Palestinians Await Changes in Gaza

As the days draw nearer to the historic August Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are both hopeful of the future and fearful of the changes to come.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

As the August date for withdrawal nears, the people of Gaza are taking stock and imagining life with no Jewish settlers or soldiers. NPR's Julie McCarthy visited the Gaza Strip and sent this report on the mixed emotions she found among residents.

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Palestinian lawmaker Ziyad Abu Amr suggests that the removal of Israelis from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation will be a deeply visceral experience for Palestinians.

Mr. ZIYAD ABU AMR (Palestinian Legislator): The physical departure of settlers is like extracting a foreign object from the body of the Palestinians. They will have a sense of liberation of some sort, so this is very important.

McCARTHY: Fifty-five-year-old Mohannad Khalil Talfiq(ph) says he feels a sense of emancipation with the historic withdrawal, and believes the Israelis do, too.

(Soundbite of men talking in foreign language)

McCARTHY: Talfiq journeys to Israel each day, where he has worked in construction for most of the past three decades. At day's end, he crosses back into Gaza, navigating a tangle of turnstiles, barbed wire and cement walls known as the Erez crossing. This tile layer, who has more experience with Israelis than most Palestinians, calls their planned pullout from Gaza the first step toward an independent Palestinian state, a state he says his grandchildren will see.

Mr. MOHANNAD KHALIL TALFIQ (Tile Layer): (Through Translator) Because I know that the Israelis want it, also. They don't want to be occupiers anymore. It's only their government and the radicals, the religious among them, who are standing as an obstacle against it. Otherwise, all the Israeli people, they really want peace as much as we do want it as Palestinians.

McCARTHY: The Erez crossing hasn't been this bustling in a while. With the recent lull in violence, Israel has reopened the passage and says 5,000 workers cross into Israel a day. Thirty thousand had work permits before the Palestinian uprising, making work in Israel Gaza's economic lifeline. But it could be severed. Citing security, senior Israeli officials talk about phasing out all Palestinian workers inside Israel after 2008. Gaza-based economist Omar Shaban says that would be ruinous for Gaza, where the World Bank says about half the population already lives below the poverty line.

Mr. OMAR SHABAN (Economist): Gaza has no natural resources, very small area. Without trading with the Israeli economy, which is considered one of the biggest economy in the Middle East, Gaza cannot survive.

McCARTHY: The threatened closure of the nearby Erez industrial zone, which straddles the border, also puts Gaza at risk. The zone's 200 businesses, half of them Palestinian, once employed 5,000 workers from Gaza, churning out everything from plastics to car parts, even as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raged. But the zone became the target of deadly Palestinian attacks the past two years, and Israeli firms pulled out, plunging production there. When it disengages, Israel will transfer the industrial park to the Palestinian Authority.

(Soundbite of hammering; machinery)

McCARTHY: Gaza businessman Amir Sayad Silmi(ph) says the pending Israeli pullout has already produced painful losses, including the plummeting property values inside the industrial estate. Silmi is building this seaside wedding hall, a safer financial bet, he says, than the industrial zone, where he's already lost $2 million in his carpentry business and been forced to lay off most of his employees.

Mr. AMIR SAYAD SILMI (Businessman): (Through Translator) My life ended in that. I will have no reason to live but to come and to sit in this place. All my business has been collapsed. There were 400 beneficiaries out of my work, and I have nothing. It's all collapsed.

McCARTHY: Silmi laments Israel's leaving Gaza.

(Soundbite of water running; children talking)

McCARTHY: There's no such sentiment on the southern end of the Gaza Strip. Along the Egyptian border, Palestinian resistance has seethed in this poverty-racked city of Rafa, where residents draw drinking water from a public fountain and fly the flags of militant factions from their roofs. Palestinian fighters tunnel under the border, smuggling arms from Egypt. According to the UN, the Israeli army destroyed 1,400 buildings trying to close the tunnels. Sitting in her shell-pocked home, Zuba Baroud(ph) condemns the Israelis, but this mother of nine says the militants are also to blame for the distress.

Ms. ZUBA BAROUD (Mother): (Through Translator) They never listen to us. They even threaten us, and the last time they were shooting on us. I was shouting from the window, `I have sick people here. Please, go away. Find another place.' But then I was so afraid from them. I was afraid from the Israelis and from them.

McCARTHY: But fear is fading. Baroud's 24-year-old son, Jihad(ph), says without Israelis, Gaza will be a more tranquil, prosperous place.

JIHAD: (Through Translator) If the Israelis leave from here, it will be quiet. It will be peace. There will be jobs for all of my brothers who have no jobs. There will be stability, security, thinking of future. Yes, I do hope, and I touch that hope.

McCARTHY: But that hoped-for stability is imperiled by the plethora of Palestinian militias and extremist groups spawned by the conflict with Israel.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

McCARTHY: Masked gunmen fire into the air with impunity here, emboldened by Israel's planned pullout. Lawmaker Ziyad Abu Amr says most Palestinians believe the armed resistance is the reason Israel is leaving Gaza.

Mr. ABU AMR: In the minds of the Palestinians, this is a defeat to the occupation. And I think this will go in history as an important conclusion, that occupiers can only be forced to end their occupations.

McCARTHY: But the militants also pose a direct challenge to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is struggling to impose order after Israel's withdrawal. Ghazi Hamad is editor in chief of the Islamist weekly newspaper al-Rissalah. Hamad says Abbas will be powerless to shut down the militants, even with the settlers gone from Gaza, as long as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon maintains the larger Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Mr. GHAZI HAMAD (Editor in Chief, al-Rissalah): He wants just to give us only Gaza. We want West Bank and Gaza as one geographical and political unit. Now the Palestinian factions, if they feel this is kind of a trick and they're cheating the Palestinians, they will continue attacks against Israel. This bloodshed will not stop.

McCARTHY: Gaza-based psychiatrist Iyad El-Sarraj(ph) says most Palestinians do not seem ready for reconciliation with Israel, and vice versa. Instead, he sees the making of a third intifada.

Dr. IYAD EL-SARRAJ (Psychiatrist): The militants--now they have power. They're not going to lose it easily in the name of law and order or the name of building a Palestinian state or in the name of peace.

McCARTHY: Nor, says Sarraj, will Mahmoud Abbas dare try to disarm groups such as Hamas, whose near-clean sweep in local elections here has only complicated matters for the Palestinian leadership.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

McCARTHY: Hamas has appeal on Gaza's college campuses. Sitting in a lab at Azhar University, American-trained molecular biologist Rana Farouk Al-Fara(ph) says Americans ought to be keenly interested in post-disengagement Gaza.

Ms. RANA FAROUK AL-FARA (Molecular Biologist): If you think the Middle East is the source of terrorism, of hatred, of unstability, then all what the Middle East needs is a normal life, where we don't have to worry about food or worry about movement or worry about the future.

McCARTHY: But Gazans say without greater freedom over their own affairs, there is no future. Israel says Palestinians can rebuild their seaport, and says talks are ongoing about opening a corridor between Gaza and the West Bank. But Israelis say they will not allow Palestinians to reopen the Gaza airport, nor will they give up control, for now, of the land entry from Egypt. Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan says without those links, Gaza will continue to be under the yoke of Israel.

Mr. MOHAMMED DAHLAN (Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `It will simply mean,' Dahlan says, `a repackaging of the occupation, a repackaging,' he says, `neither side can afford.' Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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