Why Peace Has Not Come to the Gaza Strip

IMAGINE yourself desperate to earn some money. Imagine that your only option is a demeaning job in Israel. Imagine that you were once one of 80,000 workers entering Israel daily, but are now one of only 4,000 or, on the best day, 20,000. Imagine that you are the only source of support for your family of 10 and without your income your family will go hungry. Imagine you have absolutely no guarantee that today or any other day you will be allowed to cross the Gaza-Israel border at Erez and that you could, at any moment and for any reason, be turned back by the Israeli Army despite your valid work permit. Imagine you are waiting at the Erez checkpoint in the Gaza Strip at 3 a.m., part of the nightly throng of those who wake at 1 a.m. after a few hours of sleep to begin another 18-hour day cleaning streets in Tel Aviv or washing dishes in Jerusalem. Imagine you are one of hundreds of people crammed inside a narrow metal passageway similar to the kind used to channel cattle into holding pens. Imagine that you are quite desperate to get through the passageway, the last hurdle before the border.

Imagine enduring all that humiliation only to find that the border has closed and you have been turned back and must go home to your children. Imagine you are totally powerless to do anything. Imagine this is the peace you have hoped for and have been told about, the peace that Yasser Arafat brought from Washington.

The recent rioting at the Erez checkpoint that killed two Palestinians and wounded 100 more apparently began when 400 to 500 workers, without Israeli permission, tried to cross the border into Israel. That violence erupted should not be a surprise. Many explanations have been offered. Some in the media attribute it to organizing by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). Palestinian officials blamed the Israelis' slowness in checking workers' papers. Israeli officials blamed the Palestinian police who were not at their posts in sufficient numbers as workers massed at the border. In the end, however, Israel sealed the border and there wasn't anything the new Palestinian Authority could do. Despite it all, both sides agreed that the rioting should not interfere with the implementation of the peace agreement. But peace will not come to Gaza - because the peace agreement itself is the problem.

Employment for Gazans in Israel is critical due to long-standing Israeli policies that deliberately retard Gaza's economic development. This economic dependence over the last 27 years turned the tiny Palestinian economy into an auxiliary of Israel. The closing of the border last week that led to the rioting is the fifth in a series of Israeli-imposed closures that began in March 1993 when 20,000 laborers (a decline from 30,000 in 1992 and 56,000 in 1990) were totally barred from their jobs in Israel for six weeks. One month after the Hebron massacre of February 1994, Israel imposed another closure. By the end of March 1994, the number of Gazans entering Israel fell to 3,600. On April 6, 1994, when a suicide car-bomb attack in the Israeli city of Afula killed eight people, a third closure was imposed. By early July, when the fourth closure was initiated, 15,000 to 20,000 Gazans were trying to reach their jobs inside the green line.

The right of Israel to seal its borders to Palestinian workers at any time is written into the peace agreement. In a deceptive display of symmetry, the Palestinian Authority also can bar Israeli workers from their jobs in Gaza, a power without substance since neither jobs nor Israelis wishing to fill them can presently be found in the Gaza Strip. Perhaps the most serious mistake made by the Palestine Liberation Organization in its negotiations over the peace accord was its failure to ensure, without qualification, the acceptance of a fixed number of Palestinian laborers by the Israeli government for each year of the interim period, the only viable option for alleviating Palestinian unemployment - now approaching 60 percent - in the short term.

The economic terms of the ``Agreement on the Gaza Strip and Jericho Area,'' of which labor policy is but one illustration, are really no different than the terms of Israeli occupation policy. The occupation continues; only its form has changed. In this sense, conditions at the economic level merely reflect those at the political level. Indeed, under the terms of the peace agreement, the Israeli military administration has total authority in legislation and adjudication. Israeli military law is the law of the land during the interim period. In Gaza, for example, only 70 of the 1,000 military orders issued since 1967 will be repealed. Nor does the Palestinian Authority have any power to change the law - Israel retains a veto over all Palestinian legislation. Hence, the sovereign powers of the Israeli military extend de facto over all autonomous areas.

Under such conditions, what can chairman Arafat and his new authority do to challenge Israeli measures and convince the Palestinian people to accept the peace agreement? After the recent rioting, PLO officials declared three days of mourning and announced they would compensate victims. Such a response can do little to deal with the desperation that so pervades Gazans. The only hope for the economy is a rapid and immediate surge in employment, which can only come about by increasing the number of Palestinians employed in Israel. For that to happen the United States government must pressure Israel to make more jobs available. If this does not happen, neither Arafat nor the agreement he endorsed will survive. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept 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.

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