Commentary: In Gaza's Streets, Few Thoughts of Peace

By Stanley Reed

The Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip is a huge, heavily fortified expanse of concrete imposed on the surrounding scrubland. To go from Israel's jurisdiction to that of the Palestine National Authority, you walk about 100 yards under the gaze of Israeli machine gunners. Despite the heavy security, a Palestinian gunman named Ayman Judeh managed to kill an Israeli soldier inside Erez on Apr. 19--and was immediately shot by the Israelis.

That was only a few hours after I crossed through Erez into Gaza. Later that day, on a scruffy thoroughfare in Gaza City, I came upon a couple hundred people gathered outside Judeh's family's home. Among them were gun-toting men from the Al Aqsa Brigades, the militant group affiliated with Yassir Arafat's Fatah wing. Their leader, a thin, sallow youth dressed in black, declined to give his name but was quick with an explanation. "A member of the Palestinian people has been martyred," he declared. "These operations won't cease until the Israeli occupation ends."

It has been more than three weeks since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched his military incursion on the West Bank on Mar. 29. The tanks are rolling back from some of the towns they invaded. But Palestinians are only beginning to assess the damage--and the implications for the future. About 1,800 Palestinians have been arrested and perhaps hundreds killed. That may well slow the attacks that have terrorized Israelis, at least temporarily.

But the military sweep may have created an even more explosive situation. On the streets of Gaza and in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which I also visited, Palestinian attitudes have hardened. No one speaks of peaceful coexistence with the Israelis anymore. Instead, people are calling for revenge against Israel and condemning America's failure to stop Sharon. "The people will never forget this," Ismail Abu Shanab, a top leader in Gaza of Hamas, the Islamic militant group, told me. "It will be engraved in their hearts--as the Israelis remember the Nazis."

Strong words, to be sure. And there's no doubt that Hamas, which has taken credit for many suicide bombings, will do its utmost to take advantage of the Palestinians' thirst for revenge. The danger is that, if the fires of hate continue to burn, Israel will turn Gaza and the West Bank into de facto prison camps by walling them off. The Palestinians confined there would likely be fed by international aid agencies. But radicalism would fester, threatening chaos. Already, Gaza is on its way to becoming such a place. It is fenced off from Israel on its northern border, and Israel controls access to Egypt in the south--partly to check arms flows.

Since my last visit almost a decade ago, Gaza City seems to have had the life drained out of it. Traffic is light, and shops are sparsely patronized. At night, the once humming city is deserted except for gunmen on patrol. Few Gazans have much money to spend. The Israeli network of restrictions on movement has slashed internal commerce as well as trade with Israel and the outside world. Security fears have led to the loss of all work for Gaza Palestinians in Israel, which used to be a mainstay of the local economy. Half of Gaza's workforce is unemployed, and gross domestic product in the Palestinian areas has fallen from $1,500 per capita in 1998 to an estimated $1,000 this year. "All the youth are just sitting," says Imad Hurab, 30, who used to make $30 a day as a construction worker in Israel before the intifada broke out 18 months ago.

Hurab, a resident of the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, says that he now gets only sporadic jobs from make-work programs. "It is not enough to feed seven children," he complains. But Hurab could have it worse. He lives in a small but clean house with a large television set. His children won't starve because many aid agencies are active in Gaza. Since 1994, the 3 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been receiving about $195 per capita per year, one of the world's highest aid levels, according to the World Bank. The CIA even helped train Arafat's security forces.

But the aid effort, while preventing hunger, has been a shocking failure. The $4.5 billion in aid received since 1994 was meant to build a viable economy and provide an incentive for the Palestinians to pursue peace with Israel. These programs, however, weren't enough to overcome the Palestinians' disappointment with the slow pace of negotiations to end the occupation. The corruption and nepotism in Arafat's entourage also made the public seethe.

Arafat's declining credibility, in turn, made it increasingly tough for him to make the case for peace with the Israelis. When the intifada erupted in September, 2000, two months after the Camp David peace summit failed, he was unable or unwilling to control it. The radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad dangerously escalated the violence with suicide bombings in Israel in early 2002. Feeling outflanked, Arafat's Fatah launched similar attacks--a terrible mistake. "The intifada had no proper organization," says Haider Abdel Shafi, 82, a respected elder statesman in Gaza. "That was a failure; it gave Sharon a pretext for aggression."

Even some Palestinians close to Arafat regret this turn of events. Suicide bombings inside Israel alienated followers of the Israeli peace movement--key allies of the Palestinians--and blackened the Palestinians' image in world opinion. "These operations are not helping the cause of the Palestinian people," says Marwan Kanafani, a former spokesman for Arafat and member of the Palestinian National Assembly for Gaza. "The question is how to persuade them to stop."

Other influential Palestinians criticize the leadership for putting their people in harm's way again and again. Palestinian agitation led to a bloody crackdown in Jordan in 1970, and Palestinian refugees suffered horribly during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. "If they don't learn anything, it is tragic," says Khaled Abdel Shafi, a member of the Gaza City Council and an entrepreneur. "They can't keep going from one place to another. First there was Jordan, then Lebanon, now here." But no one I talked to thinks that major changes in the leadership are likely as long as the Israelis are intensely pressuring the Palestinians. In fact, Sharon's operation has rallied rivals such as Hamas, which is much harder-line toward Israel, to Arafat's side.

You would think that businesspeople, at least, would be voices for change--and for peace. But for many, the Palestinian cause is more important than profits. Nasser Helwu, general manager of his family's chain of businesses, still backs Arafat. He vows to keep his companies, including a hotel and a business selling security doors, going as long as he breaks even. "I will consider projects with zero profits if they pay the employees' salaries," he says.

But accomplishing anything in Gaza will be increasingly difficult as long as the hard-liners thrive. Abu Shanab of Hamas seemed almost triumphant when I visited him one evening. Smiling, he offered orange juice and hugged his daughter, while uttering a chilling warning: "I expect many [acts of] revenge in coming months--maybe for years, no matter how hard the Israelis and Americans try to stop them."

Given this threat, it's no wonder fences are going up along the roads outside Jerusalem--the start of Sharon's plan to seal off the West Bank. Sharon is promising to create vast buffer zones, but I doubt they will stop infiltrators for long. And it is hard to see how the U.S. or Europe will shake the Israelis and Palestinians from their destructive course. Traveling through Gaza and the West Bank, I worry about the fate of these people, and what it will mean for the rest of us.

Reed covers the Middle East.

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