Gaza: Things Change, yet Remain the Same

Despite new freedoms, a year after peace deal, residents still feel force of Israeli control

THE once deserted beaches are bustling with people strolling on the golden sand or sipping tea and fresh mango juice in the long row of cafes that borders the Mediterranean Sea.

Gaza City, lit up at night, is a dramatic contrast to the dark, deadly silent port that was under curfew until the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops last May from the ``Arab-populated'' areas of the strip.

``People who have not been to Gaza before the Israeli withdrawal cannot appreciate the changes,'' says Aqil Mattar, an engineer and businessman who lives here.

Yet a year after the signing in Washington of the historic agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to set up limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the the West Bank town of Jericho, Gazans still feel the heavy hand of the Israelis.

The relatively lively and cheerful mood at the crowded seaside cafes is only one aspect of today's life in Gaza.

At 2 a.m., a grim reality unfolds, revealing another side of life that starts shortly after midnight and continues through a long night and subsequent day of toil.

Workers gather

Skilled and unskilled workers, and an army of unemployed Gazans that numbers several thousand, gather in the poor al-Shajiyah neighborhood to take buses to the Erez border crossing to seek work in Israel.

The buses drop the workers at an Israeli checkpoint a half-mile before the crossing - within the territories that have come under the Palestinian Authority (PA) set up by the PLO two months ago to run the autonomous areas.

Sleepy workers go through a six-foot-wide tunnel erected recently by the Israelis, with the PA approval, to prevent a possible outburst of anger by frustrated Gazans. On one side, a thin cement wall isolates the workers from the main street, while a barbed-wire fence separates the tunnel from a deserted field. Palestinians of all ages carry lunches packed in plastic bags or straw baskets through the tunnel with bowed heads.

``Last year I celebrated the agreement - it gave us real hope,'' a young construction worker says, as he walks briskly through the tunnel.

``Now all I see is the end of this tunnel,'' he says bitterly. He was met on the Israeli side of the tunnel by five machine-gun-toting Israeli soldiers who watch the workers as they enter ``the waiting square.''

A big yellow billboard warns the workers in Arabic and Hebrew: ``You should wait in the square until your [Israeli] employer comes to fetch you, otherwise you will be returned to Gaza.''

Not being able to enter Israel simply means, for most workers, depriving their families of daily bread. Those who have not secured jobs in Israel - found mostly in construction - wait for hours at Erez, hoping that Israeli contractors will come looking and select new workers.

``Last year we thought we would see an end to this humiliating slave market. We thought that it would end with the end of Israeli occupation,'' says a middle-aged taxi driver. ``But the occupation has not ended, while Abu Ammar [PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat] accepts this humiliation.''

The driver echoed sentiments heard all across the Gaza Strip these days. Many now blame Mr. Arafat for accepting Israeli terms that in their view have not brought fundamental change and have not eased economic hardship.

PA officials are aware of popular resentment, but argue that for the time being they have no choice. Taking over the autonomous areas without adequate funds, and having to deal with a devastated infrastructure, Arafat has been compelled, aides say, to insist that Israel allow workers to find jobs in Israel in spite of the derogatory terms and the continued dependency on Israel.

According to Gazans and Palestinian officials, Arafat is having to make all kinds of business deals in the name of the PLO with Israeli companies to ensure the flow of cement, electricity, and fuel.

News of the deals, which are no longer a secret, have elicited anger, and in many cases, contempt for the Palestinian leadership.

``Before they arrived [PLO leaders] we viewed them as giant leaders. Now they are dwarfed by their subservience to Israel,'' says a waiter who works for a hotel where PA members stay.

Citizens object to appointments

But perhaps what people here seem to be most distressed about is that Arafat has been appointing people to sensitive administrative posts who lack nationalist credentials, while some economic projects have been given, with Arafat's approval, to well-known Israeli collaborators.

PA officials do not deny that some posts and projects were awarded to collaborators with Israel. But while some senior PA officials are very upset about that, others argue that Arafat had no choice.

``It is the nature of the transitional stage. Israel has the upper hand, and Arafat is trying to use these people to make the economy work, and politically neutralize them - at least in the immediate future,'' says a well-placed Palestinian official source.

But in the refugee camps, the coffee shops, and the streets of Gaza, these actions are undermining the credibility of the PLO and the PA.

``This is totally unacceptable. The PA is giving legitimacy to and protecting collaborators while those who had made sacrifices are marginalized and deprived of jobs,'' snaps the elderly Abu Youssef, from the southern refugee camp of Rafah, who lost two sons in the intifadah (uprising) against Israel between 1987 and 1990.

Yet in this very pessimistic picture, there seems to be a gleam of hope.

``The situation is disastrous. But our people who have resisted the occupation for a long time will not accept this. Our hope lies in engaging in nation-building despite the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement,'' says Hani Habib, who has returned from exile to manage a new newspaper.

One of the successes the PA claims is the setting up of the Palestinian Police Force. According to most Palestinians, the Palestinian police force has brought stability, security, and restored order to the autonomous areas.

There has been a clampdown on drug trafficking and smuggled goods between Israel and Gaza and Egypt and Gaza as well.

``Fear, especially within the refugee camps, has been replaced by a feeling of protection,'' says Khetam Abu Samhadmeh, a student who resides in Rafah refugee camp.

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