UNDER a cool shade tree in a hot land, 23-year-old ``Hassan'' describes how he and other Arab activists are challenging Israel's latest measure to quell the 21-month Palestinian uprising. Several times each week, he says, Hassan and a dozen other local uprising leaders don black pants, shirts, and masks. Using intelligence culled through an elaborate network of neighborhood informers, the shebab make ``house calls'' in the squalid blocks of Gaza's Nuseirat refugee camp. Their goal: to confiscate plastic identification cards now required by Israel as a means of tightening control over Gaza's restive population of 700,000.
Responding to persuasion or outright threats, thousands of Gazans have relinquished the cards, required for entry into Israel where 65,000 Gazans earn a living. Faced with such massive local resistance, Israel has been forced to postpone indefinitely the date by which Gazans not crossing into Israel are required to carry the new cards.
But now there are signs that the summer-long campaign against the new ID system is faltering. Following a two-week boycott of jobs in Israel, which ended on Sept. 1, many Gazans say they can no longer afford to stay away from work. Meanwhile, local organizers like ``Hassan'' are facing growing opposition from leaders of the unified uprising command who argue that, with no realistic employoment alternatives in Gaza, it is pointless to continue the costly stay-at-home strikes.
``What can I do?'' asks one Gazan who last week violated the boycott by reporting to work in Israel. ``I'm out of money. I have 12 mouths to feed. I have to work.''
``We're afraid of both sides,'' adds another Gaza laborer of the conflicting pressures imposed by Israel and the intifadah leadership. ``I want to support the uprising, but I also have to feed my family. I don't know what to do.''
Under the new system invoked by Israel last June, all males between 16 and 60 are required to obtain the computerized plastic cards to cross into Israel. The system is intended to prevent Gazans involved in the intifadah from entering Israel. It is also a means of enforcing payment of back taxes and strengthening Israel's authority in Gaza.
The magnetically encoded cards, which will provide authorities with instant access to information about card holders, may eventually be required in the West Bank.
During the two-week work stoppage, the number of workers leaving Gaza slowed to a trickle. But Israeli security sources said about 1,000 cars passed through the two main checkpoints out of Gaza on Sunday.
This is the fourth time Israel has used administrative measures to break the morale of rebellious Gaza Palestinians but only the first time such measures have been actively resisted. In March 1988 all Gazans were required to obtain new ID cards, creating a tangle of long lines under the hot Mediterranean sun. Later, car owners were obliged to obtain new license plates, then windshield stickers for their vehicles.
``It's a policy to calm down the intifadah, to engage us in administrative details so we won't think about the intifadah,'' says a Gazan who waits in line near the Erez checkpoint to obtain the plastic ID card.
``As long as the United States stands behind Israel, they'll continue doing this to us,'' adds the Gazan, voicing a sentiment increasingly prevalent in the occupied territories.
The expected collapse of Palestinian resistance to the new ID system stems from the economic vulnerability of Gazans. Although Gazans are used to a low standard of living, made bearable by assistance from the UN Relief and Works Agency, the work stoppage has put many at the financial breaking point.
The plight of the Gazans has been complicated by fact that some jobs vacated during the work boycott have been taken over by West Bank Palestinians, posing a threat to the solidarity between the two territories which has been crucial to sustaining the uprising.
Palestinians point to two achievements of the protest against the new ID cards.
By prompting Gazans, including many leading activists, to temporarily boycott jobs in Israel, the measure has resulted in a dramatic increase in violence in Gaza, just as many Israeli officials and foreign journalists were reporting that the uprising was running out of steam. According to one knowledgeable Gaza source, nine Palestinians were killed and 186 wounded by live ammunition in the weeks since the protest began on Aug. 18.
Palestinians also say the new card system constitutes an unwitting acknowledgment by Israel that Gaza is, in effect, a foreign territory and its residents foreign workers.
``The plastic card is essentially a visa,'' says a Gaza journalist. ``Since you have to have the card, it's a way of admitting that Gaza is not part of Israel.''
``We are in a war,'' says a defiant Hassan, who reluctantly contemplates the possibility that the resistance he has helped to spearhead may founder.
``If the lose this battle, we will keep on. Israel will not win anything because Gazans have already lost everything.''