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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, we begin a series on one of the most isolated places in the Middle East: the Gaza Strip.

Ruled by the militant Islamists of Hamas, Gaza is home to almost 2 million Palestinians, most of whom are unable to leave. Both Egypt and Israel - Gaza's neighbors - restrict travel and trade with Gaza.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently spent several weeks in this coastal Palestinian territory and today, we hear her report on the impact of a partial easing of the blockade - or what Palestinians call the siege of Gaza.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anwar Abu al-Qays's corner shop is bulging with Israeli goods not seen on the shelves here for three years. Items are stacked up to the roof, some precariously, like mini towers of Pisa made out of packages covered with Hebrew script. Chocolate, diet soft drinks, diapers - he says the goods coming in from Israel are cheap and good quality.

Mr. ANWAR ABU AL-QAYS (Merchant): (Through Translator) Before, we only got very limited things from Israel. Now, in terms of foodstuffs and household goods, everything is coming in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But he adds that the siege of Gaza by Israel is far from over.

Mr. AL-QAYS: (Through Translator) Laborers are our main customers, and no one has work or money. So however much I'm selling, it's still not as much as if people had jobs here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just a 45-minute drive from the city of Tel Aviv with its skyscrapers and resorts, Gaza is a ramshackle collection of villages and cities embraced by the sea like a toothless smile. It's only 25 miles long, about seven miles wide, and it's really crowded.

Everywhere you go, there's the constant hum of life: the rattle of donkey-drawn carts, the roar of motorcycles, the shouts of children playing in the streets. You are never alone in Gaza; you can't be. The territory feels like a crumbling, densely packed ship that is slowly sinking under the weight of debris.

Eighteen months after Israel's last major military incursion into Gaza, and everything seems cracked or badly pasted back together. Even the few new buildings that have sprung up only serve to make the general air of decay here more palpable.

Most Gazans are refugees or their descendents - Palestinians who were made homeless by the 1948 or 1967 wars. Poverty, isolation, unemployment, lack of services and electricity make their lives almost unbearable. But there are a few signs of a new economic heartbeat, albeit thready and fragile.

Brightly packaged cookies are put together on this assembly line. This cavernous factory had been practically shuttered but now, owner Iyad Telbani has actually hired more people.

Mr. IYAD TELBANI (Factory Owner): (Through Translator) During the siege, it was about 150 employees, and they were only working a few shifts a month. Now, there are 250 workers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he needs to be able to sell his goods outside of Gaza.

Mr. TELBANI: (Through Translator) The fact is, the situation in Gaza won't improve unless they allow factories to export. I used to export 60 percent of my products to the West Bank.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With trade with the other Palestinian territory cut off, Gazans remain, more than ever, dependent on Israeli largesse.

Israel began curtailing trade and travel in Gaza after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel and many other Western nations consider Hamas a terrorist organization. In the summer of 2006, after Hamas militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier - Gilad Shalit, who remains in captivity - the blockade became more restrictive. A year later, Hamas seized control of Gaza, expelling members of the rival Fatah movement.

Since then, for the past three years, Israel has only allowed the most basic humanitarian aid into Gaza. Egypt, a longtime ally of Fatah, also restricted trade and travel.

But this summer, Israel came under heavy international pressure to ease the blockade, after an Israeli military raid on a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.

Mr. DANNY AYALON (Deputy Foreign Minister, Israel): Actions like a flotilla certainly is trying to put Israel in a no-win situation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Danny Ayalon is Israel's deputy foreign minister. He says Israel has to keep weapons and items that could be used for military fortifications out of Gaza, which is why it retains such tight restrictions on the land and sea borders. But he acknowledged in an interview with NPR that the punishing, three-year ban on most foodstuffs and other commodities was a mistake.

Mr. AYALON: Denying different items or products into Gaza was not that effective. Hence, now we have changed the policy altogether.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But people would say that you're - that what you're saying now is disingenuous, that this is only in reaction to pressure put on you after the Turkish flotilla incident.

Mr. AYALON: It certainly expedited this decision, but I believe this decision would have come up anyway.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The partial opening up of the crossings between Israel and Gaza has also had some unanticipated consequences.

Unidentified Man #1: Is that it?

Unidentified Man #2: Aye.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I am slowly being lowered down into one of the smuggling tunnels that crisscross the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. I'm sitting in a swing, being winched all the way to the bottom. Stop.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's very lonely at the bottom. Like some 60 percent of the tunnels, this one has shut down.

Tunnel owner Abu Jihad says before, everything would come through the tunnels: cars, food, even animals.

Mr. ABU JIHAD (Tunnel Owner): (Through Translator) Now, we bring in cement, paint, flooring material - things to build with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's because Israel won't allow building materials into Gaza, and there is a dire need here.

The Israeli military destroyed thousands of buildings in Gaza in the offensive that began in late 2008, responding to Palestinian rocket fire on nearby Israeli communities.

Many Gazans are still living amid the ruins, like the Abed Rabbo family.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Soad Abed Rabbo is the matriarch of this extended clan. Plump and impassive, dressed in black, she sits in a plastic chair outside in the shade to stay cool.

Her house was leveled in the fighting, and only the floor remained. Now, she and her family occupy what's left. Shelter and privacy come from a tent strung up over the house foundation. Soad says the fact that Israeli goods are coming into Gaza is irrelevant to her.

Ms. SOAD ABED RABBO: (Through Translator) What they have brought into Gaza is luxury items. I can't afford that. Ice cream? Chocolate? I don't need that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What she needs, she says, is building materials so she can have a proper home again.

Omar Shaban is a Gaza-based economist. He's consistently one of the more moderate voices here. He has worked in Israel and the U.S., and has a measured take on the conflict.

But this summer, he says he's finally decided he wants to leave Gaza for good, and take his children somewhere else. Banging his hand on the table as he speaks, he says despite the array of new foodstuffs on the shelves here, the Israeli siege continues.

Mr. OMAR SHABAN (Economist): Why you deal with us like animals? I'm in a prison, regardless to the quality of the food you provide to me, whether Movenpick or Sheraton provide me the food.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't want Sheraton food, he says. I want to be free.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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