Letter from Gaza: Night and day

By SAUD ABU RAMADAN   |   Feb. 23, 2003 at 10:33 AM

GAZA, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Zaytoon neighborhood is in the heart of Gaza's old city, where Palestinians -- some of the narrow enclave's few Christians as well as majority Muslims -- cluster in what is one of the most crowded quarters of the Gaza Strip and perhaps even of the Middle East.

In one sense it is no different than other neighborhoods in Gaza, where families shutter their doors at night and parents tell their children to behave or the Israeli tanks might come.

But Zaytoon, bordered by two main streets near downtown Gaza City, is the stronghold of the militant movement Hamas, whose name in Arabic means courage and whose initials stand for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas recognizes neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority, and has vowed to destroy the Jewish state.

Since Hamas militants blew up an Israeli tank Feb. 15, killing the four soldiers inside, Zaytoon has been stormed twice by the Israeli army in search of arms, munitions and workshops and the militants themselves. Over two dozen Palestinians have been killed there and many of its houses and businesses damaged or destroyed both in the fighting and by Israeli bulldozers.

Abdallah Akeela, 65, pointed to holes in an ancient wall near his shop where he makes keys for houses and cars. Zaytoon was built long before Islam emerged some 1,400 years ago, he said, and "the endless Israeli army raids on Gaza might damage this precious history."

Other neighborhoods in the city, like Daraj and Sajaeya, as well as Gaza's outlying refugee camps and villages, are also poor and crowded, and most have seen operations by Israeli forces in the last few months. About 1.4 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, an area roughly twice the size of the American capital Washington, and nearly two-thirds live below the poverty line.

The upscale neighborhood of Remal, with its clothing stores, hotels and restaurants on the beach of the Mediterranean, has not been raided yet by the Israeli army. However, most of the Palestinian Authority security headquarters and installations in Remal have been destroyed in missile attacks by Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft and Apache attack helicopters.

Daytime hours are very busy in the city. The traffic jams never stop, clothing and vegetable shops are open for business; employees are at work, younger children at school and older students at university.

But once it gets dark the picture tranforms. Stores close down as early as possible and most people head home to watch television, especially news on Al Jazeera, the famous Qatari-based satellite channel.

The only Gazans who drive or walk around the neighborhoods and refugee camps are the militants -- members of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah movement's armed wing; Izel Dein Al Qassam, the Hamas movement's armed wing; and other militants of Islamic Jihad and left-wing groups.

"We are here exchanging patrols at night to defend our people from any Israeli raid or incursion," said Abu Deyya, a commander with Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, holding a rifle and with hand grenades and a dagger surrounding his waist.

Where for much of the 28-month-old Palestinian intifada, or uprising, Israeli focused its military actions in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip now not a single night passes without hearing gunshots, explosions or buzzes of helicopters and tanks.

People usually telephone each other and get updates from different security sources as to where Israeli tank reinforcements may be gathering.

"Last night the tanks entered Rafah, and the night before tanks entered Deir El Ballah and two days ago they entered into Tufah and Sajaeya in Gaza and killed 11 people. This crazy thing is going on every night," said Khaled Abu Raya, a store owner in Gaza City.

As for nightlife these days, there is virtually none. Gaza has no theaters or cinemas, and restaurants and hotels close down very early in the evening. People prefer to stay at home and eat the food that most can afford: falafel (ground and fried vegetables such as chick peas) and foul (cooked beans).

Before the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, broke out on late September 2000, Palestinians could have a kind of nightlife. Families dined at restaurants or strolled in public gardens, or -- especially popular on Thursday nights, the end of the Muslim work week -- put together picnics and barbeques on the beach.

"It is risky now to go anywhere after it gets dark, because tanks are expected to enter into any area anytime," said Nabil Dahleez, a Palestinian teacher and father of five in Gaza.

He added that increasingly his children are nervous even at home, and seem to be always complaining or arguing with each other. "If I want them to stop fighting, I tell them that my friends told me that the Israeli army tanks are coming to the area after half an hour," he said.

indeed, life in the Gaza Strip is becoming very hard. In addition to its soaring unemployment, hand-to-mouth living conditions and the deterioration in the economy, security measures and curfews imposed by Israel often mean Palestinians are confined to their towns during the day and their houses at night.

Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints earlier this week divided the Gaza Strip into three isolated slices and closed borders and crossings north, east, south and even west, where the beaches of Gaza meet the Mediterranean Sea.

"I'm afraid to say that militarizing the intifada was a big mistake. Instead of defeating Israel and forcing the occupation to leave our territories, we are bringing this occupation's soldiers to torture us," said one Gaza resident who declined to give United Press International even his first name.

"Simply, we have climbed on the top of the tree and we don't know how to get down," he said.

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