Shadow of Hamas hangs over Gaza visit

Israel's economic squeeze will not stop the suicide bombers, writes Patrick Cockburn in Gaza City
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On a road running through orange groves near Gaza City, a squad of Israeli soldiers recently erected a checkpoint to stop cars passing an Israeli settlement. After an hour, Palestinian security men arrived and demanded it be removed, on the grounds that it had been agreed that the Israeli army could only have an observation post at this point. After an angry dispute with the soldiers, a Palestinian working for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which rules Gaza, shouted: "Get it out of the way or we will send Hamas."

The incident helps to explain the political conditions in Gaza, perhaps the world's most peculiar political entity, which John Major is to visit today. To an Israeli, the threat would have confirmed his worst fears that Mr Arafat and the suicide bombers from Hamas work together. To a Palestinian, it would have been a simple statement that, if his grievances are not met, the response will be more suicide bombs.

In the self-congratulatory mood after the Oslo agreement in 1993, few realised the dangers of the political cocktail being mixed. The takeover of the Gaza Strip by Mr Arafat last May soon led to disappointed expectations. The Palestinian Authority nominally runs Gaza, but its authority is so restricted that it delivers few benefits to Gazans. Even inside the Gaza Strip, 40 per cent of the land is still occupied by Israeli settlements. The local economy is dependent on the earnings of Palestinian labourers in Israel, most of whom are banned now from going to work.

This semi-independence has exacerbated the frustrations of the 800,000 people packed into this 28-mile-long sliver of land adjoining Egypt. Gaza was never going to be a problem that could be sealed off and forgotten. The militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad were marginalised by the Oslo accord, but launched the first suicide bombs in April, claiming they were responding to the massacre of 29 worshippers in the Hebron mosque in February.

There have been no suicide bombs since 22 January, when 21 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed by two bombers from Gaza as they waited for buses outside Netanya. Israeli intelligence has reportedly concluded that the pause is tactical - and despite intense pressure from Israel and the US, it is doubtful that Mr Arafat would risk his political credibility by launching the type of round-up of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members that they are demanding.

Israel's response to the bombings has been mainly economic. "Gaza is economically unique," said Khalid Abdel-Shafi, an economist on Gaza Council. "Some 50 per cent of its GNP of $1bn [£636m] was produced outside the country, all but 10 per cent by workers in Israel." Before the Gulf war, about 75,000 Gazans crossed into Israel to work on construction sites and in agriculture. The closures of the border are ending this. Mr Rabin promises to bring in Romanians, Thais and Turks to take the Palestinians' place. Less often noticed is that the sense of siege in Gaza is exacerbated by thevirtual closure of the border with Egypt, preventing the import of goods like cement that no longer come from Israel.

The closure of the border with Egypt is reported to be at the insistence of President Hosni Mubarak, who fears links between Hamas and Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt. But speaking to Ahmed Bakr, a Hamas leader jailed three times by Israel during the intifada and then exiled to the Lebanese border, it is difficult to feel thateconomic pressure on Gaza by the Israelis or anybody else will change the policies of his movement. Denying any connection with the military wing of Hamas, he says the alternative to the Oslo peace accords is to continue the struggle. He said: "What forced the Israelis to withdraw from Gaza was the intifada and not the Oslo agreement."

Mr Major's visit, the first by a West European head of government, underlines Gaza's position as the de facto Palestinian capital.

Economic donors such as Britain are frustrated that their efforts are negated by the effects of the border closure. Mr Major said yesterday that he was "concerned about the effects of repeated closures of the border".

Through better living conditions, he believed, "you can remove some of the causes" that produce suicide bombers. This may be true in the long term, but in Gaza it is probably too late.