Israel Decreases Fuel Shipments to Gaza

Israel is cutting back on vital fuel shipments to the Gaza Strip due to near daily rocket fire from Palestinian militants into Israeli border towns. The U.N. has denounced the rocket attacks but it has also warned Israel against punishing ordinary Gazans who are slipping deeper into poverty and isolation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to the Middle East - where Israel has began to cut back on vital fuel shipments to the Gaza Strip. It's doing that because of near-daily rocket fire from Palestinian militants into Israeli towns on the border. The U.N. has denounced the rocket attacks, but it's also warned Israel against punishing ordinary Gazans who are slipping deeper into poverty and isolation.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has one man's story.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Salahadin al-Sultan's(ph) family grocery store occupies prime retail space, as prime as you can get really, in the battered Gaza Strip. It sits in the junction of a main thoroughfare in the town of Beit Hanoun. It's near a school and a densely-packed neighborhood.

The store, once thrived, but these days you can chart the economic decline of Gaza in the way Sultan has had to sell off his store and home piece by piece over the last two years.

Mr. SALAHADIN AL-SULTAN (Grocery Store Owner; Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip): (Through translator) This is supposed to be a market with meat and everything. But as you can see, we have almost nothing available. Customers ask for rice, oil, beef - I have nothing.

WESTERVELT: About all that's left on his shelves, some eggs, a jar each of instant coffee and creamer, a few cans of a semi-mysterious processed meat product from Brazil and old boxes of chocolate-covered wafers. His shelves aren't just there. He's had to sell off some of the metal shelves themselves, and he's had to sell two of the store's refrigerators.

Since the militant Islamist group Hamas took over Gaza by force in mid-June, Israel has tightened its crossing points into the territory. Almost nothing is getting exported, and only limited humanitarian food and medical supplies are coming in. Rocket fire into Israel has continued, and now Israel is further tightening the screws.

Mr. AL-SULTAN: (Through translator) Things were bad before, but it gets much worse when the Hamas won the elections, and even worse, after they took over all of Gaza.

WESTERVELT: Unemployment continues to soar here. Many government workers still get only partial salaries. That means Sultan's customers are trying to live on every shrinking lines of credit. Israeli banks have cut off all business ties to Gaza after the government declared Gaza a hostile entity. All of this is part of the cash flow crisis in Gaza that has crippled small businessmen like 39-year-old Salahadin al-Sultan.

He flips through a book of receipts showing customers all in more than 15,000 Israeli shekels, or nearly $4,000.

Mr. AL-SULTAN: (Through translator) People owe me money, but they can't me pay back. And traders are asking me for their money back and I can't pay them. So I'm trapped in the middle.

WESTERVELT: It's not just the store that's been denuded, move upstairs to his apartment, the rooms are all but deserted. The family of five has had to get rid of almost everything to buy food and pay for utilities. A few plastic chairs, floor cushions and a small TV are all that's left of this once comfortable three-bedroom flat.

Mr. SULTAN: (Through translator) All this was full of very nice furniture, but as you can see now, it's empty. Nothing here at all.

WESTERVELT: Like many Gaza families, Sultan has had to part with all of wife's gold jewelry, traditionally a mainstay dowry and a foundation of a family's savings here. The hardest cut though, Sultan says, was when he and his wife decided to sell his gold wedding ring.

Mr. SULTAN: (Through translator) It was more difficult for me than selling all the shop, but my wife insisted. She said, you have no other choice. You have to sell it.

WESTERVELT: Beit Hanoun remains a favorite launching area for militants who fire homemade Kasam rockets into Israel. And because of the rocket fire, the town is regular target of Israeli air strikes and commando raids including one yesterday.

(Soundbite of cart)

A child steering a wooden cart pulled by a donkey ambles by Sultan's shop. The kid is selling potatoes and onions from a few forlorn boxes. He's trotting past a refilled crater where Israel bombs struck last year just 30 yards from Sultan's shop smashing his windows.

This is our life, Sultan says, and shuffles back in to what's left of his grocery store.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Beit Hanoun, Gaza.

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