June 28, 2005

Palestinian enclave among settlers hopes for relief

By Mark Heinrich

AL-MAWASI, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - In a Palestinian enclavemarooned between Jewish settlers and the Mediterranean Sea,farmers watch crops rot in rich soil and fishing boats rust onpalm-fringed beaches under Israeli army surveillance.

Al-Mawasi was once a center of relative prosperity in Gaza.That ended when Israeli forces, fighting a Palestinianuprising, cut off the community by extending a settlementsecurity cordon around it to deny militants a beachhead forattacks.

But after years of isolation from jobs, markets andrelatives in the rest of Gaza, al-Mawasi's 7,000 Palestinianssee relief on the horizon with Israel's planned withdrawal fromthe occupied territory in August.

They hope that the days will soon be over when they canonly gaze glumly from their decaying community, where donkeycarts outnumber cars, at thriving settlements.

"We look forward to escaping this open-air prison within aprison," said farmer Muhammad Hassan Abu-Baluza, alluding toal-Mawasi and to Gaza at large, dotted with Jewish enclavesthat restrict Palestinian travel and trade within theterritory.

Running 15 km (8 miles) along the coast and one km (half amile) inland, al-Mawasi once flourished from vegetable andcitrus harvests on what is Gaza's most fertile land, deep-seafishing, and day-trippers visiting its stunning dune beaches.

Some residents worked in the nearby Palestinian towns ofKhan Younis and Rafah, or even on construction sites and ingreenhouses of the adjacent Gush Katif settlement bloc.

Israel slammed the door shut in 2001, soon after theuprising began, when an al-Mawasi labourer killed his settleremployer.

Travel to and from al-Mawasi was reduced to one checkpoint,shut for long periods by security alerts. Israel banned malesin the typical 16-35 age bracket of militants from crossing.


As a result, families have been separated for years asmenfolk found themselves stuck on either side of the Tuffahcheckpoint, complaining of collective punishment.

Large amounts of farm produce and fish have spoiled inunrefrigerated trucks, trapped in lengthy inspections at thecheckpoint. Whatever gets through unscathed must be reloaded ontrucks on the other side, inflating costs.

An Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire declared in February hassharply reduced violence. But al-Mawasi inhabitants and reliefofficials say that while the checkpoint stays open longer mostdays now and the transit ban has been narrowed to males between16 and 25, the inspection regime remains as tough as ever.

With resignation, Muhammad an-Najar lets most of histomatoes rot where they drop because he knows they will notsurvive the heat of a checkpoint wait even if they are sentonly to nearby Gaza City, let alone Israel or the West Bank.

Most of his vegetable and fruit plots have gone to seed forthe same reason. Semi-abandoned fields dotted with refuseabound in the enclave.

"I sell some tomatoes and peppers locally but for just afifth of the pre-uprising price since people can afford solittle here now, which means I make only enough to feed myfamily," said Najar, 50, an affable father of 14.

His old Mercedes decays in his sandy driveway because hecannot bring it to Khan Younis for repair. Like many in alMuwasi, Najar is reduced to a donkey cart for getting around.

He took it down to the beach, as he does most days, toawait the return of two teenage sons, fishing from the small,rickety family boat not far offshore.

"Didn't catch much, Dad. Couldn't go far enough out," oneson said later, encapsulating the plight of local anglers.

Fishing hauls have fallen sharply as Israel has barredaccess to the best fishing grounds far offshore and enforcedthe rule at times with gunboats firing over the heads offishermen.


Larger skiffs able to go out the maximum permitted 10nautical miles must be kept in compounds under army control,with permits required for each voyage. Many fishermen havegiven up and idle boats litter the beaches.

"We often can't get permits in a timely way so we can fishat times when fish are most plentiful. So we sit around a loton shore," said Abu Smail, 34, a father of eight. "I used tobring in 70-80 boxes of fish a day. Now it's 10-15 in a month."

To dodge the permit rule, some fishermen like the Najarsput out to sea from open beach areas not under permanent armywatch. But they can only use small boats unsuited to deepwaters.

The army says its security net is vital to preventinginfiltrations of militants or weapons-smuggling into what isthe only place in Gaza where Palestinians and Israelis livewithout a physical barrier between them.

But incidents have been rare. Settlers, usually armed,routinely cross al-Mawasi to their own guarded beach spots.

"Improvement in the security situation and a declining ratein terror attacks will allow further easing of restrictions,"an Israeli military source said, citing "the recent relativecalm."

Every day finds some al-Mawasi residents sitting in thesand of a buffer strip waiting to be frisked by troops for thechance of an odd job in settler greenhouses, or for a signal tocollect people or goods passing the checkpoint from KhanYounis.

Israel's security squeeze also cut off local Palestiniansfrom schooling and medical care in Khan Younis and Rafah.

As al-Mawasi lost the ability to sustain itself, theregional U.N. relief agency UNRWA pitched in with emergency aidand job-creation programs, which have focused on removingmountains of garbage that pose a disease risk.

Mahmoud Hassan Zorob, 53, had his feet up behind thecounter of his beachfront grocery and cafe, awaiting rarecustomers and daydreaming about a return to good times afterIsraelis leave.

"I used to have 20 tables with sun umbrellas here and theywere full every day. I even had portable showers for theswimmers," he said above the roar of the surf. "Life was oncepretty good here. God willing, it will be once again."