Tue, Dec 09, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Israeli blockade makes for bleak holiday in Gaza Strip

AP , RAFAH, GAZA STRIP

Salah Afana’s cattle business usually booms with the approach of the Muslim feast of the sacrifice. But this year he’s hit a snag: He’s out of cows.

Afana, Gaza’s largest cattle trader, has been unable to import cows since Israel shut the strip’s borders last month in response to Palestinian rocket fire. He has since sold all his stock — less than half of what he sold last year — and is turning customers away.

The Gaza-wide shortage of cows and sheep for slaughter is one of many disappointments Gazans face before Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday in the Muslim calendar.

The four-day holiday, which began yesterday, is supposed to be one of the year’s most joyful, but nothing is as it should be, Gazans say.

An Israeli blockade on the ruling Hamas government has caused shortages of basic goods and Palestinian political squabbling has kept thousands of would-be pilgrims from traveling to Mecca.

On top of that, their banks have run out of currency, depriving thousands of civil servants of salaries.

It’s a sharp contrast to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, which after several bleak years is finally getting a Christmas season to cheer about. Hotels are booked solid, Manger Square outside Christ’s traditional birthplace is already bustling with tourists, and Palestinian and Israeli security forces are working together to keep the peace.

“We’re under siege, the pilgrims can’t get out, and there’s no money. How can we celebrate the holiday?” said Mahmoud Khozendar, a Gaza doctor.

Eid al-Adha commemorates the readiness of Abraham — Ibrahim to Muslims — to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God, who stays his hand and provides a lamb instead. Muslims traditionally slaughter an animal on the holiday to commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice. The meat is split between the needy and family members.

Gaza has about 10,000 sheep, half of the number needed for the holiday, said Ibrahim al-Kidra of the Agriculture Ministry. The price of a sheep has nearly tripled, to about US$550, and there’s little money available to buy them. For those lucky enough to find a cow, prices have jumped by a third, to about US$2,000 each.

Palestinians gathered outside the Bank of Palestine in central Gaza City on Wednesday, which was supposed to be pay day, hoping to collect at least part of their salaries to cover holiday spending.

“We’re supposed to celebrate, slaughter animals and go out and visit relatives,” said Mohammed al-Lissi, 30, who tried to withdraw money. “But if we can’t get our salaries, we’ll just sit at home.”

In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, Jihad al-Wazir of the Palestinian Monetary Authority begged Israel to allow his agency to send money to Gaza. He said Gaza’s banks hold 47 million shekels (US$12 million) — less than one-fifth of what is needed to pay the public servants.

Israeli officials say the request is being considered. Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror blamed Hamas, saying cash shipments could quickly resume if the near-daily rocket and mortar attacks on Israel stopped.

Adding to Gazans’ frustrations, Palestinian factional rivalry has prevented thousands of them from traveling to Mecca for the holy hajj pilgrimage, a traditional high point of Muslim life.

Saudi Arabia granted visas only to Gazans approved by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, which rules from the West Bank, and rejected Hamas’ list. So Hamas retaliated by refusing to let any Gazans make the pilgrimage.

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