Daily hardships mount for those on `other' front



GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- At the Ministry of the Interior, headquarters for the security forces of the Palestinian government, employees spend part of their days carrying out desks and rows of red plastic chairs, stacking them in the street. An Israeli air force attack demolished the rear of the six-story building last month, as if a giant claw had torn off fistfuls of concrete. No one pays attention to the smoky trash fires on the corner.

A few blocks away, the security guards for the Foreign Ministry building have moved their station off the grounds and onto a narrow sidewalk. An Israeli attack at that building had ripped away even larger handfuls of masonry, glass, electrical wiring and furnishings, leaving a third of the building a precarious-looking mountain of rubble.

Gaza is now the other front in the roiled Middle East, a second, less-noticed battlefield compared with southern Lebanon. But as with its fighting in the north, Israel is forcefully trying to subdue rocket fire from Gaza and secure the release of a kidnapped soldier. And all of Gaza's 1.4 million residents are affected by its efforts.

"These conditions have never been imposed for such a long time," said Ali Badwan, a former official at the Ministry of Industry and now a private economist. "People will not starve, but the quality of life is totally different from what it used to be."

The situation here is a more extreme version of what has happened in the past.

Gaza's borders are generally tightly closed, to products as well as people. Its electrical supply is, at best, intermittent, since Israeli aircraft destroyed the generating station that supplied 70 percent of Gaza's power.

Without the ability to get goods in or out, many businesses have shuttered their doors. With business closed, jobs have disappeared. The Palestinian Authority, by far the largest employer, has not paid its employees for five months, ever since the Islamic militant group Hamas won elections and gained control of the government. Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization and blocked the transfer of most funds.

Badwan, his wife and their four children live on the twelfth floor of an apartment building. When the power is out, they have to climb the stairs. Knowing that many households have exhausted their savings, public utilities no longer bother mailing the monthly bills. "They don't send them," Badwan said. "They don't print them."

Many trash fires are burning because garbage trucks no longer make regular rounds, for lack of diesel fuel. A private generator is, in Gaza, more valuable than a yacht or a private plane. Electric cords snake along the sidewalks, from one person's generator to a friend.

Daoud Shaikha, a fish wholesaler, has almost no fish because Israeli authorities prohibit Palestinian fishing boats from sailing. His boat, the Haj Mohammed, used to sail about 24 miles into the Mediterranean but is now restricted to traveling about 100 yards. And if he had fish to sell, his customers couldn't afford to buy them. His four employees used to earn between $6 and $12 for a 10-hour day - the top rate reserved for "100 percent professionals, who could really clean fish." He laid off all four.

"For a solution, we have no other choice but to sit at a table and negotiate," Shaikha said of the face-off with Israel. "They get what they need, and we get what we need."

Israel needs, at a minimum, an end to rocket attacks and the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Gaza needs, at a minimum, reopened borders and an end to Israeli raids. But events this week have been grimly typical.

Militants fired five short-range rockets into Israel on Monday and five more yesterday, with one of the rockets striking the roof of a kibbutz dining hall and another hitting the roof of a house. The army fired artillery Monday that killed a Palestinian teenager, and an Israeli aircraft fired a missile yesterday that killed a Palestinian teenager and a woman. And a 7-year-old girl died of wounds from an earlier air attack.

Those deaths raised the number of Palestinians killed since the abduction of Shalit to 100. On Monday, Israeli aircraft also bombed a house in Gaza City, wounding five, and yesterday, troops re-entered the southern part of Gaza.

Hamas officials still take a tough, conventional line regarding the fight. The first steps toward a resolution must be taken by Israel, and Israel would not consider the steps small: End all military actions, remove all roadblocks and release Palestinian prisoners, suggested Yehia Mosa, a Hamas member of parliament. "From our side, we will cease all actions against Israel," he said. "We are ready."

Nothing that has happened here surprised him, he said, including the hardships. Israel still plays a leading role in how Gazans live. "The occupation is still the occupation," he said. "The Israelis did not really leave the Gaza Strip. Occupation is not just a soldier on the ground."

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