THE recent killing of Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas militant allegedly responsible for a spate of horrific bus bombings in Israel, has momentarily refocused attention on the continuing violence between Palestinians and Israelis - a reality usually obscured by more sanguine talk of peace. But in Gaza, at least, the ''peace'' is anything but sanguine.
The fact that close to 100,000 people - approximately 11 percent of Gaza's total population - turned out to march at Ayyash's funeral is unprecedented and telling. Equally telling was the vehemence of their reaction. In 11 years of working in the Gaza Strip, I have never seen anything like it. When Palestinian security forces killed 14 Palestinians and wounded more than 200 outside a Gaza mosque more than a year ago, reaction was muted by comparison. Then, people were more hopeful about the possibilities for peace and disinterested in Hamas's opposition to it.
The rage that surfaced during the funeral has less to do with the pernicious forces of militant Islam or the battle between those who support the peace process and those who do not. It has far more to do with growing impoverishment, eroding economic opportunities, massive unemployment, increasing political repression, and a ruling elite that refuses to guarantee civil liberties or human rights for its population. Ayyash's death provided an occasion to vent frustrations.
Contrary to popular belief, economic conditions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank have never been worse in certain critical respects. According to the United States government and other sources, at least 14 percent of all Palestinians - 300,000 people - live at or below the absolute annual per capita poverty level of between $500 and $650. The Israeli absolute annual per capita poverty line, by contrast, is $2,500. (''Absolute'' poverty is based on what it costs to sustain one person for a year.) In regional terms, the number of permanently poor breaks down to 20 percent of Gaza's population and 10 percent of the West Bank's. By some estimates, at least one-third of the Palestinian poor were forced into poverty after the Oslo accord was signed.
Help is available from just a few sources: The Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) are the two largest assistance providers. Yet the number of poor exceeds by 74 percent the number of families benefiting from Ministry and UNRWA programs. Furthermore, the 14 percent poverty figure is probably low; poverty tends to be underreported, given the social safety net provided by extended family and friends and poor statistical data gathering. Not surprisingly, the average Gazan family now spends about 58 percent of its monthly income (excluding rent and mortgage) on food, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Planning. Of the remainder, 1 percent is spent on health care and 3 percent on education.
Unemployment, which minimally stands at 50 percent, is the major problem in Gaza. Most Palestinian families could meet their basic needs if one male family member were employed full-time. Yet Israel's closure of the Gaza Strip and West Bank has restricted the movement of labor and goods into Israel. The Palestinian economy loses almost $3 million a day in wages earned by the Palestinian work force in Israel, according to the World Bank.
The argument that conditions need more time to improve grows specious given the dramatic deterioration on the ground. The reaction to Ayyash's death underlines the urgent need for change that is real, not symbolic. Without it, the rage may prevail.