JERUSALEM — Veteran correspondents who covered events in the Gaza Strip this past week claim they have never seen anything like it--the anger and hatred, the sheer ferocity of the thousands of youngsters hurling rocks and homemade firebombs at their Israeli occupiers, undaunted by either the gas canisters or gunfire that greeted them. Young Palestinians, wearing red and white checked kafiyes , not to hide their faces but as a badge of honor, charged the Israeli troops as if looking to become martyrs, their defiance taking the Israelis, used to supplication, by surprise.
Columnists were quick to interpret events as the dawning of a new age in Israel's relations with the 1.2 million Palestinians in the areas it has occupied since 1967. This was more than civil unrest, they claimed; it was the beginning of a civil rebellion.
Indeed, they may be right. For the youngsters in Gaza and several cities on the West Bank where riots erupted last week have never received any terrorist training, nor are they members of a terrorist organization. Rather, they are members of that Palestinian generation that grew up knowing nothing but occupation and, to them, violence, hatred, fear and suspicion, action and counteraction, have become integral parts of day-to-day life.
For 20 years the current generations of Palestinians manning the roadblocks and turning universities and high schools into battlefields have watched with growing frustration as 60,000 Israelis settled the West Bank and Gaza, with little reaction from their own leadership, the Palestine Liberation Organization, or their Arab brethren to stop the process. The Palestinian issue was wholly disregarded at the recent Amman summit, the main focus of attention being the Iraq-Iran War. Nine Arab nations have renewed their diplomatic ties with Egypt in recent months without any concessions demanded on the Palestinian issue. The PLO remains at odds, not only with the Arab world but with itself, tangled as ever in internecine warfare and diplomatic intrigue.
No wonder the frustration of youngsters in Balata, Jenin, Hebron, East Jerusalem and the entire length and breadth of Gaza. And no wonder, as well, that in this type of environment the slightest spark becomes a flash point for violent battles between young Palestinians with nothing to lose and the Israeli army, having an increasingly difficult time dealing with the new phenomenon. Each casualty creates a new martyr and yet another reason for a snowball of violence.
It has become increasingly clear to Israeli policy-makers, even on the right, that the situation has all the essentials of a dangerous dynamic. Notwithstanding the reassurances of the government last week that this latest outbreak--which left eight dead and 20 wounded--is but a passing phase, ministers will privately tell you that they are worried and depressed and worse, have no new ideas about how to alter things.
Labor Party ministers bemoan the death of the international conference, blaming the obduracy of the conservative Likud Bloc for the failure; those in the Likud are frustrated by the demographic and political realities slowly cracking the dream of the perfect Eretz Yisrael, or biblical land of Israel, which would include all of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
The case of Gaza explains why: Wedged between Israel and the Mediterranean, it is undoubtedly one of the most unattractive places on earth. With a total area of only 130 square miles, it is also one of the most densely populated, with more than two-thirds of its people living in mud refugee camps created after the 1948 Palestinian exodus from Palestine. For 19 years, until conquered by Israel in 1967, it was left to fester by the Egyptians and to this day its schools, relief organizations and hospitals are run by international agencies.
According to demographers who recently submitted a study to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, by the year 2000 Gaza will have a population of almost 1 million with the mean age of 14, a longer life expectancy and a lower infant mortality rate. According to their calculations, by then the number of refugees will have grown to 800,000. If the current rate of refugee rehabilitation is maintained, they will remain living in refugee camps for the next 900 years, be faced with a shortage of drinking water and smaller land parcels, making agricultural expansion, their only source of income, impossible. Ninety-one thousand of them will have to find work in Israel, the rest will remain dependent on international charity.
Thus, the Likud is faced with a no-win situation. Even if they succeed at moving in the 20,000 settlers they plan to have in Gaza (an increase of more than 15 times the current number) by the year 2000, Jews will still be less than 2% of the total population. With each passing year that percentage will diminish, forcing even the staunchest nationalists to have deep second thoughts about the situation.