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March 2004 • Vol 4, No. 3 •

Gaza Enclave: ‘Jail Inside A Jail’

By Mitch Potter

Time passes slowly in this long-forgotten corner of the Intifada, a seaside enclave where some 6,000 Palestinians live completely cut off from the war that surrounds them.

One kilometer deep and 14 kilometers long, Al-Muwasi is a tiny strip of land in the greater Gaza Strip, itself only 340 square kilometers in area.

But those penned inside call it a jail within a jail.

A glance to the west shows limitless cobalt blue Mediterranean waters, inaccessible now to Al-Muwasi’s once famous fishing fleet, which lies half-buried in sand dunes by order of the Israel Defense Forces. These ships do not sail, lest their holds be filled with guns.

And a glance in every other direction explains why Al-Muwasi is so profoundly isolated from the 1.3 million Gaza Palestinians just beyond the horizon: the place is surrounded by a layer of heavily guarded Israeli settlements the cluster of 10 Jewish communities that make up the controversial Gush Katif bloc.

With an estimated 5,000 Israelis living just a stone’s throw away in every direction, the Israeli military struck upon what locals describe as an especially draconian response to the onset of the intifada in 2000.

Two checkpoints were intensified—to the south, near the Egyptian border, and to the north, near the Gaza city of Khan Younis—introducing restrictions on the people of Al-Muwasi that rank among the most severe in the region. Israel says keeping the area separate from the rest of Gaza has increased security.

It is little wonder Al-Muwasi also ranks as one of the most docile corners of the Intifada. So docile that during a recent visit by the Star, residents were unable to muster even the tiniest enthusiasm for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal of the settlements that entrap them.

“We need a big peace, not a little peace,” said Khalil, a father of 10, dismissing outright any expectations the Sharon plan will unfold as advertised.

“If Sharon really tries to take apart these settlements, there are people in Israel who will take him apart.”

Khalil was one of a group of seven Al-Muwasi men seated around a driftwood fire who agreed to speak on condition no last names be used. They were afraid overt criticism of the Israeli blockade would create problems for them at the checkpoints. But equally they feared criticism of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority would come back to haunt them.

With the fishing industry all but gone fishermen in this end of Al-Muwasi are still permitted to paddle small boats for their catch. The men of this community said they were almost wholly reliant on the bountiful farm harvest, considered among the best in Gaza. Despite sandy soil and increasingly salinized groundwater, Al-Muwasi produces delicious guava, sweet potatoes, watermelon, garlic and tomatoes.

But the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reported last year that as much as 90 per cent of that harvest is wasted because of arbitrary checkpoint closings, which can last for weeks on end without explanation.

“The marketing rates dropped from 50 trucks per day to five trucks per day,” B’Tselem researcher Shlomi Swisa said in an interview. “With numbers like that, I don’t doubt they are afraid to speak their minds. Everything for them depends on the checkpoints being open.”

Khalil and friends said the situation is not quite so extreme. About half the harvest, they said, is wasted.

“We don’t throw it away if we can help it. But if Israel has a surplus, ours is wasted,” said Amir, 36. “We have so much food, we could even sell to Egypt. But the checkpoint....”

It is no small irony the Al-Muwasi farmers credit their Israeli settler neighbors for their advanced farming techniques. Many here built and worked in the nearby hothouses of Gush Katif before the Intifada. Much of that work has now been lost to imported Thai workers.

The apparently cozy relationship with the controversial neighbors coupled with Al-Muwasi’s clear lack of involvement in attacks on Gush Katif has led to suggestions by other Palestinians that Al-Muwasi is crawling with collaborators.

Hader Rassan Kannan, the lone pharmacist in Al-Muwasi, has heard the rumors and considers them insult after injury.

“We are trapped in a jail inside a jail. We live with a checkpoint psychology,” said Kannan, who is in charge of the Palestinian Authority-financed medical supplies for Al-Muwasi.

“Even on the days it is open, we are afraid to go through the checkpoint to Gaza, because we don’t want to risk being stuck outside when it closes suddenly.

“After all this, there are others in Gaza who will say `Muwasi is no good. You build the settlements, you work with (Israeli security), you are against us.’ How can they say these things, when we are trapped even worse than they are?”

But Kannan concedes Al-Muwasi is more moderate than greater Gaza. “These people don’t know about Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Sixty per cent of the people here, they like Israel. Like everyone in the world, we want a good government and freedom to travel. But all of us wonder, if the settlements are taken apart, what will happen?”

Kannan drives a 1984 Audi, but rarely needs to buy gas. “The real problem for us is the feeling of being trapped. Every small community needs a city, and our city has always been Khan Younis. That is our hospital, that is our market. It is where we buy shoes for our children, everything.”

Toronto Star, February 20, 2004





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