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The Washington Post March 19, 2001, Monday, Final Edition

A Road Too Close Squeezes Gaza Village; Jewish Access Route Is Barrier to Palestinians

Lee Hockstader, Washington Post Foreign Service

MUGHRAKA, Gaza Strip


The misfortune of the little village of Mughraka is to be situated by a road.

Most villages in most places might appreciate a rPad, which allows people and goods to come and go. But the road by Mughraka, a Palestinian village in the Gaza Strip, is different.

This road is for Jews, and for Jews only.

In particular, it is for the 300 or so Jews who live a few hundred yards up the road in Netzarim, a tiny Jewish settlement, smaller even than Mughraka. The Palestinians of Mughraka -- farmers, construction workers and drivers -- have not only been banned from traveling on the road. They cannot walk on it. They cannot cross it. They cannot even approach it, although it runs just in front of their houses.

"We cannot move, we cannot breathe," said Yussef Gudsi Wuhaidi, an out-of-work taxi driver whose house is a few paces from the Netzarim road. "It's a disaster for us who live by the road."

With a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank now in its sixth month, Israel is using its overwhelming military muscle to squeeze the Palestinians into submission, especially in areas it deems a security risk. Since there have been gunfire and roadside bomb attacks against the Jews who use the Netzarim road as a thoroughfare, the Israeli army keeps Palestinians away from it. If that makes life impossible for the 3,000 Palestinians in Mughraka or those elsewhere, Israel hopes the message is clear: Continue the uprising, and everyone suffers; end it, and everyone benefits.

The new government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has spelled out that carrot-and-stick policy in some detail, hoping it will help snuff out lingering popular support for the Palestinian uprising.

Palestinians got a taste of Sharon's policy last week. Without notice, Israeli troops clamped a blockade around the West Bank city of Ramallah, making life miserable for tens of thousands of Palestinians there. Israel said the move was intended to thwart planned terror bombings against gas stations and clubs in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Palestinians said the measure was simply harassment.

Elsewhere, Israel relaxed somewhat its restrictions on travel and commerce, although Israeli army checkpoints, barricades and trenches are still regular features of the Palestinian landscape.

It is unclear whether the Israeli policy will work. Although Palestinian militants say they will continue their armed revolt, there has been a slight lull in attacks on Israeli targets since Sharon took office March 7. Israeli military officials dismiss the lull as a pause that will be followed by a new wave of violence. That assessment was seconded by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which warned it was ready to deploy 10 suicide bombers against the Jewish state.

At the same time, there are signs the Palestinians are tired and hurting from the sanctions and resulting economic meltdown, even if few are willing to announce they will kneel to Israel's armed might. What began Sept. 29 as a popular uprising involving thousands of youthful stone-throwers has evolved into something approaching low-intensity guerrilla warfare -- sporadic armed attacks by militant Palestinian gunmen.

At this point, say analysts, there is little popular participation in the Palestinian uprising.

"Apart from the satisfaction of revenge, materially, physically and psychologically [the uprising] is not bringing us any closer to liberation, and this is why it's losing popular support," said Eyal Sarraj, a psychologist in Gaza. "More and more people within the Palestinian Authority are realizing this. The [uprising] has become a burden in its present form."

That burden is clearly visible in the narrow courtyards and cramped alleyways of Mughraka, which, like about a third of the Gaza Strip, is in a zone of Israeli control. It is in these interior spaces that life is lived these days, since it has become so dangerous for Palestinians to live outside them or too close to the Netzarim road.

That is a problem for Neama Hassanat, whose front door, which opens onto the Netzarim road, is now off-limits, blocked by an earthen barricade and coils of barbed wire placed by the Israelis. To enter her house, Hassanat, 50, must wend her way through the twisting back passages from her neighbor's compound, step over squabbling ducks and chickens, then clamber up a wobbly stack of cinder blocks and through a storeroom window.

The perimeter wall of her house has caved in where an Israeli bulldozer, clearing the road's shoulder, accidentally sideswiped it. The same bulldozer cut the power line that provided Hassanat and her neighbors with electricity. They now run their lights from small fuel-powered generators, if at all.

"Who knows what they'll do to us next?" said Hassanat, whose grown children moved out of the village over the last few months. "It has become unbearable here."

If Palestinians come too close to the road during daylight hours, the Israeli troops who patrol the road in tanks, armored vehicles and jeeps routinely fire a warning burst from a machine gun. At night, residents have been warned, the Israelis may shoot to kill. No one in Mughraka drives a car on the side streets anywhere near the Netzarim road, for fear the Israeli troops will shoot first and ask questions later.

A hospital orderly was killed by Israeli troops on his way home from work after dusk last month, his neighbors said. They said his mistake was to take a shortcut too close to the Netzarim road.

"The Israelis often shoot without provocation, just to scare people," said Herve Landa, a French psychologist with the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders who works frequently in the area.

The restrictions on Mughraka have played havoc with just about every aspect of residents' lives. Most days, except when Israeli troops ease their patrols, children in the neighborhood cannot walk the few hundred yards to the neighborhood school, which requires crossing the Netzarim road. Even the mosque that sits on the other side of Netzarim road, an easy stone's toss from the last line of houses in the village, is off-limits to the Palestinians of Mughraka who used to pray there regularly.

To minimize the danger from roadside bombs, Israel has also bulldozed 70-yard swaths of land on both sides of the road, destroying olive orchards and citrus groves that had helped provide a livelihood here for years.

Israel is in no mood to apologize for the measures it has imposed on Mughraka or similar places. It matters little that most Western countries and humanitarian groups regard settlements such as Netzarim as illegal under international law or that the previous Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prepared to shut down Netzarim and withdraw all Israelis from Gaza.

What matters now, say Israeli officials, is security. Thirty-seven Israeli civilians have been killed during the uprising, many of them by roadside bombs or in drive-by shootings. The army's response is preventive security, the officials say.

"The price is paid by the Palestinians due to the Palestinian violence," said Maj. Yarden Vatikai, a military spokesman. "We're very sorry for the suffering of the people but they have to go to their own leaders who promote this violence and terrorism. There's no other address for that."

In the meantime, the sanctions have deepened many Palestinians' already bitter resentment of the Israeli occupiers.

"It is a policy that makes people feel so angry and so undignified, helpless and hopeless, that any one of them can turn into Abu Elba," the Palestinian bus driver who intentionally plowed into a group of Israelis near Tel Aviv last month, killing eight of them, Sarraj said. "It leads to despair and terrible feelings of humiliation, and it will do nothing to secure the streets and the borders of Israel. On the contrary, it brings Israel more enemies."


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