Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 15 November 2008

Questioning the ceasefire in Gaza

The five-month ceasefire between Israeli and Palestinian forces is looking increasingly fragile. Paul Martin recently visited Gaza, where he found opinions divided and some people keen for hostilities to resume.

Omar (not his real name) teaches English at a school for much of the day, but unbeknown to his pupils he is training to be a militant fighter too.

A Palestinian militant from Hamas holds a rocket propelled grenade launcher
Israel is blocking goods into Gaza blaming rocket attacks by militants

I met him as he pulled on a woollen face-mask during a training session among the olive trees and cactus bushes of the Gaza Strip.

He is part of a movement allied to Hamas which is widely held responsible for the killing, five years ago, of three Americans who were part of a convoy driving into Gaza to offer scholarships to local youngsters.

The group also says it played a part in the raid, by tunnel, into an Israeli army camp near the border, when a young Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was captured and dragged back inside the Gaza Strip. He is still in captivity.

The men here say they are itching to attack the Israelis again.

"The ceasefire won't last much longer," predicts Omar. "The enemy does not respect the truce. We cannot stay silent."

Enemy territory

Omar was brandishing one of the group's most cherished weapons, a rather antiquated-looking silver painted missile launcher.

His comrades, bristling with other weaponry and black flags, were exploding land-mines shouting "Allah is great", to large cheers and applause from some young boys who had come uninvited to watch the practice session.

People here had believed that in return for Hamas agreeing not to fire rockets into Israeli civilian areas, the Israelis would relax their blockade dramatically

One of the gunmen allowed the wide-eyed youngsters to try out his semi-automatic submachine gun, much to the boys' delight and the commander's annoyance.

A would-be fighter told me he was 13 years old and, like his father who was also training there, was eager to fight and die.

I watched the group setting up their rocket-launchers, which unnervingly they did in an open area before pointing them towards Israel. Enemy territory was just a short distance away to the east.

I say "unnervingly" because Israeli drones (unmanned aircraft guided by remote control) often target such missile-launching operations from the sky.

But not today, not while there is a ceasefire.

Trade route

How long both sides find this ceasefire convenient remains to be seen.

Everyone in Gaza is fed up with the continuing blockade by Israel of many basic commodities, including some fuel and construction materials.

A smuggler uses a phone inside the tunnel
In addition to trade, the tunnels carry phone and electricity connections

People here had believed that in return for Hamas agreeing not to fire rockets into Israeli civilian areas, the Israelis would relax their blockade dramatically.

But so far, while basic goods have reappeared in the shops, the whole Strip remains isolated, with most industry and exports at a standstill.

What goods there are, are mainly coming in underground. Hundreds of tunnels now link the southern Gaza Strip with Egypt.

Apart from some ill-disguised plastic sheets covering the entrances, the tunnels are dug with little real effort to conceal them.

I was winched down into one of these tunnels last month. It is much more sophisticated than the one I was in less than a year ago where sand kept crumbling onto my head, provoking worries that the whole thing could collapse at any time.

These days there are no air holes poked through with small tubes to the surface. Air is simply pumped in mechanically and the roof of the tunnel is solid enough. This time they have burrowed through hard clay.

Some of the passages are equipped with thick plastic pipes that allow businessmen on the Egyptian side to deliver cheap petrol, a commodity in short supply on the Gaza side, which fetches a good price.

Social welfare

There is also a roaring trade in cows, sheep and goats. But Kalashnikov rifles and bullets (once the most popular of imports) are no longer coming in.

A tunneller told me there were so many of these weapons in Gaza now that there was no longer much demand.

The tunnel owners who have invested large sums in paying the diggers and supplying the equipment for construction work, make their money back after just two or three runs of merchandise. They say they have to pay a large tax to Hamas, but it is worth it.

The digging of the tunnels, and the smuggling that follows, is dangerous work. This year locals say between 40 and 50 people have died.

But Hamas, it is claimed, enforces a sort of social welfare scheme. Tunnel owners pay the families of each of the men who have died below ground some 30,000 ($42,000) in compensation.

Gaza strip map

One tunnel supervisor, Abu Karam, invited me into his home. He told me the Israelis once jailed him for three years after he was caught by one of their patrols smuggling weapons from Egypt through a hole in the border fence.

What he does now, he says, although dangerous, provides a comfortable living for him and his young family.

So the current ceasefire affects Gazans in very different ways.

Abu Karam actually makes money from it and from the continuing Israeli blockade, but militants like Omar want to see it over.

Renewing the conflict with the enemy, they say, is a much more important duty.

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

SEE ALSO
In pictures: Gaza's tunnel smugglers
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Gaza tunnels 'become an industry'
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Five killed in Gaza tunnel blast
24 Sep 08 |  Middle East
Gaza tunnel collapse kills three
11 Aug 08 |  Middle East
Israel bombs three Gaza tunnels
20 Jul 06 |  Middle East
Men survive Gaza tunnel collapse
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Israel raids Gaza tunnel diggers
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