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Associated Press/Photo by Hatem Moussa

Tested by fire

Middle East | Gaza's sturdy but small Christian population confronts Islamic militancy and the Israeli blockade

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

GAZA CITY-From Erez Crossing, a gray wall of forbidding concrete stretches as far as the eye can see, dotted with observation towers. The road to Gaza and up to this, the main checkpoint into Gaza from Israel, winds through lush croplands. Acres of winter wheat give way to almond trees, figs coming into leaf, peach trees in blossom, and orange groves filling the air with their heady fragrance.

At the checkpoint the fecund landscape comes to an abrupt end. If the Israeli government has granted you a permit to cross the border into Gaza, as it has granted me, then you present your passport, enter through a series of barbed wire and concrete barriers, and go into the terminal-a cavernous hangar that is eerily quiet except for the slamming of metal doors.

There you must pass through passport control, zigzag through a series of mechanized gates and scanners (including full-body scanners for the return), then out an automatic steel door and through the half-mile long buffer zone separating Israel from Gaza. It's a maze to be completed in reverse before Erez closes at 3 p.m.

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This is where the journey back in time begins. In the fields young men dig potatoes and dump them into a cart hitched to mules. Others scavenge rubble from what used to be an industrial zone run by the Israelis. Out on the dirt roads, donkey carts loaded with edible greens collected along the roadside compete with beat-up sedans, dodging potholes and broken pavement.

Gaza is where 200,000 Palestinian refugees fled the advances of the Jewish paramilitary forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. There the mostly refugee descendants are a dense population of 1.4 million on a strip of desert coastland measuring 25 miles long and only a few miles wide. There the Muslim Brotherhood launched Hamas in 1987, firing homemade rockets on Israeli forces from the Jabalia refugee camp. Rocket attacks into Jewish settlements became so disturbing in 2008 that Israel launched a three-week air and ground offensive Dec. 27. Thirteen Israelis were killed during that war and 1,400 Palestinians. Hulks of government office high-rises and apartments, bombed by Israeli missile fire 16 months ago and left untouched, signify the destruction and stagnation that is life in this walled-off territory.

If you ask residents to describe Gaza, young and old say the same thing: It's like living in a prison. Israel and Egypt, which controls Gaza's southern border, allow few Palestinians to leave, and they permit entry to few outsiders. The Palestinian Authority is launching economic development projects across the West Bank, but none of that progress reaches here. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has intensified a blockade that prohibits nearly all but food and a few essentials from entering the country.

There is no equipment for cleanup from the war, and material to aid reconstruction is prohibited. More than two-thirds of the country is dependent on food aid, according to health workers, and foraging in the fields outside Gaza City is evident all day long. Even Gaza's fishermen-whose legendary skills extend back to when the Philistines occupied the area-are no longer permitted to fish in waters more than 3½ miles from shore.

At the same time, Hamas is tightening its grip on the local population. In March it banned men from cutting women's hair. And on April 15 it executed two Palestinians convicted in a Hamas military court of collaborating with Israel.

So it's amazing that Pastor Hanna Massad, having gotten out, chooses to go back. Again and again.

Massad was the full-time pastor of Gaza Baptist Church for 11 years. Now many call him the "pastor in exile." In 2007 authorities advised his family and six others to get out after Islamic militants kidnapped and murdered another leader in the church, Rami Ayyad.

The 26-year-old was found dead in the street of multiple stabbings and gunshot wounds to the head near the Christian bookshop he ran, the only Christian store of its kind in Gaza.

"There was a lot of chaos and lawlessness. We felt it was wise to leave, but we thought we would come back after a few weeks. We thought it would get better, but instead it became more dangerous," said Massad, 50, whose wife had worked alongside Ayyad in the bookshop.

Hamas seized control of Gaza four months before Ayyad's death and had won a victory in the Palestinian Authority's parliament. Gaza residents say it did so by providing social services otherwise lacking. Hamas funded mosques, schools, soup kitchens, orphanages, and medical clinics in Gaza.

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