- RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters)
- Ibrahim al-Masri lives about as close to the wire as you can get in what
he and his fellow "inmates" call the world's biggest
- Around it run an Israeli-built security fence, ditches
and searchlights, except down one side where the Mediterranean laps at
the sand and Israeli gunboats patrol the waters offshore.
- Inside, clustered in dusty towns and villages and squalid
refugee camps, live the 1.2 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip,
under a blockade Israel has imposed since the Palestinian uprising against
occupation erupted last September.
- Israel calls the closure a security measure dictated
by the threat from Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers.
- Palestinians call it collective punishment. Few feel
the effects quite so closely as Masri, his wife Maha and their seven
aged two to 15.
- Their home in Brazil Camp at the far south of the densely
populated, desert strip is bang on the frontline, 40 yards over open ground
from a wire fence and Israeli-patrolled security corridor before the border
- "This is worse than prison," said 42-year-old
Masri outside his house, its walls pockmarked and broken open by bullets
and heavier rounds fired, he says, by the Israeli army at night.
- "In prison, you can be safe. Here you are in danger
all the time."
- HOUSE NOT SAFE
- Nine months ago, the family moved into the garage, too
afraid to use the upper two stories or their front door.
- When Masri ventures upstairs, he gets to the stairwell
by scrambling through a hole he has made in the workshop wall.
- Israeli tanks and bulldozers have come through the fence
and entered Brazil Camp at least twice to demolish buildings the army says
Palestinian fighters had used for cover in the uprising that began after
peace talks stalled.
- An expanse of rubble to the right of Masri's house used
to house 22 families. Masri lives with the fear that the Israelis will
come back without warning and flatten his home too.
- "All I have is this house. If it goes I'll be on
the streets or in a tent," he says between sips of the pungent coffee
his wife has brewed on a camping stove as some of their children stand
barefoot by the workshop's bullet-scarred metal doors.
- Masri stays awake at night, on the alert to move his
family to safety deeper inside the camp when the shooting starts or to
deter any Palestinian, gunman or child firecracker-thrower, who comes along
to mess with the Israelis.
- "I won't allow anybody to go upstairs and use my
house. If they asked, I would refuse. I built this house with my
- NO MORE WORK IN ISRAEL
- Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the
1967 Middle East War. It handed much of Gaza, a rectangle about 28 miles
long and five miles wide, to Palestinian self-rule in 1994 under the Oslo
interim peace accords.
- Israel retained Jewish settlements inside Gaza and kept
control over all movements of people and goods in and out of the strip.
It also built the fence along the Gaza-Israel border.
- A similar closure is also in force in the West Bank,
though there it has been slightly less biting. There are back routes and
hill crossings that avoid Israeli army checkpoints and no fence separating
the territory from Israel.
- Gaza was economically depressed even before the start
of the Intifada (uprising). Only 40,000 Palestinians had permits to work
inside Israel, but their earnings were Gaza's lifeblood.
- Now the permits have been withdrawn and some estimates
put the unemployment rate in Gaza at 60 percent.
- Masri is a human face behind the statistics.
- Until the uprising, he would head north each day before
dawn to the workers' crossing at Erez.
- Beyond was a job as a welder in the Israeli town of
Lezion and a 5,000 shekel (831 pound) monthly wage. Now Masri lives off
the money he had saved for "the black days".
- No assistance is available from the Palestinian
its own coffers severely depleted by the crippling squeeze.
- "Four days ago, I went to see the governor in Rafah.
I said I had seven children and asked him to give me some help, give me
some work. He said he didn't even have the money to buy coffee for his
staff," Masri said.
- NO WAY OUT
- Now the Erez crossing is closed to Palestinians.
- So is Gaza's airport, opened in 1998 amid heady
optimism that it would presage an independent state.
- So too, when Israel determines that its security requires
such a step, is the Rafah crossing to Egypt, the only other way out of
Gaza for Palestinians.
- And so, intermittently, are the recently fortified
military checkpoints inside the strip at junctions with the Gush Katif
settlement bloc and Netzarim settlement.
- Even when the checkpoints are open, Palestinian cars
have to wait in lines, sometimes for well over an hour at busy times of
the day, to cross. When they are closed, Gaza is cut in three.
- "We are all in jail now," said Khaled
patriarch of one of Gaza's most prominent and wealthy merchant
- "Town is disconnected from town, village from
the devout Muslim said. "The closure has slaughtered us."
- STRAIN TELLING
- Husari, 76, has lived through the British Mandate,
administration of Gaza and then Israeli occupation. Never, he says, has
the situation been as grim as it is now.
- The wholesale food business Husari runs with his five
sons has cut imports from foreign suppliers by 90 percent. His costs have
climbed because the goods have to wait longer in the Israeli port of Ashdod
for stringent security checks.
- The shopkeepers the family supplies have no money to
pay him, so he has had to take out bank loans to meet his own bills.
- "The only thing keeping us in business is our
Husari said at his home in Gaza City.
- Psychologically too, Gazans are under pressure.
- Anxiety, depression and domestic violence are on the
rise as the closure, loss of livelihoods and the fear of Israeli raids
on Gaza following Palestinian attacks take their toll.
- "It is like something is suffocating me,"
Fadel Abu Hein said of the closure. "Your chest feels tight, just
like when you are trapped in a small room."
- This month, Abu Hein said, one Palestinian in the Jabalya
refugee camp who had lost his job in Israel forced his wife and children
into a room and tried to gas them.
- "He said he wanted to kill them because he could
no longer stand hearing the children ask him for things he could not
He said it made him feel weak."
- Ibrahim al-Masri's wife Maha says she has lost 33 pounds
since the violence started and complains her children have become
- When the shooting starts at night, they huddle in a
and cry "we want to get out, we want to get out", she
- "If we had an alternative we wouldn't be
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