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Conflict Deepens Despair for Palestinians in Gaza

By Daniel Williams

GAZA CITY, Aug. 19 -- To understand Lufti Bishawi's bitter despair, it would help to walk in his shoes. They are second-hand, bought from a pile of cracked and smelly hand-me-downs in an open-air market, and they are from Israel.

"Every time I take a step, I feel like I am walking in a swamp," said Bishawi, 69. "How did I get to this point, when I am old, to end my life in shoes thrown away by the enemy who robs me of everything?"

The Gaza Strip has been destitute ever since waves of refugees inundated its once-placid towns 53 years ago during the birth of Israel and the flight of Palestinians from their homes. But rarely has Gaza, now teeming with more than 1 million people, sunk to its present depth of misery. Never has it been so tightly sealed off for such a long time as it has been during these past 11 months of the Palestinian conflict with Israel.

"There is simply no doubt we are in a survival mode," said Ismail Abu Shehada, an assistant minister of industry in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority who is in charge of fledgling industrial and free-trade zones in Gaza. "You just have to look out the window to see."

The skyline that bristled with cranes when peace talks were promising is largely empty of construction activity. Traffic on central Gaza City's usually jammed roads is light. Long lines at butcher shops and vegetable stalls have moved to handout centers run by Islamic movements. Young boys beg for food at government ministries.

Bishawi's business, peddling chlorine bleach by horse-drawn cart, has all but collapsed. "People are barely washing clothes and floors with soap, much less chlorine," he said. His income has declined from about $10 a day last fall to $5 today. His extended family, which includes unemployed sons and their wives and children, numbers 34. The older men scrounge for porter jobs carrying goods around the market. Young grandsons beg at a police station and bring home an egg or two when the officers are feeling generous.

Such is the continuing toll of the nearly year-old conflict. Large parts of industry stand idle, tens of thousands of laborers are barred from jobs inside Israel, and checkpoints and blockades hinder trade among towns within the Gaza Strip. Each month brings new lows in employment and income. A similar trajectory is evident in the West Bank, but the decline is softened slightly by numerous factors: People have their own gardens, more people work abroad and send home remittances and workers risk arrest by sneaking into Israel for day jobs.

In December, the unemployment rate in Gaza was 50 percent, according to Palestinian Authority and U.N. statistics. By June, it had reached 64 percent, the industry ministry said. More than half of Gaza families saw their incomes decline by 50 percent during the past 11 months. Almost two-thirds of all Palestinians live below the poverty line, defined as a monthly income of less than $400 for a family of six. In Gaza, eight of 10 people live below that threshold, the Palestinian Statistics Center reported in July.

There is no end in sight. Israel has no plans to open Gaza to trade. Fear of terrorist attacks may have marked the end of Gaza as a labor pool for the Jewish state. "If they let us in, of course some people would take the opportunity for revenge. Who here has not lost a son, a cousin, a friend to death or injury?" asked Bishawi. Israelis shot his grandson Rafiq, 16, in the leg during the early days of the current conflict.

"It is better to keep us from the Jews, for we hate them," Rafiq said. He carries a card from the Palestinian Authority identifying him as a wounded veteran of the conflict, which entitles him to a free school uniform.

Israel has closed off Gaza not only from itself, but from the rest of the world. The airport is closed, no road links Gaza with the West Bank or the Arab world to the east and north, and the crossing south and west to Egypt is routinely blocked by Israeli soldiers.

Military positions ring the Gaza Strip and overlook it from settlement blocs still controlled by Israel. Snipers hidden in towers and in a house on the short border with Egypt keep Palestinians at bay. Gunboats shoot at fishermen who venture more than two miles off the coast.

[In southern Gaza tonight, three members of a Palestinian family were killed during a clash, the Associated Press reported. According to Palestinian reports, activist Samir Abu Zeid, his son and daughter died when a rocket hit their home in the town of Rafah during an exchange of fire. The Israeli military acknowledged a clash in the area but insisted its troops did not fire any rockets or shells. The army said the Palestinian home was hit by a Palestinian mortar that fell short of its intended target, an Israeli army position. Earlier, a 13-year-old Palestinian in southern Gaza was shot in the chest and killed by Israeli troops, according to Palestinian officials. Another Palestinian was killed near an Israeli roadblock in the West Bank.]

It is difficult to measure belt-tightening for people who can't afford belts. But a trip around Gaza City on Bishawi's cart gives a dusty view of how Palestinians cope, buying fewer goods of that are of increasingly poorer quality.

Bishawi begins his day at dawn, when it is still cool; his tin-roofed house will be like an oven by 7:30. After a breakfast of beans and herbs -- for the time being, eggs are off the menu -- he harnesses his horse and begins his rounds from house to house and marketplace to marketplace. The horse's stall is one room in the five-room house.

Bishawi pulled out old pictures of himself, taken in 1948 shortly after he arrived here from near Jaffa, where he was a farmer. His horse looked fit, and Bishawi looked sturdy under his checkered headdress. "We thought we would be here for a day," he said.

Bishawi began his rounds at the Fras market, stopping at Mohammed Masmiyeh's school-clothing store. Masmiyeh sells blue-striped smocks for girls and blue shirts with clip-on ties for boys. He reduced the price for smocks from $5 to $2.50, and for shirts from $7.50 to $5. "I ordered only the cheapest clothes, from China," Masmiyeh said. "I should be doing $150 to $200 business a day, but I am doing no more than $75. And no one is buying new school bags."

Bishawi told Masmiyeh that his daughters-in-law would soon be coming to shop. Back on the cart, Bishawi said, "They won't come. We are using last year's clothes, except for the boy who gets his free."

One of his daughters-in-law walked to the U.N. refugee office to see about provisions. Each month the family receives a bag of flour, rice and sugar, plus $10 per child. The family also begs for help from the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which provides limited food and money. The Bishawis eat chicken every 10 days. "I would kill for a mango," sighed Sawson, the wife of Bishawi's oldest son, Hassan.

A butcher at the market loudly lamented a decline in business. "I used to gross up to $1,000 a day," said Atif Moushtaha.

He pointed to a pile of fat. "I used to throw fat away. Now people come, and they offer 10 shekels [25 cents] for it," he said. "So I sell it."

The owner of the chicken shop next door chimed in: "If anyone comes to me, it will probably be for necks, even feet. People never used to eat chicken feet before," said Jaber Habib, waving the knife he uses to slaughter the birds. It had not drawn blood on this morning.

Bishawi returned after selling one bottle of bleach for 25 cents to a store owner. His cart rolled by a fruit stand where two customers inspected a softening melon. Zuhair Ashor, the proprietor, described his business as a dead end. "I buy cheap fruit from Israel, but of course the quality is worse," he said. "So no one will buy. Customers ask for credit, but I can't give it." His daily turnover has dropped from $1,750 to $750. "People only want tomatoes and maybe grapes from our own gardens."

Passing by Fras market again, Bishawi pointed out a group of men trying on shoes from a pile in a dark corridor. This is where he bought his black shoes, unlaced, now dusty from the morning journey. The customers stood awkwardly on one leg while they tried some on. They barely spoke. One commented simply, "What can anyone say? You see for yourself how shameful this is. We are the garbage dump for Israel."

Bishawi nodded in agreement. "I don't tell anyone I bought my shoes here," he said. "I say that I found these among old things of mine. Really, it is too humiliating."