GAZA, Sep 14 (Reuters) Mahmoud al-Helo's pickles are usually a big hit with Gazans during the Muslim holy month of Ramzan. This year few can afford them.
The Gaza Strip's main market, where al-Helo and other merchants ply their trade, lacked the bustle this week that usually marks the start of Ramzan, when Muslims fast during the day but feast on huge family meals and edible treats after dark.
''People are coming to watch not to buy,'' said al-Helo. ''The same time most years you would see dozens of people crowding to buy from me, today as you see -- no one.'' Gaza, home for 1.5 million people, has long been facing economic hardship because of high unemployment, Israel's closure of its borders to stop militant attacks and a Western embargo imposed since Hamas Islamists took over power last year.
But three months after Hamas Islamists seized control of the impoverished coastal enclave, Gazans are feeling the pinch even more.
Gaza's main border crossings are closed, limiting the flow of goods and causing widespread shortages of everything except basic foodstuffs.
Gazans rely increasingly on UN food handouts, businesses have ground to a halt and the local economy is in meltdown.
Western governments have resumed aid to the occupied West Bank, dominated by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction. But they refuse to deal with Hamas in Gaza.
''These are the most difficult conditions we have seen in years,'' said Mohammad Daloul, who sells lanterns which children traditionally light during Ramzan after they break the fast at sunset. Daloul is selling last year's lanterns since the blockade stopped him importing new ones from Egypt and China.
BUSINESS BRIGHT IN WEST BANK While Muslims in Gaza forego Ramzan treats like almonds and pine nuts, their compatriots in Ramallah, the economic hub in the West Bank, are preparing for a feast.
Hamas routed Fatah forces in Gaza during fighting in June.
Abbas responded by sacking the Hamas-led government and appointing a new cabinet that rules from the West Bank. Western funds are flowing again, but only to the West Bank, and Abbas's cabinet is paying salaries to all but Hamas.
''Business is very good as you can see. People have money these days,'' said Abu Ahmad, whose shop in downtown Ramallah sells rice, dried fruit and other products popular during Ramzan. ''Why didn't you visit me when salaries were not paid? We could have talked even longer.'' any Fatah leaders fled Gaza after Hamas took control but supporters of the secular faction in the coastal strip appear to be regrouping and have used prayers gatherings to protest against their Islamist rivals.
Bitter rivalry between the two factions has soured this year's Ramzan celebrations, splitting many families along political lines.
''No one likes his brother anymore,'' said 55-year-old Abu al-Abed as he perused stalls in the Gaza market and railed against price increases caused by shortages. ''There is no money and the political and social situation is bad.'' Stall holders in the market bickered over who was to blame for the freeze on exports and imports.
''The situation was always bad,'' one stall owner cried to one of his complaining colleagues.
Some Gazans blame Abbas, accusing him of being behind the blockade to try to turn Palestinians against Hamas. Abbas says he opposes border closures.
''There is a kind of social crack (in Gaza),'' said political analyst Hani Habib.
In the West Bank, preparations are underway for a major US-sponsored peace conference expected to be held in November in the Washington area.
Abbas wants the meeting to produce an agreement that will lead to creation of a Palestinian state.
In Gaza, the questions are more basic: Will Israel cut the electricity tomorrow? When will the civil war start up again? Many ordinary people in both territories no longer trust their leaders to forge agreements with each other -- let alone Israel.
''How can we struggle to achieve independence (for a Palestinian state) while we are fighting each other?'' said civil servant Mohammad Abu Awad in the West Bank city of Jenin. ''This is a shame.'' Reuters BDP KP0912