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News from Palestine: Palestinian olive oil bucks UK recession

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  • Zafar Khan
    Palestinian olive oil bucks UK recession • Sales expected to double this year after Gaza conflict • Product gets Fairtrade certification for first time
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2009
      Palestinian olive oil bucks UK recession
      • Sales expected to double this year after Gaza conflict
      • Product gets Fairtrade certification for first time
      Mark Tran
      guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 24 February 2009 12.57 GMT


      In an unintended consequence of Israel's offensive in Gaza last month, sales of Palestinian olive oil in Britain are soaring, importers have said.

      The devastating conflict, in which 1,300 Palestinians were killed, has prompted a surge in demand for the product in apparent sympathy for the Palestinians. Equal Exchange, a seller of Fairtrade products, reported a threefold increase in sales of olive oil from the West Bank in January compared with a year ago.

      "We have run out of one-litre bottles and we expect sales to double to 400 tonnes this year compared to 2008," said Barry Murdoch, the sales director of Equal Exchange.

      The company Zaytoun, also established to sell Palestinian olive oil in the UK, reported a fourfold rise in sales last month instead of the usual post-Christmas lull. Zaytoun, established by two Britons, Heather Masoud and Cathi Pawson, takes its name from the Arabic word for olive.

      The surprise sales increases coincide with a publicity drive for Palestinian products during Fairtrade fortnight, which runs from 23 February to 8 March. Nasser Abufarha, the chairman of the Palestinian Fairtrade Association, is touring the UK to support the launch of the world's first Fairtrade Palestinian olive oil.

      Winning Fairtrade certification is an important breakthrough for Palestinian oil producers, as they will now have access to mainstream British supermarkets such as Co-op, which has been working closely with Equal Exchange to get Palestinian products on to the shelves. Fairtrade also means better prices for olive growers.

      "We have been working for the Fairtrade certificate for four years," said Abufarha, who has campaigned against the building of Israel's security barrier. "Fairtrade will increase our sales, and bring us new markets and widen our reach."

      The farmers were sceptical at first, Aburarha said, as they could not imagine why anyone would pay them above the market price, but they were willing to give it a try. And the certification was about more than price, he said.

      "We have given farmers hope. An economic exchange that recognises Palestinian farmers' rights and respects the value of their connection to their land, after marginalisation under Israeli occupation, is a major accomplishment."

      Olives are the most cultivated tree crop for Palestinian farmers, and more than 100,000 people work in the industry. But farmers face severe difficulties because of the security situation. Orchards have been bulldozed in the course of the conflict, and to make way for new settlements.

      The village of Anin, west of Jenin in the West Bank, has seen 1,100 hectares of olive orchards cut off by Israel's security fence. Permits from the Israeli authorities are difficult to obtain and there are severe time constraints for visits, making it so hard for farmers to tend to their trees that some have given up altogether.

      The Palestinian Fair Trade Association is attempting to work with farmers in nine cooperatives – about 2-400 farmers in each – to develop fair trade practices. Aburaha says some of them have processes that stand comparison with the best Italy has to offer.

      Palestinian Fairtrade olive oil is not cheap, with one litre of extra virgin oil from Equal Exchange retailing at £14.99; one litre of olive oil from Puglia can be found for as little as £6. But Zaytoun and Equal Exchange believe consumers will be willing to pay premium prices for the Fairtrade label. In recent years, Fairtrade products such as tea and coffee have seen strong growth in sales, although this may change with the increasing severity of the economic downturn.

      In terms of taste, Palestinian olive oil is a hit with foodies. The River Café is so impressed with Zaytoun olive oil that it wants to try other Zaytoun products, from olives to almonds. And the food and wine writer Malcom Gluck described Zaytoun as "one of the least aggressive yet pungently attractive olive oils I have tasted", and ranked it alongside the best of the fruity Sicilian, Cretan and northern Spanish oils.

      Israel PM's family link to Hamas peace bid
      Olmert rejected Palestinian attempts to set up talks through go-between before Gaza invasion
      Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor
      The Observer, Sunday 1 March 2009


      Hamas, the militant Palestinian organisation, attempted to conduct secret talks with the Israeli leadership in the protracted run-up to the recent war in Gaza - with messages being passed from the group at one stage through a member of prime minister Ehud Olmert's family.

      Confirmation of attempts to establish a direct line of communication between Hamas and Israel - and the willingness of senior figures in Hamas to contemplate direct negotiations - fundamentally alters the narrative of the build-up to the war in Gaza which claimed more than 1,300 Palestinian lives and led to about a dozen Israeli deaths.

      Most remarkable is the story of the involvement of a member of the prime minister's family in the passing of messages to Olmert about the case of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

      Although the Observer is aware of the identity of the family member and full details of the role played, it has agreed to protect anonymity. Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israel peace activist, was at the centre of attempts to open negotiations. Baskin was in touch with senior members of Hamas, Israeli officials and Olmert, via the member of his family.

      Over two years, from the kidnap of Shalit, which triggered Israel's economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million residents right up to the days before Israel launched its three-week long assault, Hamas officials expressed a willingness to talk to Israel directly about the kidnap, conditions for a new ceasefire and the ending of the blockade.

      The motivation - from Hamas's side - stemmed from a growing frustration with the role of Egypt as an intermediary over key issues between the two sides, especially in relation to ceasefires.

      Baskin, who has a long background in encouraging Israeli-Palestinian contacts, believes that the failure to pursue the overtures was a lost opportunity that contributed to the outbreak of conflict.

      "Three times since Shalit's kidnapping [in June 2006 during a cross border raid out of Gaza] there has been the suggestion of opening a back channel through me. The first time that Hamas suggested to me opening a secret back channel was not long after Shalit's kidnapping."

      According to Baskin, that offer was immediately rejected by the office of Olmert who said Israel did not negotiate with terrorists. His contacts, said Baskin, were two-fold. On the Hamas side, his contact was a senior figure whom he met in Europe, who was close to the organisation's leaderships both in the Syrian capital Damascus and the local leadership in Gaza. His liaison with the Hamas official focused on two issues: opening secret and direct contacts, and linking the prisoner exchange for Shalit's release to the renewal of the ceasefire and the ending of the economic siege on Gaza.

      Baskin's "messenger" to Olmert on the Israeli side was the family member. "I was getting messages to Olmert through [this person]. And what I was getting back from Olmert through the same route was: 'We don't negotiate with terrorists'."

      As part of this communication, which went on sporadically for months, Hamas offered a video proving Shalit was still alive, which would be supplied, the organisation said, in exchange for the release of some women and other minor prisoners from Israeli jails. Olmert's response - said Baskin - was that they did not need the video as Israel had already established that the soldier was alive. While that was rejected, the contact did, however, lead to a letter from Shalit to his father.

      It was a channel of communication that was abruptly closed, allegedly when Israel's domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet intercepted members of Hamas discussing the identity of the Olmert family member involved in passing on the messages, infuriating Olmert.

      A year after the first contacts, Baskin told the Observer, he had been given approval to pursue an informal effort to open secret direct contacts, co-ordinating with Ofer Dekel, the official appointed by Olmert as his "special representative" to head efforts for Shalit's return.

      This time, however, it was Hamas's turn to block the opening of the secret negotiations - rejecting the linking of the prisoner exchange with the cease-fire and the end of the siege.

      Baskin persisted with his dealings with Hamas, communicating with his contact through scores of emails, some passed on to the leadership in Syria and Gaza. While some hardliners, he readily admits, were not willing to initiate contacts - including Said Siam, the interior minister killed during Operation Cast Lead, and Mahmoud Zahar, who served as foreign minister - Baskin was able to reach other Hamas figures by email and text message - among them Hamas moderate and sometime spokesman Ghazi Hamad.

      By now, Baskin admitted, his efforts to mediate between the two sides were largely his own initiative as he found himself increasingly shut out of the Israeli efforts to negotiate Shalit's release. He attempted too to use the Olmert "family member".

      Two years after his first contacts through the Olmert family - and with war looming - Baskin said he tried to use his contact again. "I only involved [the person] one more time. I was desperate to get a message to Olmert." This time, however, he was told bluntly that he would "need to find another messenger". He told the Observer: "At this point war had already been decided on."

      With the conflict only two weeks away Baskin arranged a meeting with his key Hamas contact in Europe, which resulted in another offer to link Shalit to the lifting of the ceasefire. Nobody on the Israeli side replied to the final offer.

      Gaza rockets target Israeli town
      Saturday, February 28, 2009


      Bethlehem struggles 'out of season'
      By Alex Sehmer in Bethlehem


      Bethlehem, which bustles with tourists around Christmas time, sees little business for the main part of the year.

      Ihad and Osama, two young Palestinians who had found work refitting a women's clothing shop close to the main market, told Al Jazeera that they had been lucky to find the temporary work.

      Unemployment in Bethlehem is incredibly high - some estimates from last year have put it at over 60 per cent.

      "We hope that things will get better," Victor Batarseh, the mayor of Bethlehem, told Al Jazeera.

      "But to tell you frankly, with the results of the Israeli elections, Israeli society is going more to the right ... really what we see is that Israeli society is becoming more extremist."

      Western promises

      Western powers have made much of their intentions to support Palestinians by building up the West Bank economically.

      Over the last year, there has been some limited success here, in one of the West Bank's most historic towns. But Palestinians say all these efforts fail to tackle the real issue: Israeli occupation.

      International donors earmarked $2.8bn for Palestinian development in 2008 and Bethlehem was made the location for an investment conference in May that year.

      The conference was trumpeted by its largely western backers as a giant step forward in Palestinian economic development.

      Its critics said at the time that the real problem that needed to be addressed was the occupation.

      "We haven't seen any results from that conference," said Batarseh. "We had hoped there would be something on the ground."

      Separation wall

      Bethlehem's economy is based heavily on pilgrimages and the spending of tourists who are visiting Bethlehem's famous Christian sites, including the church of the nativity, believed to be built on the site where Jesus Christ was born.

      The town saw 1.25 million tourists in 2008, up by 56 per cent from 2007, and 256 per cent from 2006, a success for the town, but its other sources of income have been severely restricted by Israeli occupation.

      Agricultural land has been lost, and only a few of the many Palestinians who used to work in Jerusalem are still allowed by Israel to do so.

      Since 2000 and the Second Intifada, Israel has reduced the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel, saying that it hoped to eventually end all Palestinian employment in Israel.

      But Batarseh, the mayor, finds it hard to reconcile Western promises to help people in the West Bank with reality.

      "They say they are trying to enhance peace in this region, but unfortunately nothing has been achieved," he said.

      "More land is being taken from its original owners to build settlements and by-roads. More restrictions on the people -- sometimes you can't even go from one village to the other."

      On the side of Bethlehem that faces Jerusalem sits the imposing Israeli built separation wall, while the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, or Jebal Abu Ghneim as it is known in Arabic, gazes blankly out at Bethlehem from iatop a hill across the valley.

      'Some improvement'

      The World Bank has made it clear in its reports on the Palestinian territories that Israeli check-points in the West Bank are stifling economic growth.

      A World Bank report released at the close of 2008 noted: "As long as the internal barriers exist and exports and imports are forced to go through a system of back-to back transfer, the Palestinian private sector is unlikely to prosper."

      But the Bank has also noted that developments in the West Bank last year were "better than expected".

      The office of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is now envoy to the Middle East for the "Quartet", told Al Jazeera: "No one underestimates the work that still remains to be done, but the fact is there has been progress in the West Bank, with the economy growing and unemployment falling.

      "This is a tribute to the enterprise and ingenuity of the Palestinian people, and to the international community which has devoted considerable resources and expertise to assisting them."

      The Quartet is the Middle East negotiating bloc made up of the EU, UN, US and Russia.

      Leila Sansour, the director of Open Bethlehem, an organisation that seeks to promote Bethlehem internationally, agreed that there had been changes.

      "Until this last year, tourism was almost non-existent. The last year things changed. There is a lot of pressure from all kinds of parties to ease up things in Bethlehem," she told Al Jazeera.

      But for Palestinians, while economic improvement is welcome, the criticisms levelled at the Bethlehem conference can be applied here too - while it builds confidence, it fails to tackle the real issue.

      "We're very dependent on international aid and Israeli good will," said Sansour.

      "In the end for all of us, for all Palestinians, the issue remains that we don't have a settlement ... While the economy has improved a little bit, we haven't seen progress on the peace issue, and that will be fundamental."

      Inside the Gaza tunnels
      They were one of Israel's key targets during its three-week assault on Gaza. But the relentless air strikes failed to destroy the hundreds of tunnels running under the border to Egypt. Rory McCarthy goes underground to watch the everyday smuggling of boxes of women's underwear, car parts and even goats

      Rory McCarthy
      The Guardian, Tuesday 10 February 2009


      Barely a few paces from the Egyptian border stands a large white tent, fashioned from plastic sheeting and pockmarked with jagged shrapnel holes. Inside, as in the hundreds of identical tents dotted to the left and right, is a scene of energy and illicit industriousness: a dozen Palestinian smugglers sweating to overcome the punitive economic blockade on Gaza. A stone's throw away on the opposite side of the border is an Egyptian police post, with relaxed uniformed officers standing on the roof. They gaze down without a hint of concern.

      One unanswered question of Israel's three-week war in Gaza is why the air strikes, artillery shells, tank fire, bulldozing and detonations that caused such devastation and loss of life across the territory did so little damage to the hundreds of smuggling tunnels under Gaza's southern border with Egypt. Those tunnels, which bring in food, clothes, machinery as well as weapons and ammunition, were supposed to be one of Israel's key targets. On the final day of the conflict alone, the Israeli military said it had hit 100 tunnels. Gazans in the border town of Rafah spoke of night after night of enormous air strikes that shook cracks into the walls of their houses and shattered their windows.

      But while the sandy border is marked with many large craters, the damage caused to the tunnels was, in many cases, repaired within days. Already some are operating again and new tunnels are being dug under the close eye of Hamas officials, who walk from one tent to the next clutching their walkie-talkies.

      The smugglers believe their tunnels were simply too deep to be badly damaged, even by the heavy 500lb or one-tonne bombs dropped by Israeli F-16s. In most cases, the serious damage was only to the entrances to the tunnels, which were soon uncovered again by the Palestinians using bulldozers and then rebuilt. It may be that the focus of the Israeli attacks was on the weapons tunnels, which are closely guarded by Hamas and other armed groups and not open to public view.

      Inside the large white tent is a wooden coat rack from which hang the jackets and spare clothes of a dozen men or more. To the right is an electrical circuit board with five sockets. From the back, the wires run out of the tent, across the sand dunes and directly into the public electricity supply of the municipality of Rafah. From the front, a cord runs out to power a winch. Outside, a large black plastic water butt with a tap provides the thirsty workers with fresh drinking water - again, courtesy of the municipality. All of this is registered and paid for. Smuggling in Gaza is a semi-official business.

      The focus of activity is the tunnel's well: a 15m deep shaft lined on its four sides by planks of wood. Three metal beams are positioned pyramid-shape over the well and support the electric winch, whose cable runs down the shaft to the sandy floor below. There, two men crouch low and operate two more winches that run horizontally 300m to the south along the tunnel, stretching out of Gaza and into Egypt. One of the winches draws in the goods from the Egyptian side, a train of boxes and sacks sliding over the sand on plastic containers. The second winch sends back the empty containers for reloading.

      It took about eight weeks to dig this tunnel; a team of men worked long days underground using a pneumatic drill to dig out the soil, which they then carried out in large, plastic containers and dumped nearby. By the time it was finished, the tunnel was tall enough for a man to stand with his head bowed, and nearly a metre wide along its full length. The tunnel walls are bare soil with regular wooden supports to prevent collapse - although it still remains a dangerous business. Around 40 Palestinian tunnellers were killed last year in cave-ins.

      It is midday and the work is constant. Every 30 seconds one of the men below shouts "Raise" and a man sitting over the mouth of the well switches on the winch and pulls up another sack. So far this morning, they have contained: dry, yellow chickenfeed; spare parts for cars; a box of coat hooks; microwaves; kerosene cookers; packets of rather dowdy women's underwear; and now several large, 5.5kW generators.

      Notably absent are drugs and alcohol, which are forbidden by Hamas; cigarettes, which are heavily taxed by Hamas; and anything even resembling weaponry or military material, which come in through more discreet tunnels far from the public eye that may or may not have been more seriously damaged by the war.

      "Without these tunnels, everything would stop in Gaza," says one of the workers, who gave his name only as Abu Zeid, 22. "And they say we are terrorists. Where are the terrorists here? The world knows very well what's going on, but they don't want us to live. If they opened the crossings, why would we need to do this business?"

      Since Israel pulled its soldiers and settlers out of Gaza in mid-2005, it has imposed an ever-tighter economic blockade on what it calls the "hostile entity". For the past year and a half, that has meant closures of the crossings: banning all exports and prohibiting all imports, save for a limited list of humanitarian goods. Even the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called it "collective punishment" - illegal under international law. It has left more than 80% of Gazans reliant on aid.

      The policy was designed to weaken Hamas and convince the Palestinians they had made a mistake when, in 2006 - in what was widely acknowledged as one of the most free and fair elections in the Arab world - they voted in strength for the Islamists. Egypt has also kept its border crossing at Rafah largely closed. "It's politics, dirty politics," says Abu Zeid.

      Most of the workers in this tunnel were once employed as daily labourers within Israel, but Palestinians have long been refused such jobs. Now in Gaza there is barely any work available. Some at this tunnel are former policemen once employed by Hamas's bitter rival, Fatah; others are farmers whose livelihoods collapsed with the ban on exports. "There is nothing for us except the tunnels," says another worker.

      "I have a house, and land and money but I want to go abroad," says Abu Eyash, 28, a tunneller who once spent four years in an Israeli jail for his connections with Fatah. "I'm not satisfied here. There's always war and never any security."

      These men may not earn much from the tunnels, but others do. The tunnel cost around £100,000 to build and the owners say they earned that back within the first two months. The original owners of the land are given a 10% commission and Egyptian security officials on the other side earn healthy bribes. As his staff worked, one of the owners took out a thick fold of dollar bills, from which he was to send the equivalent of £13,000 to the Egyptians, enough to provide protection for the tunnel for around 10 days until the next payment was due.

      In the last two weeks since the end of its war in Gaza, Israel has launched several more air strikes against the tunnels after militants from small, non-Hamas groups fired rockets and mortars into southern Israel. This tunnel was one of those hit, although the workers said the damage would take only a few days to repair.

      Not everyone celebrates the tunnel industry. A short walk back from this tent is the home of Mohammad Abu Saud, 40, who is spending the day covering his broken windows with plastic sheeting and wondering how he is ever going to repair the massive cracks in his walls caused by the bombing of the tunnels. "I don't earn any benefit from the tunnels and I'm suffering because of them - you can see the cracks here and the windows gone, as well as the fact that the prices in the market have risen a lot," he says.

      "I think the tunnels are delaying a solution," says his brother Ala'a, 35. "If there were no tunnels, there would be such a heavy price that it would force Hamas to sit and find a solution and the only solution is to reopen the crossings. I'm not even asking them to liberate Palestine, just open the crossings."

      Around half an hour's drive north from the border are the recently destroyed remains of what, a month ago, was one of the largest food-processing factory compounds in the Gaza strip, owned by the wealthy al-Wadeya brothers. Yaser al-Wadeya has a PhD in industrial engineering from Cleveland State University and little sympathy for Hamas. He estimates the damage caused by the Israeli military to his biscuit, ice-cream, snacks and dessert factories is worth around £15m. Even if he had the money for repairs, Israel's restrictions mean he would not be able to import new machinery.

      Even before the war, Al-Wadeya directed some of his Israeli suppliers to give up waiting for the Israeli crossings to open and ship their products to Egypt, then for them to be smuggled under the border into Gaza. "The main reason for all of this is to destroy the economic infrastructure of the weak Palestinian economy," he says. "They want to make sure that we will never have a state in Palestine."

      Israel's military said it was conducting "post-operation investigations" into accounts of civilian casualties and property damage, but added that it "does not target civilians or civilian infrastructure, including factories, unless it is being used by the Hamas for terrorist purposes".

      However, Palestinians, including al-Wadeya, disagree and argue that much of the bombing during this war was aimed directly at civilian infrastructure. Among the other targets hit were the largest cement factory in Gaza, the largest flour mill, the only parliament building, a major sewage project and the leading private school, not to mention the 21,000 homes and more than 200 factories completely or partially destroyed.

      Al-Wadeya argues that Israel has allowed the commercial tunnel economy to function as part of a broader campaign to break Gaza's economic and political links with Israel and to force it towards a dependent relationship with Egypt. "During the occupation, from the beginning until now, our whole relationship is with Israel. You can't just break it and move towards Egypt," he says.

      Some senior Israelis have spoken publicly in recent years of their desire to hand over responsibility for Gaza to Egypt, and to keep most of the Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank while handing the remaining Palestinian cantons over to Jordanian control. Ironically, Hamas, with its insistence on opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt to give access to the rest of the Islamic world, appears at times to be pushing for the same future for Gaza.

      The Islamists appear not to have grasped the full extent of the devastation suffered in Gaza, or the people's frustration. Shortly after the war, a Hamas official arrived at the rubble of the factory and offered £3,500 towards its repair. "I told him to get the hell out of here," says Al-Wadeya. "What would that buy? Not even new locks for the doors.

      "I really believe that if we stay where we are with Hamas and Fatah and this political issue, we will never do anything in Gaza. It will become like Somalia or Sudan," he says. "We need two peaceful states, Palestine and Israel, living together. Without this we will be at war for the next century."

      Wrong side of the fence
      Beni Raz is not a typical settler - he wants to leave, and has founded a movement to make it easier. But this has made him a pariah in his community


      When God Took Me to Palestine


      Rebuilding Before Gov't: Gazans
      By Ola Attallah, IOL Correspondent
      Sun. Feb. 8, 2009


      GAZA CITY — Nada, 8, looks around at thousands of white tents sprouting in neat rows amid a sea of gray rubble across the Gaza City.
      "Mom, would we be staying here for long" she asks, without getting any answer.

      "When will our home be rebuilt and this debris removed?"

      With silence being the only answer she is getting from her mom, Nada starts drawing a house on the ground outside the tent that is for now their home.

      "Our house was like that."

      Nada's family is among 35,000 households living in tented camps in Gaza City after three-weeks of Israeli attacks flatted thousands of homes and killed more than 1,400 people.

      Three weeks after the end of the Israeli onslaught, the rebuilding has not started yet.

      Donors insist that the Palestinians must first reconcile and form a unity government before money could be committed to the reconstruction of the bombed-out Gaza Strip, home to some 1.6 million.

      Rival Hamas and Fatah, which separately control the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively, are still unable to bridge their differences.

      The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority of President Hamoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, says it must oversee the Gaza reconstruction, a condition Hamas refuses.

      "It seems that we will live in these tents for long," fumes Nael Abd-Rabou, sitting on the rubble of his home.

      "The Arabs want a unity government that would recognize Israel in order to please the donors but Hamas will not accept this."

      Egypt will host an international donors conference next month for rebuilding the bombed-out Gaza.

      "We're Bleeding"

      The web of political battles and Israeli restrictions leaves thousands of innocent Gaza families in never-end suffering.

      "Why they are wrangling about the conditions of a unity government," asks Samir Abd-Rabou.

      "We are bleeding and they are bargaining. They must first move to build our houses and then talk about the government."

      Abu-Ahed Al-Nagar says the reconstruction efforts can be supervised by international organizations.

      "We can't live in the open air until they agree a unity government," he told IOL.

      "We want homes to shield us just like other humans."

      Abu Essam is pessimistic about any solution.

      "The scenes of debris will remain for long. Arabs will not make good on their promises."

      Saudi Arabia and Qatar pledged 1.25 billion dollar for the rebuilding of Gaza after the end of the war, but nothing has happened since.

      "I'm afraid these scenes will remain for years as Arabs link efforts to our political wounds."

      Even the 5000-dollar compensation paid by the Hamas-led government to people who lost their homes is not helping.

      "What use is the cash But when there is no reconstruction material to buy," lamented Abd-Rabou.

      A daunting challenge for the construction of the sealed-off Gaza Strip is the lack of badly needed construction supplies.

      Israel has been banning raw materials, including cement and steel, from entering Gaza, on the pretext they could be used to build bunkers or manufacture rockets.

      "We don't want money, we only want homes to live in."

      Reporter's diary: Gaza's tunnels


      While Israel waged their bloodiest assault on Gaza in decades, their warplanes targeted tunnels on Gaza's border with Egypt in an effort to halt alleged arms shipments.

      Now, Palestinians are busy restoring the bomb-damaged tunnels, and consumer goods are starting to flow into Gaza again.

      Al Jazeera's Jeremy Young describes the process of filming inside them.

      The famous tunnels in the southern part of the Gaza Strip are easy to find.

      Everybody knows where they are, but getting inside is another story.

      Israel has maintained its blockade of Gaza, preventing goods from being imported, and Palestinians use the tunnels to transport every product imaginable from northern Egypt into the territory.

      The Israelis argue that the tunnels are used by Hamas to smuggle in weapons.

      About 95 per cent of them were damaged or destroyed in Israel's recent three-week military assault on Gaza.

      Our fixer had spent three days trying to get us access inside the tunnels.

      He said that he called 10 different tunnel operators and nobody would allow us to film there for fear that their tunnel might be targeted by an Israeli raid.

      In the end, he succeeded and we arrived at 8:30 on Saturday morning at the first tunnel having agreed not to film any faces of the people that worked there.

      We sent Tony Zumbado, our cameraman and Mike Kirsch, our correspondent, inside the tunnel, which was at the end of a shaft about 20 metres deep.

      They used a pulley system, which is normally used to bring goods up and down, to send Mike and Tony down.

      This tunnel was not yet operational, as they were still making repairs after it was bombed during the war.

      It extended an estimated 800 metres under the border and into Egypt.

      While we were interviewing one of the tunnel operators, a senior supervisor arrived and began yelling and screaming.

      He was furious that we were filming there saying that they would get no benefit from our report.

      As our team moved to get back into our van, he said he would not allow it to leave and he would blow it up if we moved it.

      He ran to the entrance of the tunnel and dragged barbed wire across to prevent us from leaving - tunnels are a serious business in Gaza and he had no interest in risking its future.

      Trapped inside

      The second tunnel we visited, they agreed to allow Tony to go down.

      This tunnel had been operational for just one day. Some of the items that they had brought up from it included generators, computers, rice, chocolate and powdered milk.

      Writing cheques for Gaza is easy. Politics is the tricky bit
      It is time to question Europe's historic role of financing the failure of policies laid down in Israel and the US

      Chris Patten
      The Guardian, Tuesday 27 January 2009


      Shortly after I became a European commissioner in 1999 I visited Gaza and the West Bank to see how the European commission, under strong international pressure, could speed up disbursement of development assistance. I recall in particular visits to Gaza airport, subsequently ploughed up by the Israeli army, and to a general hospital. I visited the morgue that was under construction. It must have been badly overloaded in recent years.

      After the second intifada began in the autumn of 2000, Israel stopped the transfer of tax receipts owed to the Palestinian Authority. In the following summer the commission began payment of direct budgetary assistance to the authority. There were tough conditions, overseen by international financial institutions. The infrastructure built by European money on the West Bank and in Gaza was systematically trashed by the Israeli Defence Forces in 2002. They were responding to horrific suicide bombings in Israel. Anything that might be seen to provide the sinews of government was destroyed - including the land registry, courts and police stations. This did not obviously advance the prospect of a two-state solution.

      Throughout the period when budgetary support was provided, the European commission was accused by some Israeli lobby groups of bankrolling terrorism and corruption. We just about achieved our aim and managed to keep the Palestinian Authority afloat - even to reform it. As the responsible commissioner, I was privately encouraged by senior US state department officials to continue the support, and was never asked by Israeli officials to stop it. Europe was in effect fulfilling its now historic role of financing the terrible failure of policies laid down not in Brussels, but in Tel Aviv and Washington. Doubtless Europe is getting ready to do the same again.

      From 2000 to 2008, European commission funding to Palestine totalled nearly €3bn. In the last couple of years, about half the funding went to Gaza, for example in fuel for the power plant and help for impoverished families. Over the last 10 years about €50m has been spent in Gaza on physical infrastructure work, part of a much larger sum committed but not spent. To all these figures should be added the development assistance paid for directly by member states.

      After the recent assault on Gaza, the collecting tin is once again being passed round. Leaving to one side the controversy over the BBC's lamentable failure to air the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, on a state and European level we should be generous in giving humanitarian relief. But it is worth questioning the point of further development assistance in the absence of political progress. With no political movement, and with a ban on any contact at all with Hamas, Tony Blair's purported role as Palestine's George Marshall - bringing peace through development - has been totally irrelevant. Forgive the question, but isn't this the same Tony Blair who rightly used to talk to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in the pursuit of peace; the same Tony Blair who released terrorist murderers from prison in the same cause? If Europe is to write more cheques, surely we should insist on some political movement.

      The first step would be to respond positively to the call from Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, for the formation of a unity government. There was one after Hamas won a majority of seats in the 2006 parliamentary elections. After active diplomatic efforts by Saudi Arabia, Hamas and Fatah were locked into an uneasy truce which was split asunder in part by the US and European refusal to deal with Hamas. Presumably any unity government formed today would require another Fatah-Hamas deal, brokered by Arab governments. But would the world then deal with the government that emerged? Without Hamas, how would any peace deal be sold to the Palestinians? The diplomatic trick is not how to justify the isolation of Hamas but how to ease them out of their isolation, to get them to endorse a permanent ceasefire, and to release captive Corporal Shalit.

      Progress also requires recognition of the way that all the dots join up in the Middle East. Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah will all be part of any hopeful way forward. Washington needs to talk to Iran and to engage Syria. It should also encourage the diplomacy of Turkey and Qatar, which have become increasingly helpful in recent months.

      So much of the focus in the Middle East is on process. We should go back and look at the content of a deal to produce lasting peace and security for Israel and a viable Palestinian state. There will be no resolution while there are so many Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Will the Obama administration say that loud and clear to Israeli politicians?

      Before Europe does the easy bit - even in these financially straitened times - and writes more cheques, we should at least ask ourselves what exactly we are buying with our money. It would be a real breakthrough if the answer was peace.

      • Chris Patten, a former Conservative party chairman and European commissioner for external relations, is chancellor of the University of Oxford
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