Gaza Strip: a forgotten but crucial part of Mideast equation

To the casual observer, 18 years of Israeli occupation seem to have left this crowded slice of land curiously untouched. ``Gaza,'' says a Western diplomat who spends much of his time there, ``is like a `Planet of the Apes' movie in progress. It is literally the land that time forgot.''

This assessment is harsh, but largely accurate.

Far from the Israeli urban centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Gaza is relatively inaccessible and isolated. Once a driver passes the Israeli Army checkpoint on the border between pre-1967 Israel and the Gaza strip, he finds the countryside dotted with Bedouin shacks and tents, Arab villages, and refugee camps. Slow-moving donkey carts plod along the north-south highway, vying for road space with Arab taxis and trucks carrying citrus fruit.

The Gaza Strip is roughly 180 square miles of sand dunes and citrus groves which hug the Mediterranean coast from just below Ashkelon to the Egyptian border. It is less than five miles at its widest point. The strip is home to 500,000 Palestinians, more than half of whom are refugees and 13 percent of whom are Bedouin.

Gaza has long been the almost-forgotten element in any discussions on possible settlements of the Palestinian problem. When Israel was created in 1948, Jordan occupied the West Bank and later annexed it. Egypt administered the Gaza Strip, which was swamped by Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in Israel. Today, the world focuses on the more politicized, more hotly contested, West Bank, and Gaza seems to get thrown in as an afterthought to any arrangement.

``The reason is that if you figure in Gaza, then all is lost,'' says a Western diplomat who specializes in the area.

``If Israel were to annex the territories, how could you possibly absorb the Palestinians there [Gaza]?'' he asks, adding ``I can see at least a lot of liberal Israelis accepting liberal, middle-class Palestinians on the West Bank, but in Gaza, you have mostly Bedouin and farmers and that's a little hard to absorb.''

Israeli analysts have said that if Israel formally annexed the occupied territories -- Gaza and the West Bank, -- it would have to choose between enfranchis- ing the 1.5 million Arabs living there now or permanently segregating them as voteless residents in a state where they would quickly outnumber the Jews.

The alternatives to absorbing Gaza are granting it autonomy and/or linking it in a confederation with a West Bank-Jordanian entity. The strip's status is complicated by the fact that it has no physical connection with Jordan, and very little cultural or economic connection.

``Who do you turn it over to? Who would take it?'' the diplomat asks rhetorically. ``And if you cut it lose, grant autonomy there first, then it is a free-floating Palestinian entity.''

The Israeli presence, on the West Bank, is evident everywhere. Some 45,000 Jewish settlers have dramatically altered the skylines -- their multi-story apartment buildings and villas crown the hilltops, often just above small Arab villages. In Hebron, settlers have moved into the heart of the city. They, as well as weekend-shoppers from outside the West Bank, are seen in the market places of the large towns. The Israeli Army keeps a high profile throughout the West Bank, with foot patrols in the Ar ab areas and checkpoints all across the territory.

In all the Gaza Strip there are estimated to be only 1,000 to 1,200 Jewish settlers, in three blocs of settlements. The most dramatic evidence of these settlers is the barbed wire fences that enclose the land the government has expropriated for them -- 15 percent of the total.

The litany of Gaza's problems is long, the list of possible solutions short. It is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, with more than half of its population crowded into eight refugee camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The camps are mazes of unpaved streets with open sewers and tumbledown houses.

One-third of Gaza's workers travel to Israel every morning to jobs as day laborers in fields and factories. The only university in Gaza is a branch of the Cairo-based Al-Azhar Islamic University. There is no economic infrastructure, no tourist business, and no market for the citrus that is the mainstay of Gazan agriculture.

``Under Israeli occupation, everything good that Israel has to offer stops [on the Israeli side of] the Green Line,'' says Hattam Abu-Ghazzaleh, a Gazan physician who runs a school for mentally handicapped children in the strip. ``We pay taxes but we do not have the facilities or the benefits the Israelis do.''

Many Gazans seem largely resigned to the indefinite continuation of Israeli military occupation, expressing little hope that the efforts by Jordan's King Hussein will bring Israel to a negotiating table.

``The Israelis have got hold of this land and they don't want to give it up,'' says former Gazan Mayor Rashad Shawa, scion of one of the most influential local Palestinian familiies.

Shawa's niece, Alya Shawa, reflects the sort of pragmatic fatalism that seems predominant in the strip.

``The other day I bought a stack of Hebrew language tapes,'' Mrs. Shawa said. ``I figure the occupation isn't going to end any time soon, so I may as well learn the language.'' First of a three-part series

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