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Arabs share dreams of potential In the sand and the scrub, Palestinians see opportunity, CAROLYNNE WHEELER writes

In the sand and the scrub, Palestinians see opportunity, CAROLYNNE WHEELER writes

BEIT HANOUN, GAZA

beyond the barbed wire, concrete walls and turnstiles of the cavernous hangar that marks the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza lies a patch of about two acres of flat, vacant sand and scrub.

Littered with discarded bottles, bags and broken cinder blocks, to the outsider this is an abandoned no-man's land, serving only as a buffer between the Israeli soldiers and the small gardens and homes of the Gazans beyond.

But to the Palestinians awaiting the planned departure of Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza in two weeks, this desolate piece of land represents hope for the next generation.

"This piece of land will act as a shelter, a school -- as everything," said Atta Sweilem, 49, owner of this nine-square-kilometre property. "This is an opportunity to develop ourselves."

Mr. Sweilem's lofty ambitions are shared by others in this tiny strip of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea, one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

An estimated 1.36 million Palestinians live in this 360 square kilometres. More than half of those are registered as refugees.

Gaza's economy once depended heavily on its workers' ability to cross into Israel to work. But after the Palestinians' last intifada began in 2000, permission to cross became more difficult to obtain, and unemployment soared to 38 per cent. That number rises even higher when the Erez crossing is closed to workers, as it is on this day -- Israel's response to a suicide bombing in the coastal city of Netanya a few weeks before.

More alarming, United Nations Development Program officials say, is that about 81 per cent of families live on less than $2 a day, the official poverty line in Gaza.

Mr. Sweilem has been out of work since 2001, when he says he was fired from his job as a driver with the Israeli bus company Egged after another Arab driver turned his bus into a weapon, running over and killing eight Israelis and injuring 25 others at a highway bus stop.

The house that used to sit on this land was bulldozed, as was his grove of citrus trees, early in the intifada, after militants used the property as a base for their rockets. Israeli bulldozers flattened everything within 200 metres of the border to create a security buffer. Since then, Mr. Sweilem, his wife, mother, sister-in-law and five children have lived together in a small four-room apartment in a squat, graffiti-covered Palestinian Authority block, children sleeping on the floor, adults on small cots. They stock their kitchen through charity and odd jobs.

When the real-estate agents came knocking this spring, offering to purchase his land -- first for $15,000, then for $20,000 -- the offer was tempting, but not tempting enough.

"I will not sell, because I hope to see my land provide job opportunities for people here," Mr. Sweilem said, gesturing to a cluster of small nephews who have gathered around. "In 10 years time, where will these children go? And everyone has 10 others like them."

Mr. Sweilem's family is one of an estimated 25,000 who have been displaced in the past five years, after the destruction of more than 2,700 homes in Gaza -- Israel's response to suicide bombings and rocket attacks. Gaza's agricultural industries have been devastated, its fisheries hobbled, its labourers left to sit home.

But on these hot days of summer, when the temperature hovers around 35 degrees, there is a flicker of hope on Gaza's crowded streets. People who have never left Gaza are now talking of visiting distant relatives in the West Bank, a journey that currently depends on scarce permits from Israeli authorities. There is talk of investment and new jobs, of building factories and high-tech centres, of turning the settlement beachfront into a resort -- if enough aid money comes from abroad.

"What I want to do now is proceed with life, proceed with modern technology," said Mr. Sweilem, musing out loud about the possibilities for his land, if only an investor could be found: pharmaceutical manufacturing, a swimming pool, a hotel. "We could even make a Coca-Cola factory -- look how many workers we could give an opportunity to."

He is not alone in his dreams: Business in real estate has been brisk, as investors prepare for what they hope will be a rush of new development.

"Economically, Gaza has enormous potential, so it is literally a scenario between Singapore and Soweto. And that choice depends on what happens after disengagement," said Ehab Shanti, a spokesman for UNDP in Jerusalem. "There is a sense of promise, and there is a sense of hope generated by the disengagement. They're hopeful this will be the first step toward the creation of a Palestinian state."

The first day of withdrawal will be marked with celebrations; the Palestinian Authority called for a parade of all the political factions. "Great happiness will overwhelm me. It will open the future up for me," said Salah Abu Shaadi, 39, a Fatah representative in Gaza. "I have never dreamed of having the Palestinian flag over Gaza, and now it's happening."

But the optimism is still tempered, first and foremost, by general disbelief about whether Israel will really follow through on its plan to remove its soldiers and allow a secure link -- possibly by train -- between Gaza and the West Bank.

"I don't see anything positive -- there's the sea, and there's the border . . . [Israel] will move out of here and they will set up a bigger house in the West Bank," said Mahmoud El Khourd, an 85-year-old man in a traditional white dishdasha and prayer cap, who was lecturing younger men on a dusty street corner in nearby Beit Lahiya. "Gaza is surrounded. Gaza is besieged. With our rise in population -- where is the land? There is no land."

There is also uncertainty about what happens on the day after the Israelis leave. The Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority has faced a serious political challenge in Gaza from the powerful militant group Hamas; yellow Fatah flags mingle with the green of Hamas on the streets of Beit Lahiya, where contested municipal elections led to clashes and gunfire earlier this summer.

And the divide is likely to be magnified by different visions for Gaza's future: Fatah, for instance, wants to base up to 40 per cent of the economy on tourism, through improvements to existing hotels and building on land vacated by settlers. But the Islamist Hamas is unlikely to look kindly on developments that include mixed beaches, casinos or restaurants that serve alcohol.

"I go to the sea, I go to the park, I take my wife and children. But this is not all I seek. To prove that I am free, do I have to go to the sea wearing a bikini? I am a Muslim, at the end of the day. I have a religion that I must follow," said Bassam Abu Ataya, an Islamist journalist with the Hamas newspaper Al-Risalah. "We will build universities. We will work on cleaning up the corrupt institutions. We will try to take care of our young people, coach them. Freedom and independence does not mean resorts on the sea."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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