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Blockade can't divide some Israeli, Palestinian friends

Despite conflict, Israelis try to help Gazans to whom they have longstanding ties.

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2008

Helping Hand: Amir Efrat recently sent money to help an unemployed Palestinian friend in Gaza.

Josh Mitnick

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Kibbutz Kfar Azza, Israel

Their homes separated by a wheat field, barbed wire, and Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, it's been more than two years since Amir Efrat last saw the Gazan who helped him maintain the water systems in this collective.

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But he has talked to him by phone – and could hear the despair that lurked behind the small talk. And so, about a month ago, he instructed the kibbutz treasurer to wire 500 shekels ($135) to an account in Gaza to help his unemployed friend support a family of nine children.

His friend never requested help, but "I felt him ask," says the rumpled kibbutznik. "There's no work. It's difficult."

The impoverished Strip has grown ever more isolated since Hamas took charge last June. But that hasn't choked off personal ties between Israelis and Gazans who once worked together daily. Talking regularly by phone, they update each other about families and friends – and about the toll of the ongoing hostilities. Transcending the politics that divide them, they reach out as best they can as individuals – the Gazans inquiring whether anyone has been hurt by the Qassam missiles fired by Palestinian militants and the Israelis asking about their troop movements inside Gaza.

Though the Israelis avoid politics, the cross-border friendships leave them conflicted about bringing relentless pressure to bear on Gaza's population of 1.5 million to stop the rockets that are fired toward cities and towns around Gaza. While only six rockets have landed on the kibbutz, hundreds have hit Sderot, just a five-minute drive to the north.

"The power outages are just, but it still breaks your heart," says Mr. Efrat, who points out the kibbutz's children's house, reinforced against the rockets that have fallen on Kfar Azza. "I don't think [Gazans] need to suffer so much. It definitely plays into the hands of Hamas."

Egyptian police moved Thursday to control the tens of thousands of Palestinians who streamed into the border town of Rafah a day earlier after militants blew up a border fence.

Meanwhile, Israel's Deputy Defense Minister said that with the Gaza-Egypt border breached, supplies of water, electricity, and food should come from Cairo.

"We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side, we lose responsibility for it," said Defense Minister Matan Vilnai.

For years before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israel and the Gaza Strip were joined at the hip. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans worked inside Israel by day and brought home salaries that were the mainstay of the coastal strip's economy. Kibbutz Kfar Azza – whose name is Hebrew for Gaza Village – used to employ more than a dozen Palestinians from Gaza.