First of five parts
The Gaza Strip is one of the most isolated places in the Middle East.
Ruled by the militant Islamists of Hamas, the coastal enclave is home to almost 2 million Palestinians, most of whom are unable to leave. Both Egypt and Israel -- Gaza's neighbors -- restrict travel and trade with Gaza.
Recently, Israel has partially eased its economic blockade, which Palestinians call "the siege of Gaza." But 18 months since Israel's war in Gaza -- which devastated the local economy -- there has been limited reconstruction.
The corner shop run by Gaza merchant Anwar Abu al-Qays is bulging with Israeli goods not seen on the shelves here for three years. Items are stacked up to the roof, some precariously, like miniature Towers of Pisa made of packages covered with Hebrew script.
Qays says the goods coming from Israel -- chocolate, diet soft drinks, diapers -- are cheap and good quality. "Before, we only got very limited things from Israel. Now, in terms of foodstuffs and household goods, everything is coming in," he says.
But the siege of Gaza by Israel is far from over, he adds.
"Laborers are our main customers, and no one has work or money. So however much I'm selling, it's still not as much as if people had jobs here," he says.
Like A Crumbling, Densely Packed Ship
Just a 45-minute drive from the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, with its skyscrapers and resorts, Gaza is a ramshackle collection of villages and cities embraced by the sea like a toothless smile.
It is only 25 miles long, about 7 miles wide, and extremely crowded.
Everywhere in Gaza there is the constant hum of life -- the rattle of donkey-drawn carts, the roar of motorcycles, the shouts of children playing in the streets. The territory feels like a crumbling, densely packed ship that is slowly sinking under the weight of debris.
Eighteen months after Israel's last major military incursion into Gaza, everything seems cracked or badly pasted back together. Even the few new buildings that have sprung up only serve to make the general air of decay more palpable.
Most Gazans are refugees or their descendants -- Palestinians who were made homeless by the 1948 or 1967 wars. Poverty, isolation, unemployment, lack of services and electricity make their lives almost unbearable.
But there are signs of a new economic heartbeat, albeit a fragile one.
At a cavernous factory, workers package cookies on an assembly line. Although the factory had been practically shuttered, owner Iyad Telbani now has actually hired more people. "During the siege, it was about 150 employees, and they were only working a few shifts a month. Now there are 250 workers," Telbani says.
He says he needs to be able to sell his goods outside Gaza.
"The fact is that the situation in Gaza won't improve unless they allow factories to export. I used to export 60 percent of my products to the West Bank," he says.
The Blockade And Its Easing
But trade with the West Bank, home to about 2.5 million Palestinians, is cut off, and more than ever Gazans remain dependent on Israeli largess.
Israel began curtailing trade and travel in Gaza after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel and many Western nations consider Hamas a terrorist organization. In the summer of 2006, after Hamas militants kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit -- who remains in captivity -- the blockade became more restrictive.
A year later, Hamas seized control of Gaza, expelling members of the rival Fatah movement.
Since then, for three years, Israel has allowed only the most basic humanitarian aid into Gaza. Egypt, a longtime ally of Fatah, also restricted travel and trade.
But this summer, Israel came under heavy international pressure to ease the blockade after an Israeli military raid on a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.
"Action like a flotilla certainly is trying to put Israel in a no-win situation," says Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister. Ayalon says Israel has to keep weapons and items that could be used for military fortifications out of Gaza, which is why it retains such tight restrictions on the land and sea borders.
But he says in an interview with NPR that the punishing three-year ban on most foodstuffs and other commodities was a mistake. "Denying different items or products into Gaza was not effective, hence now we have changed the policy altogether," he says.
In response to a question, Ayalon says the flotilla "expedited" the decision to ease the blockage but that he believes "the decision would have come up anyway."
Rebuilding Still Impossible
The opening up of the crossings between Israel and Gaza also has had some unanticipated consequences.
There are believed to be hundreds of smuggling tunnels crisscrossing the border between Gaza and Egypt. Now, some 60 percent have shut down.
Tunnel owner Abu Jihad says that in the past, everything would come through the tunnels: cars, animals and food. "Now we bring in cement, paint, flooring material -- things to build with," he says.
That's because Israel won't allow building materials, for which there is a dire need, into Gaza.
The Israeli military destroyed thousands of buildings in Gaza in the offensive that began in late in 2008 -- a response to Palestinian rocket fire on nearby Israeli communities.
Many Gazans, such as the Abed Rabbo family, are still living amid the ruins.
Soad Abed Rabbo is the matriarch of the extended clan. Dressed in black, she sits impassively in a plastic chair outside in the shade to stay cool.
The fighting leveled her house, and only the floor remained. Now, she and her family occupy what's left; shelter and privacy come from a tent strung up over the house's foundation.
She says the fact that Israeli goods are coming into Gaza is irrelevant to her. "What they have brought into Gaza is luxury items. I can't afford that. Ice cream? Chocolate? I don't need that," she says.
What she needs, she says, is building materials so that she can have a proper home again.
'I Want To Be Free'
Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based economist, is consistently one of the more moderate voices in the territory. He has worked in Israel and the U.S. and has a measured take on the conflict.
But this summer he says he finally has decided he wants to leave Gaza for good and take his children somewhere else. Banging his hand on the table, he says that despite the array of new foodstuffs on the shelves in Gaza, the Israeli siege continues.
"Why you deal with us like animals? I'm in a prison, regardless of the quality of food you provide for me, whether Movenpick or Sheraton food," Shaban says.
"I don't want Sheraton food," he says. "I want to be free."