Strengthening Hamas in Gaza

The midday sun is blazing out of a cloudless sky at the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Things will surely go quickly now. The last trucks to drive up to the security area -- which is surrounded by 8-meter (26-foot) concrete walls -- have pallets loaded with milk and meat. But before the Palestinian trucks are allowed to load the merchandise on the other side, the gates have to close on the Israeli side.

The border crossing takes its name from the nearby kibbutz of Kerem Shalom, which means "vineyard of peace." But there's no contact between Israelis and Palestinians here -- and nothing resembling peace. In 2008, terrorists shelled the crossing. "We're working under a constant threat," says Ami Shaked, the Israeli in charge of the border station.

Shaked, 50, has his graying hair tied up in a ponytail and is wearing a blue baseball cap. The Kerem Shalom border crossing is not operated by the Israeli army but by civilians from the Israel Airports Authority. Moments later, the radio hanging on Shaked's shoulder starts crackling again. "Another truck," a female co-worker informs him. "What's he carrying?" asks Shaked. "Chocolate," she says. "It's actually too late," Shaked responds. "I've already made so many exceptions today."

Checking Every Pallet

His staff have checked 150 trucks on this day alone, which is more than half as many as over the preceding weeks. In reaction to pressure from the international community, the Israeli government last week eased its trade blockade, which it had imposed on the Gaza Strip exactly four years ago. At the time, Palestinian militants taking orders from Hamas raided a military post near the border crossing and abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit to the Gaza Strip.

From his air-conditioned office, Shaked can see every inch of the premises. He uses a joystick to control the surveillance cameras. Every pallet is checked -- with sniffer dogs, scanners and, when necessary, by hand. Shaked glances at the screen one last time. All of the Israelis have left the security area. "Tell the Palestinians that they can get rolling," he says over the radio.

On the other side of the border, Palestinian driver Subhi al-Chur, 47, is sweating profusely in the cab of his Volvo truck. He has been waiting in line for five long hours. "This is my first load after four years of unemployment," he says. That morning, Chur had received a call from a merchant in Gaza City who hired him to pick up a load of school satchels. The merchant had ordered them from China in 2007, but they had been held up by the blockade in the Israeli port of Ashdod. School satchels -- 2,400 of them.

Since perishable goods have priority, Chur will have to sit tight until evening comes. He doesn't care about the long wait -- the main thing is that he has work. Chur will receive 400 shekels, approximately €85 ($105), for the trip. "The situation is improving," says Chur, who is the father of 10 children. Another trader has already hired him for the next day to transport a load of home appliances.

'Smell the Jasmine'

Things are in fact starting to improve in the Gaza Strip in some respects. The supermarket shelves are filled with food and vendors are hawking goods on every street corner: fans, gas stoves, mountains of fruit and vegetables. "Welcome to Palestine," writes the Palestinian mobile phone provider Jawwal in an advertisement sent as a text message: "Taste the olives, smell the jasmine." It's the first time in years that the slogan doesn't sound like a bad joke.

But this upbeat message still remains exceedingly optimistic. For weeks, Jawwal has been plastering the streets of Gaza City with huge promotional posters. The firm plans to hold a huge raffle to mark the registration of the 2-millionth customer, with 10 brand new BMW 320i luxury sedans being awarded to the lucky winners. But any Gaza Strip residents who win such large prizes will probably never receive them.

The harsh reality is that the decision to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which was approved by the Israeli cabinet on June 20, is a long way from a Middle Eastern version of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Israel's government has only eased the regulations governing imports of consumer goods like electrical appliances, toys and food. As for cars, even replacement parts will remain a scarce commodity in Gaza.

Less Than a Dollar a Day

The man under the black tent tarpaulin introduces himself as Abu Faisal. He is standing roughly 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) from Kerem Shalom, on the border to Egypt. Faisal gazes into a large hole in the sandy soil as a winch pulls a Volkswagen Passat hatch to the surface, followed by shock absorbers and roughly a dozen car engines. He glances at his order list and nods with satisfaction.

Whatever the Israelis won't allow into the Gaza Strip is still brought in by smugglers through tunnels from Egypt. But the quality of the smuggled items is either so poor, or the prices are so high, that only very few residents can afford these coveted goods. Tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza used to work in Israel -- as cooks and construction workers -- but now not even students are allowed to leave the coastal strip to study at one of the universities on the West Bank. Nearly half of the population is unemployed, and approximately 70 percent of residents are living on less than a dollar a day.

Making New Bricks from Rubble

People stand in line in front of the headquarters of the United Nations in Gaza City. They submit their job applications to UN workers who sit behind blue-painted bars at the counters. Established in 1949 to aid Palestinian refugees, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is the largest employer in the Gaza Strip. Its director, John Ging, 45, a determined former officer in the Irish Army, has no time for small talk. What people here need, he says, "is a complete end to the blockade."

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is at war with Hamas -- and not with the residents of Gaza. Nonetheless, according to Ging, the blockade only strengthens the hand of the extremists and hurts the innocent, such as strawberry growers, tulip breeders, seamstresses, tailors -- and children. Over 7,000 children in the Gaza Strip have no classrooms. Their parents urge Ging to build new schools using the cement brought in through the tunnels. But he refuses to yield to such demands.

The international community made $4.5 billion (€3.6 billion) available for reconstruction after the end of the Gaza War one-and-a-half years ago, but most families whose homes were destroyed by the Israeli army are still living in barracks and containers. Mohammed Chadr, 47, used to own a three-story house in eastern Gaza City. Now his wife and seven daughters live in two rooms that they have built out of the rubble of their old home. The cement from the tunnels costs three times as much as it did before the blockade, says Chadr.

A brand new economic sector has sprung up around the piles of rubble that the war left behind. Brickmakers grind the old concrete into small grains, mix it with a bit of cement, and mold new bricks. They cost one dollar a piece. The price used to be half that -- and the quality was better. "This business pays off," says Abu Mohammed, 37. He manages to produce roughly a thousand bricks a day -- when there's electricity. Last Friday, the only power plant in the Gaza Strip once again came extremely close to an emergency shutdown because the supply of diesel from Israel was running low. It was another example of the usual provocations.

'Israel Is the Big Loser'

Israel has now relented and allowed in building materials that are needed for a number of aid projects. This means that Germany's state-owned development bank, KfW, was finally able to sign a building contract last week to expand a sewage treatment plant. The project had been delayed by the Israelis time and again because they feared that cement and steel could be used to build bunkers and bombs. The Israeli Foreign Ministry even refused to allow German Development Minister Dirk Niebel to enter the Gaza Strip because his visit would allegedly strengthen Hamas.

Five days later, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman decided to change course. During a conversation with his Italian counterpart Franco Frattini, he invited him and other foreign ministers from the European Union to take a tour through Gaza.

Even the hardliners in Jerusalem now seem to recognize that Hamas actually tends to benefit from the Gaza policies pursued by Israel. The military raid on the international Gaza fleet in May that resulted in the deaths of nine activists had a "very big effect," says Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, 65, with satisfaction: "Israel is the big loser."

But Hamas remains as cynical as ever when it comes to how it treats its own people. It has refused to accept overland deliveries of the materials brought by the Gaza aid fleet. The Hamas leader proudly proclaims: "We don't need any mayonnaise or ketchup."

'We're Prepared for Anything'

Today Israel is still a long way from achieving the main objective of its blockade, namely securing the release of the captured soldier, Gilad Shalit. Shalit's parents are also frustrated with the government's lack of progress and plan to camp outside Netanyahu's residence until their son is freed from captivity.

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar does not anticipate that Netanyahu will improve on his offer for an exchange of prisoners -- and Hamas does not intend to make a new offer. According to Zahar, the Israeli army is planning to free the prisoner by force. He says: "We're prepared for anything."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen