Tel Aviv Killing Prompts Talk of Gaza Withdrawal

An Israeli minister says occupied strip should be abandoned

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OUTSIDE a barbershop in south Tel Aviv, a knot of angry citizens kept vigil on Tuesday. A pot of wilted pink carnations and dozens of memorial candles marked the spot where Natan Azaria, the shop's owner, was stabbed to death Monday by a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip.

But most passersby stopped only for a moment, out of curiosity. Already, life on Aliyah Street had returned to normal, and resignation was the dominant mood.

"When an Arab is willing to come on a suicide mission, with nothing to lose, there is nothing you can do about it," said Aryeh Bar-On, who owns a furniture store next to the barbershop.

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Ziyad Silmi, a teenage Gazan, emerged from a taxi on Aliyah Street early on Monday morning, took two knives from his pocket, and went berserk. Before he was overpowered and beaten up by the crowd, he killed Azaria and a new immigrant from Russia, and wounded nine other bystanders.

He told police he was frustrated at being unable to find work, and so had decided to kill Jews.

The incident has again focused public debate on the threats to Israelis' personal safety, and on the wider issue of what to do about the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, where 750,000 Palestinians, mostly refugees, live in cramped poverty. Gaza closed indefinitely

Six Israelis have been killed this year, and 21 wounded, inside Israel by Palestinians wielding knives or - more rarely - guns. A January poll by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies here found that 85 percent of Israelis are fearful that they will be harmed by an Arab as they go about their daily business.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who echoed most Israelis' feelings when he said last year he wished the Gaza Strip would "drop into the sea," ordered Gaza closed off indefinitely on Tuesday morning, preventing its residents from entering Israel. But government officials acknowledged this was only a temporary solution.

"Maintaining the closure creates a situation where there is more hunger, more crisis, more despair," worries Housing Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a former coordinator of the occupied territories.

"It's like putting the lid on a pressure cooker. Eventually it will blow up," adds Ori Orr, chairman of the Knesset (parliament) security and foreign affairs committee.

On Aliyah Street, temporarily closing the Gaza Strip to the 45,000 Palestinians who normally cross into Israel every morning to work is fine as far as it goes. But the attitude of most people is summed up by Anzur Mumladaza, who runs a sandwich shop around the corner from the spot where Azaria was murdered. "Give Gaza back tomorrow, and seal it off hermetically," he says.

A modified version of that approach is shared by Health Minister Haim Ramon. "The best thing would be a political settlement" with the Palestinians in the Middle East peace talks, he argues. "But if there is no settlement within six months, we should announce that we will leave Gaza in a year or two years."

Giving up occupied territory is anathema to opposition figures such as Binyamin Netanyahu, front-runner for the leadership of the right-wing Likud Party. "If we leave [Gaza] unilaterally, the knife attackers will have succeeded," he complains. "They came and they made us afraid."

An Israeli withdrawal would also create monstrous problems in the poverty-stricken Gaza Strip, where 40 percent of the work force is unemployed, and where most of the little money to be had is earned in Israel.

Were Gazans to be denied that income, under a local regime that would cut the territory off from Israel, "people would starve, and you don't want that on your conscience even if they are killing Jews," Mr. Orr says. One solution

In south Tel Aviv, consciences have been blunted by the recent series of stabbings in the city. "Gaza could burn for all people around here care," Mr. Bar-On says.

But he himself takes a more sober view. "You have to give them new industry and the means to support themselves, otherwise, if you close them in, they will just come and kill you. Today there is no solution except a Palestinian state, and there is no point in wasting time on anything else."

On the lips of a self-declared lifelong supporter of the Likud, such a proposition sounds strange. But similar sentiments are common on Aliyah Street, where people are simply sick of Gaza, and of Gazans, and see separation as the only answer.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a solution, life goes on. "In a couple of days people will have forgotten about this knifing," says Mr. Mumladaza, sweeping the floor of his sandwich shop. "And then in a month or so, there will be another attack."

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