no traffic in gaza!

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    Gaza's blocked arteries
    By Martin Asser
    BBC News website, Gaza

    Approaching Abu Holeh from the south is a disorderly business.
    It is a public holiday in Gaza - with Eid and the period of official mourning for Yasser Arafat - so there is no better time to sample what it is like for Palestinians travelling through the Israeli-occupied strip.

    Gaza is a 40km by 5km (25-mile by three-mile) ribbon of land along the south-east corner of the Mediterranean Sea, home to some 1.3 million Palestinians and 8,000 Jewish settlers.

    It has - or used to have - a fine two-lane highway called Salah al-Din (Saladin) Street which could whisk you from top to bottom in less than an hour.

    Now, with Israel's security regime tightened because of the intifada, Palestinian traffic must zigzag through the territory to avoid Israeli-created obstacles and barriers.

    Click here to see a map of the area

    Most inconvenient of all is the total closure, which the Israeli army can impose by cutting the tortuous route at two particular spots, cutting the north, centre and south of Gaza off from each other.

    Many Palestinians hope Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan for Gaza will mean an end to this hardship when the settlers and troops who protect them are pulled out.

    Round trip

    My journey starts by hailing a taxi from the Gaza City beachfront and requesting a round trip to Khan Younis, the main town in the southern Gaza Strip, about 20km (12.5 miles) away.

    A wary look passes across the face of the driver, whose name is Ahmed, but he agrees to take me. I tell him I have three hours, and the wariness turns to outright scepticism.

    Taxi driver Ahmed near Nuseirat camp
    Taxi driver Ahmed taking a break near Nuseirat camp
    All right then, I say - if we have to turn round, so be it. But in actual fact, since there is no commuter traffic, no university students, and very little freight, three hours was just about right.

    Normally traffic south from Gaza would take Salah al-Din Street, but it is blocked after about 2km (1.2 miles) near the Netzarim settlement. That is where the young Palestinian boy Muhammad al-Durrah was captured being shot dead in TV footage at the beginning of the intifada in 2000.

    Now the route out south follows the coastline. The last district you pass at the southern end of Gaza City is Tel al-Hawa, where Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin lived and was killed by an Israeli rocket strike earlier this year.

    Fortified watchtower

    As the houses thin out, something strange becomes apparent. Small signs of destruction, demolished walls, uprooted trees - the devastation increasing until all the houses we pass are all derelict.

    "We are approaching Netzarim," says the driver.

    Netzarim watchtower, Gaza Strip
    The Netzarim watchtower dominates a barren landscape
    After a certain point, every feature of landscape has been erased - bulldozed out of existence by the Israeli army.

    The only building visible for hundreds of metres is the fortified watchtower guarding the western side of the settlement. Behind in the hazy distance is the lush setting of Netzarim itself.

    If there is a closure, this is where Israeli forces dig up the road and seal off Gaza City from the rest of the Strip.

    There is usually one loophole for Palestinians wanting to get through. They take shared taxis as far as they can go and then walk for 2km (1.2 miles) along the edge of the sea, which is out of sight of the road and the watchtower.

    Sometimes even that loophole is closed - an armoured vehicle parks at the cliff top and opens fire to deter any pedestrians.

    Mountain of rubble

    With Netzarim behind us, we pass to the west of Medinat Zahra, a development of numerous six-storey blocks of flats built for members of the Palestinian security services.

    It looks newer and cleaner than most of the rest of Gaza, apart from the two buildings nearest Netzarim - they are now two huge mountains of rubble, bombed by the Israeli Air Force because they offered too good a view of the settlement for would-be attackers.


    GAZA STATISTICS
    Palestinian pop: 1.3m
    Area: 360 sq km
    In poverty: 75%
    Unemployed: 37%
    Under 15: 49%
    Pop growth: >4% per year
    Malnutrition: 13.3%
    Israeli settlers: About 8,000
    Sources: World Bank 2003 & 2004; Israel CBS, CIA World Factbook

    Gaza profile
    We stop for a quick look at the rubble, which is impressive even by Gaza standards.

    "Don't go too far up," says a boy playing among the collapsed buildings. "The army will start shooting at you."

    We do not go too far up.

    Back on the road we have the choice of two routes heading inland - through Nuseirat refugee camp or further south through Deir al-Balah camp. Ahead of us the coast road is blocked by the Gush Katif settlement.

    Both refugee camps are shocking in their poverty, squalor and the degradation in which their inhabitants live. They are also both hotbeds of Palestinian militancy.

    Posters extolling martyrs vie for space with flags proclaiming the different militant organisations. A brand new banner hangs in Nuseirat in which the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are renamed the Martyr Abu Ammar Brigades, in honour of Arafat.

    Choke point

    After Deir al-Balah comes the "highlight" of our trip - the Abu Holeh checkpoint.

    This is a 1km (0.6-mile) stretch of road through which the Israeli army channels all the traffic between the central section of Gaza and the southern section.

    Poster in Nuseirat, Gaza for the Martyr Abu Ammar Brigades
    A brand new poster declares a new name for the al-Aqsa
    Like Netzarim, Abu Holeh stands in the middle of a huge patch of bulldozed farmland and buildings. Only the neat, red-roofed buildings of the Kfar Darom settlement are visible to the north-east.

    The army has narrowed the road to a single lane (although we have actually rejoined the Salah al-Din highway) and operates a traffic-light system so that only cars from one direction can travel at a time.

    Traffic to and from the Jewish settlement passes freely on a bridge over the checkpoint.

    Normally, hundreds of Palestinian vehicles are waiting to cross - but today is a holiday, so it is only dozens.

    As we pass through from the Deir al-Balah side - after only a 20-minute wait - we are horrified to hear a nearby loudspeaker shouting "waggif, waggif", which means "stop" in colloquial Arabic.

    The vehicle ahead, the vehicle behind and Ahmed all screech to a halt. Nervous moments pass as an Israeli army jeep drives towards us and stops.

    "You, go back to Deir al-Balah, you in the front," a soldier yells through a loudspeaker. "Everyone else, go on."

    Unwritten rules

    It seems that the vehicle in front had broken one of the rules of Abu Holeh, that unless you are in a taxi or a freight vehicle you cannot cross.

    It was an orange Mercedes that looked like a taxi, and was carrying passengers, but the number plate was not green but black, meaning that it was unlicensed and had been issued with temporary plates.

    Another rule of Abu Holeh is that no taxi can cross with only the driver on board - in case he is a suicide bomber.

    Gaza's coast road
    Heading home along Gaza's coast road
    "If I'm alone, what I do is pick up a kid from the side of the road and give him a shekel to go with me," Ahmed says with a smile.

    "Unfortunately for him, he has got to pay half a shekel to get a ride back over the checkpoint."

    We do not tarry long on the other side before turning back. The worst thing would be for Abu Holeh to suddenly close, which it frequently does, and Ahmed and I would be stuck in Khan Younis for what could be days.

    And with Abu Holeh, it is not like Netzarim where you can walk along the beach. When it is closed there is no way through. End of story.

    The second worst thing would be to be pulled aside for a vehicle search. Ahmed showed me the walled compound where searches take place, with people being detained for hours sometimes.

    Disruption

    Even when it is open, Abu Holeh presents the Palestinians of Gaza with a serious logistical challenge which can cast a dark shadow over their lives.

    The disruption for university students has got so bad that some colleges in Gaza City have set up branches in Khan Younis so that students can be guaranteed to attend classes and exams.

    Fresh food producers have lost thousands of tons of produce because of closures.


    Imagine what this is like in the summer with 1,000 cars and lorries waiting for hours to cross
    Ahmed
    Even the BBC office in Gaza City shies away from covering stories first-hand in the southern Gaza Strip for fear of getting stranded there.

    The queue of traffic heading north out of Khan Younis is much less orderly than that heading south, with vehicles converging in an irregular dusty crowd jostling to reach the checkpoint first.

    "Imagine what this is like in the summer with 1,000 cars and lorries waiting for hours to cross," Ahmed says. "No shade, children crying, dust coming in through the windows.

    "You have to keep the window open to hear the Israeli orders."

    As we pass the fortified army position an Israeli soldier's voice can be heard telling the aggravated drivers through the loudspeaker: "One by one... slowly, slowly... one by one."
 
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