Gaza: hell on Earth

Georgie Anne Geyer

August 07, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Israeli-occupied Gaza City -- IF THERE is a hell in this world, it must be Gaza.

Tall, spectral gray and white buildings line the paths like filthy birds of prey. These unpaved "streets" are littered with piles of garbage and carrion. Human-sized black XXXs, Palestinian graffiti, are painted across whole buildings, as if this society might somehow best be "X-ed" out. Stories-high barbed-wire has been thrown around Israeli military or official buildings, as in the sister-horror of Northern Ireland.

And the 4-year-old intifada -- the uprising against Israel that initially offered the Palestinians here and on the West Bank so much hope -- has become so corrupted that, instead of aiming at the Israeli enemy, Palestinians now are most often found killing one another.

"The intifada is in a period some call regression," Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, Gaza's resident psychiatrist, told me one recent hot dTC afternoon, his face gaunt with the exhaustion that seems to pervade everything and everyone in this small, blighted piece of land.

"Two years before the intifada, the picture was similar to today: despair, violence, infighting. Then, with the intifada, everything went out into the streets, and the target was the Israeli soldier. Now, the Palestinian underground movement has disintegrated in many ways. There are splinter groups nobody has controlled. When someone is killed, it is difficult to trace actions to whom, so there is a great sense of anxiety -- 'Is it the Israelis, the Palestinians . . . or my neighbors?' "

Then this remarkable doctor, a Palestinian himself, shuffled about in his piles of data for a few minutes before coming out with an emotionally staggering painting by a schoolgirl in Gaza. In bright colors, it showed a typical scene today -- masked teen-agers assassinating a suspected "collaborator" with bloody knives while a class of children watched, some cheering as they identified with the assassin.

Indeed, since the intifada began in December 1987, more than 400 Palestinians have now been killed by other Arabs, compared to more than 830 who have been slain by the Israeli army or Israeli civilians. According to Israeli human-rights groups, during last April and May, 18 Palestinians were killed by the army and 45 were killed by other Arabs, often savagely and brutally. That is the new fact of violence here.

El-Sarraj, a London-trained psychiatrist whose father was a Palestinian civil servant from Beersheba, shook his head and offered superficial explanations. "Children are now brought up in an atmosphere in which violence has become the norm," he said.

In his 15-month-old Gaza Community Mental Health Program, El-Sarraj and his team of 19 doctors and others are becoming the true chroniclers of the story of despair and frustration of the 700,000 traumatized Palestinians jammed into the mere 170 square miles of the Israeli-occupied, miserable Gaza strip.

"How do I look at the conflict?" mused El-Sarraj, from time to time gazing out his window at the incongruously beautiful bright blue Mediterranean sea that edges Gaza to the West. "It is a cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Israelis have been persecuted and have been victims of the persecution. Here, they have become persecutors themselves. They needed to express

their anger, and they found the Palestinians, an immediate target for their aggression."

Despite the horrifying physical appearance of Gaza, and despite the corruption of just about every originally noble Palestinian intention, El-Sarraj does see some changes. "On the whole, we ** have a more pragmatic attitude," he went on. "In the wake of the gulf war, we did a survey and asked, 'Do you trust the Americans?' the answer was 'No.' But when we asked, 'Should we talk to Baker?' the answer was 'Yes.'

"It is time to stop and think and formulate a new strategy," he continued, "and not to give the Israelis the chance, as that crazy Saddam Hussein did, to become the victims again."

These kinds of words are heard among intelligent Palestinians who are no longer in hock to the PLO line from outside. They are words that never would have been heard a few months ago. They reflect a new reality, even in Gaza, in which Palestinians are just beginning to analyze this seemingly endless conflict psychologically and clinically and not, as always, politically and morally.

This tiny, jammed, horrifying piece of land is what Secretary of State Jim Baker's peace process is all about. It is about somehow, someday alleviating the hells that people create for others and for themselves.

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