Dreams in Gaza placed on hold

Israeli army back, economy crippled

September 04, 2006|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- When Israel evacuated its settlements in the Gaza Strip one year ago, Ayed Abu Ramadan dreamed that Gaza's new independence would fuel an economic revival.

Abu Ramadan led a Palestinian project that used greenhouses left by departing Jewish settlers to grow cherry tomatoes, strawberries and peppers for export to European markets. The government project, which employed more than 4,000 Palestinians, was expected to inject $20 million into Gaza's battered economy.

But a year later, the greenhouses of Gaza are empty, the workers have been laid off and Abu Ramadan's dreams have been put on hold.

"One year ago, I felt very optimistic," he said, sitting in his office in Gaza City. "Today I'm very pessimistic, sad and frustrated. I feel let down by everybody."

The end of 38 years of Israeli occupation had been met with great fanfare and hope by most Palestinians, who believed that this sliver of Mediterranean coastline would finally have a chance to prosper.

Palestinian leaders predicted that the former Jewish settlements would be transformed into new Arab communities, parks, universities and industrial zones. There was serious discussion about attracting tourists. The mood was so optimistic that Israelis and Palestinians raised the possibility of restarting the long-stalled peace talks.

But one year later, life seems worse than ever in Gaza. Its 1.4 million residents are closed off from the outside world by Israel's sea, air and land blockade. International economic sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority have crippled the economy. The Palestinian Authority commands little respect, leaving armed militants and clans to make the rules in many neighborhoods.

Israeli intelligence officials say Gaza is falling deeper into the hands of the Jewish state's most dangerous enemy - Iran.

"Gaza is under a bad situation by all measures," said Avi Dichter, Israel's minister of internal security.

Few of the dreams that Palestinians had for the former Jewish settlements have been realized.

The Israeli army destroyed all settlement homes before it withdrew, making way for development that never came. The settlements are rubble fields of broken concrete and twisted steel rods. Here and there amid the sand dunes, walls of former settler homes stand like rows of broken teeth.

Perhaps most painful for Gazans is that Israel is back in Gaza. Since Palestinian militants burrowed under the border fence and kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit in June, Israeli forces have made dozens of incursions into Gaza that have left scores of Palestinians dead in fighting.

It was not supposed to turn out this way, Abu Ramadan says.

One year ago, the international community was eager to see Gaza succeed and begin rebuilding. The greenhouse project represented the tremendous economic potential the international community believed that Gaza had to offer.

Former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn raised $14 million from a group of international donors, including $500,000 of his own money, to buy acres of settlement greenhouses and transferred them to the Palestinian Authority.

"The whole world in general got our hopes rising so high," Abu Ramadan said.

At first, the results were promising. Abu Ramadan said his business produced 12,700 tons of fruits and vegetables, and created jobs for 4,250 Palestinians.

But at the beginning of this year, Israeli authorities began closing the commercial crossings into Gaza, citing security concerns. The greenhouse project could not deliver its orders.

Of the 12,700 tons produced, just 1,600 were exported. Everything else rotted, was donated or was destroyed. Instead of generating income, the project lost $9.5 million.

Frustrated by the border closure, Abu Ramadan and the Palestinian Economic Development Co., which manages the agricultural project, decided to send the workers home.

There will be no planting in the greenhouses in the planting season that begins this month. Abu Ramadan is shutting down the administrative offices until conditions for business improve.

"We are going into hibernation," he said.

Israeli officials contend that the crossings are closed for security reasons, noting that Israeli forces last week found a tunnel that Palestinian militants had been digging near the Karni crossing for use in an attack against Israel.

One of the few achievements that Palestinians can point to in the former Jewish settlements is Al Aqsa University's Khan Yunis campus, which is rising from the ruins of Neve Dekalim, one of the largest settlements evacuated by Israel last year.

Soon after the settlers and soldiers left, university officials went to work rehabilitating settlement buildings and converting them into a university campus, where about 2,000 students attend classes. The former government building used by the settlers council is now the school's administration building. A shopping mall has been converted into a dining hall and library. Other buildings are under construction.

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