MUGHRAQA, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – It is hard to believe that the empty sea washing the shore of the battered Gaza Strip is the same Mediterranean of European pleasure yachts and bathing beaches.
For 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza, the westward sea is like the fourth wall of a crumbling prison bounded to the north, east and south by an Israeli-led blockade, and now smashed in key places by a three-week Israeli military assault.
“It has been the same for 60 years,” said Abdel-Qader Shtewi al-Kurd who fled to Gaza during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and who witnessed the 1967 and 1973 wars.
He fled from Beer-Tima, a Palestinian village now in the Jewish state created in the same year he became a refugee.
“I was 14 years old. I remember the British soldiers well. They used to give us cigarettes,” said the vigorous and dignified 74-year-old, dressed in a crisp white Arab headdress.
Britain occupied what it called Palestine from 1917 to 1948, then pulled out as Jews and Arabs fought over the same land.
“If they had stayed the Israelis would not have come and we would not have had to live like this,” he smiled, waving a hand at the teeming Deir al-Balah food distribution center.
On Wednesday, the center was overflowing as the U.N. doled the quarterly supply of flour, sugar, cooking oil and powdered milk to some of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who rely on food aid.
It looked like every horse and donkey cart in central Gaza was in the yard or at the gates. Hundreds queued for their rations. Patient old men in Arab robes squatted in the dust to chat. The old women sat separately, in black robes and veil.
Young men in flour-whitened jeans and the occasional Chicago Bulls jacket heaved sacks of meal onto carts, and piled on bags of sugar from Brazil and bottles of sunflower oil from Turkey.
SOME UNSCATHED, SOME DEVASTATED
Gaza was under Israeli occupation for 38 years until 2005, when Israel withdrew its 8,000 settlers and their armed protection and handed the enclave back to the Palestinians.
The latest eruption its violent history followed a seizure of power in 2007 by Islamist Hamas militants pledged to destroy Israel, resist it indefinitely, and end to its blockade.
The rockets they fired at southern Israeli towns inland from Gaza and up the coast to the north finally triggered Israel’s offensive on December 27.
The cost was heavy. Israel had 13 dead but around 1,300 Palestinians were killed and 5,300 wounded.
Some parts of central Gaza, such as Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis in the south emerged virtually unscathed. Boys played marbles on Wednesday under the jacaranda trees and trade was getting back to normal.
But other communities, such as Salatin, Jabalya, and Beit Lahiya to the north and east of the city of Gaza, have been totally devastated by bombing and shelling.
They were chosen battlegrounds for Hamas or simply got in the way of Israel’s armored thrusts, as in central villages.
FIGS, DATES, DEMOLITION CHARGES
Though only 360 sq km, Gaza could be bountiful. There are figs, dates, olives, peppers and potatoes. The people could feed themselves rather than rely on handouts, if they had access to all the tools and supplements of modern agriculture.
But the Israeli blockade severely restricts imports, and Israel has again displayed its total power over Gaza.
At Mughraqa, Israel’s tank columns and armored bulldozers roared in from the border a few kilometers to the east, tearing up a wide swath of land all the way down to the sea shore, to slice the Strip in two.
In keeping with standard tactics, the column kept off the roads and instead plowed through wheat fields and orchards, smashing and demolishing houses to their left and right.
“I never saw anything like this before,” said Hard Awda Shalalfa, 62, as he sat by a smoky campfire in the yard of his half-wrecked house. “It used to be very beautiful here.”
Shalalfa, a father of 10 and a grandfather of many more, was born in 1947 in Beersheba, now Israel. During the occupation, he said, “I used to work for the Israelis, in Tel Aviv, in Eilat. I could go anywhere and earn money. But now we live like dogs.”
By the time tanks crested the ridge at Johr al-Deek sometime in the last two weeks, the villagers said they had already received a warning from Israeli forces to leave their homes.
On Wednesday they were picking through a sea of rubble. Not a house was still standing. Fences and gardens were gone. The turnip crop, the spring wheat and the orange groves were ripped up by the tracks of 70-tonne tanks. Olive trees were flattened.
Worse, for parched Gaza, the plastic irrigation pipes that carried water to the fields were torn up and sliced to bits.
Some of the houses in Johr al-Deek were simply bulldozed out of the way, others were demolished first, by charges planted by Israeli army sappers, the residents said.
Israel says guerrillas had booby-trapped many houses.
“There were no Hamas fighters here, no rockets,” said one local man, rising angrily from a group gathered around a fire to make tea in what used to be their home.
They had piled up some concrete blocks and corrugated iron sheeting to create a shelter — a construction they would normally have used as a goat pen.
Zana Abu Daher, a woman of 60, stumbled in the rubble of her former home looking in vain for valuables left behind when she fled. “I don’t know where I will go now,” said the widow.
Returning to their once tranquil farm village, with a view of the Mediterranean, the people stoically filled buckets with water from a standpipe in the ruins. A donkey hauled it up the hill to where Najeya Masleh, 42, was searching the ruins.
“I knew where to look because I saw a bit of our wardrobe against the wall of the house across the street,” she said, tugging on a buried red dress and then a blue shawl.
She pulled on a chunk of cardboard packing and dragged it from under the red earth. It promptly burst into flames.
“Phosphorus,” she said. The controversial smoke and marker incendiary used by Israeli forces in their Gaza operation can apparently re-ignite on contact with the air, even many days after it is used to cover the advance of troops.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers, back on the streets again with their guns, demand the border with Egypt be opened. Israel demands that tunnels used to defeat the blockade and bring in weapons and money for Hamas’s resistance campaign, be shut for good.
At the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Wednesday, there was plenty of evidence of Israeli deep-penetration bombing aimed at destroying the honeycomb of smuggling tunnels. There were big craters, twisted metal and blasted tents.
But Palestinians were back at work, and it looked unlikely that any surveillance system could reliably put an end to what is clearly a thriving business serving frustrated needs.
The only way to stop it may be to open the border.