Thousands riot on Gaza-Israel border

RAFAT Zehed tried to go to work yesterday, but he never made it.

His day began at 4am when he made his way to the main checkpoint of the Gaza Strip to cross to his job as a labourer in Israel. Like thousands of Gaza workers, Mr Zehed had arrived early, prepared to queue for up to three hours while Israeli soldiers inspected Palestinians' permits to cross.

By 8am he was in Gaza's Shifa hospital, with four bullet wounds to his shoulder and stomach. In the mortuary were the bodies of two dead Palestinian workers. And in the beds alongside him were scores of other wounded.

Nihad al-Ouda, 21, trying to earn money to pay for his studies, was shot in the neck. Nearby, Omar Ashour, 12, was bleeding heavily from two gaping wounds. Omar was selling sweets to the queueing workers when he was shot.

Dead and wounded were caught in a gun battle with Israeli soldiers which erupted when workers without permits were turned back. The workers hurled stones at the Israeli soldiers, who opened fire on the crowd. Palestinian police also opened fire and several Israelis were hurt.

The riot - the worst in Gaza since the signing of the Oslo peace accord last September - was another tragedy waiting to happen. Most Palestinians in Gaza have no work. Unemployment is said to be as much as 60 per cent.

During the occupation, Israeli employers have encouraged Palestinians to take low- paid work in construction, on farms or in hotel kitchens. Before the intifada in 1987, as many as 60,000 Gaza workers were employed in Israel.

Israel has tried to sever this dependency, by closing borders and refusing work to those without permits. The cause of yesterday's riots, however, was anger over Israeli restrictions.

As the gunshots rung out, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, was holed up in his Gaza hotel, impotently condemning the shooting but offering little solace to Palestinians unable to earn a wage.

There is deepening frustration at the failure of the new Palestinian authority to improve life in Gaza. Workers crossing into Israel are reminded daily of the limits of Palestinian autonomy, while the Palestinian authorities show no sign of being able to bring new jobs to Gaza.

(Photograph omitted)