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Sealed Off by Israel, Gaza Reduced to Beggary

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 15, 2007; Page A01

GAZA CITY -- The batteries are the size of a button on a man's shirt, small silvery dots that power hearing aids for several hundred Palestinian students taught by the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children in Gaza City.

Now the batteries, marketed by Radio Shack, are all but used up. The few that are left are losing power, turning voices into unintelligible echoes in the ears of Hala Abu Saif's 20 first-grade students.

First-graders at a Gaza school for the deaf have had to rely on sign language since Israeli import restrictions caused the school to run seriously low on hearing-aid batteries. The isolated strip is also short of antibiotics, fuel and food.
First-graders at a Gaza school for the deaf have had to rely on sign language since Israeli import restrictions caused the school to run seriously low on hearing-aid batteries. The isolated strip is also short of antibiotics, fuel and food. (By Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)
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The Israeli government is increasingly restricting the import into the Gaza Strip of batteries, anesthesia drugs, antibiotics, tobacco, coffee, gasoline, diesel fuel and other basic items, including chocolate and compressed air to make soft drinks.

This punishing seal has reduced Gaza, a territory of almost 1.5 million people, to beggar status, unable to maintain an effective public health system, administer public schools or preserve the traditional pleasures of everyday life by the sea.

"Essentially, it's the ordinary people, caught up in the conflict, paying the price for this political failure," said John Ging, director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, which serves the majority refugee population. "The humanitarian situation is atrocious, and it is easy to understand why -- 1.2 million Gazans now relying on U.N. food aid, 80,000 people who have lost jobs and the dignity of work. And the list goes on."

Israeli military and political leaders say the restrictions are prompted by near-constant rocket and small-arms attacks and concerns over what uses Palestinian gunmen might have for some materials entering Gaza, particularly fuel and batteries.

The Israeli cordon tightened in June, when Hamas, a radical Islamic movement at war with Israel, seized control of Gaza. Israeli officials have insisted to the Bush administration that no humanitarian crisis would result from the sanctions imposed on the territory.

But for Gazans, caught between Israel's concrete gun towers and the Mediterranean, the sense of crisis is pervasive as they struggle to keep their homes intact, buy essential food from a shrinking and increasingly expensive stock, and educate their children.

"I hold every man, woman and child in Israel responsible for this," said Geraldine Shawa, 64, the Chicago-born director of the Atfaluna Society. A tall, imposing woman who has lived in Gaza for 36 years, Shawa has watched the fortunes of her pupils squeezed in recent months by what she calls Israel's practice of collective punishment.

Israeli military officials said last week that 2,000 rockets had been launched from Gaza toward Israel this year, killing two Israelis, wounding many others and instilling fear across the southern region. Since the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Md., last month, Israeli airstrikes and ground forces have killed 26 Hamas gunmen, the Islamic organization says, as well as at least four Palestinian civilians.

Hamas's military wing is not behind most of the rocket attacks, for which smaller armed groups generally assert responsibility. But Hamas leaders do little to stop the firing of the rockets and rarely, if ever, condemn them.

On Tuesday, Israeli tanks rolled into the central Gaza city of Khan Younis. Six armed Palestinians from the Popular Resistance Committees, a militant splinter group, and the radical Islamic Jihad organization were killed in fighting. Israeli officials labeled the operation "routine."

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