Source AP ©

Violence in Gaza Strip accompanied by high prices, empty shelves and closed factories

The latest explosion of violence in the Gaza Strip entailed unfinished apartment towers, shuttered factories, shops with empty shelves and skyrocketing prices for bread and cigarettes.

Five months of Hamas rule and complete isolation from the world have taken a heavy toll on the already impoverished territory, and frustration over the hardship helped drive this week's massive rally by Fatah, Hamas' rival, that ended in mayhem and bloodshed.

The Islamic militants' grip on power doesn't appear to be in serious danger, though.

Heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hamas remains entrenched, despite months of international sanctions.

The group also showed it's willing to use considerable force to stay in power; Hamas police opened fire during Monday's rally of more than 250,000 people, and by the end of the day, seven civilians were dead, dozens wounded and hundreds under arrest.

Still, the economic decline has been rapid since Hamas seized Gaza by force in June and Israel closed the territory's borders in an unprecedented lockdown. Most factories have closed, tens of thousands lost their jobs, exports and most imports are frozen and the U.N. says some 80 percent of 1.5 million Gazans now live in poverty, up more than 10 percent from the summer.

Rami Kehail, 37, said he joined Monday's Fatah march even though he doesn't support the movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and even voted for Hamas in the 2006 parliament election.

"The number of people who came out (to protest) was a kind of referendum," said Kehail, partner in a construction company that since June has had to lay off all but one of its 50 employees, after Israel's border closure kept all cement out of Gaza. "It was a sign of loathing of our reality."

Independent West Bank lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said she believes Gazans cannot be ruled by force indefinitely. "The Palestinian people in Gaza will gradually ... hold Hamas to account," she said.

A poll this week by the independent Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found that Hamas' support in the West Bank and Gaza fell from 30 percent to 19.7 percent in the past year. Fatah's support rose from 30.7 percent to 40 percent. Both this year's and last year's survey interviewed 1,200 Palestinian adults and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The latest poll was conducted through face-to-face interviews.Two-thirds were conducted in the Fatah-controlled West Bank, in keeping with the relative populations of the two territories. The results concerning support for Fatah or Hamas were not substantially different in the West Bank and Gaza.

Gazans say they are down to their last reserves.

Supermarket owner Mohammed Abu Sultan, 30, has only two boxes of candles left. Once they run out, his customers in the Shati refugee camp will have to sit in the dark during frequent power outages. He's low on cleaning products, diapers for babies and sugar substitutes for diabetics.

"By the end of the month, we will have sold everything," he said of his inventory.

Talaat al-Ghul, 47, said he spends his days fishing because he cannot bear to look at his building block factory, which used to support 10 workers and their large families, but has been idle since June.

Even if the borders were to reopen, he'd need $3,000 (2,000 EUR) to restart production. Rust is eating away at his two cement block presses, the forklift has a flat tire and his work horse is eating garbage instead of feed.

"This has taken me back 10 years," said the father of 11, who started his modest business a decade ago with help of a small loan from the U.N.

Near al-Ghul's factory, close to the beach, the gray skeletons of eight unfinished apartment towers stand empty, sea wind blowing through the rectangles where windows should have been installed by now.

The apartments, 40 per tower, have already been sold, but the tenants can't move in and are now paying double - a mortgage for the new homes and rent for the apartments they live in now.

Construction sites across Gaza have shut down because of lack of raw materials, mainly cement, and contractors had to lay off 35,000 laborers.

Building engineer Alaa Abu Zeina, 48, said Gaza's future is bleak. He laughed at assurances by Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government, that God will somehow provide for Gaza.

"As Haniyeh said, patience, patience, patience, that's the solution," Abu Zeina said sarcastically. "And then God is going to rain cement on us."

Israel's border closure, along with threats to scale back fuel and electricity, was meant to pressure Hamas into halting rocket and border fire on Israeli border communities, weaken the militant group and send a signal that Israel will eventually sever all ties with the territory, from which it withdrew in 2005.

However, Gaza militants are undeterred, and according to the Israeli army have fired more than 1,200 rockets and mortars toward Israel since June.

At the same time, Hamas continues to bring in millions in cash through smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border, enough to pay salaries to 16,000 members of its security forces and government employees.

"They (Hamas members) will keep the resources that they have for themselves," said Gaza economist Omar Shaban.

While Hamas takes care of its own, Shaban said, the closures have set back Gaza's anemic economy by years in recent months, and the misery is providing fertile ground for extremists.

"People will not die from hunger, but you will find people who are frustrated, who want to leave this country, or who are ready to sell themselves to any extreme party," he said.

Israel says no nation can sit by as rockets rain down on its territory and that economic pressure is preferable to reoccupying Gaza. Israel says a military offensive is a last resort, because of the expected heavy loss of life and uncertain outcome. Previous military operations did not root out militants or halt rockets.

"For us it's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't," said Miri Eisin, an Israeli government spokeswoman. "We tried a lot of varieties, but with none of them the rockets ever stopped."

Israel says it is doing its best to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

A few dozen Gazans a day get entry permits to Israel for medical treatment. Israel allows in 10 basic items - cooking oil, salt, rice, sugar, wheat, milk and dairy products, frozen vegetables, frozen meat, medical equipment and medication.

However, human rights groups say the squeeze is getting tighter, particularly since Israel designated Gaza a "hostile territory" in September. The criteria for medical passes have become more stringent and one of two makeshift cargo passages was closed in October.

Months of partial and full closure have taken their toll, said John Ging, the local head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to some 870,000 refugees and their descendants in Gaza.

"People are trying to cope with survival at a basic level," he said.