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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 16:14 GMT
Eyewitness: Bite of the blockade
Israeli army checkpoint
No-one can enter or leave Mawasi without a permit
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By Caroline Hawley
BBC correspondent in Gaza

With all the makings of a top holiday destination, it could be a small stretch of paradise.

But despite the palm-trees, sand-dunes and Mediterranean sea, residents of Mawasi say their homes have become an unliveable "hell" since the Palestinian uprising began 18 months ago.

About 1,000 Palestinian families live on a stretch of pristine coastline surrounded by the fenced-off Jewish settlements of Gush Katif - the main settlement block in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip.

Palestinian child at a checkpoint in Mawasi
It is not easy for the UN to get into Mawasi
Settlers have been a regular target of Palestinian militants and to try improve their safety, Israel has virtually imprisoned the residents of the area which Palestinians call Mawasi.

A senior UN official says it's become "one of the most isolated places on earth."

"It's easier to get into Paradise than to get into Mawasi," says housewife, Najah Farahat as she tries to get back into the area after travelling to nearby Rafah to buy groceries. "I'm telling you, though, it's Hell in there, not Heaven."

Only people with special permits are allowed in and out of the area, and they must travel by foot, crossing through sophisticated Israeli army scanners set up in the sand by a gate at the edge of the settlement block. It can take hours to be allowed to cross.

High security

For the children of Mawasi, school is a 5km walk. No Palestinian cars are allowed in or out of the settlement area.

There are no visitors - except when the United Nations comes to deliver food, occasionally accompanied by journalists. An entire community of fisherman, farmers and refugees now depends on UN donations to survive.

"Is this a life?" asked one man, complaining bitterly about a night-time curfew Israel has imposed on the residents of Mawasi for months.

Mawasi is a place of fly-blown misery, of checkpoints, and guns and barbed wire.

Yasser Arafat and Anthony Zinni
US envoy Zinni: Seeking ceasefire
Gunfire echoes through the improbably-named "Swedish village" section of Rafah refugee camp, at the southern edge of the Gush Katif block.

But there's little danger for the moment. It's only Israeli soldiers pumping bullets into the sea, as they practice their shooting skills from a sand-bagged army encampment at the edge of Mawasi.

Food shortages

"They do it 24-hours a day," says 60-year old grandmother, Rahma. "It's hard to sleep at night."

UN officials delivering food to Mawasi for the first time since February are besieged with appeals for help from desperate residents just emerging from a 10-day 24-hour curfew - their punishment for a recent shooting attack on one of the settlements in Gush Katif, carried out by a militant from outside the area.

"I don't have a single sack of flour in the house to feed the kids with," says a one-time fisherman, and father of three small daughters. A few hundred metres away, lies a long row of beached boats.

Farmers say their vegetables are rotting in the fields because they can't get their produce to market.

"What was our crime to deserve this?" asked 25-year old Samir Hanoun. " We can't even feed ourselves. This economic ruin is worse than a military attack."

UN Aid

The UN distributes food supplies every few weeks, but it's not allowed to bring in building materials to repair refugee shelters, according to Peter Hansen, the director of UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.

He describes Mawasi as a "blot" of misery.

"I think in many ways Mawasi is a microcosm of what's going on in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza," says Hansen. "You have extreme isolation, extreme poverty, very low level of access and very low levels of employment."

He doesn't believe Israel's security needs justify the "indecent lives" of the people of Mawasi.

"I'm sure that Israel feels the need to take security measures. But I feel they would be less insecure if they had not brought a population around them to the levels of human indecency in which these people live."

The BBC's James Reynolds
"A real test for US envoy Anthony Zinni"
See also:

20 Mar 02 | Middle East
Suicide attack on Israeli bus
20 Mar 02 | Middle East
Cheney offers olive branch to Arafat
18 Mar 02 | Middle East
Annan denounces Israel's offensive
20 Mar 02 | Middle East
Analysis: Blast hits Israeli Arabs
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