Published on
the Toronto Star/Canada

Will Peace Ever Fly?

Israeli-Palestinian realities in both Gaza and the West Bank lessen chances for success in solving Mideast puzzle

Oakland Ross

JABALIA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip - Little did Wael Mansour know - in the early months of the year about to end - that he would soon gaze back upon those days with a deep and bitter longing.1201 03

But now he does.

"Our life is not like before," says the now-unemployed factory worker, the nearly breadless breadwinner in a family of eight. "The situation is so bad."

Coming from a 32-year-old man who has lived his entire life in a Palestinian refugee camp - a very long way from paradise in the best of times - these are words to be reckoned with.

But they merely express the dreary truth that is nowadays evident in almost every aspect of Mansour's life, nearly six months after a spasm of fraternal violence split Palestinian society apart, plunging this rocky wedge of Mediterranean seafront into near total economic collapse.

In the wake of that outbreak of internecine warfare, the militant Islamist organization Hamas was left holding the tattered reins of power in the Gaza Strip.

Israel, which regards Hamas as a gang of bloody-minded terrorists, reacted at once - closing its borders with Gaza to the passage of all but the most basic supplies.

The result for Gaza's 1.5 million long-suffering souls, people already well-schooled in misery and despair, has been both those conditions - squared.

This week, the world watched as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Annapolis, Md., to launch a new Middle East peace initiative that may or may not result in peace but that at least offers a respite from suffering and war.

Here in Gaza, however, the suffering - and the war - continue to exact their daily toll, and both seem destined only to grow more severe, as Israel tightens its economic noose and some Israeli politicians threaten a military invasion.

"Nowhere else in the world would it be conceivable to inflict this level of deliberate and indiscriminate deprivation on an entire territory," Karen AbuZayd, commissioner-general of the UN agency responsible for humanitarian relief in Gaza, told an assembly of international donors last month.

She blames Israel for what is happening in Gaza - but, oddly, Mansour does not.

He blames Hamas, whose leaders refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Israel while permitting their fellow militants in other paramilitary groups to carry out almost daily attacks on Israeli targets with homemade rockets.

A supporter of the rival Fatah faction - the secular and comparatively moderate Palestinian group led by Abbas - Mansour holds Hamas responsible for the woes now caused by the closed border with Israel: the lost jobs, the soaring prices, the individual tragedies that result when sickly Gazans are unable to obtain emergency care in Israel.

For Mansour, a stocky man with a grizzled beard and a melancholy gaze, the effects of Gaza's vertiginous decline have been both economic and psychological.


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Six months ago, he was impoverished, yes, but not destitute.

Employed in a small dress factory as a sewer, he earned 1,500 shekels a month, or a little less than $400. On that, he could support his wife, Rayda, and their five young children, even managing the occasional luxury, like outings with the kids to a family recreation complex or meals in local restaurants.

Within days of the closing of the border, however, the owners of the factory where Mansour worked were forced to shut down, laying off all of its 40 workers.

Like hundreds of other textile factories in Gaza, the business depended on Israeli companies that sent in bolts of fabric for cutting, sewing and pressing, and then marketed the finished articles, either in Israel itself or abroad.

Deprived of raw materials and denied access to market, the clothing factories began closing down. A similar dilemma has slowed or halted almost every legitimate source of employment in Gaza.

One of eight Palestinian refugee settlements in Gaza, Jabalia is an overcrowded maze of stark concrete-block structures, where donkey carts clatter along the narrow alleys and Arabic graffiti litter the dismal grey walls. There seem to be no trees or flowers anywhere.

Mansour lives here, on Tauba St., with his 70-year-old mother, Halima, and his wife and children, in a small three-bedroom house that was never a palace, but neither was it the prison it lately seems to have become.

Last month, one of Mansour's two sons - Khaled - turned five, but there was no money even for a cake or candles. Now the boy is suffering from a calcium deficiency, but there is nothing to be done.

Every three months, Mansour's family receives a supply of staples - including flour, oil, sugar, rice, lentils, milk - from the Gaza office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East.

"We used to have two days of meat a week," he laments. "We had two days of chicken, the rest fish. Now only once a week do we eat meat. We eat rice and lentils mostly."

For individuals such as Mansour - proud young men in the prime of their lives, products of a deeply masculine Arab culture - the psychological consequences of Gaza's ordeal are at least as debilitating as the purely physical.

Mansour can barely find words to express the dismay he feels.

In another part of the Holy Land, Palestinians and Israelis are at least talking to one another rather than only throwing rocks or shooting guns, but here in Gaza, the threat of a military invasion hangs in the autumn sky like a thick black cloud, and men like Wael Mansour have been reduced to idleness, depression, and waste.

"We are," he says, "in big trouble."

So far, with no way out.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007

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