Located in the northern Gaza Strip, the village of al-Syafa had been caught between the Israeli settlements of Eli Senai to the north and Dogeet from the south.

In the years since the 2000 intifada, the village was under virtual lockdown by a series of Israeli security restrictions.

A security fence surrounded the village while residents were counted and numbered and issued magnetic identification cards for entry and exit from the area.

Vehicles were not allowed into the village and those seeking transportation to work or school beyond the perimeter fence were forced to walk 3km and then take taxis to their destinations.

Resident Reyad Saleh Saber al-Ghool, 52, who recently returned to the village, recounted to Aljazeera.net how food and medicine deliveries were allowed only during pre-assigned hours on Mondays and Thursdays.

"But the humiliating thing is that they didn't allow the passage of food until it was brought before a sniffer dog," he said.

When the villagers later protested, Israeli forces replaced the dogs with electronic devices to check for weapons and explosives.

Isolation

Al-Syafa was annexed by the Israeli Interior Ministry in 1967 after it was separated from the Bait Lahya council.

Reyad al-Ghool said medicine and
food deliveries were restricted

In 1980, Israeli settlers established Eli Senai to the north of the village followed by Dogeet to the south in 1990.

According to a June 2003 report released by the United Nations General Assembly Economic and Social Council, Israeli security conditions completely isolated the village.

"Hundreds of families have been displaced as a result, and such population transfer appears to be the objective of military operations, extinguishing all aspects of normal life for Palestinians living near Israeli settlements," the report said.

Agricultural lands destroyed

Village leader Mosa al-Ghool said the agricultural worth of the village was greatly reduced under Israeli occupation.

Palestinian sources said the village had been producing about 800 tonnes of fruit, including guava and apricots.

By the summer of 2005, the village was able to export only 200 to 260 tonnes.

"Hundreds of [Palestinian] families have been displaced as a result, and such population transfer appears to be the objective of military operations, extinguishing all aspects of normal life for Palestinians living near Israeli settlements"

United Nations Economic and Social Council June 2003 report on Israeli security conditions

"The village was comprised of 3980 arable donums (400 hectares) and at the end of September 2005, the remains were only 250 arable donums (25 hectares). Most of those agricultural lands were destroyed by Israeli bulldozers," al-Ghool said.

In July 2003, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, said: "Palestinian farmers are restricted in transporting produce out of the area and in bringing in materials to maintain and repair equipment.

"Farmers whose agricultural lands were razed are not permitted to re-cultivate their lands."

Rebuilding

But al-Syafa today is a far cry from the village once cut off from the rest of Palestine and the world.

Walking down its unpaved roads, one sees harrows and workers toiling in the hopes of rehabilitating their farmland.

Vast areas of arable land have now been supplied with recently established irrigation systems, planted with different kinds of crops. 

Villager Al-Haj Mohamed Maaroof,
with the fruits of his labour

In the centre of the village, a mosque is being built now that the residents have been able to transport construction material once prohibited by Israeli forces.

Shops and new homes are also being constructed.

The hustle and bustle has revitalised the once dead village. Now that access to and from the village is unrestricted and roads are being paved, relatives exchange visits and marriage festivals are planned.

"I had not visited my relative for four years," said Mohamed Maaroof, 60. "But now I visit them whenever I want."

For Yasser Zendah, 55, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza is a bittersweet victory.

He described how he had to transport his daughter - a bride - to her marriage ceremony by donkey cart because no cars were allowed in the village.

"It felt like a funeral, not a wedding," he said.

Aid shortcomings

Although al-Syafa villagers are excited about the prospects for their village, financial aid from the Palestinian Authority (PA) is lacking and may hinder their development plans for the area.

"I had not visited my relative for four years. But now I visit them whenever I want"

Mohamed Maaroof,
al-Syafa resident

Talal Okal, a PA official and member of the committee assigned to oversee the development of lands vacated by the Israeli settlers, said the village is low on its list of priorities.

Palestine Legislative Council member Kamal Ishrafi explained "The reason for the delay is that we are awaiting funds from donor countries".

But Sohad Saqallah, a press officer of B'tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Palestinian occupied territories, called on the PA and the international community to speed up assistance to al-Syafa.

No compensation

But even if funds are made available and residents get to rebuild, no compensation seems likely for their years of deprivation.

Director of legal affairs at B'tselem, Iyad Alami, said he represented the people of al-Syafa in filing complaints and petitions against land razing, but the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against them.

Residents like Maaroof, who is 60, 
see a new hope for their village

In July 2002, the Israeli Knesset passed a law curbing compensation to Palestinians for damages incurred during the first intifada (1987-1993).

The law broadened the definition of war operations to also include those against terrorism, hostile activity, and uprisings, exempting the state from paying damages incurred during such military campaigns.

This psychological and financial setback may not have sunk in yet for the residents of the village.

Many families have just been enjoying little things - such as access to the sea - which they had been deprived off for so long through blockades and closures.

And compensation or not, funding from the PA or not, the families of al-Syafa say they will continue to rebuild and plant.

Pictures by Wisam Nassar