Jabaliya awaits sign of change

IN Jabaliya refugee camp they had been hoping, at least, for a gesture, a sign of good intentions from the Israeli army.

In the Cleopatra fashion store, Walid Hamdouna, standing amid racks of sequinned wedding-dresses, said he had waited up all night to watch for signs of change. By early morning crowds of teenagers were peering over to the military base counting the soldiers to see if there were fewer targets for their stones. Pregnant women making their way to the United Nations health clinic looked cautiously to see if the daily threat of sniper fire might now have ceased. And TV crews had massed to film the people waiting for change.

At 8.30am the 'gesture' came. A line of military jeeps emerged from behind the tall wire fence of the army base. They halted outside the UN clinic. About 20 soldiers piled out and scattered to take aim at some invisible threat, crouching beside the clinic and outside Cleopatra's. The crowd had already evacuated the streets. Old and young were squashed against the sequinned dresses and a father pulled his son out of the line of fire.

'Of course we are not leaving. We will be here until the Messiah,' said one of the soldiers outside, as the familiar Jabaliya rituals begun to unfold with depressing familiarity.

'We must increase the use of force now against the Israelis. It is the only way,' said Abu Ahmed, a supporter of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, as pregnant women awaited check-ups inside the clinic. It had just been announced that a Hamas member was shot dead as he hijacked an ambulance in Gaza and injured an Israeli soldier.

Despite the lack of change and the evident disappointment, the mood in Jabaliya was different. They were expressing anger, but there was still a sense of expectation. The truth is that for weeks few people had really dared believe that anything would change on 13 December. But on Sunday night, as the deadline approached, they had started to believe for the first time. Despite a 10-day delay, belief has not been extinguished - yet.

While Mr Hamdouna explained grimly that he had lost faith in the peace process, complaining that he had not sold a wedding dress for many weeks, he spoke animatedly of his hopes for times of 'celebration and pleasure'. Was there less aggression in the way the teenagers took aim with stones? The soldiers threatened but did not fire back as easily as they so often have. And they seemed to pose for the TV cameras with greater readiness than usual.

In the clinic mothers observing as the familiar scene unfolded outside complained of their daily fears. 'We are used to the soldiers. They are there most days when we come. We have to pass in front of them,' said Fatmeh Saleh, a mother of seven. She smiled strangely as she spoke. 'Today is very black for us. We have seen no withdrawal,' she said. 'Perhaps withdrawal will still come. We hope so.'