Palestinian enclave among settlers hopes for relief
AL-MAWASI, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - In a Palestinian enclave marooned between Jewish settlers and the Mediterranean Sea, farmers watch crops rot in rich soil and fishing boats rust on palm-fringed beaches under Israeli army surveillance.
Al-Mawasi was once a centre of relative prosperity in Gaza. That ended when Israeli forces, fighting a Palestinian uprising, cut off the community by extending a settlement security cordon around it to deny militants a beachhead for attacks.
But after years of isolation from jobs, markets and relatives in the rest of Gaza, al-Mawasi's 7,000 Palestinians see relief on the horizon with Israel's planned withdrawal from the occupied territory in August.
They hope that the days will soon be over when they can only gaze glumly from their decaying community, where donkey carts outnumber cars, at thriving settlements.
"We look forward to escaping this open-air prison within a prison," said farmer Muhammad Hassan Abu-Baluza, alluding to al-Mawasi and to Gaza at large, dotted with Jewish enclaves that restrict Palestinian travel and trade within the territory.
Running 15 km (8 miles) along the coast and one km (half a mile) inland, al-Mawasi once flourished from vegetable and citrus harvests on what is Gaza's most fertile land, deep-sea fishing, and day-trippers visiting its stunning dune beaches.
Some residents worked in the nearby Palestinian towns of Khan Younis and Rafah, or even on construction sites and in greenhouses of the adjacent Gush Katif settlement bloc.
Israel slammed the door shut in 2001, soon after the uprising began, when an al-Mawasi labourer killed his settler employer.
Travel to and from al-Mawasi was reduced to one checkpoint, shut for long periods by security alerts. Israel banned males in the typical 16-35 age bracket of militants from crossing.
CLAMPDOWN SEPARATES FAMILIES
As a result, families have been separated for years as menfolk found themselves stuck on either side of the Tuffah checkpoint, complaining of collective punishment.
Large amounts of farm produce and fish have spoiled in unrefrigerated trucks, trapped in lengthy inspections at the checkpoint. Whatever gets through unscathed must be reloaded on trucks on the other side, inflating costs.
An Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire declared in February has sharply reduced violence. But al-Mawasi inhabitants and relief officials say that while the checkpoint stays open longer most days now and the transit ban has been narrowed to males between 16 and 25, the inspection regime remains as tough as ever.
With resignation, Muhammad an-Najar lets most of his tomatoes rot where they drop because he knows they will not survive the heat of a checkpoint wait even if they are sent only to nearby Gaza City, let alone Israel or the West Bank.
Most of his vegetable and fruit plots have gone to seed for the same reason. Semi-abandoned fields dotted with refuse abound in the enclave.
"I sell some tomatoes and peppers locally but for just a fifth of the pre-uprising price since people can afford so little here now, which means I make only enough to feed my family," said Najar, 50, an affable father of 14.
His old Mercedes decays in his sandy driveway because he cannot bring it to Khan Younis for repair. Like many in al Muwasi, Najar is reduced to a donkey cart for getting around.
He took it down to the beach, as he does most days, to await the return of two teenage sons, fishing from the small, rickety family boat not far offshore.
"Didn't catch much, Dad. Couldn't go far enough out," one son said later, encapsulating the plight of local anglers.
Fishing hauls have fallen sharply as Israel has barred access to the best fishing grounds far offshore and enforced the rule at times with gunboats firing over the heads of fishermen.
PERMITS TO GO FISHING
Larger skiffs able to go out the maximum permitted 10 nautical miles must be kept in compounds under army control, with permits required for each voyage. Many fishermen have given up and idle boats litter the beaches.
"We often can't get permits in a timely way so we can fish at times when fish are most plentiful. So we sit around a lot on shore," said Abu Smail, 34, a father of eight. "I used to bring in 70-80 boxes of fish a day. Now it's 10-15 in a month."
To dodge the permit rule, some fishermen like the Najars put out to sea from open beach areas not under permanent army watch. But they can only use small boats unsuited to deep waters.
The army says its security net is vital to preventing infiltrations of militants or weapons-smuggling into what is the only place in Gaza where Palestinians and Israelis live without a physical barrier between them.
But incidents have been rare. Settlers, usually armed, routinely cross al-Mawasi to their own guarded beach spots.
"Improvement in the security situation and a declining rate in terror attacks will allow further easing of restrictions," an Israeli military source said, citing "the recent relative calm".
Every day finds some al-Mawasi residents sitting in the sand of a buffer strip waiting to be frisked by troops for the chance of an odd job in settler greenhouses, or for a signal to collect people or goods passing the checkpoint from Khan Younis.
Israel's security squeeze also cut off local Palestinians from schooling and medical care in Khan Younis and Rafah.
As al-Mawasi lost the ability to sustain itself, the regional U.N. relief agency UNRWA pitched in with emergency aid and job-creation programmes, which have focused on removing mountains of garbage that pose a disease risk.
Mahmoud Hassan Zorob, 53, had his feet up behind the counter of his beachfront grocery and cafe, awaiting rare customers and daydreaming about a return to good times after Israelis leave.
"I used to have 20 tables with sun umbrellas here and they were full every day. I even had portable showers for the swimmers," he said above the roar of the surf. "Life was once pretty good here. God willing, it will be once again."
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