- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — A family of Palestinian bathers, silhouetted by the late afternoon sun, gathers around a table at Ibrahim’s beach cafe to sip tea against the backdrop of the shimmering Mediterranean.

The scene easily could have been lifted from a marketing pamphlet for an exotic beach resort. But Ibrahim’s is located in the former Israeli settlement of Shirat Hayam, and the beach is surrounded by rubble, where militant squatters make their own law.

“We are hopeful that the coffee shops will be crowded,” says Sabri el Khidra, 48, the owner of Ibrahim’s and a local militia leader who plunked about $15,000 into the renovation. “There are a lot of plans to make this a tourist area and to make Khan Younis the most beautiful beach in Gaza.”

Spartan cafes like Ibrahim’s are springing up all along the coast of the Gaza Strip, often on land that was off limits to Palestinians during the four decades of Israeli occupation.

But any notion that the territory is approaching a new calm was shattered Friday when an errant Israeli artillery shell struck the beach at Beit Lahiya, several miles north of here. The explosion killed seven — including several members of a picnicking family — and wounded dozens more.

Israel expressed its “regrets” over the incident, which occurred in attempts to stop the repeated rocketing of Israeli towns from inside the Gaza Strip. The militant group Hamas called off a 16-month-old truce in response and threatened to resume suicide attacks inside Israel.

Before Friday’s incident, cafes like Ibrahim’s had been among the few hints of prosperity in a territory ravaged by a boycott of international aid that is pushing the Palestinian government toward economic ruin.

Rival militias also are fighting to control the land and security services. The involvement of gunmen in the beachfront cafes has stirred complaints that much of the coast has been seized illegally by warlords.

When Israel ended its 38-year occupation of Gaza nine months ago, Palestinians hoped this pristine coastal strip might emulate waterfront development success stories elsewhere in the Middle East, such as the United Arab Emirates economic capital of Dubai.

“We heard so many promises and plans, but when the [Palestinian] authority came onto the ground, nothing was implemented,” says Omar Shaban, a Gaza economist. “You can’t turn Gaza into Dubai when you don’t have a clear vision and you don’t have transparency.”

Even so, on a recent afternoon, children frolic in the surf while a couple strolls hand in hand along the mostly empty shoreline.

“It’s the only amusement we have in Gaza,” says Ahmed Ghanem, a trim lifeguard who sports a Yankees baseball cap, a fluorescent yellow jersey and a purple whistle. “It’s so clean and so pure here.”

Recognizing the tourist potential, the municipality of Khan Younis envisioned a strip of hotels and restaurants when it drew up a master plan for the settlement bloc on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal. But in a region where militias make law and order, it is doubtful any investors will risk a big project.

Still, Ibrahim’s owner, Mr. el Khidra, is hopeful the financial crisis will end soon. He thinks tourists one day might discover Gaza.

“I am prepared to protect any tourist that comes here,” he boasts.

Well, almost any tourist. Israelis, as Mr. el Khidra points out in a stark reminder of how little things really have changed, won’t ever be welcome here.

“If I could get inside [their country] today and blow myself up, I would do it.”

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