Top Arab Diplomat Visits Gaza

The head of the Arab League visited the Gaza Strip on Sunday — the highest-level Arab visitor since Gaza came under the control of the Islamist Hamas movement three years ago. International pressure has been building on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, which Israel says is intended to prevent Palestinian militants from acquiring weapons. Amr Moussa's visit was seen as an effort to keep the plight of Gazans in the public eye.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The Gaza Strip doesn't get many high profile visitors since the Islamism group Hamas took over three years ago and Israel imposed a blockade. But the territory is now back in the spotlight. International pressure has been building on Israel to end, or at least ease, the blockade. The head of the Arab League Amr Moussa was in Gaza yesterday to express solidarity with the people of Gaza. NPR's Peter Kenyon traveled to the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, and sent this report.

PETER KENYON: Gazans were heartened by Amr Moussa's visit and were glad to hear him repeat the Arab Leagues call for lifting the blockade.

Mr. AMR MOUSSA (Leader of Arab League): (Through translator) The position of the Arab League is clear: the siege must be ended. The Palestinian people deserve to be supported, not only by the Arab states, but by the whole world now.

KENYON: But on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border yesterday, international support wasn't translating into much more than a trickle of Gazans making their way into Egypt. Those who did make it through, like Mohammed Awul Anane(ph), said the rest of the one-and-a-half-million Palestinians in Gaza were watching their economy and their society suffocate under the Israeli sanctions.

Mr. MOHAMMED AWUL ANANE: (Through translator) How can I describe it? There's no other word for it but tragedy, a tragedy. People are living as if they're already in their graves.

KENYON: Israel defends the blockade, saying it has no intention of letting Gaza's Hamas rulers acquire new weapons and military-style fortifications so they can resume firing rockets at southern Israeli towns. Israeli officials have also defended their decision to send an elite naval commando unit to raid a Turkish-registered aid ship two weeks ago. The raid left eight Turks and a Turkish-American dead and sparked an outcry that has evolved into mounting international pressure to at least ease the blockade and perhaps allow in items such as cement and steel to help rebuild Gaza's shattered infrastructure.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

KENYON: Twenty-five-year-old Mohammed Howaja(ph) has a slightly dazed look as he steps onto the Egyptian side of Rafah. It's the first time in his life that he's set foot out of Gaza, he says, and he's off to Alexandria to study law. When asked how he got approval to leave, he said as with many of his fellow travelers, he paid someone off.

Mr. MOHAMMED HOWAJA: (Through translator) Five times this month I tried to get a permit, and each time I was turned down. Finally, I brought money. I paid in order to come out.

KENYON: When asked how many Gazans would leave if they had the chance, he immediately said all of them. And it was hard to tell if he was joking.

Amr Moussa's visit to Gaza lasted several hours, and the Gaza blockade may continue to get international attention, with more aid flotillas in the offing.

At the moment, support for the Palestinians of Gaza seems to be on a rare upward trend, while analysts say Israel is looking increasingly isolated. Israel's defense minister canceled a trip to Paris - in part, officials said, because of difficult questions he might face. But as far as 35-year-old Palestinian Essam Ellion(ph) is concerned, Gazans have a long and forlorn history of trying to live on kind words of solidarity, and it's not working.

Mr. ESSAM ELLION: (Through translator) As far as I can tell, it's just empty talk, just words piled on words. I'm without hope right now. There's nothing real, nothing we can touch or see on the ground when it comes to ending the siege.

KENYON: These Palestinians who have just walked out of a tiny, overcrowded coastal strip where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, say that kind of pessimism may be one of the few things growing in Gaza these days.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: Thanks to Ahmed Abuhanda(ph), who contributed to this report from Gaza.

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