Middle East Accord: Army of street fighters set to quit: Charles Richards, recently in Gaza, saw why Israeli troops want to get out

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The Independent Online
THE squad hugged the sides of the sandy street, filing in two lines beside the breeze- block walls of the Palestinian homes. A Peugeot 404 stood at an intersection of what pass for roads. The platoon commander ordered the driver and his woman passenger, cradling an infant, out of the car. The driver was frisked and asked in pidgin Arabic for his identity card. He replied in Hebrew.

Most Gazans, who used to work in Israel proper, speak Hebrew. Where was he going? Where was he from? Two other soldiers rummaged through the boot of the car. Nothing. He could go.

It was their fate that the men of the Givati brigade were doing their military service in Rafah, the southernmost Palestinian town in the Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel since being taken from Egypt in the 1967 Six-day war. For most of the Palestinian uprising, which erupted in December 1987, Israeli troops had mainly confronted crowds throwing stones and petrol bombs. In the last few months there had been an increase in more deadly weapons: their company alone had seized nine guns on routine patrols, including AK-47s. A few weeks before, five of their company had been injured by a grenade.

The 10-man patrol moved on. It is the normality of everyday life going on as usual which is most striking: the elderly woman shuffling past with a tray of bread on her head; children playing in the streets, unfazed by the troops.

The company commander, Capt Avshalom, accepted his lot: 'It's a job which must be done. But it's not a nice job, chasing after kids who throw stones.' Career soldiers like him and those doing their annual 45 days of reserve duty looked forward to the Israeli withdrawal and handover to the new Palestinian police.

In the past months, as the initial euphoria of the signing of the PLO-Israel accord on 13 September evaporated, disputes flared among the Palestinians. In the past, the unifying factor had been the common desire to end the occupation. Now, with the end of the occupation, or part of it, underlying tensions have emerged. They are between those accused of collaborating with Israel and those leading the resistance, between Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement and Islamic militants. There has been an explosion of small groups of hardliners who have taken up arms, some of whose members appear out of control. The Israelis, who offered an amnesty to most wanted Palestinians, have said they will hunt down those with Israeli blood on their hands.

The return of the 400-odd militants of Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and the Islamic Jihad expelled by Israel to south Lebanon in December 1992 has had two effects. Palestinians say Hamas leaders learnt political pragmatism and expediency: they are more willing to co-operate with other secular Palestinian factions. By contrast, Israeli military commanders have noted marked sophistication in use of explosives and car- bombs, evidence that militants received not only lessons in political theory during their Lebanese sojourn.

There is huge competition between Palestinians who lived under Israeli occupation in Gaza and the majority of Palestinians, including leaders of the PLO in Tunis. More recently, tensions have emerged between indigenous Gazans and the two-thirds of the Gaza population who are refugees from what became Israel in 1948.

Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, has said it has no reason to remain in most of the overpopulated Gaza strip, although he is committed to providing security for the 4,000 Jewish settlers there. Israeli officials recognise that though they could withdraw the army and leave Gaza to its fate, politically this would be unacceptable. As the country of occupation, Israel bears some international responsibility for ensuring a smooth transition to the new Palestinian authority.

It is a period of transition, of jockeying for power. The greatest challenge will be to provide the jobs to give some hope of relief from the social and economic misery in which Gazans have languished.

'It is going to be a period of chaos, of uncertainty,' said one Gaza resident, 'before it stabilises. But civil war? That's exaggeration.'