A message of struggle is wiped from the walls of Gaza

In an effort to stop anti-Israeli incitement, the Palestinian Authority is cracking down on graffiti in the Gaza Strip

First, Palestinian fighters were told to take their fingers off the triggers and give the Palestinian Authority's cease-fire a chance. Now, Gaza's graffiti artists are being ordered to put their spray cans back on the shelf.

"There is a decision to stop writing graffiti," says Ahmad Helles, a youth leader in the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority (PA) president Yasser Arafat.

"Anyone who violates it will be warned, and then face suspension," adds Mr. Helles, himself a prolific contributor to Gaza City's omnipresent - and at times ominous - graffiti. The markings serve as billboards for Gaza's numerous factions and include calls for revenge and for resistance against Israel. They are also a chronicle of popular sentiment. But the harsh sentiment is being whitewashed - for now.

"We are acting in keeping with the new political situation," says Salah Abu Daya, an aide to Gaza City's PA-appointed mayor, Sa'ed Kharma. The PA last week also issued a directive to newspapers reviving a pre-intifada order to refrain from "incitement" against Israel, something journalists say is highly problematic because Israel can argue that any criticism is "incitement"

A senior Israeli security official, David Haham, says the painting over of slogans and what he terms a "degree of reduction in incitement" in the electronic media are part of the "same positive trend."

"These are first steps, but they create a certain atmosphere and they have importance. Words can kill. It shows the Palestinian Authority is more serious and responsible now," he said.

Since the days of the first intifada in 1987, graffiti has been an integral part of Palestinian nationalism. The practice went into decline with the launch of self-rule, when Japan sponsored the whitewashing of Gaza City's walls as part of what turned out to be a false promise of a new era.

During the current uprising, graffiti and wall art made a comeback, emphasizing fallen leaders, fighters, and civilians through larger-than-life portraits.

But that may be changing as a result of the three-month cease-fire announced two weeks ago by the Palestinian Authority.

"We have to respect the authority's efforts and to respect any steps to achieve negotiations, even if we have doubts," explains Maissa Abu Zeidan, a Fatah youth movement leader and the artist of a depiction of Palestinian children drawn next to the Palestinian Legislative Council building.

The Fatah decision backs up an effort launched by the Gaza municipality to clear the walls, thus far centered on three main streets. The municipality terms it "beautification" but in fact the white paint is so thin that often the slogans are still discernible and it is applied so sparingly that parts of the wall are left their previous drab grey.

Intimidating graffiti is by no means a monopoly of the Palestinians. In Jerusalem early this year, a group of Israeli volunteers disturbed by the frequent "Death to the Arabs" and "Expel the Arabs" slogans on walls took it upon themselves to paint them over after the municipality left them intact.

In Gaza, the symbolic effort to herald a new era is evoking, like the cease-fire itself, emotions ranging from guarded hope to unrelenting skepticism.

On the street, the transformation is not to everyone's liking.

"It all looks very strange without the writing," said a student at the entrance to the Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, where the city wiped out slogans but left some paintings of slain leaders and fighters intact.

"We will continue our uprising," "Sharon should be put on trial for war crimes," and "Jerusalem is the flower in our eyes," were among the messages that used to be there. A few streets away, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed wing of Fatah, had also lost its defiant vow: "We will never kneel. We die standing up." It had been whitewashed.

Even a huge "The commander Abu Amar [Mr. Arafat] lives" is now only barely visible through the fresh paint on the wall of a nearby police station.

The painting "is what the Americans, Europeans, and Israelis want, not what we want," says the student, who asked not to be identified. "In our situation of resistance we should write. The wall is a wall of resistance, it increases the strength of the people."

A friend disagrees, saying; "This is the right time to remove it. The intifada is about to end, so it should go."

In the Fatah offices, Helles proudly recalls his graffiti-writing career, now coming to a close - perhaps. An environmental science graduate who wore an off-white dress shirt, and a portable phone strapped to his belt, he seems an unlikely street scrawler. But he explains that the practice is not just for young teens.

"When sometimes we feel a need to express ourselves we go out at night and do it as a group," he says. He adds that the Fatah youth movement allocates a small budget for wall writing. "It's not so different from writing for a newspaper," says Helles. "But it has the advantage of getting the message across very cheaply. For a little money you can get a bottle of colors and a sprayer."

Helles says of the cease-fire. "If it does not give us our rights and if the conflict continues, than our drawing will continue." The partly painted walls of Gaza would "be a good place to start writing again. They are white and clean."

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