palestinians in Gaza — an impoverished coastal plain and one of the most crowded areas in the world — eagerly await Israel’s withdrawal from the territory this summer, few are as desperate for it as the people of the al-Mawasi region, crammed into a sandy strip 8 miles long and a half-mile wide.

“We’re stuck in a large prison. It’s very frustrating. We can’t go anywhere, we can’t do anything. We can’t work,” said laborer Hamad Zourab, 26, who said he hasn’t left al-Mawasi in three years.

The farmers and fishermen here once made a comfortable living. Others worked in the nearby Palestinian towns of Khan Younis and Rafah, in Israel itself, or in the settlement bloc called Gush Katif.

But after violence flared in 2000, the Palestinians here suddenly found themselves penned in as Israel enforced tight restrictions on their movements to prevent attacks.

Fishermen needed permission every time they took out their boats, and fishing hours were severely restricted.

The catch often got held up for days in unrefrigerated trucks at an Israeli army checkpoint at the edge of al-Mawasi. Many fish rotted, and those that made it through the checkpoint had to be transferred to a truck on the other side of the fence, increasing transportation and labor costs. Many fishermen put down their nets and found work in the settlements.

Farmers also lost much of their crop during long waits in the hot sun at the checkpoint.

Laborers from al-Mawasi no longer could reach their jobs in Israel, and others were fired from their jobs in the settlements because of new security rules. Those who worked in Gaza’s Palestinian towns had trouble crossing through the security fence, and even more trouble crossing back.

Amina Laham, 40, said she once went shopping in Khan Younis, less than a mile away, and was stuck there for 20 days.

Even getting U.N. food aid has been a struggle.

Under restrictions imposed during the conflict, aid had to be delivered to Khan Younis, then trucked — at the recipients’ expense — to the checkpoint, where it was reloaded onto new trucks and sent into al-Mawasi, said Soren Matz of the U.N. Relief and Works Administration.

Only in mid-April, with a drop in tension brought on by an Israeli-Palestinian truce, did Israel allow the first truckload of flour, lentils, rice, cooking oil and milk powder to be driven directly into al-Mawasi, Mr. Matz said.

“They don’t have free access to the bare human necessities: education, food, jobs, health care,” said Mr. Matz.

The army calls the restrictions an unfortunate necessity, pointing to the killing of an Israeli civilian and several other attempted attacks that originated in al-Mawasi.

It says it has to scrutinize Palestinians crossing into al-Mawasi, which offers access to the Israeli settlements.

“This is an area that needs to be carefully, carefully monitored,” said Capt. Yael Hartmann, an army spokeswoman.

Security checks delay crops and fish because soldiers “have to go through everything, no matter if it’s produce or someone’s bag. Everything needs to be searched,” she said.

On a recent spring day, Ahmad Zourab, a distant relative of the laborer, parked his ratty pickup truck by the beach and his son Shukri, 16, began throwing 33-pound bags of mushy cucumbers onto the sand. In a few hours, they had dumped 600 bags, about $2,800 worth of cucumbers that had rotted during a three-day wait at the checkpoint.

Before the fighting, Mr. Zourab earned between $350 and $460 a month growing peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes on his 12-acre farm and three greenhouses and selling them in Khan Younis.

Now, he is deep in debt and borrowing from his neighbors.

“I have 13 kids at home and I can’t feed them,” he said.

He pointed to a man driving a tractor.

“I owe him 5,000 shekels [$1,160] for three months’ work. I just don’t have enough to pay the bills,” he said.

His pain is exacerbated by the relatively luxurious Jewish settlements.

“I look at their children and they’re driving nice cars and wearing nice clothes. My kid wants an ice cream and I can’t get it,” Mr. Zourab said.

Mrs. Laham, the woman who got stuck in Khan Younis, shares a lightless three-room concrete hut with her family of eight. Mattresses are piled in the corner of the cracked floor. The roof of corrugated metal is held down by concrete bricks.

Mrs. Laham said her husband’s income from working in the settlements and on neighbors’ farms has shriveled to $7 to $9 a day.

“We have less money to spend, less food, less clothes, pretty much less of everything,” she said.

The family had not eaten meat in two months and rarely has the money to buy fruit, she said. Her children are losing weight and energy. Their clothes are threadbare.

Some in al-Mawasi said they worry about the loss of jobs in the Jewish settlements that will be emptied this summer. But Mrs. Laham’s face lit up as she talked about the withdrawal.

“Life will become good again. We can live, we can feel secure,” she said. “Life can go back to being a little bit more normal.”

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