The Gaza pullout: Caught in a trap

In Al Mawasi, a drab ghetto in southern Gaza, the fishermen were left destitute after they were barred from the sea. They hope Israel's withdrawal will revive their fortunes - but will it? By Donald Macintyre
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Standing amid a desolate tableau of useless, rotting boats, some three-quarters buried by sand, and the rusting tractor that was once used to drag them up from the shore, he says he is "counting the time" until the Israeli government starts remov-ing 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza next week.

This was once one of the more prosperous fishing grounds in the eastern Mediterranean. In the dilapidated shed that he used to keep in meticulous order, Mr Abu Hanoun, 55, points to an abandoned jumble of lamps, with their big, convex, steel refractors, and explains how they would lure into the local flotilla's nets the vast nocturnal shoals of sardine that he and a hundred fellow fishermen would refrigerate on board and sell in Khan Yunis market for 100 shekels (£12.30) a box. On a good night they could fill 200 boxes. Until January 2001, he says: "We would fish 12km to 25km out to sea, depending on the [political and military] situation. Now it is nothing."

That was the month that Roni Tsalach, a Jewish settler, was murdered by a Palestinian who worked for him. "We were about 20 boats out at sea and a military vessel approached us and told us to go back to shore." Since then, the army has imposed a 200-metre coastal limit, useless for professional offshore fishermen such as Mr Abu Hanoun.

"They told us if we wanted to fish we should go down the coast to Rafah," he says. "But we refused, all of us, because we thought the beach would be taken for the settlements."

The fishermen's fears were understandable. For this is Al Mawasi, a 12km by 1km strip of land wedged between the sea and the Jewish settlements which make up Gush Katif, the largest block in Gaza. Between here and the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis, to which the fishermen say they belong, and where many relatives live, is the settlement of Neve Dekalim. Two hundred metres away is Shirat Hayam, a coastal outpost built among the ruins of Egyptian army holiday villas from before the 1967 Six-Day War when Gaza was seized by Israel. It is still uncertain whether Israel will allow the fishing limits to be restored to anything like pre-intifada levels, yet Mr Abu Hanoun says optimistically: "When we are controlled by the Palestinian Authority I will be able to fish again." But he will need up to $10,000 to restore the boats and equipment. Every day for a year after the fishing ban, he went down to the beach to maintain them, then gave up in despair.

To get to Khan Yunis at present, Mr Abu Hanoun has to cross Tufakh, the only functioning checkpoint out of Al Mawasi. Like his father before him, he is a farmer as well as a fisherman. He has been prohibited from travelling to Khan Yunis for the past six months because one of his sons, a Fatah member, was arrested six months ago and accused of plotting to kill a settler. "If it had been true he would have been given a life sentence," he says.

But in any case, in an area rich in guava, figs, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes and eggplant, it has proved all but impossible to move the goods to market. Mr Abu Hanoun's friend, Khamel Zorab, 53, says: "Three years ago we could take guava to Khan Yunis and sell them for 20 shekels a box. Now I can wait five days to get a load through the checkpoint and it gets rotten. I have to sell them here for two shekels a box or give it away."

Goods are transported through the pedestrians-only checkpoint "back to back", which means each truck has to be unloaded item by item and reloaded on the other side. In 2003, the Israeli human rights group Btselem said in a report on Al Mawasi entitled An Impossible Life in an Isolated Enclave that army restrictions had cut movement of goods to Khan Yunis by 90 per cent, "creating a huge loss of income for the farmers, who have been forced to throw away much of their produce or let it rot". Last Saturday, the checkpoint was closed by the army for five days because suspicious canisters had been found on a section of the beach used by settlers. The army, which says it has to prevent infiltration by those who might use the Mawasi as cover for attacks on soldiers and settlers, insists most delays are caused by workers and others arriving without prearranged permits who have to be turned away and that those with permits get through.

What is striking about all this is that the problems of Al Mawasi are a miniature version of those of Gaza itself. Perhaps the most important of the still-fraught negotiations being brokered by James Wolfensohn, President Bush's special envoy, is how much access Gaza's stricken economy will get to outside markets after disengagement, including Israel and the West Bank.

At the Karni crossing, also a "back to back", there is talk of expensive Chinese-built scanning equipment that greatly speeds the passage of goods out of the Strip. But the long neglected Al Mawasi is a Gaza within a Gaza, for years largely excluded even from the wider, if poverty-stricken, market of the rest of the Strip. And Mr Abu Hanoun can at least entertain hopes of rebuilding some kind of agricultural business. Mr Zorab fears that Al Mawasi "will not change for the better. They may close Gaza. We are in a prison now but we may end up just being in a bigger prison".

The border/customs issue causes intense discussion between the Palestinians and an Israel professedly hostile to any kind of regime which it argues will permit smuggling - including of weapons - into Gaza. But to pursue the prison metaphor, at least Al Muwasi will be out of solitary confinement.

That said, its problems are so acute that Al Mawasi will need fundamental help if it is to rehabilitate itself after its long years of neglect and isolation. Nowhere has the juxtaposition of two alternative realities, Israeli and Palestinian, been more apparent than here. You see it on the two sides of the fence protecting Shirat Hayam; the settlers' Volvos and pick-up trucks on one side, the donkey carts on the road a few metres away on the other.

Or the empty Palestinian greenhouses, useless for lack of a market, in striking distance of the settlers' hi-tech computer greenhouses, their fruit, vegetables and houseplants destined for easy passage through the Kissufim checkpoint and the export markets beyond. Or the broken-down shanties of the Mawasi Palestinians and Bedouin, in sight of the neat red-roofed villas and gardens of the Neve Dekalim settlement.

You can see it, too, in the southernmost Rafah sector of Al Mawasi where the Egyptian flag flutters 100 metres from the shack where Halima Abu Audeh, 57, and her husband Ibrahim, 63, have brought up their 12 children. Electricity from a Palestinian Authority generator runs for only four hours a day. Despite temperatures in the nineties and above there is no refrigerator. And there are only gaps in the walls where the windows should be.

Mrs Abu Audeh weeps noiselessly as she tells how her 19-year-old son was permitted to cross to the main town of Rafah eight months ago for medical treatment but has not been able to return. "For three months we have been trying to get him back," she says. "He has nowhere to go. He is living from house to house."

But after Gaza is fully Palestinian again, he will surely have no problem returning? Oddly, like the most diehard settlers, she still doubts disengagement will come. "We don't believe [the settlers] are leaving. I will believe the news when I see it myself." Their son Hani runs a makeshift barber's shop from the house. "Some people give me three shekels [40p] for a haircut," he says. "Some don't have money." As the couple offer delicious but unsaleable figs from the trees in their little garden, Mr Abu Audeh seems gloomy about the prospects even after disengagement. "I don't expect there will be jobs when the Israelis go," he says. Here Mr Abu Audeh touches on a paradox, which is that the settlers have provided work to some of the 5,000 Mawasi residents, jobs that will go when they depart. Khamel Zorab says cautiously: "Some people believe it will be worse when the settlers go because of the work." A car dealer as well as a farmer, he shows us a Mercedes he has just bought from a departing settler.

His cousin Mahmoud Zorab says his pregnant wife was kept waiting at the Tufakh checkpoint - which residents say is common - until she began to go into labour, so their son was born disabled. Then he talks into his cellphone in fluent Hebrew with a settler about furniture he is buying from her ahead of disengagement.

There are also fears that during disengagement extremist settlers will take out their rage on the Mawasi. In June, a Palestinian here was badly injured in clashes with settlers which prompted Ariel Sharon to make the Israel army evict extremist anti-disengagement infiltrators from the abandoned hotel they used.

Mawasi water pipes have been fractured and some say settlers have thrown stones at their houses. Most Mawasi residents seem to be looking forward to the moment when the settlers leave occupied Palestinian territory for the first time since the occupation began 35 year ago.

Samir Hanoun, a community worker, is worried about confrontation between the army and the settlers and between the settlers and the Palestinians. But does he still welcome disengagement? "Of course. Do you expect someone offered freedom will refuse it?"

Fathi Hasan Abu Khrais, principal of the crammed Mawasi school, says students are prohibited from going to Khan Yunis or Rafah so the 1,400 pupils are crammed into 32 classes of up to 60 each. With only 16 classrooms they have to learn in shifts. Schoolbooks are desperately scarce, no science is taught and teachers have to teach subjects in which they are unqualified.

And contrary to Palestinian practice and religion the school is mixed. Asked if he is looking forward to the settlers going, Mr Abu Khrais says he, too, is "counting the seconds".