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Saturday, December 12, 1998 Published at 18:22 GMT

World: Middle East

Gaza gears up for Clinton

President Clinton visits Gaza on 14 December

By Fayed Abu Shammala, Gaza correspondent for the BBC Arabic Service

Gaza has never looked as beautiful and clean as it does now.

Middle East
We have witnessed weeks of preparation and effort to make the territory look its best for the biggest guest to this area since Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority was established in 1994.

The Gaza Strip is a small area of land located along the Mediterranean shore in a strategic location where Asia meets Africa.

The total area is about 300km square, but at least 35% of it is still occupied by 20 Jewish settlements scattered around the Strip.

Home for 50 years

There are thought to be about 3,000 Jewish settlers, but there are about a million Palestinians living on the rest of the Strip. That makes it one of the most crowded places on earth.

About 600,000 of the Palestinians are refugees, most of them still living in very dirty, crowded and miserable conditions in eight refugee camps.

They have been here since 1948 when they left their towns and villages during the first Arab-Israeli war. Gaza itself was conquered and occupied by the Israelis in the war of 1967.

Militant groups in competition

The people of Gaza are very conservative and there are many religious people.

[ image: Muslim militants stage a
Muslim militants stage a "funeral" for the Oslo agreement
The militant Muslim group Hamas has widespread support here. So does Fatah, Yasser Arafat's faction within the PLO.

These two are in hot competition. The Intifada started in Gaza, 11 years ago last week, before it spread to the West Bank.

Gaza acts as a temporary Palestinian political capital until such time as the Palestinians' hopes for having their capital in Jerusalem are realised.

Gaza city has the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters and most of the diplomatic missions.

The territory has benefited from this status and a number of improvements have taken place since the PA came.

Shiny modern buildings have sprung up and there are new villas, new roads and infrastructure projects. But there is still much to be done in order to improve the economic and health situation of the people.

Prison with two gates

Gazans are considered a well-educated people, but there are not enough jobs.

Some graduates go to work in Israel on construction sites or whatever other work they can find.

[ image: The world's only airport without its own air space]
The world's only airport without its own air space
Unemployment is about 35%, rising to 50% when Israel impose closure on the Palestinian territories. The closures are very destructive to the Palestinian economy, but Gaza is the worst hit because it can be completely closed.

Some people say Gaza is a like big prison with two gates, one in the north, the Erez (Hanon) crossing where people go to Israel and the West Bank and the other in the south at Rafah where people can leave for Egypt.

At both of the crossings you need an Israeli permit to cross either way.

Last month Gaza got its own airport, two years later than the schedule of the Oslo accords. It only came into being after the Wye River Plantation agreement.

You still cannot travel to or from the airport without Israeli clearance. It must be the only international airport in the world which does not control its own airspace - just one of the many strange features of life in the Gaza Strip.

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