The Israeli-controlled Erez crossing point into the Gaza Strip looks is like an airport terminal to nowhere. After showing my passport and press pass, I enter the glass, air-conditioned and almost completely empty building and walk down a long corridor at the end of which, instead of a waiting airplane, there's a room with seemingly no exit. Then a metal door mysteriously opens, and I leave Israel. Outside there are no customers officers, no passport control, no port authority, just long caged passageways and a huge empty lot with a couple of taxis baking in the summer sun. This is the quietest border crossing in the Middle East.
The Gaza Strip, which is home to about 1.4 million people, is almost fifty day into an Israeli siege. Almost all shipments except for basic humanitarian supplies are barred from entering, and almost nothing comes out. And no one but journalists, members of international organizations like the United Nations, and a tiny number of Palestinians from special professions are allowed to come or go.
The Israelis have sealed the crossing in part as a response to the rockets that are regularly launched from Gaza into Israeli towns in the Negev, occasionally killing civilians, and often damaging homes. But the siege is also the key element of an Israeli and American strategy to isolate Hamas, the Palestinian militant group and political party which after a few short days of internecine Palestinian warfare in June, took control of Gaza from its political rival, Fatah. The hope is that by letting Gaza simmer in its own juices, average Palestinians will turn away from Hamas, which has never recognized Israel, and towards Fatah, which is willing to restart the peace process. Unfortunately, the siege of Gaza appears to be having the opposite effect.
The damage done to the Gazan economy has in fact been catastrophic. Unemployment is up to about 87 percent . About 79 percent of the population is receiving food from the United Nations. Nasser El Helou, a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce and a hotel owner, estimated that the Gazan economy -- which is based on light manufacturing, agricultural exports, and the wages brought home by day laborers in Israel -- would collapse within two weeks if the siege continues. But he was also clear about whom he blamed for the situation. "If we are free we should control our own borders," he said. "But we do not control our borders, so the full responsibility is on the Israeli side. "
I spent Thursday talking to other business owners -- pragmatic, apolitical people -- who uniformly blamed Israel, the United States and Fatah for the destruction of the Gazan economy. In fact, after years of living with the gangsterism and warlordism that plagued Gaza while it was run by Fatah officials, most are happy with the Hamas takeover. "I blame Fatah and Abu Mazen because they made us live in garbage," said the owner of the largest factory in Gaza, which makes cookies and ice cream, but which is now almost totally shut. "They never wanted to see anyone else prosper. They just wanted to live on top, through corruption."
The business owners pointed out that not only joblessness and poverty pushing average people towards extremism, but they also said that the Israeli embargo was destroying the only class of Palestinians who still looked favorably towards Israel: them. Most of them speak Hebrew, have -- or used to have -- Israeli clients, partners, and friends, and most had once looked forward to the day when there would be no trade barriers at all for an independent Palestine at peace with Israel. "The majority of Gazans do not like Israel'" said Amassi Ghazi, the chairman of a company that imports building materials. "Until now only the private sector had good relations with Israel. So please open the border before you loose the last sector, and all Gaza will be enemies of Israel."