Gaza Palestinians celebrate signing of interim accord A DAY OF "HISTORY AND HOPE" Gaza Palestinians celebrate signing of interim pact

September 14, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

GAZA, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip -- The celebration in the Gaza Strip over yesterday's peace agreement between the PLO and Israel erupted like a shaken soda, spraying thousands of Palestinians into the street in a froth of joy.

They waved palm fronds, scattered sweets on the street, applauded and cheered with an enthusiasm unseen in the grim warrens of Gaza, where the rigors of poverty and the rule of a military occupation force had long ago jelled into a permanent gloom.

One old man with weak and watery eyes watched the celebration honk its way down the street, trucks overflowing with men waving the Palestinian flag, women trilling welcome to the new promise of peace.

He said he had waited for this day since 1937, the year the British Lord Peel Commission recommended giving Jews a state.

But his wait was not important, he had concluded. He waved his cane at several small boys.

"Look at the children. Look at how happy they are," he mused, contemplating them with curiosity. "This is the first day they have really felt this."

For a change, the crowd in the street was not an angry mob. For a change there were no stones launched by young boys in frustration, answered by young soldiers with bullets. For a change, the offering was flowers, the reply a friendly grin.

Gazans said there had not been such large and festive crowds on the streets for decades, certainly not since the start of the Palestinian uprising in 1987.

In Jericho, there were similar scenes, as Palestinians celebrated the Israeli-PLO agreement. In Jerusalem, the Palestinian flag was hoisted above Orient House, the gracious old mansion that houses the Palestinian negotiating delegation.

The flag symbolized the suddenness of change. Two weeks ago, Israeli soldiers would have commandeered Arab bystanders to make them rip it down when they found one. Young Palestinians painted it on walls, at the risk of being arrested, or shot, if they were caught in the act.

Yesterday, flags seemed to emerge from beneath mattresses or behind cupboards of every home. Big and small, silk and cardboard, they fluttered on the breath of hoped-for independence.

"This is the beginning," said Ibrahim Magreby, 38, watching the parade in Gaza. "From here, I hope there will be no more wars. This is what we have been waiting for."

"The Jewish people are not bad. The Arabs are not bad. We hope we can unify both people," said Baharia el-Ashi, 56, the mother of four boys and seven girls. "We want our children's future to be like [that of] other people."

But the manner of the unfolding of the celebration in the Gaza Strip yesterday was a reminder of the strong opposition from others to the pact between Israel and the PLO. Opponents had called for a general strike until 3 p.m. Their strength was enough to enforce it.

Gaza quiet until 3 p.m.

Until that hour, Gaza wore the somber face of a shuttered city, a face so familiar from hundreds of days of strikes, closures and curfews during the intifada. Shops were closed. Homes were quiet. Young boys were self-appointed police; a 6-year-old rocketed a hefty stone through the back windshield of a journalists' car that was moving about in violation of the curfew.

"People who celebrate are fools," said Samir Mohammed, 32, an accountant and supporter of the Islamic groups that oppose the plan.

"In time, they will feel stupid. This agreement gives nothing to Palestinians. It just makes the occupation more legal than before, because Palestinians have signed it."

"Izzadin al-Kassem," another young man whispered, as though bold to even say the name of the armed gang of Hamas Muslim fundamentalists who had claimed the murder of three soldiers the day before.

But at 3 p.m., it became clear that many who observed the strike did not oppose the peace accord. They folded back the steel accordion doors of their shops and unshuttered their windows. Balloons emerged from balconies, flags sprouted from rooftops. Suddenly trucks careened onto the streets, jammed with young men and boys.

"Fatah! Fatah! Abu Amar," theychanted, using Yasser Arafat's nom de guerre and the name of his PLO faction, Fatah. "Gaza-Jericho is the plan."

Soldiers stand back

Israeli soldiers, who would have been obliged to suppress such a large gathering three weeks ago, withdrew to a distance and simply watched.

Some soldiers responded to the cheerful mood, taking off their helmets trusting there would be no stones and waving genially to the celebrants. Palestinians offered them palm branches, confetti and candy.

The ceremony in Washington was broadcast live on Israel Radio. The speeches offered a surreal commentary to the gritty reality of the Gaza Strip.

"I say to you, the Palestinians, we are destined to live together on the same soil in the same land," boomed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin over the radio.

In the dusty streets of the Beach Refugee Camp two young boys on motor scooters decorated with Palestinian flags wheeled carefully past a river of sewage and an obstacle course of trash.

"Every peace has it's enemies," President Clinton said over the radio.

About 100 supporters of various opposition groups marched on a collision course with those demonstrating for the plan.

There was some pushing and shoving and a few stones were thrown yesterday, but the two groups separated without any major incident.

"My people are hoping that this agreement marks the beginning of the end of a chapter of pain and suffering," Mr. Arafat said on the radio.

The celebrations continued into the night in the flicker of small fires of burning garbage.

Outside the Jabalia Refugee Camp, where six years ago a traffic accident began the intifada, the spotlight at an army post flicked nervously around the perimeter, occasionally catching children shouting slogans of peace.

"Salaam, salaam," the children said when exposed in the glare. "Peace. Peace."

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