When New York Times' Ethan Bronner came through the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip last week, he expected something completely different.
This was not his first visit to the Strip. During the past three and a half years, Bronner, who heads the newspaper's Jerusalem bureau, visited the Palestinian enclave on several occasions.
During Operation Cast Lead he stayed in Gaza for two weeks and his visits usually last more than a day, as the border crossing closes at 3 pm.
Like other journalists who do not carry Israeli passports – Bronner, who received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for a series of investigative reports about terrorist organization al-Qaeda – has no trouble getting into the Strip. The Erez Crossing is open six days a week and no one gave him a hard time.
"Even red sports cars can be seen roaming around the Strip."
With the spotlight diverted from Gaza in recent months, Bronner found himself traveling to other destinations. He spent a long time in Egypt and went to Bahrain to cover the uprisings in the Arab world.
When he arrived in Gaza this week, Bronner wrote, he was surprised to discover that on the eve of the second Gaza-bound aid flotilla – conditions in the Strip were much better than he had expected.
Shortage in four-wheel drive cars
The first thing that caught Bronner's attention were the "thousands of new cars plying the roads." Israel allows the import of a 20 cars a week, but according to the New York Times reporter, "That does not meet the need.
"Hundreds of BMWs, pickup trucks and other vehicles have arrived in recent months from Libya, driven through Egypt and sold via the unmonitored tunnels," he said.
Gaza resident Yossef Nazal noted that "even red sports cars can be seen roaming around the Strip, not to mention motorcycles, especially three-wheeled motorcycles, which have become the latest fashion."
It turns out that unlike three or four years ago, when people speak about shortage, they don’t mean herbs, but rather four-wheel vehicles – one of the few items Israel does not allow into the Strip.
But cars are not the only indicator that things are better than they used to be. In his article, Bronner noted that "two luxury hotels are opening in Gaza this month," one of which is owned by Palestinian billionaire Munib al Masri.
"A second shopping mall — with escalators imported from Israel — will open next month," he writes, adding that "Hundreds of homes and two dozen schools" are also scheduled to be built in the upcoming year, in addition to a three-story wedding hall.
Omar Ghraib, a blogger from Gaza, writes that in order to comprehend the change that has been taking place in the Strip, it's enough to look at the butcher stalls in the market.
Local Gazans can buy Egyptian poultry, which is smuggled through the tunnels, for $1 per kilo, but most of them fear diseases and therefore opt for Israeli chickens, which are sold for $1-$2 per kilo or the more prestigious home-grown poultry, which are sold for $2-$3 per kilo.
Only 250 trucks pass through the crossing due to one simple, yet surprising reason – there isn’t enough demand.
In his article, Bronner confirms that most consumer goods still originate in Israel, and that “the siege on goods is now 60% to 70% over.”
Some 350 trucks are allowed to pass through the Kerem Shalom Crossing, which has become the main transit hub for goods originating from Israel. However in practice, the number only reaches 250 because of one simple, yet surprising reason – there isn’t enough demand.
As part of the rise in living standards, Gaza merchants focus on importing more luxury goods such as tropical fish, bicycles, camping gear and plasma TVs, which come straight from Israel.
Once a week, some 70 Gaza traders travel to Israel to look for potential merchandise to import.
Even the export market, albeit still in small quantities, has boomed recently with strawberries, flowers, potatoes and cherry tomatoes being sold to Jordan and the Persian Gulf states. Gaza tradesmen now plan to resume exports of Furniture and textiles to the West Bank, as was done four years ago.
Despite the encouraging picture, Bronner notes that Israel still bans cement, steel and other construction material from entering the Strip "because they are worried that such supplies can be used by Hamas for bunkers and bombs.
"So in recent months, tunnels under the southern border that were used to bring in consumer goods have become almost fully devoted to smuggling in building materials," Bronner explains.
"Sacks of cement and piles of gravel, Turkish in origin and bought legally in Egypt, are smuggled through the hundreds of tunnels in double shifts, day and night, totaling some 3,000 tons a day. Since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian security authorities no longer stop the smugglers. Streets are being paved and buildings constructed," he notes.
"What we don’t get from Israel, we get through the tunnels, says Daud Harb, a merchant from the Strip, adding that the only thing currently missing in Gaza is freedom.
'Relative freedom if Hamas not provoked'
The Gazan summer is in full swing and the beaches, just like in Tel Aviv, are swarming with bathers. Families with children and hijab-clad women dip into the cool waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
On the warm evenings, people sit at coffee shops and internet cafes that are becoming abundant. One hand grasps the water-pipe while the other is typing status updates on Facebook. In the background, large screens are broadcasting live soccer matches from the English and Spanish Leagues.
The summer is also the official wedding season in Gaza, but young couples will have to wait another two weeks due to a ban imposed by Hamas, in order to prevent noise during high school matriculation exams.
For the same reason motorcyclists are not allowed to roam through the streets past 10 pm.
After all, Gaza 2011 is Hamas-ruled. The society has become more conservative, mosques have increased in number, Islamic education is fervently applied to daily life both formally and informally, and almost all media outlets have an Islamic nature.
"Sure, we have some crazy laws, like women can't drive motorcycles, sing provocative songs, giggle on the beach or smoke water pipes in public areas," says Ahmed Nazal, a resident of Rimal neighborhood, the Gazan equivalent of Ramat Aviv.
"But if you don’t provoke Hamas, you can live here pretty freely," he adds.
Bronner also notes that "Hamas’s control of Gaza appears firmer than ever, and the looser tunnel patrols in Egypt mean greater access to weapons as well. But opinion surveys show that its more secular rival, Fatah, is more popular."
This, the Jerusalem bureau chief notes, "may explain why an attempt at political unity with Fatah is moving slowly: Hamas leaders here are likely to lose their jobs."
Despite the improved image, Gaza is a far cry from being the Manhattan of the Middle East. While the economy did report a 15.2$ growth according to the International Monetary Fund, Ghraib notes that thousands of houses that were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead have yet to be rebuilt.
Frequent blackouts are also not an unusual phenomenon, some of them lasting between 6 and 8 hours daily.
Bronner finds it difficult to assess the condition of the 1.6 million people living in the Gaza Strip.
"There are issues of where to draw the baseline and — often — what motivates the discussion. It has never been among the world’s poorest places. There is near universal literacy and relatively low infant mortality, and health conditions remain better than across much of the developing world," he notes.
Either way, the low emigration rates from Gaza indicate that despite the hardships, the congestion and the feeling of living under a siege, the locals still love Gaza and are willing to struggle in order to stay there.
Roni Shaked and Daniel Bettini contributed to this report. This article originally appeared on Yediot Ahronot's English news site ynetnews.com