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 CNS Story:

GAZA-BLOCKADE Jun-18-2010 (700 words) With photo. xxxi

Gazans see lifting of blockade as only solution to dire conditions

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Only a total lifting of the Israeli-imposed blockade on the Gaza Strip will significantly improve the situation for Gazans, said the Jerusalem regional director of the Pontifical Mission of Palestine after a two-day visit to the beleaguered region.

"The mood in Gaza is that really whatever sort of things are in the process to ease the blockade, they will not make a significant difference on their life," said Sami El-Yousef, who met with civil and religious representatives including those of several Christian organizations during his visit June 14-15.

"What they are looking for is the lifting of the blockade. Otherwise, (Gazans) say, (easing the blockade) is just a joke unless it is completely lifted and there are no limitations put on the humanitarian supply," El-Yousef told Catholic News Service.

Most Gazans believe U.S. President Barack Obama's recent pledge of $400 million in aid to Gaza will have little impact on their situation, he added.

After the May 31 raid on a flotilla that organizers claimed was carrying humanitarian aid but that Israeli officials believed to include Islamist extremists from Turkey, Obama urged Israel to limit the blockade to items that can be used to produce arms and to allow items through that could improve daily life and economic activity for Palestinians.

However, details of the plan must be released and reviewed before a "learned comment" can be made about it, the director said, noting that, according to reports, only $40 million of the aid will be earmarked for the Gaza Strip.

Both Israel and Egypt have enforced a blockade on Gaza since June 2007 after the militant Hamas Islamic movement took over governing the strip following Palestinian elections in 2006 and a battle with the more moderate Fatah party.

Egypt opened its borders with Gaza indefinitely after the May 31 incident. Israel has said it would open the blockade if Hamas would allow the International Red Cross to visit Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped from the Gaza border four years ago and is being held in the Gaza Strip.

El-Yousef said the entry of products such as "mayonnaise and soft drinks" will not make a difference in the lives of most Gazans because they cannot afford them. He urged that the blockade be lifted so that building supplies and other necessities can enter the region and allow Gazans to provide jobs by rebuilding infrastructure and buildings destroyed during the January 2009 war.

One particular need El-Yousef cited was the Shajai Medical Clinic, which mainly treats mothers and children and which the pontifical mission helped make operational within three months after the war. The clinic has been unable to bring in a dental unit and two electric generators for use during frequent power outages.

While in Gaza, El-Yousef also observed people recycling used construction material, opening the way to potential tragedies as people move into buildings that are not structurally safe, he said.

"You have lots of homes which will collapse," he predicted.

In the meantime, a smuggling economy has developed with goods entering Gaza through underground tunnels from Egypt. Hamas controls the tunnels and imposes taxes and license fees, making the produce brought into Gaza far more expensive than most residents can afford.

"You can practically find all kinds of food and supplies in Gaza from Egypt, but the quality is (compromised) and the prices are very high." El-Yousef said.

He found, however, that cooking gas was in short supply because it cannot be smuggled through the tunnels.

The pontifical mission is working with local partners in the Christian community to bring aid to the Gaza population, including job creation programs aimed at new graduates in order to retain a generation of young Christians in the region. People between 18 and 35 years old are the smallest group represented in the Christian community, he said.

In general, El-Yousef described a feeling of despair among the Gazans he met. He said Gazans feel pessimistic that the blockade will be eased soon or that Hamas and Fatah will reconcile with each other.

"It is a stressful situation," he said. "People say they are in it for the long haul and have to find ways to make it more livable."

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