Protests, tears and defiance in Gaza

Residents are preparing for Israel's `invasion,' whenever it might come

April 07, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza - The people of Gaza are waiting, stacking sandbags atop piles of freshly dug dirt, storing up food, preparing for an Israeli advance.

Even though there are no signs that Israel is planning to turn its attention from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, people in this dusty old city by the sea are readying themselves.

Some are on the streets protesting, some are at home grieving, and others are discussing tactics.

"People were expecting the invasion Thursday," Ali Ibrahim, a market vendor, said recently. "They felt that the tanks were near."

The town's prevailing attitude: An incursion might not happen, but why take the risk?

After all, during the past few months of the Palestinian uprising - the intifada - the Israelis often retaliated in Gaza, a dense mass of humanity spilling from town to refugee camp.

The Israelis pummeled Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters and infrastructure, invaded the outskirts of the rugged Jabalya refugee camp, and bulldozed dozens of homes that they suspected were used by gunmen near the border with Egypt.

In Gaza yesterday, The New York Times reported, an Israeli soldier was killed in a clash as gunmen tried to enter a Jewish settlement, an army statement said. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility and said two of its members were killed. Subsequent Israeli fire killed three Palestinians, including a 6-year-old girl, Palestinians said.

"People are storing more and more rice, flour, spices and sugar," said Ibrahim, a vendor in the crowded central market that was abuzz Friday with shoppers stuffing bags full of supplies.

Although there is a strip of hotels and beach clubs by the sea and one avenue lined with palms, gorgeous gardens and a few new buildings, Gaza is mainly a sad, rundown place, made sadder still by the buildings flattened by Israeli airstrikes.

Goats loiter in a square, carts pulled by donkeys haul produce that draws swarms of flies, and raw sewage runs in some of the gutters. There are rows and rows of squat homes built from gray concrete blocks, and scores of dirt roads.

And then there is Jabalya, the refugee camp that was the birth-place of the first intifada in the late 1980s, symbolized by images of Palestinian kids using slingshots against Israeli tanks. Now, a new generation of kids uses the old slingshots as toys.

About 90,000 people are jammed in a neighborhood of dark, dusty alleys and block homes covered with corrugated tin roofs. In this neighborhood, the kids are tough, with fights so fierce that even adults have a hard time separating the little brawlers.

Rhetoric emanating from a nearby mosque stokes emotion among the adults. At Friday's prayers, an imam criticized the "Arab conspiracy," saying Arab leaders had turned their backs on Arafat.

"Arafat's people will get him out of his siege," the imam said, his voice echoing out of the mosque and into a street square filled with an overflow audience of people kneeling on prayer carpets laid over concrete.

Later, the worshipers held a political rally to boost morale. In the crowd were several militants who carried Kalashnikovs.

Not everyone feels like protesting.

Down a side street, by posters celebrating the death of a so-called martyr who died in a firefight with Israeli troops, stands the Odda family's home.

The parents are still grieving for their youngest son, Yakkob, 25, who was killed with 17 others when Israeli troops entered the camp outskirts last month. The Israeli incursion came two days after a Jerusalem cafe was blown up by a suicide bomber, killing 11 Israelis.

"When the Israelis attacked us, he went out and never came back," said Abdul Fatah Odda, a frail old man who lost a leg and his eyesight to diabetes.

A visitor sat in a plastic lawn chair and watched as the old man in a wheelchair wept over his son, while the old man's wife, Halima, sat on the concrete floor covered in blankets, a box of tissues by her side. Every time she spoke, she began to cry.

"We want peace," she said, her eyes closed. "Enough is enough. We want to live in peace and not cry for our children. Our children are our fortunes. I don't want the universe. I only want my son."

In another part of town, seated on a comfortable cushioned chair in a plush living room appointed with an oriental carpet, another father talked while his 2-year-old daughter hugged his knee.

The father was Ismail Abu Shanab, one of the political leaders of Hamas, a militant Islamic group and organizer of suicide bomb attacks against Israel. Abu Shanab and the group's other political leaders have claimed that they are separate from the military wing.

Bombs, he said, are one way of "resisting Israeli occupation." He made no excuses for young people being involved in such attacks.

"In our Islamic religion this is a high level of sacrifice," he said. "When you sacrifice yourself, your body for the cause of your country, this is the highest sacrifice you can do. It's acceptable. It's encouraged. It's rewarded in the afterlife."

Palestinians, Abu Shanab said, have no alternative.

"We are in a war against Israelis," he said. "We have no military means in our hands."

"We don't have any army to face this [Israeli] army," he said. "We don't have missiles to face their tanks. So we resist the way we can."

But he also seemed to soften the line against Israel, if only by a few degrees.

Asked if Israel had a right to exist, he said, "After the Palestinians getting their rights, no problem with the Israelis' right to exist.

"We look at them as any other nation with the right to exist, but not on behalf of the suffering of others," he added.

Still, he sought to deliver a message to Israel should it invade Gaza.

"Maybe we cannot stop tanks from entering," he said, "but you tell the Israelis we will not be occupied, and we will resist."

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