In the unhappy land where Islamic mobs rule, the police do nothing and Israeli troops guard the exits

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The Independent Online

It is early afternoon in the Gaza Strip, less than a day after it was attacked by Israeli rockets. A thick plume of black smoke hangs overhead because a mob of young Arabs, freshly fired by rising Islamic zeal, has just torched a hotel for allowing alcohol on the premises.

It is early afternoon in the Gaza Strip, less than a day after it was attacked by Israeli rockets. A thick plume of black smoke hangs overhead because a mob of young Arabs, freshly fired by rising Islamic zeal, has just torched a hotel for allowing alcohol on the premises.

Not far away, a frenzied crowd of men wielding bars and bricks are smashing their way into a corner shop - punishment for the same crime. Another tower of smoke rises up over a building nearby, long suspected of housing a bar, an affront to the faith and the hallmark of the hated pro-Israeli West. The police are standing back, reluctant or incapable of acting.

Out in the flat warm waters of the Mediterranean, two Israeli gunships cruise back and forth, opposite the spot where a helicopter missile wiped out two tiny Palestinian boats - the minuscule marine force that Israel allows - on the seafront on Thursday afternoon.

Overhead, an Israeli Apache attack helicopter moves threateningly along the coastline - an airborne reminder of Israel's military might. It is hard to take your eyes off it, knowing that only 20 hours earlier, the same helicopters were blasting rockets into this Palestiniancontrolled oblong of coastal land - including a missile that landed 200 yards from Yasser Arafat's coastal residence.

To the north, at Erez Junction, the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the cattle sheds through which thousands of Palestinian workers pass every day are now silent. The border is closed, so these labourers can no longer commute back and forth to work in the fields and factories of the regional power moored next to them - the nation that they call, accurately, the occupier.

The crossing's concrete buildings and rubbish-strewn car park is strangely quiet, but for several dozen Arab workers who - fearful of falling victim to sectarian war, or simply sacked by their Jewish employers - are leaving Israel and heading home. The Israeli army is taking no chances. A soldier makes them sit on the ground in a line - like unruly children - before delving through their bags. When these men do trudge gloomily back into Gaza, it is as a column under military escort.

The only other activity is around a couple of shiny new cars with white diplomatic plates, guarded by nervous men wearing suits and ties - odd attire in this hot and tatty world - and wires and ear pieces. The Americans and their CIA field men are looking anxious, as well they might after the meltdown that has happened here. Gone for now are the days when Palestinian security men, including the head of Yasser Arafat's Preventative Security Force, could travel to the United States to be instructed by the CIA under the ludicrous title of "human rights training".

The Israelis are worried too. The young soldiers who sit behind the desk examining our passports are now wearing their M-16 rifles slung across their chests. On the Palestinian side, it is even emptier. The small office bearing the title "Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities" has a particularly sad air.

The 1.1 million Palestinians who live in Gaza, most in poverty and many of them refugees, are now confined to their fenced-in camp. A total closure is being enforced by Israel, which controls all the borders.

Every day of closure costs the West Bank and Gaza some $8m (£5.5m)- in a society where the per capita income is only a fraction of that of Israel.

Isham Durbay, 39, is a Gaza fisherman. It is not much of a living at the best of times, as the Israelis place restrictions on how far out to sea the Palestinians can fish. Today, he cannot fish at all, the harbour is closed, and so is the airport. "We are in a big prison - by air, by sea, by land," said Mr Durbay.

Israel has said that its air attacks were meant as a message, and emphasised that they did not target Yasser Arafat. The rockets were meant as a show of force, a reminder - as one Israeli colonel put it - that "you do not mess with us," triggered by the lynching of two Israeli soldiers by a mob in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

But it was not seen that way in Gaza, appalled though some Palestinians were by the killings. "What happened yesterday was as much about Israeli domestic politics as it was a signal to us," said Jihad al-Wazir, son of Abu Jihad, the highly influential founder of the PLO's Fatah who was killed in Tunis in 1988 by an Israel hit-squad co-ordinated by Mr Barak. The attack, he continued, was intended to help Mr Barak lay the ground for an emergency government, allowing him to remain in power.

All the signs suggest that the Israeli tactics of bombing, and then imposing economic sanctions - closure, cuts in power and water - will only harden opinion against them, fuelling the ascendant Islamic groups now burning the bars of Gaza. An Israeli crossroads near one of their settlements was one of the most notorious battlefields of the past fortnightuntil the Israelis blew up a nearby apartment block and flattened the surrounding orchards with tanks. After that, there was no cover.

Mr al-Wazir showed The Independent a document, printed after the bombing raids. We will "not be threatened", it said, Israel's missiles will "not lower our voices". The title said it all - a hitherto unheard of national Islamic committee.

On the street, the same sentiments were expressed. "This attack won't destroy us," said Mr Durbay. "This will stiffen our will." As he spoke, several thousand Palestinians - many of them young people wearing the green headbands of the Islamic Hamas movement - filed noisily through the streets, making exactly the same point.

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