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Last Updated: Friday, 16 September 2005, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
Gazans enjoy their new freedoms

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, in Gaza

Since Israel withdrew the last of its soldiers from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have been enjoying a new freedom to move around their small strip of land. They have been walking inside the ruins of Israel's former settlements and using roads closed to them for decades.

There is a joke going round Gaza City these days:

Palestinian crowds in Rafah
Why is Gaza empty? Because everybody is here in Egyptian Rafah
The traffic jams are lighter, the restaurants looks emptier, how come? "Everyone's gone to Egypt", people say with a wink, and there's a little truth in what they say.

The border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is supposed to be closed, but since Israel left the area last Monday, man-made holes have appeared in the border wall and someone has propped a ladder up against it.

Now, suddenly, everyone seems to know someone who has popped over to Egypt, sometimes to visit family they have not seen for years, sometimes not.

If you had tried to squeeze through the border wall a month ago, or approach the settlements, you would probably have been shot. It is very different now.

Novelty purchase

The talk in the BBC Gaza office this week is not of people detained at the border or refused visas, it is of a friend who has gone to Egypt for a shopping trip - and come back with a camel he had not meant to buy.

Palestinians take back boxes of cigarette cartons to Gaza
Many prices are cheaper in Egypt than in neighbouring Gaza
People here are giddy with the new freedoms in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal.

The chaos at the border may not last forever. The Palestinian authorities say it is time to restore order. But for many of those who turned up at the border town of Rafah this week, it was a novelty even to get that far.

The Jewish settlements here made travelling around the Gaza Strip very difficult for its Palestinian residents.

Roads linking the settlements to Israel cut the Gaza Strip into sections, and meant long delays getting from place to place.

With a clear road, a good car and no checkpoints, driving from Gaza City to Rafah takes around half an hour. When Israeli troops closed the road, many families spent nights on the wrong side of the checkpoints, waiting to get home.

Escape for the soul

Few would risk these kinds of journeys if they did not have to. Families would go years without meeting. Now they are meeting again; travelling the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip, using roads previously reserved for Jewish settlers - and beaches too.

Some of Gaza's best coastline was cut off to Palestinians by the largest settlement bloc - Gush Katif.

Now, driving in to the ruins of Israel's settlements, they see it, many for the first time: the sun sparkling on a sea as wide as the sky, tiny crests of white slipping along the water before dissolving into the pale sand.

It has been reclaimed already - these days Israeli sunbathers have been replaced by small knots of Palestinian boys, shouting in the bright, clear water.

Gazans talk about the beaches here with respect - not just somewhere to enjoy the weekend, but also as places of psychological relief.

For many of those cramped for so long by Israeli roads, settlements and checkpoints, the view out to sea is the only official way they have to escape Gaza.

Seeking guarantees

Israel, worried about risks to its security, frequently prevents Gazans leaving this small strip of land.

Relatives reunited over border between Egypt and Gaza
How long the joyous celebrations will last is questionable
Israel has left Gaza but it still controls its official border crossings. The Palestinian Authority says it is planning to build a seaport on former settlement land. It also wants to rebuild its airport. But whether either will be able to function is up to Israel.

There is joy in Gaza at Israel's departure, but people are also waiting to see how far their lives have changed.

The Egyptian authorities are expected to close the holes in their border with Gaza; Israel is expected to increase its restrictions at the other crossings.

Without a guaranteed route out of Gaza, investors are unlikely to come in. Jobs will continue to be scarce, two-thirds of people will continue to live below the poverty line.

If their new freedoms stop at Gaza's borders, people say, the Israeli withdrawal will simply mean they have moved from a small prison to a slightly larger one.

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