Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In one town, Gazans yearn for previous Israeli presence

MAWASSI, Gaza - Three years have passed since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and in that time the economy of this coastal territory of 1.4 million people has gone from bad to worse.

Gas and food shortages are now being compounded by cash shortages as tens of thousands of people were unable to withdraw money from banks on Monday Still, despite their economic hardships, most Gazans insist that they prefer life here without the Israelis.

But in Mawassi – a mixed ethnic Palestinian and Bedouin town that was completely isolated from the rest of Gaza inside a Jewish settlement enclave – it's a different story.

"I want [the Israelis] to come back," says Riyad al-Laham, an unemployed father of eight who worked in the area's Jewish settlements for nearly 20 years. "All the Mawassi people used to work in the settlements and make good money. Now there is nothing to do. Even our own agricultural land is barren."

Located in the middle of Gush Katif, the former block of Jewish settlements here, Mawassi fell within the security cordon the Israeli army threw around its citizens from 2002 to 2005, when attacks from the neighboring Palestinian town of Khan Yunis came almost daily.

During those years, the people of Mawassi continued to work in Gush Katif, mainly as farmhands in hundreds of greenhouses the Jewish settlers operated.

Mr. Laham and many others in Mawassi say they preferred the relative economic security of those days to the current destitution, even if they are now free from Israeli occupation.

"Freedom to go where?" Laham asks. "I have no fuel now for my car. Where can I go? Freedom is a slogan. Even for a donkey you need money – which I don't have."

Three years ago, before Israel withdrew, Mawassi was a town of fertile corn crops and greenhouses, which – like the ones in the Jewish settlements – grew cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, and strawberries.

Now, in the ethnic Palestinian section of town, nearly half the land lies barren.

Only shells remain of many of the greenhouses that were stripped of valuable materials.

A city that fed itself with its produce and the money its men made from working with the settlers, Mawassi is now dependent on food handouts from the United Nations.

Like the rest of Gaza, its people lack cooking gas and petrol, even if they feel more secure without Israeli soldiers all around them.

In the Bedouin section of town, Salem al-Bahabsa sits with five of his 24 grandchildren in front of his chicken coop. Goats and sheep wander around the other parts of the Bedouin quarter, where people live mostly in tents with tin roofs.

"We are all now unemployed and depend on charity for food," Mr. Bahabsa says. "My sons were farmers in the greenhouses. We worked in the settlements and had resources. Now, I don't think I could survive without [the UN].... Before was better."

There are voices in Mawassi who disagree, including Laham's brother, Iyad. Reclaiming their beachfront, which became the Jewish settlement of Shirat Hayam in 2001, and the ability to move around Gaza as they please, makes the quality of life here better even if there is no longer a market for their produce, Iyad says.

"It was dark days because of the occupation," says Iyad, an employed English teacher and father of three. "Working is not everything. The checkpoints made our city a prison.... We can't say the occupation days were better than today."

But interviews in the village appear to indicate that Iayd's point of view puts him in the minority.

One main reason that life is worse now, say many villagers, is the lack of attention paid to Mawassi by both the previous Fatah and current Hamas governments since the Israeli withdrawal.

The Israelis "used to take responsibility for us as occupiers," Riyad Laham says. "Neither [Hamas nor Fatah] knocked on the doors to ask what we need. People are fed up.... We have become beggars.

"At 9 a.m. in every other country, everyone is at his desk doing his work," Laham says. "Here, people are by the side of the road with their arms crossed together."

No comments: