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A group of bearded men was sitting on a sandy footpath by the mosque in Mawasi, waiting in the shade for the muezzin's call. Most of them have been fellahin since they can remember; some are fishermen. All have land in Mawasi - the fertile agricultural hinterland of the southern Gaza Strip cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah. A pleasant breeze was coming off the sea, which is about two or three hundred meters away. A nearby orchard bathed the eye in green. The sweet brown tea that was prepared in honor of the guests bore a scent of sage. Amer al-Astal, 30, a bushy black Herzl-like beard gracing his face, shot a bemused expression at his bearded colleagues, most of whom, like him, wore long galabias. He is well aware of the associations conjured by their outer appearance. Bin Laden, of course. He jokes: "I stopped shaving, `cause who's got the money to buy shaving cream every few days?'"

It's been two years since he's seen his family, parents and siblings. They live two or three kilometers away, in the city of Khan Yunis, but anyone who does not officially live in Mawasi is prohibited from entering the area, even if they have land or family there. His father is 70. His mother is ill. Until three weeks ago, only men aged 35 and above were permitted to leave Mawasi. So Amer al-Astal was not able to leave.

About 8,000 Palestinians live in Mawasi, the green farming area in the middle of the Gaza Strip that is situated west of Khan Yunis. It and its beach always provided a refreshing contrast to the teeming grayness of the Khan Yunis refugee camp, which it borders. There was a time when many more than 8,000 individuals earned their livelihood from this tract of land. There were families with deep roots going way back, which lived in the cities of Khan Yunis, Rafah and Dir al-Balah. Some of them lived in Mawasi, others in the cities. Some of them divided their time between town and country. Gradually, Israeli settlements were built up between their fields, orchards and homes. The settlements expanded. The area is now better known as "Gush Katif."

Residents of Mawasi once invested tens of thousands of shekels to build new hothouses, in an attempt to introduce new crops, and enlarge the guava orchards that are famous in the area for their sweet fruits. But for the past three years, selling agricultural produce from Mawasi to anywhere else in the Strip - or beyond - has been mission impossible. "Now I want to plant something that doesn't cost any money: hot peppers. The seeds cost me only a few agorot. I'll sell NIS 200 worth, so that I'll have a little money for the children, that's all," explains Abu Astal. "My whole life is in a radius of 100 meters: field, house, mosque, field, mosque, house. We sit in the shade. If the sun comes, we move somewhere else that has shade. They tell us we are living in paradise, surrounded by all this lush green, and with the sea and the cool breeze in front of us. But we are closed in here. Behind that gate."

Fortified gate

That "gate," next to the settlement of Neveh Dekalim, is known as the Tufah Gate. It is highly fortified. Surrounding the gate are no less than three army garrisons (bulldozers are busily preparing for the expansion of one of them, which adjoins a heap of ruins - buildings along the outskirts of the Khan Yunis refugee camp that the Israeli army destroyed), observation towers, a line of concrete walls, a fenced-off path, a fortified position for sentries, two revolving gates, barbed wire, a yellow metal gate, an X-ray device, shaded lean-tos for local residents to wait their turn - on either side of the gate, and on the southern side - a concrete wall that continues to get higher and higher, which encloses the Neveh Dekalim industrial zone.

For the past three years or so, the only local residents permitted in and out of the gate (aside from the workers employed in the settlements) are residents of Mawasi. Two and a half years ago, the army authorities would still accept an address recorded in the ID card. Anyone with a "Mawasi" address was permitted to pass through. Later on, everyone was required to receive a special number written on their ID card. Since April-May 2001, residents of Mawasi have been required to receive a special magnetic card that is issued only to residents. This meant that families were separated from one another, given no choice in the matter. One brother remains behind to run the family shop in the city, lacking a Mawasi resident magnetic card; the other, with a magnetic card, does not leave the family orchard.

At the outset, the minimum age for men wanting to pass through the gate was 45. It has gradually been reduced to 35. With the advent of the hudna, and the abatements implemented by the IDF, the fortunes of the men of Mawasi have improved, and the minimum age for passage has been reduced to 30, with the minimum age for women reduced from 30 to 25. However, only married women and children are included. People say a pregnant women at the right age will be allowed to pass through, but that a woman without children will have problems. A 20-year-old woman who has to get her baby to a clinic for inoculations will have problems. The same is true for an unmarried man who is older than the minimum age. Often, the soldiers will not let him pass through. Children aged 12 and below are permitted to pass: they must show their plastic-wrapped birth certificate, but may enter only in the company of parents or on condition that their parents wait at the gate, as addresses are not recorded on the birth certificate.

The gate officially opens each morning at 8:00, and the soldiers officially take a lunch break around 1:00 P.M. But last Wednesday, for instance, a team of Physicians for Human Rights arrived at 1:10 P.M., and the gate was still closed. People were waiting on either side, some to exit in the direction of Khan Yunis, others on their way back into Mawasi.

It is forbidden to enter or exit by vehicle. Or by wagon or bicycle. Until two months ago, people were not allowed to reenter Mawasi carrying packages in their hands. They were not permitted to bring bread, fruit, or a toy for a grandchild. Now it is permitted (preferably with light-, not dark-colored plastic bags). The transfer of large amounts of goods is only permitted using the "back-to-back" method: truck or pickup on one side, truck or pickup on the other side, with goods unloaded and loaded onto the vehicle on the other side of the gate, under the soldiers' watchful eyes. On Friday and Saturday, this is how the merchandise is brought to the pathetic grocery stores in Mawasi: three trucks on Friday, three trucks on Saturday. The goods must pass through the X-ray machine. On Sundays and Mondays, Mawasi residents are permitted to "export" produce to Khan Yunis without prior appointment. On Tuesday, they are permitted to bring in durable goods such as water pumps, plastic pipes, clothing, etc. A dog sniffs the items, checking for explosives. On Wednesday and Thursday, residents are again permitted to ship agricultural produce out of the zone. Ambulances are not permitted to drive in and out of the area: patients are also transferred "back-to-back" style.

A month for a goat

Everything else must be coordinated in advance: bringing in merchandise, bringing in diesel fuel or medication, entry of medical crews or municipal workers to repair water mains or sewage pipes (belonging to the Khan Yunis or Dir al-Balah municipalities). Some local residents claim it can take a month of preliminary coordination to bring in a goat or chicken.

Abdul Rahim Abu Khatab, head of the Palestinian civilian coordination committee in the southern Gaza Strip, does the dirty work of coordination. He sits in an old caravan, a hand-me-down from a settlement or the civil administration, and each week prepares dozens of requests to enter or exit the tract of land that lies 1,500 meters away from him. Sometimes he waits only a single day for an entry permit for a fix-it crew, sometimes it take three days or more. He collates all the requests he has faxed to the Israeli coordination office in a thick binder. Follow-up on the applications is divided into four categories: the first includes those wishing to leave Mawasi - in other words, those who are under the minimum age: a municipal worker that lives in Mawasi "requests to exit for work purposes," another "requests to exit for dental treatment," a third "requests to exit for ear treatment." Someone "requests to visit his parents in Khan Yunis." And the permits are not always granted.

A second category includes those requesting to enter Mawasi. Mainly these are family members wishing to attend weddings. The third category are those "stuck," who are under the permitted age: individuals below the minimum age, for instance university students and people who needed medical care and left Mawasi after having coordinated their exit, but whom the soldiers at the "gate" did not allow to return to their homes. Why? No special reason. Go to "Abu Hassan" (Abu Khatab), the soldiers say to the members of this third category. These individuals are sometimes stuck for three weeks or more, a kilometer from home.

The fourth category comprises those who are stuck, and are above the approved age. For instance, on July 6, a list of adults who were not permitted back into Mawasi was sent to the Israeli coordination office. It included T., born in 1949, who left Mawasi on June 16. He was not allowed back in until July 6. Last Wednesday, July 16, the Israeli coordination office had still not found the time to consider his case. Z., born in 1965, left his home in Mawasi on June 14. A., born in 1949, left her home on June 24. She is stuck outside. T., born in 1963, is a teacher in Mawasi. He left on May 30, and has been stuck - a kilometer and a half away from home and school.

Abu Khatab continues to carry on his exhausting negotiations with Israeli clerk/soldiers over the right of hundreds of people to return home each week. The fear of being stuck outside makes people try not to leave Mawasi, even those who are above the minimum age. People delay medical exams and treatments until the problem worsens. The doctor from Medicins Sans Frontieres and two local doctors with very basic clinics in Mawasi, are helpless in the face of people's stubborn insistence not to be exiled from their own homes. Parents who are below the "permitted" age cannot escort their children to the doctor's office. Abu Khatab sometimes struggles for days to enable a 20-year-old mother to take her baby to Khan Yunis for an inoculation. There is no opportunity to refrigerate vaccines and other drugs in Mawasi. Since 1967, Israel has forbidden the hookup of Palestinian homes in Mawasi (which are shouting distance from the well-lit settlements) to the electricity grid, and the private generators operate only a few hours a day.

Al-Astal, a man of permissible age, is afraid to leave, lest he too be stuck outside. "To whom can we complain if not to Allah? We pray each day for the gate to be opened. We hope for death every day."

Seeking the delicate balance

The brigade commander of the region is in constant and direct contact with the mukhtars of Mawasi, military sources said in response yesterday. He tries to answer their needs as far as possible while keeping a balance between security needs and humanitarian considerations. Some of the residents of the region have participated in terror attacks against Israeli settlers and IDF soldiers, the sources said.

In principle, they added, the roadblock is open from half an hour after sunrise until half an hour before sunset, and sometimes even later. Meanwhile, the age limit for women who want to cross has been lowered to 20. The reason that children are forced to be accompanied by adults is that a terrorist masquerading as a 14-year-old entered Mawasi.

As for not permitting certain residents to return to Mawasi, this is a decision made by the Shin Bet security services and "even the military sources do not understand it." The process of investigating and lifting a ban, in which the brigade commander is often involved, takes time, they said.