Palestinians by the tens of thousands stormed through the blasted border wall into Egypt on Jan. 23 and began a frenzied shopping spree that would wipe out many local retailers during their weeks-long escape from Gaza.
Flour, butter, cigarettes, and cement were among the booty hauled in carts back to Gaza while donkeys, camels, and even motorcycles were frantically hoisted and pulled through the mangled piles of the fallen steel barricade. The scene reflected the isolation and desperation among Gazans since the militant group Hamas took over the coastal strip last June and Israel sealed its borders with the impoverished territory.
It takes a trip to the doorstep of UN headquarters in New York to understand the other side of the story. There, the next day 4,700 red balloons covered the massive stairway at the UN's East River compound, a gesture meant to show world leaders just how many Qassam rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel since the country's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.
"The kids don't want to go to the bathroom because they don't know if they will be able to run to a sheltered area. They don't know when a Qassam [rocket] is coming," Israeli hospital director Lea Malul said.
The turmoil in Gaza has been festering for years but has worsened in recent months. Militants in Gaza fired more than 100 rockets into several small Israeli towns during the third week of January, and Israel responded by cutting off Gaza's fuel supply. By the time Israel lifted the fuel ban on Jan. 22, desperate mobs had already gathered at the Egyptian border. After repeated clashes with Egyptian police along the seven-mile border and several bomb blasts courtesy of Hamas, the crowds broke through-a boost for the militant group's waning popularity.
Israel has been under growing criticism for its part in what some say is a humanitarian crisis, with daily supplies of necessities cut off from Gaza. Israel has also been accused of disproportionate responses to the primitive rockets, which kill far fewer people than the Israeli air raids in Gaza.
Lea Malul says the comparison is unfair. As the director of Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, she often sees victims of Qassam attacks from nearby Sderot, a popular target of Palestinian militants. Two people were killed and more than 400 were injured by these attacks in 2007 alone, and she says it's not uncommon to see people without hands or legs from an encounter with a Qassam. Thousands are treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, and she sees little hope for better days: There are signs that Gaza militants are upgrading from the homemade and highly inaccurate Qassam rockets to the more sophisticated and dangerous Iranian and Russian varieties.
Israelis aren't the only ones suffering at the hands of Hamas: "I call it an island of insanity in this hospital because in one room you can find Fatah people injured from Hamas and in another room you can find injured people from a Qassam. It is impossible to continue to live like this," Malul told WORLD.
Some analysts say the Hamas PR machine is behind recent claims that Palestinians are dying as a result of Israeli border closures. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed to allow the Gaza crowd a limited excursion into Egypt because they were "starving" under the blockade. Although Gaza's supply of fresh meat and produce is dwindling, there have been no reports of starvation from international aid groups or local officials.
But conditions in the coastal enclave-where 3,000 Christians reside among its cramped 1.5 million inhabitants-have always been undeniably squalid, and reports from the region suggest further deterioration. "The situation is very bad. The people need the attention of the world community. If anywhere there needs to be UN peacekeeping forces, it has to be around Gaza," retired Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem Samir Kafity said.
Despite Gaza's isolation, the Anglican hospital he frequented while Bishop of the Jerusalem Diocese from 1984 through 1996 continues to serve Gazans free of charge. In updates sent to the Episcopal Church, hospital director Suhaili Tarazi said the facility was frequently without electricity. She, too, sees adults and children without hands and limbs, and necessary medicine is in short supply.
For now, there is some relief via the southern border breech, but the opening has created new problems for both Israel and Egypt. Although Mubarak has been careful not to appear too sympathetic toward Israeli and U.S. efforts to tighten control over the border, he promptly shot down suggestions from Israeli leaders that his country take over responsibility for the coastal strip now that the border has been blown open. Permitting Hamas militants free access to Egyptian soil would be inviting trouble those in his government would rather avoid.
Resealing the border will not be an easy task, either. While Egyptian security forces began erecting barbed wire fence across the gaping holes in the Rafah wall, Hamas personnel were busy bulldozing other portions of the barrier, determined to keep the border open.
As a key partner in U.S.-led efforts to jumpstart Middle East peace talks, Egypt will have to prove that it can control its Gaza border and put a cap on the weapons being smuggled through secret tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.
The skepticism surrounding the Annapolis peace efforts has been slowly chipped away by one promising reality: Leaders from both sides are talking. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas continued their dialogue at the end of January, and both pledge to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But Abbas and his Fatah followers were ousted from Gaza last June, prompting the leader to disband the government and set up a new administration in the West Bank.
With dueling perspectives and suffering on both sides, the cycle of violence appears hard to break. The noticeable absence of Hamas at the table brings a harsh reality to the Bush administration's hope for a peace deal by the end of the year. The militant group and its troubled enclave will be a thorn in the side on all sides.