On the Scene in Gaza: ‘the Street is Taking Over’

It is several hours after a resident of the Sejaiya neighborhood in Gaza was shot dead in a clash with soldiers, and several hours before a 24-year-old resident of Khan Yunis will be killed in another clash.

In between the two incidents, it is merely another day of violence in the streets of Gaza. To an outside observer, it seems as if the army is gradually losing control over the situation–and the street is taking over.

“Indeed, the street is taking over,” confirms Rashad A-Shawa, the former mayor of Gaza, still one of the more prominent political personalities in the territories, “because the people see no alternative to put an end to occupation. In this respect we’re all one file–right and left, religious and non-religious, extremists and the so-called moderates.”

Shawa sits at his serene residence, shadowed with trees, only a few yards away from the stormy town. “They were demonstrating until late last night,” he says, visibly shaken, “children and women marching through the streets, chanting ‘Allah Akbar (God is great).’”

There are roadblocks everywhere–on the main streets of Ommar el-Mukhtar and el-Wihda, as well as on almost every side street.

And in nearby alleys, there are crowds of youths, eager for combat, armed with an endless supply of rocks, just waiting for their target.

They are hardly selective. Almost every vehicle that tries to pass through those roadblocks is pelted with a barrage of stones. Soldiers jump out of their cars, firing shots in the air to disperse the attackers so they can drive through.

Moments later, youths are again on the street, blocking it with garbage cans, electrical poles, heavy ladders and burning tires, which send up pillars of smoke, covering the entire city.

When the youths run out of Israeli vehicles to attack, they begin stoning local vehicles. “The army has started using vehicles with Gaza license plates,” a former Arab policeman explains. “That is why they attack even local cars when they do not identify the owner.”

‘STATE OF ANARCHY’

But this seems to be only a partial explanation. “This is a state of anarchy, and the stoning is but another expression of it,” says an Arab merchant.

“The youths rule the streets, and to manifest their rule, they will use whatever means, even stoning their own people.”

“I have served in the Gaza police since 1943,” says an Arab police officer, “and I can’t remember anything like it, not even in the days of the British or the Egyptians.”

The shops all are closed here. According to testimonies by shopkeepers, groups of youths went in the early morning hours from shop to shop, threatening them not to open for business.

By noon, the army reacts. Armored cars equipped with metal hooks bring down the iron gates to shops that refuse to open immediately.

A shaky shopkeeper stands at the entrance to his shop, saying: “They came and opened up my shop by force. Next thing, the youth will come and stone my shop. What am I to do?”

YOUNGSTERS IN CONTROL

But as a rule, the adult population is standing behind the militancy of the younger generation.

And this seems to be the story of the territories in a nutshell: For the first time since the Israeli occupation, events are being directed by the youngsters, and the older leaders have lost control.

They know they cannot do much to change the situation, and therefore they bless the youngsters. Kids who hit army cars with rocks and get away with it immediately turn into heroes, and those who are killed in clashes with the security forces are considered martyrs.

The army seems lost in the streets of Gaza. Here and there a patrol of soldiers walks along the street to show its presence.

Mobile units drive through the streets, forcing passers-by to clear the roadblocks and the burning tires, to allow traffic through. A few moments later, the kids return to the street, with more roadblocks and burning tires.

On the entrance road to Gaza, a command car slowly drives down the street. Two soldiers sit in the open vehicle, with their eyes closed under the helmets, using every opportunity to catch a nap, after long hours of duty. Suddenly, the vehicle speeds up, to avoid a barrage of rocks.

The army is caught in the territories in an impossible situation. The elite paratroopers, trained to be first-rate combat soldiers, have turned into riot police.

The orders are to refrain whenever possible from shooting. But the presence of the military in the midst of a hostile Arab population has caused situations in which the soldiers had to use firearms to scare away their attackers.

DAILY CASUALTIES

The result: 35 Arabs killed since Dec. 9 and hundreds wounded, an almost daily toll of casualties.

An Egged bus loaded with prison service officers leaves the center of Gaza up the road, heading toward the crossing point into Israel proper.

But as the bus approaches a local intersection, a large crowd of youngsters sends a rain of rocks pouring on the bus. Four wardens jump out, clearing the way by shooting in the air from both sides of the bus, scaring the youths away.

Without the shooting, the bus cannot get past the intersection. No one is hurt, by mere chance. But with an accidental movement of the rifle, this incident, too, could have ended with a loss of lives.

The road from the Gaza Strip to Israel proper is unusually empty. Many of the 80,000 workers who leave Gaza daily to work in Israel have remained at home.

A young man standing in Ommar el-Mukhatar Street laughs when asked why he is not going to work. He answers in fluent Hebrew: “I will only go back to work when the Palestinian state is established.”

While Israeli policy makers talk of a “temporary wave of unrest,” some Palestinians seem to genuinely believe that this really is their war of independence.

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