Djallal Malti
Agence France Presse (AFP)
January 12, 2010 - 1:00am

GAZA CITY — When Munzer Diyya wants to get away from it all, he sits astride his motorcycle and takes to the open road -- all 45 kilometres of it.

Diyya has the misfortune of being an open road enthusiast living in the Gaza Strip, a tiny territory sandwiched between Israel and Egypt and blockaded by both.

So when he and his buddies gun their engines and head out on the highway, they are reduced to riding only the length of the impoverished and overcrowded Palestinian enclave -- a mere 45 kilometres (28 miles).

"I ride slowly to make it last longer," Diyya says. "When I ride my bike, I spread my wings. I feel like I'm flying."

The ability to spread one's wings is sorely needed but very hard to accomplish in sealed-off Gaza.

The territory, one of the most densely populated places on Earth where the vast majority of the population depends on foreign aid, has been closed to all but essential humanitarian goods since Islamist Hamas took over in June 2007.

Gaza was also the focus of a devastating Israeli offensive between December 2008 and January 2009 in which about 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

The onslaught was launched on December 27, 2008 in response to persistent mortar and rocket fire from Palestinian militants inside the enclave.

Motorcycle sales have soared in Gaza since the Hamas takeover two and a half years ago.

"It's a mode of transport that is fast and relatively cheap. People prefer them to cars," says Diyya, a 42-year-old mechanic.

Because of the blockade, Gazans rely on smuggling tunnels on the border with Egypt, which are used to bring in everything from weapons for Hamas to diapers and food. The tunnels are often targeted by Israeli warplanes, however.

"Bikes are a recent phenomenon here," says Diyya. "Before 2007 there was just a little over a dozen. It was something of an oddity and most came from Israel."

Today Diyya estimates that there are 10,000-15,000 motorcycles in the territory, most of them made in China.

"A motorcycle costs 550 euros (800 dollars) in Egypt and sells here for 800-1,000 euros," he says. In comparison, the starting cost of a car can be 10 times as much.

Mustafa al-Khatib, a 35-year-old grocer who bought a motorbike a year ago, agrees. "They don't cost much and don't use much petrol," he says.

Today, bikes account for most of the work Diyya does in his tiny workshop in southern Gaza City.

The blockade has meant a shortage of parts and has forced Diyya, who has been a mechanic for 15 years, to be creative. If he needs a cylinder head gasket, for example, he will make one from cardboard.

"It'll only last a year, but it's better than nothing," he says, fashioning a gasket by pressing a piece of cardboard on top of a metal gasket and banging on it with a wrench to get the shape.

"This costs me pennies," he says, pointing to the makeshift part. "If I ordered one from the smuggling tunnels, it would cost me a dozen shekels (three dollars, two euros)."

"If we waited for Israel to let in all the things that are needed here, the country would just stop in its tracks," he says. "There's a shortage of everything."

The influx of bikes has also caused road casualties to soar among Gaza's 1.5 million population, with 147 motorcyclists killed and 750 injured since June 2007, the month Hamas ousted the secular Fatah from the enclave.

"Not a day goes by when hospitals don't receive someone injured in a motorcycle accident," says Moawiya Hassanein, the doctor who is head of Gaza medical rescue services.

For most motorcyclists in the territory, a two-wheeler is merely an economical mode of transport.

But not so for Diyya and his buddies: they are devoted bikers and Gaza claustrophobia has done nothing to dampen their spirit.

"Every Thursday, we meet at my friend Samy's house," he says. "We drink coffee and then we take to the road. From Gaza to Rafah, either along the sea or along the interior.

"When you're on a bike, you're in another world," Diyya adds. "You feel free."


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