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ISRAEL-OPT: Ceasefire begins in Gaza after one year of blockade

JERUSALEM/GAZA, 19 June 2008 (IRIN) - After one year of a tight blockade on the Gaza Strip, the residents of the beleaguered enclave have some reason for optimism, after a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel went into effect on 19 June at 6am local time.

While the Islamic group Hamas, which controls Gaza since ousting forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah faction last June, does not recognise Israel - which in turn does not talk directly to the Islamic group - the two sides, through Egyptian mediation, agreed to a cessation of hostilities.

Palestinians in Gaza hope this agreement will bring an end to the sanctions on fuel, the ban on exports and the import of most goods. For the last 12 months, and particularly since the end of 2007, Israel has restricted imports to a trickle of fuel and basic goods such as food and medicines.

The closing of the crossing points led to increased smuggling into the enclave. "The only shoes I can find for my children are ones smuggled in from Egypt," a father in Gaza recently told IRIN. "They are lower quality and more expensive than the ones we used to buy. Too expensive, really."

The crossing points were also closed to most people, who were locked in the enclave, except for a brief period when militants blew open the border fence to Egypt.

"The only way to leave is with Qassam airways," joked one Palestinian, using the generic name for the rockets fired by militants into southern Israel. The rockets have caused widespread fear and some civilian casualties.

"It has only been a year, and the tougher sanctions have only been in effect since October. This is not a lot of time, but the sanctions are taking their toll," said Antoine Grand of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza.

Farmers out of business

The blockade meant farmers, who mostly grew for export, could not get their produce out and could not receive new seeds and fertilizers. Combined with the fuel cuts which affected their ability to tend the fields, many farmers went out of business.

Overall, observers said, the humanitarian situation in Gaza deteriorated in the 12 months after the Hamas takeover, but did not become a crisis, largely thanks to the efforts of aid agencies.

"Nobody is starving in Gaza because UNRWA [the UN agency for Palestinian refugees] and WFP [the World Food Programme] feed most of the population," was a refrain several senior aid workers repeated in conversations with IRIN.

"They are keeping people from the brink," one added, requesting anonymity as she was not authorised to speak about other agencies.

But even the massive aid from the UN and NGOs could not compensate for the impact of the siege on infrastructure. Hospitals and other institutions cannot get needed spare parts and heavy machinery.

The missing equipment and goods can range from X-Ray machines to simple things like light bulbs, pens and paper. In terms of leaving, the ban on travel has affected many patients who were not able to leave for treatments, as well as doctors who could not get specialist training abroad.

Similarly, fishermen and drivers are having trouble fixing boats and cars without the materials arriving from the outside.

According to the ICRC's Grand, the sardine catch for April this year was only 28 percent of what it was in 2007.

Development work halted

Development work, already slowed down due to the international financial sanctions which went into effect after Hamas won the elections in 2006, was further affected after the takeover.

"We were only a few weeks away from completion of a water reservoir to provide a clean and regular supply of water to 30,000 people in Rafah," said Martha Meyers from CARE International.

However, as CARE cannot import steel, pumps, pipes and other goods, the project was halted and the team decided to focus on a booster station instead, as the materials needed were already inside the enclave, though this was not the primary objective.

"You cannot deny the people the basic needed goods, just because you are angry with Palestinian leaders," remarked a frustrated development specialist.

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Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Food Security

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Copyright © IRIN 2008
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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