By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 28, 2006
GAZA CITY, Aug. 27 -- As the sun beat down on the city's central market, Khitam Shahleen, 37, glumly picked through a pile of cheap pencil sharpeners, searching for something -- anything -- she could afford to buy her two sons for the start of the new school year.
"We don't have money," Shahleen said, eyes downcast beneath her head scarf. Her husband, who works as a laborer in Israel, has been trapped inside the Gaza Strip by a blockade. "We are imprisoned here," she said.
The war in southern Lebanon has overshadowed Israel's second front, a military and economic siege of the Gaza Strip that is deepening the poverty and desperation in this dense area of 1.4 million people.
More than 200 Palestinians, at least 44 of them children, have been killed in the past 8 1/2 weeks. Three Israeli soldiers have been killed. Huge Israeli bulldozers and "pinpoint" missiles have razed at least 40 houses and dozens of other buildings, according to the army, leaving many families homeless.
Daily skirmishes regularly result in new casualties. The Israelis attack with tanks, F-16 jets and artillery. [Early Monday, an Israeli airstrike killed four members of the Hamas-led security force in the Gaza Strip, the Reuters news agency reported, citing medics and witnesses. An Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed the report, but said two of the men were apparently killed by gunfire from ground troops.]
The Palestinians launch an average of about six crude Qassam rockets a week into Israel, causing minimal damage, no fatalities and about a dozen injuries since June 28, an army spokesman said.
"Any Qassam fired toward Israel is one too many," said Maj. Tal Lev-Ram, a spokesman for the Israeli army's Southern Command. "Every act of terrorism against Israel will be dealt with severely from our side."
After Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last September, ending a 38-year presence, Palestinians expected an explosion of commerce and opportunity in this sandy strip, which is about twice the size of Washington with almost three times the population.
But after the election in January of a parliament dominated by Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, international donors led by the United States cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority. Israel stopped transferring the tax revenue it collects for the Palestinians, and the Palestinian Authority's monthly income dropped from $150 million to $20 million or less, according to the United Nations.
Since then, the Gaza Strip's economy has been strangled. The largest employer, the Palestinian Authority, has been unable to pay more than token salaries to its 160,000 employees -- teachers, clerks, health care workers, police officers -- in six months.
Israel has enforced a blockade, allowing almost no goods to leave Gaza and only limited food supplies to enter. Most industry has shut down. Electricity and water services have been intermittent since Israel bombed the main power station here.
"Gaza is heading down the tubes," said John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA. "We are now down to a subsistence existence. It's down to getting containers of food into here."
In the market in Gaza City, Mohammed Abu Aqleen, 37, held his head morosely Saturday, leaning on a pile of blue jeans. "Nobody has any money. Nobody buys," he said, adding that he is lucky to make $7 a day.
"Under this siege, I feel like I am in a big prison," he said. "No one can leave. The country is closed now. We are under the control of someone else. You can't even go to the edge of your country safely."
On June 25, Palestinian gunmen burrowed under a fence around the Gaza Strip and attacked an Israeli outpost, killing two soldiers and capturing Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19. Israel responded with force. Seventeen days later, Hezbollah guerrillas from southern Lebanon seized two more Israeli soldiers, igniting warfare there. The fighting in Lebanon largely ended with a cease-fire on Aug. 14, but the Gaza conflict continues.
Israeli artillery units are poised outside the borders of the Gaza Strip. Fighter jets no longer make low-altitude sonic boom runs to keep Gazans unnerved at night but still overfly the strip and launch missiles toward it. Heavily armored patrols and tanks periodically pierce the warrens of Gaza City and the refugee camps, drawing gunfire and rocks in response.
"We are determined to continue the military operations against the terrorist organizations in order to create the conditions necessary for the safe homecoming" of Shalit, Lev-Ram said.
Rumors persist of negotiations to exchange Shalit for some of the estimated 10,000 Palestinians being held prisoner by Israel, but no deal has been struck.
"The siege is continuing for six months, and people are suffering, but no one talks of giving up," said Sami Abu Zohri, a Hamas representative in Gaza. "We have no other options but to wait until the siege is over. Gaza lives in the darkness like something in ancient times."
Zohri said the rocket attacks into Israeli territory were "efforts to protect ourselves with very limited armaments." Israel's response to the corporal's capture, he contended, was disproportionate.
"If one Israeli is wounded, it's a big deal," he said. "But they have eradicated whole families in Gaza."
Hamas and its chief rival, Fatah, have discussed forming a joint government in hopes of restarting the flow of aid from international donors. So far, Hamas has balked at giving up the leading role it won in the election.
"Hamas has led us into a dark tunnel. The way out is not clear," said Maher Megdad, a Fatah spokesman here. But he, too, expressed irritation with the international pressure to undercut the elected government.
"The international community does not have the right to punish Palestinians for exercising democracy, even if the result is Hamas," he said. "While Israel pressures us, the whole world stands by."
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 202 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its "Operation Summer Rain" after Shalit's abduction. The Palestinian Health Ministry puts the figure at 246.
Capt. Noa Meir, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said: "It's a very complicated combat area. Just like in Lebanon, they are using civilians as human shields. We do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties."
The deteriorating situation has forced many foreigners to leave. UNRWA moved its headquarters from Gaza to Jerusalem in October, and most of its 78 international staff members left with it. Other aid agencies have done the same. A spate of kidnappings, including the 13-day captivity of two Fox News journalists released Sunday, has reduced the numbers of aid workers and foreign reporters here. An Israeli missile attack Sunday on a truck with "TV" marked in large black letters seriously wounded two Reuters journalists.
"It's really depressing. I don't know how people are managing," said Tom Garofalo, the country director for Catholic Relief Services.
Gaza has been under pressure at least since the 1967 war, when the Israeli army seized the area from Egypt. But the siege is taking its toll, even on a populace accustomed to isolation, Garofalo said.
"There's more and more internal conflicts between families, more and more basic crime," he said. "The Palestinian Authority is trying to maintain order. But around the edges, things crumble. Desperation drives people to do things they wouldn't normally do. There is less respect for security."
Israeli fighter bombers made a pinpoint attack June 28 on Gaza's power plant, a modern 140-megawatt station built with international aid in 2001 that provided about half the power for the Gaza Strip. Now, power bought from Israel provides service for only about six to eight hours daily for most residents. Water service, dependent on electric pumps, is also sporadic.
UNRWA and the U.N. World Food Program are providing food to more than 1 million Palestinians. Aid agencies have created short make-work programs, but thousands of people apply for each job. The agencies have given out cash and fuel to needy families.
"People are not starving or emaciated. But that's not what it's about," said Ging, the UNWRA director of operations. "It's about having 1.4 million people who have no job, no money, no prospects and an acute sense of imprisonment. You have children growing up in a violent and uncivilized society, without the things most countries would take for granted as a normal existence."
At the Gaza market, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, 36, picked carefully through the stalls looking for school supplies for his four children. A government worker, he has not been paid since March, he said. He borrowed money from a bank, but now that is due.
"It's a very, very bad situation," he said. "As a father, it's hard to tell my kids that I can't get what they need. The pressure at home is rising. Everyone feels it. I think there will be a massive strike, and the whole thing will explode. We can't keep living like this."