Israelis leave, Gazans pick up the pieces

Israeli forces began pulling out of Gaza on Monday, and from Bethlehem Tuesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Faisal Shawwa, Palestinian olive grower and US citizen, is a man in search of compensation.

In late May, Israeli bulldozers plowed under 1,524 of his five-year-old olive trees - leaving a lone tree standing. The Israelis also destroyed an automated well and the irrigation system that delivered water to the trees. "It's not for security, it's just hate," Mr. Shawwa says. He plans to sue the Israeli government.

He and some other businesspeople in this northern Gaza town are stunned by what they are finding in the wake of the Israeli military's withdrawal: industrial buildings flattened, machinery ripped apart, trees uprooted.

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"It's an earthquake," says the Palestinian Authority's governor for Gaza, Mohammed al-Qudwa, standing amid the remains of what was once the territory's largest floor-tile factory. "This is the destruction of the economic infrastructure of the Palestinian people;it's not for security reasons," he adds, citing the Israeli rationale for the demolition of trees and buildings.

"There isn't an ulterior motive. Beit Hanoun turned into a launchpad for the firing of rockets and mortars into Israeli towns," says Major Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokesperson. She estimates that the Palestinians fired some 250 rockets and mortars from the northern Gaza Strip. "We do not engage in collective punishment as the Palestinians wish to think," she adds. "But people who harbor and support terrorism will pay the price."

Beginning late Sunday, Israel began withdrawing from this town of some this town of some 30,000 people, ending an incursion that lasted about a month and half. The move marked Israel's first significant action in support of a US-backed peace effort, known as the road map, that Israel and the Palestinians have pledged to follow.

Tuesday Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas greeted each other warmly and emphasized their commitment to peace ahead of a meeting in Jerusalem. "I will make every effort to achieve a political settlement," Mr. Sharon said, "which will lead to calm - with God's help - to peace."

"Our conflict with you is a political conflict and we will end it through political means," responded Mr. Abbas.

Over the course of the past two years, Israel occupied Beit Hanoun perhaps a half-dozen times. But in eradicating the threats emanating from Beit Hanoun, the Israelis did their work with a thoroughness that has Palestinians wondering if economic motives were at play.

Jamil Abu Ghalion, the burly, square-faced owner of the floor-tile factory, wandered through his facility Tuesday with the corners of his mouth turned down and his palms sometimes turned upward in exasperation. He says he has no plans to rebuild. "With what?" he asks. "Who is going to compensate us?"

He and the governor speculate that the Israelis destroyed the factory - dismantling and smashing machinery, emptying scores of bags of white cement, piercing the corrugated-metal roof with bullets - because it competes with businesses in Israel.

But security was also a consideration. The Israelis had set up a military outpost in an office building adjacent to the factory and on June 25 two Hamas members either attacked the outpost or were spotted by the Israelis as they passed nearby. A gunfight ensued in which the two Hamas men were killed and an Israeli soldier was injured.

Palestinian businessmen who work in the area say much of destruction was carried out after the gunfight. Even so, the painstaking trashing of the factory prompted accusations of economic sabotage. "They selected what they wanted to destroy," said one businessman in the governor's entourage who declined to be identified by name. "They destroyed everything so no one can repair it."

At another business in Beit Hanoun's industrial area, workers are still puzzling over why the Israelis razed a huge, brand-new cattle shed on May 21. Today the Afana Products Company's $800,000 investment is a heap of twisted metal columns and crumpled sheeting.

The Israeli bulldozers, says company accountant Nizar al-Helou, went to the trouble of digging a hole to bury the wreckage of the structure.

He concedes that the shed may have had some strategic significance - it sat on a gentle rise - but speculates that the true motive was economic "revenge" against a big company.

Shawwa, the olive grower, offers a different explanation for the razing of his grove: "Water, water, water." This theory, he suggests, explains why the Israelis attacked his well in addition to his trees.

He and a cousin argue that the Israelis want to destroy Palestinian agriculture in order to reduce water consumption, leaving more in the ground for Israel.

Across the road from his grove, Shawwa's uncle Salah, a retired grower, stands in his front yard and supervises the construction of a new fence. Israeli forces used his property and to create a checkpoint along the road.

A small, gray-haired man with a few missing teeth, he also mourns for his garden. "They uprooted all of my trees... olive, tangerine, lemon, grapefruit, pomelo. I was keeping all the old citrus of Palestine," he explains.

Salah Shawwa, part of a venerable and wealthy Gaza family, says he is wary about the future. Rather than rebuild his wall in cement and brick, he is opting for cheaper chainlink and barbed wire. Israel forces, in repeat incursions, have already destroyed one rebuilt fence.

He is not alone in his skepticism. "There is no business," says the member of the governor's entourage, repeating the phrase twice more. "Everyone is cautious now. Everyone has to think not twice but 20 times before doing business in the Palestinian territories when they see this happen.... Capital is a coward."

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