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In Gaza, waiting for economics of peace to put fizz back into bottling plant

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Story highlights

  • Gaza, a Palestinian territory, is controlled by Hamas
  • The West Bank, another Palestinian territory, is controlled by the Fatah movement
  • Ramallah in the West Bank is hardly boomtown, but it is a galaxy apart from Gaza
  • President Obama paid tribute Thursday to the West Bank's stronger economy

It hits you just a few steps past the Hamas checkpoint, at the sounds and sight of a mule-pulled cart passing by: To enter Gaza is to step back in time.

Also front and center: the question of whether hate will ever give way to peace. In the city square, there's a giant billboard celebrating the Hamas militant wing that carries out attacks in Israel. Nearby, posters paying tribute to men Hamas calls "martyrs" but who by most any other definition would be called terrorists.

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Poverty is everywhere, as is rundown housing. Seeing the mules and horses pulling carts side by side on roads with mostly beat-up cars is a back to the future experience.

Yet step behind one factory gate and you come to the realization Gaza doesn't have to be so bleak.

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    The Pepsi bottling franchise has been in Gaza nearly 50 years, founded by Hammam al Yazji's grandfather.

    It bottles 7Up, Pepsi, and, on this day, an orange soda popular in the Arab world, Mirinda.

    After blocks and blocks of blight, watching the bottling line is an impressive sight.

    But it is also evidence of the price Gaza pays for Israel's anger at Hamas.

    Al Yazji doesn't like getting caught up in the political debates. But he does note that men with jobs are less likely to get caught up in violence and terror.

    In its heyday, the factory had 600 workers. Now there are about 300, many of them working only part time.

    "We've actually got five lines and used to have three shifts a day," al Yazji told CNN during a factory tour this week. "Now we've got only one shift like three days a week."

    Production is down because the plant can no longer ship products to and through Israel.

    And costs are up because of the same economic isolation: The factory used to send a tanker truck to the Israeli border to buy cO2 that is critical to soda production. Now it pays five times as much for gas smuggled into Gaza from Egypt.

    Al Yazji blames Israel.

    "They just want to control Gaza," he said. "They want to control people. They want to control the economy. They want to control everything."

    Welcome to the great Palestinian divide.

    President Barack Obama took note of this Thursday, while in Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

    Abbas and the Fatah movement he leads run the West Bank; Gaza is run by Hamas. Obama paid tribute to the stronger economy in the West Bank and said it "stands in stark contrast to the misery and depression so many Palestinians continue to confront in Gaza."

    Ramallah is hardly a boomtown, but it is a galaxy apart from Gaza.

    Walking through Ramallah and Gaza, political differences become real

    The outdoor produce market is busy, coffee shops are packed with students and young professionals, luxury cars are not uncommon, and ATMs from nine Arab banks sit side by side to compete for business at the entrance to a Ramallah shopping mall.

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    Sam Bahour is a businessman and consultant who helped build the mall. Sure, he says, Ramallah is better than Gaza. But he said that is far from good enough.

    And like al Yazji in Gaza, Bahour blames Israel.

    "Israel has now had the leisure to pick and choose how much restriction it puts on the various Palestinian areas," Bahour said. "But that doesn't mean Ramallah isn't under military occupation. We very much are in a cage, and around this cage is either Israeli settlements or military checkpoints."

    Palestinians see Israeli 'growth' as roadblock

    Bahour lives in Ramallah but was raised in Youngstown, Ohio. He is an American citizen who twice cast an absentee ballot for Obama, but he believes the presidential visit here now is a mistake.

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    "Coming and going without bringing any kind of political movement is emboldening Israel," he said. "And emboldening Israel with this new right wing government means more settlements, means more potential collapse for Palestinian society."

    Back in Gaza, Khre Ajjor prefers not to talk politics, but says he wishes the economics of peace would take hold.

    Ajjor owns a furniture factory within eyeshot of the Gaza-Israel border and can point out the gate through which not too long ago his products were shipped to Israel.

    Now Israel won't allow it and the border industrial park is a wasteland. Once home to about 100 factories and warehouses, locals say it now just has five in daily operation. To pass through is to see mostly abandoned or shuttered buildings in a bleak no-man's land under the watchful gaze of Israeli surveillance balloons.

    Ajjor once operated in three buildings; he rents two now to the United Nations.

    Ask Ajjor if he blames Israel, and he notes that he speaks fluent Hebrew, and shows CNN company stationery in Hebrew, to make it easier to do business with his former Israeli customers.

    Sure, he says Israel shares responsibility. But he says Hamas does, too. And the Palestinian Authority.

    He had 150 workers before Hamas came to power in Gaza; just 20 now.

    The price, he says, of mistrust and hate.