On the sandy hillside at the edge of this village, Palestinian children tumble and slide in the billowing dust beneath a camouflage-draped Israeli army post that guards three nearby Jewish settlements. "Every time our children play along that road, we worry," said Ali Abu Klaik, 50, who raised 14 children here and saw a 15th die. Once the Israelis "are all gone, God willing, this place will be better."
From this battered town at the northern end of the Gaza Strip to a wind-blown refugee camp 24 miles away on the Egyptian border, the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in Gaza have started imagining a different life after years in the shadow of Jewish settlements and the Israeli military installations built to guard them.
Starting Monday, the Israeli military is scheduled to evacuate 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza and dismantle those installations. After the evacuation, Palestinians will be able to move freely up and down the narrow strip and along dirt streets of villages like this one, hemmed in for years by fences and fear.
In interviews conducted recently along the length of Gaza, many Palestinians expressed hope that choices long determined by permits, curfews and road closures will soon be theirs to make. Access to hospitals and schools, jobs and markets, family and friends in Gaza will expand as Israel, which now occupies 20 percent of the strip's land, departs.
"I'm sure everything is going to change: social life, the economy, security," said Wasfi Abrak, 33, a police officer who commutes from his cement-block home here to Gaza City when curfews permit. "For the better."
Israeli officials say their own future, particularly regarding security in the cities of southern Israel, will be determined in large part by the extent of that change.
"It is in our best interest to see the people of Gaza enjoy a better life, and our relations cannot just be based on power," Shimon Peres, Israel's deputy prime minister, said in a recent interview. "What must be done immediately is to remove the obstacles, the roadblocks inside Gaza. Everything depends on freedom of movement."
In a speech Tuesday before a special session of the Palestinian parliament in Gaza City, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, urged Gaza residents to refrain from attacks and ostentatious celebration during the evacuation. Doing so, he said, would "show the world we deserve our freedom and independence."
But the sense of personal loss felt by people such as Abu Klaik will not soon disappear, and it is infusing the final days of the Israeli presence with a measure of bitterness.
Following Palestinian rocket attacks that killed two children in the Israeli town of Sderot, just outside Gaza, Israel's Operation Days of Penitence blew through northern Gaza in October. Abu Klaik said his 4-year-old daughter, Asma, lost consciousness in his courtyard after choking on tear gas thick in the streets. She could not be revived at a nearby hospital by the time he reached it through the fighting, he said.
"It was a different situation when my daughter was killed," Abu Klaik said from the same, now-quiet courtyard. "But we still want them to leave."
An End to Curfews
Most of the 5,000 people who live in this grid of cement shacks squeezed between sewage ponds and the settlements are from families that arrived in Gaza during the 1948 war that followed Israel's creation. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, established after the war, provides education, health care and social services for nearly a million registered refugees in the strip.
Asked how he supported his wife and 10 children, Odeh Darwish smiled. "Kofi Annan," he said, referring to the U.N. secretary general and flashing a thumbs up.
For two decades, Darwish, 38, sold vegetables in the Israeli town of Rehovot. He made $46 a day, 10 times the wage for similar work in Gaza, until his permit expired two years ago during the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000. On the eve of the uprising, 30,000 Palestinians from Gaza worked in Israel; today, 4,000 do so.
Israeli and Palestinian officials are discussing how Gaza will be linked to the outside world, an issue essential to its economic viability. But matters of border control and connections to the West Bank have proven difficult to resolve, mainly because the withdrawal is designed to separate Israel from the Palestinians, who Israeli government officials say threaten Israel's security and the durability of its Jewish majority.
Darwish will have to look for ways to make a living inside the strip, where unemployment hovers near 60 percent. But his opportunities will grow once the settlements disappear, and with them the curfews that keep nearly everyone inside his village after dark. Night jobs in the hotels and restaurants of Beit Lahiya and Gaza City, long off limits, will soon become options.
"People will be able to work wherever they want," said Abrak, the police officer.
Freedom of Movement
The road south brushes the gray squalor of the Jabalya refugee camp before swinging west toward broad beaches and the sea. In the heady aftermath of the 1993 Oslo accords, a tourism industry was supposed to take root along the coast. A few hotels built at the time stand derelict along the bluffs.
A few miles south of Gaza City one recent day, the only road running the length of the strip was severed by three deep trenches, carved by Israeli army bulldozers the previous evening. The closure followed a Palestinian rocket attack that killed a 22-year-old Israeli woman in her home north of Gaza.
In a long, raucous procession, black-cloaked women, men in business suits carrying briefcases, and mothers with children stepped out of taxis on one side of the trenches and hopped onto horse-drawn carts on the other.
"Usually it takes 10 minutes to get there, but times like this it takes all day," said Rushdi Badawi, 57, a farmer traveling to his tomato patch on the Gaza border. "The Israelis will pull out because they are sick of it. They are disgusted with it, just like us."
The road turns east at the fence marking the border of Gush Katif, the largest bloc of Jewish settlements in the strip.
Perhaps nowhere will the end of the Israeli presence be felt more strongly than in Mawasi Strip, a chain of Palestinian communities set along a fertile coastal strip inside the Gush Katif boundary. For years, its 8,300 farmers and fishermen have lived in a kind of no man's land, separated from the rest of Gaza by the checkpoints and fences in place to protect the settlements.
One recent morning, several dozen Palestinians sat on benches beneath a covered waiting area at the Tufah checkpoint between Mawasi and the city of Khan Younis. In the searing heat, a group of Palestinian men unloaded coils of hose, metal siding and concrete blocks from a truck on the far side of the checkpoint, carrying the material to a waiting flatbed on the Mawasi side.
"Sometimes it takes one day, sometimes three days, and sometimes I have to throw the whole load away because it rots here," said Amran Astal, 59, who farms tomatoes and cucumbers in Mawasi to sell in Khan Younis. "I have asked God often that this is removed."
An ambulance sat parked along the sandy shoulder. Said Daghdawil, a doctor who works in Mawasi's three clinics, was waiting for an old man with a fractured leg to be brought from the hospital in Khan Younis. He, too, would be carried across the barrier, from ambulance to ambulance.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, a nonprofit organization, reports that more than half of Gaza's residents have been forced to find medical care in clinics and hospitals other than those they used before the uprising, which brought checkpoints and barriers like the one at Tufah for security reasons.
Daghdawil said Israeli liaison officers have tried to make the transfer of emergency cases as easy as possible. Yet four women have given birth at the checkpoint in as many months while awaiting ambulances from the other side, the doctor said.
"This is going to bring tremendous relief to the clinics," said Daghdawil, 35, who said he was able to treat only minor medical cases inside Mawasi.
Watching and Waiting
Swedish Village, a U.N.-run community at the southeastern corner of the Gaza Strip, is bounded by the sea, the Egyptian frontier and a wreath of Israeli fences. Abdel Rahman Qon, a burly man with a bandit's mustache, lives there in a cement-block home covered by a patchwork of tin and asbestos panels.
Lately, he has been thinking about schools for his children. Just over a sandy hilltop from Qon's house is the U.N. campus in Tel el-Sultan, where he once sent his children free of tuition. But the Israeli military sealed the crossing in Rafah, the Palestinian city along the southern border, more than a year ago. To finish his studies last spring, Qon's oldest son, Mohammed, lived with an uncle in Rafah for four months.
Unless the fences fall, Qon's children will attend a public school in northern Mawasi, where transportation, tuition and books will run more than $30 a child.
"I have five children in school, so it's pretty expensive," said Qon, 38, who doubts the Israelis will leave in the end. "We are praying."