A future of orange juice and justice: Gaza town aims for prosperity

SAMIR Mohammed al Azaezah, mayor of Deir el Balah, never flinched when the gunshots rang out at his office window last week.

'It's only the hawks having fun,' he laughed, as he picked up his 'Memorandum of Understanding on Solid Waste Management (SWM) in the Occupied Territories'.

The 'hawks' having fun were the military wing of Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. They had come to fire their guns in a salute outside the town's newly liberated police station, its watchtowers vacated by Israelis and manned by doddering old men in green uniforms and bright-eyed teenagers with AK47s, calling themselves the 'Palestinian police'.

Families were lining up to greet newly arrived relatives in the police force, and emerging from the police station with solemn smiles of joy. The 'liberators of Palestine' were staring at the revellers with stupified gazes, as if transfixed by their sudden transportation from barracks in Egypt, Yemen and Iraq to the heady atmosphere of Deir el Balah's dusty streets.

Mr al Azaezah, however, had more important things to do than contemplate the strange metamorphosis underway around him.

Deir el Balah - 'Monastery of Dates' - had just become the first liberated area in the Gaza Strip. And like any responsible mayor at such a time, Mr al Azaezah was looking to the future.

He envisages a prosperous and proud Deir el Balah; a clean, sweet-smelling future; a time when the glorious date palms that ring the town will stand proud once again; when there will be no garbage or sewage in the streets.

This is a small, quiet enclave of about 34,000 people. The refugee camp, the smallest and poorest in the Gaza Strip, is a maze of tiny, grubby breeze- block huts sprawling on a golden stretch of Mediterranean beach. Like the rest of Gaza, the Palestinians here rose up during the intifada. Thirty 'martyrs' have been buried in the town since 1987. The first to die was a 17-year-old girl, Intisa Attar, shot dead during demonstrations outside her school.

Before Israeli rule, when the Egyptians ran the Gaza Strip, Deir el Balah was a relatively prosperous town, with a large underground reservoir and a thriving citrus crop. But it lost control of its springs, and competition from Israeli citrus growers all but strangled the orchards.

Israeli building restrictions prevented ordered expansion, and urban sprawl spread over former agricultural land. The municipality, like others in Gaza, has been financed through electricity collection charges, taken on behalf of the Israeli electricity company. But non-payment, in protest at the occupation, has left the municipality pounds 150,000 arrears. The town must pay up or be cut off, the company says.

Israeli military law has for 27 years shackled every aspect of life in Deir el Balah. More than 30 houses here have been destroyed in punishments, and more than 2,000 youngsters locked up.

The determination to thrive once more, however, was strong enough in Deir el Balah last week to confound the most adamant sceptic.

Those who believe that the Gaza-Jericho agreement will be stillborn should have visited the offices of Ali Naouq, a 51-year-old lawyer.

Mr Naouq was pulling dusty legal files off his shelves, declaring the imminent return of law and order - British law and order - as set out in Mandate law in the 1920s. 'The people here are determined to have their own constitution, their own human rights,' he said. 'They will demand democracy and equality before the law. The people threw stones against the occupation. They will not throw stones against their own national authority.'

Next door a representative of the 'national authority', a 17-year-old policeman called Haim Abdel Rahim Awat, looked ill-prepared to take on his momentous new role, as he was feted by his uncles and cousins. He was born in exile, the son of a Deir el Balah deportee. 'I joined the police four months ago in Egypt,' he explained, 'because I wanted to come home.'

Mr Naouq was confident that the new police would shape up to their task, and take over control of the self-appointed 'street police' - the Fatah hawks. 'During the last seven years I have defended 1,500 Palestinians of Deir el Balah in the Israeli military courts, free of charge,' he said. 'But I never had any chance to prove their innocence. There is no justice in a military court. Now, with our police and our law, there will be justice again.'

The 'hawks' of Deir el Balah appeared confident of the 'national authority', too. 'I want to retire, said Emad abu Smitan, 28, a member of the hawks' 'secret service'. 'I will hand over my gun to our police when they ask for it. As long as our authority is here, we are safe. I am tired. I have been in jail seven times. But now our struggle is over.'

Back in the offices of the mayor, the talk was of an airport, a port, an industrial zone and a new orange juice factory. It was Mr al Azaezah's father who, as mayor in 1967, surrendered the town, after leading the resistance. His son, who was 11 at the time, remembers him attaching his white keffieh to the end of a stick.

'For the sake of my father I must think of the future,' said Mr Azaezah, tapping his 'Memorandum of Understanding'. He warmed to his theme. 'Today we have only one truck for 60 cubic metres of rubbish deposited on Deir el Balah each day. Soon we will have 15 . . .'

(Photograph omitted)