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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 June 2006, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Gaza goes back to its beaches

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Gaza

The last few days here in Gaza have been hot and sunny. It is a dry heat and the dust thrown up from the unpaved roads gets everywhere - it stings your eyes and gets into your hair.

Palestinians display a bloodstained sheet on the beach
The deaths of a family weigh on beach-goers' minds

So at a time of year when schools are breaking up for the summer holidays it is no surprise that everyone seems to be heading for the beach to cool off.

No surprise until you remember what happened just over a week ago on a beach to the north of Gaza City .

The images of 11-year-old Huda Ghalia screaming in despair as seven members of her family lay dead in the sand are difficult to forget. A family enjoying a picnic quite literally torn apart by a huge explosion.

Israeli forces had been shelling areas nearby but who exactly was to blame is still the subject of fierce debate.

Despite what happened to the Ghalia family, the beaches are still crowded and are popular. Crowded and popular because, in Gaza, there is nowhere else to go.

The best sand and surf is down in the south and centre of the Gaza Strip, where the now abandoned Jewish settlements used to be.

Although the beaches up here near Gaza City are more accessible, there is more rubbish and debris around. The waters here are also polluted with the untreated sewage that spews out from a city without many basic public services.

Lure of the beach

Nonetheless, as Adnan el-Hajar sits on the sand with his wife and six young children, everyone appears to be having fun.

What can I do? Where can we go? My kids need to get out - I can't keep them indoors all day
Adnan el-Hajar
The younger kids, in particular, do not have a care in the world as they run off to splash in the surf and playfully throw sand at each other.

Just like the Ghalias a week ago, the family is tucking in to a picnic of bread, chicken and vegetables - all neatly spread out on a red and brown patterned rug on the sand.

But Adnan is anxious.

"After what happened to that family last week, I'm scared," he says.

"I can't stop thinking about them. But what can I do? Where can we go? My kids need to get out - I can't keep them indoors all day."

As they play he sits and scans the skies for Israeli helicopters or ships on the horizon.

Earlier this week, the Israelis emphatically denied that their forces had fired artillery shells into Gaza in the direction of the Ghalia family or at the time witnesses say the incident happened.

Israel says it never targets civilians and only fires on positions in northern Gaza used by Palestinian militants to launch rocket attacks against Israeli towns.

But the Palestinians say Israel is lying to cover up its actions.

Escape from the city

A Pentagon-trained ballistics expert working for the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch is here in Gaza.

He has surveyed the scene and has forensically examined evidence from the beach. He concludes that the explosion was probably caused by an Israeli shell.

In these conditions, under siege, the beach is the only place to breathe, to escape
Wherever the blame lies, surely what matters most is that a young girl has lost her family.

It has been two years since I have visited this beach. Much has happened since then. Israel has withdrawn from its settlements in Gaza and the political wing of Hamas has been voted into power. But it is difficult to see how everyday life has improved.

Even though the Israelis have left they still control the sea and the air above Gaza. Recent in-fighting between Palestinian factions means the streets can suddenly turn dangerous. It all feels very claustrophobic - apart from, perhaps, the beach.

Meher and Heshad are sitting in red plastic chairs watching younger children playing with kites and chatting about the World Cup.

But neither is particularly happy. Meher is 21. He is a high school graduate with a diploma in art. But that is of little use to him here.

In many other countries young men of his age would be thinking about leaving home for the first time, of going to college or of travelling to find work.

Shots and helicopters

At 24, Heshad is slightly older but faces a similar dilemma. He is also well educated and now works for the Palestinian Authority.

But he has not been paid since the start of the year. Western countries and international donors have withheld funds to the Palestinian government over Hamas's stance of not recognising the state of Israel.

It is a policy designed to put pressure on Hamas. Its impact on the ground here in Gaza means that state employees like Heshad do not get paid. So he too heads for the seaside.

"We all have hopes and aspirations," he says. "But in these conditions, under siege, the beach is the only place to breathe, to escape."

As the sun beats down and the waves crash in, children play in the surf. Well-drilled lifeguards keep watch.

When two Israeli helicopters fly over everyone gets nervous.

But when the unmistakeable crack of a Kalashnikov - the rifle of choice for the Palestinian militants - pierces the air, no one flinches.

Perhaps the gunfire is to celebrate a wedding. Perhaps it is to salute the death of another militant, killed in the apparently endless conflict with Israel.

From my position on the beach, so much - and yet so little - has changed here in Gaza.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 June, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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