The Jewish settlers are leaving the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli army is following them out. But neither event is going to make Ayoub Jabda's oranges look any better.
The specimens -- mottled, squishy and slowly going to rot -- gave new meaning to "The Land of Sad Oranges," a story about loss and powerlessness that Palestinians cherish as emblematic of their recent history. And should a motorist deign to stop at his side-street stand and pay the 10 shekels -- about $2.20 -- he was asking for a crate, Jabda had another 500 tons waiting in cold storage.
Jabda has given up trying to sell his fruit outside of Gaza because of the notoriously inefficient, often unpredictable cargo checkpoint that Palestinian goods must pass through in order to reach the markets beyond. "Oranges are perishable," the businessman said.
The checkpoint, located east of Gaza City, where the strip meets Israel, is regarded as the single greatest barrier between Gaza and the world markets that might bring prosperity to this economically ravaged territory. The Israeli army will continue to operate the checkpoint even after the Jewish settlers and their military protectors are gone, a fact that has muted Palestinian celebrations over the withdrawal.
"All the Palestinians -- not only in the street but officials as well -- when they talk about the future, the question is not about the settlements, it's about how to move goods," said Naseer Jabar, secretary of the Palestinian Authority's Economy Ministry.
Nigel Roberts, head of the World Bank office responsible for the Palestinian territories, said that plans were progressing to provide that access. Israeli officials are moving closer to approving plans for an upgraded checkpoint that should reduce the waiting time for cargo from days to hours in most cases, he said. Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating, Roberts said, and the World Bank has been called in for consultations.
"Disengagement will not solve the massive economic problems the Palestinians are facing," Roberts said. "Gaza should have much freer access to the outside world."
Israeli officials directly involved in the negotiations could not be reached for comment. Roberts cautioned that installation of the new checkpoint would require months, and a resumption of hostilities could set the project back even further.
Israeli officials emphasized that any possible rebirth in Gaza could come only if Palestinian fighters continue to refrain from attacks, as they have so far during the settlement pullout.
"What's been going on these last few days has been so moving," Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said Thursday while watching Israeli troops storm a synagogue in Gaza to remove settlers. "Not only are we tearing up our society, but we are also taking a courageous step to disengage ourselves from the Palestinians and the land.
"So now I say to the international community, 'Give us a break.' The day after will be a day of healing, and it will be a time for the Palestinians to disengage themselves from terror, once and for all."
Saeed Zanati, 48, said from the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza: "It's very easy for the Israelis to come back in, or even strike us as they did before, with F-16s or artillery. It's in our interest to calm down and shut up. Let peace prevail, because we do want it."
A senior Israeli official underscored the point with a blunt warning. Speaking on condition of anonymity because the policy has not been outlined publicly, the official said Israel's response to Palestinian attacks after the evacuation would be far more severe than in the past. The official said Israeli military reprisals would be carefully executed but suggested they would be less influenced by the risk of civilian deaths or other collateral damage.
"This time, no niceties," the official said. "We will have the right to defend ourselves in ways we didn't before."
Some Palestinians argue that Israel retreats from territory only when under persistent attack, as in south Lebanon.
"By pulling out, Israel is just doing what's good for them," said Ibrahim Freina, 51, a Gaza City resident. "They don't care what happens in the Gaza Strip."
But most Gaza residents appear to agree that economic revival is urgently needed in Gaza, where unemployment approaches 60 percent and two-thirds of the people live in poverty. And that topic inevitably leads to the checkpoint, also known as the Karni crossing.
The checkpoint operates like a one-way valve. More than 300 trucks a day move from Israel into Gaza, but only 50 trucks leave Gaza on a typical day. Not only are goods carefully inspected by Israeli soldiers and dogs looking for weapons or explosives, they are completely unloaded from Palestinian trucks, then loaded onto Israeli trucks.
This back-to-back regime pushes up transport costs on a gallon of carob juice by three shekels a gallon -- "my whole profit," said Freina, who therefore operates his factory at one-fourth its capacity, saying he can't afford to sell the sweet, brown refreshment outside Gaza. He has turned down orders from Saudi Arabia and other countries. "Internationally, I don't have any competitors, so the market would be mine."
In a one-room factory crowded with sewing machines, Nabil Bowab said he turned down a JC Penney order for dresses because uncertainty about the Karni checkpoint kept him from guaranteeing that the clothes would arrive in the United States in time for Christmas.
"The only problem is the border tie-ups," said Bowab, whose Unipal garment business is one of the few operating at the Palestinian Industrial Estate. The sprawling complex, built seven years ago for businesses employing 15,000, has only 1,000 workers.
Roberts, the World Bank official, said he saw significant evidence of an Israeli appetite to correct the inspections bottleneck. With such high unemployment among young Palestinian men of military age, Roberts said, the prevailing attitude among Israeli officials appears to be enlightened self-interest.
"I think the government of Israel understands perfectly well, securing Israel does not mean an impoverished, angry and bitter neighbor," Roberts said. "History shows that while prosperity does not guarantee peace, rapid impoverishment guarantees violence."
Jabar, the Economy Ministry official, added that wider concerns about terrorism also are playing a role.
The Palestinian cause is often cited by those engaging in terrorist acts, he said. "So the international community is more interested in finding a solution, and we think that by keeping the pressure on the Israelis -- and on the Palestinians -- we will find a solution."
Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.