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Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Saturday, 15 March 2008

Life in the 'open prison' of Gaza

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Gaza

This is a tiny strip of land and its life is being drained out of it.

Gazans wait to receive food vouchers
Gazans say even feeding their families is a daily challenge

For years, the spirit of those living here has taken a pounding, not only from the frequent Israeli military attacks but also by fighting between the various Palestinian factions here.

But now the territory's near-complete isolation - brought about by the blockade - may be delivering the final blows to hope.

"It's like being on death row," I am frequently told and almost every Gazan you speak to talks of his land being an "open prison".

That open prison analogy was once made to me by Nael al Kurdi, a softly spoken young man from Sheikh Radwan in Gaza City.

Nael was a student by day and he helped at his brother's falafel stall by night, that is before he was diagnosed with cancer.

The treatment Nael needed was not available in Gaza, so he was sent to doctors in Egypt.

He responded well and his tumour went down in size.

Sealed

But when the Hamas faction seized control of Gaza, Israel's response was to all but seal off the territory.

Nael was trapped inside Gaza and his tumour rapidly started to increase in size again.

A child lights a candle during a demonstration in Gaza
Only humanitarian supplies are allowed into Gaza

Weak and bedridden, he told us he had applied several times to the Israeli authorities to be allowed to leave but had been denied each time.

He and his mother had gone to the border crossing anyway, but they had been turned back.

Less than a week after we spoke to him, Nael died. He was 21.

After the funeral, his mother called on God to punish Israel for closing the borders and for Israeli mothers to feel the hurt she felt.

But the defiance soon subsided and she broke down in tears, saying over and over again: "Nael thought he was going to get better."

I went to talk about his case with a spokesman for the Israeli government who pointed out that the border closures were for security reasons.

And when we got on to the subject of seriously ill patients being allowed out of Gaza for treatment, he told me that, while some patients had been let out, it was his view that terminally ill ones posed a potential danger to Israel.

They had nothing to live for, he suggested, so they might blow themselves up and become suicide bombers.

Blockade

The border closures have also hit the import of simple everyday goods. Humanitarian supplies are all Israel allows in.

Map of Gaza

It had been decided that this blockade, alongside military intervention, was the most effective way of putting pressure on Hamas and the militants who fire rockets across the border on to Israeli towns.

But the Israeli action has devastated business in Gaza.

The Abudan clothing factory was once a thriving family company. But today the factory is still and dusty.

Half-made pairs of jeans lie next to silent sewing machines. Hundreds of school uniforms, packed and ready to be shipped out, sit in boxes in the store room.

The blockade means no material is allowed into Gaza, while the finished clothes are not allowed out.

All of the 250 people who worked there have lost their jobs.

Desperate times

As we were about to leave the building, a slight, solemn-looking man in his 40s poked his head around the door.

Rockets continue to be launched and... working-age men like Samir are accepting Hamas' offer to pick up arms
Samir had been an employee at Abudan. He said he came by every day just to check if, by some chance, the factory was working again and he could have his job back.

He took us to his home: a small, dark construction of breeze-block and corrugated iron.

His wife held the youngest of their five children as she sat on a thin mattress on the floor. Two other toddlers ran around barefoot as we spoke.

He explained how he managed to make a little money by selling bread from a cart he wheeled through the town. It was not enough, he said, to feed his family.

His eyes welled up as he told us he had not been able to pay his rent for four months but that his landlord had taken pity on him.

The only work left

There was an alternative, he said, one which he had refused but which nearly half of his former colleagues had taken up.

It was to join a work-force that was still well paid in spite of the troubles everywhere else: that is, the security forces of Hamas.

The pressure being put on Gaza - not just by Israel but the international community and even the Palestinian government in the West Bank, which is run by the Fatah faction - is seen as a means of weakening Hamas, strengthening the moderates and stopping the rocket fire.

But, in fact, the rockets continue to be launched and mothers like Nael's are calling for revenge while working-age men like Samir are accepting Hamas' offer to pick up arms.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 March, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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