Gaza removes inflammatory graffiti in gesture to Israel

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The dense graffiti that lines every street in the Gaza Strip calling for resistance to Israeli occupation, which has become Gaza's most memorable sight, is to be removed under the resurgent peace process.

Palestinian workers began daubing white paint yesterday over the Arabic slogans sprayed on the walls of Omar bin al-Mukhtar Street, one of Gaza City's main thoroughfares, under an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to crack down on incitement to violence from each side.

Every alley in Gaza is lined with spray-painted graffiti that has made the streets into pages. Some of the graffiti is skillful, even calligraphic, some just a scruffy scrawl. There are quotations from the Koran, and from classical Arabic poetry. Sometimes the writers of the graffiti try their hand at composing verse. But overwhelmingly the graffiti is made up of slogans against Israel, and calls to arms.

One of the slogans that were painted over yesterday read: "The blood of the martyrs will not be wasted", signed by the militant group Hamas. Another said the militant Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades "mourn their hero-martyrs".

The streets of Gaza used to act as newspapers for Palestinians. During the first intifada, when all the occupied territories were under direct Israeli control, Palestinian newspapers, radio and television were controlled, and Palestinians began using the streets to spread news about the intifada.

That tradition persists in graffiti that announces suicide bombings and militant attacks, and who was involved. Graffiti from Hamas militants announces they have made new Qassam rockets to fire across the fence into Israel. The walls are also plastered with posters of militants who died in suicide bombings, proclaiming them as martyrs. These are the pin-ups of the occupied territories, and the posters and graffiti glorify the suicide bombings.

The decision to remove the graffiti came from Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, and his cabinet, said Mohammed al-Masri, the head of Palestinian intelligence's political section. Israel and the Palestinians have also agreed to form a joint committee to monitor the language of official media and school textbooks.

Silvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said yesterday: "On Palestinian television you see every day pictures of the burning of Israeli flags [and] the map of greater Palestine ... with no mention of Israel. You don't see incitement in the official Israeli media, but if they find something we'll have to discuss it."

A day earlier, Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Transport Minister, had opposed a proposal to free Palestinian prisoners, saying: "The only thing I am ready to do is ... I am willing to bring the buses that will take those prisoners to a place they'll never come back from. I prefer to drown them in the Dead Sea".

The week-old ceasefire declared by the militants looks like it is in trouble over Israel's refusal to accede to the militants' demand to free Palestinians from Israeli prisons. Israel has agreed to release only a few hundred who are not considered responsible for the deaths of Israelis. That is not enough, the militants say.

There were also rumblings from the militant group Islamic Jihad yesterday after the Israeli army arrested six of its members near Jenin in the West Bank. The group said the ceasefire would not last if Israel continued arrests. Israel has accused the militant groups of using the ceasefire to rearm, saying Hamas was building more Qassam rockets to fire at Israeli towns, and demanded the Palestinian Authority start cracking down on the militants soon.

Yesterday Palestinian security forces arrested a Palestinian woman after she left a note at her home in Gaza saying she was going on a suicide bombing. But she was released, to Israeli accusations that the arrest had been staged. The Palestinians said she had fled home because of "social problems". She had no explosives and no connections with militants, they said.