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Israel Faces Dilemma: What to Do With Gaza? : Unlike West Bank, It Has No Great Appeal to Jewish State, Which Is Fearful of Letting It Go

January 03, 1988|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

GAZA, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip — Here, where an extraordinary wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence began early last month, two men on opposite sides of the conflict appear to symbolize the mutual frustration that promises to keep this one of the Middle East's most volatile pieces of real estate.

One is a former Palestine Liberation Organization activist; the other, a retired Israeli general. And the two are friends despite their allegiance to opposing camps. Both spoke, in separate interviews, on condition of anonymity.

"We are schizophrenic," said the Palestinian, a native of the Gaza Strip. "We go to work in Israel, while here we demonstrate against the Israelis. We build the (Jewish) settlements as laborers, and yet we are against the settlers. Economically, we have no choice.

"I am schizophrenic," the Palestinian continued. "As a landowner, I am ready to cooperate with the Israeli administration in order to use my land and to maintain my standard of living. But at the same time, I think about my political future as a Palestinian."

The former general, who still acts as an adviser to senior Israeli officials, called Gaza a "trap" for his country.

"It's an economic problem, a moral problem--only a problem," he said. "There is no advantage."

However, he said, "you cannot leave it alone, because if you leave it alone without any economic solution or any political solution, in a very short time it will be a center of terrorism. Because people must live for something."

Gaza leaped into the world headlines early last month when it became the focus of an extraordinary wave of violence that spilled over into the occupied West Bank and even into Arab communities within Israel's pre-1967 borders.

The unprecedented unrest had its immediate spark in the knifing to death on Dec. 6 of an Israeli plastics merchant. Two days later, rumors flashed through the Gaza Strip that a traffic accident, in which four residents were killed and seven injured by an Israeli truck driver, was an intentional act of retribution.

The rumors led to violent demonstrations the next day in which Israeli troops shot and killed a 17-year-old local high school student and wounded at least 16 more Gazans.

22 Dead, 1,100 Arrested

By the end of December, 22 Palestinians had died from army gunfire and more than 160 had been wounded. About 1,100 Palestinians have been arrested.

Fourteen of the fatalities were from the Gaza Strip, and the consensus here is that the violence is bound to erupt again.

"Riots will resume," predicted Rashad Shawa, a one-time mayor of Gaza deposed by the Israeli authorities. "Maybe it will be next week, maybe next month, maybe in three months. And they will become more and more violent. Because most people here, and especially the youth, are desperate. They feel that they have nothing to lose."

Gaza has long been the most flammable of the territories that Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"From the outset, the Gaza Strip presented special security problems," according to a government brochure of the early 1970s. "The population had been nurtured on anti-Israel propaganda, and its hostility was exacerbated by the area's extreme poverty, widespread unemployment and a general distrust of authority. . . ."

The Gaza Strip covers an area about one-third the size of Los Angeles, but because of the presence of Jewish settlements and of Israeli restrictions, its current population of 650,000 Palestinians, nearly two-thirds of whom are refugees, are jammed into a fraction of that land.

The population is growing so rapidly that it is expected to top 1 million by the turn of the century. Nearly 60% of the residents are under 19 years of age, and the area is known as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

Inadequate Local Economy

About 60,000 Gazans travel each day to Israel proper to work because there is not nearly enough of a local economy to support them. Unlike the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank, who are entitled to Jordanian passports, the Arabs of the Gaza Strip are officially stateless.

Before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Gaza was the rural home to about 70,000 Palestinian Arabs and a few score Jews. It subsisted on agriculture, mostly citrus, and fishing.

The Egyptian army occupied the Gaza Strip, and about 200,000 Palestinian refugees streamed in during 1948 and 1949 from areas that became part of the new state of Israel.

Gaza's Jews had been threatened with massacre by local Arabs in civil strife before the war but were spared, thanks to the intervention of the father of former Mayor Shawa. They were moved safely out of the area, never to return.

With the exception of several months during and after the 1956 Israeli campaign in the Sinai, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip until 1967. But it never moved to annex it.

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