Linda Gradstein
The Washington Post
December 8, 2008 - 1:00am

Every year, Ali Hussein, 35, looks forward to Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, which begins Monday. He works for the police force and earns a good salary by Gazan standards, about $800 a month. Along with some friends, he buys a sheep every year, slaughters it and donates the meat to the poor. He buys new clothes and special sweets for his four young sons, and he gives his mother, sisters, nephews and nieces gifts of cash.

But this month, Hussein hasn't received his pay. Israel has not allowed money to enter Gaza as part of its stepped-up blockade in response to ongoing Palestinian rocket attacks from the narrow coastal strip. Hussein went to the bank Wednesday, but his salary -- which needs to be transferred to Gaza via Israel -- hadn't been deposited yet. Since Thursday, the banks have been closed because Palestinian officials feared they could be attacked by angry customers.

"There is no holiday this year," he said. "I'm very angry and I don't know whose fault it is. . . . Everyone was counting on me for the holiday, and now I can't give them anything."

The World Bank this weekend warned that the cash shortages could lead to the collapse of the commercial banking system in Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamist movement Hamas. In a statement, the World Bank said there could be "serious humanitarian implications" for the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. The Bank urged Israel "to move swiftly to restore cash liquidity in Gaza bank branches" before the three-day holiday that begins Monday.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said this week that the banks needed 250 million Israeli shekels, or about $63 million, to cover the salaries of the 77,000 civil servants in Gaza. He said Gaza's banks had less than a fifth of that sum. Fayyad is the West Bank-based prime minister of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which employs civil servants in the West Bank and Gaza, even though Gaza is controlled by Hamas.

Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and joined Fatah in a national unity government. In June 2007, Hamas seized complete control in Gaza after fighting that left dozens of people dead. That move prompted Israel to impose a blockade on Gaza, allowing only basic necessities and medicine into the strip.

Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Lerner said the money was not entering Gaza because the crossings into the strip are closed. But on Thursday, when Israel opened the crossings to allow food and medicine to enter, cash was not included. Lerner said that the issue is under discussion but that the cash transfer to Gaza had not been approved.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday announced a series of goodwill gestures to Palestinians in the West Bank after a meeting with Fayyad. Barak said that men older than 40 and all women would be allowed to enter Israel to visit their immediate families over the holiday. He also said that all Palestinian men older than 45 would be given permits to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, that travel through roadblocks in the West Bank would be eased and that checkpoints would remain open for longer hours.

Israel is also set to free 230 Palestinian prisoners Tuesday as a holiday goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The original list included another 20 Palestinians from Gaza, but several Israeli cabinet ministers objected, saying they did not want to release prisoners to Gaza.

In their meeting, Fayyad asked Barak to reopen the border crossings between Gaza and Israel, but Barak refused as long as rocket fire on Israel continues. Over the weekend, about 20 rockets and mortar shells were fired from Gaza into Israel. There were no casualties. On Sunday, at least three rockets were fired, landing in open areas. Israeli planes attacked a group of men who military officials said were preparing to fire rockets. There were no reports of casualties.

"Hamas is responsible for the difficult situation in the strip," Barak told Fayyad.

International human rights groups have been warning of a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Since Nov. 4, Gaza has been closed except for five days when food and medicine was allowed in. Except for one day last week, journalists have been barred as well.

In an interview, John Ging, the director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, said the situation is growing increasingly desperate.

"There are shortages of everything across the board, even the products you need to survive," Ging said. "Food, medicine, fuel. Water is not being pumped into many houses here because of the fuel shortage, and the quality of the water is very poor. The sanitation system is completely overloaded. The household products of detergent, soap, clothes -- everything a human being needs to survive is either in short supply, has run out or is prohibitively expensive."

In the Shati refugee camp, Um Salim, 50, hasn't had cooking gas for almost a month. A cylinder of gas used to cost $13. Now the only cooking gas available has been smuggled via tunnel underneath the border between Gaza and Egypt. It costs double what it used to.

Salim and her extended family now bake bread using a wood stove in their courtyard.

"It's like we're going back 50 years. All we have to eat is bread and za'tar," she said bitterly, referring to a form of oregano. "Last week we ran out of the food the U.N. gave us."

Salim was a fervent supporter of Hamas before the 2006 election, holding meetings in her home to encourage women to vote for the group. But she said that since Hamas took over Gaza last year, the situation has only deteriorated.

"I blame Hamas and I curse the day I voted for Hamas," she said. "Hamas has done nothing for us, and I'm not afraid. I don't care who hears me."


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