Gaza battles revival

At first sight the abandoned Israeli settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip seems to be a complete ruin. Nearly two months after the army smashed all the houses and pulled out, no clear-up operation has begun. I watched two Palestinian girls herd their sheep slowly through the ruins. The girls perched on the rubble of the settlers homes, looking on as their animals grazed in what used to be the gardens.

But Netzarim is not a complete wasteland. There are signs of new, Palestinian economic life. The ranks of huge greenhouses that the settlers left have been put back into action. Repairs have been made, water supplies reconnected, and replanting is underway.

In just one greenhouse, nearly the size of a football pitch, the soil was carpeted with tens-of-thousands of pepper plants. All down the Gaza Strip, the agricultural industry that was the wealth of the settlements is being revived.

The Palestine Economic Development Company is doing the work. Its chief, Bassil Jabir says that there were Israeli suggestions that Palestinians would not have the capacity and the expertise to take over. "It was a challenge for all or us," Mr Jabir said. "We were determined that we could do it. Let this occupation end and we will be capable of managing our lives and our country. Now we can say that we've done it."

But a shadow hangs over his operation. There is no guarantee that the firm will be able to export its produce. Although Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, it retains control over all the territory's routes to the outside world.

A deal may be struck soon that would open the border between Gaza and Egypt. But much more important to the economy here is the movement of goods between Gaza and Israel.

The Israelis operate an extremely tight security regime that has reduced the flow of trade to a trickle, and sometimes shuts it off altogether. Recently - at best - just 35 trucks a day have been getting through. Five or six times that number will be needed if Gaza's coming harvest season is to be a success.

The greenhouse entrepreneurs worry that quantities of their tomatoes and peppers and cut flowers will rot on Gaza's border - never reaching the supermarkets of Europe.

"How can we put together a realistic strategy to overcome the economic crisis if we are not guaranteed secure access to the outside world," says Mohammed al-Samhouri, a senior official involved in planning Gaza's economic recovery.

Palestinians believe that Israel is simply bent on keeping a stranglehold on Gaza. And the special envoy of the international community, James Woolfensohn, said recently that on access issues Israel had been behaving as if there had been no withdrawal from Gaza at all. But Israel denies that it is deliberately throttling the territory.

"We'd like to see the economy flourish," says Mark Regev an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "If it's better for the Palestinians it's better for us and we understand that the flow of goods is an important element. But he said that with Gaza being a stronghold for groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Israel could not allow unfettered access, reports BBC news. I.L.

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