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The harsh realities of living on the borderline

Eric Silver reports from Qalqilya - a town torn between politics and economics
Hussein Muhammad, a wall-eyed Palestinian hawking tomatoes in the Qalqilya market, says he's moving to Jordan.

"No one is buying," he complains. "People don't have any money. I can't earn a living here."

Qalqilya, a busy border town surrounded north, south and west by Israeli farms and suburbs, Jewish and minority Arab, will be the first West Bank centre evacuated by Israeli troops under the agreement hammered out this week between the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Mr Muhammad, who claims he is 35, but looks nearer 50, is not convinced it will solve his problems. "Arafat has no money," he says. "Look what happened in Gaza. Things will never change."

Qalqilya, the hub of a fruit and vegetable-growing belt with a population of 125,000 Palestinians, is an extreme example of the dependence on the Israeli economy that evolved during the 28 years of occupation. About 10,000 of its 40,000 labour force work across the "green line" that separated Israel from Jordan between 1948 and 1967.Unemployment is running as high as 25 per cent.

Even those with jobs are hit. "If the workers go to Israel, we have lots of business," says Issam Abdullah, one of a dozen loafing taxi-drivers. "If they're not going, we lose out."

In these waiting days, when the Israeli military presence seems to be reduced to a single jeep languidly patrolling the streets and two sleepy sentries at the entrance to the town, Qalqilya is torn between politics and economics. It has always been aggressively nationalist, but it is a market town, making its livelihood by buying and selling on both sides of the line.

"Of course, we'll welcome the Palestinian Authority with joy," says Walid Sabi, a fleshy agricultural merchant and chairman of the chamber of commerce. "Freedom from occupation is our first priority. But economics and living in dignity are separate issues. We can't help being concerned.

"What we would like is an open border with Israel. We want free access to their markets, free access for them to our markets. Some businessmen are trying to establish light industry, but we're going to need Israeli jobs for a long time."

His 25-year-old son, Rami, just returned with a degree in business management from Birmingham, chides the Palestinian negotiators for leaving too many unanswered questions. "The movement of people and goods on the West Bank roads is vital to us," he explains. "Who's going to control it? Will there be Israeli checkpoints? What about the movement of imported products?"

In the end, the answers will hinge less on a piece of paper than on satisfying Israelis that evacuation has not exposed them to unacceptable dangers. Qalqilya looks peaceful enough, yet Salah Nazal, the suicide bomber who blew up a Tel Aviv bus, killing 22 passengers, last October, came from here. The Palestinian deputy mayor was assassinated as a "collaborator" in 1989. And the town still boasts of its 14 intifada martyrs.

The Israeli army is insisting on a continued role in protecting its own citizens, but the success of peace process Mark Two will also depend on the effectiveness of Mr Arafat's security units in curbing dissident gunmen who want to destroy it.

In Qalqilya, that is the job of Ahmad Hazza Shrein, 47, a resistance fighter who served 22 years in Israeli prisons. He is installed as the local representative of Mr Arafat's Fatah party and future chief of preventive security. His answers are grudging and bureaucratic.

"We are completely prepared," he says. "The moment the Israelis withdraw, we have 200 trained police ready to take over. If some security problems occur, they will be only minor. If somebody breaks the law, we'll put him in prison."

But what about Hamas and its fundamentalist bombers? "We'll try our best to monitor those people who might do anything. If we hear that there might be such an action, we'll stop it." Can he imagine himself co-operating with Israeli agents in a joint struggle against terror? "I will implement exactly what has been agreed.We have never tried peace. For the sake of liberating my people, I will be ready to co-operate."