Peace remote for Gaza under bloody Israeli crackdown

June 21, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JABALIA REFUGEEE CAMP, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GAZA STRIP — JABALIA REFUGEE CAMP, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip -- Forgive Mohammed al-Khourdi if he has little hope for the Middle East peace talks. He lost that when his infant son was killed by an Israeli soldier last month.

And if Mousa and Ribhi Atalla dismiss the negotiations in Washington, it is because the Israeli army blew up their homes in Gaza while searching for two suspects believed to be in the area.

Fahti Ahrini, also, is bitter as he sweeps streets for $9 a day. The Israeli government has locked him out of his job as a stonemason where he made six times as much. He does not see peace soon, either.

Facing a hostile population, Israel's rule is hard and unyielding in the Gaza Strip, and it has become more so lately. The government's economic and military crackdown on the occupied territories, begun after a bloody March in which 15 Israelis and 20 Palestinians were killed, has intensified resentment to the occupation.

It also has hardened Palestinian attitudes toward peace in the Gaza Strip.

"They are talking to us about peace at the same time they are killing us," said Mousa Atalla, 29, whose six children were left homeless when his house was dynamited by the army. "Why continue with the peace talks?"

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told his negotiators to discuss the "Gaza first" plan during the discussions now taking place in Washington. This plan would give Palestinians some control over the teeming 7- by 25-mile Gaza Strip before fully settling the question of control of the West Bank.

But the Israeli plan is unlikely to fully remove the army or surrender authority over the strip, which they have controlled since 1967. Palestinians say it is too little, too late.

"Because of the closure and the hardships, the peace process has become largely irrelevant for the people," said a United Nations official working here.

Talk of negotiations has been replaced by matters of survival. The Palestinians call the current crackdown by Israeli forces a "siege."

Last month, the Gaza Strip resembled a war zone.

Using a new, more aggressive approach, the Israeli government has determined to "retake the refugee camps" that the previous government had left largely alone. It added about 3,000 soldiers to the Gaza Strip, set up observation posts on rooftops in the middle of refugee camps and added more foot patrols. All of these moves generate confrontations.

In addition, commanders have loosened the still-secret open-fire orders so that soldiers and the undercover agents have much more leeway in shooting now. Finally, undercover squads have been aggressively chasing wanted people, with apparent orders kill them if they try to flee.

In all, 22 Palestinians were killed, the highest monthly fatality toll in the Gaza Strip since the start of the "intifada," or uprising, in 1987. Two Israeli civilians were killed during the month, and there were daily clashes with the military, including 11 incidents of shooting at soldiers, according to the Army. None of the soldiers was hurt.

Many of the Palestinian fatalities were children. In the past four months, 15 children under the age of 15 were shot and killed by security forces, according to U.N. records. U.N. observers concluded 10 were shot from observation posts or by foot soldiers when there was no confrontation.

Workers in exile

Since March 31, Army guard posts have sealed off most of the strip's 800,000 residents -- a population bigger than Baltimore's -- cutting access to the major source of employment for Gazans. Only half of the estimated 35,000 Palestinians who worked outside Gaza have been able to go to work with special permits.

The tough measures and rising death toll prompted protests to Israel by the International Red Cross, the United Nations and Amnesty International. Observers say the Army has since pulled back somewhat, reducing patrols in the refugee camps where the worst confrontations occur.

Likewise, the Palestinians who greet the soldiers with a hail of stones also have taken a breather.

"Losing people is not easy. Last month was a disaster for families of those killed," said Ahmed Shabrowi, 29, on a dusty corner of a refugee camp. "But if nothing is achieved in the peace process, there will be another explosion."

The pessimism about the peace negotiations is further soured by the realization there is no alternative to the talks but further strife. The head of the Palestinian negotiators, Faisal al-Husseini, has warned that Palestinians may take the "option" of armed struggle. Many in Gaza are girding for that.

"If this round of peace talks fails, we are going to have more violence on both sides," said As'ad Saftawi, an organizer for the Palestine Liberation Organization. "People are afraid of the results."

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