By Jeremy Bowen – Gaza City
I can’t imagine what Gaza would be like if it didn’t have the sea. The other morning its tiny piece of the Mediterranean was coming in lazy and calm, and a light breeze was blowing down the beach.
If you are Gazan and your soul is troubled, or if you just want some space, the beach must be one of the better places to go.
Most of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians are impoverished and are not allowed to leave by their Israeli and Egyptian neighbours.
It is hard to think of another place in the world that can be as oppressive.
But considering that Gazans have so much experience of war, loss and bloodshed, it is remarkable that the human spirit here is so resilient.
But it has been severely tested by everything that has happened this year.
Life was hard enough anyway before the January conflict, mainly because of the blockade imposed by Israel and supported by its allies.
Eighty per cent of Gaza’s population lives in poverty, defined here as an income of less than $2 daily.
But since the Israeli offensive things have got much worse. The UN says that 35,000 people don’t have running water. More than 20,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged.
In the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh in early March international donors promised US $4.48 bn to rebuild Gaza.
The money, which comes in through procedures designed to keep it away from Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, has funded some of the immediate needs of the population.
But it hasn’t yet made a difference to the way that people live.
Israel still will allow in virtually no building materials – such as steel, cement and piping – which it says Hamas would use for military purposes.
Living in Tents
So the people who have been living in tents, or in the ruins of their homes, still do.
Next to the village of Izbet Abed Rabbo, now mainly rubble, in the northern Gaza Strip close to the border with Israel, lines of frame tents are pitched in orderly rows.
They are nice ones, the sort you will see this summer if you go to one of the camping sites on more peaceful stretches of the Mediterranean coast.
They were not cheery bright holiday colours but khaki, which suggests they came from someone’s army.
Life in Gaza can be intense. Pain and suffering runs very deep, and pleasure when it comes is something to grab and hold hard.
Near the tents in Izbet Abed Rabbo they were having a children’s party.
A man dressed as a clown was supervising some boisterous games. In one of them blindfolded children were racing to feed another one, unblindfolded, a whole pot of runny-looking chocolate pudding.
The girl who ate fastest looked like she was going to drown as her big sister advanced on her with the spoon.
The prize was a small bunch of carnations, beautiful fresh flowers that used to go for export.
They have no commercial value anymore, but the children who were given them, whose families have lost everything, looked as if they liked them very much.
A solemn man in a tweed jacket walked out of the chaos and explained that the games (including orange peeling contests and races to blow flour off a plate) were designed to help the children recover from everything they have been through.
He was proud that the volunteers who had organized it, all local people, had paid for the party too.
It seemed as important for their mental health as it was for the children’s.
In this part of the Middle East one of the most damaging consequences of the last years of bloodshed has been the loss of hope.
I met Raad al-Athamna, a taxi driver and father of seven children, who stood on a low pile of rubble that was his house until Israeli forces destroyed it.
He thumbed through photos of a decent home surrounded by mature trees, children playing in Gaza’s dusty sunshine and doing their school studies.
Raad worked hard to create that life for his family, which has now gone.
Now his 12-year-old boy wets the bed every night, another child sleepwalks and his eldest girl, once a star pupil, has nowhere to study and cries when she thinks about the future.
Across the Border
It is not just Palestinians who worry about what happens next.
Over the border in the Israeli town of Sderot, which has borne the brunt of Palestinian rocket fire over the last eight years, I met Avi Mamam.
He is a fireman whose house was badly damaged by a rocket fired out of Gaza.
The experiences of Israelis and Palestinians either side of the Gaza border in December and January were not equivalent.
One hundred times more Palestinians than Israelis died. The level of destruction in Gaza is massively more extensive than in Israel.
But Avi, who was looking after his elderly, wheelchair bound mother as he showed me round what is left of his house, still seems to be at a crossroads, looking ahead at a future that should be much more certain.
He is a family man, with sons in the army, wondering whether it is worth rebuilding within rocket range of Gaza, assuming his compensation comes through.
Avi, like the overwhelming majority of Israelis, believes the war was justified.
But in the end, he says, there will have to be some sort of agreement with Hamas, because they are part of real life in this part of the world and people, on both sides, need to live in peace.
– Jeremy Bowen is a BBC Middle East Editor. (Published in BBC News, April 9, 2009)