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The Face of Gaza - 2004-06-15

People in Gaza can gaze beyond their own impossibly crowded slums and see open land forbidden to them. They can look to the Mediterranean, which laps at their feet, but the sea is not openly accessible to them. Television shows Gazans a life elsewhere filled with food and comforts foreign to their own harsh realities. Gaza has become, in the view of some, an open-air prison because of the nearly airtight security closure Israel has imposed.

Christer Nordahl, deputy director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency's Gaza office, describes the view confronting him daily. "Looking out my window," he says, "what I see here is people idle on the streets, people who are going looking in the garbage to try to find something they can sell. People are poor. They have no money. They don't know how they can put food on their table."

The density of Gaza is astounding - one-point-three million people are squeezed into only 360 square kilometers, but a third of that land is occupied by about 7,000 Israelis in 19 settlements. Tom Neu, who is in Gaza with American Near East Refugee Aid, or "ANERA," says the space taken by the Israeli settlers has added to the predicament of other Gazans. He says "The disparity between the space and prosperity afforded to a small group of people is offensive, of course, to the population that considers the Gaza Strip as the last piece of land that they have."

Some Palestinians have responded with violence to the presence of the settlers, especially since the current intifada began in 2000. That, in turn, has caused Israel to seal off Gaza's borders, preventing the movement of people and goods. Israeli spokesman Mark Regev in Washington says the security needs of settlers and other Israelis must come before anything else. "Obviously, if there are very real threats," he says, "it's incumbent upon us to do our utmost to protect these people."

With sealed borders choking Gaza's economy, many Palestinians are now jobless with little hope of new employment. Peter Gubser, president of ANERA, paints a grim and hungry picture. "Fifty to sixty percent of the people unemployed means they don't have money in their pockets to do basic things (such as) buy food for their children." Mr. Gubser adds "And the consequence of that is there is thirty percent of the very young suffering from malnutrition."

ANERA's Gaza representative, Tom Neu, says that hunger, along with unemployment, housing problems and Israeli security measures have combined to put Palestinian Gazans under a withering level of stress. He says "You find a mental and social distress widespread through the whole population." He adds "It's a very deep crisis. It's a matter of an entire population being brought to the brink."

For some Palestinian Gazans, that stress has resulted in their embracing the Islamic group Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider to be terrorist. Hamas has support partly because it offers food and housing assistance. For some, Hamas is also a vehicle for expressing their anger at Israel through violence. And with each new incident, the Israelis tighten the security noose around Gaza even more.

Recently, Israeli forces tore down a number of houses in Gaza's southern Rafah refugee camp, saying tunnels were discovered that could be used for smuggling arms. Aid officials say this has forced some Rafah residents to wind up living in school classrooms, garages and even storage sheds. The destruction of refugee housing has drawn international criticism.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he wants to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza beginning in March 2005, as he put it, to reduce the friction between the two sides. Despite the intended pullout, however, Israel plans to maintain strong border controls around Gaza for the foreseeable future. Because of that, Arab League U.S. ambassador Hussein Hassouna says the Geneva Conventions compel Israel to address Gazans' human needs. Ambassador Hassouna states "They are an occupying force, and they have certain responsibilities as such under international law. They should leave Gaza as a viable entity and territory."

A number of analysts say that so long as Gaza is kept in virtual lockdown, it will never be able to rebuild its economy. Additionally, the United Nations and other aid providers say it will take massive amounts of money and years of reconstruction just to bring Gaza up to basic standards. Between Israel's security actions and the level of rage on the streets of Gaza, a peaceful future and Gaza's place as part of a viable Palestinian state are presently far from assured.