Arabs Fear War-Long Curfew

Strict confinement brings Israeli-occupied territories to standstill

ISRAEL continues its return to normal life, despite the threat still posed by Iraqi Scud missiles. But in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, no such return to normality has been possible for 1.7 million Palestinians. One of the strictest curfews ever, imposed within minutes of war breaking out in the Gulf region, remains in force.

With food running out, crops spoiling in the fields, and workers unable to make a living, Palestinians, United Nations officials, and volunteer organizations all say the situation is becoming desperate.

``The shops are beginning to run out of food and people have not been to work for 10 days,'' says Alex Pollock of the UN Association for International Service.

Large numbers of Palestinian workers depend on day jobs in Israel for their livelihood.

``They're fast running out of money to buy the basic necessities for their families,'' Dr. Pollock says. In many cases, he adds, the curfew has simply meant that food is not getting to the shops.

``Distribution is not taking place effectively. Farmers are being restricted in the production and harvesting of their crops and food production factories have been closed down.

``This curfew has brought the whole Palestinian economy to a virtual standstill,'' Pollock says.

In most places the curfew has been lifted, every three or four days, for a few hours at a time. In the West Bank town of Jericho, the streets were bustling at the weekend as local people enjoyed their second respite in 10 days.

When asked how they were spending their time at home, people said they were playing cards and watching videos.

Saeb Erakat, a professor of political science at a Nablus university, recalled how the curfew started. ``Somebody called me from the states to tell me that war broke out in the Gulf. It was about 2:15 in the morning on the 17th. At 2:30, we heard Israeli jeeps with microphones telling us Jericho was under curfew and warning residents that if they left their doors they would be shot at.''

Punishments for curfew-breakers have been severe. Fines of several hundred dollars have been imposed (the maximum was raised to $15,000), and there have been numerous reports of beatings, the use of tear gas, and arbitrary arrests.

A special Coordinating Committee of International Nongovernmental Organizations has been set up to monitor the curfew. Its opening statement expressed concern at the measures taken to enforce the curfew.

``There has been an alarming rise in the degree and number of human rights violations during the curfew,'' the statement said. ``We call on the international community to demand that Israeli authorities immediately lift the curfew.''

Sari Nusseibah, a leading Palestinian activist, was jailed without trial Tuesday on allegations of spying for Iraq. Palestinians say the arrest of the Oxford-educated philosophy professor was directed against the uprising in the territories.

War-long curfew?

No end to the curfew is yet in sight, leading many Palestinians to conclude that it's likely to last as long as the war in the Gulf.

``We are looking at it,'' says Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai, the Army's chief spokesman. ``If there is a reason that we believe that [the Palestinians] are not going to demonstrate and disrupt our activities, we'll probably lift the curfew. But for the time being, the decision is to keep the curfew as it is.''

Nor does international pressure on Israel to lift the curfew seem likely. Israel's policy of restraint, following Iraq's missile attacks, has won the country more international sympathy than it has enjoyed in over a decade.

Even the European Community, which has frequently criticized Israeli practices, has softened its line. Restrictions imposed more than a year ago to protest the forced closure of Palestinian universities were lifted last week, despite the fact that almost all of the institutions in question remain closed.

``The adoption of this decision is an expression of the Community's appreciation of and understanding for Israel's position and in view of Iraq's aggression against her,'' suggests an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Reports of Palestinians celebrating as Iraqi missiles fly overhead toward Tel Aviv have shocked Israelis, convincing them that Palestinians share Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's objective of destroying Israel.

Public order not the issue

Pollock says the curfew has nothing to do with maintaining public order. ``It's a wartime curfew, being imposed on a population which is not at war,'' he says. ``If it continues indefinitely, then it ceases to be a curfew and becomes a form of internment of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories.''

Mr. Erakat says the curfew is having a psychological, as well as an economic impact. ``Even the people of Baghdad [go] into the streets, and here we are not allowed to open the doors of our homes,'' he says.

``To force 1.7 million people, by gun, to be in their homes, to abandon their farms and factories, and children without schools, are clear-cut violation of human rights. And nobody seems to care about it.''

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