Israeli soldiers eager to see end to role in Gaza

AN UNENTHUSIASTIC OCCUPATION

March 28, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

GAZA, Occupied Gaza Strip -- The lieutenant swung his patrol jeep into a scene from the future: A flat encampment, abandoned by the Israeli army, now vacant and growing weeds.

Little more than a month ago, Palestinian children threw stones toward the camp, and soldiers inside replied with rubber bullets. Now, a few children playing soccer looked warily at the army jeep as it made a circuit around the forfeited land.

The Israeli army gradually is pulling up stakes from the Gaza Strip. Even as negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have sputtered and stalled, the military has gone ahead with preparations to hand over most of this disputed land.

The soldiers are still here. They roam the Gaza Strip in jeeps prickly with gun barrels. They still clash daily with Palestinians. But huge trucks now pull prefab barracks out of camps, leaving the soldiers in tents. The civil administrators are packing their files to offices outside the border fence. The police are moving into the Jewish settlements.

"We know that a return to the peace talks and negotiated [settlement] could be in a short while. We don't want to be an obstacle in implementing it," said Col. Shaul Arieli, commander of the northern forces in the Gaza Strip.

If the politicians reach agreement, the army wants its equipment already moved. They would need only to pack the troops and tents into trucks, say army spokesmen. They could quickly leave the Arab areas they have held since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Nothing would better please most of the soldiers who patrol the Gaza Strip.

"No, I don't like it here," concedes Sgt. Zaki Sweid, who stresses that this is his individual opinion. Of course, he will follow orders. "I don't like dealing with the women, with old people, with civilians."

The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been a painful assignment for the proud Israeli army. Idolized as the victor of five wars, it has seen its reputation tarnished in a messy struggle with a civilian population rebelling against its rule.

The army has been castigated by fellow Israelis for its sometimes-harsh methods, and accused of brutality and torture. has winced at suggestions of negligence after the murders of ** 30 Muslims in a Hebron mosque last month by an armed Jewish settler in an army reserve uniform.

The army's role is particularly troublesome in the Gaza Strip, a poor and hostile warren of 800,000 Palestinians. Here, soldiers patrol streets jammed with men, women and children.

"You're dealing with civilians here. Suddenly someone who is walking on the street, looking innocent, can pull out a gun and attack," said a lieutenant, whose name could not be used under military rules.

"I've served in Lebanon," said the 23-year-old officer during a recent patrol. "And I prefer Lebanon."

The gap between occupied and occupiers is stark during even a routine patrol. On the streets of Gaza, it is a sunny and relaxed afternoon. Men pedal bicycles with little boys perched on the handlebars. Muslim women in long black dresses stroll casually on the street; children scamper gaily in the dirt alleys.

Mostly they ignore the armed jeeps that pass them. Inside, the tense soldiers are packed tight with the trappings of their mission. They wear thick flak jackets. Helmets are hung in a row above a shotgun with tear gas grenades.

By the open back door of the jeep, Sergeant Sweid and a 19-year-old Israeli Druze, Cpl. Ahmed Dahar, peer with their M-16 rifles pointed outward, their fingers poised beside the triggers. They scan the rooftops and alleys for signs of danger.

They move through the streets quickly and warily, riding a rolling gunship in an unwelcome environment. The radio hisses and bleats: The base station tracks the soldiers at each turn, ready to send reinforcements. The patrols are always in pairs: A second jeep follows closely.

A rock slams into the side of the jeep with a resounding thud. The jeep does not slow.

"If there's a big group of adults, we would go after it," Sergeant Sweid explains later. "But if it's just a few kids throwing rocks, we ignore it.

"The young children who are throwing stones are not doing it out of ideology. They do it because they see an adult do it," added the lieutenant. "I once caught a 1-year-old kid throwing stones. One year old! He didn't have an ideology.

"It's a game to them," he said. "They are bored every day here. There are so many general strikes. There's nothing to do. Sometimes, I feel insulted by it all -- an officer in the military running around chasing kids."

At a scruffy concrete-block headquarters, Colonel Arieli acknowledged that he, too, will be glad to leave the Gaza Strip. But "only under an arrangement in which there will be security," he said.

"We never wanted control of the people here," he insisted. "We only wanted security. If there's an agreement that provides security, I'm willing to leave the Gaza Strip."

In fact, the army will not completely leave. Although the Sept. 13 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization calls for the army's "withdrawal from the Gaza Strip," Israel has insisted that its troops will continue to guard large tracts containing about 4,000 Jewish settlers and will control main roads in and out of those settlements.

This arouses doubts that the battle will end between the soldiers and Palestinians. In this fight, the roads are the battleground. On patrol, the soldiers identify intersections according to major incidents: "That's where the blind [Palestinian] was shot two days ago," and, "This is the junction where the lieutenant colonel was killed."

But pulling back will get the Israeli patrols out of the Arab cities and neighborhoods, where they are conspicuous targets.

"We're not afraid," insisted the lieutenant on patrol. "But you never know when you're going to get shot."

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