Some in Gaza say they would rather endure more fighting than return to life under blockade

Ibrahim Zain was driven from his home by Israeli tank fire this week, but says he'd rather endure more Israel-Hamas fighting than accept an unconditional cease-fire he fears will leave in place the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Like Zain, many Gaza residents say the closure, imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, is like a slow death: It prevents them from traveling, from importing cement to build homes and increasingly from earning enough to feed their families.

"We want a good life or no life," said the unemployed 44-year-old father of nine whose small scrap metal business fell victim to the blockade last year.

Disagreement over whether and how to lift the Gaza closure is a key stumbling block to ending more than two weeks of fighting between the Islamic militant Hamas and Israel.

And in a way, it is emerging as the Gazan equivalent of what is single-mindedly driving the Israelis — the rocket fire from Gaza, which they feel must stop at almost any cost. For the Gazans, it is the blockade that must stop, and the fact that Hamas is demanding this appears to have gained its tactics genuine support.

Egypt wants an immediate end to hostilities, followed by undefined talks about easing access to Gaza. Israel accepted, but Hamas wants international guarantees that Gaza's borders will open before it stops fighting. Hamas distrusts Israel and Egypt, whose rulers tightened the Gaza blockade even more over the past year, pushing Hamas into a severe financial crisis.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who is mediating, took a middle ground Tuesday. He said fighting must stop now, but that underlying problems setting off repeated violence between Israel and Gaza must be addressed. Ban did not say whether Gaza should be opened, but that "no closure, no barrier, can separate Israelis and Palestinians from a fundamental truth: You share a common future."

Gaza residents say that without open borders, their lives will become increasingly desperate.

"Open the blockade and then we halt fire," said Gaza City street cleaner Said Abu Seif, 40, as he cleared away debris Tuesday morning from a mosque and a gas station damaged hours earlier in an Israeli airstrike. If the closure continues, he said, "I don't see a future for my children."

The last two weeks of fighting, including Israeli airstrikes and tank shelling, have led to widespread misery for Gaza's civilians. More than 620 Palestinians have been killed, more than 3,700 wounded and hundreds of houses damaged or destroyed. More than 100,000 people have sought shelter in U.N. schools where dozens are squeezed into each classroom.

Despite the devastation, there has been no visible criticism of Hamas among Gazans for provoking such attacks by firing rockets at Israel.

A resident of Shijaiyah, a Gaza City neighborhood devastated by heavy fighting over the weekend, said some of his neighbors privately blame Hamas for the destruction but would never speak in public for fear of Hamas retribution. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

Others, like Abu Seif, the street cleaner, said even though they are not Hamas supporters, they back the group's goal to open Gaza's borders, by force if necessary.

Polls have suggested that only about one-third of Gaza's 1.7 million people are supporters of Hamas, while others either back its rival, the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, or are not affiliated.

In times of confrontation with Israel, the popularity of Hamas tends to increase, while that of Abbas, who espouses non-violence and negotiations with Israel, tends to drop.

Israel has said it is attacking Hamas targets to halt rocket fire from Gaza on Israel. It has accused the militants of using civilians as human shields by firing rockets from densely populated areas and storing weapons inside civilian sites.

"The people of Gaza suffer because of the Hamas regime, a regime that sacrifices the people of Gaza for its very extreme agenda," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. Hamas, a branch of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, wants to establish an Islamic state in historic Palestine, including what is now Israel, and has killed hundreds of Israelis since the 1980s.

Hamas won Palestinian parliament elections in 2006, defeating Fatah by a wide margin. A year later, after power-sharing efforts failed, Hamas forces seized Gaza, driving out troops loyal to Abbas, who remained in control of the other Palestinian territory, the West Bank. In response to the takeover, Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza's borders, in hopes the restrictions would make it difficult for Hamas to govern and eventually topple the group.

Instead, Hamas established a firm grip on Gaza, mainly by building hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border and earning tens of millions of dollars a year in customs and taxes on fuel, cigarettes and consumer goods transported into Gaza. At the same time, it sidelined political rivals and silenced dissent.

The international community has set out conditions for Hamas to be accepted, chiefly acquiescence to the Palestinians' past agreements with Israel, but this runs counter to the group's central ethos. If Hamas changed its stripes this way it would probably also end the blockade, but the issue almost never comes up now amid the din and anger of war.

Hamas' situation deteriorated sharply after the Egyptian military toppled a Muslim Brotherhood-run government in Egypt last year. Egypt's new rulers blamed the group for increased militant activity in the Sinai Peninsula that borders Gaza and shut down the smuggling tunnels, depriving Gaza of a main lifeline.

A year later, Hamas is mired in its worst-ever financial crisis, unable to pay salaries for 40,000 civil servants and security forces.

Gaza's official unemployment is close to 50 percent, though Gaza economist Omar Shaban believes the real figure is over 60 percent, if counting underemployment.

Zain, the Gaza man driven from his home by the fighting, said he used to make a living selling scrap metal for $150 a ton to Egypt, exporting through the tunnels. Once Egypt closed the tunnels, he was out of business, no longer able to provide for his nine children, he said.

Much of the construction sector and local manufacturing have been wiped out because Israel bars virtually all exports from Gaza and prevents imports of cement and steel for fear Hamas will divert them for building tunnels. Such tunnels are now a central target for Israeli forces, and in recent days Hamas militants have repeatedly tried to sneak into Israel through tunnels to carry out attacks.

The Rafah passenger crossing between Gaza and Egypt is closed more days than it is open, and only certain groups of people can travel, including medical patients and Gaza residents with foreign passports. Even for those, there's a waiting list of 15,000 people, according to Hamas border authorities.

Shaban said Gazans must be allowed to trade and travel. Otherwise, "Gaza will explode ... and these people will become more radical because they have nothing to lose," he said. "We should not allow Gaza to go there."

However, Egypt and Israel are unlikely to lift the closure because enabling Gaza to thrive will keep Hamas rooted there.

One plan would have forces loyal to Abbas stationed on the Gaza side of Rafah, but it's not clear if Hamas would be willing to give up control to such an extent. A power-sharing deal between Abbas and Hamas earlier this year quickly ran aground over unresolved disputes.

Qatar and Turkey have invested in Gaza, starting to build hospitals, roads and a housing complex for tens of millions of dollars, but projects have stalled over access problems.

In this quagmire, some in Gaza say they'd rather see the fighting continue than accept an unconditional cease-fire that would likely perpetuate the closure. Mohammed Hassouneh, a Gaza City barber, said he barely has clients because the closure left most of them broke.

"The war can continue another month or two, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "As long as our demands are met."


Associated Press writers Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.