Middle East

Focus on Gaza hardship after raid

Man breaking stones in Gaza - 5/06/10

The frustrated attempts by activists to sail boats like the Rachel Corrie to Gaza has thrown the spotlight on life inside the territory under Israel's blockade, as the BBC's Jon Donnison reports from Gaza City.

At the Gaza City port, dotted with small fishing boats, a young Hamas policeman dressed in black and with a Kalashnikov tucked under his arm, lent over and smiled.

"Are the Israelis going to let the ship the Rachel Corrie come?" he asked.

I told him it was unlikely. He offered me a resigned look, sucking through his nicotine-stained teeth.

He did not want to give his name, but I asked whether he supported Hamas claims that this week's events had been a victory for the Islamist movement.

"I just work for them," he replied. "I am not political, but they pay well."

The teenage officer told me his salary was about $500 (£345) a month, a good wage in Gaza. It is more than he used to get working on a farm, before it was destroyed by Israel.

Hamas is now one of the biggest employers in Gaza.

As in most places, many people here are disillusioned with their politicians.

Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006. The US, the EU and Israel refused to recognise the result.

And after Hamas violently forced their secular rivals Fatah from the territory, Israel's blockade of Gaza, already in place, was tightened.

Fewer rockets

People here, including Hamas politicians, believe the Free Gaza flotilla achieved its aim. It focussed the world's attention on Israel's blockade.

Image caption People in Gaza depend largely on humanitarian aid

Israel says the blockade is necessary to put pressure on Hamas. Militant groups have fired thousands of rockets out of Gaza into Israel over the past decade.

But the number of rockets has greatly reduced since Israel's major offensive in Gaza 18 months ago.

There is still sporadic fire. But on the whole it is ineffectual, with the rockets usually landing in open fields and sometime failing to clear the border.

In the past 18 months one Thai farm worker has been killed in Israel by a rocket fired by militants in Gaza.

Israel is adamant that its policy towards Gaza will not change and the blockade will continue.

Crossing opened

But this week there has been a significant development in Egypt. After Monday's deaths aboard the Free Gaza flotilla, the Egyptian government opened up the Rafah crossing into Gaza for an indefinite period.

Egypt occasionally does this, but usually it is only for a limited number of days.

The Egyptian government is also no friend of Hamas, which is an offshoot of the main outlawed opposition party in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood.

That is why Egypt has also in effect had Gaza under blockade for almost three years.

Millions of dollars worth of goods are smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt.

Items as big as cars are being brought through to order.

The operation of the tunnels in Rafah is massive and totally in the open. White tents cover the tunnel entrances and huge mounds of earth dug out of the ground are everywhere.

Egypt has been building a multi-million-dollar, bomb-proof underground barrier, supposedly to stop the tunnelling operation.

The tunnel diggers have just cut through using high-powered blowtorches.

But this week the Rafah crossing has been open. Buses and lorries laden with fridges, cookers and food swept in through the crossing.

Image caption People and goods have been using the newly-reopened Rafah crossing

The air was full of the smell of diesel and dust from the occasional sandstorm.

In a cafe at the crossing, anxious Gazans smoking shisha and drinking tea waited for relatives to return from Egypt.

Many Gazans cross the border, if they are allowed, for medical treatment in Egypt.

Muhammad Abu Hassera, a hotel waiter in Gaza, said he was waiting for his mother.

"I've not seen her for five months," he said.

"I'm excited but she'll be asking me why I haven't got married yet," he added with a laugh.

Also at the crossing but going the other way, another Muhammad. He is Gazan but has been living with his wife and children in Brighton, England, for the last six years.

He has been visiting his parents and relatives here for the last five weeks.

"The blockade has made everything so expensive," he says. "In Brighton you pay 50 pence (£0.5, $0.7) for a can of Coke. Here in Gaza you pay 5 shekels, almost a pound."

Does he support Hamas? "I am not political but the fact is Hamas are the reality for the moment."

Muhammad says he lost his cousin in last year's major Israeli offensive in which the United Nations says 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

But everyone is being punished by Israel, he says. "Life is too hard. People are just waiting for death."

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