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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 October 2005, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Stripping Gaza bare

By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

It is nearly a month now since the last Israeli tanks rolled out of the Gaza Strip. Most of the buildings which had been occupied by Israeli settlers have been destroyed.

An Israeli bulldozer demolishes the Palm Beach Hotel in the former Gush Katif settlements bloc in the southern Gaza Strip
Little remains of the Palm Beach Hotel

At what was once the Palm Beach Hotel, I found some life in the car park.

A head was sticking out just above the tarmac. A young Palestinian called Badr Abu Zubaida was squatting in a hole he had dug.

He was stripped to his vest and a pair of shorts.

And he was trying to saw through a plastic sewage pipe with a table knife.

All around him the hotel lay in ruins, a huge heap of bricks.

Badr Abu Zubaida was one of the army of poor Palestinians who have invaded the settlements to scavenge for scraps of wood or metal.

They load their finds onto donkey carts that go creaking down streets lined with the wreckage of what used to be the homes of the settlers.

Badr reckoned that if he could hack off a length of the sewage pipe he might make a tiny bit of cash.

His efforts were testimony to the dire economic straits of so many people in Gaza.

Window of opportunity

Sitting in his hole, Badr told me that he had had no work for years.

Palestinian children hold plastic lanterns in Rafah during Ramadan in the southern Gaza Strip
Is the future looking brighter for Palestinian children in Gaza?

"I have no work, and my father has no work," he said. "Everybody is without work."

But he was doing his best to change his luck.

He has just started a university course in business administration, although he does not know quite how he will afford to finish it. And even if he graduates it might make little difference.

Gaza's population is exploding. Its universities are churning out graduates, many of whom never get near a decent job.

But by Gaza's grim standards, these have been slightly better days.

The Palestinians have been hugely relieved to see the departure of the settlers, and the Israeli soldiers who protected them.

They were occupiers and they were hated.

Mass destruction

A Palestinian security policeman walks through the rubble of a dismantled house of the former Jewish settlement of Kefar Darom,
The Israeli army knocked down almost all of the houses before it left

Badr Abu Zubaida will always have the bitterest memories of the Israeli time. He was unlucky enough to live very close to the settlements.

His family lived in an area that could suddenly become a battle zone when militants from groups like Hamas clashed with the soldiers.

And one spring night two years ago, the Israeli troops thrust into Badr's neighbourhood.

His family fled in the darkness, the air filled with the roar of the engines of tanks and bulldozers.

Their home was demolished, and everything they owned lay buried beneath its broken walls.

The Israelis always said they only ever destroyed buildings from which they had been attacked by militants. But Palestinians often said the demolitions were acts of collective punishment.

Calls for investment

Like everyone in Gaza, Badr hopes that the wastelands of the settlements can be redeveloped.

Palestinians walk through the rubble of a synagogue, formerly shaped like the Star of David, in the evacuated settlement of Neve Dekalim
The concrete points that formed the great star shape are now no more than ragged stumps

"I want to see new factories," said Mohammad Saloot, as he and his children scoured the streets for scrap in what used to be the community of Neve Dekalim.

"I want to see new projects - so that we get jobs."

"There needs to be a lot of investment. It would be a big loss if it stays like this," said Mohammad, looking around at the mounds of broken masonry.

Nearby stood the remains of Neve Dekalim's huge synagogue, built in the shape of a towering Star of David.

For the settlers, it had been the centre of their spiritual world. Now it is just one more scene of utter destruction.

It has been partially blown up. The concrete points that formed the great star shape are now no more than ragged stumps.

Graffiti on a wall reads: "Israel's gone to hell."

'Howling with pain'

In the shell of a school that the Israelis had left, I had seen the first signs of regeneration.

The building has been given to one of Gaza's universities.

Parts of its Fine Arts and other faculties will move in soon. Students were already sweeping up shards of glass that were strewn across the floor when Palestinians ransacked the place within hours of the Israelis leaving.

Israel still controls all Gaza's potential links with the outside world

But even as the clear-up went on at one end of the corridor, at the other a much darker scene was unfolding.

A man was howling with pain as four men in masks and blue uniforms thrashed him in a classroom.

These were policemen meting out a bit of punishment.

They ignore most of the scavengers in the settlements, but they step in if anybody tries to take anything of real worth, like bits of the electricity network.

The policemen were wearing masks because they would not have known enough about the man they were beating.

It is possible that he might have had links with one of the militant groups.

He might have had connections with people strong enough to avenge his beating if he could identify the individual policemen.

Hopes and fears

Even if Gaza overcomes its chronic law and order problems, and makes the very most of its chance to redevelop the settlements, people here always tell you that it would not be enough.

They believe the real answers to their many problems lie in the establishment of a fully functioning Palestinian state.

They say that would require Israel to withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

And even in Gaza, Israel's abandoning of its settlements has done little to ease the oppressive sense of claustrophobia in this narrow strip of land.

Israel still controls all Gaza's potential links with the outside world: the airspace, the sea space and the route to neighbouring Egypt.

Israel says that it has to be able to prevent militant organisations smuggling in weapons.

It says it fears they will get hold of sophisticated, long-range rockets which might pose a threat to its cities.

As I talked to Badr in his hole in the car park of the Palm Beach Hotel, we were shaken by a thunderous explosion.

It was a sonic boom.

An Israeli fighter jet had just broken the sound barrier over our heads.

We looked up and watched the plane go arc-ing through the sky, the sunlight catching its silver wings.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 October, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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