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

Times Staff Writer

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.

"I don't think Egypt wants Gaza. It's too much of a burden," Shawa, 80, commented in an interview. He is head of what is perhaps the area's most prominent family. At the same time, Shawa said, as early as 1949 the Egyptian military governor refused residents' requests to be granted autonomy. Shawa once spent six months in an Egyptian military prison, and one of his brothers was sentenced to death for allegedly plotting an anti-Egyptian coup. The death sentence was later commuted.

Less Political Support

Israeli feelings about Gaza are not what they are for the West Bank, which was the heart of the biblical kingdom of Israel. Some on the political right claim Gaza as part of "the Land of Israel." However, even the 2,500 Jews scattered among three post-1967 settlement blocks here concede that they enjoy less political support in Jerusalem than their 60,000 peers on the West Bank.

Most Israelis would not dream of visiting Gaza. "A hornet's nest" is one of the nicer things they call it.

It is symbolic that a frequently used play on the Hebrew words for "Go to hell!" ( "Lech le Azazel!" ) advises instead, "Go to Gaza!" ( "Lech le Aza!" ).

"In my assessment, there will come a day when we shall literally beg for someone to rid us of Gaza and its headaches," Zeev Schiff, the respected military analyst for the independent Haaretz newspaper, wrote recently.

Why Not Just Walk Away?

Why doesn't Israel just walk away from Gaza, build a physical or electronic wall around its perimeter, post guards every few yards, and leave it?

The answer seems to be partly the fear of what would happen here if the army left and partly the hope that Israel can use Gaza as a bargaining chip for greater political gain.

What would happen to those 60,000 Gazans who now earn their livelihood in Israel if the government sealed the border? the retired Israeli general asked. The fear, he said, is that Gaza would quickly become another Lebanon, with the unemployed young men transformed into guns for hire by outside agitators. And this new "Lebanon" would be only six miles from the Israeli town of Ashkelon and 40 miles from Tel Aviv.

That is an argument that angers Shawa.

"What the hell does it pertain to Israel?" he shot back, his voice rising. "Let us kill ourselves--it's our right!

"If Israel was so particular about what would happen," Shawa added, "they would give authority to the local people here to make them feel they are governing themselves."

'Gaza First' Approach

There have been occasional Israeli proposals to grant Gazans a form of limited autonomy as a step toward some more permanent solution of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. But this "Gaza First" approach, as it has been called, always founders because of the continuing debate over what the next step might be.

Meanwhile, many Israeli leaders clearly see Gaza as a valuable pawn, a bargaining chip that could tip the balance in some future peace treaty with Jordan.

"Jordan does want Gaza because they want an outlet to the (Mediterranean) sea," said Shawa, who is known as a close ally of Jordanian King Hussein. Also, he said, the king "feels he must do something to help these (Palestinian) people."

Grandfather's Dream

As long ago as 1950, Hussein's grandfather, the late King Abdullah, reportedly agreed in principle to a peace treaty with Israel, provided that he was assured, among other things, access to ports in Gaza and Haifa. Abdullah was assassinated in 1951, allegedly because of his readiness to deal with Israel.

Although Gaza's 650,000 Palestinians would appear to pose a potential threat to the stability of his throne, Abdullah's grandson would make a deal under the right circumstances, said the retired Israeli general.

"If it will be a full political solution (that) will resolve Judea and Samaria,"--the biblical names for the West Bank preferred by Israelis--"give a solution to Gaza, and also give him a port, he will accept it," the general said.

The general conceded that the approach entails risk. However, he argued, "There isn't one 'safe' way. Every option involves a risk. So, the best thing is to do something for a political solution and a comprehensive peace."

A lot of Gazans, including the general's pro-PLO friend, are not enthusiastic about being ruled by Jordan, however.

'What's the Difference?'

"Instead of the Israelis, it will be a Jordanian occupation," scoffed the Palestinian. "What's the difference? Maybe the color of the flag is all."

In some ways, the Jordanians would be worse, he added.

"If these demonstrations (of the last few weeks) would have happened in Jordan, do you know what would have resulted? There would have been thousands killed!"

The former PLO activist said Palestinians generally, and Gazans in particular, are beyond trusting "any Arab government," any more than they trust the Israelis.

Ultimately, he said, the only solution is for the Palestinians to be recognized as an equal partner in any settlement. There are 3.5 million Jews in Israel and 4 million Palestinians in and around it.

"It's impossible to ignore either the Israelis or the Palestinians," he said.

Would Accept Confederation

"Personally, I am willing to cooperate with Israel as part of a confederation of three countries"--Israel, Jordan, and a Palestinian state.

Palestinians are of one mind, whether they be rich, refugees, or laborers in Israel, the former PLO activist said.

"All of us have the same question: Who am I? We need an identity, as everyone in the world," he said.

"We have lost 100,000 people to get a president," the Palestinian said, referring to all those who died in the conflict with Israel while Yasser Arafat emerged as the head of the PLO. "What do you think we'll have to lose to get a state?

"Who is the PLO and who are the people here?" he asked rhetorically. "Can you make a difference between them? Every family in the Gaza Strip--90% of them--has, or has lost, a member of the family in the PLO."

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