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Behind the Headlines: One Year Later, Gazan Jews and Arabs Agree Life Has Changed for the Worse

A year after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat sealed the Declaration of Principles with a handshake on the White House lawn, many Arab and Jewish residents here say that life has changed for the worse.

In Gaza City and in the teeming refugee camps where many of the strip’s 900,000 Arabs live in utter squalor, people sip sweet tea and denounce the agreement.

Equally unkind words can be heard within the 17 Jewish settlements of Gaza, where settlers say they are under siege.

There have been some obvious changes in the Palestinian autonomous region of Gaza, which is no longer under the control of the Israel Defense Force, and in the Jewish settlements, which now boast more protection from the army than ever before.

But both Jews and Arabs warn that appearances can be deceiving.

In the streets of Gaza City, hundreds of young men sweep the streets and paint over the graffiti left over from the six-year-long uprising against Israeli rule. After years of curfews and other restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities during the intifada, Palestinians are now free to walk along the beach at night and to visit restaurants and nightclubs.

Although many Palestinians still profess hate for what they continue to term “the Israeli occupation,” and bemoan the fact that they still do not have a state of their own, much of their anger seems to have been redirected toward Yasser Arafat and his government.

Their top complaints are the economy and the high rate of unemployment since the introduction of autonomy, followed by doubts over Arafat’s ability to rule.

Several Palestinians interviewed recently said they believed that elections would not take place in December or anytime soon after, ostensibly because Arafat fears losing his stronghold if elections are held.

SOME SEE BETTER DAYS AHEAD

Although they seem to be in the minority, some Gazans believe that the new self-rule begun in Gaza and Jericho will lead to better things, including an eventual Palestinian state.

Though there is the sense that life is freer since the army redeployed its forces outside the autonomous region in mid-May, many Gazans complain that real freedom eludes them.

“There is nothing new. Things may even be worse than they were before autonomy,” says Hisham Agra, 21, from the Jabalya refugee camp near Gaza City.

“The Israelis aren’t patrolling the towns and cities, but they are at the checkpoints,” he adds. “The soldiers can still make life very difficult for anyone wanting to leave the strip.”

The Jabalya camp, home to 65,000 refugees, is a filthy, overcrowded slum where raw sewage sometimes flows down the streets. Most residents live in buildings on the verge of collapse. Some of the ramshackle dwellings are shored up with tin or sheet metal.

The Agras, an extended family of 19, live in five bare rooms — a somewhat luxurious apartment by Jabalya standards. Refugees from the 1948 War of Independence, they dream of a life that no longer exists.

Sitting on a mattress on the floor — the family has no real furniture — Hisham Agra says that “since the agreement, Israel has reduced the number of Palestinian workers it will allow into Israel.

“This has made our financial situation even worse than it was before,” he says. “Even workers who had permits before the agreement have had trouble getting them renewed.”

Adnan Abu-Hassan, editor of a newspaper published by the Islamic Jihad, a fundamentalist group opposed to the self-rule accord and Arafat’s leadership, believes that the agreement is doomed to fail.

“This agreement was a big mistake,” Abu-Hassan asserts at a meeting in Gaza City. “People are suffering from the economic situation, the unemployment. The people running the government used to be soldiers. They know nothing about building a government.”

The editor does not mince words about the Islamic Jihad’s goals.

“We must destroy this agreement,” he says. “It will not lead us to any kind of independence.

“Our aim is open conflict,” Abu-Hassan says.

“We must resist Israel’s continuing occupation in Gaza, through armed struggle, through rallies and strikes,” he says, indicating that in his mind, occupation continues as long as Israelis — soldiers and civilians — exist anywhere in Gaza.

In response to such sentiment, Diab Nemer Allouh, media director of the PLO, said that “this is a democracy and anyone can voice ideas and be against the agreement.

‘ALL MUST OBEY THE LAW’

“However, no one from the opposition can take the law into his own hands,” the PLO official said. “All of us must obey the law.”

For their part, Jewish settlers in Gaza contend that the PLO says a lot, but actually does very little to end violence perpetrated by the Islamic Jihad, Hamas and other extremist groups.

Datya Herskovitz, spokeswoman for the Jewish settlements in Gaza, says that Jewish Gazans “feel much more vulnerable than they used to.

“Before the implementation of autonomy, the army could go after terrorists,” she says. “Now, if someone shoots at an Israeli car on the road, he can run into the autonomous area and the army can’t do anything.”

Citing official Israeli figures, Herskovitz notes that 68 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians in Israel and the territories over the past 12 months.

“That’s double the number from the same period last year,” she says. “It used to be a matter of stone-throwing. Now it’s a matter of guns.”

Anita Toker, a resident of the religious agricultural settlement of Netzer Hazani, says that she and her family “are not even considering leaving. This is our home, and it has been for 18 years.”

Toker, who oversees the settlement’s green-houses, says that “peace seems further and further away all the time. Before, when we drove on the road, we were threatened by rocks. Now we’re shot at with guns.”

Though the roads are less secure, Toker says, “we go on with our lives as before. We’re definitely not thinking of leaving.

“My great-grandparents fled Europe. My grandparents fled Poland. My parents fled Germany. I can’t see solving one refugee problem by turning us into refugees,” she says.

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