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Daily Archives: September 2, 2008

Israeli blockade makes for gloomy Ramadan in Gaza


by Sakher Abu El Oun*

As most of the rest of the Islamic world welcomes Ramadan with festive treats and family get-togethers, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip wearily brace for another holiday under a crippling blockade.
Israel has sealed off the impoverished territory from all but basic goods since the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June 2007, and it is during the holidays that weary residents say they feel the sanctions the most.
"Honestly, I don't even feel like we welcome Ramadan, because year after year things go from bad to worse, with life becoming harder and more expensive," says Dina, a university student shopping in a Gaza City market.
The Muslim holy month during which the faithful fast from sunup to sundown is normally a festive time of lavish nightly feasts, holiday treats, and family reunions — all of which have become harder for most Gazans to afford.
The Israeli sanctions on Gaza after the bloody Hamas takeover coupled with the rise in world prices have resulted in widespread shortages and sent food and fuel costs soaring.
"Ramadan this year is like any other month, because you don't see any of the things that make it special," says Mohammed Abu Sultan, a father of four shopping for decorative Ramadan lanterns.
"Every year I buy my children lanterns but I was shocked this year because the price has almost doubled," he said, adding that his family is cutting back on holiday treats and even limiting their cooking to conserve fuel.
Others are resorting to more creative alternatives.
"My father went to get me a lantern in the market but did not find one this Ramadan," says Ahmed, a nine-year-old boy. "I'm going to have to make one out of a cardboard box and put a candle in it."
Israel has kept the sanctions in place despite a two-month-old truce with Palestinian militants which has mostly halted rocket fire on southern Israel in a bid to keep pressure on Hamas, which the West considers a terrorist group.
The blockade, along with rising world food and fuel prices, has forced Gaza families who muddled through past Ramadans to cut more corners, even limiting family visits because of the cost of fuel and public transportation.
"People who would normally buy ten packages of Qamreddin (a sticky apricot-flavoured treat) will not buy a single package this year," says Majid al-Safdi, a local merchant.
"The economic situation for people in Gaza has gone from bad to worse. Israel is treating us in a shameful way because it only allows us to import a small amount of those things that are special to Ramadan," he says.
Israel has raised the number of trucks carrying food and basic goods it allows into Gaza over the past month to over 180 trucks a day, both because of Ramadan and the start of the new school year.
"The amount of cattle that have been going in have been increasing over the past week, and we also have been facilitating the delivery of sweets and candies," Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said.
The shortages remain however, and consumers say profiteers have taken advantage of the situation, smuggling goods in through a vast network of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt and selling them at exorbitant prices.
"Some of these traders did not have anything until very recently," Dina, the university student says. "Now you find all kinds of things but the prices are unimaginable. It's harvest time for these people, and we are the victims."
Mahmud Aud, another merchant, says there has been an "insane" rise in the price of basic goods both because of the world economy and the closures.
As an example he cites coconuts, which sold for less than two dollars a kilogram last year but are now around six dollars.
Even small price increases can have a dramatic effect on Gaza, where over 60 percent of the territory's 1.5 million residents live in poverty and a majority rely on international food aid, according to the United Nations.
The Israeli closures have also decimated Gaza's private sector, forcing the vast majority of its factories to shut down or drastically scale back operations and paralysing the local construction industry.
But they seem to have had little impact on their intended target, Hamas, which more than a year into the siege remains Gaza's unchallenged rulers.


Mexican president seeks help from public to beat crime

President Felipe Calderon on Sunday called on all Mexicans to help fight escalating crime, a day after tens of thousands protested against insecurity and impunity across the country.
Violence has spiked across Mexico since Calderon, who took office at the end of 2006, launched a crackdown on drug trafficking and related attacks, including the deployment of more than 36,000 soldiers nationwide.
As Calderon met with protest leaders, police in the southern state of Guerrero reported the discovery of the head of a 50-year-old man in an ice cooler, making a total of 19 headless bodies found since Thursday across the country, and adding to a total of almost 3,000 murders this year.
Angry citizens across the country's 32 states took part in Saturday's "Iluminemos Mexico" or "Let's Illuminate Mexico" protests, dressed in white and carrying candles, to show a united front against against violence.
Some 200,000 protested in Mexico City, police said, while more than 84,000 demonstrated in other towns and cities, according to La Jornada daily.
Calderon said Sunday that the protests "start a new period marked by the great force and energy with which we can face criminality," and called on citizens to help official crime-fighting efforts.
The Mexican leader called for the creation of citizens' committees to denounce violence in all Mexican states and large municipalities, in an address to journalists at his Los Pinos residence.
The groups would "serve to denounce (crimes) and promote a culture of participation and denunciations," Calderon said, after meeting protest organisers from businesses and citizens groups.
Calderon said that most of the proposals they had delivered to him were already included in some 80 promises made at a national security summit 10 days ago.
Those included a purge of corrupt police, and the creation of a national citizen's observatory.
He also admitted authorities had been guilty of "incompetence or outright corruption."
"We are very satisfied with the result of this meeting. We believe it's an important step," said Alberto Nunez, president of one of the citizen groups, Society in Movement.
The organisers later met with the left-wing mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, who promised to provide them with comprehensive information about security forces in the capital, they said.
Mexico has now overtaken Colombia and Iraq with its kidnapping record, a rights group said recently, and most kidnappings are reported in Mexico City, with police or ex-police frequently accused of involvement.
One rights group reported 400 kidnappings so far this year in Mexico, compared with 438 for the whole of last year.
Many believe that two or three more kidnappings occur for each case reported.
The recent kidnapping and assassination of a Mexico City teenager from a wealthy family, in which police were involved, was the trigger for Saturday's protests.
Organisers the demos had hoped to emulate similar mass marches in 1997 and 2004 which forced the government to carry out purges of the notoriously corrupt police and other reforms, provoking short-term improvements.