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Gaza Strip Residents Bracing for Israel's Next Move

Conflict: It's unclear whether they will be targeted, but Palestinians are digging bunkers and stockpiling food. Radicals seek more suicide attacks.

April 24, 2002|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAZA CITY — With the first phase of Israel's campaign against Palestinian militants over, residents of the Gaza Strip are stockpiling food and digging fortifications in the belief that they are next. It is a prospect that militants, but certainly not ordinary citizens, relish.

"Militants are waving red flags like Spanish matadors, saying, 'Come on over the line,' " said Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. "They're disappointed Israel hasn't taken the bait yet. Of course, people here are nuts. Why? Because they have nothing. So they have nothing to lose."

Answering the call of the radical group Islamic Jihad, hundreds of young men, jobless and aimless, gathered on a recent night in a litter-strewn parking lot while men with loudspeakers denounced Israel and the United States and extolled the virtues of dying in the struggle for a Palestinian state.

The crowd had come out of the refugee camps and seedy Gaza neighborhoods to watch a home video of two young Palestinians, Mohammed Irheem and Salem Hasouna, training for an attack on a Jewish settlement from which they knew they would not return. (They didn't.)

Boys no more than 7 or 8 years old scurried to the front of the throng for a better view of the TV monitors set up in the lot. Older boys watched in passive silence, occasionally giving each other an approving nod.

Theirs were the faces of tomorrow's suicide bombers.

How many would be willing to blow themselves up? "I'd say 80, maybe 90%," said Abdel Braraa, 26, a member of Islamic Jihad who carried a rifle and wore a black stocking mask to hide his identity from possible collaborators with Israel. "The martyrs on the video are heroes to them."

In the streets nearby, the preparations for war were reminiscent of what was seen in Fakhani, Beirut's Palestinian quarter, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Ten-foot-high piles of earth formed barricades at intersections. Parapets of dirt-filled rice bags stood at street corners. Shelves of small grocery shops were emptied of bottled water and flour as families stocked up on essentials. Bunkers were being dug in some refugee camps, and the number of guns in evidence seemed extraordinarily high.

As part of the readiness for war, the Palestinian Authority is transferring as many documents as possible to computer disks, aware that in Beirut and, this month, the West Bank, Israeli soldiers destroyed everything from scholastic records to civil service payroll data. Key computers have been moved to unannounced locations and secondary communications lines set up, officials said.

Palestinian Authority ministries are holding first-aid classes, and 70 women have been trained as midwives in case expectant mothers can't get to the hospital.

"If [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon can continue his war while [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell is in Jerusalem, what's to stop him from coming to Gaza?" asked Jihad Wazir, the Palestinian Authority's deputy minister of planning. "Militarily, we know it would be no contest, but Palestinians have always offered resistance, never compliance. Just by surviving we win."

Hamas, an organization that has long recruited suicide bombers and carried out scores of attacks in Israel, has threatened to unleash hundreds of "martyrs" on the Jewish state in retaliation for the West Bank campaign.

Abdulaziz Rantisi, one of Hamas' senior leaders, received a visitor in his home the other evening before attending the rally to fire up the young crowd with praise for volunteer bombers. There was a bullet hole in his front door and a video camera overhead to monitor who came and went.

"We have found the bombings are a simple means, one of our most effective, of making Israel pay for its aggression," he said. Of the fact that most victims are civilians, he said: "We only target soldiers. But all Israelis are soldiers, even if they wear civilian uniforms. They are occupiers."

On whether Hamas wants to destroy Israel, he answered indirectly: "We want one Palestine here where Muslims, Christians and Jews live side by side."

Despite war preparations, it is far from certain that Gaza is Israel's next target, because the Palestinians here are already separated from Israel by a fence and isolated from the world after Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed the runway of the Gaza Strip airport. As proof that the policy of isolation is working, Israeli officials point out that none of the recent suicide bombers inside Israel launched their attacks from Gaza.

"The talk of wanting war with Israel is an emotional feeling not based on rational thinking," said Salah Abdel Shafi, an independent business consultant. "Unfortunately, what's happened in the present atmosphere is that the many reasonable voices here aren't being heard.

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