oPt + 1 more

OPT: Economic woes stir unease in Gaza ahead of pullout

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, July 27 (Reuters) - Every day seems like strike day in the Gaza Strip -- teachers, taxi drivers, doctors and fishermen have all staged brief work stoppages in shows of anger.

The growing number of protests reflects disappointment in the fact that there is no let up in economic hardship despite hopes brought by the election of President Mahmoud Abbas in January and the truce he agreed with Israel.

That restive mood could bode ill for Abbas when the Palestinians take over settlements in occupied Gaza from Israel later this year if the leadership is still unable to deliver quick and clear improvements.

"There is negligence. There is no movement from the side of the government to provide people with minimal assistance to make a living," said Mohammad Awf, a 51-year-old father of 11.

"There were many promises before the elections but so far nothing has come true," he told Reuters inside his poorly built house in Shati refugee camp in Gaza City.

Fading campaign graffiti from January's election still peers through the whitewash: "With Abu Mazen we will end the oppression of unemployment," reads one message using Abbas's nickname. "With Abu Mazen towards a better future," says another.

Expectations are vanishing even more quickly.

"We had promises but we did not see hope," said Moataz Al-Jbour, a Russian-trained doctor who has been sitting with scores of colleagues at a protest tent outside Gaza's parliament building to demand jobs.

Already weak, the Palestinian economy crumbled during an uprising that blew up in 2000.


Some of the economic damage was a direct result of fighting, more came from Israeli restrictions on people and goods. Israel said the measures stopped suicide bombers and gunmen, though Palestinians called them collective punishment.

Gaza was hit especially hard because Israel shut its gates to labourers earning vital revenue. Palestinian statistics show unemployment in the territory of 1.3 million has risen to 40 percent from 10 percent before violence started.

In addition to the conflict, the aid-dependent Palestinian economy has been sapped by corruption and mismanagement that is far from being eliminated since the death of long time leader Yasser Arafat last year strengthened hopes of change.

"We are in the worst economic shape ever," said Palestinian economic commentator Salah Abdel-Shafi.

Life has improved for a few in Gaza since the ceasefire was agreed in February.

The number of Palestinians getting permits to work in Israel has risen to 7,000, though still far from the 24,000 before the uprising. In one local sign of improvement, entrepreneurs have set up grilled meat and fruit stalls at the border to cash in on workers returning at day's end.

But the gates can be just as easily shut when violence surges and there is no guarantee that Gazans will be able to keep working in Israel after it withdraws from all the territory's settlements, starting next month.


The withdrawal will certainly provide a political boost and should give the Palestinians the first territory they will have ruled without even partial occupation.

Donors, hopeful that the Gaza withdrawal is going to mean a step towards talks on peace and Palestinian statehood, also stand ready to provide aid for rebuilding. Palestinians expect $500 million in the next three months alone.

But there are big questions over how soon any of the extra money will change the lives of Palestinians.

Despite diplomatic prodding from the United States, Israel and the Palestinians have still not finalised agreement on key issues like freedom of movement after the withdrawal and what will happen to the settlement infrastructure.

Washington has stressed that it wants Gaza to be open to the world and have easy access to the West Bank, the other territory Palestinians want for a state.

But Israel says it also has security concerns, especially given the fact that Gaza is a militant stronghold.

The Hamas Islamic faction is emerging as an ever stronger force in challenging Abbas -- in part because of a charity network that helps Palestinians who see little benefit from the official institutions.

That puts even more pressure on Abbas to deliver, but economists say it is far from assured that he can meet those expectations.

"A tangible change will not be possible before three years ... and that is only if withdrawal is to be complete and the closure of passages comes to an end," said Abdel-Shafi.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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