The open border between Gaza and Egypt provided its residents with
a respite from the blockade, but it has also raised questions about
Israel's next move, reports Ed O'Loughlin in Rafah.
It's cold and wet, the electricity keeps going out, there's no petrol for the car and no goods left in the shops, and the row with the neighbours could soon turn really nasty. Yet despite the wider cause for gloom there was an air of suppressed carnival in Gaza this week as tens of thousands of people enjoyed a rare outing from what has been for many years a de facto prison for 1.5 million untried inmates.
On Thursday, a day after Hamas militants theatrically broke Israel's ever-tightening siege by blowing holes in the Egyptian border wall, Hanan Atala, 18, came all the way from Gaza City hoping to leave the strip for the first time in her life.
Sadly, her 55-year-old mother's legs were not up to vaulting the low concrete wall on the actual border with Egypt. So while her brother crossed in search of cheese, yoghurt, milk and washing powder, the two women stood and gazed at the sandy scrub and rough concrete houses of Egypt, only a few metres away.
It looks just like here," said Hanan, a little disappointed.
It was the second day of the exodus and already much of the border commerce was a great deal more organised. Fifty metres back from the wall a few stalls sprang up, selling shwarma and baklava.
Amar Al Kor, 21, the son of a Rafah concrete merchant, had hired a large truck to haul home 30 tonnes of precious cement powder, handed sack by sack across the border wall.
"There hasn't been any shipments of cement since Hamas took over Gaza from Fatah last year," he explained.
"The Israelis wouldn't let us have any after that, so people who want to build or fix their houses can't do anything - you can't even get cement to put on graves. We got thirty tonnes yesterday and another thirty tonnes a day. It's only a little bit, really. It will help, but in Gaza we need a lot more cement than this."
Mohammed al Rifai, 20, from Gaza City was herding back 10 goats and two kids his family had just bought in Egypt for $US1700 ($1943) - steep even at First World prices, but still only a third of the previous going rate in blockaded Gaza, where fresh meat has become a rare luxury in recent months even for those with salaries.
"We'll keep some to fatten but most will be sold for meat straight away," he said. "It's hard to find food for them now. We try and bring them to the north, near the border, where it's still green, but the Israeli soldiers shoot to make us go away."
Some brought back luxuries such as biscuits, sweets, cigarettes and televisions, and portable generators and cheap Chinese motorbikes. But the most popular items seen bobbing above the crowd this week were big drums of cooking oil, boxes of dairy products, baby milk formula, tinned meat and fish, washing powder, sanitary towels, mattresses, school copy books and - above all - fuel of all kinds: diesel and petrol in all manner of plastic containers and metal canisters of the liquid petroleum gas which most Gazans use for cooking.
"We've had nothing to cook with for five days," complained Mortaz Abu Khuji, 19, earlier this week, having spent most of Tuesday queuing for a gas refill only to see supplies run out just as he reached the pump.
"I went to Beit Hanoun [near the northern border] yesterday to get wood to burn but the Israelis were shooting from the border to make us run away. I tried to buy some wood but a kilo costs two shekels, and who has that money now? I'll sleep here tonight. I can't go home to my brothers and sisters without gas."
Having cut off all fuel supplies to Gaza late last week - a much reduced flow has since resumed - Israel blamed the new crisis on militants who continue to fire missiles from Gaza at Israeli border communities.
A redoubled barrage of homemade Palestinian missiles injured several civilians last week after a routine Israeli invasion - itself supposed to help curb missile fire - which killed about 40 Palestinians and injured more than 100.
An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Arye Mekel, said this week that if the rocket fire stopped life in Gaza would return to "normal". The Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said that Israel would not allow Gazans to live well while the rocket fire continued, but would not allow a "humanitarian crisis" to develop there.
But United Nations agencies and aid groups working in the strip say that in Gaza a humanitarian crisis is already the normality.
Medicines are in short supply or totally exhausted, while restrictions on spare parts have shut down vital medical equipment in some hospital wards. The embargo on building supplies, plus restrictions on fuel and spare parts, has left about 40 per cent of Gaza's people without running water, while most of Gaza City's sewage - 400,000 litres a day - is now being pumped raw into the sea without being treated. The rest is overflowing into streets and basements, poisoning ground water that is already polluted far beyond minimum World Health Organisation standards.
Nearly all of the Israeli-dominated enclave's 1.5 million people are now dependent on foreign donors and UN food aid because of an economic boycott - imposed with full Western support after Hamas won Palestinian elections in early 2006 - which had shut down most of Gaza's remaining private industry long before the latest crisis began.
The only remaining productive sector, agriculture, has been unable to resume its once highly profitable sale of fruit and flowers to Europe and North America because of Israel's ban on exports.
Ismail Al Helo, a north Gaza fruit farmer, snorted contemptuously when asked about the announcement, shortly before the visit of the US President, George Bush, earlier this month, that Israel was relaxing its ban on food and flower exports from Gaza.
"They are great liars," he said. "Nothing has happened. It was all said just to look good when they were supposed to have peace talks."
Aid agencies warn that the goods coming across from Egypt this week, on foot and in donkey carts, cannot even begin to compensate for the thousands of daily tonnes of imported fuel and supplies cut off by the now near-total Israeli blockade.
"What everybody should realise is just how desperate the situation here continues to be," said John Ging, the director of the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, now by default the biggest employer and provider in Gaza.
"Last week we had something in the order of 100 trucks a day of humanitarian supplies coming into Gaza. Yesterday we had 10, the day before 16, today none at all. Before June there were 400 trucks coming in a day - and that to an economy that was already very severely damaged."
UNRWA and the UN's World Food Program, which together feed around 1.1 million of Gaza's 1.5 million people, only have enough stocks of basic foodstuffs - flour, rice, lentils and sugar, for a month, and these are being rapidly depleted.
"Dairy products, fresh meat, all the things that are needed to supplement our distribution are disappearing from Gaza," said Ging. "We only give people 61 per cent of the minimum calorie intake. You can't live just on what the UN gives you. The situation is very bleak."
Hamas's dramatic initiative in blowing open the Egyptian border crossings early Wednesday has created a public relations problem for Egypt and Israel. Neither government wants to be seen to publicly slam the door on desperate civilians whose purchases - mainly small quantities of food, medicine and fuel - underline the urgency of their plight.
But Israel, with strong support from the United States, believes that its blockade can force Gaza's people to rise up against the Hamas militants who seized control of the strip last June from the rival US-backed Fatah party. This in turn, it is argued, would end the cross-border bombardment which has terrorised the town of Sderot and killed 10 Israeli civilians over the past seven years.
Israel and the US both told Cairo, their formal ally, that it must solve the problem, warning of an influx of terrorists and weapons into Gaza if the border is not closed. The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, defended his country's decision not to try to turn the Gazans back empty-handed, saying they were "starving" people who should be treated with compassion.
But many Gazans have already discovered that the Rafah escapade is providing, at best, only an illusion of freedom. This week, after months blockaded by Egypt and Israel, many Palestinians took advantage of the breach in the wall to try and take up jobs or studies in Egypt and abroad.
Many - if not all - were turned back at checkpoints on the way to the Suez canal because they did not have Egyptian entry stamps from the Rafah border crossing. A crossing which, by agreement with the US and Israel, cannot reopen without Israel's permission.
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