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Behind the Headlines: Gazans Vent Anger at Israel, Palestinian Authority Leaders

August 21, 1996
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Two years after falling under the control of the Palestinian Authority, many residents here believe that the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip still exists.

The only thing that has changed, they say, is that the Israeli leash has grown longer.

True, Israeli soldiers can no longer be seen in Gaza City. The endless lines at the city’s civil administration building are gone and voices on loudspeakers have ceased proclaiming a curfew every other day.

Widespread frustrations nonetheless persist.

When Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat triumphantly entered Gaza in July 1994, some people complained that Gaza was still a jail and that only the warden had changed.

In the two years since, the complaint remains the same — and the numbers of those voicing it appears to have increased.

“Salam, salam, kulu kalam” — Peace, peace, it’s all talk — said an elderly man on the beach promenade near the Shati refugee camp.

When the man began recounting his grievances, a friend hushed him, pointing to a nearby Palestinian policeman.

To a recent visitor on a tour of Gaza organized by the Tel Aviv-based International Center for Peace in the Middle East, the residents’ fear of the authorities was palpable.

According to the repeatedly issued complaints of Palestinian civil rights groups, Arafat has yet to establish a Palestinian state, but he has already formed a police state

Yola Haddadin, director of the Center for Rights and Law in Gaza, counted nine Palestinian prisoners who recently died of torture in Palestinian jails.

Palestinian leaders, as well as the average citizen, place the blame for the repressive security apparatus squarely at the man at the top.

“Arafat creates tension in the society,” said Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the elderly statesman who in 1991 led the Palestinian delegation to the first round of peace talks in Madrid and now is an elected member of the Palestinian Council, the legislative body in the self-rule areas.

“Nobody feels comfortable, and we are very worried and angry that human rights principles are not respected.”

An outspoken critic of the self-rule accords and a bitter enemy of Arafat, Abdel-Shafi put the former Israeli authorities and the Palestinian leader in the same pigeonhole: “It seems that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority do not respect human rights.”

Opposition to Arafat has grown considerably in the past few months.

In Gaza, the core of that opposition is the Hamas fundamentalist movement. In the West Bank, it is more widespread, including members of Arafat’s own Fatah mainstream movement.

The Palestinians are increasingly disenchanted with Arafat’s failure to bring them deliverance.

For most, the economic situation has worsened, mostly due to the closure that Israel imposed on the West Bank and Gaza when Hamas launched a series of terror attacks on Israel in February and March.

Israel has eased the closure in recent weeks, but unemployment among Gazans is still estimated to be about 50 percent.

Because of strict security controls, Gaza residents not only need permits to work in Israel; they must also get approval to travel abroad.

To cross the border from Gaza to Egypt, for instance, they need to pass first through the Palestinian checkpoint, then the Israeli and finally get the nod from Egyptian police.

There is always a good chance that one of the authorities will not grant the requisite approval, and the would-be traveler simply has to go back home.

One might expect Gazans to be directing much of their frustrations at Israel, but few people expressed such anger.

The reason is that they are so dependent on Israel, because they realize, as Hisham Dasouki, a Palestinian official in charge of border passes, put it, “Without Israel we cannot exist.”

The economy of Gaza is totally dependent on imports, mostly from Israel.

Dasouki said there were some 10,000 electrical appliances — washing machines, stoves, televisions — that the Israelis have prevented from entering the strip unless the Gazans pay the same rate of customs as Israelis do.

In theory, the Israelis have a case. They want to prevent the smuggling of cheap electric appliances from Gaza into Israel.

But the argument loses some steam when one considers that the average monthly salary in Gaza is $250 — for those lucky enough to be on a payroll. The average Israeli salary is four times as much.

Despite the constant reminders of poverty, one can find areas of Gaza City that provide a spark of hope.

Industrious entrepreneurs — with Persian Gulf money in their pockets — have invested in tourism projects, such as the Nawrass Seagull Tourist Resort and three glamorous hotels that have been built in the city during the past two years.

But only a relatively small segment of the population — businessmen who have learned how to turn giant profits in dire times — can take advantage of such places as the five-star Windmill Hotel, which charges $100 per night for a room.

It is also true that the city’s streets are cleaner than ever before, a result of public works projects initiated by the Palestinian Authority with funds provided by international donors.

For the first time in the history of Gaza, one can see clearly posted street and traffic signs.

New apartment dwellings are being erected — a partial solution to the high rate of unemployment — but it remains an open question where the average citizen will find the money to live in them.

Despair among Gazans runs deep, not only because many fear that the peace process is going nowhere, but also because they are so frustrated with Arafat’s leadership.

The lack of progress in the peace process, the abuse of human rights, the growing economic hardships — all these factors have pushed people away from Arafat.

But just how far? Is a renewed intifada, or Palestinian uprising, just around the corner? And would it be directed at Israel or Arafat?

Almost everyone encountered during the visit here ruled out either possibility.

“I have a message to the Israeli people,” said the man at the Shati refugee camp: “Do not count on an internal Palestinian strife, because all the people here are brothers and cousins. Even if the present situation continues for 100 years, there will not be a civil war between the Palestinians.”

Bassem Id, a human rights activist, also discounted the possibility of an intifada, regardless of whom it was directed at.

The reason he gave struck to the heart of the despair felt by many here:

“The people are too tired and frustrated for another uprising.”

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