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Gaza settlement devolves into a junkyard for scavengers

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—Mohammed Laham stands knee-deep in dirt, scavenging through the ruins of Israel's largest Gaza Strip settlement looking for something—anything—to sell.

While other teenagers play in the Mediterranean surf nearby, Laham and his younger cousin shovel through the wreckage of Neve Dekalim, hoping to unearth a section of buried water pipe they can sell for six or seven dollars. In a month of digging, they have come up with one.

On a nearby street, Ali Salaama loads his donkey cart with twisted sections of steel reinforcing rod that he's hammered loose from the concrete foundation of a former Jewish settler's home. Salaama can sell the metal for two dollars a pound to help feed his six kids, but the work is so exhausting that he only comes here twice a week.

This long fought-over swath of coastal land wasn't supposed to become a junkyard for scavengers, not to mention a haven for thieves and militants. It was supposed to be the hub of a Palestinian economic revival that would transform the miserable Gaza Strip. Instead, pushed to despair by political inertia and Israel's continued economic chokehold, Gaza Strip Palestinians are reduced to foraging for their survival.

A pervasive climate of lawlessness in Gaza, along with and the rise of the Islamist militant group Hamas as the ruling political force in the Palestinian Authority, have scared off international donors and stalled development projects. Gaza's most promising venture—a greenhouse project—faces collapse because Israel has shut the border, making it impossible to get its produce to Israeli and European customers.

"They are always sabotaging our economy," said Khalid Mohammed Al Ham, one of the greenhouse horticulturalists. "Their aim is to destroy any independent economy so we're dependent on them."

Outside donors invested millions to ensure that the Gaza Strip greenhouses run by Gush Katif settlers would be handed over to the Palestinians when Israel ended its 38 years of military occupation last summer.

Although departing Israeli settlers left some of the greenhouses in disarray and Palestinian looters damaged others, the new owners—and about 4,500 Palestinian workers—managed to get them operating in time to produce tons of tomatoes, peppers and strawberries within months.

However, unshippable tomatoes and peppers rotted on the vine or in trucks that waited in vain for days at the Gaza Strip's commercial border crossing. Israel kept it shut for most of this year, citing security concerns.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, expressed sympathy for the farmers' plight, but said the border crossing has been shuttered because of very specific threats that have been passed along to the Palestinian Authority.

Ayed Abu Ramadan, executive director of the Gaza project, called this season a "total disaster" and isn't sure international investors are going to want to keep funding a money-losing venture.

"Any project without freedom of movement is a waste of time, waste of effort, and waste of money," he said.

While Ramadan is trying to keep the venture afloat, security guards keep watch at the greenhouse entrances to protect them from looters.

On the road in to one greenhouse project one recent afternoon, a group of thieves blocked the way with heavy construction equipment while part of their team felled more than a dozen sycamore trees with chainsaws. The group used a winch to lift tree trunks a foot in diameter onto trucks to be hauled away.

The thieves ignored Ahmed Shaheen, a young militant who turned up and urged them to leave the trees standing.

"This used to be a grove," said Shaheen as the sycamore scavengers loaded up their trucks and posed for photos. "It was for us and our children to come. There is no law."

He and his small unit of militants are encamped just over the hill in the ruins of an abandoned settler factory, where the bearded commander proudly showed off the militants' renovations.

They've reinstalled toilets in the bathroom, turned the water back on and run electric wires back to the small complex. Shaheen talked of creating a sports club for kids so they have something to do. Over the building flew the group's yellow flag of Fatah, the once-dominant political party toppled in recent elections because of widespread discontent with its leadership.

"We're trying to make use of the ruins," Shaheen said, "trying to bring life back to this place."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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