Waiting for a future at the Erez crossing

The Palestinians queueing for the chance to work may hold the key to any peace with Israel - despite yesterday's mortar attacks by Hamas. Donald Macintyre reports
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The Independent Online
They started arriving around 4.30am in their beaten-up old Subarus and Peugeots, five or six to a car, to queue outside in the pre-dawn cold for the chance to work. By around 7am there were perhaps 300 of them sitting on the kerb in a long line waiting for the Erez industrial zone to open for the first time in five months. These were men lucky enough to be in the tiny minority in Gaza - where unemployment is at over 60 per cent - who have both the magnetic cards and Israeli stamped employer permits that entitle them to work here. For all of them, this, the first modest fruit of the still painfully fragile ceasefire announced in Sharm El Sheikh two days earlier, was worth the long wait.

Thanks to a series of suicide attacks through much of 2004, the numbers allowed to work here on the northern edge of the Strip for small manufacturing companies - mainly Israeli-owned but a minority Palestinian - had dwindled from 4,800 to a mere 600 when the industrial zone closed after yet another attempted bombing on 31 August. Now not even that number could get in. After a woman suicide bomber killed one Israeli civilian and three members of the Israeli security forces a year ago, said Mohsen Ashur, a 36-year- old carpenter from the Jabalya refugee camp, the numbers permitted by Israel to be employed in his unit went down from 70 to just three, leaving his 67 colleagues without jobs. For this father of seven children, used to what for Gaza is a reasonable salary of around pounds 2 per hour, the opening had not come a moment too soon; his savings of around pounds 1,600 were now exhausted.

Before entering the industrial zone each worker has to roll up his trousers to his knees and his shirt up to his neck to show he isn't carrying explosives or a weapon. In Gaza, where the total living under an internationally agreed poverty line is also estimated at around 60 per cent, this a price of occupation well worth paying. "We can have dignity without work, or work without dignity," said Mr Ashur cheerfully. He says he hasn't lost any relatives in the last four and half years of conflict. Given that he comes from Jabalya, whose experience of bloodshed culminated in the many deaths inflicted by last October's heavy Israeli incursion in response to Qassam rocket attacks into Israel, this seems surprising. But then even if he had, he probably wouldn't say. He says if he had lost relatives - civilian as well as militant - it might well preclude him from getting permission to work here.

Once, before the first intifada, despite all the large and small humiliations of occupation, tens of thousands of Gazans worked virtually unrestricted in Israel. These days, more than four years into the first intifada, the numbers have dwindled virtually to zero. On Tuesday night, when, in the first flush of post-Sharm euphoria, the Israeli government announced 1,000 Palestinians would now be allowed to leave Gaza to work in Israel, it was big news. In fact it didn't happen yesterday morning; the Army said Israeli employers had failed to provide the necessary paperwork. But those who queued for the industrial zone eventually got in. Given what Erez, virtually the only business facility employing Gaza Palestinians with access to the Israeli market, means to them, not surprisingly most are strongly in favour of an end to conflict.

Mr Ashur was pessimistic about the prospects for the ceasefire. But Zuhair al Faran,48,who makes bamboo furniture for a living and also has seven children to feed, arrived at Erez around 5am with a permit he received on Monday. "When I got this permit, I felt very happy," he said. "Peace for me means I can work, and I can pay my debts." His friend and colleague Fahmi al Bahtiti, 48, like many here yesterday morning, watched Tuesday's proceedings in Sharm el Sheikh on the al-Jazeera satellite channel with high hopes. "It was a good conference. We want to live in peace with Jews," he said.

Mr al Bahtiti's expectations of the long-term political gains are nothing if not sober. "Let us be realistic," he said. "The refugees will never return to Haifa. This is impossible." Instead, he added: "I hope the ceasefire will work. The next step should be to implement the road map." He even says he would like freshly deployed Palestinian forces to search him and his colleagues before they arrive at Israeli security, as an extra precaution, and adds: "We are under siege. All gates are closed to us, we can not go to Saudi Arabia to work there. They still hate us in the Gulf and Kuwait [after Yasser Arafat's declaration of support for Saddam Hussein 14 years ago]. We have only the gate of Israel to go through."

This mixture of prosaic expectations and hopes that an end to the intifada will at last start to revive Gaza' wrecked economy, helps to underline the basis of much of the electoral support for Mahmoud Abbas in the January presidential contest. Not surprisingly it is shared by the Palestinian businessmen who have invested in premises in the zone. But both groups are fearful of the consequences of Israeli disengagement from Gaza - however desirable otherwise following Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's warning that the industrial zone would close once it was complete, with the factories moving inside Israel. They hope that Ariel Sharon's promise of co-ordinating withdrawal with the Palestinian leadership can somehow save this economic lifeline.

Rabah Hussein, who invested $500,000 in a metalworking shop which makes door and window frames for the Israeli market, will be part of a four- man delegation meeting the Gaza-based former Palestinian minister Muhammed Dahlan shortly to discuss the fate of the Erez zone. "If someone gives me a crooked door, I can straighten it," he says. "I leave politics to Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] and Dahlan and Hanan Ashrawi."

But he wants to preserve or at the very least be compensated for his plant which he is at present precluded by Israel from relocating in Gaza City lest it be seized by militants to make weapons. In fact, he adds, "there is a lot of demand for our work. If there is a Palestinian state, with an open [southern Gaza] border with Egypt, we can sell to the Arab world, and Europe."

Yet at the very moment, around 7am, when these hard-headed sentiments were being expressed at Erez, two separate and ominous events were happening elsewhere in Gaza which illustrated the scale of the task facing the new Palestinian President. Hamas was firing the second of several volleys of mortars and rockets - 46 in total - into the main Gaza settlement block of Gush Katif, bringing the ceasefire under maximum strain only two days after it made headlines across the world.

Amid threats that Israel would cancel another security co-ordination meeting with Palestinian officials in response, Hamas claimed the attacks - which caused some minor damage but no injuries that were immediately reported - were mainly in retaliation for the shooting dead by Israeli troops of an unarmed Palestinian in Rafah who had strayed with three others into what the Army said was a prohibited zone close to the border security fence.

However, a senior Palestinian security official said he believed Hamas had a second motive. "Abu Mazen will be coming here to Gaza to discuss what happened at Sharm el-Sheikh with Hamas," he said, adding that the faction was "trying to improve its bargaining position ahead of that position".

He was speaking not long before an impressively swift reaction by Mr Abbas, one which dramatically underlined his anger at what the Palestinian Cabinet secretary Hassan abu Libdeh called Hamas's "extremely dangerous" violations of the ceasefire.

Almost certainly using the attacks as the trigger to do what he had anyway intended at some point, he sacked 20 senior officers in the security services, including three top commanders - Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh, public security chief for the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinian Authority police chief Saeb al-Ajez; and Omar Ashour, commander of the security forces in the southern Gaza Strip.

Also around 7am, there was another killing,one which attracted much less attention than the Hamas attacks, but which helped to provoke the sackings, defying as it did Mr Abbas's pledge that he would impose "one law, one sovereignty, one weapon." A blindfolded man, Hussein Abu Yousef, was shot dead in front of dozens of witnesses, including, according to one, members from the main armed factions, at point-blank range in a street in the heart of the Bureij refugee camp in what was in effect a public execution.

Yousef was being held in the prison attached to the Soraya police headquarters in Gaza City after being prosecuted for the murder of Mohammed Issa, a Fatah activist who worked as an intelligence officer. Yousef was executed not by the security forces but by Issa's clan, furious that that he had not been sentenced to death. They had been part, with another clan from Jabalya, of a 60-strong group armed with rocket-propelled grenades as well as semi-automatic weapons who had stormed the prison at around 4am ,fighting a lengthy battle with police in and around the prison in the process.

According to his cousin Jamal, Mohammed Issa had been killed as he offered coffee to his murderers - Yousef and a man named Jihad Masara. The Issa clan had refused to accept blood money from Yousef's family and yesterday, surrounded by mourners, the family had refused to start observing the funeral rites until Mohammed had been avenged, Jamal Issa said.

The clan had pleaded in vain with senior PA and PLO officials to execute and added: "We decided to take law into our own hands. We stormed the prison. We killed Jihad Masara and kidnapped Hussein Abu Yousef. Around 7am we executed Abu Yousef in the court yard. His blood is still here." Mr Issa said the whole affair had been "tragic" but that he felt better now that justice, as he saw it, had been done.

Illustrative of Mr Abbas's problems as it may be, the public execution of Yousef does not, of course, have the national - and international - resonances of the ceasefire breaches. And he will certainly see persuading Hamas - whether by dialogue or force - to observe a ceasefire and rely on a political process as his main task.

There is no shortage of people who would oppose armed action against the faction, such as those who attend the Khulafa mosque in Jabalya where 56 worshippers, according to local residents, have been killed in the past four years of conflict. The keffiya-clad Ziad Kassem, who owns a shop across from the mosque, is a Fatah supporter but, he says: "Suppose that several police vehicles arrive to arrest a Hamas activist in this neighbourhood. We will speak with loudspeakers asking the police to leave. If they do not, we will ask people to confront them. When they see that thousands of people are in the street, they will leave without any bloodshed."

Against this, however, one senior Palestinian security official predicted that Hamas will eventually abide by a ceasefire and that if it doesn't, Palestinian security forces will be ready, when the order from the top comes, to pursue and arrest their activists as they did in and after 1996.

Either way, Mr Abbas will certainly rely on the underlying support that stems from the widespread economic imperative mentioned by many of those who now want a peaceful conclusion to the intifada. Ramzi Nawaf, from Jabalya, was not one of the lucky ones with permits queueing at Erez yesterday. But he used to work there and says he too was happy to watch the leaders' statements at Sharm on television on Tuesday.

He even said - cautiously - he was prepared to infer from Mr Sharon's remarks that the Israeli Prime minister was prepared to negotiate. "He wants to sit with the Palestinian, this is a good thing." Asked what he wants out of any such negotiations, he lit a cigarette and pointed at his small mop-haired son. For now, he said: "The Palestinian cause for me is how to provide a livelihood for Muhammad. That is not surrender. It is poverty."