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Killings in Hospitals, Poisoned Water Supplies Alleged : Rumors Helping to Fuel Unrest in Gaza

Times Staff Writer

According to one of the rumors circulating here, Palestinian youths wounded by Israeli soldiers in the current spate of unrest have been taken to an army hospital near Tel Aviv to be “finished off.”

Another rumor, spread over mosque loudspeakers, has it that Israeli soldiers poisoned a water reservoir in the village of Khan Yunis.

And many sources, Israeli as well as Palestinian, say it may have been a rumor that touched off the violence that has claimed 13 Arab lives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories in the last eight days. According to that rumor, four Gazans who were killed in a Dec. 9 traffic accident were the victims of a deliberate Israeli act of revenge.

Few here would argue seriously that rumors are the cause of the continuing clashes in the areas occupied by Israel in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. The unrest, particularly here in the Gaza Strip, is rooted in Palestinian poverty, overcrowding and political frustration.

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But in the last eight days, Gaza and the West Bank have become a case study in the way rumors flash through communities that have no reliable machinery for public information--and in how those rumors fan any spark of confrontation between rulers and their unwilling subjects.

“There’s definitely a ‘bush telegraph’ that’s very active--and not always accurate,” said William Lee, public information officer for the Gaza-West Bank office of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

“The reason this is so prevalent, and not just in times of trouble, is the tremendous feeling of insecurity that these people have,” Lee said. “It’s the feeling of being victimized. You tend to take any information that comes to you and interpret it as befits your situation.”

Trouble Continues

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As the trouble continued Wednesday, an Israeli soldier was stabbed in Rafah, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, and at least three Palestinians were wounded by army gunfire. A pall of smoke from burning tires and makeshift roadblocks hung over several refugee camps in the area, and there were numerous reports of stone throwing by Palestinian youths.

But large army reinforcements sent in overnight and the introduction of water cannon apparently proved effective in reducing the level of violence. Earlier, at least four Gazans were shot to death by Israeli troops and a fifth died of wounds.

The water cannon were used against demonstrators in at least three places Wednesday, and U.N. and Palestinian sources reported widespread arrests by the army. Also, troops used threats and physical force to make striking merchants reopen shops as a step toward normalcy.

The authorities also took action on the rumor front, meeting with Gazan notables for the second time this week in an effort to quash false reports and enlist their help in restoring order.

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“It has its effects,” Zohair Reyyes, a Palestinian lawyer and journalist from Gaza, told an interviewer, referring to the rumor mill. “People are so worried and jumpy that rumor just pulls the trigger. It means people are ready to accept exaggerated information.”

Reyyes cited a clash that took place Tuesday in Beit Hanoun, at the northern edge of the Gaza Strip. A youth was shot to death, a dozen people were wounded and, according to a U.N. spokesman, a 17-year-old girl died under mysterious circumstances. However, Reyyes said, rumor put the number of casualties at no less than 200.

Walking through the Bureij refugee camp near the center of the 28-mile-long Gaza Strip, reporters heard a litany of complaints against the Israelis.

“Six from the camp are injured,” one man said.

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“No! It’s 20,” interjected a second.

“Thirty!” said a third.

A man was heard warning his neighbors not to escort three American reporters through the camp.

“They’re trying to suck you into the hands of the Israelis,” he said, referring to an army force at the camp entrance.

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Rumors that foreign reporters are Israeli spies are among the most destructive, said Lee, the U.N. official. Four reporters were roughed up by Palestinians in Tuesday’s violence, and several reporters’ cars were stoned Wednesday. Lee attributed the problems to “mob mentality.”

Nonetheless, most rumors have at least some connection to fact.

U.N. officials branded as totally false the rumor that wounded Palestinians have been mistreated when taken to Israeli hospitals. On the contrary, Lee said, it is usually only the most serious cases that are taken out of the Gaza Strip for treatment, and in some cases this has probably saved lives.

But two wounded Palestinians have died of their injuries, and other officials say rumors that they were taken to Israel to be “finished off” stem from a natural fear of the country whose soldiers have wounded them. Also, Israeli troops have gone into Gaza hospitals and arrested wounded Palestinians.

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The rumor about water supplies being poisoned apparently stemmed from an incident in which Israeli troops were reported to be urinating into a reservoir. A U.N. official said the water was subsequently tested and “it was not contaminated.”

Soon after the Dec. 9 accident in which four Gazans were killed when their vehicle collided with an Israeli truck, the rumor spread here and to the West Bank that the crash had been intentional. It was said that the truck was an army vehicle and that the driver was related to an Israeli plastics merchant who had been stabbed to death here three days earlier--reports that informed Palestinian and army sources both deny.

In some cases, according to Israeli security sources, false rumors are deliberately spread by nationalistic Palestinians trying to foment trouble. More often, however, they appear to be a natural outgrowth of the situation in which the Palestinians find themselves.

They have lived for at least 40 years without a free press and therefore put little faith in what they read, said Yehuda Litani, the Arabic-speaking Middle East editor for the Jerusalem Post and a longtime reporter on life in the occupied territories.

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Although Israel permits several Arabic-language newspapers to publish, they are strictly censored.

“Rumors are the main means to transfer information in such a society,” Litani said.

Ironically, the unrest has spurred calls in Israel for a ban on free reporting of events in the occupied territories.

Israel has come under sharp criticism from the United States, France, Germany, the United Nations and others for its handling of the latest unrest, and some officials here blame it on the news media.

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Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir conceded Tuesday that he had discussed with Chief of Staff Dan Shomron the idea of barring reporters from the territories, but Shamir’s media adviser quickly explained that this had never been an “operational plan.”

Nevertheless, the Foreign Press Assn. in Israel issued a statement that said: “Only undemocratic countries make it impossible for a journalist to do his job fully. Denial of access to journalists is denying the truth to the people.”


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