The densely populated Gaza Strip -- normally a calm, almost sleepy Palestinian area given to citrus cultivation, fishing, and migrant labor -- is experiencing more turmoil today than at any other time in the past decade.
Israeli authorities appear to be undermining the Gaza economy, locking away land and resources, and pressuring Gaza residents to leave. Gazans have responded by taking to the streets in protest, but the Israeli Army has been exceptionally harsh: Since April 12, 130 civilians have been wounded and three killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers.
Behind all this are Israeli preparations for the possibility that the Gaza Strip will be a frontline Israeli security border with Egypt after April 25, if Israel completes its scheduled withdrawal from the neighboring Sinai Peninsula. Although Israel captured both in the 1967 war, only Sinai is to be returned to Egypt.
In recent interviews with the Monitor, Israeli specialists in Arab affairs have indicated that Gaza, unlike the West Bank or Golan Heights, could conceivably be relinquished to at least partial Egyptian control under some future ''autonomy'' scheme. But the situation on the ground here indicates Israel is intent on keeping Gaza under its control and pressuring Palestinians to emigrate.
''Yes, it is true, people are leaving,'' says Dr. Heder Abdel Shafi, head of the Gaza Red Crescent (local Red Cross). ''They are going to the United States and Latin America. But those who are staying are taking this as a challenge and are determined to hold out.''
''The Israelis want to crush the people,'' contends Gaza Mayor Rachad Shawa. ''They want to make them beggars. They want to drive them out of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.''
Mr. Shawa, a longtime moderate among Palestinian leaders, says that in recent months Israeli authorities have been attempting to isolate and weaken the 500, 000 Gazans. Their methods have included:
* Travel restrictions. Hundreds of Gazans are barred from visiting the West Bank for ''security reasons,'' and many more West Bankers are kept out of Gaza. Mayor Shawa is under town arrest.
* Economic pressure. Farmers are being denied permission to export their citrus and vegetables across the Jordan River into the Arab world or even into Israel proper.
* Israeli settlements. Although Gaza, with its teeming, impoverished refugee camps, is one of the most populated spots in the Levant, Israel has erected 10 settlements here. The settlements will buffer Gaza from the new Egyptian border.
In addition, two fortified Israeli military outposts were recently set up in Gaza City itself, and a stretch of land north of the city has been declared a military zone closed for development.
Following the April 11 shooting incident at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Gaza Palestinians reacted sharply, in some cases raising the Palestinian flag, setting tires alight, and stoning police patrols. A weeklong general strike was scrupulously kept, observers report. But the casualties that resulted have caused Gaza leaders to wonder whether violent resistance is viable.
''The people are defenseless,'' says Dr. Shafi. ''They have been disarmed, harassed, deprived of any realufquoteThe situation on the ground here indicates Israel is intent on keeping Gaza under its control and pressuring Palestinians to emigrate.
means of facing a determined, overarmed occupier. If it continues this way, it is counterproductive. I believe we should try passive resistance and a boycott of Israel. Stone throwing, I don't agree with.''
What seem to have hurt Gaza the most are hindrances Israeli authorities have placed in the way of citrus exports.
''We live on the citrus crop,'' says Mr. Shawa, himself a major citrus grower. ''They have stopped all of my export citrus going to Jordan.''
Mr. Shawa claims to have lost $100,000 so far this year. Citrus brings an estimated $70 million per year into the Gaza economy.
Both Messrs. Shawa and Shafi admit the 40,000 to 50,000 Gazan workers who drive into Israel daily depend on Israeli wages. But these laborers are coming under increasing social pressure to boycott their jobs during protests.
''Our workers need those jobs,'' Mr. Shawa says. ''But soon even these workers will join the strikes.''
In this climate, say the two civic leaders, the possibility of a second step in the Camp David peace process to give West Bank and Gaza residents ''self-determination'' seems remote.
''No one,'' says Dr. Shafi, ''is talking about coexistence.''