Palestinians' Gaza hopes stay grounded

Economy: More than Israeli settlers' pullout is needed to change fortunes.

July 03, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - No planes take off or land at Gaza International Airport, but that hasn't discouraged Palestinian air traffic controller Lina Ghareeb from showing up for work.

Each morning she walks under the terminal's archways to join dozens of baggage handlers, security officials and ticket takers lounging in the ghostly silent building.

They have little or nothing do.

There hasn't been a flight to or from Gaza International for nearly four years, ever since Israel bombed the airport's radar station and sent in armored bulldozers to plow up the runway, part of its effort to destroy Palestinian infrastructure at the peak of the Palestinian uprising.

Still, several hundred workers come each day, their salaries still paid by the Palestinian Authority, to serve what they proudly consider a symbol of a future independent state.

"This is our gateway to the future," says Ghareeb, 32, who has worked at the airport since 1999.

Future hopes and fears

For the first time after nearly five years of violence, Palestinians now have reason to believe that they are inching closer to their dream.

This summer, Israel is scheduled to evacuate all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip along with the thousands of soldiers who guard them.

The evacuation will give Palestinians control of all the Gaza Strip, the sliver of Mediterranean coastline Israel seized from Egypt during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Palestinians hope it will mark a turning point in their struggle for independence, lifting them out of years of grinding poverty and relieving pressure on their rapidly growing population.

But with less than two months to go before the withdrawal begins, no one knows what Gaza's future might look like.

Fearing that Gaza will be taken over by Islamic militant groups once it leaves the territory, Israel is still debating how to ease the tight trade and travel restrictions on Gaza's population but still ensure Israel's own security.

Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, are afraid that Israel will keep Gaza largely cut off from the rest of the world with barbed wire, watchtowers, and trade and travel restrictions - leaving them and the land caught between occupation and independence.

Disengagement worries

"If what the Israelis are really trying to do is use the Palestinians to try to turn the Gaza Strip into a large prison cell, then the Palestinians are simply are not going to be their partners," said Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Cabinet minister in charge of coordinating disengagement.

But, he added, "If disengagement works, it is going to create the conditions in which there will be hope for future peace."

Israeli Brig. Gen. Eival Giladi, coordinator of the disengagement plan, insists that Israel's cooperation with the Palestinians is improving.

"It's not that we're going to evacuate our troops and settlers and wash our hands and walk away. We understand the Palestinians' needs," Giladi said at a recent news conference.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Gaza's future, many Palestinians consider Israel's departure as a victory for their cause.

"We are going to breathe free," said Khalid Mosa, 50, a tile worker who lives in the Khan Yunis refugee camp.

Mosa's bullet-riddled house sits within sight of the barbed wire fences and machine gun towers that separate the vastly different worlds of Gaza's settlers and Palestinians, who share a slice a of land about twice the size of Washington, D.C.

Different worlds

Gaza's 8,000 Jewish settlers occupy about 20 percent of the territory, where they enjoy lives of comfort with tidy yards, playgrounds and spacious red-tile-roofed homes offering views of the Mediterranean Sea.

Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians inhabit the rest, many living in warrens of squalid, overcrowded housing blocks where overflowing sewage spews into the street.

"Their kids are playing in parks and my children our playing in the sand," said Mosa, who once worked in the settlements laying tile in settlers' homes.

Now Mosa looks forward to the day when he can walk freely from his home and go for a swim in the sea.

"After so many years of occupation, this is going to be a boost to everybody," he said.

A boost psychologically, for sure, but Gaza needs an economic rebirth if it is to succeed after Israel's withdrawal.

Economy in tatters

Five years of violence during the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, combined with Israel's tight restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade have left Gaza's economy in tatters.

Once a source of cheap labor and goods for Israel, Gaza limps along with 65 percent of its 1.3 million residents living below the United Nations' poverty line of $2.10 per day. Over the last five years, the average incomes of Palestinians here have declined by more than a third.

More than 26,000 Gaza residents a day poured into Israel in 1999 for jobs. Today fewer than 4,000 Palestinians are allowed to cross the border for work. Long security delays for shipments to and from Gaza have stifled efforts to import or export goods.

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