Gaza Palestinians’ Disappointment Explodes Into Fury : Reaction: Tailor’s suicide attack on Israeli military truck foreshadows violence to come, mourners say.
Until Monday morning, Anwar Aziz was just a tailor, a deeply religious father of two known to fellow Palestinian refugees for his generosity, his love of Islam and his hatred for Israel.
As the rain fell Monday afternoon on the half-completed mosque that Aziz had been building beside his home in the squalor of Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, friends and neighbors huddled to honor the 26-year-old tailor and former prisoner as a martyr.
Just before sunrise, he had hijacked an ambulance at gunpoint, loaded it with explosives and gas cylinders and rammed it into a parked Israeli military truck on the outskirts of Gaza City, injuring two soldiers and blowing himself to bits.
On this day of disappointment and outrage for Palestinians, Aziz had committed an act that for many foreshadowed worse to come.
“Today, we don’t want to talk about peace or Yasser Arafat,” said a 22-year-old Palestinian student at the wake, who asked to be identified only as someone who loved Anwar. “Today, we talk about the blood of martyrs before us and in the future.”
Aziz’s suicide bombing was part of a tidal wave of frustration and fury throughout the impoverished Gaza Strip on Monday, which was to have been opening day in its liberation after 26 years of Israeli occupation. Most Palestinians had hoped to fill the streets with celebration, but thousands filled them instead with angry demonstrations.
Men, women and children pelted Israeli patrols with torrents of rocks. They cursed soldiers speeding past. And they lit tire fires throughout Gaza--all to protest an official delay in the Israeli troop withdrawal that was scheduled to begin Monday in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, as set down in last September’s historic Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Also Monday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a fugitive of the fundamentalist Islamic Jihad, which opposes the peace accord, during a firefight in the southernmost Gaza town of Rafah. Several more Palestinian activists were wounded in Aziz’s Jabaliya camp in northern Gaza as angry refugees traded stones for bullets during several hours of rioting around the camp’s fenced-in Israeli military post.
Israel’s military authorities said they had expected Monday’s violence to be even worse, although several commanders predicted unofficially that the level of armed attacks will increase.
“We know they’re intending to carry out suicide attacks similar to what happened today,” said Brig. Gen. Doron Almog, Israel’s commander in Gaza, referring specifically to a recent meeting he held with Gazan leaders of the fundamentalist group known as Hamas.
“We know there are plans to carry out stabbings. We know there are plans to shoot at (Jewish) settlers.”
Many Gazans, too, said they feared that Monday’s fury was just the beginning of a new round of bombings, shootings and violent protests in the occupied territories as a result of the delay. Palestine Liberation Organization leader Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin--the same leaders who originally had set the Dec. 13 withdrawal date--agreed to the postponement during a meeting Sunday in Cairo.
Arab analysts and political leaders in Gaza added that they feared the delays would further undermine Arafat’s moderate support in the territories, where a vicious cycle of hope and disappointment has pushed an increasing number of PLO supporters into the leftist and fundamentalist groups that oppose the Gaza-Jericho autonomy plan.
Even the PLO office in downtown Jericho shut down in protest Monday. A sign on the door declared, “We are closed today because Israel does not want peace.”
Mansour Shawa, Arafat’s hand-picked mayor of Gaza City, only vaguely defended the PLO chairman amid Monday’s violence, suggesting that Arafat agreed to the delay because his Palestine National Authority was not yet ready to assume control of the anarchic territory from Israel. And Shawa stressed several times that he deeply sympathized with those responsible for Monday’s attacks on the Israelis--and deeply feared for Gaza’s future.
It was a strong statement for Shawa. He owns the ambulance that Anwar Aziz hijacked and demolished.
“It’s irresponsible, of course, to turn a lifesaving device into a life-taking device, but you must understand the desperation and disillusionment of the people over what is happening here,” said Shawa, whose records for his family-owned Gaza Benevolent Society indicate that the ambulance was stolen about 6 a.m. by a man who said his sister was critically ill in the Jabaliya camp.
“I believe this suicide mission shows that the Palestinians are now so disappointed and so desperate they feel this is the only way out. Palestinians are sacrificing their lives like this now, and I think this is an upward trend.”
Nowhere was that explosion of frustration more vivid than inside the Jabaliya camp, where hundreds of Aziz’s fellow refugees had gathered around the Israeli military post hours before they even knew that the early-morning suicide bomber was from among them.
“The people came here to watch and wait for the Israelis to withdraw from this camp. Most everyone expected it today,” said Abdul Badroun, a clerk at a U.N. clinic beside the Israeli outpost. “You can say this is a reaction to the non-implementation of the withdrawal.
“It’s an explosion of anger. Because all of us were expecting not to see any army here when we came out in the morning. Even the children are throwing stones. No one can predict what will happen now. It depends on the response of the Jewish army.”
There were several dire predictions, though, at the scene of Aziz’s bombing Monday morning.
“If the Jewish army doesn’t leave Gaza, the situation will grow more and more explosive,” said Shaban Bakroun, 62, a long-retired fighter in Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Army who now lives at the Nahal Oz crossroads, the intersection where Aziz rammed the Israeli army vehicle.
“You see this? This explosion? All of Gaza Strip will be like this. Gaza will burn. Look, we agree with this peace plan. We support Arafat. But they, the Israelis, they don’t want it. You see for yourself.”
In fact, Bakroun and most of the residents who witnessed the crash and explosion said they were convinced the Israeli army had deliberately blown up the ambulance. It was not until Monday afternoon, when the fundamentalist Islamic Jihad sent a fax claiming responsibility for the attack to Gaza’s Arab Journalists’ Assn., that many Gazans accepted the Israelis’ official version of the suicide bombing.
It was the second suicide attack by the Islamic Jihad and its military wing, Al Qasam, which means The Oath. The group’s statement taking credit for the attack said it was “a fulfillment of our holy duty toward the liberation of Palestine and out of faith to the blood of the martyrs.”
As Aziz’s family and friends gathered in the downpour, masked men armed only with spray-paint cans filled nearby walls with similar slogans.
Friends explained that Aziz had been released from Israeli prisons about five months ago after serving a two-year term for political activism. None said they suspected he was an underground member of the Islamic Jihad, which means Holy War. “Such things,” one said, “are top secret.”
But the 22-year-old student who expressed love for Aziz said his suicide mission is bound to inspire others--even him.
“I think all the Palestinians, all the family and friends of Anwar, feel his greatness today, and many will try to follow this,” he said, adding that he, too, had spent several years in Israeli jails. “All those who knew him, it will inspire us to the same greatness.”