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Gaza Withdrawal May Usher in New Economy

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Gaza Withdrawal May Usher in New Economy

Middle East

Gaza Withdrawal May Usher in New Economy

Gaza Withdrawal May Usher in New Economy

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With Israel evacuating troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, new talk is circulating about a Palestinian economy.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

After the disengagement Palestinians will begin the process of rebuilding Gaza. Israel will maintain a security cordon as well as control of the waters off the coast and the airspace. Palestinians say that will make an economic revival difficult, and they're asking for much greater freedom of movement for goods and people. NPR's Peter Kenyon has that story from Gaza City.

PETER KENYON reporting:

For many former Gaza settlers, the evacuation means a sudden drop in living standards as they're transferred to smaller temporary housing or hotels. For Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians, the evacuation has hammered home the economic chasm between them and the departing Jewish settlers. At a news conference last week, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat interrupted his businesslike briefing on the issues facing Gazans to describe the anger that welled up inside him as he watched television footage from inside the settlements.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Palestinian Cabinet Minister): I could not believe that we have such mansions in the Gaza Strip with so many poor. I cannot believe that 30 meters from this mansion there exists a society of six persons to a square meter.

KENYON: The Israeli occupation of Gaza has always been a story of massive imbalance in living conditions, in freedom of movement, in economic opportunity. That imbalance is on display daily at the Karni border crossing(ph).

(Soundbite of forklifts)

KENYON: Forklifts shift pallet loads of cargo into position for inspection and loading onto trucks that will cross the high concrete wall separating Gaza from Israel. The workers have been held up by a visiting delegation of Palestinian officials, who are negotiating with Israel to loosen the restrictions now in place at the crossing. For some, the future of a post-Israeli Gaza will be determined right here.

Mr. GHASSAN KHATIB (Palestinian Planning Minister): From our perspective, the make or break as for this disengagement process is the movement of goods and person.

KENYON: Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib.

Mr. KHATIB: If you ask for statistics here about how much of the cargo is coming to Gaza or how much is leaving, you will be astonished by the lack of balance.

KENYON: A few yards away the head of security for Gaza border crossings, Salim Abu Safiyah, is giving the details of Gaza's status as a captive market. He says on an average day at least 300 trucks carry goods in from Israel, but only 50 get out from Gaza into Israel. The problem, he says, is the lengthy inspection process as Israeli security personnel look for illegal goods, weapons or explosives. He says with more cooperation Gaza could get 200 trucks out a day, but in the meantime Palestinian goods are blocked from their markets, and produce rots before it can be delivered.

Israeli officials haven't forgotten the deadly Palestinian suicide attacks at Karni and other border crossings, and they say security will remain a top priority even after the pullout. Talks are now ongoing to see if technology can be found to provide adequate security without making Karni such a bottleneck for Palestinian goods.

(Soundbite of warehouse activity)

KENYON: In the warehouse near the Karni crossing, some three dozen Palestinians, all men, earn about $16 a day sewing together shirts, pants and other clothes for Israeli companies in Tel Aviv. Manager Ibrahim Shahim(ph) says he could handle a lot of work if he could guarantee faster delivery through Karni.

Mr. IBRAHIM SHAHIM (Warehouse Manager): (Through Translator) When the crossing is open and there are no problems, things go smoothly. Our main concern is the closure of the crossing.

KENYON: Nigel Roberts, with the World Bank, says he's relatively optimistic that new, large-scale scanners may provide part of the answer. These huge X-ray machines can, in many cases, scan an entire truckload without unloading the cargo. In the meantime, he says Israel is at least considering a new cargo regime with a security escort. That would allow the same truck to cross from the West Bank into Israel and from Israel into Gaza without unloading at each border. But as with so many critical issues facing Israel and the Palestinians, no final decision has been reached. Roberts says unless Israel relaxes the closures on Gaza, there's very little hope for economic revival and, in fact, a high likelihood that things will get worse.

Mr. NIGEL ROBERTS (World Bank): You have such high unemployment rates here in Gaza that unless this is addressed very shortly, you will do nothing to alleviate the tremendous frustration, particularly by those between the ages of 16 and 25, among whom unemployment rates in certain parts are virtually total and many of whom have never seen a job.

KENYON: Roberts says in the near term the donor community can and should accelerate short-term employment projects, especially for young Palestinians, those most likely to be attracted to radical factions when left idle. But he says public spending can only go so far, and somehow difficult security issues must be resolved so that Palestinians here can have greater access to markets and materials outside. Otherwise, he describes the economic future here in a word: abysmal. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Gaza.

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