In Gaza, a feeling of solidarity

Palestinians learn to make do with less as Israeli offensive continues


DEIR EL BALAH, Gaza Strip -- At Mohammed Telbani's biscuit and ice cream factory, the ovens are cool, the freezers are warm and his business is quickly going under, since Israel knocked out Gaza's main power supply.

"Look at this. This is supposed to be a factory?" Telbani said, glancing at the silenced line of machines that bake, slice and wrap chocolate and hazelnut wafers, pretzels and cookies.

No electricity means there's no power to chill his ice cream. Now in its third week, the Israeli military offensive to search for a kidnapped Israeli soldier and stop Palestinian rocket fire has also placed a stranglehold on Gaza's commercial crossing, leaving Telbani's factory without sugar and other supplies, and no way for him to export his goods to the West Bank and abroad.

So the 400 employees of his company, Al Awda, stay at home without pay, and Telbani sits in his darkened office, fuming. Angry that Israel has once again made a terrible mistake, he says, punishing moderate Palestinians like himself when they should be strengthening them.

"If Israel wants security, OK. But why do you hurt me?" he asked.

Telbani, 53, is a pragmatic entrepreneur who seeks peace and calm in Gaza so his business will thrive. He doesn't endorse the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. But it's difficult for him to voice that opinion, he says, when he sees Palestinians united by their hardships and demanding that Israel release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit -- a swap Israel has rejected.

`What can I do?'

"I don't support the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier, but I can't say anything to those families who have prisoners in Israel jails," he says, "What can I do?"

Israel's strategy, many Palestinians suspect, is to create enough hardship that Palestinians rise up against the Hamas-led government, which Israel holds responsible for the soldier's abduction.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has argued that Palestinians are on Israel's side. "I have no doubt in my mind that the majority of the Palestinian people sympathize with the demand of Israel that this violence will be stopped," he told reporters Monday. "They are victims of it -- we are victims of it. They want to stop it -- we want to stop it."

A poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center this week, however, suggests a defiant mood among Palestinians. The poll found that a majority of Palestinians, 77.2 percent, express support for the June 25 raid by Palestinian militants that included the abduction of the Israeli soldier. Only 21.7 percent opposed it.

The poll also found that 60 percent supported militants launching short-range rockets into Israel as a suitable tactic; only 36 percent said they believed the rocket barrages harmed Palestinian interests.

Telbani has Israeli business partners, but it is difficult even for him not to be drawn in by the feelings of solidarity during this crisis.

"How can I forget Israel did this to me?" he said. "They took my land, they took my liberty, our lives and our food."

Olmert announced this week that the military campaign had no timetable, and defense officials suggested the operation might last two months, according to Israeli news reports.

Six Israeli human rights organizations petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice yesterday, demanding the commercial crossing be opened so a regular supply of fuel, food and medicine can enter the Gaza Strip.

Israeli tanks and troops moved into southern Gaza early today in a new phase of the offensive, Palestinians and the military said. Seven people died when an explosion destroyed a Hamas activist's home in northern Gaza, residents and hospital officials said.

Yesterday, Israeli leaders ordered the army to expand the Gaza offensive, moving into areas of the territory they have not yet entered.

Palestinians interviewed yesterday believe they have nothing to lose. They will make adjustments to their lives, they promised, getting by with less. When the noose around Gaza tightens, they say, they will find a way to breathe.

"If the people in Israel are ready to invade, we are ready to take it," said a man who identified himself as Abu Islam, 45, who fled his house when Israeli forces nearby seized Gaza's unused airport two weeks ago.

"We live face to face with the airport," Abu Islam said. "My windows were shot out. My kids were scared by the bullets and explosions, and they asked if we could leave."

Abu Islam, his wife and four children, and 600 other residents of his neighborhood found refuge in a United Nations elementary school in Rafah, where he shares the third-grade classroom with five other families.

Dozens of families have made a home in the three-story school. Bedsheets and blankets were being aired out on the balconies, and children drew water from a black tank placed in the center of the courtyard. Men dozed in the school's corridors.

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