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Uncertainty, redemption for Palestinians in Gaza Strip

DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip—Abdel Kader Abu Holy sits at the crossroads of the Israeli occupation, counting the days. The 80-year-old patriarch is waiting for the morning he can walk through his orchards without fear of Israeli soldiers shooting him. He's waiting for the season he can replant fields that have lain fallow since Israel confiscated them to build a safe passage for Jewish settlers into the Gaza Strip.

For years, Abu Holy has looked on as Israeli settlers and their army protectors zipped over his property on a fortified bridge while Palestinians, blocked by soldiers, sat by the side of the road, waiting to pass through the checkpoint.

That will end in a few weeks when the Israelis pull out under their government's historic plan to shut down all its Gaza Strip settlements in a bid to reduce regional tension.

The Gaza Strip's future has plenty of uncertainty, given the strife among armed Palestinian factions. Yet there's a small measure of redemption for Abu Holy, who'll be among the first Palestinians to get back property that was seized during a half-century of conflict.

While most of the land used to build the 21 Gaza settlements was once public property and will go to the Palestinian government, about 5 percent will return to men such as Abu Holy.

For decades, thousands of Palestinians whose homes Israel confiscated have held on to ancient deeds and house keys, clinging to hope that they'll be able to reclaim their property one day.

Abu Holy has returned with a sheaf of papers encased in plastic, documenting his rights to confiscated farmland used to build the nearby checkpoint.

Along with the documents, he keeps a mental log of his losses: One hundred twelve acres. Three wells. An orange grove. Date, palm and fig trees. A nephew shot and killed while walking near the Israeli checkpoint.

An Israeli settler tried to buy his land, Abu Holy said, but he refused.

"I told him, if you fill this land with gold I will not sell you one piece of it," he said.

Abu Holy managed to fend off Israeli efforts to take his land until the second Palestinian uprising began in 2000 and the settler road running into Gush Katif became a prime target for terrorist attacks. To beef up security, Israeli seized Abu Holy's land to build a long bridge surrounded by concrete barriers and guarded by a pillbox gun tower.

The family convinced Israeli courts to block the seizure, but only temporarily.

In time, the crossroads became known to Palestinians as the Abu Holy checkpoint, the main choke point Israelis used to sever ties between the northern and southern stretches of the Gaza Strip.

To this day, young Palestinians sell tea, sweets and sandwiches to drivers often stuck for hours on either side of the checkpoint, waiting for Israelis to give them the green light and watching Israeli settlers pass back and forth uninhibited over the bridge.

Israelis know this crossroads as the Kissufim Crossing, a stretch of road that's proved to be deadly. As recently as last month, Palestinian militants ambushed and killed two Israelis on the bridge.

This week, the road will become the main route out for thousands of Israeli settlers and soldiers who are packing up and moving into Israel. When they're gone, Abu Holy will be able to walk safely on his land again, and he hopes it'll be the beginning of a new era. God willing.

"Insha'Allah," he said, raising his hands to the sky. "If America wants this, it will be."

Across the Gaza Strip, other families are waiting to regain control of their land. Some had property that was used to build settlements. Others had homes seized as part of buffer zones used to protect the 8,500 Israelis living—in defiance of international law—amid 1.3 million Palestinians in the territory Israel took during the 1967 Six Day War.

Not far from the Abu Holy checkpoint, Khalil Bashir is looking forward to the day when he can go up to the roof of his three-story house and look out toward the Mediterranean Sea.

For nearly five years, Bashir and his family have been confined to the bottom floor of their home just outside the fortified walls of Kfar Darom, one of the Gaza Strip's more embattled settlements.

The Israeli soldiers in the gun tower a few yards away call Bashir's home "the sniper house" and, in case anyone forgets, it's clearly marked on a panoramic photograph taped above the graffiti-coated windows of the pillbox bunker.

Although the Israeli settlement came under fire from the adjacent—and now abandoned—United Nations school, it's not clear that gunmen ever used Bashir's house to attack Kfar Darom.

Initially, the Israeli army said it took over the house as a "preventive" measure. Then it said the settlement took fire from Bashir's roof.

Either way, life changed for Bashir and his family in December 2000, when Israeli soldiers stormed their home, confined them to one room and took over the top two stories of the unfinished house.

The army sealed off windows and covered the house in camouflage netting. Visitors to the Bashirs are barred from going in the house without Israeli permission. One son was shot in the leg while walking on their property. A second was shot in the back while saying goodbye to visiting U.N. workers.

Despite it all, Bashir said he'd already "forgotten and forgiven."

He's preparing to celebrate the return of his house, and making plans to invite any Israeli settlers who want to come.

"We are destined to live together in this land," Bashir said. "We have to share it. Let us share it."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-LAND

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