Peace's halting pace sets Gaza stumbling

February 18, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip -- In the grim warrens and poor dirt streets of the Gaza Strip, the progress toward Israel's withdrawal seems too little, too slow.

In the five months since Israel first promised to withdraw, residents here have seen their lives become more miserable.

Israel has reduced the number of workers allowed to commute to their jobs, further impoverishing the Gaza Strip, where the main source of income is employment in Israel.

The promised turnover of their own affairs to the Palestinians under the autonomy agreement has not happened, sending support for the peace process plummeting.

Without a government or civil authority, young armed Palestinians have asserted control; they have extorted money, stolen cars, terrorized leading elders and carried out acts of vengeance. People are arming themselves for protection, bringing a flood of guns into the Gaza Strip.

The cease-fire installed after the signing of the peace accord is crumbling. Israeli authorities have killed several wanted Palestinians. In response, the Fatah Hawks, the armed wing of the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization, have said they will resume attacks on Israeli agents.

"After the signing, we trusted Israel. That was our mistake," said Ismael Abu el-Khumsan, a leader of the Fatah Hawks in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp. Now, he said, "We must kill them before they kill us."

"There is a great deal of unrest," said Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, the former head of the Palestinian peace negotiators and a respected physician. "The situation is serious -- more serious than it has been."

Palestinians in Gaza joined those of the West Bank in a spontaneous outpouring of celebration Sept. 13 when Israel and the PLO signed their accord. The pact promised the start of autonomy for Jericho and the Gaza Strip in three months, and for the rest of the West Bank seven months later.

But the first deadline was not met, and Israel has since proclaimed it is not bound by any deadlines while it haggles with the PLO over details of withdrawal.

Yesterday, Israeli and PLO negotiators ending a week of talks at the Egyptian resort of Taba said that most issues on police, prisoners and civilian government matters could be resolved by early March.

"We're just waiting for decisions from higher authorities," said the chief Palestinian negotiator, Nabil Shaath.

But the time taken for negotiations has taken a toll here.

"What kind of peace is this? They arrest everyone and kill everyone and take our jobs," a 24-year-old man who gave his name as Ahmed complained recently as he waited outside the Israeli Civil Administration building in Jabaliya. He sat with a knot of men who return to the office to wait day after day for permission to go to their jobs in Israel.

The men said Israel had recently confiscated the magnetic passes for hundreds of Gazans who pour out of the strip each day before dawn to fill the cheap-labor jobs in Israel. They said no reason was given. The Gaza Center for Human Rights said last week that 1,500 cards were seized, and it asked for international attention to the plight of the workers.

"It wasn't 1,500. It was more like 250 or 300," responded Capt. Hannie Jeshurun of the Civil Administration. The cards were revoked because "a mistake by Shabak" -- the Israeli secret police -- had inadvertently allowed men who are security risks to get the cards, she said.

But many of the men waiting outside the Civil Administration said they had held passes to work in Israel for years and had never been involved in security violations. Captain Jeshurun offered no explanation: "Shabak doesn't tell us the reasons," she said.

For many in the Gaza Strip, jobs as construction laborers or garbage collectors or janitors inside Israel offer the only chance to feed their families.

A drop in numbers

Four years ago, 60,000 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip had permits to work in Israel, and loose restrictions allowed nearly 100,000 laborers across the "green line" into Israel. Last year, Israel imposed new restrictions on the occupied territories and reduced permits for Arab labor.

The permits have continued to dwindle. Captain Jeshurun said 25,000 Gazans now work daily in Israel, but Palestinian sources say the number is between 13,000 and 17,000.

"I have been working in Israel for 14 years" as a laborer, said Kamal Abu-Nada, 35. "Now they have taken away my permission -- for no reason. I have nine children at home. How am I to survive?"

The deterioration is only adding to the disillusionment over the peace process among Palestinians.

"Living conditions are getting worse. And the Palestinians believe that Israel is purposely making things worse in the occupied territories to pressure the Palestinian negotiators," said the Arabic daily newspaper Al-Quds.

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