What one Gaza resident called the "first manifestation of Khomeini-style fanaticism in the [Israeli] occupied territories" is being carefully assessed here.
The resident was referring to an unprecedented wave of riots and burnings by Muslim extremists that rocked the Gaza Strip last week. The disturbances came just at a time when Egypt and Israel are considering applying Palestinian self-rule first in the Gaza Strip.
The major target of the rioters (about 500 youths) was the Gaza Red Crescent Medical Society, whose chairman, Dr. Haidar Medical Society, whose chairman, Dr. Haidar Abdul Shafei, is a leading leftist and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) supporter.
Chanting "no more communists" and "long live [Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini," the mob also gutted a liquor shop, a cinema, and a popular beachside restaurant.
Many Gazans of varying political views have criticized the Israeli occupation authorities for responding inadequately and too late to the rioters, who rampaged unchecked for at least 40 minutes, burned down one restuarant, unchallenged, in front of a police station, and were confronted at the Red Crescent Society by only one military jeep.
"It is very diifficult to convince the people that the [Israeli] authorities were not encouraging this," Dr. Shafei says. Israeli military sources in Gaza insist they had no prior knowledge of the riots, which they say were planned. The sources said, "There might have been a mistake" in handling the riots, and that "steps will be taken" against the police officers.
But they also insisted that "our policy is not to keep big Army units in Gaza City because it gives a bad image, and because of that there was only one jeep." (Palestinian observers noted that several Israeli Army jeeps quickly materialized a month ago when students demonstrated in Palestinian refugee camps in support of West Bank Mayor Bassem Shakaa of Nablus, who was then in prison.)
There is much speculation in Gaza as to what caused the riots, but certain factors are clear:
* The immediate trigger was the impending resignation of Sheikh Muhammad Awad , rector of the PLO in Beirut, Lebanon. According to informed Gazans, Sheikh Awad, who had wanted to expand his college into a religious university, was angered at plans of Dr. Shafei and his supporters to create a secular university in Gaza, and had been exhorting religious youths against the doctor. The riot began at a meeting of the directors of the Islamic college, which was crashed by the students.
* The rioters do have an indigenous fanatical Muslim base, rooted in a handful of extremist groups that have sprung up all over the Gaza Strip over the last year and a half, and that have operated more openly since the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.
Informed Gazans say that mosques in the teeming Palestinian refugee camps there have sprouted "prayer corners" where sheikhs cajole youths to adhere to extremist religious ideas. This phenomenon also has emerged among youth on the occupied West Bank, where student-council elections at Majjar University in Nablus were won by an Islamic slate six months ago.
The Islamic slate won more than one-third of the votes, mainly from the entering class, at the leading West Bank university, Bir Zeit, about a month ago.
Whether or not there are more sinister forces behind the riots cannot be proven. Palstinians in Gaza are convinced the Israelis at least tolerate, if not encourage, the extremist Muslims, in an effort to split Palestinian forces who oppose autonomy, and to discredit leftist and communist supporters of the PLO.