Page last updated at 21:57 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 22:57 UK

Searching for a solution in Gaza

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

Posters of Riad in the Bureij refugee camp, Gaza, 11 April 2008
Palestinians of any age killed by Israel are hailed as martyrs

Sharif al Uwasi bustled around like a good host, finding chairs for his guests and insisting that they ate, but his eyes were puffy, ringed by dark circles, and he looked as if he was carrying the heaviest burden of his life.

His son, Riad was killed by Israeli soldiers earlier this week as they raided al Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

Riad was 11 years old and died from a bullet in the stomach.

His picture, taken a few years ago so he looked even younger than he was, smiled down on the lines of men who were sitting outside his grandfather's house in the heart of the camp.

Riad's young brother, too small to catch the grief but aware that something important had happened, tried to rise to the occasion.

He struck poses for the camera that must have seemed warrior-like to him, raising his fingers in a victory sign, and waving the Palestinian flag as father looked on, smiling weakly.

Mourning rituals in the Middle East are well developed.

Palestinians, no matter what their age, who are killed by Israel are regarded as martyrs who have died in the national struggle.

John Ging, UN official
The mindset of the people here is becoming more and more frustrated, more and more desperate, more and more radical and it is all so predictable - that is the tragedy
John Ging
UN official

For three days chairs are set up under awnings outside family homes and patriotic songs are played at high volume from portable speakers.

Coffee is served and so is food at mealtimes.

The men - neighbours, friends and family - stay under the street awnings, and the women sit inside, unseen by outsiders.

Sharif al Uwasi was full of despair about the future.

Life has never been easy in Gaza. It is a narrow, overcrowded strip of land, inhabited by 1.4mn Palestinians, most of whom are refugees from the land that became Israel in 1948.

But life in Gaza has got much, much worse in the last few years.

The world's biggest powers imposed sanctions against Hamas when it won elections in 2006.

Cut off

They regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation and demanded, still without success, that it recognise Israel, give up violence and accept previous Palestinian agreements with the Israelis.


Jeremy Bowen looks at life inside Gaza

Since Hamas used force to take over from its Palestinian rivals Fatah last year Israel has allowed only the barest essentials into Gaza.

The result is that Gaza is being cut off from the modern world.

There is very little fuel, so the streets are full of carts pulled by horses and donkeys.

One million people, 70% of the population, live on UN food aid.


The economy has collapsed - 87% of private businesses have gone bust - but while the people get poorer, Hamas, the target of the sanctions, is, if anything stronger.

John Ging, who runs the Gaza operations of UNRWA, the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees, stood in a crowd of flour-dusted people at a food distribution, very frustrated about the international policy of isolating Gaza.

"The policy is failing because it is creating conditions on the ground that are not conducive to a peace process.

"The mindset of the people here is becoming more and more frustrated, more and more desperate, more and more radical and it is all so predictable - that is the tragedy."

Gazans, who are tough and resourceful people, are suffering severe privations.

Bulldozed land

Most of them describe their home as the biggest prison in the world, and when you enter it from Israel it is hard to disagree.

A visitor to Gaza steps out of an affluent landscape, of fields where at this time of year crops are being harvested, into the Israeli border terminal, echoing and empty because so few people are allowed in and out.

After your passport is stamped you walk out through a series of steel doors which are unlocked by a remote hi-tech control centre, until the last one slides open.

Israeli tanks during an incursion east of Bureij refugee camp, 11 April 2008
Israeli forces moved in near Bureij late last week

The land ahead is blasted and empty, flattened by Israeli combat bulldozers to give the soldiers on the high concrete wall a clear field of fire.

Israel argues that the pain it has inflicted on Gaza is necessary to protect its own people, particularly those in the border town of Sderot, who have the misfortune to live hard up against the border with Gaza.

They have had to endure years of rocket fire, which have made their town a frightening, battered, and occasionally lethal place.

But the lesson of the last few years is that the pain on either side of the border is increasing, not decreasing.

More and more voices are saying that it is time for a change, for a different kind of policy that would aim for a mutual and lasting ceasefire, and the reopening of Gaza's borders.


A major reason that has not been tried up to now is that it means doing business, directly or indirectly, with Hamas, and accepting its control of Gaza as a fact of life.

"Well, isn't it fact of life in the Middle East?" asked Yuli Tamir, the Israeli minister of education and one of the founders of the campaign group Peace Now, when I put the point to her in Jerusalem.

"Both sides", she said, "are not achieving their goals. Hamas sees that Israel is not going to surrender because of the Qassams (rockets), we know that what we did so far did not stop the Qassams, and in the middle there are people who are suffering every day.

Israeli officials show Jimmy Carter the remains of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel, 14 April 2008
Jimmy Carter was shown rocket shells when he visited Sderot

"So I think that both sides realise we have to do something to save the sanity of the region and bring a little more peace and quiet."

Ms Tamir said she could not speak for her prime minister, but she is not the only Israeli who believes that existing contacts need to be expanded, as long as the conditions are right.

The Israeli government has given former US president Jimmy Carter a ticking off for his plan to travel to Damascus to see Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal.

Egyptian intermediaries have already brokered indirect contacts between Hamas and Israel.

So far, they have concentrated on a prisoner exchange to swap hundreds of Palestinians for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas almost two years ago.

Before President Carter's visit, I travelled to Damascus to visit Khaled Meshaal.

No surrender

His staff served tea and biscuits as we talked.

Mr Meshaal said that Hamas accepted and supported the Arab peace initiative, which offers peace and recognition to Israel in return for a full withdrawal from the land captured in 1967 in the West Bank, the dismantling of Jewish settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state with a capital in east Jerusalem.

He also said he had been approached about the idea of secret back channel talks with Israel, but that he had turned the idea down.

Still, the indirect contacts brokered by Egypt have included talk about a ceasefire, though they could not agree how it would work.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal addresses a conference in Damascus, Syria, 23 January 2008
Khaled Meshaal says Hamas wants a mutual ceasefire

Mr Meshaal said Hamas wanted a mutual ceasefire, that would also include the West Bank and which would reopen Gaza's borders.

Anything else, he said, would be Israel dictating a Palestinian "surrender".

"We said that if Israel commits itself to a comprehensive and mutual calm we are ready to co-operate - but Israel said no."

"Israel rejects all proposals. It sent us a message that the calm can only be in Gaza and not be related to the siege. Israel's demanding that Hamas stops the rockets. Then it will decide what it will do."

For many Israelis the idea of trusting Khaled Meshaal and Hamas even one iota is entirely unacceptable.

Many Palestinians feel exactly the same about Israel.

Neither side trusts its enemy. Nobody is suggesting they will talk peace.

But perhaps there is a small opening, as both want to take the pressure off their civilians, and a ceasefire would be a start.

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