Gaza: There Is No Peace Process Here

The tragedy of Hebron has led to intensified bitterness and agonized soul-searching among Israelis and Palestinians. Will they be able to overcome their differences, including internal turmoil?

PALESTINE Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis indicates that Palestinian and Israeli officials have agreed to station lightly armed foreign observers in Hebron. Similar forces are being discussed for Gaza and Jericho. A compromise has been reached over a piecemeal deployment of a Palestinian police force. But disagreements continue over who will command it. According to the United States administration, the Palestinian police will be under Israeli control.

Whatever compromise is eventually reached, it will not satisfy Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, the place where peace is supposed to begin.

The momentary euphoria that surrounded the signing of the Sept. 13, 1993, peace agreement has since been replaced by a deadening paralysis. ``You ask us to think,'' a Gazan friend said to me during a recent trip to the area in February: ``we can't even feel.'' There is no peace in Gaza - no peace process, no prospect of peace. For Gazans, the agreement is hollow. Its flaws have exacerbated old problems and created new ones. The Hebron massacre and the recent 22-hour Army assault on Hamas activists in Hebron further magnified what people in Gaza already felt: They are vulnerable, unprotected, abandoned.

As the PLO inches back to the negotiating table and officials on both sides talk optimistically of timetables and deadlines, Gazan society is breaking apart. Its dissolution is tied to the very agreement everyone is rushing to put in place.

Since Sept. 13, oppression in the Gaza Strip has increased. But there are now two oppressors: Israel and the PLO. The political and social disorder that have resulted have no precedent.

That the occupation continues to be brutal is no surprise. Military practices remain malicious; in particular, the number of injuries are high. Children continued to be hurt and killed in large numbers. More live ammunition is used: Between the signing of the peace accord and Dec. 31, for example, 30 Gazans were killed by Israeli forces and 1,100 were wounded, 500 of whom were children. Of the wounded, about half were shot with live ammunition.

With the signing of the agreement, the Israeli government engaged in some new policies. One such policy, perhaps the most damaging to social cohesion, is official inactivity in light of Gaza's growing gun use. The proliferation of arms in the Gaza Strip is a new phenomenon resulting from a profound sense of insecurity among Palestinians. The virtual collapse of the economy and the breakdown of critical support structures - family, school, community - have left Gazan society reeling. The agreement's failure to deliver anything but continued political fragmentation is a decisive blow. The need to take the law into one's hands has become the perceived way to protect oneself and one's family. The resulting lawlessness has been fueled by the widespread use of guns.

Guns have always existed in Gaza but were hidden, since possession meant 15 years in prison. Now the guns are being used, and new ones are being smuggled into Gaza from Israel, a practice the Israeli authorities have not stopped. Why is Israel allowing guns into Gaza if Israelis are so anxious to leave? The use of arms foment internecine violence and social disorder. A fractured, anarchic Gaza will be that much harder for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to control. So weakened, he will be more dependent on Israel to enforce his rule.

Mr. Arafat has good reason to be worried. Even before the tragedy in Hebron, popular support for Fatah and the peace agreement was eroding. The inability to deliver badly needed change in the months after the signing led to a crisis of confidence in Arafat and the PLO leadership. This loss of confidence has turned into feelings of betrayal and abandonment as Arafat and the PLO began implementing policies that exacerbated Gaza's already terrible political and social fragmentation.

The most objectionable PLO policy is that of appointments. The very act of appointment is bad enough; but it is the appointees that cause the most bitterness. Putting older, traditional Fatah loyalists into positions of authority has alienated large segments of Gaza's younger party leadership who spent years in Israeli prisons for their activism. The older guard commands little respect, while the younger enjoys grass-roots support. Arafat's marginalization of the young is perceived as an act of desertion.

The most pernicious appointments are those of Palestinians accused of working with the Israeli authorities. In Gaza, their appointment has been met with outrage and disbelief. After Arafat's appointment of a well-known local collaborator, three political factions in Gaza, including Fatah itself, issued a joint condemnation. But to no avail. Why would Arafat embrace such hated individuals? Perhaps because their loyalty is easy to buy and sustain. This strategy, however, is very near-sighted, particularly as support for the peace agreement evaporates.

Arafat's appointment policies are also ripping Fatah apart. The erosion of consensus is so acute that some Fatah officials in Gaza believe Arafat is deliberately trying to destroy the party, still Gaza's largest, in order to rebuild it in a more acceptable form. Consequently, Fatah is increasingly seen as a reactionary, regressive force promoting dissension and discord.

Gaza is on the verge of collapse. Fatah's political disintegration, increased interfactional tensions, the absence of a coherent, respected leadership, and the loss of mediating institutions are four manifestations of Gaza's approaching breakdown. There are more: the total lack of authority and increased lawlessness, the emergence of guns and armed youth gangs, the reemergence of drug dealing, the rapid devolving of the economy and growing pauperization, the disintegration of the community as a social and political actor, the lack of unity, and a diminished psychological capacity.

What do Gazans want? Right now, they want protection from abuse. They want to walk their streets without fear of being shot. They want to earn a decent living and provide enough food for their children to eat. They want a leadership they can trust. They want order, predictability, and accountability. Sovereignty can wait.

With the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace agreement, Gazans entered a new phase in their struggle against Israeli occupation. Tragically, this phase is marked by new problems and a dramatically weakened capacity to deal with them. In response, Palestinians in Gaza have disengaged politically and socially. It will take much more than the resumption of negotiations and the speedy implementation of the agreement to change that. It will take more than anyone, including the PLO, appears willing to give. And Gazans know it.

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