GAZA CITY - If you want to get a sense of how much has changed during the past year in the lives of ordinary people living the Gaza Strip, look no further than chicken.

Shoppers have their choice of bird. At the bottom of the heap are frozen Egyptian chickens, which are smuggled through tunnels under the border and sell for about a dollar a kilogram (2.2 pounds). Even at that price, they aren’t popular due to concerns about disease. In middle range are frozen Israeli birds, ranging in price from one to two dollars per kilo. And at the top, stands fresh chicken grown and slaughtered in Gaza at a cost of two to three dollars.

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The pecking order for chicken has been upset recently after a virus carried in from Egypt infected local flocks. For now, that has made the Israeli chickens the preference for consumers. That’s why Suha Al-Mashrugi, a mother of four, trekked 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Rafah to Gaza City to do her shopping.

“I came all this distance to buy Israeli frozen chicken,” she told The Media Line. “The Egyptian chicken sold in Rafah is sick and now the Palestinian fresh local chicken has gotten sick, too, so the Israeli chicken is the best in the market now and the price is good.”

What sounds like a small tale of consumer woe bespeaks the huge changes that have come over this Mediterranean seaside enclave in the year since an Israeli commando raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara trying to break Israel’s blockade left nine dead. The incident strained Israeli-Turkish relations close to the breaking point and earned Israel international condemnation.

The organizers of last year’s flotilla, including the Turkish Islamist Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) whose ship was the scene of clashes with the commandos, are planning another one later this month. Dubbed the “Freedom Flotilla 2,” organizers say they hope to dispatch at least 10 boats carrying more than 1,000 activists. They will be bringing what they say are vitally needed medicines, construction materials and school supplies.

Yet for ordinary Gazans, most of these items are not in chronic shortage.

The blockade is still technically in force, but Israel now permits almost all goods into Gaza except items it fears could be used to stage attacks. On the Egyptian border, controls over people going into and out of Gaza have been eased as well, most recently at the end of May. Gaza’s economy expanded 15.2% last year as freer access enabled economic activity to revive, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Where the network of tunnels burrowed under the Gaza-Egypt border was once the primary source for most consumer goods - mostly made-in-Egypt wares - they now face competition from Israeli products. According to Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the number of trucks delivering goods to the Gaza Strip has increased  from a daily average of 120 in April 2010 to 237 in March 2011.

Gazans say that goods smuggled-in from Egyptian are now an option rather than a necessity and serve to fill gaps when Israeli goods don’t get through or are in short supply. Israel is also letting new cars enter occasionally, which has put tunnel suppliers pretty much out of business. Gazans say they turn to Israeli goods because there is a wider variety and better quality. 

“In Gaza, you’ll find the basics most the time and a huge variety of goods usually,” says Abu Wael Bseiso, age 43.

Days before the aid flotilla is scheduled to arrive offshore Gaza, the biggest shopping mall to be developed in Palestinian-ruled areas is scheduled to open. The three-story, 3,000 square-meter facility is located near the Haidar Abdel Shafi Square west of Gaza City and is the second shopping mall to open in the Gaza Strip within a year.

Gaza is still far from a consumer paradise. It still suffers from shortages in fuel that force power providers to impose brownouts for as long as six to eight hours daily and puts a crimp in the supply of water, which can’t be pumped through pipes.

Kan’an Obeid, chief of Gaza’s Power Authority, told The Media Line that he expects the power shortages to be reduced considerably after repairs are made to the third generator of the enclave’s sole power plant and reduce brown-outs to no more than two hours a day. That will also help ease of the water crisis. Further down the line, Obeid says he is looking forward to  a plan to link the Gazan and Egyptian electricity grids.

“We are now working on a plan with the Egyptians that we hope will be an end to Gaza’s power crisis,” he says.

Most medicines are available, but there are shortages of drugs for deadly chronic diseases like cancer and not enough medical equipment. But officials blame the shortage of some medicines and medical supplies are on the failure of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by Hamas’ rival, the Fatah movement, for failing to send supplies in a timely and consistent manner.

Building supplies are also limited. Concerned that Hamas, the Islamic movement that has controlled Gaza since 2007, will use concrete and other materials to build military installations, Israel only permits construction materials designated for use by international organizations to enter Gaza and that provides only a fraction of the enclave’s needs. Gisha, an Israeli organization that monitors access to Gaza, estimates that since last January, construction-related deliveries have been equal to about 7% of what entered before the blockade.

The economic growth that Gaza enjoyed last year and continues to see in 2011 represents catching up from years of declining output. GDP plunged 30% between 2006 and 2009 and incomes are still a fifth lower than they were in 2005, according to the IMF. The unemployment rate is 30.8% and the poverty rate is 38%, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Gaza looks more prosperous than it is because more than 70% of the population currently receives humanitarian aid, according to Gisha. Business has been slow to revive because Israel continues to restrict exports from Gaza. A complete ban was lifted last April, but shipments remain severely restricted.

David Rosenberg contributed to this report.

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