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Palestinian farmers working in a former settlers’ greenhouse in November, 2005. Border crossing disputes meant much of the harvest was lost (photo: Abid Katib/Getty Images)

In August 2005, the Palestinian businessman Dr Bassil Jabir was watching the events unfolding in the Gaza Strip with a mixed sense of trepidation and excitement. On the flickering TV screen, Israeli soldiers were carrying out Israeli settlers and placing them on buses which would take them out of the narrow coastal enclave, never to return.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza after a 38-year occupation presented new opportunities for the Palestinians. As CEO of the Palestine Economic Development Company (PED), Jabir had a daunting task before him, yet one which could produce the crowning achievement of his career so far. He would spearhead the first major economic project in Gaza that could turn round the fortunes of his people. The project carried great risks but also immeasurable rewards, perhaps even for the future of the Palestinian state as a whole.

Until August 2005, close to 8,000 Israeli Jewish settlers lived in the Gaza Strip. Occupying approximately 30 per cent of the land, they were guarded by thousands of Israeli soldiers, who imposed restrictions on the movements of the approximately 1.5 million Palestinian residents.

Ask former Israeli settlers about life in Gaza at the time, and many will wax lyrical about the “paradise on earth” — the endless sandy beaches, the bountiful farms, the sense of community with others who had decided to establish a home on territory conquered from Egypt during the 1967 Six Day War.

Ask a Palestinian the same question and you will get the distinct impression that you are talking about two separate continents, not the same meagre strip of land measuring 45 kilometres in length and just five kilometres in width at its narrowest point.

Five years before David Cameron and others called the coastal enclave a “prison camp”, many Israeli NGOs had already been using the term to describe life in Gaza. Since 1967, Israel exercised a military occupation, controlling its airspace and territorial waters. This was relaxed after the Oslo Accords, but following the Palestinian suicide bombings, rocket attacks and angry protests of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, Israel reimposed restrictive measures that took a heavy toll on the lives of the Palestinians: strict entry and exit regulations, and control of airspace and naval borders. Egypt controlled Gaza’s southern entry crossing. Gazan militants continued fighting, firing more than 500 rockets and 3,000 mortar shells into southern Israel between 2000 and 2005; 124 Israelis and hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza were killed, with many more injured. Palestinian trade was curtailed and unemployment rates soared sky-high as people struggled to make ends meet. Poverty rates in Gaza had risen by more than 40 per cent in just five years, the Israeli NGO B’tselem reported.

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