By Martin Patience
When Hatim Muhammad wants to escape from Gaza he listens to the birdsong of his 31 canaries.
The 41-year-old, a former militant who is now unemployed, has turned one of the rooms of his house into a makeshift aviary.
In the same room, seven of his 11 children sleep at night.
"I feel like I’m free when I hear the canaries," says Hatim, the birdcages swaying gently above his head. "They help me forget about all my problems."
Like many in Gaza, Hatim will remember 2006 as the year problems piled up. Even by Palestinian standards, the hardships suffered this year have been extraordinary.
First came the international economic boycott which followed the election of Hamas. That embargo plunged many Palestinians here into poverty.
Over the year, Israeli military operations in Gaza and the West Bank killed more than 600 Palestinians.
Operations intensified in Gaza in June after Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier in a cross border raid.
Military operations to secure the release of the soldier and to stop Qassam rocket fire into Israel have failed to do either.
In November, Israel halted operations in Gaza, while rocket fire lessened, but continued.
Late in the year, factional violence between the two main Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah broke out. Over the year, about 40 Palestinians have died in factional fighting.
"This has been the worst year of my life," says Hatim. "I swear to God, I now have no money for milk and food for my children," he says.
Before the embargo, Hatim was unemployed and depended on relatives, friends, and neighbours for small handouts to pay for his family’s frugal existence.
But many of the 160,000 government workers have not received their full pay in nine months. Few people can afford to generous now.
His 17-year-old daughter Falisteen has kidney problems and requires medication.
Hatim says that he owes the pharmacist $400 (£200).
"I avoid him now," he says. "I’m too embarrassed to see him."
During the Israeli incursion that began in the summer, sonic booms and constant shelling terrified his children.
But he says the inter-factional violence between Fatah and Hamas supporters troubles him most.
"The bullets should be used against the Jews and not the Palestinians," says Hatim, who was once a local leader in the al-Aqsa Brigades, a militant wing of Fatah.
For now, a shaky ceasefire between the two factions appears to be holding.
"I’m a bit happier now," he says. "It appears to be safer."
But he will not forget in a hurry the moment last Sunday when two armed Hamas supporters marched up to his cinderblock house, located along a warren of paths in the refugee camp, and threatened to kill him.
"One of them said that they should put a bullet in my head," says Hatim.
"But then the other said they should shoot me in the leg because I have 11 children.
"In the end they did neither, but they sprayed my house with bullets."
Despite everything, Hatim remains an optimist.
Tattooed on his arms are the Palestinian flag and an inscription that reads "for freedom". He hopes that the new year will bring an end to all of the problems and an independent Palestinian state.
"I pray to god that all this will happen," he says. But he does not look too convinced.
(BBC News, December 21, 2006)