Lacking hope, refugees in Gaza cling to rumor

Palestinians: They celebrate a `successful operation' against Israeli soldiers. But it never happened.

October 06, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip - It was repeatedly broadcast from mosque minarets and the radio - that Palestinian militants had killed as many as 47 Israeli soldiers - and the news spread quickly through the warrens of this crowded camp.

By midmorning, nearly everyone had heard the story, and most believed it was true. "It has been confirmed," said an unnamed Palestinian gunman as he crouched behind a pile of sandbags, clutching his assault weapon. "Thanks to God."

But the victory, glorious as it was portrayed by Palestinians desperate for even the slightest sign of hope against insurmountable odds, was purely imaginary.

No Israeli soldiers operating in and around Jabaliya were killed yesterday, despite the continuing intense gunbattles. The fighting entered its seventh day, and the Palestinian death toll climbed to at least 70 amid an operation by Israel to stop rocket fire onto a nearby Israeli town.

Israeli helicopters circled overhead throughout the day looking for targets - they fired missiles into a car in Gaza City last night, killing two Islamic Jihad militants, including the group's military commander - and unmanned drones with video cameras buzzed overhead, a constant reminder to all of Israel's presence.

Jabaliya, where 106,000 people are packed into land no bigger than half a square mile, and mourning tents to honor the dead can be found around every corner, is convulsing under the pressure of an overwhelming Israeli military confronting it on three sides.

But the Palestinians here are redefining the terms of victory day by day, celebrating the smallest of achievements and making up others in a desperate attempt to forge a new reality out of ruins, death and despair.

Yesterday's story of the dead Israeli soldiers seemed to vary from person to person. Some versions had 47 dying when a suicide bomb went off in a house commandeered by the army; another had seven soldiers dying when militants blew up a tank.

"We send congratulations to the people and to Hamas, who tonight killed seven Israeli soldiers in Jabaliya," proclaimed one jubilant message blaring from speakers at a mosque shortly after midnight yesterday. "Give thanks to God for the successful operation."

Regardless of the differing details, a broad cross-section of Palestinian society latched onto the tale as if it were gospel, from street vendors to doctors, from gunmen to grieving parents. It was true, they insisted, because they heard a loud explosion followed by what they described as the most intense Israeli bombardment since fighting broke out last week.

"The Israelis went crazy," said Samir el-Far, 40, a nurse at Jabaliya's Adwan Hospital. "They were shooting randomly from every direction. This story has to be true."

Some Palestinians, however, fear that camp residents are deluding themselves into thinking that they can defeat the Israeli military, and that the fictional stories woven amid the bullets and bombs will only prolong a war that is impossible to win.

"We are losing, and everybody is dying," said Husan al-Najar, a cousin of a 12-year-old boy, Mohammed al-Najar, who was killed Thursday by an Israeli tank shell just a few blocks from his home. "But we have to tell ourselves that we are doing something."

Najar, 35, works as a planner for the Palestinian Authority. Part of his job involves coordinating a plan for when the Israelis pull their soldiers and settlers out of Gaza next year, as they have promised.

He joined a conversation with the dead boy's father and other relatives, but he spoke in English, sheltering his Arabic-speaking family from his painful and controversial comments. Najar's message was devoid of the standard rhetoric of the conflict, a slice of introspection that is rare in a Palestinian society drawn together by a common enemy.

Najar heard the story of the dead Israelis from passengers in his shared taxi as he made his way from Gaza City to his cousin's mourning tent in Jabaliya. He said he knew immediately that it wasn't true.

"We are lying to ourselves," he said, adding that the truth would cause "people to fall into despair. They would feel defeated. They might even want to leave the camp. Let me lie to live."

It is these self-created myths that help drive this conflict to new heights, that keep a steady flow of youthful fighters streaming to the front lines with rocks and guns and bombs made from soda bottles.

Palestinians here believe that their ragtag fighters have bravely held off the advancing Israeli army, preventing hundreds of tanks backed by trained infantrymen and helicopter gunships from entering the confines of this ramshackle camp. The army says it prefers to surround Jabaliya and draw gunmen out into the open.

"We should know better," Najar said, saying that the young men pulling the triggers on the Kalashnikov rifles understand more than the average citizen.

"Everybody who carries a gun knows he will not return," he said. "He is defending his people, but he knows his life is over."

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