Issue 202 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: A state of war Gaza

Sabby Sagall

To drive from Tel-Aviv to Gaza is like travelling in one hour from the Royal Borough of Kensington to the slums of Bombay. In the refugee camp of Jabaliya, next to Gaza City, home to 80,000 displaced Palestinians, the shacks or stone block houses have no electricity or running water. Open drains line the streets, and everywhere one is confronted by swamps of rubbish. As Hassan, a young Israeli Arab teacher, described it: `If you pushed all the rubbish in Gaza into the sea, you would have an island larger than Israel.'

A major consequence of the occupation since 1967 has been the distortion of the Palestinian economy. Prevented from developing its own autonomy, it became complementary to and dependent on the Israeli economy. This means that Palestinians displaced from the Israeli labour market cannot be absorbed in the absence of significant productive investment. According to Mohammed Shtayyeh, Arafat's chief economic negotiator, the Palestine Authority has created jobs for 68,000 Palestinians. But 30,000 of these are in the police force and thousands more in the administration.

One savage consequence of the border closure in February has been the death of a number of Palestinian patients requiring urgent medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. According to the Gaza Centre for Rights and Law, between February and June, eight Palestinians died as a result of being held up at the Eretz checkpoint. As Raji El-Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, grimly put it, `The lucky ones are those with cancer, as they are granted permission to be treated in Israel.'

Since 1993 around 400 Palestinians have been killed, including 60 in the recent uprising, but some at the hands of the new Palestinian police. Hassan described the contradiction of the situation facing the police. Their role is to ensure law and order in the Palestinian enclaves, to contain the masses' anger, taking over the function carried out by the Israeli army since 1967. When the demonstrations against the opening of the tunnel began, Arafat's orders were not to shoot at Israeli soldiers. However, the Israelis responded immediately not with rubber but with live bullets. In a students' demonstration in Ramallah, frightened Israeli soldiers also soon began firing live ammunition. The first to be killed was a Palestinian policeman. The students quickly demanded that their police protect them from Israeli soldiers. Hassan concludes that if the police hadn't fired back `there would have been a revolution to overthrow Arafat. As it was, people said "Arafat is not so bad". It saved him, though who knows for how long?'

Until September's uprising, the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas was estimated to have the support of 40 percent of Palestinians. But the group didn't take part in the fighting and seems to have lost support. There was no response to its call for a general strike on the Friday following the worst conflict.

Arafat has gone to great lengths to secure the loyalty and obedience of his 30,000 police. In 1993, the PLO was promised $2.4 billion over five years from Western financial institutions and donor countries. It has so far received around $800 million, roughly half of what was due. High unemployment has also meant a collapse of tax revenue. According to Hassan, hardly any of the money has gone into welfare services such as health or education or into creating employment. The bulk has gone into paying for the new bureaucracy and the police. An ordinary policeman is paid $400 a month, a huge amount in Gaza or the West Bank.

But as we saw, when the masses rise the support of the police becomes fragile.

As an off duty policeman in Gaza said, `Before Oslo, the occupation was in the sun, now it's in the shade.' He took part grudgingly in the roundup of Hamas suspects, but says he is ready to fight the Israelis when the next uprising occurs. `If 75 died over issues that have been agreed, how many more will die over issues that haven't?'

Palestinians see little difference between the Rabin/Peres and the Netanyahu governments. As Hassan said: `Rabin and Peres talked Left and acted Right, whereas Netanyahu talks Right and acts Right. The new government has made our work easier. It has clarified the situation.'

At the Gaza Community Mental Health Centre, psychiatric services are provided for victims of the occupation. The director, Dr. Eyad El Sarraj, and psychologist Ahmed Abu Tawahina, describe the legacy of mental illness left by Israeli repression. During the Intifada, between 1987 and 1992, more than 100,000 were detained, of whom perhaps 70 percent were tortured. Methods included beating, electric shocks, solitary confinement, locking prisoners in `oven' rooms, then in `fridges', sleep deprivation, threatening their families in front of them. Israeli doctors were present to ensure that victims were able to absorb physical punishment and to fabricate reports.

Sadly the Palestinian police have adopted the repressive methods of their Israeli predecessors. A thousand Hamas and other prisoners are being held without trial. A Gaza human rights activist was imprisoned and tortured three times in the last six months for speaking out against human rights abuses. Part of the growing gap between the Palestine Authority and the masses is that between wealthy and ordinary Palestinians. The PLO is dominated by a small minority of Palestinians or who are either substantial West Bank landowners or who own factories or have assets abroad. An example is leading PLO negotiator Nabil Shaath who owns a computer factory.

Like the PLO, the Hamas leaders have no real solutions to offer the mass of ordinary Palestinians. As Hassan pointed out, their leaders are also from the wealthy class of factory owners, merchants and professionals. They offer palliatives to impoverished and desperate Palestinians running schools and clinics.

Recently a conference was held in Tel-Aviv to mark the tenth anniversary of the abduction and solitary confinement of Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli former nuclear technician who in 1986 disclosed to the Sunday Times the truth about Israel's nuclear weapons programme. The conference, chaired by Nobel peace laureate, 87 year old scientist Joseph Rotblat, was widely reported in the Israeli media. However, Israeli president Weizman rejected Rotblat's plea to grant Vanunu clemency.

The increasing transparency of Arafat's surrender leaves the field open for the emergence of new political forces. At the Jabaliya camp during the recent uprising, PLO police had to restrain thousands of Palestinians ready to march unarmed on the nearby Israeli settlement of Wetzarim. As Hassan concluded, `The prospects for building a new socialist movement in Palestine are good.'

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