Friday, July 02, 2010

Hardship Continues for Gazans Despite Easing of Israeli Blockade

By Christoph Schult in the Gaza Strip

Saleh Jadallah/DER SPIEGEL

Israel may have eased its blockade of the Gaza Strip in response to international pressure, but life for many of the Palestinians living there has so far changed little. Even hardliners in Israel are starting to recognize that the blockade only helps to strengthen Hamas.

The midday sun is blazing out of a cloudless sky at the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Things will surely go quickly now. The last trucks to drive up to the security area -- which is surrounded by 8-meter (26-foot) concrete walls -- have pallets loaded with milk and meat. But before the Palestinian trucks on the other side are allowed to load the merchandise, the gates have to close on the Israeli side.

The border crossing takes its name from the nearby kibbutz of Kerem Shalom, which means "vineyard of peace." But there's no contact between Israelis and Palestinians here -- and nothing resembling peace. In 2008, terrorists shelled the crossing. "We're working under a constant threat," says Ami Shaked, the Israeli in charge of the border station.

Shaked, 50, has his graying hair tied up in a ponytail and is wearing a blue baseball cap. The Kerem Shalom border crossing is not operated by the Israeli army but by civilians from the Israel Airports Authority. Moments later, the radio hanging on Shaked's shoulder starts crackling again. "Another truck," a female co-worker informs him. "What's he carrying?" asks Shaked. "Chocolate," she says. "It's actually too late," Shaked responds. "I've already made so many exceptions today."

Checking Every Pallet

His staff have checked 150 trucks on this day alone, which is more than half as many as during the preceding weeks. In reaction to pressure from the international community, the Israeli government last week eased its trade blockade, which it had imposed on the Gaza Strip exactly four years ago. At the time, Palestinian militants taking orders from Hamas raided a military post near the border crossing and abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit to the Gaza Strip.

From his air-conditioned office, Shaked can see every inch of the premises. He uses a joystick to control the surveillance cameras. Every pallet is checked -- with sniffer dogs, scanners and, when necessary, by hand. Shaked glances at the screen one last time. All of the Israelis have left the security area. "Tell the Palestinians that they can get rolling," he says over the radio.

On the other side of the border, Palestinian driver Subhi al-Chur, 47, is sweating profusely in the cab of his Volvo truck. He has been waiting in line for five long hours. "This is my first load after four years of unemployment," he says. That morning, Chur had received a call from a merchant in Gaza City who hired him to pick up a load of school satchels. The merchant had ordered them from China in 2007, but they had been held up by the blockade in the Israeli port of Ashdod. School satchels -- 2,400 of them.

Since perishable goods have priority, Chur will have to sit tight until evening comes. He doesn't care about the long wait -- the main thing is that he has work. Chur will receive 400 shekels, approximately €85 ($105), for the trip. "The situation is improving," says Chur, who is the father of 10 children. Another trader has already hired him for the next day to transport a load of home appliances.

'Smell the Jasmine'

Things are in fact starting to improve in the Gaza Strip in some respects. The supermarket shelves are filled with food and vendors are hawking goods on every street corner: fans, gas stoves, mountains of fruit and vegetables. "Welcome to Palestine," writes the Palestinian mobile phone provider Jawwal in an advertisement sent as a text message: "Taste the olives, smell the jasmine." It's the first time in years that the slogan doesn't sound like a bad joke.

But this upbeat message still remains exceedingly optimistic. For weeks, Jawwal has been plastering the streets of Gaza City with huge promotional posters. The firm plans to hold a huge raffle to mark the registration of the 2-millionth customer, with 10 brand new BMW 320i luxury sedans being awarded to the lucky winners. But any Gaza Strip residents who win such large prizes will probably never receive them.

The harsh reality is that the decision to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which was approved by the Israeli cabinet on June 20, is a long way from a Middle Eastern version of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Israel's government has only eased the regulations governing imports of consumer goods like electrical appliances, toys and food. As for cars, even replacement parts will remain a scarce commodity in Gaza.

Less Than a Dollar a Day

The man under the black tent tarpaulin introduces himself as Abu Faisal. He is standing roughly 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) from Kerem Shalom, on the border to Egypt. Faisal gazes into a large hole in the sandy soil as a winch pulls a hatch from a Volkswagen Passat to the surface, followed by shock absorbers and roughly a dozen car engines. He glances at his order list and nods with satisfaction.

Whatever the Israelis won't allow into the Gaza Strip is still brought in by smugglers through tunnels from Egypt. But the quality of the smuggled items is either so poor, or the prices are so high, that only very few residents can afford these coveted goods. Tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza used to work in Israel -- as cooks and construction workers -- but now not even students are allowed to leave the coastal strip to study at one of the universities on the West Bank. Nearly half of the population is unemployed, and approximately 70 percent of residents are living on less than a dollar a day.