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Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Monday, 20 August 2007 14:12 UK

Return to Gaza

By Jane Corbin

The big green banner with its cheery message hung across the dusty street: "No more threat for our foreign visitors and guests."

Jane Corbin
Panorama: Return to Gaza
Jane Corbin returned to Gaza for Panorama to ask what Hamas rule means for the future

I was being driven through Gaza City with a bodyguard provided by Hamas, the group that now controls this place.

They wanted to reassure me and my Panorama colleagues Darren Kemp and Jonathan Young that the fate of our colleague Alan Johnston was not in store for us.

Alan had been released a few weeks before after being kidnapped by a local clan.

We soon found ourselves at a Hamas training session in the middle of a scarily realistic kidnap scenario.

Screeching tyres and blasts of live fire swirled around us as the Executive Force demonstrated how they rescue kidnap victims.

Calmer streets

The armed wing of Hamas is better known for its suicide bombers, who have killed more than 100 Israeli civilians.

Boy with pretend gun in Gaza
Children are divided into pro-Hamas and Fatah groups
Now some of them are retraining as a police force to establish law and order after the anarchy of recent months.

I have been to Gaza many times before, and wanted to see for myself what life is like here after the bloody infighting between two rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas resulted in Hamas kicking Fatah's leaders out of Gaza.

The streets do seem calmer now with Executive Force guards on every corner.

I chatted to a new recruit - a baker in the bad old days. Abu Fathee is now directing traffic.

"I saw how people were being beaten and kidnapped at this junction," he told me.

"I just felt that Hamas are honest and that they'll provide us with some peace and security. Not like the old lot."

The people of Gaza have got used to being punished for supporting Hamas, who the West regard as terrorists
There is a lot of talk about this place becoming Hamastan, and when you look around, almost all women are veiled - but that has been happening over the last few years, and not just here but in many Muslim countries.

Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement calls for the establishment of an Islamic state, but their approach is more softly-softly, rather than a forced overnight conversion.

I met a 24-year-old physiotherapy student, Amani al-Dramli at a UN food distribution centre.

Many people in Gaza depend on handouts - as they always have - refugees from territorial battles over the surrounding land.

Hamas militants in Gaza
Hamas militants attending a recent funeral of a fellow militant
Amani told me: "To be honest, when Fatah were in power, we had enough to get by but there wasn't much security.

"Hamas haven't had the chance to prove themselves because they've been put under so much pressure."

Bitter infighting

The people of Gaza have got used to being punished for supporting Hamas, who the West regard as terrorists, rather than the acceptable face of Palestine - Fatah, the party of Yasser Arafat.

Fatah thought they had a monopoly of political power here, but 18 months ago a surprise election result put Hamas in power and, after months of negotiation, the rivals tried to share power in a coalition government.

The vast quantity of weapons that flowed into Gaza fuelled the tensions between the two sides, until Hamas ousted Fatah in June.

The bitter infighting has left the Palestinian people divided, not just geographically between the West Bank and Gaza, but politically too.

It has left a bitter legacy, as we discovered down on Gaza's beaches.

Here, children are enjoying summer camps with candyfloss and a carousel, but they are divided into pro-Hamas and Fatah groups.

Thirteen-year-old Ahed Abu Jared whose father - a Fatah militia leader was killed by a Hamas sniper - has sworn revenge: "Nothing can make me happy again. The only thing that would make me happy is when his kids lose their father."


And in the Hamas camp, the feeling is mutual, with even the youngest taught the propaganda of hatred.

An eight-year-old girl with an angelic face was shrill in her denunciation of Fatah: "I want Hamas to take revenge on our enemies and get rid of every single collaborator so that we can live in freedom."

Most of the world has responded to the Hamas coup by showering money and political favours on Fatah.

Meanwhile they are trying to freeze out Hamas - by strangling Gaza's economy.

On the other side of the fence around the strip, it is Israel that still controls what goes in and out of here.

I was taken along the Israeli side of the border by Major Peter Lerner of the Israeli Defence Forces.

He told me they are still being targeted by rockets and mortar fire from within Gaza.

Economic blockade

The Israelis have all but closed Gaza's economic lifeline, the commercial crossing at Karni.

Only a massive conveyor belt is working; delivering grain across the border at Gaza.

While I was leaving, behind me - more than a million Palestinians are growing more isolated by the day

It distances people on the Israeli side from potential suicide bombers and snipers.

"We need constant co-ordination, someone to talk to, but there's no one there," said Major Lerner.

"The reality is Hamas won't talk to us, and we won't talk to them".

The economic blockade is biting hard, 90% of Gaza's factories have been forced to close, 70,000 have lost their jobs because shipments of raw materials aren't getting in, and there can be no exports.

"It is having a profound impact on the psychology of the people," the UN's John Ging told me, as he showed me Gaza's industrial wasteland.

"And the anger and the frustration and the desperation - there's the fertile ground for extremism and radicalism and more violence," he said.

Gaza's people are effectively imprisoned, unable to cross any of its borders freely, thanks to Israel and the intransigence of leaders on both sides of the Palestinian divide.

My last impression of Gaza was standing in the ruins of Amani's family home, which had been destroyed by a Palestinian rocket during the infighting in May.

"We want to leave this country, we want to live in Saudi Arabia.

"My father is there, my sisters and brothers are there - they're waiting for us, and we're waiting for the borders to open. Life there is good. Life here is hard - really hard."

But with the borders closed, Amani cannot get out, and her father cannot get in.

As I left across a no-man's-land of burned out buildings, I reflected on my own freedom of movement.

While I was leaving, behind me - more than a million Palestinians are growing more isolated by the day.

Panorama: Return to Gaza was on BBC One at 2030 BST on Monday 20 August 2007.

video and audio news
Watch Return to Gaza (short version)

Middle East crisis: Key maps
15 Jul 06 |  Special Reports
How Hamas took over the Gaza Strip
15 Jun 07 |  Middle East
Profile: Alan Johnston
04 Jul 07 |  Middle East
Transcript - Return to Gaza
22 Aug 07 |  Panorama


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