One-man crusade for Palestinians

Citing violations of peace deals, security chairman Osama Musa puts

The man in the jumbo four-wheel drive with darkly tinted windows and Palestinian plates slows to a roll and points up at the Israeli Army watchtower across the road. One soldier peers down, binoculars in hand, as another picks up a radio handset to report a suspicious car.

Brig. Gen. Osama Musa is tickled. As chairman of the Regional Security Committee, he's charged with overseeing cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip. As the Palestinian Authority's commander of the District Coordinating Office - which was set up by the 1993 Oslo accords - he supervises joint patrols by Israeli soldiers and Palestinian paramilitary police.

And as a Palestinian resident, he takes matters into his own hands. He likes to coast by Israeli Army installations such as this one, which he says are new bases not agreed on in the Oslo deal, to remind the Israelis they are violating the agreement.

Part of the fun is showing visitors his pride and joy: a set of tall residential buildings for which he takes credit, built nearly on top of the Army outpost. Towering over the soldiers, he says, should embarrass the Israelis into leaving. More strategically, say others, he's putting up high-rises that will make the Army outposts dangerously indefensible.

When he's not working on trying to edge out the Israelis, General Musa can be seen waiting at Israeli settlements for Palestinian workers, who have provided cheap labor in construction and agriculture. He persuades them to go back home, telling them that it's better to go hungry than to help Israeli settlements like Netzarim expand.

Around the corner from the watchtower, Musa glides past vacant greenhouses, which he says were recently built by Netzarim in violation of the peace deal. "See that! These are empty. Nobody works. I have succeeded here," says Musa, explaining that he spent the previous week prodding Palestinian laborers to go home. "We stop them from working for the sake of the nation, for the sake of the future."

It's all part of a day's work for a man on a personal crusade to enforce his interpretation of the much-disputed Oslo accords on the map of the Gaza Strip.

Musa trained as a civilian pilot and earned his stripes in the Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who asked him to form an air force for the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1968. Mr. Arafat gave him his current job two years ago.

In it, he's found that much of the blueprint for Gaza outlined in the interim peace deal has been changed by the Israelis. He views his campaign to force out Israeli Army installations and make the Jewish settlements economically untenable as a moral touch, instead of violating the deal in the way he charges Israel has.

"Believe me, I would like to violate," says Musa, a gray-haired man with a half-dozen stars across the straight shoulders of his olive uniform. "All night long I am thinking of how I can violate the agreement, but I can't find a way, because they have all the power."

These days, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has mostly focused on the West Bank. Gaza, which has far fewer Jewish settlers and historic roots to warrant an Israeli foothold, was to come under almost full Palestinian control under the interim accord. Only Israeli settlements, military installations, a border guards were to remain.

But Musa says that the Israeli Army has, in the past two years, put six new outposts in places not allocated to them in the detailed maps attached to the Oslo accords. He accuses them of scores of other violations, such as limiting Palestinian fisherman to half the size of the agreed-on fishing zone.

In reply, a spokesman for the Israeli Coordinator of Activities in the Territories says that the Army has not set up any new bases in the Gaza Strip. Shlomo Dror says that Israeli-Palestinian joint patrols have been working much more smoothly in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip.

The atmosphere of contention, Mr. Dror suggests, is set from the top. "We've had a lot of trouble with him," he says of Musa. "He's part of the problem."

Dror says that Musa's campaign to prevent Palestinians from working in the settlements will first and foremost hurt Palestinians who need the income. "That's a lot of money the Palestinian Authority is going to lose," says Dror. "It's very hard for the Palestinian Authority to criticize what he's done, because of course every Palestinian is against settlements, so who's going to stop him?

"We are trying to solve the problem very quietly, and in the end I believe they will remove him from his position."

Musa says that he's not against letting Palestinians work in settlements at all, just in those that are making illegal expansions. And he doesn't deny that some of his work is done in a semiprivate capacity. The buildings he's had erected over two Israeli Army sites were built with money from private Palestinian investors.

"We are foolish if we don't build a 20-story building here," he says, driving past another Army outpost near Kfar Darom, an Israeli settlement in the southern end of the strip.

He sees his work as a page from India's Mohandas Gandhi. "It's not easy to get people to live right next to the military. But we will build flats for peace. We will use our houses to fight the soldiers ... so that the jury can see the rights of Palestinians have not been respected."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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