A year after Israeli assault, uneasy peace settles over Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The road to Gaza is paved now.

The two narrow asphalt lanes that run through the vast plain of battlefield ruins that once was a promising industrial zone on the Israeli-Palestinian border are the most visible manifestation an unusual detente between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Thirteen months after Israel ended a three-week military assault on the narrow coastal enclave, Palestinian militants rarely fire rockets at southern Israel — 3,000 rockets and mortar rounds claimed eight Israeli lives in 2008.

Israel hasn't launched a major military strike on Gaza in more than a year, and it's been more than two years since a Palestinian suicide bombing anywhere in Israel.

There are no plans for serious peace talks between Israel and Hamas, between the militant Islamic group and their secular Fatah rivals who run the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, or between the Palestinians and Israel.

Israeli leaders, however, have used German and Egyptian intermediaries to negotiate over the fate of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who's being held in Gaza, and they had to approve the paving of the short road from Israel, which dead ends at a rudimentary border checkpoint run by the Palestinian Authority.

Beyond the road and past the rubble, Hamas runs its own ever-expanding border station, where bearded Hamas border guards enforce a ban on alcohol that they once ignored, pushing foreigners to hide their spirits in liquid soap bottles. The guards have traded their battered logbooks for dusty desktop computers to keep better tabs on who's coming and going.

Over the past year, Palestinians have cleared away much of the rubble that was left behind by the last Israeli offensive. Almost nothing has risen to take its place in the face of an Israeli ban on the importation of construction materials and high prices for anything that comes from Egypt through the smuggler's tunnels under Gaza's southern border.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Ezbt Abed Rabbo, one of the neighborhoods that was hardest hit during the Israeli offensive, which claimed as many as 1,400 Palestinian lives.

Israeli soldiers razed scores of homes and allegedly forced Palestinian men to search houses in Ezbt Abed Rabbo for militants or explosives. It was here, one family says, that an Israeli soldier opened fire on women and children who were holding white flags, killing two young girls.

One of the rare new homes in Ezbt Abed Rabbo is tiny, with two bedrooms and made of mud bricks. The United Nations built it for Raed Athamna and his extended family of 50-plus.

It's a symbol of what for the Athamnas has been a continuing catastrophe.

Raed Athamna and his relatives moved to Ezbt Abed Rabbo after the Israeli military accidentally shelled their homes closer to the border in June 2006. The early morning bombardment, for which Israel issued a rare apology, killed 18 members of Raed's extended family.

So the Athamnas moved farther from the Israeli border and took over most of a block on a dirt road in Ezbt Abed Rabbo.

Militants, however, used the nearby fields and orchards to launch rockets at southern Israel, so Ezbt Abed Rabbo bore the brunt of the Israeli military offensive. Before Israel withdrew, Israeli bulldozers and demolition teams demolished scores of homes closest to the Israeli border, including those of Raed and his family.

Demoralized and driven nearly mad, Raed turned some of his anger on Hamas. He chased away Hamas social workers who tried to hand out food coupons. He privately cursed Hamas ministers who gave more money to their supporters than they did to other Palestinians. He became, as one colleague described him, Gaza's biggest existentialist.

Friends from abroad organized fundraisers and helped Raed buy a new Mercedes to replace the taxi that Israeli forces crushed. Raed sold the car and used the money to rent a temporary home for his family.

With Raed's father spending his days around a fire near the ruins of the family homes, the United Nations decided to build a house for the Athamnas, turning to the only material available, mud.

"It leaks," Raed says with a shrug under gray skies as he walked along his muddy driveway.

The Athamnas also hold a rare distinction as one of the few Gaza families to have a son being held by Israel as an enemy combatant. Raed's brother Wael was arrested during the military offensive, and he's one of about nine Gazans who are still being held.

More than a year after the cease-fire took hold, he still hasn't been charged with a crime, and his relatives don't know when he might be freed. They say they don't know why Wael was arrested.

Raed's despair has him looking for a way to escape Gaza.

He's expecting his ninth child, but he's lost hope that he can give his ever-growing family a decent life. Like other Palestinians here, he's disillusioned by Fatah, disenchanted with Hamas, disappointed in President Barack Obama and dismayed by Israel.

"There is no other way for us but out," Raed said before he said good-bye. "Nowhere but out."

There's no way out for most people who live in Gaza, however. The only Palestinians usually allowed into Israel are businessmen, aid workers, U.N. staff and patients who need life-saving treatment they can't get in Gaza.

To the south, Egypt and Hamas impose mercurial restrictions on their shared border. Like guests at the Hotel California, Palestinians with permission to leave Gaza often wait for days at the border crossing before being told they can't leave.

Last fall, without explanation, Egypt barred a group of hip-hop musicians known as the Darg Team musicians from leaving Gaza, even though they had visas to appear at an international music festival in Denmark.

The rappers have another shot this year: Switzerland has granted them visas so they can help promote a documentary about Gaza in which they're featured. The group's name is short for Da Arabian Revolutionary Guys.

The rappers showed off their new visas to envious friends at coffee shops in Gaza City, but the odds of them getting to Switzerland aren't good.

"We will keep trying and hopefully we will get out," said Darg Team manager Fadi Bakheet. "One day. One day, maybe."

Bakheet's family, full of Fatah supporters, has tried for years to get out of Gaza. His older sister managed to get a visa to Sweden, where she's settled into a new life. Every other attempt to get out has been thwarted, however.

For now, the rappers are working on English subtitles for the music video of one of their most popular songs, loosely translated as "We Will Rebuild."

"Unity lies within this city that rises from a war and breaks a silence," the rappers sing in the video.

"We'll never forget the past which never dies.

"We'll put our hands together and give a unity example.

"We'll move on and rebuild,

"Stone on a stone, wall next to wall,

"And with our hands together will say: Rebuilt by us."

(Dion Nissenbaum was McClatchy's Jerusalem bureau chief from 2005 to 2009. He's now the bureau chief in Kabul, Afghanistan.)


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