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the Toronto Star/Canada

Separate Dramas Unfold on Same Stage in Gaza

Oakland Ross

GAZA CITY-They had a funeral procession for five of their war heroes here yesterday, complete with defiant voices and the harsh bark of rifles fired into the cool, blue sky.

They also had an open-air market.0209 01

The two events did not seem to have a lot in common.

In fact, it was almost as if a couple of parallel but separate dramas were unfolding on the same stage, at the same time, with different characters and very dissimilar plots.

In Palestine Square - central plaza of this scrabbling, hard-luck town - about 200 hopeful shoppers were hunting for Egyptian bargains, nearly a week after Cairo finally resealed its border with Gaza.

Dozens of vendors waited by their wares, all of which had been purchased during 12 exhilarating days when the normally impassable frontier with Egypt was suddenly thrown open by a succession of early-morning bomb blasts that brought down a long stretch of an Israeli-built security wall.

Immediately, hundreds of thousands of Gazans swarmed across the border, desperate to purchase food and other products either unavailable or dauntingly expensive at home, owing to a seven-month-old blockade imposed by Israel.

Now, many of the Gazans are reselling their spoils in hopes of pocketing something in the way of profit in this densely crowded territory, where fuel is short, shelves are often bare, unemployment is rampant and almost everybody has been forced onto the international dole.

"I bought whatever I could find," said Hussan al-Masri, 21, selling bottles of tomato paste at about half the price currently levied in Gaza's shops. "I needed to buy something, to make some money."

This is commerce, Gaza-style, and it can be a noisy affair, but not nearly as ear-splitting as the reports of automatic rifles that suddenly broke out along Omar Al-Mokhtar St. yesterday, just a few short metres from the impromptu market in Palestine Square.

At about 11 a.m., dozens of armed fighters of the Al-Qassam Brigades - the armed wing of Hamas, which rules Gaza after seizing the territory by force last June - marched up the street in a funeral procession to honour five of their fallen comrades, all killed a day earlier in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

Most of the militants wore black balaclavas to hide their identities. Some carried flag-draped coffins. Others bore Palestinian flags or Hamas banners. They chanted revolutionary slogans, raised their fists in defiance, or loosed countless rifle shots into the air.

The funeral procession moved on, the rifle blasts faded and the shoppers and vendors in Palestine Square carried on doing exactly what they had been doing before.

It was as if two different worlds had approached one other, failed to merge and swiftly drew apart.

Hamas, or its military arm, continues to wage war against Israel - a conflict that seems to be growing steadily fiercer, on both sides - while the vast majority of Gaza's 1.5 million people seem much more intent on keeping the electricity going, obtaining clothes to wear and finding food to eat.

So far this month, Gazan militants have fired more than 90 Qassam rockets toward Israel, according to the Israeli count.

Yesterday alone, some 30 of the missiles whistled over the border.

Meanwhile, Israeli air and ground strikes on Gaza have become deadlier.

It's difficult now to make contact with Hamas's political leaders, as most have gone underground in response to reports that Israel means to begin targeting them as well as those who actually fire the homemade missiles.

"No matter what security measures we take, it's not enough," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior Hamas official, during an interview this week. "Israeli (aerial) drones are covering the whole Gaza Strip. They know everything."

He declared that Hamas will ensure Gaza's border with Egypt is kept open in future to goods and people, but he did not say how this could be accomplished, particularly in light of mounting tensions between Hamas and Egypt, whose foreign minister vowed this week that anyone who crosses the border from Gaza will have his legs broken.

That being so, Gaza's long-suffering inhabitants seem fated to return to the privations of recent months, marked by scarcity and power blackouts as Israel maintains its regime of punitive economic sanctions and while the border with Egypt remains closed.

But, for now, there are still a few bargains to be had.

The vendors out yesterday in Palestine Square were all offering low prices on dozens of duty-free goods, all carried from Egypt, including smoked fish, toothbrushes, shoe polish, hand cream, plastic razors, yeast, dried rosemary, electrical generators and much more.

Not everyone was purchasing, however.

"I just came to watch," said Ashrab Harb, 42, a civil engineer, currently unemployed. "I don't have the money to buy anything."

Like thousands of other Gazans, he crossed the border to Egypt while it was open, but not to shop. He went across to meet his mother-in-law, who had journeyed north from a town near Cairo, desperate to enter Gaza and see her daughter and four grandchildren for the first time in 10 years.

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