They are coming. That's what most Gazans tell you. The Israelis are coming. But the sand barricades are pathetic. Even a mile from the Erez "safe crossing'' point constructed during the early days of the mad dream of Oslo, the best that Yasser Arafat's legions can do is erect a 15ft rampart of earth and sandbags, with a 12ft gap for local cars – and for Israeli Merkava tanks when Ariel Sharon decides to drive in.
But the cops go on waving the donkey carts past the traffic lights, and the Palestinian Authority guards slumber with their Kalashnikov rifles in their tin shack, ready for part two of the Sharon War on Terror.
The odd thing is that if the Israeli Prime Minister really wants to dismantle the "network of terror'' of which he speaks so frequently, Gaza – the one place the Israeli army has not yet dared to reoccupy – should perhaps have been his first target. For here are militias aplenty, Palestinians who know how to destroy Merkava-3 tanks, who can manufacture short-range rockets and mortars and know the principles of booby traps better than the refugee gunmen of Jenin. As one local put it yesterday: "This place is wired.''
Its people are certainly preparing for the worst. The banks report massive withdrawals. Human rights groups are duplicating their files. Everyone knows what happened to the computerised archives of the Palestinian ministries in Ramallah and Nablus and Jenin; they were stolen by the Israeli soldiers because, in the imperishable words of one Israeli officer: "Documents have a very important value.''
But this is "Palestine".
"They say they've copied all their papers,'' a western human rights worker said. "But I don't think they've finished making CDs of all the files in our office and the paper archives are too large to photocopy now. They simply haven't started to get the work done.''
Yet there is a grim determination to accept the future. Raja Sourani, a human rights lawyer with the most eloquent, if pessimistic, view of the coming weeks – or days – has few illusions. "I think it's going to be bleak, black and bloody and I can see the blood that will be shed will be Israeli as well as Palestinian. The Palestinians are not ready to be good victims any more. They have nothing to lose.
"The Israelis have opened Pandora's Box. I never in my life have felt our morale and determination to be as high as it is now. I'm very proud – and I'm scared to death.''
So are the women of Gaza. Many are burying their jewels in their gardens or backyards. "We heard what happened to women in Ramallah who had thousands of dollars of jewellery stolen by the Israeli troops who entered their homes,'' a middle-class married woman in Gaza City said without emotion. "One friend of mine in Ramallah hid thousands of dollars in a big bowl of rice in the kitchen when the Israelis came to take over his house. He reckoned he would lose the money when he was searched. But when he came back, the rice was overturned and the money had gone.''
The graffiti warns of reoccupation. A hand grenade on one wall, a drawing of a wired bomb on another predict the doom of occupiers. Homes I entered were stuffed with food, water, blankets, in some cases sandbags. As the sea flopped on to the Gaza beach in the sultry afternoon, a few fishing boats glided over the water. But the catch doesn't count for much when four-hour power cuts – unannounced as usual by the corrupt Palestinian Authority – cut off deep freezes and fridges.
As one Palestinian militant remarked – how easily one falls into these categories to avoid identifying someone who may soon be in a prison cage – an Israeli assault is "as certain as I am seeing you". It was a matter of time, he said. "I don't trust the Arabic news. I listen to the news in Hebrew from Israel. Gaza sets the tone there – the Israelis can't complete their objectives without Gaza. It's here that Palestinian history has been decided for the past 54 years.''
True, up to a point. The Palestine National Council first proclaimed Palestinian independence in Gaza on 1 October 1948, adopting the old green, white, black and red banner of the Arab Revolt as the flag. But then the Gaza Strip became a slum backyard of Egypt while the Mayor of Hebron handed over the West Bank to the Jordanian monarchy at a ceremony in Jericho. If Gaza is the last bit of unoccupied "Palestine" left, it's a midden.
"I think everything depends on three things,'' Mr Sourani said. "It's about what's going on back in Washington. It's about how far the Europeans will involve themselves. And it's about how soon some dramatic event will take place on the ground against the Israelis that will give them an excuse to move. I know all about what is called "looting and wanton destruction'' in the West Bank. This is not new to us. We dealt with hundreds of such cases in the past and won cases of looting against the Israeli army in the Israeli courts.''
Mr Sourani has completed the duplication of all his human rights records. "And when the Israelis come, we shall keep on working here for human rights. We will not allow ourselves to be panicked or become paranoid. We learnt something from the Israeli occupation in the past: to be professional and to be strategic. They made our bones strong.''
In the coming days – or weeks – Mr Sourani's words may well be put to the test.Reuse content