About two thirds of Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinian residents live in abject poverty in one of the most densely populated places on the planet. But as the Israelis prepare to disengage from Gaza starting this month, there is hope that all that is about to change.
It is the day after Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza into a nearby Israeli settlements, killing a young woman. The Israeli Defense Force has responded by digging trenches across the main coastal road, restricting North-South movement along the Gaza strip. The Israelis claim it is for security reasons.
But cab drivers like Taleb Daoor see it as a form of collective punishment. ”When the road is open I make about a 100 shekels a day. Now I can't even make enough to pay for gas for my car. Thirty shekels or less. For other people who need to get to work, now they can't get to their jobs, the sick people cannot get to the hospital. It makes life like misery here.”
Misery is something the people of Gaza hope to see much less of when Israel begins to withdraw its military and settlers out of Gaza starting in mid-August.
Taleb Daoor points out the Israeli presence. "You will not see all these things. You will see us moving easily. People go to work easily; things are going to be completely different. The best thing the Israelis can do is to leave here."
The Gaza strip is densely populated. 1.3 million Palestinians live on 360 square kilometers bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Eight thousand Israelis also live in 25 settlements spread out along the strip. The average per capita income for Palestinians is just over $600 (U.S.) per year. Since their economy is so closely linked to the expensive one in Israel, Gaza is among the poorest areas in the world.
Economist Salah Abdel Shafi thinks the Israeli withdrawal could help that also, "This really depends on the issue of access. Whether Gaza, after disengagement, will be turned into a prison or people and goods can move freely. If there is going to be freedom of movement for individuals and goods then we will have good chances for economic recovery."
Many, like farmer Matter Shmalkh, are looking forward to getting back land that was confiscated by the Israelis. He lost his fig trees and grape vineyards across the road when the Israelis set up a guard tower and security zone to protect a settlement on the other side.
He figures that cost him over $21,000 a year, "We lost all our income from that land. It had grapes on it. We used to make 15,000 Jordanian dinars for each 2,000 square meters. Fifteen thousand Jordanian dinars every year. Now this is all lost. But we will re-plant it again."
Only about five percent of the land taken by the Israelis for settlements, army facilities, and security zones is privately owned. Most will return to the control of the Palestinian Authority.
After the Israelis leave, people, like Mosbah Shamalkh, will have three to six months to reclaim their land with the Palestinian Authority. He lost his farm in 2001 when the Israelis confiscated it to build a military base. He says they destroyed everything, all the buildings and farm equipment. He claims his farm and equipment were valued at $100,000 -- a fortune by Gaza standards. He was more than happy to show me the deed to his land. When I asked him if he thinks he will get his land back, he replied, “Insha' Allah." (“God willing”)
The planned withdrawal comes in the face of strong opposition by some Israelis and amid concerns about violence from extremist Palestinian groups.