GAZA // If pro-Palestinian activists unexpectedly manage to slip past Israel's naval blockade on the Gaza Strip in the coming days, they might be surprised by what they see in the Hamas-controlled enclave when they disembark.
Roads are being paved, houses are being built, new cars have taken to the busy streets and shops are full of products. Even the longtime scourge of unemployment is easing marginally, boosting living standards for a lucky few.
Construction worker Karem Hassoun said: "I have been without work since 2007. Now I can pick and choose. Life has finally smiled on me and my seven children."
But look beyond the building sites and the handfuls of luxury vehicles and the grim reality of everyday life in Gaza is evident, with more than 70 per cent of people still below the poverty line after years of isolation, conflict and deprivation.
For the second consecutive year, international activists are assembling in the Mediterranean on a motley assortment of boats and plan to challenge Israel's maritime closure of the coastal enclave, which they say is illegal and inhumane.
Omar Shaban, a Palestinian economist, said: "Gaza is essentially a prison, and while the conditions have improved, it remains a prison. Therefore, people's hopes for a better future are crushed by reality and will remain on hold until the prison walls fall."
Nearly 6,000 tonnes of food, fuel and other supplies are transferred into the Gaza Strip every day via Israel. But among the items it routinely refuses to let in are cement and steel, both of which are needed to help rebuild from Israel's offensive against Hamas and its rocket teams in the winter of 2008-09.
Israel says such materials, unless for specific foreign-sponsored projects, could be used to make bunkers and weapons.
The Hamas economy minister, Ala Al Rafati, estimates that up to 14,000 workers had returned to their jobs in the construction sector in recent months, and up to 1,000 factories, most of them small-scale family firms, had resumed operation.
Mr Al Rafati thought the unemployment rate had fallen to around 25 per cent, while the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees put the figure at 45.2 per cent.
"We are not saying the siege is over, but it has failed to achieve its result. The situation in Gaza is that people are refusing to acknowledge the blockade and are challenging it with the few means at their disposal," Mr Al Rafati said.
Mahmoud Daher, the Gaza office director of the World Health Organisation, said shortages of medicine and medical equipment were at an "unprecedented" level, forcing the cancellation of some operations and evacuation of patients.
However, this problem cannot be blamed directly on Israel.
Mr Daher said the two main reasons were a failure by the Palestinian authorities to pay suppliers on time and a lack of cooperation between health authorities in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas and Fatah announced a surprise reconciliation pact two months ago. Since then, attempts to enact the accord have foundered, to the disappointment of residents who want Palestinian unity.
Ali Mohammed, 46, a telephone technician and father of four, said: "Man does not live by bread alone. Hope is more important and we have no faith in the future because of continued divisions among our leader.
"Because of our leaders' unwillingness to unite, our big dream of having our own state is on hold and the most we can hope for is easier access to the crossings."