Israelis and Palestinians: No Peace to Thwart

A FEW days before the horrific bus bombing in Tel Aviv, I was in Gaza walking along Omar El Muhktar Street, Gaza City's main commercial area. It was close to noon and the street was bustling with activity. Although Omar El Muhktar remained worn and dilapidated, many new and colorful stores now line it. For a moment, it didn't feel like Gaza at all. I was window shopping at a popular shoe store when I felt a hand tugging at my sleeve. I turned to find an old woman in tattered clothing speaking to me very softly, almost inaudibly, in Arabic.

She looked directly at me and at first I didn't understand what she wanted. My lack of response upset her and she became agitated. Throughout our encounter, she never let go of my sleeve and was soon pulling at it desperately. There was some panic in her voice. I finally understood what she wanted and I reached for my purse; this instantly calmed her. She grew quiet, and her grip on my arm eased. She thanked me and turned away, quickly disappearing into the crowd.

In the nine years I have worked in the Gaza Strip, I have never had anyone approach me begging - let alone so boldly and tenaciously, and with so much fear. Gaza's economy is disintegrating and its society is unraveling. This is undeniable. Conditions are abysmal, having worsened in the year since the Oslo accords were signed. Unemployment stands minimally at 50 percent and will rise dramatically should Israel decide on a longer-term separation from the Gaza Strip, something it has threatened to do.

Hunger is a problem, especially among children, and it too will grow. Local food prices have risen several times as agricultural exports to Israel have increased, while incomes have in many cases declined. People in Gaza are less able now to feed their children than they were before the peace process began.

Gazans have long been desperate but they have seldom been terrified. Now it seems they are. Their terror derives from their growing realization that the peace process will neither end the occupation nor give them the power to do so. Indeed, in the 14 months since the peace agreement was formalized, Israel has sealed Gaza's borders three times, denied workers employment, imported 18,000 foreign laborers to take Palestinian jobs in Israel, canceled at least 7,500 government-funded jobs in Gaza, demolished Palestinian houses, and denied the Palestinian opposition the right to participate in upcoming elections.

Yasser Arafat, unable to challenge Israeli measures by the terms of the peace agreement he signed, is increasingly seen as Israel's enforcer and Palestine's new occupier. That a relationship exists between the Hamas terrorist on Dizengoff Street and the woman begging on Omar El Muhktar is clear. They see the same grim future, but choose different ways of meeting it.

The terrorist acts committed by Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) occurred not because the peace process is working but precisely because it is not. Hamas leaders, including the leader in Gaza, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, know they cannot defeat Israel or establish an Islamic state of Palestine. These individuals, many of them Western educated PhDs, do not talk of destroying the Jewish state or evicting the Jews. Their talk is of political participation, power sharing, and recognition.

Hamas is now in the same position occupied by the Palestine Liberation Organization before Sepember 13, 1993. There is no doubt that continued exclusion of Hamas will lead to greater violence and marginalize the moderating forces within the party. It will also lead to greater popular support for the movement and its military wing, particularly in light of problems in Gaza and Hamas's ability to systematically deliver social and economic services.

As deplorable as terrorism is, it is rooted in conditions - impoverishment, statelessness, powerlessness, repression - that the peace process has not dealt with.

If anything, the ``peace'' has made things worse. Terrorism cannot finally be extinguished through officially sanctioned assassinations of military leaders or deportations. It can only be eradicated through pressure imposed by the Palestinian community itself. This pressure, in turn, can only come about if the community feels it has something viable at stake, something it does not want to risk losing through targeted acts of violence. Only Israel can give Palestinians this stake. For Gazans especially, Israel should open its economy to Palestinian labor, not close it. This one measure alone would go far in appeasing Palestinian fear. Denying employment to people whose children are hungry and who have been made to depend on Israeli wages for economic survival will breed violence and fuel those who would perpetrate it.

Jewish settlements in Gaza also should be closed. Israel retains control of some 30 percent of Gaza - land used to house 4,000 Israeli settlers. The rest of Gaza houses 850,000 Arabs.

Palestinians, too, must get their house in order. Arafat's authoritarianism and the perceived corruption of his government weaken the legitimacy of the peace process.

If peace does not come to Israelis and Palestinians it will not be because Hamas wants to thwart it - but because there is not peace as yet to thwart. 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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