Self-Rule for Gaza Pays an Early Dividend: Hope

LINED up down the center of the boardroom table in the mayor's office in Gaza City is a neat row of miniature garbage cans on wheels.

They symbolize the mayor's priorities. "The most important thing is to rebuild Gaza's infrastructure because, without that, nothing can be done," says Aown Shawa, mayor of Gaza City since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat returned from exile in July last year.

Mr. Shawa is a man on the move. But he is short of time and money for the many projects he has initiated to rebuild this shattered city.

As part of the historic Israeli-Palestinian accord signed in Washington in September 1993, Gaza was handed over to Palestinian self-rule in May 1994 after 27 years under Israeli occupation.

Despite a declining economy, and more than half the work force unemployed, Gaza has a sense of hope and expectation that defies the economics of this overcrowded, impoverished enclave.

"A year ago, [Gaza] was a complete mess," says Shawa. "We started with nothing. But now we are all gaining experience."

The new hope is most visible in the mushrooming of private construction projects - homes and businesses - that have turned the skyline into a mesh of cranes and partly completed buildings.

The sense of urgency and order in Shawa's office is increasingly reflected, too, in the streets outside. Work on roads, sewers, and water systems is under way.

Roads are much cleaner than a year ago, and the traffic flows more freely with the aid of a seemingly limitless supply of policemen dressed in blue.

Israeli-issued license plates have been replaced with Palestinian plates, and the year-old Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Mr. Arafat is making progress with tax collection and has begun issuing Palestinian passports.

Militant Islamic graffiti, which had been on every street corner, has been painted over.

But the buoyant mood of Gaza is best reflected in the proliferation of restaurants on the seashore, and the popularity of gym classes, bingo games, and attractions like belly dancing. The Russian circus hit town for a few months recently, and a number of trade fairs have visited the city.

"It is a remarkable transformation that has taken place," says a foreign-aid worker. "And it has happened despite the crippling economic impact of Israeli [border] closures and despite the fact that there has not been any material improvement in living standards."

So why the dramatic turnaround? "People are starting to believe that the peace process is the only choice," Mayor Shawa says.

"The intifadah [street protest] has reached the end of the road ... and now is the time to get results," he says, referring to the sustained Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 1987 and subsided around the time peace talks began in 1991.

This new hope also has worked against the militants of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), who were riding a popular wave only a year ago.

Shawa says that Israel's continued closures, for security reasons, of the border between Israel and Gaza - about 120 days out of 365 over the past 12 months - have taken a toll on the Islamic militants. The closures, which have reduced the 120,000 Palestinian workers who once worked in Israel to about 20,000, have become the greatest obstacle to development and attracting foreign investors here.

Initially, Palestinian anger was directed against Israel and the PA. "But now the anger is directed at Hamas because the people have established a direct connection between violent acts and closures of the territory," Shawa says.

Some Hamas officials say that the organization made a mistake by pretending that nothing changed when Arafat returned to Gaza last July. "Arafat came in, signed the agreement, and we woke up one morning and found that he had put an end to our struggle," says Ghazi Hamad, managing editor of the pro-Hamas newspaper al-Watan.

"We were put in a corner ... we can no longer move freely now," Mr. Hamad says. "We can no longer ignore the reality of the Palestinian Authority."

Imad Falouji, the publisher of al-Watan and a senior Hamas leader who recently traveled with Arafat to the Middle East economic summit in Jordan, says relations today between the PA and Hamas are more relaxed.

The two groups are expected to reach an accord soon whereby the PA will ease its crackdown on the group, which has claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings against Israel.

"Arafat would do well to follow the example of King Hussein of Jordan, which is the only Arab country that has a strong Islamic movement and stability at the same time," Mr. Falouji says.

King Hussein, he says, "is a very skillful man."

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