A Gaza conflict threatens to expand

Israelis near the Gaza Strip fear Qassam rocket attacks. Palestinians worry about a military reoccupation.

Three shivering Palestinians in olive uniforms, Kalashnikovs draped over their shoulders, face a near impossible job: calming the Middle East conflict - or at least their corner of it.

Clusters of these security forces have appeared along dusty roadways and across from orange groves around the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in recent days to prevent militants from firing rockets towards Sderot, Israel, just 2.5 miles away. Their employer, the Palestinian Authority (PA), is concerned such firings could trigger an all-out Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.

A reconquest of Gaza, taken together with last year's reoccupation in the West Bank, would mean the fall of the last remnant of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. It would mark the final failure of the Oslo peace process, placing all major Palestinian population centers under Israeli control. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declared tersely last week that an invasion is being weighed. But Israel is also believed to be wary of the casualties the army would incur.

It has been quiet now for two weeks, but no one on either side is confident that this will last. "The Palestinian Authority cannot stop this," says Beit Hanoun resident Abdul-Qader Suleiman. "All it takes is one person firing between some trees."

Hours after the rockets crashed down on Sderot two weeks ago, causing no injuries, a US-made Israeli Apache helicopter circled and directed its machine gun fire toward targets in Beit Hanoun.

That sent families scrambling into the corners of their homes. "The kids were crying and shrieking the whole night," recalls Raed al-Athmana, a Beit Hanoun resident. "I was afraid for my children, that the helicopter would shoot at the house."

During the barrage, Israeli army commandos also struck, blowing up the four bridges that connect Beit Hanoun with the rest of the Gaza Strip in explosions that shattered windows and rattled houses. Eight civilians who lived near a bridge were wounded by one of the explosions, Palestinian officials said.

Hundreds of Sderot residents watched the action from the highest hill in their town, and some later said they felt relieved. "That helicopter did a great job," says teenager Elad Amar. "It really quieted the area down."

The two towns, separated by a border fence and a couple of miles of citrus groves and sand, offer a microcosm of the dread and hostility on both sides as the region opens a new chapter with the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Sharon is acclaimed in Sderot as a strong leader who knows how to subdue Arabs - and end the rocket fire. "At night, when I'm lying in bed, I sometimes think about the rockets," says Elad. "That maybe one will fall on my house. It bothers me a bit. I hope the prime minister does something about it."

But in Beit Hanoun, residents believe that Sharon intends to bring even more death and destruction their way. "If the Israelis chose Sharon, it means they don't want peace," said Mr. Suleiman. "They know he is bloodthirsty."

It is the primitive Qassam rocket, whose range is roughly the distance between the two towns, that has intertwined the futures of the two communities. Developed by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, the wildly inaccurate Qassam has thus far injured no one in Sderot. But its use has intensified over the past two months, and it has landed near schools.

"People are not in a panic, but they have become paranoid," says grocer Sasson Shara. "If they hear a sonic boom, they jump. People are speaking quietly about moving, but if there are deaths, they will speak it about it openly."

Analysts believe the dynamic of rocket-firings by militants, and Israeli use of massive military force, could pave the way for an Israeli reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, a crowded, impoverished coastal enclave populated mostly by refugees who were expelled in 1948 by Israeli forces or fled and their descendants.

"If there is no provocation, Israel will think twice, but if there are rockets there will be no choice for the government but to defend Israeli citizens," says Ephraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

Israel has sent its tanks into Beit Hanoun four times in the past two years. Sufian Hamad, the mayor, says that his concern is that the next time they will stay for good. Ismail Abu Shanab, a leader of Hamas, says suffering of civilians in Beit Hanoun from Israeli military measures is no reason to stop the Qassam firings. "By this argument, we should not resist the occupation in any way because it is so powerful. Any freedom has a price and the price should be paid by those determined to get their freedom."

He says the Qassam can do little physical harm but has "symbolic" power, showing Israel that even if it erects fences, it can still be hit. "The conclusion should be that Israelis will never be safe when they are occupying others."

Ten days ago, tension rose when three Israeli tank shells crashed into a soccer field in Beit Hanoun, wounding seven. The army said the soldiers had fired shots into the area after spotting Palestinians about to fire rockets into Israel.

In Beit Hanoun, accountant Yusuf Na'im stood at one of the destroyed bridges and asked: "Can this action really prevent Qassams from being fired? They are simply creating difficulties for the Palestinians in their daily lives. They want to destroy everything belonging to the Palestinians, their houses, trees, farms."

Mr. Na'im says he opposes the firing of the rockets because "they give Sharon an excuse to do what he wants to do against us. And anyway, they are not so effective."

The army said the bridges were destroyed because they were staging pads for launching rockets. Residents deny this, stressing that they were on main throughfares and would have left those firing the rockets exposed to Israeli fire.

Sderot municipality officials are urging that all of the northern Gaza Strip be transformed into a buffer zone occupied by the army, similar to the buffer area in south Lebanon that Israel occupied from 1982-2000.

"Sharon is the man to deal with the rocket problem," says municipality spokesman Shalom Halevy. "This is something you do not do with silk gloves."

The PA wants to halt the rockets, says Beit Hanoun mayor Sufian Hamad, but Israel has made this difficult. "Israel does not give the PA freedom to move its forces around. Instead, it has been destroying the PA. We can't even put people in prison, because they bomb our prisons."

He predicts that, regardless of whether rockets are fired, an Israeli invasion to destroy the PA "is only a matter of time."

A couple of miles away, Masarsha Fanta, an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant studying computer programming in Sderot, says he does not relish that prospect. "I was a soldier and I know what the Palestinians go through. If I was on their side I would be suffering. It really hurts to see when their houses are destroyed. How can you punish innocent children for the deeds of their relatives? It's the little people on both sides who suffer from all of this. It's very, very complicated. I try to see their side, but what about our buses being blown up?"

"The only way things will improve between us is with a peace agreement," he says. "And even then, don't expect things to suddenly become wonderful."

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