RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We now turn to a place where prosperity still seems to be a long way off - the Gaza Strip. Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza for the last several years, leaving the territory even more dependent than usual on aid from the United Nations.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, Israel began easing the blockade last summer and has been allowing most consumer goods into the territory. Recently, Israel began allowing a few exports to leave Gaza, and trade is expected to expand even more in the coming months.
MONTAGNE: But critics say it's still not nearly enough.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro visited Gaza and filed this report.
Mr. BASSEM ABU HALOUB: (Foreign language spoken)
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mmm.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a good strawberry.
After years of not being able to export his strawberries, Bassem Abu Haloub's first shipment bound to Europe went out last week. He's standing in what seems an incongruous place for a strawberry field - surrounded on all sides by sand dunes. These strawberries and some flowers for export are part of a small but important easing of the Israeli restrictions Gazans have been living under since the militant group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007.
The move by Israel was desperately needed, says Bassem. Internal conflicts, a blockade and a punishing war two winters ago devastated the economy here.
Mr. HALOUB: (Through translator) Ninety percent of the farmers in Gaza had their farms destroyed. We are in massive debt. We haven't been able to export for years. But each year we had to plant in order to survive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bassem owes $20,000 to creditors - a fortune here in Gaza. The reason: he rents land, he has to buy fertilizer and insect repellant every year to make a living. But because he hasn't been able to export, he's had to sell his produce locally at about a tenth of what he would get from European buyers.
Mr. HALOUB: (Through translator) We are the best farmers in the world. All we want is to open the crossings so we can export. That way I can pay back my debt. All I need is a year.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Close to two million Palestinians live in Gaza, and because most economic life has been strangled, the vast majority of them depend on welfare. The United Nations is the lifeline, but it's running out of funds, says John Ging, the head of the U.N. mission in Gaza.
Mr. JOHN GING (U.N.): What's changed is the global financial crisis, so every country that has been donating to us is struggling themselves with their own financial circumstance. Unfortunately, here the needs are growing so we are giving out less food to more people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's important to allow exports, he says, because that will inject life into the economy and get people off the breadline. But so far Israel's easing of the blockade has not made a tangible impact, he says.
Mr. GING: These positive developments have yet to translate into making a significant difference in the lives of ordinary people here. So now to turn that around, we have to see a very significant increase in the access.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another one of the most visible signs of the difficult circumstances here is in the school system.
(Soundbite of children playing)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm standing in the courtyard of one of the many schools sponsored by the United Nations here in Gaza City, and all around me are dozens of tiny children. (Foreign language spoken) Hello.
Unidentified Child: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The boys are dressed in button-down blue shirts and the girls are wearing pinstriped smocks. And the courtyard is extremely crowded, which is an indication teachers here say of a wider problem.
Ms. RADIA SHURAFA (Headmistress): (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Radia Shurafa is the headmistress here.
Ms. SHURAFA: (Through translator) Usually, there shouldn't be more than 30 children per classroom. And now some classes have 50 students per teacher.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The U.N. doesn't have the money to hire new teachers, and the slow pace of construction materials coming in has meant there's limited space.
Guy Inbar is a spokesman for the Israeli authority that deals with Gaza.
Mr. GUY INBAR (Israeli Spokesman): We don't want a terror organization to use those building materials to their purposes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel continues to restrict shipments of steel and concrete to Gaza, fearing that Hamas militants will use it for, say, bunkers. Inbar says Israel is continuing to ease its blockade of Gaza to help ordinary Gazans, but it will take time because there are issues of capacity. Only one out of four border crossings is open. And security: everything has to be checked before it can go in or out of the Gaza Strip.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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