JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip — This area is among the world's most crowded spots, equal in squalor to the slums of Brazil, Indonesia and India. Poverty, filth and idleness are everywhere. A stench clings to every surface, and doctors warn that walking through a puddle, even with shoes, can bring on disease.
Many of the 650,000 Gaza residents work in Israel proper, mostly at manual labor, and are paid on a daily basis. These workers are regarded as essential to the Israeli economy, yet they find traveling to and from their jobs a difficult matter as, every day, the army searches and questions them at the entrance to the Gaza Strip.
At the border checkpoint recently, a man stood quietly as a soldier pawed through his bag of clothing. Behind him, a dozen others stood waiting to be searched. They were Arabs returning home from work.
A few yards away, a car with two passengers was waved to the front of a half-mile line of vehicles and allowed to proceed. They were Israelis on their way to a Jewish settlement.
"That's the first-class check-in line," an onlooker remarked.
In a small way, this vignette may help explain the violence that broke out two months ago in this Palestinian refugee camp.
By most accounts, the unrest in the occupied territories began Dec. 9 with a demonstration to protest the deaths of four Jabaliya residents whose two vans had been hit by an Israeli truck. Gaza residents contended that the collision was a deliberate act of revenge for the earlier killing of a Jewish settler. Abdel-Jawad Okasha, a nurse at the United Nations' clinic here, calls the collision "the accident that was no accident."
But in talks with dozens of residents of refugee camps, villages and cities in the Gaza Strip, the sentiment most heard was that humiliation and dehumanization are at the roots of the Arab discontent, even more so than the 20-year fact of Israeli occupation.
"It all started with making fun of us, humiliating us," said a 52-year-old woman who gave her name as Kahdara.
'Mockery Boils the Blood'
She stood beside a 3-foot pile of raw garbage outside her adobe home in the nearby village of Beit Hanoun. Her voice rising, she said: "We are also human beings, just like them. I am an old woman, but mockery boils the blood of the young people. They have feelings, and they won't forget."
Nearly every time a reporter got out of his car Tuesday during a tour of Gaza, mobs of shouting people gathered to recite their complaints.
"We're in jail in our own country," one man said. "They even make us use their language. We aren't people to them, we're animals."
Israeli-imposed curfews on some of the camps keep people away from jobs and personal contacts. Reporters are officially barred from the Palestinian refugee camps and must enter through back alleys. Even U.N. relief workers are often kept out.
All through the area, soldiers could be seen stopping cars and pedestrians at random.
The army recently began barricading streets, so that camp residents have only one way in and out. When a street is blocked not by the army but by protesters, the soldiers often stop the nearest Palestinian and order that person to open the barricade, regardless of age or sex or whether he or she appears to have been involved.
That person's identification card is confiscated and kept until he or she has cleared the road. Under Israeli army occupation rules, Gaza residents must carry an ID card at all times or risk jail.
At one point Tuesday, while a middle-aged Arab was pulling a burning tire from a Gaza City street into a ditch, a reporter saw the army patrol that was holding his ID card drive off, laughing and waving the document at him. A quarter of an hour later, the soldiers still had not returned the card.
Defending its practice of searching all Arabs at the Gaza border, the military cites reports that arms are being smuggled in by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Also, it says, soldiers must search for banned literature, PLO flags and other inflammatory material.
"But they never ask me about guns," a farm worker from Jabaliya said. "All they ever do is mock me, push me and make me take everything out of my car."
So far the army has not claimed to have found any guns, nor have there been any reports of Palestinians shooting at soldiers.
In contrast to the sizable Arab population of Gaza are the 2,200 Jewish settlers who occupy about 40% of the strip's available land. Their life style is not grand but is considerably more comfortable than that of the Palestinians.
They are protected by the army, which keeps unauthorized people out of the settlements. Also, settlers are permitted to carry guns.
Since the violence began, at least 25 people have been killed by the military in the Gaza Strip. Even on a day described by the army and press as "generally quiet," the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which administers Gaza's eight refugee camps, reported more than 50 people treated for injuries.