In Middle East, seeds of hope

Israel Sunday to free up to 100 Palestinian prisoners ahead of Sharon's meeting with Bush.

If Beit Hanoun ever regains its status as Gaza's "green town," Ahmad Zaanin's flowering lemon tree could become the stuff of Palestinian legend.

The tree is a mere sapling, which Mr. Zaanin says, is the key to its survival. While the rest of his orchard was destroyed in May by Israeli army bulldozers that gave the town a desert-like appearance, the sapling, bending but not breaking, survived the blade, he says. "This tree is blooming because it does not want to die," Zaanin says.

For Zaanin, voluntary head of the Beit Hanoun Agricultural Cooperative Association, a degree of hope has been kindled in recent weeks by the United States' targeting of Beit Hanoun for an unprecedented shot in the arm.

US plans call for more than a quarter of the estimated 1,100 acres of destroyed fruit trees, as well as wrecked factories, homes, and bridges to gain a new start.

The $15 million in US Agency for International Development "quick impact" funds for Beit Hanoun come with a clear political agenda: boosting support for the international road map that calls for the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, and for the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who has renounced violence as a means in the struggle with Israel.

Underscoring the improved ties, President George Bush on Friday hosted Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, at the White House. Speaking to reporters, Bush termed him a "good man" and said US trust in the Palestinian cabinet is increasing.

"We view the efforts of Abu Mazen and the road map as deserving of US support, and we want to make sure some of the negative impact from the conflict that the population has felt is reversed," says Larry Garber, the USAID director for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Several other areas of the Strip are also to receive a total of $15 million for "quick impact" projects, routed through contractors and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations. The United States is also transferring a further $20 million directly to the Palestinian Authority.

Beit Hanoun, population 35,000, was chosen as the epicenter of the aid effort because "we knew it had suffered a lot of damages. We wanted to pick a discrete area on which to focus attention and to be able to see the impact quickly," says Garber.

Beit Hanoun puts its unemployment rate at 60 percent, compared to half that before the Israeli occupation.

The town's citrus groves, the mainstay of its economy, were destroyed three months ago as part of what a senior Israeli army officer has said was an effort to make farmers expel Hamas fighters firing rockets at Israel. The Hamas rockets have caused no fatalities but touched off widespread alarm in the border town of Sderot. The six-week occupation marked the sixth time troops had entered Beit Hanoun during three years of fighting.

The only other US "quick impact" program in the region is in Iraq.

"Quick impact means that if today a person does not have a job, tomorrow he will have one," says Garber. "If today there is no road for him to move goods, tomorrow he will have a road. More than a third of Beit Hanoun's fruit trees were destroyed, more than 1,000 people lost their homes, and 10 factories were leveled during the Israeli occupation in May and June, according to the municipality. "The damage far exceeds our resources," says Garber.

Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar says "the money can be helpful if it is used in a noncorrupt manner. It is not enough. There is destruction throughout Palestine. This is not a gift. America is obliged morally because we were destroyed with American helicopters, American equipment and American political aid to Israel." Zahar says he doubts the funds will have any political impact.

"The only way the government can become more popular is through [Israel's] releasing prisoners, dismantling settlements, and ending occupation," he says.

Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet voted to release up to 100 Palestinian prisoners - including members of the militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas - in a gesture of goodwill ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's meeting with President Bush, set for Monday.

As part of the new program in Beit Hanoun, work is under way on the rebuilding of some 30 destroyed wells, and a bridge once traversed by 5,000 people daily is to be rebuilt during the next several weeks.

Program workers visited a house Wednesday whose walls cracked when Israeli armor rumbled through to demolish a nearby house of a militant who attacked troops, the owner said. "No one has work, and we have no money to repair it," said the owner, Samaher al-Ajrami.

The program calls for the repair of 120 houses and five schools. Within a month, work is due to begin on the town's destroyed sewer and water system.

But a shadow hangs over the effort - the fear that the Israeli army will return. "America must stop Israel from entering again. It is the only power that can do so," says city manager Sufyan Hamad.

A senior Israeli officer told Israel's Y-net news service after most of the destruction was wrought that troops deliberately left some groves intact. "In previous times the farmers understood that in order to stop the laying bare of their land they needed to remove from their midst the cells firing the rockets, "the officer said. "They expelled them of their own accord and brought about quiet that lasted a long time. This time also, we have left them with something to lose."

Zaanin's view of the future concerns not loss, but recovery: Nearly all the groves will be restored. Since orange trees take up to 10 years to bear fruit, their owners will plant vegetables near the saplings during the first five, he says.

"Beit Hanoun is a desert," says Zaanin, "but it can be the green town again."

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