Gaza gloom darkens West Bank springtime

BARDALA, West Bank, Feb 26 (Reuters) - This Palestinian village is about as far as you can get from the Gaza Strip without leaving the West Bank and crossing the river into Jordan -- which is forbidden.

But the fallout from Israel's January blitz on the enclave is widespread. Along with the prospect of a hardline Israeli government that may order further action, it has all but drowned hopes of a peace deal to end four decades of occupation.

Unlike Gaza, Palestinians here have not been bombed. They endure smaller prohibitions and injustices which, they say, remind them daily that they are not free in their own land.

"We used to wade across that river when we were kids to see our relatives," recalls Abdel Raoof Younis. Now we can't go to Jordan or cross into Israel either, and it's just up the road."

Spring has come early to this fertile part of the world.

But it is impossible to escape the hallmarks of occupation for long. Fenced and guarded settlements, mandatory detours, checkpoints, and military bases are constant reminders on the road through the hills northeast of Ramallah.

Restrictions on the movement of Palestinians were supposed to be eased as part of internationally-backed "peace process" agreements. Israeli settlement, considered an obstacle to peace, was to be frozen ahead of a land-for-peace swap.

But it has not happened.

"Israeli restrictions on movement and access were tightened compared to 2007, based on security concerns, and settlements have expanded," according to the latest International Monetary Fund report on the Palestinian economy on Thursday.


The issue was likely to figure in talks with U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who arrived in Israel on Thursday to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to revive the moribund peace talks.

But older Palestinians, whose hopes of enjoying a few years peace and prosperity have been dashed, are growing cynical.

More than 15 years of a so-called peace process had "brought nothing but stalling and failure", Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said on Thursday.

Younis glances briefly upwards as $175 million worth of military hardware roars over the village, drowning out the bleating of the goats and the braying of the donkey.

Four Israeli F-16 warplanes have taken off, likely headed for Gaza where Israel bombs targets almost daily in retaliation for crude rockets fired by the Islamist militants of Hamas.

Five weeks after Israeli forces killed some 1,300 Gazans in a 3-week offensive to teach Hamas a lesson, the rockets and mortar rounds are still coming in, not near as many as before and none lethal, but enough to display Hamas's defiance.

Israel says more than 100 have been fired since the Jan. 18 unofficial ceasefire. On Thursday, one damaged a house in the Israeli town of Sderot, now synonymous with such attacks.

"The rockets don't do much, it's true. But what can you do when someone takes your country? You can't just give in. You have to show fight, to resist them," says 65-year-old Younis.

Plans to rebuild an estimated 5,000 flattened or damaged homes in the Gaza Strip will advance at a donors' conference next week where Fayyad hopes to raise $1.3 billion for rebuilding projects.

But there is no guarantee that reconstruction will commence before another round of destruction to stop Hamas rockets.

Fayyad noted that many projects built with previous donors' funds had been destroyed in January's attacks. Donors must guarantee "that we will not go through this all over again".

With negotiations on a longer-term truce blocked and Israel headed for a right-wing coalition under Benjamin Netanyahu -- who says the Gaza operation did not go far enough -- there is every chance that violence may again intensify. (Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Joseph Nasr, Editing by Dominic Evans)) (For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to