Palestinians witness fruits of newfound independence

May 22, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- On a dusty dirt mound at a dreary border, an Israeli soldier who gave his name as Lev slumped down for a rest.

He was a baby-faced man, 25, with a pained look in his light eyes.

Warily, another young man sat beside him. Hisham Abu-Hatab, 20, wore the turban and robe of a strict Muslim. His dark eyes were suspicious.

They were an odd pair, both on the sidelines for a moment as Israeli troops confronted Arabs waiting for the arrival of the Palestinian police officers from Egypt two weeks ago.

Just by sitting together, they were breaking rules to which each had long since become accustomed. For decades, Israelis and Palestinians have been at each other's throats, locked in unwavering roles.

Suddenly, in the past two weeks, both have witnessed remarkable scenes from the end of the occupation in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

They have watched what was just a month ago unthinkable: Palestinians and Israeli soldiers on joint patrols, ex-prisoners dancing in their former cells, men who fled as youths to fight Israel from abroad now returning as men to the embrace of their families.

Israelis have withdrawn, to watch developments from a near distance. The Palestinians still are mesmerized by the torrent of this watershed in their history.

The baby-step of the "Jericho-Gaza First" plan of Palestinian autonomy may tumble in failure. Already, on Friday, Palestinians who want to wreck it killed two Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, giving fuel to their comrades-in-purpose, the Israeli opponents of the peace plan.

But for a short spell, Lev and Hisham sat contemplating scenes from the end of an occupation.

Before them, Palestinians in a line sang and shouted slogans. They pushed forward until the soldiers, nervous from the tumult, began shoving back. From the rear of the crowd, rocks whistled forward, and the army fired back stun grenades. With a shout, the soldiers charged, batons swinging, and the Palestinians scattered. The soldiers regrouped in a line, and gradually, the Palestinians inched toward them again, singing and shouting.

"People can't stop their instincts," Lev said, musing to his companion.

Tentatively, Hisham offered questions to Lev. What did he think about this? Why was he here? Did he think they could live in peace?

"What would you do if I came to visit you in Tel Aviv? Would you invite me in for tea?" asked Hisham. His cheek bore a ruby scar, and his lip was deformed from rubber-coated steel bullets fired from Israeli soldiers' guns.

Lev did not answer quickly, giving the question due weight. "Yes, I would," he replied in seriousness. There was a pause. "I wonder if your children will hate my children."

Lev's colleagues called him back to work and then roughly rousted the Palestinian from the dirt mound. But Hisham remained impressed. He had never before had a conversation with a soldier, he said.

"Most soldiers are tough, but this one is very nice," said the young Muslim. "I can believe now there are more soldiers like him."

Return to prison

When Israeli troops left the Gaza Central Prison, Palestinians swarmed in. For those who had been locked in there, it became a macabre reunion.

"I spent four years in this room, 2 1/2 years in that bed," said Abdu Rauf, 44, as he toured the prison the day after it was evacuated. "I was 83 days in investigation. We called it the 'Slaughterhouse."

During the Palestinian "intifada" or uprising, many men spent time in jail, swept up in wholesale lockups or targeted for arrest for belonging to one of many Palestinian factions.

Their stories have long since been documented by human rights organizations. It was routine to be interrogated for weeks, hands and feet bound in unbearable positions.

"Being here makes my legs shake," said Mohammed Awad, 45, who spent three years in the prison. He had returned the day it was evacuated to film the place with a video camera.

The cells had been whitewashed, the interrogation rooms stripped and cleaned by the departing Israelis. But memories still cried out from the sanitized chambers.

"The first days, you think you will go crazy," said Eyman al-Jaradli, 23, recollecting six years in the prison. "Slowly, step by step, you accept that you have come to live here."

Pilgrimage to Jericho

The single main road into Jericho is a baked line of asphalt. It shimmers in the rising heat. These days, it is filled bumper-to-bumper with cars bearing license plates from Hebron and Ramallah and Nablus.

Palestinians throughout the West Bank come "to sniff the air" -- as the Arabs put it -- of a place under Palestinian control. They ignore the heat, and they clap and sing in their cars as they approach Jericho.

For the first time, cars with the yellow licenses of Israel are stopped at the military checkpoint.

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