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Peace Optimism Breaks Out in Gaza Camp (AP) By LARA SUKHTIAN RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip 01/29/05 4:06 PM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47224-2005Jan29.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip - Palestinian residents returned Saturday to a devastated section of this refugee camp in southern Gaza, and young boys played an impromptu game of volleyball in the shadow of Israeli watchtowers, hopeful that four years of Israeli- Palestinian violence might finally end.

For the first time since September 2000, camp residents have reason for optimism. The deployment of hundreds of Palestinian police to stop attacks against Israeli troops has raised prospects of an end to military reprisals and the onset of peace and calm.

On Saturday, Israeli and Palestinian officials discussed security issues before an upcoming summit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Also, the Palestinians said they were close to getting militant factions to agree to a truce against Israelis.

In the crowded Brazil neighborhood, close to a massive Israeli barrier along the Egyptian border, Palestinian soldier Misbah Abu Taha, 29, surveyed the rubble of an area hit hard by the fighting and sounded an upbeat note.

"I´m standing 200 meters (yards) from an Israeli tank, armed and in full uniform," he said. "I would say there´s good reason for me to be hopeful again."

But with Israeli tanks still overlooking the camp and occasional bursts of machine-gun fire riddling abandoned buildings, that hope was tempered by a wariness that even a minor miscalculation can re- ignite the violence.

Rafah camp has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the four-year Palestinian uprising. As a stronghold of Palestinian militants and a main transit point for weapons smugglers, it has been subject to a series of harsh Israeli military operations.

More than 13,000 of its 90,000 residents have been made homeless by demolitions since 2000, and more than 365 have been killed in fighting.

Abu Taha spoke from the shell of what used to be his family´s home, destroyed when Israeli forces entered the area in May 2004 after Palestinian attacks killed 11 Israeli soldiers over two days.

The Israeli operation left a swath of destruction extending 300 yards eastward from the barrier. Homes and buildings were demolished or gutted, streets were bulldozed and infrastructure was uprooted.

Surveying the damage to his family´s home, Abu Taha said he believed that both Israelis and Palestinians had finally tired of violence.

"I feel there is a chance for change, for a new beginning," he said. "If you had asked me 10 days ago if I would be back in uniform standing in my house I would have said no way."

Abu Taha and dozens of other officers took up their positions Friday, completing a Palestinian police deployment throughout the Gaza Strip. The first phase, in northern Gaza, took place a week earlier.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ordered the deployment to stop Palestinian rocket and mortar fire directed at Israeli targets, part of an effort to restart peace negotiations. Israel has welcomed the deployment, which has been accompanied by a sharp drop in violence.

Abu Taha´s position, located in his partially demolished home, was one of two Palestinian police posts established in abandoned homes along a mile stretch of territory close to the Israeli barrier.

Marked by Palestinian flags, the posts serve as bases for Palestinian patrols monitoring a sandy no-go area bordering the Israeli barrier. Fearful that children foraging for bits of wood or pieces of metal might prompt Israeli gunfire, they chased them away.

Although the homes are uninhabitable, residents began returning to the area Saturday to inspect their property.

Just down the road from one police post, Hassan Abu Taha, a distant relative of Misbah Abu Taha, sat on a torn-up couch he placed on the dirt road in front of his partially demolished home. Hassan Abu Taha, his two wives and 18 children abandoned the three-story building in May.

Three of his daughters were left homeless after bulldozers flattened their dwellings in May. Two of them want to return to Rafah, while a third, Samiya, 34, said she would never live there again.

"No one saw the horror that I saw," said Samiya, a mother of nine.

Not far from one of the police positions, several children dug two poles in the ground and connected them with string for an impromptu volleyball game. A sudden burst of gunfire from a nearby Israeli army position left them unfazed, and they returned to the game.

Several hundred yards away, Suleiman Abu Jazar, 65, and a relative, Musa Abu Jazar, 60, were enjoying a board game in the sand, using finely cut thin rubber tubing as a substitute for pieces.

His albino skin protected from the winter sun by layers of garments, Suleiman said he was happy about the Palestinian police deployment but was reserving judgment about whether it would finally end the violence.

"It gives me joy to see the Palestinian security forces guarding our border," he said. "Let´s just hope Israel responds in kind." (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 01/29/05)


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