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Gazans Unite Behind Islam, Nationalism

December 20, 1987|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

BUREIJ CAMP, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip — A sign at Abdul Fteihah's wake in this squalid refugee camp Saturday served also as a symbolic epitaph for a tactic the Israeli government has long used to control the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip.

It was not so much the words of the sign--they were from the Muslim holy book, the Koran. Rather, it was the hand-drawn Palestinian flags that bracketed the scripture.

The result was a subtle but telling example of how two frequently hostile social forces here--Islamic fundamentalism and secular Palestinian nationalism--have joined to present their hated Israeli rulers with an unusually united front during the worst Gaza unrest in recent years.

13th Killed by Gunfire

Fteihah, shot to death by Israeli troops in a clash after regular Sabbath mosque services here Friday, was at least the 13th Gazan killed by gunfire since the latest flare-up began Dec. 9. At least four Palestinians from the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River have also died in the unrest.

The bearded, 26-year-old Fteihah was a devout Muslim, but it was an angry secular mourner here Saturday who volunteered: "There's no difference this time between the religious and the Palestine Liberation Organization; between George Habash (leader of the Marxist-line Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and Abu Amar (PLO leader Yasser Arafat). All the Palestinian people are together against the Jewish."

New Sense of Unity

This new-found sense of unity among Gazans has been one of the most striking changes to foreign observers and non-Gaza Palestinians alike, who have seen numerous examples of it during unrest which continued, although at a much-reduced level, for the 11th day Saturday.

It's a phenomenon that extends as well to previous divisions between young and old, and between those here who work in Israel and those who don't. During clashes in Gaza City last week, foreign journalists watched old women breaking up rocks into fist-sized pieces for youthful demonstrators, who threw them at soldiers. And the age bracket of Gaza's casualties during the clashes has risen steadily from those of schoolboys to those of young men who, in the past, have been away working as waiters or gardeners in Tel Aviv when trouble started.

But the unity between devout Gaza Muslims, motivated by religion to oppose Israeli rule, and secular Palestinians, driven by nationalist dreams, is most striking, if only because of past Israeli efforts to play on their differences.

The mixture of Islam and nationalism yields more extreme views than are found on the West Bank, for example. In Gaza, no talk is heard about coexistence between Israel and some future Palestinian state. Here, Israel is Palestine, and Israelis are usurpers.

Israel began subtly encouraging Muslim fundamentalists shortly after it captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli and Palestinian sources familiar with the policy agree. Israeli leaders saw Islam as a useful counterweight against the militant nationalists of the PLO. Gazans divided against themselves would have less time to make trouble for the army, according to this strategy.

At the peak of the strategy's success, Muslim fundamentalists a few years ago burned down the offices of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, which is headed by Dr. Haider Abdul Shafi, a Communist. The Red Crescent is the Arabic equivalent of the Red Cross. According to Palestinian sources, Israeli security forces stood by during the attack.

Now, however, the two streams appear to be merging into a more formidable anti-Israeli force. Symbolically, Abdul Shafi acted as a spokesman for wounded fundamentalists and nationalists alike at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital last week on the worst day of the unrest, when five Gazans died from Israeli bullets.

"There is no difference between the West Bank Palestinians, the Gazans, the Arabs of Israel--they are believing Muslims," said Sheik Mohammed Awwad, president of El Azhar religious college in Gaza City. "And they know their religious and national duty.

"Their religious duty is to worship God," the sheik said, "and their national duty is to have freedom. It doesn't have to be defined."

'Differences Dissolve'

"There are differences, of course," one secular Gaza City man said Saturday, speaking of the religious and nationalist tendencies. "But when things like this happen, the differences dissolve."

At the Saladin Mosque in Gaza City's tense Zeiton (Olive) section, an outlawed Palestinian flag flew from the minaret, while below, thick, black smoke from burning tires reduced visibility to a few feet and roadblocks turned the main street into an obstacle course.

Nearby, someone had scrawled on a cement wall: "Palestine is our homeland; God is Great!"

Graffiti in Khan Yunis, near the Egyptian border, proclaimed: "The end of Israel is prophesied in the Koran!" and "Islamic Jihad (Holy War) is the way to Palestine!"

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