GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—For most people, life in a shack on the Mediterranean might sound like the beginning of a lovely retirement.
But for the 1.3 million Palestinians on the Gaza Strip coast, life in one of the most densely populated regions of the world has been anything but idyllic.
For more than half a century, Palestinians in the narrow strip of land—25 miles long by about 7 miles at its widest—have lived in a stateless limbo, stuck in refugee camps and cut off from much of the global community.
Over the years, there've been periods of hope for Palestinians, including Yasser Arafat's return from exile in 1994. But this week's plan by Israel to pull all 8,500 of its Jewish settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip is providing residents with their best chance in decades to begin building normal lives.
The region was supposed to become part of a Palestinian state carved up by the United Nations after World War II. Arab leaders rejected the partitioning of Palestine and launched an unsuccessful war to block the creation of Israel in 1948. In the war, Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip, while Jordan took over the West Bank.
In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel forced Egypt and Jordan to retreat and occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since then, Israel has been building, funding and supporting disputed Jewish settlements on occupied lands.
The Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side in the Gaza Strip exist in vastly different worlds.
Inside the bubble of the Jewish settlements—whose 8,500 residents have control of about 18 percent of the Gaza Strip's land, according to the Israeli peace group Peace Now—many people live in spacious homes with gardens, grocery stores and beach access.
Outside, often just a few yards away, Palestinians live in crowded refugee camps, villages and cities where raw sewage sometimes flows freely into the Mediterranean.
While peace treaties signed in 1993 gave the Palestinians limited authority over the Gaza Strip, Israel has retained tight control. During the most recent Palestinian uprising—which was fueled by suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, along with relentless attacks on the Gaza Strip settlements—Israel launched punishing invasions. Israel has demolished hundreds of homes, created an almost-impenetrable barrier around the Gaza Strip and barred most Palestinians from leaving the territory.
Even when Israel razes the settlements and pulls out its troops, the Gaza Strip will face major hurdles. Israel is hesitant to allow the Palestinian government to rebuild its Gaza Strip airport and reluctant to provide a link between the coastal region and the occupied West Bank, the second parcel of land that Palestinians hope to transform into part of a new nation.
Israel is moving ahead with plans to build a high-tech security barrier around the Gaza Strip and planning to slowly choke off the flow of Palestinian workers into Israel, which already has been reduced to a trickle.
The battles among Palestinian factions for control add to the challenges. The Palestinian Authority's credibility has been hampered by charges of corruption, which has allowed conservative Islamic militants in the group Hamas to build a significant power base in the Gaza Strip.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Gaza Strip, Mideast
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050812 MIDEAST Gaza
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