Page last updated at 23:40 GMT, Friday, 16 January 2009

Eyewitness: BBC reporter in Rafah


Christian Fraser is the first British journalist to get access to Gaza since the conflict began

The BBC's Christian Fraser is the first British journalist to enter Gaza independently since the Israeli offensive began. Israel is continuing to deny foreign journalists unsupervised access to the Strip. He sent this report from Rafah, southern Gaza, which he entered from Egypt.

Nineteen days we had waited to cross into Rafah.

For three weeks we had watched the injured come through the crossing and thunderous explosions on the other side. At last we were being allowed in to report it - independently.

Rafah has been pounded through this conflict. The Israelis are targeting smuggling tunnels that extend beneath the perimeter wall. Around 40,000 people who lived close to it are now homeless.

Five thousand of them are sheltering in three UN schools, so many of them are children.

Frightened children

They were pleased to see me. Pleased to see anyone from the outside world.

"What's your name, what's your name," they scream.

They are sleeping 25 to a classroom. The desks have been piled high in a corner. They share four mattresses and on this day a cabbage for their evening meal.

We met Mahmoud who was carrying his seven-month-old son Mohammed. They are from Shaboura camp. Ten days ago Mahmoud dug his son out of the rubble of his house, miraculously unscathed. Now he hugs him close.

"I tell the children stories at night," he says. "I pull them all close to me, try to calm them. I tell them they are not going to die. That the bombing is all over."

There are fathers all over Gaza working similar distractions.

Our host, Ahmed Adwan, told me that every time a bomb falls near his house, he dances for his three-year-old daughter. She now thinks it is a game.

Waiting it out

But it is no laughing matter. The psychological strain is huge and showing on the faces of the people we meet.

The jets fly over the house continually. No-one sleeps. No-one knows where the next bomb will fall. There is not a moment's peace. Conversation is constantly interrupted by the roar of the Israeli jets overhead.

We have seen their "surgical" air strikes. There is no doubt the Israelis have tried hard to hit their targets accurately. The police station opposite the UN warehouse is now just a crater.

But there are plenty of bomb sites where there is extensive collateral damage. It is no wonder there have been so many civilian casualties. In the house in which we are staying the windows are all left open, in case the pressure from one of the blasts should blow the glass out.

Ahmed smoked 20 cigarettes a day before this conflict started. "Now I smoke two and half packets every day," he said. "I am nervous all the time. I worry for my family."

His friend, Abu Moustafa, was forced to leave his house at the border over two weeks ago. He is now living with relatives.

"I am a refugee twice over," he says. "My father lost his home to the Israelis in 1948. He was from Yebna village. Now we are homeless again.

"My house is still standing but it is damaged.

"They have been bombing the area since the 28th. There were 21 of us in the house that night. I haven't seen my neighbours since. There is no social interaction at the moment.

"It's too dangerous to travel about town so we sit and we wait… and we wait."

Shattered economy

The Palestinians of Rafah tell me the tunnels were their lifeline.

They say very few weapons came under the wall. And now the tunnels are destroyed, they worry the shortages will become more acute.

"There is food but there is a chronic shortage of even the most basic commodities," said Ahmed.

"Wheat flour, sugar, lentils, rice… and prices have rocketed. Everything is so much more expensive. There are no shekels in Gaza, only dollars.

"The Uuwra employees here only got 50% of their salaries last month because there is such a shortage of money in the strip.

"I can't draw out money from the bank. My brother sends me cash from Egypt via people who return through the crossing."

Fuel is another commodity that is more expensive. Three weeks ago diesel was one shekel ($0.26) a litre, now it is more than four.

"How are we going to get fuel if they don't re-open the crossings?" asked Ahmed.

"We have been living under siege for 18 months. We don't trust Israel to provide for us. We are lacking so many things the West takes for granted. Animal feed.

"They never talk about it but what are we supposed to feed our chickens and cows? That's why the price of meat and poultry has risen so fast."

In short, the economy of Gaza and Rafah is shattered - much like its people.

"We hope there will be a truce," said Abu Moustafa.

"But how long will it last? If the international community continues to turn a blind eye to the injustices we suffer then we will never break this vicious circle. We want peace too. Who wants to live like this?"

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