Gaza Palestinians Speak
Of 'World's Biggest Prison'
By Paul Holmes

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Ibrahim al-Masri lives about as close to the wire as you can get in what he and his fellow "inmates" call the world's biggest prison.
Around it run an Israeli-built security fence, ditches and searchlights, except down one side where the Mediterranean laps at the sand and Israeli gunboats patrol the waters offshore.
Inside, clustered in dusty towns and villages and squalid refugee camps, live the 1.2 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, struggling under a blockade Israel has imposed since the Palestinian uprising against occupation erupted last September.
Israel calls the closure a security measure dictated by the threat from Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers.
Palestinians call it collective punishment. Few feel the effects quite so closely as Masri, his wife Maha and their seven children, aged two to 15.
Their home in Brazil Camp at the far south of the densely populated, desert strip is bang on the frontline, 40 yards over open ground from a wire fence and Israeli-patrolled security corridor before the border with Egypt.
"This is worse than prison," said 42-year-old Masri outside his house, its walls pockmarked and broken open by bullets and heavier rounds fired, he says, by the Israeli army at night.
"In prison, you can be safe. Here you are in danger all the time."
Nine months ago, the family moved into the garage, too afraid to use the upper two stories or their front door.
When Masri ventures upstairs, he gets to the stairwell by scrambling through a hole he has made in the workshop wall.
Israeli tanks and bulldozers have come through the fence and entered Brazil Camp at least twice to demolish buildings the army says Palestinian fighters had used for cover in the uprising that began after peace talks stalled.
An expanse of rubble to the right of Masri's house used to house 22 families. Masri lives with the fear that the Israelis will come back without warning and flatten his home too.
"All I have is this house. If it goes I'll be on the streets or in a tent," he says between sips of the pungent coffee his wife has brewed on a camping stove as some of their children stand barefoot by the workshop's bullet-scarred metal doors.
Masri stays awake at night, on the alert to move his family to safety deeper inside the camp when the shooting starts or to deter any Palestinian, gunman or child firecracker-thrower, who comes along to mess with the Israelis.
"I won't allow anybody to go upstairs and use my house. If they asked, I would refuse. I built this house with my blood."
Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East War. It handed much of Gaza, a rectangle about 28 miles long and five miles wide, to Palestinian self-rule in 1994 under the Oslo interim peace accords.
Israel retained Jewish settlements inside Gaza and kept control over all movements of people and goods in and out of the strip. It also built the fence along the Gaza-Israel border.
A similar closure is also in force in the West Bank, though there it has been slightly less biting. There are back routes and hill crossings that avoid Israeli army checkpoints and no fence separating the territory from Israel.
Gaza was economically depressed even before the start of the Intifada (uprising). Only 40,000 Palestinians had permits to work inside Israel, but their earnings were Gaza's lifeblood.
Now the permits have been withdrawn and some estimates put the unemployment rate in Gaza at 60 percent.
Masri is a human face behind the statistics.
Until the uprising, he would head north each day before dawn to the workers' crossing at Erez.
Beyond was a job as a welder in the Israeli town of Rishon Lezion and a 5,000 shekel (831 pound) monthly wage. Now Masri lives off the money he had saved for "the black days".
No assistance is available from the Palestinian Authority, its own coffers severely depleted by the crippling squeeze.
"Four days ago, I went to see the governor in Rafah. I said I had seven children and asked him to give me some help, give me some work. He said he didn't even have the money to buy coffee for his staff," Masri said.
Now the Erez crossing is closed to Palestinians.
So is Gaza's airport, opened in 1998 amid heady Palestinian optimism that it would presage an independent state.
So too, when Israel determines that its security requires such a step, is the Rafah crossing to Egypt, the only other way out of Gaza for Palestinians.
And so, intermittently, are the recently fortified Israeli military checkpoints inside the strip at junctions with the Gush Katif settlement bloc and Netzarim settlement.
Even when the checkpoints are open, Palestinian cars have to wait in lines, sometimes for well over an hour at busy times of the day, to cross. When they are closed, Gaza is cut in three.
"We are all in jail now," said Khaled al-Husari, patriarch of one of Gaza's most prominent and wealthy merchant families.
"Town is disconnected from town, village from village," the devout Muslim said. "The closure has slaughtered us."
Husari, 76, has lived through the British Mandate, Egyptian administration of Gaza and then Israeli occupation. Never, he says, has the situation been as grim as it is now.
The wholesale food business Husari runs with his five sons has cut imports from foreign suppliers by 90 percent. His costs have climbed because the goods have to wait longer in the Israeli port of Ashdod for stringent security checks.
The shopkeepers the family supplies have no money to pay him, so he has had to take out bank loans to meet his own bills.
"The only thing keeping us in business is our reputation," Husari said at his home in Gaza City.
Psychologically too, Gazans are under pressure.
Anxiety, depression and domestic violence are on the rise as the closure, loss of livelihoods and the fear of Israeli raids on Gaza following Palestinian attacks take their toll.
"It is like something is suffocating me," psychologist Fadel Abu Hein said of the closure. "Your chest feels tight, just like when you are trapped in a small room."
This month, Abu Hein said, one Palestinian in the Jabalya refugee camp who had lost his job in Israel forced his wife and children into a room and tried to gas them.
"He said he wanted to kill them because he could no longer stand hearing the children ask him for things he could not provide. He said it made him feel weak."
Ibrahim al-Masri's wife Maha says she has lost 33 pounds since the violence started and complains her children have become disobedient and aggressive.
When the shooting starts at night, they huddle in a corner and cry "we want to get out, we want to get out", she said.
"If we had an alternative we wouldn't be here."

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