Baltimore Sun

In Gaza, small steps offer hope for peace

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The fisherman's hands were coated with grit and slime. He stood in the market holding his newly caught tuna by the tail and scowled as the merchants shouted bids for his 30-pound catch.

When the offers stopped at $7, Wajeh Hammad waved the bidders away with a dismissive sweep of his hand. It was late in the day, and he would wait until morning, when more buyers might fight harder and drive up the price.

A month ago, Hammad would have considered a far less generous offer and gone home to his wife and 11 children satisfied. During the three years of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, money and fish were rare commodities.

But contrary to the expectations of many people, a cease-fire has survived for three weeks and led to marked improvement in conditions for residents of the Gaza Strip, including its 1,800 fishermen.

"I don't want it to go back to the way it was," Hammad said, shoving the silver tuna into a freezer. He has fished these waters since before he was a teen-ager, and never, he said, were times worse than during the past three years.

In the past three weeks, the Israeli army has eased security restrictions that kept fishermen tethered close to the shoreline, putting the deep sea and its treasures of tuna and bass, off limits.

"I want a better future," he said. "Every day that goes by, I have more hope." But like other Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, he is not yet ready to declare the armed uprising against Israel over.

Standing next to Hammad was Moneer Abu Hasira, a 40-year-old owner of a stall in the fish market. He didn't want to pay more than $7 for his friend's fish; his shelves were half full of unsold bass. Workers were carting in buckets of ice to keep the stock fresh in the wilting heat while waiting for customers who probably would never arrive.

"We need more," Hasira said, explaining that the early days of this peace are unimpressive compared with the early 1990s when Israel ended its formal occupation of Gaza and much of the West Bank. "Days of gold," he said of a decade ago. "Days of nothing," he said of today.

He was talking not only of his meager sales figures but of the Gaza Strip itself, where seafood is far beyond the means of most of the 1.2 million residents.

"Things are getting better now," he said. "But people are not able to buy much yet. We have to give this time. How much time, I don't know. In the end, we have to have something that we can touch, something that improves our lives."

Palestinians here acknowledge that life has significantly improved over the past three weeks, since militant factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad put down their weapons and Israel's army moved farther away from most populated areas.

Overnight, military checkpoints disappeared. People can once again reach the Gaza beaches without spending hours waiting at army checkpoints. Families have returned to dip into the waves and cook out under the stars, no longer needing to worry that Israeli helicopters might suddenly attack.

Palestinian police have returned to the streets and are enforcing a ban on the public display of weapons. Work crews are sweeping away rubble and repairing roads and washing away graffiti that told the bloody story of the past three years.

Some businessmen are optimistic enough to invest money in expansion and renovation. Hasira, the fish monger, now is issued permits to make weekly sojourns to Tel Aviv, where he buys imported salmon that he sells to foreign aid workers in Gaza.

Even the Palestine Cup, a soccer tournament pitting youngsters from villages and political factions, has returned as the easing of travel restrictions makes it possible for the first time in years for people to travel from the southern town of Rafah to the northern city of Gaza.

These are small yet important gains for the Palestinian Authority and its prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who has publicly declared an end to the armed conflict but is unwilling to confront militant groups who are opposed to disarmament.

Abbas has gambled that the cease-fire lasting long enough for him to win enough concessions from Israel to convince his fellow Palestinians that violence needs to stop. They might then shift their support away from Hamas and suicide bombings to the Palestinian Authority and political negotiations.

It is a risky bet. Israel and the Bush administration insist that Abbas disarm the militant factions. Those groups agreed June 29 to a three-month cease-fire and have threatened to then resume attacks.

Three weeks into the cease-fire, Palestinians still seem willing to give up their new gains and return to violence if their lives don't improve further. Abbas is in Washington today to ask the Bush administration to press Israel to further ease the pressure on Palestinians. His advisers say the trip is crucial for the survival of his government.

The fishermen offer one perspective on where this process stands. For this hardened lot, peace is measured by the size of the fish and their degree of freedom to fish the Mediterranean.

During the worst of the Palestinian-Israeli violence, the Israeli army imposed restrictions to keep Palestinian boats away from Jewish settlements and from venturing far from shore, where it was feared they might pick up weapons from other vessels. For two months, the army banned fishermen from going out at all. The restrictions have been gradually eased - from an offshore fishing limit of three miles, to six miles and now 10. The fishermen would like to have 12.

In the Gaza port, several generations of fishermen huddle under makeshift tents to take shelter from the summer sun and rest from a night of being on the water and a morning unloading their catch.

Others fix the rusted hulls of their boats, carting materials and tools on donkey carts that plod through soft sand and wade into the murky water to keep cool. They share stories of boats seized by the Israelis, of shots fired across their bows, of being arrested for steering beyond the buoys that mark their boundaries, a floating version of an army checkpoint.

Those stories are now told in the past tense - the last confrontation with the Israelis was four months ago - and talk has turned again to the sea.

Awad Saedi is a 36-year-old teacher and accountant. Fifteen years ago, when he couldn't find a job, he joined his brothers in the family fishing business.

They poured their life savings - $35,000 - into a 45-foot boat called Prince Moneer - named for a brother who died during the first Palestinian uprising. This week, Saedi was squatting in the sand and used his finger to draw a box representing the restrictions Israel imposes on his job.

With a three-mile limit, he said, "there is nothing." At six miles, the nets catch sardines, which sell for only a few pennies a pound. At nine miles, the sea turns up small squid and shrimp - appetizers.

Farther out comes the dinner course: sea bass and tuna. Saedi smiled, showing yellowed, broken teeth, as his thoughts drifted further out to sea. "Ten miles," he said, pausing as he thought about it. "This is heaven." Then his eyes lit up as the almost unimaginable next step, and the potential bounty, came to mind. "Twelve miles - my God."

Saedi said he senses change. The cease-fire, he said, "is better for us. This is a chance for both sides to think. We want peace, but we also want a better future. We're not there yet.

"If politics go well, fishing goes well.