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Comment: Areas left by Israel still mostly empty

    Just over five years after the Israelis left the Gaza Strip, the area they evacuated is practically unrecognisable. There is no evidence left at all that 8,000 Jews ever lived there. The rubble from the settlers' houses destroyed by the Israelis before they left has long been cleared. The al Toufah checkpoint near Khan Yunis in the south is ancient history.

    Initially, Hamas planned an extensive building programme for the area, but this came to a rapid halt when a blockade was imposed, following the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, which limited the amount of building materials available. As a result, there has been no serious building in the "liberated lands", as the Hamas leadership calls them.

    But some projects have still survived.

    Most notably, the largest university in Gaza, the Al Aqsa university, was set up in what used to be Neveh Dekalim, with the university's management located in the former municipal office buildings.

    The Hamas government has also planted a million palm trees in what used to be the Neveh Dekalim ('Palm Oasis') area, as well as a million olive trees. The hope was that the consumer would be able to receive cheaper dates and olives in the wake of the blockade.

    They established fish farms, greenhouses and farms where cows and chickens can be reared, however many of these have been bombed by the Israeli air force.

    Several projects have only been carried out partially. Hamas intended to establish a centre for the Strip's international media, modelled on a similar project in Dubai, but so far the location has only been used as the set of a movie based on the life story of a Hamas fighter who killed many Israelis and was later killed by the IDF. In addition, it intended to set up a holiday village, but for the moment has made do with a promenade which is a major attraction for the Strip's families.

    The feeling of the local population is mixed. While they are uniformly pleased at the evacuation of the Israelis, there is also much economic stress.

    "After five years, our life has changed completely," says Ahmad Abu Mustafa, of Al Mawasi. He cites in particular the removal of a local checkpoint, which sometimes limited entrance to his neighbourhood to six hours a day.

    "We used to have to wait for hours at the checkpoint and sometimes we slept there, our life was very difficult. Now we feel the freedom more, come in and out without checkpoints."

    However, he used to earn NIS 50 a day working for the settlers in agriculture.

    "It was true that it was hard to go every day to a settlement to work because of all the [security] checks I had to pass, but I had regular work. Today I work land and plant every season, but I don't make NIS 50 because I can't export our produce. It would be better for me not to work."

    Asked whether he would like the Israelis to return, Avu Mustafa laughed.

    "I'm very happy the Israelis left Gaza, but I want work.

    "I wish I could go work for them in Israel."

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