The road to Gaza between two worlds

EREZ CROSSING, Israel Fri Jan 26, 2007 10:55am GMT

An Israeli soldier guards a concrete structure at a checkpoint straddling the line where the West Bank ends and the Israel begins, on Highway 443 near Maccabim, December 13, 2006. Not many people travel to or from Gaza these days. Israel does not allow its citizens to enter or many of the 1.4 million Palestinians who live there to leave the coastal strip, citing security risks. To match WITNESS-EREZ/ REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen (WEST BANK)

An Israeli soldier guards a concrete structure at a checkpoint straddling the line where the West Bank ends and the Israel begins, on Highway 443 near Maccabim, December 13, 2006. Not many people travel to or from Gaza these days. Israel does not allow its citizens to enter or many of the 1.4 million Palestinians who live there to leave the coastal strip, citing security risks. To match WITNESS-EREZ/

Credit: Reuters/Gil Cohen Magen (WEST BANK)

EREZ CROSSING, Israel (Reuters) - Outside the Israeli port of Ashkelon, a distance marker indicates: "Gaza - 24 km".

For all the difference it makes to almost everyone driving past, it might as well be a signpost to the Moon.

Not many people travel to or from Gaza these days.

Israel does not allow its citizens to enter or many of the 1.4 million Palestinians who live there to leave the coastal strip, citing security risks.

Many of the foreign aid workers, diplomats and journalists who used to make the trip, this correspondent included, are staying away for fear of being kidnapped or caught up in the unpredictable violence between Palestinian factions.

It wasn't always like this.

Twelve years ago, when I first worked in this region, that last 24 km (15 miles) from Ashkelon to Gaza City took about 40 minutes by car.

Many Israelis travelled the road -- for business or for pleasure, which often came in the shape of a seafood feast in a beachfront restaurant on the shores of the Mediterranean.

The only obstacle then was Erez checkpoint -- a watchtower and a concrete block or two in the middle of the road where a small crew of bored-looking Israeli soldiers would watch taxis, buses, donkeys and pedestrians bustling past.

That was before a Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000, bringing suicide bombings and rocket attacks to Israeli towns and cities and Israeli army offensives in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a stronghold of the armed factions.

Today, the Erez Terminal complex rises imposingly out of the flat, dusty scrubland, flanked on either side by a series of high concrete walls, trenches and fences that stretch across the sand dunes separating Israel from Gaza.

NEW BUILDINGS

For months after Israel withdrew its troops and Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, Erez was abuzz with construction work.

A new army base and a new terminal building, to handle people crossing in and out of Gaza, went up at an impressive rate.

The army base is still a hive of activity, but the new terminal building, which would not look out of place at a modern airport, stands eerily empty.

The building boom at Erez has been matched by the equally rapid construction of similar terminals along the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

The effect of all this construction can be disorienting for someone who travels frequently between Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Familiar routes from Jerusalem to nearby West Bank towns like Ramallah, Bethlehem or Hebron are blocked by concrete slabs. Newly-paved roads lead traffic towards terminals that look like international border posts.

Israel says the barrier provides protection from suicide bombers and could be moved or removed if ever there is a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

But for Palestinians, it is a grab for occupied land that looks all too permanent.

They fear it will stop them from gaining control of all of the West Bank, which they seek for an independent state along with Gaza and East Jerusalem, all territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

To an outsider one thing seems clear: the walls, fences, trenches and terminals will take longer to come down than they took to put up. And the road through Erez will be a lot more of a journey than that '24km' road sign indicates.

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