Independent Appeal ... for an abandoned people

The Independent's Christmas Appeal will focus on the dispossessed of the Palestinian territories, for whom 2006 has been the worst of times
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Maybe they are just conveniently forgetting other periods in Gaza's turbulent and blood-stained history, but most Gazans will tell you that 2006 is the worst year they can remember.

In Gaza City's deserted gold souk, people are not even coming to sell their jewellery any more. "We just sit and drink tea," said Yasser Moteer, 35, who runs a jewellery stall. "It's worse than any time in the 20 years I've been here. It's crazy."

The gold-selling started soon after the international and Israeli boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority started to plunge Gaza's economy into collapse last March. But having long ceased to buy here, the poor now have nothing left to sell.

Certainly, the 1.3 million population of this ancient coastal strip of territory, a mere 225 square miles, can never have experienced as intense a swing of hope to despair as they have in little more than 12 months. Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw Israel's settlers and troops in August 2005, unilateral and circumscribed in both its genesis and its implementation as it was, made many Palestinians here, almost despite themselves, hope for a better future.

It was not just the sudden freedom to travel from north to south without the endless delays at the hated Abu Houli checkpoint, or that children in the southern town of Khan Younis could run west through what were now the ruins of the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim and plunge into a Mediterranean they had only ever dreamt about.

It was the sense that for the first time in five dark, stifling and dangerous years, Gaza could breathe, psychologically, and just maybe, economically.

As 2006 nears its close and The Independent launches its Christmas appeal partly focused on Gaza, it is easy to see how cruelly those hopes have been mocked by what has happened this year.

Since Hamas and other Gaza militants seized the Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, and killed two of his comrades in late June, shells, drones and machine gun-fire from Israeli forces have killed some 400 Palestinians, civilians, women and children among them, in an operation Israel stated was to free Cpl Shalit and stop the Qassam rockets being fired from Gaza.

For five long months, electricity was cut to eight hours a day, damaging water supplies, after a surgically accurate bombing condemned by Israelis as well as foreign human rights groups as collective punishment in breach of humanitarian law.

Reaching a peak in July, the use of sonic booms, often deliberately timed as children were going to school, created misery and fear. As if that was not enough, a far lower but significant number of civilians, also including children, have been killed or wounded in the sporadic fighting between Fatah and Hamas, the two dominant factions in Palestinian politics, or in clan battles.

For the immediate survivors of the Israeli shells that killed 17 members of the Athamneh family as they tried to flee their home in Beit Hanoun as it was attacked, the bereavement is, if anything, harder to bear now that more than three weeks have elapsed since it happened. In late afternoon sunshine on Sunday, in the now eerily peaceful alley where the carnage was perpetrated, Hayat Athamneh, 56, a strong woman who lost three adult sons, all fathers themselves, sat with their still devastated and injured brother Amjad, 31, and his wife, who lost their own son Mahmoud, 10. "Now I feel it," said Hayat, covering her eyes as they fill with tears. " It wasn't so bad at the beginning. There were a lot of people around. Now there is nobody."

As she reeled off the list of Palestinian and foreign dignitaries who had visited the site, her daughter-in-law Tahani, 35, said: "They all came. But nothing happened." Tahani talks about the three surviving Athamneh members, two of them children, who lost limbs in the attack.

"We have to worry about the ones who lost arms and legs now and will see the others who haven't. We have to look after them and then worry about where we are going to live."

Arriving to join them, her brother-in-law Majdi Athamneh, who lost his 12-year-old son Saad, says that not only do the extended family fear to go back to their shelled house because of the structural damage, but they no longer think they should live together as they did for so many years.

"When so many members of one family were killed, it is better to make sure it doesn't happen again and live apart," he said.

Five miles away in Gaza City, Adeeb Zarhouk, 44, is a man used to hard work and 4am starts to support his wife Majda, 44, and their seven children in the 20 years he was employed in Israel as a freelance metalworker and electrician, and then for five working for an Israeli company in the now flattened Erez industrial zone on the northern edge of Gaza. But this morning he apologises for being asleep when we call.

Each day, he hopes for a request to install a TV satellite or do another odd job. "But the phone hasn't rung for two weeks," he says. " Nobody has any money to do these things." Mr Zarhouk is part of the 64 per cent increase in "deep poverty" among Palestinian refugees in the past year.

He is naturally cheerful but, as his wife prepares a three-shekel (36p) family breakfast of beans, felafal and a few tomatoes, he says: "When I'm at home by myself I start crying. When your son asks you for half a shekel and you do not have it ..."

Mr Zarhouk gets up to wash the tears from his eyes. Then he says that although as a refugee he earned $240 (£120) a month on a three-month UNRWA job programme, he now owes $540 in rent and that the family eat meat only when his 20-year-old policeman son has an irregular 1,500-shekel handout in lieu of his salary as a policeman.

Who does Mr Zarhouk, who voted Fatah in the last election, blame? "I blame democracy," he says with a flash of sarcasm. "The whole world wanted us to have democracy and said how fair had been our election. The problem is they didn't like our results."

The world's boycott since those elections did not only end salaries for the PA employees on whom Gaza's economy disproportionately depends. The health service, in many ways highly professional but desperately under-equipped, is also suffering. In her bed at Shifa Hospital, Intisar al Saqqa is waiting for the drug Taxoter which doctors said she needs to treat a breast cancer which has spread to her lung and her liver. "Every week, they say it will come on Monday," says her mother, Hadra, 62. "But it doesn't. Inshallah, it will come soon." Her daughter says: "I don't blame anybody. I just want this [the political problems beyond her control] to end. "

The EU-sponsored Temporary International Mechanism was supposed to get a full range of drugs and badly needed new equipment to Gaza long before now ­ but because of its own bureaucratic delays has failed to do so.

Similarly, a year after Condoleezza Rice brokered an agreement to open up Gaza's borders, a UN report said last week that Gaza's access to the outside world was "extremely limited" and that commercial trade was " negligible".

That is diplomatese for saying Gaza is ­ the word every Palestinian uses ­ a prison again. Israel refuses to take the blame, saying the boycott and closures result directly from security anxieties and from the refusal of Hamas to modify its stances on recognition and violence.

The power is back on and a fragile ceasefire holding. But with Fatah-Hamas talks collapsed, there is little political hope in sight; and plenty to do for the NGOs and charities ­ like Merlin and the Welfare Association ­ which are trying to keep Gaza alive.