As World Focuses On Gaza, Grim Lives Go On A second humanitarian aid ship is heading toward the Gaza Strip in the latest attempt to defy a three-year Israeli naval blockade. For ordinary Gazans, life remains difficult: Most people rely on food aid and are living below the poverty level, and a sense of hopelessness pervades.
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As World Focuses On Gaza, Grim Lives Go On

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As World Focuses On Gaza, Grim Lives Go On

As World Focuses On Gaza, Grim Lives Go On

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

An Irish humanitarian aid ship is heading toward the Gaza Strip today, the latest attempt to defy an Israeli naval blockade. Israel says the vessel Rachel Corrie will be stopped, and that the blockade will continue as a matter of security. On Monday, Israeli commandos raided a Turkish aid ship, nine activists were killed, and the violence has reignited international debate over the blockade. We'll hear about the debate within Israel in a few moments.

But first, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Gaza on what life is like for one and half million Palestinians who've been living under Israeli sanctions for the past three years.

(Soundbite of live music)

PETER KENYON: Palestinian activists took to the sea yesterday in boats flying Turkish flags, as if to meet the international activists who'd tried to reach them. No one was surprised when they came back empty-handed, but people waved and cheered at the Turkish flags fluttering past.

Not far away, in the offices of the Islamist Hamas movement that runs Gaza, officials also cheered on the Turks: a nation of moderate, Western-leaning Muslims that Hamas once scorned as insufficiently faithful.

Now, Hamas official Ahmed Yousef compares Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan with Egypt's legendary pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Mr. AHMED YOUSEF (Hamas Official): When I looked to Erdogan talking, I remember Abdel Nasser. That's the approach to gain the Arabs' hearts and mind: Palestine, Jerusalem, al-Aqsa. So Turkey, to the people, is like the salvation.

KENYON: But most Gazans don't have time to sing Turkey's praises. They're too busy looking for work or standing in line for charity. At the Zeitoun distribution center run by the U.N. refugee agency, Samia, a tall woman in a black abaya and scarf, says most everyone she knows relies on emergency food aid.

SAMIA: (Through Translator) This is where we get the food: white flour, sugar, cooking oil, some canned meat and rice. The majority of Gazans are depending on this food, because in so many of our families no one has a job.

(Soundbite of birds and traffic)

KENYON: At Gaza's central market - where songbirds provide the Muzak - there is ample evidence to support Israel's assertion that food is not lacking in Gaza. Fruit, vegetables, fish and canned goods fill the stalls on both sides of the street. But shop owners say few Gazans can afford to buy.

Seventy five-year-old Salem Abu Assef is old enough to have lived through much of the Arab-Israeli conflict, so he may be exaggerating when he says people here have never suffered like this before. But he says what worries him most is the sense of hopelessness that's poisoning the young generation. His own clothing shop is well stocked with shirts and pants, but not because of Israeli largesse.

Mr. SALEM ABU ASSEF (Shop Owner): (Through Translator) None of these things came for Israel. All of it was smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt.

KENYON: Other shop owners make sour jokes about how Israel is Gaza's new diet consultant. They say one week, pasta is banned. Why, they ask, will Hamas make tiny rockets out of penne? And the next week, coriander might be blocked as a luxury item.

At the U.N. refugee agency offices, Deputy Director Christer Nordahl, ticks off the reasons the U.N. believes Gaza is facing a humanitarian crisis: 40 percent unemployment, 50,000 homeless, 800,000 dependent on food aid, 80 percent of the population living below a poverty line of $2 a day. One hundred new schools urgently needed, with no construction material to build them because Israel fears they could be used by Hamas for military purposes.

Nordahl argues that preventing Gazans from rebuilding their shattered infrastructure does nothing to enhance Israel's security. And as for the militants, they have other means of rearming.

Mr. CHRISTER NORDAHL (Deputy Director, Relief and Works Agency, United Nations): Because the tunnels that exist between Gaza and Egypt does allow anything to be smuggled in. If somebody want to bring in something that shouldn't be here, there is no problem for them to do that.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KENYON: Meanwhile, Gaza construction workers are left to pulverize rubble and rocks, trying to create enough recycled material to rebuild a tiny fraction of what was destroyed by the Israeli military in past conflicts. It's back-straining work, and it leaves little time at the end of the day to wonder if this international uproar will be the one that finally changes things for the better.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Gaza.

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