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Dozens of coffeeshops and tiny eateries have popped up along this stretch of Gaza's southern

Hamas has been establishing projects across the territory

Construction, agricultural projects chart Hamas's evolution from group to fully-fledged government.

By Adel Zaanoun - AL-MUHARARA, Gaza

coastline which was once a popular swimming beach for the Jewish settlers of Gush Katif.

Once upon a time, this beach and the surrounding area was totally off-limits to the 1.5 million Palestinians now living in Gaza -- and reserved exclusively for their Jewish neighbours.

Five years ago, all that changed when Israel completed its historic pullout of all 8,000 Jewish settlers who had been living in 21 settlements scattered across this tiny coastal enclave flanking the Mediterranean.

Now called Al-Muharara -- or "Liberation" -- this strip of beach used to be a popular haunt for swimmers from Neve Dekalim, the largest town in the Gush Katif settlement bloc which sprawled across much of southern Gaza.

When they left, most of them removed forcibly by the Israeli army, it opened up a vast area of territory to the Palestinians -- an area which is slowly being developed.

Much of the land on which the former settlement bloc stood is empty, an area where animals graze freely among newly-planted saplings; some is used for sewage, and other areas serve as a rubbish tip.

On part of the land stands a massive fish farm populated with around a million fish, many smuggled in through tunnels under the Gaza Strip's southern border with Egypt.

And other areas have been transformed into "secret" military training camps, for militant groups pally with the ruling Islamist movement Hamas, their activities shielded from public view by giant concrete walls.

When the settlers left, almost all of the homes and buildings were razed, leaving hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rubble strewn across the landscape.

Today, most of that is gone and the beginnings of two new cities are just starting to emerge: Asdaah city which is being built on 500 dunams (5,000 hectares) of land, and Namaa, which will cover 200 dunams.

Elsewhere, the Hamas government has started a number of agricultural projects in 12 of the former settlements.

In many ways, these projects chart Hamas's evolution since the withdrawal: evolving from a purely militant group which took credit for chasing out the Israelis to a fully-fledged government.

When the Israelis completed their pullout in September 2005, much was made of the huge potential for development on the land which was being handed back to the Palestinians after 38 years of Israeli occupation.

But six months later, following Hamas's shock win in a Palestinian general election, Western donors froze aid to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and security deteriorated as factional violence flared.

And development plans were further harmed when Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the Strip in June 2006 after Gaza militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier, in an embargo further tightened when Hamas seized power a year later.

Despite the obstacles, the Hamas-run government says it has ambitious plans to build tens of thousands of new housing units in the former settlements.

"On the fifth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal we are determined to establish a model city," government spokesman Taher al-Nunu said.

"We want to transform these liberated lands from a source of death and suffering into one of freedom and hope."

The government has set aside some 3,000 dunams (30,000 hectares) for the construction of four new "cities" in former settlements, housing minister Yussef al-Mani said.

"Before 2006, the housing deficit exceeded 63,000 units, and this has doubled since then because of the siege and the Israeli war on Gaza," he said, referring to a blistering offensive in December 2008-January 2009 to halt rocket attacks.

The government hopes to eventually sell some of the land in installments to low-income buyers, particularly lands near the tense border with Israel "in order to prevent the expansion of the occupation," Nunu said.

He insists that Hamas has made land available to several different organisations regardless of political affiliation, but human rights groups have complained about the lack of transparency in the land sector.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) is also building in the settlements, but until six months ago its operations were hamstrung by Israeli restrictions on importing vital construction materials.

"We want to build 2,000 homes for those who had their homes destroyed in the war and in Israeli operations prior to it," UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said.

"There are plans to build 100 schools, mostly on this land, as well as health facilities, but the obstacle has been the inability to bring in building materials," he said.

In March, Israel began allowing in building materials for UN projects and further eased its blockade during the international outcry that followed its deadly May 31 seizure of a Gaza-bound aid fleet.

Hamas has meanwhile been establishing projects across the territory by using materials smuggled in from Egypt through a vast network of underground tunnels taxed and regulated by the Islamist-run government.

The government hopes to use land from the former settlements -- which once took up 40 percent of the territory and much of its best farm land -- to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency and reduce its reliance on Israeli imports.

"In the middle of 2009 we launched a strategic plan, despite the blockade, so the government could make use of the liberated lands to achieve self-sufficiency," agriculture minister Mohammed al-Agha said.

The government is now growing water melon, cantaloupe, onion, potato, olives and different fruits on the settlement land and hopes to achieve complete food independence within 10 years.

"Last year we planted around 150,000 olive and fruit trees, and in the next five years we expect to reach 80 percent self-sufficiency in agricultural production," Agha said.

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