Israeli Closures Put Squeeze On Palestinians

Border blockades try to keep out terrorists, but punish innocent too

ABDUL RAOUF has arrived here each morning for the past 10 days to the same site: hundreds of crates of tomatoes piled high on his truck, rotting in the sun.

''Every day we hear on the radio that they are going to open the crossing, but they never do,'' says Mr. Raouf, one of scores of Palestinian truck drivers stranded at this crossing between Gaza and Israel created about a year ago for commercial traffic only so that it wouldn't be subject to routine closures.

But at this crossing, an Israeli-Arab truck driver on March 4 allegedly hid a suicide bomber in a crate under his rear seat and smuggled him to Tel Aviv, where he exploded a bomb and himself, along with 12 Israelis.

The incident captures Israel's problem: how to protect itself from attacks without punishing all Palestinians and undermining the Palestinian Authority.

The closure of borders between Gaza and Israel is part of the security measures Israel took after four suicide bombers from the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, claimed the lives of 62 people in Israel.

Israel says the tight restrictions are necessary to prevent further attacks and root out the network of terrorists responsible for the suicide bombings.

But Palestinian officials say that the clampdown is crippling the already embattled Palestinian economy and threatening to sow the seeds of more violence.

Since the blockade was imposed, fruit and vegetable prices in Gaza have plummeted to as low as one-tenth of their value in Israel or the West Bank.

Raouf is more subdued than many of his irate colleagues, but his anger is more focused. ''I blame Israel. There are explosives going off everywhere in the world. It was Israelis who killed [the late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin, but there was no collective punishment in their case. This blockade is to suffocate us ... this is an economic war against us.''

Since May 1994, some 23 closures lasting 330 days have cost the Palestinian economy $700 million, according to a recent report released by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

In recent days, Palestinian officials say that public anger directed toward Hamas for the bombings has turned against Israel for imposing the blockade and President Yasser Arafat's PA for not being able to do anything about it.

Palestinian crackdown

Mr. Arafat, pressured by Israel, has severely cracked down on Hamas, and has arrested hundreds of Islamic militants.

''It doesn't look as though Arafat has any option but to be brutal in his dealing with Hamas,'' says Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza. ''Israeli expectations of what they want Arafat to do in combating the violence seem to have no limits. But it's politically naive to think that you can destroy Hamas.''

Pro-peace rallies called by Arafat following the bombings have turned into joint demonstrations condemning Israel's clampdown as well as the violence of suicide bombers.

''The closure is undermining the Palestinian Authority,'' says Jiries Atrash from the West Bank town of Beit Sahour. ''The situation is getting worse, and the tension is building. People are asking: What can the Authority do?''

Israel has closed its borders with the West Bank and Gaza, placed curfews on 465 West Bank towns, sealed and demolished homes of suicide bombers, blockaded Gaza's coastline, and arrested about 200 Islamic militants - in addition to the ones the Palestinian police have arrested.

B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, says measures such as demolitions, curfews, and deportations constitute ''serious violations of the human rights of Palestinians.''

Despite mounting pressure from Palestinian officials, Arab leaders, and Western donors to lift the restrictions, Israeli officials say the blockade of Palestinian territories will not be lifted for another two weeks. But on Wednesday, they agreed to allow 35 trucks transporting rice and flour into the West Bank and Gaza, and yesterday gave a nod to 40 more.

According to Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, the blockade is causing severe hardships.

It has created shortages of food and medicine, shut schools, and crippled the fragile economy. Unemployment in Gaza, normally at around 50 percent, is now between 70 percent and 80 percent, according to the Land and Water Establishment, a Palestinian development organization.

Fallout from closure

The closure could not have come at a worse time for Salah Hamdan, manager of the transit facility here at the Karni Crossing. He has already had to destroy 150 tons of oranges this week and thousands of tons more will rot on the trees as it is now too late in the season to pick them.

''It is agonizing for me to see how Israelis have been suffering with these attacks, because I also have a family,'' Mr. Hamdan says. ''But I can't go on like this. I have seven children, and I have little food left for family. ''If it goes on like this, I think there will be another intifadah,'' he says, referring to the 1987 Palestinian uprising.

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