Weary Gaza Enjoys Calm But Demands More of Abbas (REUTERS) By Mark Heinrich RAFAH, Gaza Strip 02/03/05 08:41 AM ET)
Reuters News Service
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RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - After years trapped in the noisiest,
most devastated flashpoint of conflict with Israel, Palestinians are
sleeping nights again.
It didn´t take much for new President Mahmoud Abbas to be a hit in
"The constant din of gun battles has finally stopped. For us, that´s
progress," said Hamed Qeshta in Rafah refugee camp, a vast slum
partially razed into the desert sand by the Israeli army in four
years fighting Palestinian militants.
Relative calm has dawned since Abbas won election as Yasser Arafat´s
successor on a platform of peaceful struggle for statehood and
cajoled militants into a tacit truce. Israel has answered by
curtailing military action.
That does not mean bloodshed has stopped.
On Monday, the killing of a girl at a school near the no-go border
zone prompted a retaliatory mortar salvo at Jewish settlers by
militants -- though Israel denied responsibility and blamed gunfire
by Palestinian revelers for her death.
The day before, Israeli troops shot dead an elderly Rafah man they
said had entered a forbidden area.
The incidents shook Rafah, but did not dash hope that things are
changing for the better.
"These deaths obviously make us nervous about a relapse. But really,
the atmosphere is so much quieter on the front line here," said
Qeshta, from a large Rafah clan.
Residents from all walks of life, those clinging to homes on the edge
of the rubble, a city official, hardened militants and an executive
of Gaza´s shuttered airport all say: Let´s keep things quiet to give
Abbas a chance.
To popular acclaim, Palestinian police have resurfaced under Abbas´s
orders to safeguard the truce and rein in armed gangs. And the
militants are cooperating for now after Abbas promised he would try
to integrate, not crush, them as Israel prefers.
ABBAS CAN´T AFFORD TO REST ON EARLY LAURELS
But everyone warns Abbas must do more and fast to prevent a return to
He is under pressure to end years of economic meltdown and start
negotiating for a total Israeli pull-out from occupied lands. Israel
intends to quit Gaza this year, but aims to hold onto significant
chunks of the West Bank forever.
"Arafat was a legend, a man of revolution. But people see Abbas as a
man of practical steps who must earn our trust that way," said Omar
al-Naqa, a senior aide in Rafah municipality that is run by Abbas´s
The killings of the old Rafah man and schoolgirl infuriated
militants, but apart from firing off a few mortars they insisted they
were committed to restraint in support of Abbas and would not go
beyond "one-off responses."
"We want to stay calm since this is the people´s wish," said Abu
Ibrahim, 31, a militant commander with a luxuriant black beard,
piercing gaze and submachine gun close to hand.
"But we give Abbas at most a few months to start delivering. If not,
we will have nothing to lose. We will return to arms."
GUNMAN VENTURE OUT
With Israel´s announced halt to assassination and arrest raids, Rafah
gunmen now dare brief outings by day while still sleeping in
different places every night.
Abu Ibrahim of the al-Aqsa Martyrs´ Brigades, a Fatah offshoot, spoke
softly in a car parked amid fields to give bodyguards a clear view.
Then his cell phone rang.
"It´s my wife. I must go visit the children now. But I still can´t
move back in -- too dangerous for them," he said.
After years of deepening poverty, isolation and decay, the 1.3
million Palestinians crammed into tiny Gaza are desperate for jobs
and trade. On Rafah´s outskirts soars a silent monument to economic
potential -- Gaza International Airport.
Arafat ordered the colonnaded stone and marble complex built in the
heady period after 1990s interim peace deals, only to see its runway
torn up and radar stations bombed by Israeli forces in 2001 after
statehood talks collapsed into bloodshed.
There have been no flights since.
But Zakariya al-Mahran, the airport´s dapper deputy manager, never
stopped coming to work, keeping the terminal tidy and well maintained
with skeleton staff. With the rise of Abbas, Mahran hopes his lonely
vigil will finally pay off.
Toying with an Israeli helicopter cannon shell that has become an
ornament on his desk, he said a Turkish delegation was due in late
February to assess runway and radar repair costs and Germany had
offered to help foot the bill.
"Every new country needs an airport to connect with the outside
world," he said. "God willing, Abbas will preserve the calm so we can
reopen here and get Gaza off the ground." (© Reuters 2005 02/03/05)
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