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Gaza settlements still in ruins

Iris Makkler Jul 11, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas got a nice little bridge loan today: $50 million from the Arab League. It’s the biggest payday the Palestinians have had since Hamas took power back in January. Both the US and the European Union have cut off their aid. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth.

It was almost a year ago that Israel pulled its settlers out of Gaza. The Palestinians had high hopes for big economic developments. Irris Makler reports things haven’t exactly turn out as planned.

IRRIS MAKLER: About 400 Israelis once lived here in the settlement of Netzarim. It had prosperous greenhouses that grew mangos, cherry tomatoes and yams for export to European markets. Today, the greenhouses stand empty.

Palestinian workers successfully harvested the crops, but they ended up throwing them away. They couldn’t export them because Israel closed the border crossings due to its security concerns.

Nothing has changed since the day the settlers left. The site looks like a ruin. The rubble of the destroyed Jewish homes still hasn’t been cleared, and camels wander by under the blazing sun.

There may be no Palestinian farmers, but about a dozen gunmen are here. Their job is to keep out squatters who might interfere with plans to develop the area. Abu Hamdan has been here since the Israeli settlers left 11 months ago.

ABU HAMDAN [interpreter]: We came to safeguard the area, and if anyone makes trouble, we shoot him. They soon learn we mean business.

In the neighboring town of Khan Yunis, Governor Osama Al Farra knows that people in Gaza are disappointed with the lack of progress. He was on the committee to redevelop the settlements.

OSAMA AL FARRA: So their feeling and their dream was so big, but I think really we can say that everything have been collapsed.

The town of Khan Yunis backs onto what was once the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza: Neve Dkalim. The plan was to integrate the empty settlement into the town with connecting roads, large-scale housing developments, and a stadium. But none of that has even been started.

There are no guards here, and when we get close the driver says it’s too dangerous to get out. We drive by sections where squatters are building illegally, and also see areas cordoned off with wire, where there are weapons and flags. Governor Al Farra confirms that Hamas and Fatah militias both have training camps there. After Hamas was elected early this year, international institutions and investors clamped off aid.

Even projects which had already been funded by USAID and other donors — including clearing the rubble, building roads and connecting electricity — were stopped cold.

But as grim as things may be in the former settlements, commerce is taking root in other areas. Local entrepreneurs are moving in to fill the vaccum, with projects that don’t require large-scale planning — like beach cafes.

Restaurateur Allah Al Kurdi invested $15,000 in a café on the gaza shore. It bustles on weekends, but right now, midweek, it’s empty. Most people have little cash left.

ALLAH AL KURDI [interpreter]: It’s been great here, thank god. But since I opened, business has been slow. People don’t want to spend money because they haven’t been paid since Hamas came to power. And that’s been more than four months.

These cafés are small, green shoots of commerce. But it’s unlikely that anything more substantial will grow until international funding returns.

In the Gaza Strip, I’m Irris Makler for Marketplace.

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