ON a recent trip to Gaza, my first since the Sept. 13 signing of the Israeli-PLO accord, I and some other Americans were driving down a road in South Rimal, a relatively well-to-do part of the city, when we came across a private home being demolished by the Israeli army. We got out of the car and approached the destruction just as the army was completing it. There, next to a mound of rubble that had been a home minutes before, stood a young man crying. His house had been destroyed because he had not had a permit to build it even though the land it sat on was his own. The scene was painfully familiar, but something about it struck me: In all the time I have spent in the Gaza Strip, I had never before seen a Gazan man cry.
The Dec. 13 peace accord deadline, the first step toward Palestinian autonomy, passed this week unmet. Any euphoria in Gaza has ended. It ended some time ago. Gaza is a society teetering on dissolution. Its people have been brutalized and tormented, abuse has begotten abuse. Israel has destroyed the local economy and for the first time since the occupation began, Palestinians in Gaza do not have enough food to eat. Since the closure of the Gaza Strip, imposed by Israel in March and still in effect, the average meal in a refugee household - 70 percent of Gazans are refugees - consists of bread, lentils, and rice, eaten twice a day.
Violence, insecurity, and death are everyday facts of life; no one, including children, is immune. The majority of Gazans are children but they've had no childhood. Instead, they have nightmares and masks. Many have guns. Their fathers are prevented from working; their mothers collect food rations. Production has ceded to desperate survival. Economic demise, continued repression, deteriorating conditions, and consistent political failures have taken a gruesome toll on Gazan civil society. Gone are the traditional family and its protections. Gone are indigenous leaders and systems of authority. Gone are community cohesion and consensus. Instead, there's fragmentation and factionalization. There are no structures in Gaza, only constituencies.
That Dec. 13 came and went, marked only by a suicide bomber and a dead child, is no surprise. The Israeli-PLO accord was not formulated or designed to heal Gaza's wounds. Gaza's initial euphoric response to the accord was similarly unconnected to its substance. Rather, Gazans rejoiced over the prospect of the Army's withdrawal and the possible return to a ``normal'' life. The absence of change has not only extinguished the rejoicing but forced Palestinians in Gaza to examine the specifics of the peace agreement for the first time.
The worry and rage one finds here center around two issues: First, the ability and willingness of the PLO to establish a democratic form of participatory government. Second, the alignment of political forces in the Strip, particularly the positioning of Fatah. The former derives from a growing fear that the PLO will become a new oppressor, since its survival is seen ultimately to depend upon Israel. Gazans will not tolerate another occupation, especially a Palestinian one. They are very vocal about that. There will be civil war first. Of that there should be no doubt.
The most intense debate, however, is directed to the future disposition of Gaza's political forces. There are many dividing lines in Gazan society: The inside (Gaza) and outside (Tunis); the ``haves'' and ``have nots''; the healthy and sick. The most tenacious division is political. But the widest and potentially most dangerous divide is not between political factions - Fatah and Hamas, as is often said, but within them. The problem is most acute inside Fatah.
Within Fatah, which consistently has the largest following in the Gaza Strip, there is a rapidly emerging chasm between what can be termed the old and young guard. The former are the older, traditional party loyalists who were largely marginalized during the intifadah (uprising). Yasser Arafat is bringing them back because they are ``dependable.'' The latter are the intifadah activists, the grass-roots leaders and community organizers who sat for years in prison camps like Ansar 3 for the ``cause.'' They are not ``dependable.'' In a recent meeting in Tunis, they refused to shake Mr. Arafat's hand. They are not deferential. They are a threat; the opposition is not limited to ``extremists.'' There is a seething among Fatah's younger guard that cannot be easily ignored.
Arafat's recent appointment of Mansour Shawa as mayor of Gaza is a case in point. Mr. Shawa, whose father was also mayor for many years, is a member of Gaza's very small and very wealthy elite - Gazan aristocracy, as it were. Shawa may actually make a good mayor. But in the political calculus of Gaza, in the minds of the people, he has not earned the right to try. For one thing, he was not elected but appointed. He has no popular base. He represents himself, and now, Yasser Arafat. More importantly, Shawa did not participate in the intifadah's battles: he was not imprisoned without trial, his children were not in the streets throwing stones and being shot, his family was not beaten or tear-gassed, his home was not violated. Shawa, like everyone else in Gaza, has a right to have a voice. But not a greater right.
There are myriad problems facing Palestinians and the PLO and they have been written about elsewhere. For Gaza, it boils down to two things: returning the capacity to control one's life, and basic fairness. With continued deprivation, nothing will be possible. Gazans will see to it. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.