The residents of the Ma'aniya quarter of Dir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip are entitled to leave and enter their neighborhood four times a day: between 6 and 7:30 A.M., between 10:30 and 11:30 A.M., between 1 and 2 P.M. and between 4 and 5 P.M. Three coils of barbed wire separate them from the exit from their little neighborhood, which is surrounded by barbed wire fencing, observation towers and IDF positions - and by the wall of concrete slabs that surrounds the Kfar Darom settlement, which borders their land. They are trapped between the Kfar Darom greenhouses to the east and the settlement's homes to the west.

"The enclave" - That's how the IDF soldiers refer to the neighborhood. Shortly before the scheduled opening, two military jeeps arrive, either from Kfar Darom to the west of the neighborhood or from the military post to the east of it. A soldier or two gets out and moves the three rows of barbed wire that block the road. Usually, especially in the morning, when the children are on their way to school, the people gather near the innermost coil of barbed wire before the appointed hour and wait for the soldier. Then, they walk in a column behind the jeep, which stops by the outermost coil and remains there for as long as the way is open.

Anyone coming into the neighborhood must present ID. The soldier checks to see if the name is on the list of 137 residents. Anyone who is not a neighborhood resident is not permitted to enter - including relatives who live on the other side of the fence. Cars are not permitted to enter. Ambulances are only permitted entrance if this is coordinated beforehand.

The Kfar Darom settlement, the army base guarding it and the settlement's hothouses are located on the eastern side of Saladin Street, the main artery connecting the northern and southern portions of the Gaza Strip. On the western side of the street is Midreshet Kfar Darom (Kfar Darom College). Surrounding the area of the settlement are the Palestinian neighborhoods of Dir al-Balah, and what were once the fields, groves and hothouses of a town that was known for its dates and its farmers.

In the wake of several suicide bombings around there and shooting incidents near Kfar Darom, the Palestinians were prohibited - as far back as the 1990s - from traveling on the section of Saladin Street running from the north to the south of Dir al-Balah. The defense of Kfar Darom residents from Palestinian shooting from surrounding buildings is evident in the fortifications that have been built around it: high guard towers and observation towers, military positions built of armored concrete, a concrete wall behind which several tiled roofs are visible, a barbed-wire fence, an iron gate.

Now it appears that the plan is to improve and fortify the defensive barrier surrounding the settlement. On January 14 and on February 3, Major General Dan Harel, commander of the IDF forces in the Gaza Strip, signed land confiscation orders affecting 18 Palestinian families. According to the orders, approximately 43 dunams will be needed to build a security fence around Kfar Darom and around Midreshet Kfar Darom. In fact, the area was taken over a long time ago. School principal Khalil Bashir says the orders were intended to impart an ostensibly legal dimension to the land grab.

He received one such order five days ago - just when the whole world was talking about an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. His three-story house sits about 30 or 40 meters west of Kfar Darom. In early 2001, it was converted into a military position. The family of eight refused to leave; they live on the first floor, where everyone must sleep in one room, which is relatively protected from the frequent gunfire from the military posts defending the settlement. A camouflage net, coils of barbed wire and cameras are kept on the roof. The family is only permitted to invite guests on rare occasions, and must request permission from the soldiers at the adjacent army post. They may not wander around near the house or in the area to the east, where their greenhouses once stood - before they were destroyed by IDF bulldozers. Of the 120 date palms they once had, only six were not uprooted. Two trees have been shot and are slowly dying.

Under fire

The signs of Israeli gunfire from the past three years are quite evident on the Palestinian houses to the north and west of Kfar Darom, no more than 100 meters away. The deserted UNRWA school opposite Kfar Darom to the west is perforated like a sieve. Bullet holes of all sizes adorn the houses - some are abandoned, while at others, laundry has been hung to dry, indicating that the occupants had nowhere else to go. The ground is littered with bullet casings (Palestinian, of course) and remnants of Israeli shells or rockets, some still stuck in a wall here and there.

What was once a Palestinian police position - a simple concrete building - has been reduced to rubble. What was once a main road is now a mix of cracked pieces of asphalt with grass coming up in between, twisted iron rails and shattered concrete blocks. The Ma'aniya enclave is on the eastern side, about 500 meters from what was once the main road. The enclave is hidden from view by a cluster of simple concrete structures, some full of holes, alongside huts and flocks of sheep and children playing among the sand dunes, the piles of garbage and the mounds of rubble.

Last Monday, at 6:30 in the morning, the Jeep did not show up and the soldiers did not move the three coils of barbed wire aside. "It was foggy, and that's dangerous," explained one of the soldiers who arrived later, at 10 A.M. (after prior coordination with the IDF spokesman) to move the barbed wire for some Israeli visitors. S., who arrived by bicycle from Dir al-Balah, was not permitted to enter. "We open at 10:30, and then he'll be able to enter," the soldier explained. S. works the night shift at a cookie factory in Gaza. He starts work at 11:30 P.M. and finishes at 3:30 A.M. In the morning, he has to wait three hours for the soldiers to open the barbed wire. On Monday, when he arrived at 6:30 A.M. to find the barbed wire still in place, four warning shots were fired in his direction from the army post that sits atop a sand dune.

About a week ago, a shepherd brought his sheep to graze on the grass outside the enclave. Shots were fired from the army post and several sheep were killed. The bodies of two still lay on the ground. Thus it is made clear to the Ma'aniya residents that they had better not think of moving the barbed wire themselves.

Before September 2000, they earned a living from agriculture and from working in Israel. Several hundred dunams around the area are owned by the five clans in the neighborhood. Three of the clans are refugee families from Be'er Sheva, who bought land right after the explusion in 1948, or as soon as they understood that they would not be returning to their land anytime soon. One refugee, 72, still remembers that land; the young people sitting in a circle on plastic chairs, behind the barbed wire that encloses their neighborhood, recall what used to lie beyond the fence: "It was a paradise here. They used to send people who were depressed here, to revive their spirits. There were date palms and olive trees, and other fruit trees, and we grew vegetables in the greenhouses. Before 1991, dealers from Israel used to come straight to us here to buy our farm produce."

Gradually, since the end of 2000, all their groves and greenhouses and agricultural equipment and irrigation pipes have been torn up and destroyed in the IDF's repeated "exposure" operations. A jointly owned American-Palestinian plant for manufacturing concrete slabs stands deserted amid their fields. They say that no one from the neighborhood has been involved in shootings against the soldiers or Kfar Darom. Nor has anyone here been killed or wounded by IDF fire. They don't mention the dead and wounded - both Palestinian and Israeli - that have fallen around them. "There hasn't been shooting from us, or toward us. When there was shooting, we didn't know what was happening, and we went into our houses and closed ourselves inside."

Some of them are wary of saying anything, and most are very cautious with what they say - a caution learned from living between settlers and soldiers, which stems from a desire not to be evicted from their homes. "They uprooted our trees and demolished our greenhouses for the sake of security, to give the soldiers who are guarding Kfar Darom a clear field of vision. Since all the vegetation has been gone, there hasn't been any shooting," says one of them. So does this mean they understand the army's actions? "Yes, we understand, but we want the State of Israel to compensate us, because what happened is not our fault."

Severed ties

Another one adds, perhaps in jest, perhaps not: "We want to be recognized as a neighborhood of Kfar Darom." And a third, speaking seriously, says: "We understand one thing: Security is important to Israel, and we can't do or say anything when they are acting in the name of security. Sometimes they would come and destroy our greenhouses here - you can see the plastic and iron remnants of them - and we'd be standing alongside them and chatting with the soldiers who were guarding things."

A smooth road connects Kfar Darom to its greenhouses, and Israeli farming vehicles travel back and forth on it. Some are driven by Thai workers. In the past, the people of Ma'aniya worked in the Kfar Darom greenhouses. They weigh their words: "We knew them by name and they knew us by name. Since September 2000, we haven't visited them or talked to each other at all. All the ties were severed." When asked what they think of Ariel Sharon's announcement that he will evacuate the settlements in Gaza, one hastens to say: "We welcome it, so we'll be able to live normally, like human beings." But the others quickly chime in, all saying in so many words: "We don't believe it. It's all a lie. We've stopped reading the newspapers. It's all just empty talk."

Now they are lowering their expectations: Those who work in Israel are waiting for the army to lower the minimum age for workers being permitted to enter Israel - 35 - before they reach that age. The limit was set following the suicide bombing at the entrance to the Erez industrial area about a month ago. In the past three years, they haven't been able to go to work in Israel (in places such as Tel Yitzhak and Rehovot) for more than three months.

And they're also praying that their neighborhood will be reconnected to the water system. In its efforts to expand and ensure an unobstructed field of vision around Kfar Darom, the IDF destroyed the water pipe that connected Ma'aniya with Dir al-Balah. For bathing, they use water from two agricultural wells on their land - but this is salty, non-potable water. Purified drinking water is transported in jerrycans from the neighboring city, on a donkey cart, and they pay NIS 16 per liter for it. Some here dream that maybe they will be connected to the Kfar Darom water system. They also long for the gate to be opened more than four times a day, and for their relatives to be able to enter.

The current arrangement is relatively good, they say in the neighborhood. It was introduced a month ago, "after an IDF commander came and talked with us about our problems." Eight months earlier, after a youth from El Bureij blew himself up next to a military jeep, access from the north was completely blocked; they were permitted to leave the fenced-off neighborhood at all hours of the day, but only via the roundabout route to the east, which is eight kilometers long. The destination: Dir al-Balah, which is just across the road to the west. A five-minute walk. A taxi cost two shekels in each direction, 15 shekels if ordered in advance. These are not sums that the 26 families in Ma'yaniya can afford. "We live on tomatoes and eggplant in the summer and on lentils and hubeiza [an edible wild plant]". Every few months, they receive a 30-kilo package of basic food products from UNRWA.

"The dream of every one of us is to remain in our homes," one of the young people says. Then, they are asked, do you understand the settlers who do not want to leave their homes? The caution that prevailed before vanishes. "If Israel wants peace, the settlers must leave here. Look at how the settler lives, and look at how I live. The government pays him and will pay him compensation for all damages. No one paid us anything when we lost our land there (in Be'er Sheva) and here. They must leave here, because they belong to the State of Israel. Let them go back to their state."

Before 1967, recalls the old man in the group, he and his neighbors and relatives worked the lands where the Kfar Darom greenhouses now stand. They leased the land from the Egyptian Custodian of Enemy Property, because the area was under private Jewish ownership. Kfar Darom, so they say in Gaza, is the only settlement that is "registered in the Tabu." This means it was built not on lands confiscated from the Palestinians, or on "state" lands, but on land purchased by Jews before 1948. "But we also had lands registered in the Tabu, where Israel is today," someone hastens to mention. "So they should let us go back to them, too."

`A big bluff'

The Palestinian "enclave" next to Kfar Darom, with its special entry and exit arrangements, is not the only one of its kind in the Gaza Strip. Even more serious mobility restrictions apply to other Palestinian communities on whose territory settlements have been built. This is the case in the Siafa area in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, and in the large Muasi region, which stretches along the coast from Dir al-Balah to Rafah. The Katif Bloc settlements are built within this area, and within it and alongside it are dozens of military outposts and guard towers and observation towers overlooking the Palestinian towns to the east. About 8,000 Palestinians live here.

Anyone who does not have a special magnetic card issued by the IDF, attesting that he or she is a resident of Muasi, is not entitled to enter or exit this area and its beach. Muasi residents between the ages of 15 and 24 can only enter and exit with prior coordination. Sometimes the age threshold is raised to 35 or 40.

Special permission must also be arranged (a lengthy process) to bring in family members for events such as weddings or funerals. Controlled entry to the Muasi area is only permitted to pedestrians in groups of five, at certain hours. The area is entered via the Tufah checkpoint, to the west of the Khan Yunis refugee camp, very close to the Neve Dekalim settlement. Cars are not permitted to enter or exit. Produce is transferred from the back of one truck to another at the checkpoint. Over the past three years, these restrictions have impoverished most of the Muasi area residents, who earn their living raising guavas and vegetables.

Last Tuesday, taxi drivers waiting for pedestrians coming from Muasi, and several Muasi residents, were asked what they thought of Sharon's announcement about an evacuation of the Gaza settlements. "Who ever asks what we think?," says one old man, who then turns to leave. "How are we supposed to believe that they're going to dismantle, when construction on the settlements is always continuing?," said one of the drivers, who has not been into Muasi, where his relatives live, for three years.

"A few weeks ago," said H., a Muasi resident who works in Gaza City and was now waiting for his turn to return home, "the military commander - they call him `Pinky' - came to the area. Yaniv and Fadi came with him to translate, and some captain named Sami. Pinky said he wanted to do something to ease conditions here, to hear our complaints. He was told that people can't go out, they can't bring in anything, that families can't visit.

"I told him that we lack a soccer coach - as a joke. And he replied that he watches soccer games on television at night. `Give me the name of a coach and let me know where there's a field and I want you to have a team that I'll be proud of,' he said to me. They gave a name to Abu Hassan from the Palestinian liaison office, and since then, nothing has happened. Pure blather. Like Mr. Sharon and his announcements. It's just hot air. He says one thing and then orders the defense minister to make the ground here burn. Mr. Sharon speaks with weapons. When I heard that he was talking about evacuating the settlements, I said it was a big bluff. He has a big problem with his sons, he has to go to America to talk with Bush. When he comes back, it will all be forgotten."

In the shadow of the wall around Neve Dekalim, at the entrance to the fortified Tufah checkpoint, which is surrounded by concrete slabs, the group of people discussing Sharon's announcement has grown. Some say they know settlers "who came here for the money and will go if they get money, and have essentially already left and are living in Israel, but their greenhouses are here." Some know settlers "who won't want to budge from here, either because they are devoutly religious or because they get a tax exemption." And they all say: "If they mean to evacuate the settlements in Gaza only to get the world's permission to take over the West Bank, we don't accept it. We are one people."

H. mentions that the Koran says the Jews will build settlements and fight from within them. "Bring a Koran," he says, when his citation is met with skepticism. Someone brings a little Koran and he leafs through the pages and starts to read from Surat al-Hashr (59), verse 14: "They [the Jews] will not fight you except in fortified villages or from behind walls." Asked whether the Koran says anything about Sharon evacuating settlements, he says, "No it doesn't."

Gaza statistics Area of the Gaza Strip: 365 square kilometers

Palestinians:

Developed Area: 55 kilometers

Population: 1,397,011

Number of localities: 42

Population density: 25,400 people per square kilometer

Population density in refugee camps: 50,478 people per square kilometer

(Data according to Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics)

The settlements:

Area of the settlements: 54 square kilometers; developed area: 11.7 square kilometers

Population: 7,781

Number of settlements: 23

Population density: 665 people per square kilometer

(Data according to Knesset research department)