The boat that Mohammad Hisseh was building by the roadside was almost too big for the little patch of the Mediterranean he's been free to roam as a Palestinian fisherman in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. But things were changing Monday, and in the shifting calculus of life here, a 54-foot vessel no longer looked quite so wildly optimistic.
"The Israeli navy only lets us navigate along 15 kilometers," or about nine miles, Hisseh said. "But I'm told that will be extended to 40 kilometers," or about 25 miles. "And this means more fish. I'm quite optimistic things will improve."
The evacuation of 8,500 Jewish settlers from heavily fortified villages, which officially began Monday, may or may not refresh a stagnant Middle East peace process. But it clearly holds the prospect of increased freedom of movement for the 1.3 million Palestinians whose daily lives have been profoundly constrained by measures that were designed to insulate the settlers from attacks.
"Most of our lives are spent waiting at checkpoints," said Fadwar Najar, 22, on foot beside a long line of traffic outside Khan Younis, the major city in the southern part of Gaza. The road, which is routinely blocked to give Israelis preferred access to the settler communities beyond the town, was blocked again Monday.
"When we go to Gaza City, it's like a trip!" said her cousin, Reeman Najar. The two cities are 14 miles apart.
Public opinion surveys show that most Palestinians are optimistic that the Israeli withdrawal will improve their economic lot by easing movement of not only people but also goods. Unemployment runs at more than 60 percent in the seaside strip of territory.
"I'm already seeing plans for a road to link this village with settlements to the north," said Abdulhiy Salim, a civil engineer interviewed in Um el-Nasser, north of Gaza City.
But the positive outlook is shadowed by the memory of other opportunities that foundered.
"After Oslo was signed, we were promised a lot," said Hanie Yazji, owner of the Alhaythem Advertising agency, referring to the 1993 accords that brought Palestinians an infusion of foreign aid and autonomy meant to end in statehood. Today, however, sections of Gaza are littered with the tangled ruins of new public buildings Israel bulldozed in retaliation for suicide attacks.
"We were told: The oil pipes of Saudi Arabia will pass through Gaza. We will be like a Hong Kong," Yazji said. "We were disappointed. And what was built has been destroyed, sadly."
On Monday, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, announced that legislative elections will be held Jan. 21. Coming the day Israeli troops served eviction notices to recalcitrant settlers, the announcement served to reinforce the calm with which even militant organizations such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, have greeted the withdrawal.
"Hopefully, after the pullout, things will improve significantly in terms of fishing, and also in terms of other freedoms," Hisseh said. "I'm 52 years old and my life is filled with fear because of the Israeli navy. I'm sick of all this machine-gun fire, rockets and Apache helicopters. I hope one day to be able to listen to music at night."
The Israeli military presence, built up in response to repeated mortar and rocket attacks, is indeed forbidding. Settlements are guarded by massive watchtowers that, draped in camouflage netting, resemble high-tech scarecrows. The no man's land around the settlements is churned by armored bulldozers.
Khalid Faleet said he lost nine acres to the settlement beside his farm outside Khan Younis. Peddling eggplants to idled motorists at a checkpoint, he said he looked forward to getting the land back.
Umm Murad Abetan said her son was captured by the Israelis during an attack on a settlement and is just four years into a 22-year sentence.
"The withdrawal is really good, but it has no value without the release of my son," she said. "The joy is incomplete."
Abetan was among several dozen solemn women demonstrating decorously in Gaza City for the release of their sons from Israeli prisons. Speakers lauded the captives as "candles that lit the way" to the Israeli withdrawal. The mothers stood silently several rows deep, cradling framed photos of their sons.
Several of the frames in fact held more than one photo, collages designed by Yazji's ad agency, which has done a steady trade in posters casting young fighters as heroes of a liberation movement.
"I used to do lots," said Mahmoud Hayek, a graphic designer, seated before a computer screen in the agency's sleek Gaza City office. He called up a file and flicked quickly through iconic images of Palestinian rebellion: Yasser Arafat, the slain Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin, AK-47 assault rifles and black ski masks.
Then, with more evident pride, he shifted to an image of a dove beside the legend "Gaza: The First Step." The banner, commissioned by a bank, is on display up and down the strip. Another runs: "The people liberate, the people build."
"We're a service sector that responds to demand," Hayek said with a shrug and a smile. "The market now is anticipating what will happen after the pullout. Everyone is expecting that the economy will be open to more of the world."
Yazji added that the market could be wrong. "The Israelis could just as well come back and turn Gaza into a bigger prison," he said. But the hope was evident in the eyes of the man seated beside him, Abu Ziyad, 35, who ended a rant against Israeli actions with a sudden, gasping sob.
"Enough," he said. "Enough. Enough of bereaved people, of crying people. We want a renaissance. We want to build."